Lessons From Kishkindha(Part 1): “All Things Must Pass”
This is a world of change. Nothing here is permanent. As songwriter sage George Harrison sang, “All things must pass.” As the Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna sang, “Of the nonexistent, there is no endurance.” That’s the nature of this illusory world, the jagat; it’s always in a flux of transformation, regeneration, degeneration and annihilation. Like reflections on a lake’s surface, the forms of this world have no real substance.
We spirit souls, however, are eternal. We have always existed and will never cease to be. We all shine on -- like the Sun, the Moon and the stars. Even before these planets existed, we existed. After these planets are destroyed, we remain. Lord Krishna assures us, “For the soul there is neither birth nor death. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.” Because we are eternal, everyone naturally wants to live forever in an eternal abode. But in this jagat, the world of constant change, that’s never possible. Therefore everyone who has taken birth in this temporary world is full of anxieties -- unless or until they have achieved self-realization.
The human form of life, particularly human life on Earth, provides the best chance for conditioned souls to realize their true nature and transcend the ocean of birth and death. Human life provides an opportunity to go back to our natural home in the spiritual world. As Lord Brahma confirms, human life in India is desired even by demigods in heaven. In India there is full facility for understanding God and the facts of life, or karmic reactions. This is due the mercy of many great devotees and avatars who taught here the path of God-realization. Although life on Earth is brief, it neither too hellish nor too heavenly, which is another advantage for those on the path of self-realization.
I have not visited Kishkindha Kshetra since 1976, but I have always remembered this place because it seemed so old, is if eternal. One of the things that attracts tourists to this area are the huge rounded boulders, which are impossibly stacked up, forming large and small hills with innumerable caves where monkeys, bears, bats, big snakes and rishis live. (The latter two are hard to spot these days, but I heard that if you have a tripod and telescope it is possible.)
This area is the native place of Sri Sriman Hanuman-ji, and it’s an important place connected to the pastimes of Lord Ramachandra. Kishkindha Kshetra includes Hampi, Anegundi, Anjanadri (Hunuman Giri) and Pampa Sarovar. In more recent times, Anegundi on the north bank of the Tungabhadra and Hampi on the south bank were the capital city area of the famous Vijayanagar Empire, the most fabulously opulent empire on Earth in the past 3 or 4 thousand years. Marco Polo’s descriptions of Vijayanagar are hard to fathom but have been corroborated by many historical accounts and other travelers such as Paes and Neuniz. Under the rule of King Krishnadeva Raya, this empire reached its zenith during the times of Lord Chaitanya’s manifest presence on Earth and was completely destroyed around thirty-five years after His disappearance.
Krishnadeva Raya once invaded the outskirts of the kingdom of King Prataparudra. After a sporting battle, Maharaja Prataparudra was pleased to offer him his daughter, Jaganmohini, in marriage. In this way Krishnadeva Raya became the son-in-law and ally of one of Lord Chaitanya’s great devotees. People in this area still talk about Krishnadeva Raya with affection, as if he were very recently the ruler here. He died within months of Lord Chaitanya’s disappearance. Krishnadeva Raya is still adored and missed by people all over this region.
Among Kishkindha’s hills of stacked boulders flows the holy Tungabhadra River, which Srimad-Bhagavatam and other scriptures describe as being directly the Ganges. Here in the river-bottom lands of Kishkindha are some of the most productive agricultural fields in the world, which have very deep black soils with no rocks—at least no small rocks. Some fields are interrupted by protruding house-size boulders. Farmers in this area grow mostly sugar cane, bananas, rice and coconuts.
Although these hills of boulders give one a feeling of eternity, their visible forms are not eternal. Every thousand years or so one of them splits in half or loses a large chunk. By “chunk”, I mean a piece the size of a locomotive. These are rare events. Sadhus and pilgrims camp in caves here with no fear of falling rock, and people build homes directly beneath towering boulders. Ancient temples were built on top of some of them. I am presently renting a house that is dwarfed by the single, four-story boulder that it’s built up against. All these massive boulders are under the protection of the Central Government of India. Although most of the older structures in the region were built from their cut stones and blocks, today it is illegal to paint, cut, break, or move them for any purpose.
As if to remind me that even the boulders of Kishkindha are not permanent, one of them broke in half the other day. It happened the day before I arrived here. It was big news locally. This boulder was part of the massive “Sisters” formation, a world famous landmark. A huge chunk blocked one of the two main roads in the area for several days, until the proper government agencies could authorize its removal. Tourists had been standing under these massive boulders just minutes before it happened. Scanning the hills of the locality, I find it difficult to spot other naturally broken boulders that still have sharp edges, having not yet been rounded by eons of rain and wind. This proves how rarely these boulders split apart. The quarried boulders of the Vijayanagar era still look freshly cut, with sharp edges and solid gray inner color. Several hundred years of weathering means nothing to these boulders. It’s their consistent rounded edges and multi hues that make the hills of Kishkindha appear so old, as if changeless. These boulders are definitely very old—and geologists are perplexed how they got stacked up in so many interesting ways--but they are not changeless. Some adi-vasis and sadhus consider the “Sisters” event a portent. No one has been able to tell me what it means, but I am sure it indicates all things must pass.
