“Krishna brought forward the cows and played on His flute through the forest of Vrindavan, which was full of flowers, vegetables and pasturing grass. The Vrindavan forest was as sanctified as the clear mind of a devotee and was full of bees, flowers and fruits. There were chirping birds and clear water lakes with waters that could relieve one of all fatigues. Sweet flavoured breezes blew always, refreshing the mind and body.”

Srimad Bhagavatam

In the pilgrimage town of Vrindavan everyone worships Krishna. Krishna is present in every house and every shop. He has temples on every corner. About 20,000 people live in Vrindavan, but two million pilgrims visit each year. They come not just to see Krishna – they can see Him in their own homes or local temples. They come to be where Krishna lives. They want to see His river, the Yamuna, and bathe in her; they want to see his hill, Govardhana Hill which he lifted as a child, and walk round it in prayer; they want to see the place where he danced through the night with the gopis, the cowherd girls of Vrindavan, in the forest amongst the blossoming Kadamba trees.

Vrindavan lies at the focus of Vraj, the region where Lord Krishna lived. The whole region has been worshipped for thousands of years. It falls just inside the ‘golden triangle’, stretching from Delhi south to Agra and west to Jaipur in Rajasthan, and was the setting for many of the events recorded in the Mahabharata, the epic history of ancient India. Mathura, Krishna’s birthplace seven miles south-west of Vrindavan, is one of India’s oldest cities.

If you come to Vrindavan the first thing you must do is roll in the sand. Because Krishna walked on this sand it is sacred. People wear markings on their foreheads made of yellow clay taken from the ground, because it is the earth from beneath Krishna’s feet. If they wear it they will be protected by Him. So you might wear that mark, called tilaka, on your forehead. On the first day you will go down to the river, most probably at Keshi Ghat, where Krishna bathed to purify himself after killing the Keshi demon. Pilgrims follow his example and bathe in his sacred river to purify themselves of all the karma they have brought with them from their past lives.

Then, after visiting some temples and being given prasadam, holy food consecrated to Krishna, usually milk-sweets and fruit, you will make your way to one of the innumerable guest houses which are specially provided for pilgrims. That’s if you’re lucky – many of the pilgrims end up sleeping in the open because there isn’t enough space; or they sleep inside the tour bus that brought them and their village half way across India.

You won’t sleep for long. Very early in the morning, two hours before sunrise, Vrindavan comes to life. All the temples have their morning ceremonies to awaken Krishna for the new day. They bathe Him, dress Him and feed Him. While this goes on bells are rung and visitors come, announcing their presence with loud calls of Govinda! Gopinath! and Jaya Radhe! – names of Krishna and his beloved consort Srimati Radharani.

One of the important things you must do during your stay will be to go on parikrama. Every sacred Hindu site has a parikrama path: a pilgrim route that encircles it. The performance of parikrama, or walking around a holy place, is one of the most powerful ways of honouring it. Circumambulation, always done clockwise, represents the process of living centred on the particular deity who resides at the sacred spot. The religious life involves realising one’s true potential for self-motivation and self-direction whilst at the same time yielding to the pull of the inner divine source of being. The circle is the expression of this movement and stillness; of the balance between dynamic motion and calm centre. It represents the equilibrium of the inner and the outer life.

Serious pilgrims to Vrindavan all perform the parikrama, usually in groups. They often bring along their children too. Many of them do it repeatedly. Residents sometimes take vows to do parikrama every day, every week, every month or on special holy days. Sometimes thousands do it at one time. The eleven-kilometre walk passes mostly through sand and loose earth, and the bare footprints of walkers are left imprinted on the path. Over thousands of years it has become hallowed ground. It is nothing less than a living temple.

When you go on parikrama, it will be best if you start early, before sunrise, to avoid the heat. You might even start while it’s still dark. To show respect to the holy ground, you should try to go barefoot (but watch out for stones!). If this is one of the four special days in the lunar month – the full moon, dark moon, and the eleventh days of the waxing and waning moon – there will already be a good number of others walking on the path. Everyone walks quickly, even the old ladies, of whom there are many, and mostly in silence, except to chant Krishna’s names.

While walking in the early dawn you will notice that all is not well on the parikrama path. The twentieth century has taken its toll. Where once was a forest path filled with shade, nowadays few trees remain and the sand will soon be burning hot. There are many places where the path is contaminated by raw sewage and strewn with rubbish, leaving quite a smell. Parts of the path, where local developers have made hard roads for their cars, are covered with sharp gravel and stones which cut your feet. In these sections vehicles might force you off the path as they pass.

