A Russian expedition to Vrindavana

By Yadunandana das - 26.2 2018

Translation: Sofiya Perfilyeva
Edited by Visnu Murti das

The first Russian to visit Vrndavana was Emperor Nikolas II, 125 years ago

On Friday, January the 4th in 1891, Hindus who were bathing in the sacred river Yamuna witnessed an amazing scene. A ship with the name of an unknown language approached.

In the morning mist, surrounded by armed soldiers, a young light-skinned man in an officer’s jacket, looking, however, not belligerent came ashore. The stranger was the crown prince Nicholas, soon to be the future last Russian emperor.

The small town of Vrindavan, 80 miles to the south of Delhi, was part of the journey of the crown prince, along with Mumbai, Delhi, Gwalior, Agra, Ellora, Ahmedabad, Lucknow, Kolkata and Мadras and Sri Rangam, up to the southern parts of the Indian subcontinent, from where he viewed the outline of Ceylon.

The heir to the Russian throne liked Vrindavan. Nicholas found the town very similar to… Venice. From the travel notes made by Nicholas, one can assume that his familiarity with Vrindavan occurred in the place of Kesi Ghat, on the banks of river Yamuna. The royal guest was shown the temple of Madana Mohana. And one of the “interesting” churches, which he visited, might have been the Jugal Kishore temple. According to some assumptions, while visiting one of the temples, the crown prince received blessings from local elders to rule his kingdom. It rather might be a beautiful legend, though. Anyway, 125 years ago Nicholas II was the first Russian “discoverer” of Vrindavan.

Researcher Esper Ukhtomsky (1861-1921) offered a detailed account of the journey of Nicholas II to the East. Interestingly, he joined the expedition just a few days before the departure. As a diplomat and scholar, Ukhtomsky went to the East many times, especially to Mongolia, and was well versed in the fundamentals of Asian cultures and religions. On board of the frigate “Memory of Azov” was also the artist and ethnographer Nikolai Karazin (1842-1908) and Vasily Mendeleev, the son of the famous author of the “Mendeleyev Table”. Karasin made many beautiful drawings to illustrate his forthcoming book about the journey of the Russian tsar to Egypt, Siam, India and Japan and Mendeleyev made a photo chronicle of the journey. The unique collection of more than 200 images is stored in the National Library of Russia.

Why is Vrindavan considered a “promised land” for all Indians, like Bethlehem for the Christians and Mecca for the Muslims? During the whole year, hundreds of thousands and sometimes even millions of people come to Vrindavan eager to pay their respects to Lord Krishna. It is said that only one step on the ground of Vrindavan is equal to the pilgrimage to any other holy place.

“According to the ingenuous doctrine of flocking here from afar, if pilgrims spend one day at the home land of Krishna, it is more important for the salvation of their souls than spending years in the blissful Benares practicing devotion and prayers”, – writes Ukhtomsky in his book as if confirming this truth.

In Vrindavan one can experience all tastes and spiritual experiences from feeling the joy of meeting with God to feeling unbearable separation from Him. These attitudes overcome the pilgrims not only when they visit temples, but everywhere, anytime of the day or night. No wonder – after all, this is considered to be the earthly reflection of the eternal spiritual planet of Krishna – Goloka Vrindavan, “full of knowledge and unlimited bliss,” as stated in the Hindu scriptures. The secret to understand the transcendental nature of Vrindavan is to go there only with pilgrims who are devotees of Krishna. It is through these pilgrims that one can develop the right mood for the dhama to be inclined to accept someone as her own.

The history of Vrindavan dates back to more than five thousand years ago, when it was a pastoral village among impenetrable forests and meadows with lush grass, on which millions of cows were grazing. Some sages believe that Vrindavan includes the whole province of Vraja which is about 420 sq. km, together with Vrindavan, the sacred hill Govardhana, Gokula, Varsana, the sacred lake Radhakunda and Nandagram. The word “Vraja” means “the place where cows go to pasture”. Vraja also has 137 forests, related to the pastimes of Krishna – there are 12 principal forests. Vrindavan was also a dense forest. It owes its name to Vrinda, a companion of Krishna, who is in control of everything to please Krishna and His friends.

Other sages believe that Vraja is only the surroundings of Vrindavan, thus putting Vrindavan at the center of all the events of the past, present and future. Anyway, the whole of Vraja is associated with Krishna. All Indians are most respectful towards Krishna. The word Krishna means “all-attractive” and His devotees experience him as so.

