Caitanya, the inaugurator of the sankirtan movement in India some 500 years ago, advised that people should “sing kirtan constantly” kirtaniya sada harih. How is it possible to constantly chant the holy names? Caitanya says it is only possible if we cultivate attitudes of humility, tolerance, and respect towards others. Caitanya’s message is taken to heart in Vrindavan, a sacred town with thousands of Krishna temples in Northern India. On my first day here on a recent visit, I smiled seeing how people communicate with each other by chanting names of the divine. A meeting between friends or strangers is rarely expressed as a “Hi” or “How are you” but rather as “Radhe Radhe” (names of the feminine divine Radha), or Hare Krishna (Radha Krishna), or Hari Bol (chant the holy name). With these names shopkeepers also sell their wares, beggars collect alms, and drivers seek passage for their vehicles. Wondering through this ancient town, you see people quietly muttering the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, counting their number of recitations on tulsi wood beads, which they carry in a cloth bag on their right hand. You also hear kirtan floating down narrow alleys out of gateways to homes and temples. In some temples kirtan is held 24 hours per day, 365 days of the year, for the past 40 years.
One such temple is the Krishna Balaram Mandir where I stayed for a couple of weeks. I lived and went to an ashram school here for a year when I was 9-10 years old. People come from around the world to participate in kirtan shifts. For example on my visit I met Vishnu, a friend from Melbourne Australia, who is also an expert mrdanga drummer, and has been here for several months. He has two shifts each day – from 10 AM to 1 PM and from 10 PM to 1 AM – a total of 8 hours each day! He relishes the quiet and dark hours of the early morning the most, when it is just him, a couple of friends, their instruments, and the mantra. They chant, and chant, in the mood of the residents of Vrindavan, with humility, tolerance, and respect.
It is always a joyful experience for me to return here to meet familiar people and places, and hear the stories of Krishna’s pastimes here in Vrindavan. My greatest joy here comes from joining in the 24-hour kirtan. I don’t have the humility, tolerance, and respect, to stay here and chant constantly – this remains an aspiration.