January 30 – February 10, 2004
By Indradyumna Swami
“Why do you want to visit my country?” the Bangladesh Ambassador asked suspiciously. “We’re the poorest people on earth.”
“I know, Sir,” I replied as I adjusted my Yankees baseball cap, “but in a BBC survey several years ago it was determined that the people of Bangladesh are the happiest on earth. I am curious to find out why the poorest are the happiest. My country, America, is the world’s richest, but came in a disappointing seventh place in the survey in terms of contented-ness. Obviously, happiness is not synonymous with material prosperity.”
“I’m intrigued by your reasoning,” the ambassador said. “I’m a Muslim, and the Koran teaches the same principle. I’ll make an exception and grant you a visa. As an American, you’d normally have to obtain it at our embassy in America, not here in a foreign country.
“Thank you very much,” I replied, for I had been unsuccessful in applying for the visa at Bangladesh embassies in three other countries, and was relieved to have been granted it before leaving the Islamic nation I was visiting.
“I’ve got one request, though,” the ambassador said. “Please come to my residence this evening for dinner. My wife is an excellent cook and she is preparing stewed lamb. We can continue our talk about the illusion of material happiness.”
I had to think quick. An invitation to an ambassador’s house is rarely refused.
“I’m so sorry, Sir, I have a flight out tonight,” I replied.
“Well, here’s my card. Next time you come and stay with me,” he concluded.
As I got up to leave, the ambassador took a photo guidebook from his desk. He then quickly signed it and gave it to me with a handshake. It read: “To Mr Tibbitts with love. May you find the happiness you’re looking for in our beautiful Bangladesh. Mohammed Ilah.”
I had no doubt I would find happiness in Bangladesh, but it would be of a specific nature. The former Indian State of East Bengal (known as East Pakistan after the partition of India by the British in 1947) became the sovereign state of Bangladesh in 1972 as a result of the war for independence. Being part of India’s rich spiritual past, it contains many holy places especially dear to the followers of Lord Caitanya. Numerous devotees of Lord Caitanya took birth there and the Lord Himself performed many sankirtan lilas throughout Bangladesh’s towns and villages. The capital, Dhaka, was a favorite preaching place of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati in the 1930s. He once called Dhaka a second Vrindavan, because it contains more than 700 magnificent Radha-Krsna temples.
I would be traveling to these holy tirthas with a dear godbrother, Radhanath Swami. Months ago, we had met in our travels and discovered that we shared the same attraction to the pastimes and songs of Srila Narottam das Thakur, one of the principle acarayas in our Gaudiya Vaisnava sampradaya, who appeared after Lord Caitanya’s departure from this world. We had longed to visit his birthplace, Keturi, in Bangladesh, for years. Our trip was a dream come true for both of us. I would be meeting Maharaja and several of his brahmacaris in Dhaka the next day. My visa had come at the last moment!
As I was packing my bags that afternoon for the overnight flight to Dhaka, I realized I needed a number of toiletries, so I left the apartment where I was staying and took a short walk to a local store just across from a large mosque. On the way back, three young Oriental women ran up to me in apparent distress. Sensing they might be in danger, I instinctively stepped forward to help when suddenly they threw their arms around me and said in unison, “Nice American man need a lady?”
In the split second it took me to realize they were prostitutes, one of them drew closer to kiss me. Yelling out “Nrsimhadeva,” I broke free from their grasp and ran down the street in a state of shock that prostitutes would operate on the streets of such a strict Islamic country. When I returned to the apartment, several devotees saw me. One said, “You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”
“Worse,” I said. “Some prostitutes accosted me. I feel contaminated by their touch.”
“Take shelter of Haridas Thakur,” another boy suggested. “He was also attacked by a prostitute, but was protected by the holy names of the Lord.”
I recalled the incident during the flight that evening and prayed:
“Dear Namacarya, please give me shelter at your lotus feet and free my mind of any impurity.”
At Dhaka Airport I handed the immigration officer my passport and a form all passengers had to complete with their personal details. I was in nondevotee clothes, as Hindus comprise only 10% of the population and there is sometimes tension between them and the majority Muslims. After studying the form for a moment the officer looked up and said, “You wrote that you’ll be staying in a hotel, but you didn’t mention which hotel. You have to tell me which hotel or I can’t let you in.”
I was stunned. I had no idea of the name of any hotel in Dhaka. I stood there for a moment, and then the officer motioned me to a nearby room. Suddenly, an Indian man who was watching us stepped forward and chastised the officer.
