STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
Today, we're starting a new series of National Geographic Radio Expeditions. In the coming months, the radio expeditions will explore the geography of heaven. By that, we mean ideas about the afterlife, beliefs shared by hundreds of millions, even billions of people around the world. Their faiths may be different. Their ideas about the human souls and what happens to it may be different. Yet they share a belief that something is coming after death. And that belief guides and inspires much of what they do. Alex Chadwick, host of NPR's "Day to Day," begins exploring the geography of heaven in a town called Vrindavan in India. For Hindu followers of Krishna, this is heaven.
ALEX CHADWICK reporting:
Directions to heaven: from Delhi, drive south several hot dusty hours, the way crowded with huge speeding double trailer trucks and then ambling ancient wooden ox carts and then turn east a few miles past open fields on a narrow two-lane road to where the trees on either side bend toward each other to make a kind of an archway and you're there, Vrindavan--heaven.
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CHADWICK: Leave the car. Newcomers should walk or take petting cabs, bicycle rickshaws with musical bells.
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CHADWICK: These are some of my talking notes.
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CHADWICK: The street that we're going down, it's paved. It looks like it was paved a long time ago. It's pretty narrow. You certainly couldn't get two cars down it, though one can kind of squeeze through.
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CHADWICK: There are open sewers along in front of the storefronts and just a little bit cut below the street level like gutters. All along here, there are people walking. There are these motor scooters going by. There are cows wandering. Bells. Worshipers. It's chaotic but it's just completely full of life.
This Vrindavan is a place for believers. What they believe is that among Hindu deities, Krishna is the true expression of God because they also believe he assumed human form here thousands of years ago. This old town and the miles of low hill countryside around are sacred. This is heaven, not a metaphor for heaven or a way to heaven. This is it.
CHADWICK: That's the goswami or teacher Nandan with his beatific tolerance for a non-believer's questions.
NANDAN: The Vrindavan we see here is kind of relative, oddly manifesting of heaven. Heaven is the plain of all the fulfillment of life, all esthetic fulfillment of life.
CHADWICK: More coming from Nandan but I want to show you Vrindavan and you may be unsettled that at first this heaven looks so much like a Third World animal refuge struggling just to enter the 20th century. There's that snarl of sketchy power lines overhead and the pigs and the cows and the monkeys wandering the trash strewn streets and the overgrown lots. But past that market area and beyond the shops are graceful old temples of pale red sandstone, the lines of their handsome carved facades soften with age. Some have been tended by the same families for centuries like that of another goswami, a man named Hadman(ph).
HADMAN: Generally we have 5,000 temples in all. In every house, you will find a temple. In every house, you will find a deity of Radha and Krishna in any house.
CHADWICK: It's confusing because there aren't 5,000 temples that you would recognize, more like several hundred. The rest are places people live with altars in them, too. And he mentioned Radha. She was Krishna's consort in Vrindavan. She is also central to the believers and there are a lot of them.
How many visitors come to Vrindavan every year?
HADMAN: I think there are 10 million.
CHADWICK: Ten million?
HADMAN: Yes. On the last birthday of Krishna, in Vrindavan, there was one million people.
CHADWICK: I'm skeptical of that figure but there is no doubting the devotion of the many, many pilgrims I do see from all over India and the world.
Mr. RANCHOR PRIM: I always think that for a Hindu, Hinduism has been taken so much for granted as the traditional way of life of the people of India.
CHADWICK: That is Ranchor Prim, a Krishna devotee from London, and a writer and scholar of ancient Hindu text called Betas(ph).
Mr. PRIM: The Hindu tradition essentially comes out of the Beta literatures and all the stories which are passed down by word of mouth and central to all their stories is the story of Krishna.
CHADWICK: The story says that Krishna assumed human form for a single lifetime to confront an evil tyrant who ruled nearby. He spent his youth in the forests and hills and played with the cow herd boys and girls, the gopies(ph), along the banks of the Yamuna River. He fell in love with a gopy Radha and in Vrindavan, Krishna, God, discovered human bliss and then wanted others to know.
Mr. PRIM: The Krishna tradition perhaps is unique in the sense that it has really developed that concept that God, as well as being the embodiment of all power and force and energy, God is also your intimate friend. And that's really the starting off point for the Krishna tradition, how to make friends with God.
CHADWICK: And how does the Krishna tradition do that?
Mr. PRIM: If we go back to absolute basics, the Bagava Geto(ph), which is the essential teaching of Hinduism, Krishna has said that, a unforgettable promise really which he made, that, `If you surrender yourself to me in devotion, I will protect you, I will be your friend and you need have no fear.'
CHADWICK: Decades ago, Ranchor was studying the Christian God, preparing to become an Anglican priest when he encounter Krishna devotees and within days found himself spiritually converted.
Mr. PRIM: What makes Vrindavan a special place is that if you wish to learn how to be a friend of Krishna, come to Vrindavan. That image of friendship with God has been delved into deeply in Vrindavan for thousands of years.
CHADWICK: We'll delve into Vrindavan a little more deeply tomorrow through an encounter with pilgrims at the site of a spectacular ancient temple, but I want to return to the spiritual teacher Nandan for a last word. In a garden setting on my final day in Vrindavan, I explained our radio audience wouldn't really be able to experience this place and I asked him to say just what this heaven he talks about is like.
NANDAN: There where every word is a song, every step of walking is a dance, the air filled with fragrance of flowers, river is always flowing with nectarine water, every glance of everyone expresses love and affection to each other. The land is full of joyful singings of birds where everyone serves their life. That is known as a supreme heaven in Vrindavan, the abode of Radha and Krishna.
CHADWICK: For radio expeditions, this is Alex Chadwick, NPR News.
INSKEEP: Radio expeditions is a co-production of NPR and the National Geographic Society. The November issue of the magazine has a story by Alex about Vrindavan. If you'd like to find photos and sounds of the city, go to npr.org.
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