It was December, 1972 and I was a nineteen-year-old spiritual seeker. A series of karmas had brought me to Lord Krishna's playground-the sacred lands of Vrindavan in northern India. I was called there to meet the saint Neem Karoli Baba. During my first days there I stayed with a small group of other westerners at the jaipuriya guest house, near the Banki Bihari Krishna temple in downtown Vrindavan. It was an exciting and exotic time to be in India. I met "the Man" as we sometimes affectionately called Neem Karoli Baba, but because we could only meet with him for a few hours each day, I had ample time to explore the ancient devotional city.
One day, as I wandered along a path that encircled the city, I came across a small, idyllic ashram on the banks of the Yamuna River. I walked toward the main altar, a small Radha Krishna temple in the middle of a gentle courtyard that housed two cows and several holy, yogi-looking men. Suddenly a stout, long haired, black bearded man appeared on the scene of what seemed like a well-crafted yoga movie and called out to me in Hindi. It was my first week in India and his words, although warm and welcoming, I could not fathom. Sensing my confusion, he called up to the second story of the Krishna temple, which was shaded by a sacred Pepul tree. A few moments later, a slender man with silver hair neatly tied into a bun on top of his head slowly descended the stairs on the western side of the temple and approached me. I was mesmerized as he greeted me in perfect English, "Welcome to Vrindavan! What brings you here?" After I recounted my brief yogic history, he turned to me and said, his eyes peering into my soul, "From now on, recite this mantra: shri Krishnah sharanam mama."
I repeated the sacred phrase after him a few times, and after it had settled in my mind, he continued, "My name is Mangaldas, which means 'The follower of auspiciousness.' The blessed Lord called me here to Vrindavan, and now it is time for you to come live here with me. This ashram is called Shyam Kuti-Krishna's Love- bower Cottage."
The whole sequence was so dreamlike and profound. As I gazed towards the gentle flow of the Yamuna River, this mysterious mantra reciter continued, "The mantra means, 'Shri Krishna is my refuge.' Now, go and get your bags." At that moment, everything around the ashram started to shimmer. The sands seemed blissful and conscious, as if they were trying to tell me something that would take me years to understand. All I could reply was, "Shri Krishnah sharanam mama." I returned to the jaipuriya guest house, collected my few belongings and moved into Lord Krishna's Love-bower Cottage. Thus began my pilgrimage into the Path of Grace. Mangaldas taught me many things during those initial days-how to bathe by the well, wear a dhoti, wash pots with sand, make coal fires, how to cook, as well as various temple etiquettes that are still of great use today. Mangaldas' tiny, simple room above the temple contained a rope cot and a small cooking area. The center of the room housed, behind a curtain, a lovely picture of God playing the flute by the Yamuna River. This was Mangaldas' personal beloved Lord Krishna, named Murali Manohar, "The Enchanting flute Player."
My days there passed effortlessly into what seemed like an eternity. Mangaldas, I discovered, was a Gujarati devotional yogi and true lover of God. He stayed awake most of the night continually engaged in dialogue and exploits with his personal Beloved. As he explained to me, this Beloved lives beyond the effects of material virtues but can relate very personally with His ignited ones. We would wake before sunrise every day and walk the seven mile route around the sacred city of Vrindavan, while groups of pilgrims sang out, "Radhe Shyam Radhe Shyam, Shyam Shyam Radhe Radhe!" I was engaged full-time in recitation of the Krishna refuge mantra, and there seemed very little else for me to do.
The 41 Letters of Spiritual Counsel
In the afternoon and evening Mangaldas would bring out a few well-worn devotional books and while reviewing them, he would translate their wisdom into English for me. He read to me the lives of great saints and sometimes sections of a text written by shri Harirayaji (1591-1711 CE) called 41 Letters of Spiritual Counsel. One evening he said to me, "Listen to this," and commenced to translate a passage from the thirtieth letter:
Know the best mantra to be Shri Krishna's name, so recite and contemplate the supreme mantra, Shri Krishnah sharanam mama. The Beloved is replete with all virtues and plays infinite lilas, and to sing His praises is ultimate. In the 8th canto of the Shrimad Bhagavatam, Shri Shukracharya explains, "Any deficiency in one's mantra recitation, yogic method, place, time, or wealth is redeemed and fulfilled by the recitation of Shri Krishna's names." By reciting Shri Krishna's names, every mantra recitation is attained. Shri Gusainji has written, "O Hari! 'Remover of all sorrows' is the way the Vedas explain the meaning of Your name. May my focus be on it alone." Shri Krishna's name is a mantra and the essence of the Vedas and Shrutis. It can only be chanted with His grace.
Mangaldas then explained to me, "These letters were written by Shri Harirayaji, who, like his great-great grandfather Shri Mahaprabhu Vallabhacharya, is also respectfully called 'Mahaprabhuji'-a great being. Vallabhacharya, considered by his followers to be an incarnation of Lord Krishna, founded the Path of Grace. Shri Harirayaji was not only a master of devotional dharma, but also a seer. With the premonition that his younger brother's wife was about to pass away unexpectedly, Harirayaji began to write his brother letters of consolation. He filled these correspondences with devotional instructions that would give his brother, Shri Gopeshwarji, the necessary wisdom, fortitude and refuge to enable him to transcend the tragedy of his wife's passing."
