Read a transcript of Hindu holy man and teacher Bhakti Nandan Swami's conversation with Alex Chadwick about the nature of the Hindu faith, Krishna as the embodiment of God and the physical manifestation of the afterlife.
Nandan Swami: We are in Vrindavan, the holy land of Braj, which is highly regarded by the devotees here as the land of transcendental love of the Divine Couple Radha and Krishna, the embodiments of all eternal truth, consciousness, beauty and ecstasy. In the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, 85 miles south of New Delhi, lies this pastoral area of land, a specific region of which is called Vrindavan.
Deeply attracted by its inner spiritual glory, beauty and potency, the many devotees and other theistic pious people from different parts of India and from different spiritual traditions and cultures have continued to come here for pilgrimage. They just started living over here, along side the local residents and established asramas, temples and sanctuaries, in order to continue their holy practices in a more organized manner, thereby turning this whole land into a city of temples.
The derivative meaning of "Vrindavan" is "the holy land of groves of tulasi plants." "Vrinda" means the tulasi plant, a plant of auspiciousness. "Van" means grove or forest — so all together, "Vrindavan" means the land filled with tulasi groves, with the plant of auspiciousness.
Alex Chadwick: Are these trees or bushes or small plants?
NS: Small plants. The subtle magnetic influence and wonderful medicinal property of this tulasi plant is actually recognized by modern medical science, by Ayurveda and by ancient Indian sages. It simply spreads some natural auspiciousness and blessings in these surroundings. Actually, devotees believe that God is tulasi who from the transcendental plane made his appearance on this earth in the form of this holy plant.
AC: God is in the form of a plant?
NS: Yes, these are some theistic beliefs of the devotees. The dry and dusty we are seeing today is totally unlike the Vrindavan, beautiful Vrindavan found in the past. In the past, Vrindavan looked simply gorgeous, with its own natural beauty. This land was full of beautiful fragrant flowers, trees and birds.
AC: But when I walk around Vrindavan now, I see that there are still beautiful old buildings, but on the streets there is a lot of trash and the river doesn't look very clean.
NS: That is right, and we are sorry for it. An action committee made up of local residents and devotees is going to be formed soon to clean the Jumuna River and other parts. It is just waiting to be implemented. So, we are not pessimists, we are optimists about again making this whole holy land of Vrindavan very clean and beautiful.
AC: For an outsider, new to your faith, there seem to be so many Gods who are worshipped. Where is Krishna in this?
NS: Krishna is considered to be the supreme personality of Godhead, the embodiments of eternal truth, beauty and bliss. Other Demigods are the great devotees of that supreme and beautiful Lord Krishna. In other words they are just like incarnations of the supreme absolute beautiful one, Krishna. I should mention the counterpart of Krishna, our Supreme Goddess Srimati Radharani. In short, Radha. She is also considered to be the embodiment or personification of all spiritual bliss and fulfillment. The local residents are so devoted and loving towards Radha, their divine Goddess, Goddess of heart. You may have noticed that when people address each other, they address by saying, "Radhe, Radhe." It's a way of spiritual address to each other. Radhe.
AC: There are many faiths and beliefs around the world, but I haven't talked to believers in any place where people talk so much about bliss and happiness. Why is that?
NS: Because, naturally, everyone is looking for bliss and happiness in life, and the people from all around the world are coming here is search of that divine bliss and happiness. This holy land of Braj, specifically this spiritual center of Vrindavan, gives them something, inspires them to feel happy and to derive some spiritual happiness. As people come here, they come with different kinds of intentions. Some of them come here for healing their emotional or physical illness, some of them want wealth or material prosperity, but some of them also want just exclusively spiritual development, the spiritual bliss of life. The atmosphere of this holy land is such that it is filled with an inner spiritual consciousness full of devotional love of Radha and Krishna. People can feel it, they feel blessed and happy. They believe they have come to the holy land — land of the Divine Couple, which embodies bliss and beauty — so they feel sheltered.
AC: Is this heaven?
NS: By its inner nature it is considered heaven. But as soon as we can bring back its past beauty all over this land then it will be heaven, in and out. I would like to mention another point in relation to how people feel "blissier." There are many sadhus you can find all around: Indian saints or sages who engage in holy practices here. Through that holy practice they can attain a certain kind of peace and blissfulness at heart. What cannot be realized in an external, normal way needs to be engaged through a certain process to feel that higher spiritual happiness or bliss.
AC: You need to engage through the teachers and the saints in order to feel the bliss?
NS: Yes, yes.
AC: Are you a teacher?
