This post is part of a series, Snapshots of the Eco-Village

A day at Govardhan Eco-Village was incomplete without a visit to the Yamuna River. While the ‘original’ Yamuna is in Vrindavan, over 1000 km away, the ‘Yamuna River’ at the Eco-Village is a small pond turned into a (solar) motor-powered stream, complete with waterfalls, waterfowl, and aquatic plants, winding along the path through the forest. Every day at sunset, community members gather along the banks of the Yamuna for evening arati, a sung worship praising the Yamuna goddess as the bestower of devotion.

IMG_9159At sunrise and during the serene hours before, the banks of the Yamuna are a tranquil place for meditation, opening the mind to purity and grace. During the daytime, it’s a spot where busy staff pause for respite to rest, enjoy the cooling breezes off the water and the pleasing views into the forest, or to reconnect to the Divine through midday meditation. In the evening, Yamuna arati brings everyone together. Young and old, visitor and resident, the whole community gathers for this daily arati. Like the early morning worship, Yamuna arati bonds the community together in shared devotion, shared song, shared prayer. And given that most community members were not directly involved in the planning or landscaping of Yamuna and other construction projects, enjoying the results of those efforts increases appreciation across teams.IMG_9564

Just a few weeks after I last bowed down to the Yamuna River in the Eco-Village, I found myself sitting in the soft sands on the banks of the Yamuna River in Vrindavan – weeping. As devotees of Krishna, we hold a grateful and reverential attitude towards all aspects of the natural world. Suffering, involuntary poverty, oppression, species loss, and environmental destruction pain the heart of the bhakta as we do not want to see our sisters and brothers (of any species) in suffering and misery. This pain is amplified even more upon encountering such forms of suffering in a holy place. The pollution of the Yamuna River is known worldwide; over 50% of the river’s waters are diverted for agricultural purposes and the river’s banks are re-filled with industrial and sewage waters from New Delhi and other major cities. The river is classified as ‘dead’ well before it reaches the city of Vrindavan, by which time less than 3% of the content of the river is actually its original waters.

Sitting on the soft sands of the Yamuna, I quietly sang the same arati song that we sing every day in the Eco Village. I felt overjoyed just moments prior as I caught my first glimpse of the river while walking through the city streets – overjoyed at the sight of the blue skies over the river, the trees on its distant shore, and the ferries plying the banks, their colorful banners fluttering in the wind. These were the same shores upon which Krishna played with His friends and around which the women of Vrindavan haggled with Him for goods. These are the same waters in which He played and the same cooling breezes which pacified the enflamed hearts of His girlfriends. Yet now, singing this ancient hymn and remembering those heart-melting pastimes, I couldn’t help but feel the pangs at the world, the chasm, of difference between those times and these.

There I sat at a smelly river with trash clogging the waters, construction vehicles moving sand and pipes and rebar all around me. Closing my eyes, I could almost see the opposite image of the idyll at the Eco-Village. By focusing on the environmental degradation, do we lose touch with the eternal, sacred aspects of the Yamuna and of the eternal pastimes occurring on Her shores? By focusing on the sacred aspects of the river, do we avoid dealing with the realities of environmental degradation and public health crises? I don’t yet have an answer for these questions; I try to hold both realities at once. This tension, this fullness in both joy and pain at once, made my last Yamuna arati on my last night in Vrindavan all the more meaningful. I prayed not just for myself and my loved ones, but for the hearts of all people to open to our original spiritual nature, of love and servitude to our Mother Earth who nurtures us directly with God’s love.