People say that Shri Harirayaji wrote these letters to his brother while living in Jaisalmer, a remote walled city in the western Rajasthani desert, near the India- Pakistan border. Shri Harirayaji was the guru to the king of Iaisalmer; and today there is a temple dedicated to Shri Harirayaji's sitting place in the king's palace. It is said that everyone in Jaisalmer became Shri Harirayaji's disciple, and even today, most of the city follows his spiritual lineage.
Hundreds of miles of desert separated the two brothers. When Gopeshwarji received Shri Harirayaji's letters, he filed them away in a secure hole in the wall without ever opening them, thinking, "My dear brother is just writing me to say hello." But when his wife passed away, Shri Gopeshwarji, was plunged into grief and became unable to focus his mind on his Beloved's worship. In the midst of his despair, one of his disciples, Hari jivan Das, reminded him, "Have you ever looked at those letters Shri Harirayaji wrote you?"
Gopeshwarji then took that stack of letters out of the wall and began to review the teachings carefully implanted within them. In just a single reading, the letters had a transforming effect-as he wholeheartedly embraced the teachings found in the letters, Gopeshwarji's grief was sundered. He decided to compose a commentary on his brother's Sanskrit letters in the vernacular Brajbhasha-a mystic, poetic language which is still spoken today in Braj and is considered to be Lord Krishna's own mother tongue. In his comments on the final letter, Shri Gopeshwarji alludes to the circumstances in which these teachings arose:
Bless you, Hari Jivan Das! shri Harirayaji entered into your heart and with these letters, has sundered all of my misery. Do not consider these commentaries on Shri Harirayaji's letters to be my own; he has entered my heart and written them. Shri Vallabh and Shri Gusainji always reside in his heart, and due to their grace, these bhava-filled words have arisen. You are deeply insightful! please keep these devotional jewels concealed- they are not to be outwardly displayed.
Shri Harirayaji's Sanskrit letters and Shri Gopeshwarji's commentaries became known as Shiksha Patra: 41 Letters of Spiritual Counsel. They contain the main teachings of the Path of Grace. Hundreds of years later, they are still being read by millions of Shri Vallabhacharya's followers.
The combination of walking around Vrindavan at dawn with Mangaldas, worshipping in the morning, and hearing the teachings in the afternoon and evening nourished my soul. These were my initial preparations for the translation of the 41 Letters. The sands of Vrindavan were also instrumental-they awoke within me something which all my previous spiritual attempts could not even approach. While simply lying on the sandy banks of the Yamuna River during those warm winter days, a sense of refuge arose. I also was nurtured by the many textual passages that Shri Harirayaji quotes in his letters. It all made so much sense to me. "Hari is not pleased with gifts, austerities, sacrifice, purity, or fasts, but only with pure devotion. Everything else is mere show." It seemed clear-the Supreme Brahman created this universe for the sake of sport, and when we see it in its pure form, it becomes delightfully full of God. It is found through His grace.
Mahaprabhu Shri Harirayaji
Shri Harirayaji's appearance in this world was to show us how to live the devotional lifestyle-how to attain what my dharmic brother Daniel Goleman explains in his own words as "emotional intelligence." Shri Harirayaji was born in the year 1591 CE in Gokul, the main seat of the Path of Grace, as the great-great grandson of Mahaprabhu Shrimad Vallabhacharya (1479-1531). Shrimad Vallabhacharya's son Shri Vitthalnathji Gusainji (1516-1586) further infused the devotional path with various arts and music, all delicately dedicated to the pleasure of his beloved Lord. He had seven sons, the second of which was Shri Govindarayaji (b. 1543). Shri Govindarayaji's first son, Shri Kalyanrayaji (b. 1569), was Shri Harirayaji's father, making Shri Harirayaji a fourth generation descendent from Mahaprabhu Shrimad vallabhacharya. The poet Rasikadas sings of his appearance:
Today in Shri Kalyanraya's home there is a celebration!
Shri Harirayaji is bom amidst song and celebration.
Shri Gusainji has appeared again in the form ofShri Harirayaji
To establish our firm devotion on the blessed path.
He appeared to allow us the vision of Krishna's intimate lilas.
To instruct his own souls, he wrote the 41 Letters.
Rasikadas bows to Shri Harirayaji-
He takes care of those who have no other refuge.
At the age of eight, Shri Harirayaji received the sacred thread ceremony and also took the first initiation into the Path of Grace from his father, Shri Kalyanrayaji. He later took Brahma Sambandha initiation in Gokul from Shri Gusainji's illustrious fourth son, Shri Gokulnathji. As head of the second seat of the Pushti Marg, the blessed Path of Grace, Shri Harirayaji spent his life worshipping a form of Lord Krishna named Shri Vitthalnathji, who resides today in Nathdvara, Rajasthan.
Shri Harirayaji's father, Shri Kalyanrayaji, was a renounced and saintly soul. Once Shri Vallabhacharya's older brother Keshavapuri approached Shri Gusainji and requested that one of Shri Gusainji's grandsons become the future head of his monastic order. Shri Kalyanrayaji, who was a mere child at the time, feared that he would be taken away by the monk. At that moment he composed a one-line poem in Brajbhasha and recited it in front of Shri Gusainji: "please let me live in Lord Krishna's land of Braj.
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