No one complains about these distractions. They don’t seem to notice. It’s as if that’s how they would expect it to be. They are absorbed in the sense of Krishna’s presence which pervades Vrindavan, regardless of its external condition. It all adds up to the experience, you suppose, of pilgrimage in India – the dirt, the smell, the noise and discomfort. You may even feel an indefinable sadness that hangs in the air, as if the thinning trees and the dwindling river Yamuna are pining for Krishna to come back and put everything right.

It wasn’t always like this. If you speak to the locals you will find that the condition of the environment has been steadily deteriorating over the last thirty years. This is the case all over India, of course, but it is distressing to see the same thing happening in Vrindavan. Of all places, this is the one where the environment, being the home of Krishna, is most sacred, and where you would expect it to be most cared for.

The trouble began with the Yamuna River. Eighty miles upstream from Vrindavan is the huge city of Delhi, population 10 million. Two-thirds of the city’s water supply is taken from the Yamuna and practically all of its sewage and waste water finds its way back into the river, mostly untreated. To this must be added the increasing volume of industrial effluent spewed out from the factories and power stations. The whole stretch of the Yamuna from Delhi to Agra, which includes Vrindavan, is now declared unfit for drinking and bathing. This strikes at the heart of Vrindavan’s culture. Water from the Yamuna is used to bathe the deities of Krishna in the temples, is taken as a purifying drink, washes away the sins of those who bathe in it and is the ever-present reminder of Krishna’s frolics and his all-purifying potency. Now pilgrims can no longer even safely bathe in it. If you stay in the water too long you will get a skin-rash.

A more remote and far-reaching menace is the effect of deforestation in the Himalayas on the flow of the Yamuna’s water. The extent of the deforestation and the problems it causes have been described in the previous chapter. Its effect on the Yamuna has been to reduce the normal flow of the river to a fraction of what it was, thus lowering the water table and drying out wells and water tanks throughout the area. Another effect is to cause catastrophic silt-laden floods during the rainy season, resulting in the drastic change in course of the Yamuna at Vrindavan. She used to flow round the town on three sides, holding the sacred groves and temples in a loving embrace. Vrindavan’s riverside is filled with ornate bathing ghats, terraces and steps with ornamental shelters and palaces where pilgrims used to bathe. They are now marooned, crumbling and neglected, amidst the dry sand and debris left behind by the retreating river. Now she is a mile away from her old bed, and only touches the town for a few hundred yards at Keshi Ghat. Either side of the river is a widening flood plain of sandy, treeless desert.

And the trees! Vrindavan, famous for its groves of sacred Kadamba, Pipal, Tamal, Amalaki and Vata is now almost bare. Most of the groves and forests in the surrounding landscape have been removed for farming. Around the town itself the few remaining trees are rapidly disappearing under the hands of unscrupulous developers. Many of the sacred groves connected with events of Krishna’s life have disappeared completely, and those that remain are under threat. The importance of trees to Krishna and to the whole awareness of Krishna in Vrindavan is fundamental. The name ‘Vrindavan’ itself means forest of Vrinda, the plant most dear to Krishna. The Srimad Bhagavatam, the most sacred book of devotees of Krishna, tells us how Krishna and his brother Balarama entered the forest with their cows:

“Krishna saw all the trees, overloaded with fruits and fresh twigs, coming down to touch the ground as if welcoming Him by touching His lotus feet. He was very pleased by the behaviour of the trees, fruits and flowers, and He began to smile, realising their desires. Krishna then spoke to His elder brother as follows: ‘My dear brother, You are superior to all of us. Just see how these trees, full with fruits, have bent down to worship Your lotus feet. Just see how the peacocks in great ecstasy are dancing before You. The deer are welcoming you with the same affection. And the cuckoos who reside in the forest are receiving you with great joy because they consider that Your appearance is so auspicious in their home. Even though they are trees and animals, these residents of Vrindavan are glorifying You. The herbs, creepers and plants are also fortunate to touch Your lotus feet. And by touching the twigs with Your hands, these small plants are also made glorious.'”

Vrindavan without trees is like a mother without her children. The deer and other forest animals have disappeared. Even the peacocks, forever the forest companions of Krishna, are disappearing for lack of the mature trees which are their habitat.