My first hour here I met Raghu (Raghavendra), a local devotee. He took me that evening to a temple on a hill called the “Sunset Temple” by tourists and guides. This large temple, Malyavantha Raghunatha, is one of the few temples in the Hampi area that maintains regular puja. Sadhus live in this temple by special permission of the Central Government of India, and they maintain 24-hour kirtana for ancient Deities of Sri Sri Sita-Rama. Many tourists come through this temple, only to go around back to see the sunset. At least they all hear the kirtana. That evening I stayed and chanted with the kirtana group of two sadhus and a young priest. I didn’t have my kartalas, but they gave me an ancient instrument on metal strips, which I played the best I could. The sadhus were quite lively in their singing and playing kartalas and mridanga. This was no tired kirtana. It went on for hours in the same fast tempo. Nor was it stylish or showy, though both men were expert musicians. They had exuberant energy. They were chanting by reading directly from huge Sanskrit texts of the Ramayana.
The next day Raghu convinced me to tour the Vijayanagar temples and palaces ruins. After the previous evening’s experience, my interest in the area was increasing. It took us the whole day to go to several of the main places in the Hampi area, and though I found it fascinating, it was also depressing. By seeing these ruins, most of which were elaborate stone temples, temple tanks, irrigation works, and other religious and public facilities, I caught a glimpse of some of the wonder that was Vijayanagar. This empire’s leaders and people were devoted to Vedic culture, the worship of Lord Krishna, Lord Vishnu, Lord Rama, Surya Narayana, Narasimha Deva, Hanuman and the principle demigods. I was reminded that even such a grand and noble civilization-- created by the cooperative efforts of many Vaisnavas, Brahmins and pious rulers—can be suddenly devastated due to malicious envy. The sastras say fear is the greatest ever-present misery of material existence. Another great misery of material existence is caused by the presence of malicious people, who always create fearful situations for themselves and others.
After touring the ruins of Vijayanagar, I decided to go the next day to Pampa Sarovar and Hanuman’s hilltop birthplace, the Anjanadri Temple. I first went to the Pampa Sarova, an ancient holy place mentioned in Ramayana, Mahabharata and other Vedic scriptures. Only two pujaris, two wandering mendicants and a local avadhuta were there. After bathing in the crystal-clear waters of the transcendental Pampa Sarova, which is overgrown with lotuses, I had darshana at the small temple and met a blissful 11-year-old pujari. Raghu then showed me the way to Hanuman Giri.
After ascending the many steps that lead up to Hanuman’s hilltop temple, I finally arrived alone just in time for the last part of the after sunrise mangala arotika, which lasts an hour. A more or less 24-hour kirtana has been maintained here for many years under the guidance of the resident swami, Vidya das. His tradition of sannyasa stems from the Alwars, predating by a thousand years the specific sannyasa tradition of Sri Ramanuja Acarya. Later that day, while we were looking across the Tungabhadra River toward the ruins of Vijayanagar, he commented, “All of that Vijayanagar was there and gone in a moment. This present Hunuman temple is at least 2,000 years old. The original site dates back millions of years.”
There was a large group of pilgrims present who had made a donation for doing a special abhisekha and puja. I stayed and chanted japa for an hour during the abhisekha and arotikas. Everyone there, both priests and pilgrims, included me in all their rituals and made sure I touched the lamp and accepted charanamrita and got close darshan of Hanuman at the right times. With all the clueless Western tourists and pseudo-sadhus that come up here just to have a look, I would have expected them to be skeptical of me. I think they appreciated my focus on japa. One of the pujaris, a young man, was also chanting japa intently with a bead bag like mine.
After a while all the pilgrims left, but when I was ready to leave, Swami Vidya das invited me to stay longer and have breakfast with them in thirty minutes. I gladly agreed and continued chanting japa while circumambulating the temple. I was thinking I never wanted to leave this place. The ambiance was tranquil and pure, and the location seemed truly timeless. The panorama of the lush Tungabhadra bottom lands and other amazing nearby hills was sublime. The weather was perfect. I was feeling I had lived here before. At that moment Swami Vidya das walked up to me and said, “Would you like to live here?” I immediately said, “Yes.” He asked, “For how long? One month? One year? Two years? One life? Two lives? Many lives?” I replied, “The rest of one life.” He said, “Very good,” and then asked, “Do you smoke?” I said, “No. No drinking either, not even tea.” He said, “Then no problem.”