“For goodness sake, man, he’s a tourist. How is he supposed to know which hotels we have here? Foreigners don’t come here often and when they do we can’t treat them like this. Let him in through!”
Somehow his words worked and the officer stamped my passport. As I collected my baggage the Indian man walked by and whispered softly, “Hare Krsna. Have a good trip.”
Outside the terminal I met Radhanath Swami and 12 brahmacaris from his temple in Mumbai, also all in nondevotee dress. We took prasadam and then sat in a nearby field to discuss our itinerary. We had only 10 days and had to select which tirthas to visit. We decided to begin our journey at the birthplace of Rupa Goswami and Sanatana Goswami in Jessore in the southwest of the country. Our guide, Caru Candra das, the regional secretary for the Bangladesh yatra, quickly purchased our tickets and two hours later we were on our way.
During the flight Radhanath Swami leaned over and said to me, “Maharaja, I have a suggestion. Before visiting the home of Rupa and Sanatana we should first visit Benapol, which is only a 45-minute drive outside Jessore.”
“Fine,” I replied, not bothering to ask which pastime took place at Benapol. I trusted that Maharaja knew best, as he is familiar with the tirthas of Lord Caitanya and his followers.
As I reclined in my seat, exhausted from the long-distance flight, I reflected on my good fortune to be traveling with Maharaja and his men. “I need it,” I thought, “especially after that encounter with the prostitutes.”
Just as I was about to fall asleep curiosity got the better of me. I opened my eyes and looked over at Radhanath Swami. “What pastime happened in Benapol, Maharaja?” I said.
“Oh, that’s where Haridas Thakur delivered the prostitute who approached him,” he replied nonchalantly.
I practically jumped out of my seat.
“What’s wrong, Maharaja?” he said, amazed at my reaction.
“I’ll tell you when we get there,” I said, “but I think the Lord has answered my prayers.” I was thinking of a passage from Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s The Bhagavat: Its Philosophy, Its Ethics & Its Theology:
“Do the spiritual masters, after they disappear, bestow their mercy upon the living entities? The souls of great thinkers of bygone ages, who now live spiritually, often approach an inquiring spirit and assist him in his development.”
From Jessore Airport we took a taxi to Benapol, a small village in the jungle. It was dark when we arrived, but Haridas Thakur’s bhajan kutir was still open. I almost ran to it and falling down before his murti repeated my prayer for mercy. As I studied the altar I was curious to see the murti of a shaven-headed woman in a white sari, the same size as that of Haridas Thakur.
“That’s Laksahira, the prostitute who was sent by a government official to make Haridas Thakur fall down,” Radhanath Swami said. “The idea was that soldiers hiding in the foliage would catch them in union and arrest and defame Haridas Thakur. But after listening to Haridas Thakur’s chanting of the holy names for three days, Laksahira became purified and surrendered to him. He initiated her and she became a great devotee.”
I prayed for the mercy of Haridas Thakur and Laksahira.
That night we slept in a darmsala on the property and I had a wonderful dream. All night I dreamt that myself, Radhanath Swami and the brahmacaris were dancing around the courtyard of Haridas Thakur’s bhajan kutir. In fact, I woke up several times, but when falling asleep again would have the same dream. In the morning I awoke feeling purified. For the rest of the trip I never again thought of the prostitutes who attacked me. Such is the mercy of the “soul of a great thinker.”
The next day we went to Rupa and Sanatana’s birthplace outside Jessore. Like most of the other holy places we would visit, there wasn’t much to see. After partition, the minority Hindus were persecuted and many of their temples destroyed. The policy continued after the founding of Bangladesh. Thus, wherever we would go, all that would be left of most tirthas was one or two reminders of the lilas that manifested there. This was particularly true at the home of Rupa and Sanatana. All that was there was a single tree. But when we learned it was the very tree under which the goswamis did daily bhajan, we ourselves nestled under it and had kirtan for several hours. Often a holy place is built up with many shrines and temples to attract pilgrims and impress upon them its importance, but here we had only a single tree on which to focus. As we were chanting in the simple jungle environment, I was thinking that one day it, too, might become a renown holy tirtha. For the moment it remains hidden from the world, retaining a charm rich in Gaudiya history and saturated with mercy. As the hours passed, I closed my eyes and absorbed myself in the holy names at the spot where Rupa and Sanatana chanted the very same names.