The final catastrophe, and perhaps the one you will notice most on your visit, especially if you are from the West, is the sewage problem. I’m sorry to introduce this distasteful subject into so sublime a setting, but it can’t be avoided – it’s everywhere! Until 1970, Vrindavan employed the traditional system of all ecological societies for dealing with human waste. Toilets were dry, the waste was removed daily and composted. There is no better fertiliser – that is the perfect arrangement of nature. It was as simple as that. Then in 1970 somebody in government decided that what Vrindavan needed was a modern sewage system. Quite why this was felt necessary no one seems to know. (It has been cynically pointed out that installing it was a lucrative contract for someone.) Deep trenches were dug under the main streets and pipelines put in. All the branch lines fed down towards the river, the lowest point, where they were to connect with the main trunk sewer which would carry everything to a treatment plant situated outside the town.

A year after the installation a series of disastrous blockages occurred deep underground, which have never been properly dealt with. In addition to this it was found that the capacity of the system was totally inadequate – sufficient account had not been taken of Vrindavan’s growing population and the influx of pilgrims. These problems pale into insignificance beside the startling fact that the main trunk sewer was never completed and the treatment plant never built. The sad consequence is that the entire contents of the inadequate system, if they don’t first overflow onto the street, empty into the sacred Yamuna, just upstream from Keshi Ghat. Many of the branch lines never even reach that far and empty their contents here and there, wherever there is a depression in the ground. The result is that Vrindavan is full of polluted water and bad smells.

The moral of this tale of environmental madness is: traditional systems that have worked for thousands of years should not be interfered with – there’s usually a good reason why they have worked so long. A further lesson is that the Western system of sanitation, developed in a part of the world where water is plentiful, is inappropriate for India, where water is scarce and so valuable that it is considered sacred. In fact, because in Hindu thought water is by nature sanctified and pure, Hindu tradition teaches that human waste should never be mixed with water:

“One should not cause urine, stool or mucus to enter water. Anything mixed with these unholy substances, or with blood or poison, should never be thrown into water.”

Manusmriti 4.56

Hindus consider water to be a powerful medium for purification as well as a source of vigour and energy. It is used in all sacred rituals. This is why they have placed such emphasis on keeping it pure. The fact that Vrindavan is bounded on all sides by contaminated water – the Yamuna on one side and sewage on all others – is a deep injury to her well-being and her function as a place of purification and revitalisation.

How could this situation have come about? If Hindus, especially devotees of Krishna, care so much for trees, rivers, water and animals, why have they allowed these things to happen?

Part of the reason is, no doubt, their own negligence. The pilgrims who visit and the people who live in Vrindavan could have done more – so could the local government. But there are underlying causes which have contributed to this.

Satish Kumar points out in chapter eight that for nearly two hundred years Indians have been estranged from their own culture by English education. They have been encouraged to think in Western ways and to value the things which the West values. Their own traditional values have been marginalised. In many cases they no longer know what those values were or why they were held because those things are no longer taught. The family, which was the cradle of learning in Hindu society, is in decline as a result of migration from village to city and the disruption of modern life.

Gandhi warned of the consequences of industrialisation, which he said would ruin India. Most of the forces attacking Vrindavan’s environment are the consequence of industrialisation and Western lifestyles. Motor transport and modern communications swept into village India during the seventies and eighties. In doing so they entered a social setting that had changed very little in five hundred years, and their presence has created tremendous tensions and contradictions. High-speed tourist buses and lorries share the same road with bullock carts and pedestrians. Television exposes the unwary villagers to the sophisticated pressures of modern mass marketing learned from the West, tempting them with a lifestyle they can only dream of. The arrival of gleaming tractors on the farms foreshadows the disappearance of trees, cleared to enlarge the fields and make way for agricultural machinery. Pilgrimage is being replaced by tourism. The new affluent middle classes from Delhi build retirement homes in Vrindavan which stand empty on choice pieces of land cleared of trees. The list goes on. These are the ills which Gandhi feared.

Against this background we must also consider the fact that for over a thousand years the rulers of Hindu society were not Hindus. For eight hundred years Muslims ruled from Delhi. The whole surrounding region, including Vrindavan, bears the deep impression of this rule, which did nothing to foster Hindu culture, and at times bitterly suppressed it. Then the British, with their more subtle form of tyranny, made Hindus second-class citizens in their own land. The effect of this subjugation has been to drain the enterprising spirit, the self-determination and inner resourcefulness from a people who had their affairs run for them by outsiders for longer than most nations or cultures have endured. This is why Gandhi stressed that India would not be able to have true independence until her people discovered ‘Swaraj’ – the power of self-rule – within themselves. This day has not yet come.