NS: Yes, kind of.
AC: This is the anniversary of the death of your Guru, your teacher. Do you think of him as dead?
NS: No. Even though it externally looks like his death, as we view our Guru with a spiritual view we consider he disappeared instead of being dead, meaning that he can maintain his spiritual existence and identity so strongly that simply departing from this material body doesn't matter to him. He has already achieved some goal of success, in such a way that just after leaving this body he gets sent to another divine body, divine spiritual identity.
AC: Will he come back in human form?
NS: He may, or even some form more than human, higher than human, like Demigodly form, or the eternal form of devotee on the spiritual plane. So, therefore we don't call it death, his death. He is alive in another form.
AC: Do you mourn his passing?
NS: No. Sometimes we feel the pain of separation because of the fact we cannot have the sensual experience. When he was present on this plane we could directly see and hear his voice. We could feel his touch, but because we don't have it, we have some feelings of separation — but not mourning, because mourning is the opposite mood to spirituality. We rather express joy. We rather sometimes feel joy, knowing that he went to the spiritual world, and in the spiritual sky reunited with the Divine Couple, participating in their eternal pastimes. Therefore we celebrate, that's our mood.
AC: What happens when you rejoin the Godhead?
NS: According to Krishna tradition, as soon as a devotee rejoins Godhead, he simply gets into the infinite experience, and ecstasy of love service to God, true devotional service. In other words, he gets entrance into the eternal blissful pastimes of the Divine Couple Radha Krishna, and for eternity continues that life, the greatest life.
AC: I have been wanting to ask you just about the cycle of life.
AC: Afterlife, but after life is life, yes?
NS: Yes, definitely. According to Vedic knowledge, and spiritual common sense, the theistic people understand there must be a life after the present one.
AC: Now why is that?
NS: It follows a system of cause and effect. It is understood that nothing in this universe happens by chance. Rather everything in this universe takes place following a system. According to that system, we were before, we are now, and we shall be remaining in the future. It's like a cyclic system, as many things in this world follow a cycle. Even modern science also understands it. We see everyday, sun rises, it sets, again rises, the clock is going on its own way. We also have our body clock. So, the whole nature of the universe is organized in such a way; it always follows a certain system, whether or not we understand. Even an accident also has a system behind it, but because the cause of the accident remains not understandable to us, we think it's an accident. But, as we really detect the reason behind the accident we see there is a reason; something went on wrong, therefore this accident happened. I am making this point to show the fact that all life also follows a "chain of life" sysem called, philosophically, "lifeline." Some spiritualists say that our present life is just one of the dots in the eternal lifeline.
AC: What will happen to someone on this earth after they die?
NS: Krishna tells us that we are basically spirit soul, we are not body. Therefore, we actually never die. An individual spirit soul never dies, because spirit-soul is eternal, imperishable; it remains even after we leave this body. So after leaving this present body we simply get into another body, guided by the past karma, the fruits of the past activity.
AC: That decides what kind of a body…?
NS: That's right, that's right. How that happens, we cannot say. Nobody can really predict anything about what sort of next life a spirit soul is going to adopt, except for God, or realized souls.
AC: What do you think is going to happen to you when you die in this body?
NS: I have some hopes, big, great hopes in my life, that I'll also be entering into the eternal pastimes of the Divine Couple Radha and Krishna, thereby engaged in their supremely ecstatic and devotional service. Now, I do not really know what will actually happen to my life after I leave this body, or where I will be taken, I simply leave it to the sweet will of the Divine Couple, and the arrangement of my guardians, pure devotees of the Lord.
AC: So you are hoping to rejoin the Godhead…
NS: Certainly. That's my ambition, my high spiritual ambition. We the spiritualists are actually highly ambitious in life.
AC: Spiritualists are ambitious?
NS: Yes, in a different sense, in a spiritual sense, not in a material sense. Because, we want to maintain the highest truth, the highest wealth, the highest treasure of life. And that is the attainment of the supreme beautiful God, the Divine Couple, He-God and She-God.
AC: This is what you think about every day?
NS: Yes, it is interwoven in my life.
AC: And for a good follower of Krishna, you live your life for the next life?
NS: That's all we want, life after life, birth after birth.
AC: Are you saying that the next life is more important than this life in your philosophy?
