This little-known holy place played a major role in the inauguration of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s sankirtana movement.
During the month of Karttika, which falls across October and November in the lunar calendar, devotees of Lord Krishna are advised to increase their concentration on His worship by dedicating their daily devotional hearing and chanting to Srimati Radharani, His eternal consort. This advisory for Karttika is best carried out in a secluded place, if possible. But anyone can apply this principle anywhere by chanting the Hare Krishna mantra, which addresses both Radha and Krishna: “O energy of the Lord (Radha), O Lord (Krishna), please engage me in your service.”
Many years ago, during Karttika I briefly visited Kanai Natashala, in West Bengal, with a group of devotees and fell in love with its seclusion. It is surrounded by a dense jungle called the Jharikhanda Forest. Five hundred years ago, the forest animals here miraculously chanted Krishna’s names together under the influence of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. He is Krishna Himself in the role of His greatest devotee, Radharani. The jungle is still an untouched wilderness of ornamental trees (the tamal and ashvattha), fruit- and flower-bearing trees (the chico, mango, golden champak, kadamba, and malati), and trees with medicinal properties. Kanai Natashala lies atop a tall rock formation and overlooks the majestic Ganges. Wildlife abounds. The Ganges is inhabited by dolphins, and the jungle by jaguars and snakes.
In late 2005, I returned to Kanai Natashala with an assistant and stayed there for Karttika. After a six-hour Jeep ride from ISKCON’s world headquarters in Mayapur, where we crossed the Ganges twice (once by bridge, once by ferry), we arrived and at once felt fascinated by the calm atmosphere. Kanai Natashala now has a new ISKCON temple, and behind it, on the bank of the Ganges, a wonderful guesthouse. The devotees have a bathing place on the river, and the villagers also come there to bathe. The bank is beautiful, with steep rocks and crocodile caves; however, there is nothing to worry about, since the crocodiles do not live there anymore. Now one can peacefully chant inside the caves.
What makes Kanai Natashala significant is its connection with Sri Radha-Krishna and Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. According to local tradition, it is considered to be gupta Vrindavana—a hidden replica of Krishna’s holy land. When Radharani wants to be alone with Krishna to relish His sweetness and intimacy, She comes here. And it is the seedling place of sankirtana, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s ecstatic movement for the congregational chanting of the holy names of God: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
Sri Chaitanya’s Ecstasy
Sri Chaitanya went to Gaya and received initiation into the Gopala mantra, which is chanted to worship Krishna. Then He wanted to visit Vrindavana (ninety miles south of present-day Delhi) to search for Radha-Krishna. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura writes in Sri Brahma-samhita that one aspect of chanting the Gopala mantra is that it makes “the pure soul run after the all-attractive Sri Krishna, the Lord of Gokula [the land of cows] and the divine milkmaids.” How this blessing took effect on Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is described in Sri Chaitanya-bhagavata (Adi-khanda 17.115–137):
One day He sat down in a solitary place and meditated on His ten-syllable mantra. He directly saw the Lord of His heart. After some time, He regained external consciousness, shed tears, and called for Krishna: “O my dear Krishna! O Hari, my life and soul! Where did you go after stealing My heart? I saw you, my Lord, but now where have you gone?”
The Lord then cried and recited beautiful verses about Krishna, absorbed in sentiments of ecstatic love. His body became covered with dust because He rolled on the ground, loudly calling in distress, “Where did you go, leaving Me behind, My dear Krishna?” He became greatly agitated in ecstatic love of God and floated in the ocean of devotional feelings of separation from Krishna. His students pacified Him with great care.
Sri Chaitanya then said to them, “You go back to Navadvipa; I will not return to My material life there. I must go to Vrindavana, where I will see the Lord of My life, Sri Krishna.”
The students tried to keep Him peaceful, but He was absorbed in devotion, and His heart was agitated. Early one morning, without informing anyone, in ecstatic love Chaitanya Mahaprabhu departed for Vrindavana. As He walked, He called out, “O Krishna! Where can I find you?”
After travelling awhile, the Lord heard a voice from the sky—a representative of the demigods—saying, “O crest-jewel of the twice-born, do not go to Vrindavana now. You will certainly go when the appropriate time comes. Now just return to Your house in Navadvipa. You are the Lord of the spiritual world and have appeared with Your associates to deliver the people of the world. Please start Your movement of congregational chanting. When You distribute the wealth of ecstatic love of God, Your chanting will inundate innumerable universes. We are Your servants, and thus we offer this reminder at Your lotus feet.”