I explained that I was married and had big murtis of Radha-Krishna and wanted to do a lot of puja. Hearing this, he paused, appearing thoughtful for some time. Then he showed me the new construction he was doing. By special permission from the Government, they were breaking stone to make another small building. The Government provides water to this small temple and ashram via a large external water line with plenty of pressure. Everything is green along the route the line takes because monkeys have punched it with several small holes. The Government also provides electricity, and someone donated a solar backup system. (I just returned to Hanuman’s birthplace today and learned that UNESCO has intervened to stop the humble construction of the above-mentioned tiny building.)
Swami Vidya das and 10 student priests live here. Other sadhus visit from time to time. Presently they live together in the same small building that houses the kitchen facilities, which takes most of the space and is totally separate from the living space. Bathrooms and toilets are outside. Everyone, including Swami Vidya das, is living out of their individual shoulder bags, all of which are neatly arranged along the walls with rolled up sleeping mats.
The breakfast prasada was divinely special that day. Swami Vidya das and all of the devotees sat together inside the room where they sleep at night, and two devotees served subji, hot puris and warm pal-payasana (milk sweet-rice). The Swami didn’t take sweet-rice, but everyone else, including a jolly, 75-year-old visiting sadhu and me, took seconds or thirds on everything.
I liked the mood of this ashram. Vivikta desha sevitvam, aratir jana-samsadi. (Bg. 13.11) Of the 18 practices of devotional service, item 17 is: “One should develop a feeling for residing in a secluded place with a calm and quiet atmosphere favorable for spiritual culture, and thus avoid congested places where the non-devotees congregate.” (Sri Isopanisad Mantra 10, Purport)
No one at this hilltop ashram was rushed. No one was eager to develop the place with a big guesthouse and temple, although their location is a potential gold mine for donations. Their program is puja, prasad, 24-hour kirtana and japa. They seemed content and happy with this special place and the leadership of Swami Vidya das. From what I saw, pilgrims to this place are treated with respect, even clueless sightseers, both Indian and Western. These hilltop resident devotees have everything they need without having to canvass for donations. Their main asset is peace of mind and Hanuman’s mercy by dint of their tradition of constant chanting of the holy names and Ramayana. For their kirtanas, they have a separate room in the temple with a large picture of Sita-Rama, Lashmana and Hanuman. At least two devotees chant there with kartalas and mridanga. The kirtana is broadcast via mike and speakers. It can be heard clearly from two miles away, as I learned the other day while chanting japa at remote mandap on the Tungabhadra River.
The majority of the hundreds of temples established during the times of Vijayanagar are in ruins, with no murtis and no worship today. Interestingly, most of the temples that have survived and still have regular programs and puja are ancient temples, with murtis and traditions established by great acaryas or rishis in another yuga. Several hundred years ago, a sadhu living in one of these temples, the sage Vidyaranya, gave precise instructions for the creation of Vijayanagar and predicted its rise and fall. Vidyaranya is considered by many historians to be the true founder of the Vijayanagar Empire. This indicates that pure temple worship sometimes creates empires, as a minor byproduct, but material empires can’t create or protect genuine temples.
I find the people of this area are very pious. They easily and naturally chant Hare Krishna. They often remind me to chant loudly as I walk along. One day while touring around Bengal, Lord Chaitanya noticed that people of one area very readily chanted Hare Krishna. He then told His devotees that the Ganges River must be nearby. When the devotees inquired from villagers they learned that the Ganges was in fact only a short walk away. This story reminds me of a quote from Srimad-Bhagavatam that states that although in Kali-yuga Vaisnavas will be rare, many will take birth along the banks of South India’s holy rivers. What I have realized since coming to Kishkindha is that the Tungabhadra is directly the Ganges, as confirmed in Bhagavatam, Fifth Canto. Thus many residents of Kishkindha very readily chant, “Hare Ram! Hare Krishna!”
Although the boulders of Kishkindha will gradually crumble to dust, the tradition of nama-sankirtana, like God and the soul, goes on forever. Hanuman-ji has promised to live on Earth as long as the holy names of Lord Rama are sung and chanted. As Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura sings, “There is nothing to be had in all the three worlds but the holy names. Take shelter of the holy names as your only business.” Unfortunately, we conditioned souls, although eternal, are attached to the fleeting forms of this world, as if they were eternal. With deep compassion, Srila Prabhupada notes this hellish misery of all embodied souls. Pleading with us all, he says, “In this horrible condition of life, there is no alternative but to take shelter of the holy names of the Lord.”