On October 7th I completed my first long barefoot run, a double circuit of Govardhan Hill near the town of Vrindavan in northern India. I undertook this parikrama, as sacred circumambulations are known, in order to raise funds for water.org, a wonderful charity that works to provide pure, clean water for those who need it the most. With the generosity and grace of my friends, I surpassed my fundraising goal, and as a result, a few more people on this earth will live free of waterborne disease. This is cause for great joy and gratitude. To all who donated on my behalf, thank you from my truest heart.
Although the run itself was predictably dramatic – 98 degree heat, brawling monkeys, scorching pavement, and a lot of praying for blisters not to pop — I am less inclined to give details of this minor tapas than to speak directly of the love I felt in Vrindavan and how it strengthened my belief that much of what ails and afflicts us as human beings can be addressed by giving more freely to others.
Prior to the run, I spent a few days at an ashram founded by Sadhu Maharaj, a profoundly beautiful teacher from the Gaudiya lineage of Krishna Bhakti, a man who has turned over his entire life to giving. From the moment he welcomed me with a huge hug and a warm smile, to the hospitality he showed me every day, to the food his devotees cooked with love, to the prem prasad that we fed to the poor and destitute, the entire experience was steeped in the spirit of free giving.
Throughout the day, as we studied Gaudiya teachings and verse and sat in meditation and asked questions, Maharaj attended to us as if our spiritual practice and understanding were the most important things in his entire life. He attended to the poor people of Vrindavan the same way, as he attended to the ashram shrines, as he attended to the ashram cows. Nothing escaped his love, and his love was complete and total.
Having spent much of my spiritual life studying Buddhist and Hindu non-dual Tantric traditions, in which self and other merge into a seamless One, I have always had some philosophical doubts about the dvaita or dualistic traditions that see God as separate from the individual human soul. And though I’ve always admired and felt the deep devotion and longing of bhakti, I tended to see the dvaita worldview as, well, somewhat less true.
On my first day at the ashram I went straight to the heart of the matter, asking Maharaj in a study session if the spiritual consciousness we develop through practice leads us closer to a God that is separate from us or if it allows us to become one with a God that is our true nature.
He smiled and replied: “Who is more complete, a man alone in love with himself, or a man who loves and is loved by another?” And before I could answer, he added: ”Two is very important.” And he crossed his hands past one another in a gesture reminiscent of rubbing two pieces of flint together to create sparks.
Fundamental to this dvaita philosophy is the supreme emphasis on the Other. In Vrindavan, people greet each other saying “Radhe Radhe!” invoking Krishna’s lover Radha. I quickly grew to love this simple phrase, as it not only honors the Goddess herself – She, the Supreme Ornament of the Cosmos, the Swan that Delights in the Still Lake of the Seeker’s Mind — but also the existence and importance of the relationship between lover and beloved. When we say ‘Radhe Radhe’, we are not just honoring the Divine but honoring the implicit two, the relationship between those two, and the importance of that relationship as an opportunity to give and receive more love.
The flow and exchange of love is something that we in the West associate primarily with our actual lovers. As a result, we look to our lovers and our relationships to be the inexhaustible source of love that perpetually fills us. In reality, our amorous relationships are but one of the many, many opportunities we have to receive the love that fills the cup of our hearts. And foremost among these is the recognition of the most basic fundamental spiritual algorithm of all — that we receive love into our hearts every time we freely give.
The love that Sadhu Maharaj received as a direct result of all his giving was palpable. The floodgates of his heart were truly wide open, and the love he passed on was exactly equal to the love he received. We too can receive this love, and the exchange that takes place in the filling of our hearts from giving is itself the friction of Radha and her dark Lover. The same friction that casts monsoon clouds upwards from the baking hot Deccan plains and throws the rains downwards in a deluge of life-giving water. O Lord, my longing is the darkest part of the storm cloud….
Everyone becomes the object of love, and the Supreme Lover responds, poetically, majestically, every time we give, because as we give we are giving directly – straight into the heart of the One who loves us the most.
On the morning of the parikrama I crammed into an overcrowded rikshaw in the pre-dawn hours and set forth for Govardhan Temple. As the rikshaw careened through the waking town, dodging cows and camels and stray dogs and goats and pigs and monkeys and other out of control rikshaws and massive tinseled Indian dumptrucks, an old sadhu across from me sang softly the name of the Divine: ‘Haribol…. Haribol…” And the words curled like sweet dhoop smoke into a lavender sky.
At the temple, I left my flip flops in a plastic bag with a shopkeeper and cashed in my bills for a stack of one rupee coins. As is the norm in any pilgrimage spot in India, a long line of beggars extended all the way down the start of the circuit, desperately poor who survive solely on the grace of pilgrims, on the spiritual act of giving. There were about forty or fifty here, some missing limbs or fingers, some hollow from lack of food, some dressed only in rags — wrinkled, scorched, with eyes like hot coals that burn right through you.
The first man was bearded, thin, with knobby elbows wider than his upper arm and a soiled white turban. I looked him directly in the eye and committed his face to my memory. I bowed in pranam before him, touching my head to his feet. “Radhe Radhe!” he said, placing his hands on my head in blessing. “Radhe Radhe,” I replied, and dropped a couple of coins in his bowl.
As I give to you, my beloved, I am receiving your love directly into my heart.
One by one, I went down the line. I practiced seeing the Beloved in each of their faces. I bowed in pranam and touched their feet. I received their blessings.
Then, I started to run…
It is all very simple really. We only have this life.
Be less cynical. Give more.
In the words of Christ, love the Other as we love ourselves. Give freely, as we have received.
In the West, we are fast approaching another Christmas season, another profound opportunity to give and receive love. This season of giving, perhaps we can practice giving more than we are used to giving. And perhaps we can broaden our notions of what Love is and what it means to receive it. Perhaps we can look straight into the eyes of the poor and needy and see Divinity there. Perhaps we can see Nobility. Perhaps we can see Grace. Perhaps we can see everything that we have never wanted to admit was there, right there in that hollow reflection that stares back at us and says: “I am just as you, beloved… I am just as you.”
Give more. And look upon the object of your giving and witness the full flowering of the Beloved.