India stands at a crossroads. In the words of WWF India’s 1990 report, “Time is running out. Unless we take immediate steps to make every child, woman and man of India a partner as well as a beneficiary of the conservation movement, we will be silent spectators to one of the greatest biological tragedies in human history.” Some say this tragedy has already begun.

All over India people have become estranged from their natural surroundings and have forgotten the time-honoured ecological values of their culture. A signal is needed to warn Hindus everywhere that environmental destruction cannot be allowed to continue if there is to be any hope for the future. If they were to see their environmental traditions of cleanliness, simple living and respect for nature being practised in one of the great holy places of India they would appreciate that these traditions are not just something of the past.

When I first visited Vrindavan as a pilgrim in 1975 I was hardly aware of these problems. I presumed that what I saw was how things had always been – the dry river-bed, the absence of trees, the sewage problems. Then gradually I came to know the history. I realised that many of the serious problems facing Indian society, which are so apparent to all visitors from the West, were the result of inappropriate technologies and lifestyles imported from the West. These problems didn’t have to be simply accepted and tolerated, which has tended to be the Indian attitude, certainly in Vrindavan. Given a proper understanding of their causes and a commitment to the solution, they could be resolved.

With this in mind I began to study the Vrindavan situation with new eyes. I began to ask questions and look for people with an interest in Vrindavan’s environment. It was then that I met Sri Sewak Saran, who had long studied Vrindavan’s difficulties and had many ideas to improve the situation. He had been trying alone for several years to enlist help, but without much success. He was a lone voice crying in the wind. Together we drafted some proposals and went to the World Wide Fund for Nature for help. Our idea was to draw the attention of all Hindus to the destruction of Vrindavan, enlisting their help to save it. In the process we would educate them about India’s environmental problems and how the traditional ecological values of Hinduism could be promoted as a solution to these problems.

WWF liked this approach. As part of their wider goal of fostering a change in people’s attitudes towards their environment through environmental education, they have been committed for some time to promoting environmental values in the world’s religions. They recognise that the different religions each contain environmental values of their own, expressed in different ways. Often, however, these values are not understood or practised even within the faith communities. WWF therefore wished to encourage them to re-assess their own practices in the light of these values and to promote them both within their communities and in the wider world where faith communities still have a major influence on opinion and behaviour.

Our proposals for Vrindavan fitted perfectly into this aspect of WWF’s work and they agreed to help us. A WWF Vrindavan project was set up to run for three years. The project is asking devotees, pilgrims and local residents to plant and care for trees and to remove rubbish from the sacred parikrama path which surrounds Vrindavan. In doing so the project is creating a symbol of regeneration and environmental care based on Hindu values and is promoting a positive role for religion in combating India’s environmental problems. Ultimately we need hope to see the religious communities of Vrindavan playing a major part in the protection of their own environment.

Our principal task is planting trees. A tree nursery has been set up alongside the Parikrama Path on land made available by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, which is one of the important religious institutions in Vrindavan. Ten thousand trees of local origin are being raised here along with a variety of flowering bushes and medicinal and religious plants of local origin.

Restoration work on the path is being carried out with maximum involvement of the local community in planting and caring for the trees and shrubs. In this way they are developing personal commitment to seeing the project succeed. Without their support and help the project cannot succeed.

Stage one is to plant two thousand trees and shrubs along a two-kilometre stretch and to build up a support system with the local community. As well as planting, we are restoring the path, dealing with eyesores and obstacles as we encounter them. This requires some landscaping and drainage work. Stage two will expand the planting based on the experience gained in the first year. The project will run for three years and include the entire eleven kilometre path.

As the project gains active local support it will be possible to campaign with the local community and the authorities to draw attention to the other problems of the parikrama path. Particular attention will be paid to the problems of the riverfront section, where we will push for action to prevent rubbish being dumped on the path and to remove the rubbish that is there. We will also search for a solution to the problems caused by Vrindavan’s inadequate sewage system. At present the untreated sewage discharges into the Yamuna river through unsightly open ditches which pass alongside the parikrama path.

An important aspect of the project will be the accompanying literature and educational resources. These will be developed with the help of trained educational advisors for use within the educational system and with the wider Hindu population. They will include:

1. “Twenty Things You Can Do To Save Vrindavan” – a 20-page booklet with black & white line illustrations for mass distribution. To be published in Hindi and in English.

2. “Guide to Vrindavan” – at present there is no single pilgrim’s guide to Vrindavan or the Vraj area. This book will focus on the natural environment of Vrindavan and encourage pilgrims to help in restoring it.