NS: We don't necessarily say that the next life is more important than the present life. Rather we say that whatever life you are in, utilize it for the best, for the best cause, for the best gain. And that is the attainment of the supreme, beautiful, eternal blissful truth of life. All fulfillment will come. So, naturally, that is the aim and objective in all of our lives for the present life, our next life, our life after next, all through the life chains. You know, in the spiritual life, everyone has full freedom. Everything here is accepted and embraced with free will, because everything is done with love, with spontaneous attraction of heart. There is no force, but once someone gets into spiritual life, one has to follow some discipline, a system.
AC: A system of freedom is also a system of great responsibility, because the individual is going to be weighed, yes?
AC: He is going to live by karma?
NS: True. So therefore, one has to take up the responsibility to utilize our freedom to the best, never to misuse it. God has given us intelligence to discriminate what is good, what is bad for us. If a person makes a mistake in innocence, he is generally forgiven by the superpower, law of nature. Much concessions is given.
AC: Concessions. I would need a lot of concessions, I make a lot of mistakes.
NS: Not just you, we all need that. Lord Krishna gave some very valuable instructions: one who really wants to do good for his own life can never be deprived, can never be deceived, can never be unsuccessful. He must achieve that success. If we are true to our own selves, true to our own conscience, and truly want to do good to our own selves, we must achieve that goal of the highest good, of the highest goal of life. That effort can never be null and void. We must achieve that goal, whether today, or tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, but we must do it. It is not just a belief, it is truth. It is truth.
AC: And if not tomorrow, or the next day, then in the next life.
NS: Yes. I'm, saying that in a poetic sense, in a figurative way, whether today or tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, meaning this life or the next life, or the life after the next life, but that sort of sincere effort can never be null and void.
AC: When you are reborn in the next life, do you start all over again?
NS: It depends. Some part of the next life is new, and the other part, which the next life inherits from the previous life, is not new. Follow the system of cause and effect; something is new, newly created, and that newly created effect goes to become the cause of the future effect. Today's child is tomorrow's father. The system goes on in such a way. Today's baby is tomorrow's father or mother. Spirit soul is immortal, just as power. We can easily understand with the example of power. Power, for example electricity, is immortal, how do you say, indestructible. Here on this plane we see the transformations of the same power, as heat, light, sound, etc. Similarly, spirit-soul also changes the body from one to another, but the real identity of a living being is inside the body, not the body. Inside the body, some energy is heading the whole bodily system. That energy is called a spirit soul, or consciousness. Each individual has a spirit soul. Actually, an individual being is called a spirit-soul, particular unit of the power, power of life, never destroyed. It is like changing dress, as spoken in Bhagavad-Gita, like changing dress, the spirit soul simply changes from one body to another body, transformed from one lifestyle, into another lifestyle. So since our basic life force is never destroyed, it stays after the death of body. Our spirit soul is immortal. After life there exists different kinds of lives — human, pre-Demigods, Demigods on one hand, and on the other hand water and land creatures like beasts, birds, insects, worms, etc. A person or an individual spirit soul takes a birth as a specific living being in accordance with the law of karma or his past activities, guided by the results of past activity he just gets posting into a specific kind of life, as he deserves.
AC: So, one might become a bird, a beast, a worm?
NS: Can become, according to past activities, if one deserves so. Sometimes some predictions about one's next life can also be made based on his Vedic astrological chart and present life's activity. Yet it is impossible in general to make a complete prediction, because that can only be made by the supreme God, the omniscient reality, and His realized devotees. By engaging in spiritual practices or devotional practices, one can also directly get liberation from bondage to get a blessed entrance into the abode of Radha Krishna which is called "supreme heaven."
AC: What is your interpretation of the word ‘heaven." People say that Vrindavan is heaven.
NS: Basically, heaven means transcendental abode of all spiritual bliss activities. In other words, heaven is that highest ideal plane, the spiritual plane of life where we receive all fulfillment — a relationship with the Supreme Being who we call supreme Lord.
AC: Vrindavan is not that.
NS: Vrindavan is the earthly manifestation of that; the Vrindavan we see here is the kind of earthly manifestation. But it is not the full manifestation, the full conception of heaven. Heaven is the plane of all the fulfillment of life, all ecstatic fulfillment of life.
AC: So Nandan, you have for us a description of heaven, please.
NS: Heaven is where every word is a song, every step of walking is a dance, the air is filled with the fragrance of flowers, the river is always flowing with nectarine water. Every glance of everyone expresses love and affection to each other. The land is made of fertile soil as well as gems, and full of joyful singing of birds and sportive activity of other natural animals, where everyone shares their ecstatic life in relation to the divine God and Goddess, Krishna and Radhika. That is known as the supreme heaven. In other words, Goloko Vrindavan, the abode of Radha and Krishna.