Our next destination was ISKCON’s large temple a few kilometers away. As we drove there I inquired from Caru Candra why the temple was not built at the auspicious site we had just visited. He replied that the local Muslim authorities would not sell it to us, so ISKCON accepted an offer from a Hindu or-ganization that owned land nearby. It proved to be a better arrangement, because the ISKCON land is situated in the center of 96 Hindu villages. It is a more secure location and we have a captive audience. In fact, when the beautiful temple was opened in 1999 after years of construction, more than one million people from all over the country attended.
Two days later we flew to Rajshahi in the northwest, a short distance from Keturi on the banks of the Padmavati River. As our car rumbled along the dirt roads leading to the isolated village my heart beat in anticipation of the darsan ahead. I was praying that we’d find more than a single tree. I wasn’t disappointed. Though Keturi consists of only 40 families (38 Muslim and two Hindu), we were happy to discover a small, walled temple compound just outside the village.
One of Narottam das Thakur’s major contributions was organizing the inaugural Gaura-purnima festival, the yearly observance of Lord. Caitanya’s appearance, at Keturi, with many important Vaisnavas of the time attending, including Lord Nityananda’s wife, Jahnava mata. At that historic event, Narottam das Thakur installed six Deities� five Krsna Deities and one pure gold Lord Caitanya Deity. The six Vaisnava devotees currently living at the lakeside temple, built by a pious Hindu businessman more than 100 years ago, told us that Jahnava mata collected water from the lake for cooking for the Keturi festival, and to this day the water is used only for the purpose of cooking. I was unable to discover what happened to most of the Deities� Sri Krsna, Vallabha-kanta, Radha-kanta and Radha-raman. I do know that Vraja-mohan was sent to Vrindavan soon after the installation and the Gauranga Deity was moved to India during the war for independence. I noticed, however, six beautiful salagram-silas on the altar. When I later inquired about Them, the pujari told me They were from the Keturi festival era.
We spent most of the next day hearing and chanting. It was clear that being literally in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by paddy fields, there was nothing to do but fully immerse ourselves in hearing and chanting. The following day, however, a trip was arranged to a small hill where Narottam das Thakur did his daily bhajan. It was a 4km walk through the fields, and I was again struck by the fact that such a tirtha was so isolated. There was only a small stone asana with no inscription marking the spot. Of course, the fact that there was no significant shrine didn’t diminish its spiritual potency, so we again immersed ourselves in bhajan and japa, trying to open our spiritual eyes and see the sanctity of the place with spiritual vision.
In the afternoon, we visited the place on the Padmavati where Narottam das Thakur received the special mercy of Lord Caitanya. Once while having kirtan with His associates in the village of Rama Keli, Lord Caitanya began calling out, “Narottam! Narottam! Narottam!” and fell to the ground unconscious. When He awoke He revealed that soon a great devotee named Narottam das would take birth and would be instrumental in carrying on His mission. Mahaprabhu told the devotees that He would deposit his prema (love of God) in the Padmavati, and at a certain time Narottam das would take bath there and attain pure love of God. Years later, when Narottam das was still a boy, he bathed in the exact spot where Mahaprabhu had deposited His prema and immediately he was overwhelmed with ecstatic love for Krsna. Imbued with that mercy, he was constantly floating in the ocean of love of God and was empowered to spread that love everywhere.
As we searched for the precise location of the lila, we came to a small Vaisnava temple on the banks of the river. Inquiring further, we discovered it was indeed the place. The devotee couple and their two children who oversee the temple were overjoyed by our unsolicited visit. Because Bangladesh is a Muslim country, it is rare that devotees visit such holy places. The man excitedly showed us the tree under which Narottam das Thakur had bathed and which the couple worship daily. We paid our obeisances to the tree, had kirtan there and then bathed in the sanctified waters nearby. I had brought a two-liter plastic Bisleri water bottle for the occasion, and after emptying it carefully filled it with water from the holy river.
As we were preparing to leave the next morning, I went to the main temple at Keturi to take a last darsan of the Deities. The pujari was doing a quick puja of the salagrams, and I was surprised to see him simply throw some water over Them, dry Them quickly and place Them back on the altar. It was a simple worship at best. He didn’t massage Them in oil, which is customary, or even offer sandalwood paste or Tulasi leaves. When I saw the small fruit plate he offered Them I became disappointed. Just then the superintendent of the temple appeared and I brought the seemingly poor standard of worship to his attention.