3. A video, using the project to explore the Hindu concept of the environment, will act as a medium for spreading the message and gaining further support for the project as it progresses.

An Exhibition and Information Centre is being incorporated on the nursery site which immediately adjoins the Parikrama Path. It will use the nursery as a resource, displaying examples of important trees, shrubs, herbs and plants of religious significance and will demonstrate environmental principles through practical displays and religious themes to do with the sacred pastimes of Krishna. It will also serve as a distribution point for saplings.

Although this is a small project in relation to the massive problems faced by India, it is a step in the right direction. All over India there are local environmental projects, grass-roots groups struggling against the tide of pollution and environmental destruction. Steadily they are gaining ground and influencing public opinion. Some of them are attracting the attention of government and big business. We can only hope that this process continues to grow and that they are not too late to reverse the destruction of India’s natural habitat.

As Sunderlal Bahugana has described, Krishna once saved Vrindavan from the threat of pollution. A huge venomous serpent called Kaliya entered the Yamuna river and made his home there. Because of his presence the whole river was poisoned. Trees on the river’s banks withered and died. The air itself became so polluted that birds flying over the water fell into it. One day Krishna’s cowherd friends drank from the river, not knowing it was poisoned, and fell to the ground unconscious. When Krishna saw this calamity he decided to fight with Kaliya. He dived into the poisonous water and wrestled with the serpent for two hours. During this time the people of Vrindavan watched terrified from the bank. They were sure Krishna would be defeated and were ready to die with him. Suddenly Krishna overcame Kaliya and, climbing on his many heads, began to dance on them in a beautiful way, pressing them down beneath his lotus feet. Exhausted, Kaliya surrendered to Krishna and begged for his mercy. Krishna told him to leave Vrindavan and never return. Once Kaliya had left, the water of the Yamuna river was restored to its natural state and the trees returned to life. Krishna revived his friends and they all celebrated his victory.

This story has long been popular among Hindus, and has been the inspiration for many paintings and statues of Krishna dancing on Kaliya. However, it has now been given fresh significance by the fact that the Yamuna River, for the first time since the defeat of Kaliya, is once more poisoned. The poison comes not from a mystic serpent, but from the factories and sewers of Delhi, seventy miles upstream.

Vrindavan is not just another town on the map. It is Krishna’s abode on earth and a powerful centre of spiritual energy. Krishna’s devotees see it as the source of life for the whole planet. For them, it is the very root of existence. If here, at such a sacred place, life is diseased, the balance of nature is under threat and the elements are poisoned, what omen does that signify for well-being of the rest of the planet? If, on the other hand, the serpent of pollution can again be driven from Vrindavan and once more its forests can flourish, full of clear waters, sweet breezes, peacocks, deer and chirping birds, then a message of hope will be sent to all of India and to the world.

The story of Vrindavan and the work we are doing there is one of thousands of similar tales. All over the world people are working to reverse the tide of environmental pollution which is engulfing our planet and their achievements are beginning to make an impression on the juggernaut of development and international finance. There are signs that enlightened policies are being taken up by the people and institutions that run our world.

However, fine tuning the present system is not going to be enough. If there is to be real hope of a sane life on this planet for the coming generations, we will have to find a new way of understanding our place in the world.

Perhaps the most profound, and simplest, message that can be learned from the Hindu spiritual tradition is the value of a simple life. Western civilization has created the cult of the consumer. Human fulfilment has come to be measured in terms of possessions. Whoever has the most is considered the most advanced. One who travels on foot is inferior to one who travels by Concorde.

By contrast, in the Hindu tradition fulfilment refers to the human spirit. Human life, says the Vedanta Sutra, is meant for understanding spirit, which alone can bring real fulfilment. In Hinduism, the one who takes the least is the most respected. A society which upholds the value of the inner life does not crave the pursuit of material wealth as a means of achieving happiness.

In the West, we have developed a life-style which humanity, and the earth, cannot afford – which consumes without thought for the future – a society of high living but simple thinking. Fundamental questions have to be asked about the way we run our lives, questions requiring honest answers. That a simpler way of life is needed for the West is self-evident, but such a simple life must be underpinned by a deeper spiritual ethic if it is to be sustained. This is why spiritual values are so important. People will agree to change only when they see something better. When simplicity is valued as a necessary step towards human fulfilment, people will want to live more simply.

All the world’s religions say that materialism doesn’t work – that a simple life is best. The highest ‘standard of life’ is the simplest. This has always been the Hindu way – the way of simple living and high thinking.