Philosophically we understand that Krishna is the most personal aspect of God. In no other way the Lord manifests such a limitless range of personal relationships between Himself and His parts and parcels. One can take on the role of dasi (obedient servant), as the famous blind poet Surdas did. Or become sakhi, a friend of Krishna, as the brave warrior Arjuna from “Bhagavad Gita” or beautiful Draupadi from “Mahabharata”. Vatsalah serves Krsna as a parent serves the child, such as Yasoda and many Indian mothers. The believer may be with Krishna in a conjugal relationship, like Vrindavan cowherd girls. All these different kinds of relationship are thoroughly saturated with selfless love and therefore absolute.

Alas, despite his erudition in oriental matters Ukhtomsky did not understand the position and the role of Krishna in the overall palette of avatars. Not all the Brahmans, versed in the Vedic mantras and hymns, are able to clearly understand and accept the supremacy of Krishna, so what to speak of the the first Russians who sailed to Vrindavan with their limited understanding.

Here’s how a companion of the crown prince presents his version of Krishna’s origin and position. He was clearly under the influence of the European Indology but also correctly guessed the subtleties of the incomprehensible nature of Krishna:

“Orientalists still cannot answer very well the question, who is Krishna and what constitutes the core of His complex world? One thing is for sure: A long time ago the pastoral tribes (Yadavаs) came to Yamuna, founded the kingdom, with its capital in Mathura, and because he manifested some extraordinary qualities they deified the prince in their midst, the dark faced Krishna. (It should be noted that Buddha came out of the nation of Scythian origin and being not an aryan was sometimes depicted almost black). The good Yadava deity attracted the surrounding population from a large area. Brahmins, holding to primordial tactics of overpowering of a spiritual enemy by taking him into their own pantheon, too, made up with Krishnaism, which since then has gained even more charm to masses. Worshiping Krishna, “avatar” and incarnation of Vishnu, the faithful people praised the triumph of the good and buoyancy above the despondency and despair, which partly, perhaps, a little too heavily dominated by pessimistic outlook of the Indians. Krishna is happy, naughty, marked by pure human weaknesses and passions, standing up for the weak. What else the crowd looks for?

Gifted with the ability to fill the universe with happiness and joy, the deity of Mathura [Krishna] loved to inspire animals and birds, herdswomen and settlers, even inanimate objects with His mellifluous play on the flute. When everybody and everything gets affected by the thrill of pleasure Orpheus transforms into a strictly thoughtful preacher of morality, in a sort of Buddha, who has comprehended the vanity of the earthly troubles, in the embodiment of dispassion and restraint. In the eyes of Krishna, looking like two marvelous lotuses, just flickered enchantment of love and appeal to the sinful ecstasy. But suddenly from the same overbearingly attracting face something very different breathes, much higher, free from worldly filth and darkness of passions. A mysterious supernatural being, incomprehensible twists of flaming speculation!”

Vrindavan’s revival is owed to Sri Chaitanya, who 500 years ago returned it to its former glory. Chaitanya visited Vrindavan and its surroundings, revealing by his mystic powers a lot of its forgotten sacred places. He sent the brothers Rupa and Sanatana and ordered them to restore Vrindavan as the sacred dham. These two sages were later joined by four other gosvamis.

A modern renaissance began in the late 1960s, when the founder-acharya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada brought his Western disciples to Vrindavana. Seeing the enthusiasm of white sannyasis and brahmanas professing their own religion, Indians experienced a real culture shock. Hundreds of thousands of Indians came to Vrindavan only to look at the “white elephants” as they became known.

Each new day begins in Vrindavan very early. At 2 am the town wakes up and starts to rattle with the altar bells. In the darkness people rush to the temples, greeting each other with: “Radhe, Radhe!” (Radharani is the favorite girl friend of Krishna; in their heart Vrajavasis worship her even more than Krishna). Before dawn many people visit various large sanctuaries and some walk around the whole of Vrindavan.

Vrindavan would not be a holy city if it did not offer lessons of spirituality. First of all Vrindavan is a real model of spiritual simplicity. Vrindavan is permeated of natural peacefulness. Friendliness and non violence towards other living beings reign here. The barrier of mistrust, typical for the Western world, and the rule of “what is mine is mine” dissolve there, although everyone is busy with his own daily occupation. Vrindavan is an example of some kind of healthy democracy. No one blames you for your skin colour and different religion. And if you say “Radhe!”, then you are immediately everyone’s best friend.