He hung his head and said, “It’s true what you say. I’ve tried to impress this on the priests for years but they don’t seem to care.”
I thought, “These are such important Deities, a part of the pastimes of Narottam das Thakur. They deserve more than this,” and decided to take a chance.
“Narottam das Thakur is a great source of inspiration for me,” I said. “He’s a great preacher and a deeply realized devotee. He’s one of my heroes. I often think of him while preaching his message in western countries.”
Pausing for a moment and praying for mercy, I then said, “Would you consider giving me one of those salagrams? I’ll take good care of the Deity, offering Him opulent worship. And He’ll be part of Lord Caitanya’s preaching movement in the West, inspiring many devotees.” I was stunned by his reply.
“I’ve been observing your group closely,” he said. “I can see that you are sincere Vaisnavas and that you all have deep affection for Narottam das Thakur. So take any salagram you want. Just indicate to the pujari which one you desire.”
I had already chosen the principle salagram on the altar. He was the biggest one, exquisitely beautiful and smooth as glass. He had a big mouth with two enormous cakras inside. A sweeping cakra also came around His side.
“I’ll take Him,” I said, motioning with my head (not my finger, which is considered impolite in Vedic etiquette).
The superintendent instructed the pujari, who took the salagram off the altar without any apparent emotion. He quickly put Him in my hand. I stood there, my hand trembling, trying to fathom the mercy I had received.
When I went back to my room to collect my belongings for our departure, I showed the Deity to Radhanath Swami, who was struck with wonder.
“He’s so majestic,” were his first words. “You are so fortunate. You’re taking a part of Keturi’s history with you. Who is He, which incarnation?”
“Because of His large mouth and cakras, He’s surely Nrsimhadeva,” I replied. “But because he has that tusk coming around the side, I think He’s also Varaha. And from what I learned from the late Viswambara Goswami, of the Radha-Raman temple in Vrindavan, that small cakra inside could indicate that Laksmidevi is present. I think this sila is Varaha-Nrsimha. But let’s call Him Keturi-nath, Lord of Keturi.”
“That’s wonderful,” Maharaja said.
“Tomorrow we’ll offer Him an elaborate bathing ceremony, with lots of Tulasi leaves and a big feast,” I concluded.
Sadly, we then left Keturi, the holy abode of Narottam das Thakur’s pastimes. While clutching the precious gift to my heart, I considered that not only our small group of pilgrims had received the good fortune of Keturi but so, too, would many Vaisnavas around the world.
We visited several other holy tirthas in the following days, such as those of stalwart associates of Lord Caitanya like Pundarik Vidyanidhi, Vasudeva Datta, Mukunda Datta and Murari Gupta. We even visited the ancestral home of Lord Caitanya’s father, Jagannath Misra, an ancient array of stone buildings in the jungle in northern Bangladesh. But our experiences in Keturi left the greatest impression upon me. After Keturi I hankered to get back to my preaching services in the West. In more ways than one, I had received special mercy�and I wanted to share it with others.
I didn’t have long to wait. At Dhaka Airport, while in a lounge preparing to board my flight out of the country, a Muslim holy man approached me. As a security measure, I was dressed in nondevotee clothes and sported a two-week beard. Many Muslims assumed I was one of them, and had been respectfully addressing me with salamalekam (greetings). This particular man pointed to my bottle of special water and said in broken English, “Allah Akbar! I’m very dry. Very thirsty. Please water.”
I froze. He wanted to drink from my bottle of water from the Padmavati River where Narottam das Thakur had received prema. Every drop in that bottle was sacred. It was capable of giving more than liberation, it could give love of God. But he thought it was just an ordinary bottle of water. I hesitated for a moment, and several Muslim men looked at me. Obviously, you don’t refuse a Muslim holy man’s request for a simple drink of water. So I handed him the bottle and he proceeded to drink with gusto. I watched in shock as he guzzled more than half the bottle. He then turned to me and said, “Allah has been very kind to me today!”
“Yes, indeed He has,” I replied with a smile.
I thought, “My preaching has already begun. Even before leaving Bangladesh I’m sharing the good fortune of my pilgrimage with others.
Indeed, this must be the perfection of visiting a holy place.”
gaur amara, je-saba sthane, koralo bhramana range se-saba sthana, heribo ami, pranayi-bhakata-sange
“All those places where my Lord Gaurasundara traveled for pastimes I will visit in the company of loving devotees.”
[Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur-Suddha-bhakata, from Saranagati]