Subduing His immediate desire to visit Vrindavana, Sri Chaitanya continued the return journey to Navadvipa. In a poem, the devotee and scholar Srila Vishvanatha Cakravarti Thakura describes Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s return from Gaya: “I saw the most extraordinary person on the road from Gaya. His form was very handsome, and He roared just like the thundercloud. His eyes rained tears, and He rolled about on the ground, His voice chocked up in the ecstasy of love of God. All glories to that Lord!” (Sri Sacinandana Vijayashtakam 1)
On the way home, Sri Chaitanya made a detour. Alone, He went to Kanai Natashala by crossing the Ganges. It was this encounter with the hidden Vrindavana that shaped Him and impelled Him to start His sankirtana movement. Before visiting Kanai Natashala, He had played the role of an invincible scholar; after being in Kanai Natashala, He adopted the role of a devotee with an extraordinary devotion never before seen. Returning home, Sri Chaitanya started the sankirtana movement in the mood of searching for Krishna. He described His experience in Kanai Natashala to His friends in these words (Sri Chaitanya-bhagavata, Madhya-khanda 2.180–195):
“There I saw a young, beautiful boy, with a glowing, dark complexion, blackish like the bark of a tamal tree. His enchanting curly hair was decorated with wild flowers, a fresh garland of gunja berries, and a colorful peacock feather. His jewellery and gems were so bright that I could not see Him properly. Thus it is impossible for Me to describe the beauty of the delicately ornamented flute in His hand. His soft lotus feet were adorned with attractive ankle bells. His strong, graceful arms defeated the strength and beauty of blue pillars. How will I describe the wonder of His golden-yellow silk dhoti, His dangling fish-shaped earrings, and His lazy lotus-petal eyes? He sweetly smiled as He approached Me, and after embracing Me, He suddenly ran away.”
Sri Chaitanya then fainted. The devotees hastily picked Him up and chanted, “Krishna! Krishna!” They pacified Him to some extent, but He could not remain calm. He continuously cried, “Where is Krishna? Where is Krishna?”
The devotees suggested to Chaitanya Mahaprabhu that He lead them in kirtana, and this is what He did. He started the sankirtana movement, which gave expression to His motto: “Where is Krishna? Where is Krishna?” In Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita (Antya-lila 17.60–61), this mood of Sri Chaitanya is revealed: “Alas! Where is Krishna, the treasure of My life? Where is the lotus-eyed one? Alas! Where is the divine ocean of all transcendental qualities? Alas! Where is the beautiful blackish youth dressed in yellow garments? Alas! Where is the hero of the rasa dance with the milkmaids? Where shall I go? Where can I find You? Please tell me. I shall go there.”
Our Purpose Fulfilled
We stayed in this holy place to dedicate our attention to chanting. We would chant, remembering Srila Prabhupada’s instructions:
Those under the shelter of the lotus feet of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu can understand that His mode of worship of the Supreme Lord Krishna in separation is the real worship of the Lord. When the feelings of separation become very intense, one attains the stage of meeting Sri Krishna. So-called devotees cheaply imagine they are meeting Krishna in Vrindavana. Such thinking may be useful, but actually meeting Krishna is possible through the attitude of separation taught by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Adi-lila 4.108, Purport)
This feeling is required to meet Krishna. When we feel separation in this world, we become sad and troubled because we cannot fulfill our own desires for satisfaction. But feeling separation from Krishna is different. It awakens in those who have a desire to please Krishna. When one feels separation from Krishna, something wonderful happens. Externally, the Lord may not be present, but through those strong feelings, He becomes present in the heart. It is something that needs to be experienced to be understood.
Ferries and Boats
While staying in the jungle, we occasionally received Mr. Santosh Singh, a businessman who owns ferries that run up and down the Ganges. He is known for letting all the devotees ride his ferries for free. When I asked him about his motive, he explained to me, “I want the devotees to give me free passage over the ocean of repeated birth and death when it is my time to go.”
This reminded me of the boatman in Lord Rama’s pastimes. When Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana came to the river that separated their kingdom from a jungle, a boatman took them across.
On the other bank, the Lord’s exile started, so Rama told Sita, “Give the boatman your pearl necklace.”
The boatman declined Sita’s offer by saying, “In this part of the country, boatmen have an agreement: they ferry one another for free. So I cannot accept your payment.”
Rama was surprised. Since when had he become a boatman?
The man explained: “My Lord, I am a small boatman; I ferry people from one side of the river to the other. But You are a big boatman, for You ferry the conditioned souls across the ocean of birth and death. When I stand before that ocean, please do not ask me for any qualification. I am not able to give any suitable payment. Please also ferry me across for free.”
The great devotee Srila Locana Dasa Thakura has described that Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu also has a ferry:
O brothers and sisters! Who wants to cross beyond the ocean of material existence? My beloved Sri Chaitanya’s ferry is taking everyone across the material ocean, free of charge. The spiritual master is the helmsman on the boat of the holy name. With His arms upraised, He induces everyone to chant. With the help of the wind of divine love, all living entities easily cross the material ocean.
Kanai Natashala is a special place to visit to imbibe the mood of Sri Chaitanya’s devotion. Just by visiting, one feels relieved from the dreadful influences of the present materialistic age. And if one can enter the boat of the holy names there, one soon will feel the transcendental ecstasy made so freely available by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s mercy.
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