Sri Nathji: The Transcendental Cowherd Boy Goes West
Sri Nathji gazes down at the thousands of pilgrims who have decided to use their July 4th long weekend to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of his installation in New Vrindaban, West Virginia. His mischievous smile captures their hearts instantly, and as they look up at him, with his left hand raised and holding a flower symbolizing Govardhana Hill, they wonder at how “The Master of All Creation” can look just like a charming young cowherd boy.
That’s not the only unique thing about Nathji. He wears a nose ring in his right nostril, and a braid hangs on the left side of his body, both signifying the ornaments of his eternal consort, Radharani. Beside him is a small silver waterpot covered with a sari cloth, representing his mother, Yasoda. He’s also equipped with two sticks to tend the cows, a flute, a jar of laddu sweets, and, because he’s in the form of a child, many varieties of silver, jeweled, and wooden toys to play with.
Just like the original Nathji deity in Nathadwara, Rajasthan, New Vrindaban’s Sri Nathji sports a real diamond stud in the center of his chin. And unlike the original deity, whose back is attached to a stone relief, New Vrindaban’s Nathji appears sans-relief, making him easier to dress and decorate.
It’s early morning, and Nathji is dressed in resplendent clothes crafted entirely from flowers by visiting second generation devotees. Later on, at 4pm, he’ll be bathed with saffron water, juices, and five kinds of nectar. At 7pm, he’ll be offered Chappan Bhog, fifty-six delicious dishes cooked by devotees from New York and New Jersey.
The devotees drink in the beauty of Sri Nathji as they celebrate the festival joyously. Among them is Vedavyasa-priya Swami, Nathji’s priest, who brought the deity here and installed him back on July 4th, 1983 with the help of Atmarama Dasa and his wife Revati Dasi. They haven’t been able to attend today, but their daughter Visnu-Carana is representing them enthusiastically.
As Vedavyasa-priya Swami looks at Sri Nathji, he recalls how the deity, a well-known treasure of the Vallabha-sampradaya, came to be worshipped at ISKCON New Vrindaban.
But to get there, of course, you have to first go back 500 years ago, to the original holy land of Vrindavana, India.
Gaudiya and Vallabha History
Madhavendra Puri, a great devotee in the Gaudiya line and grand spiritual master of Caitanya Mahaprabhu, had just paid his respects to the sacred hill Govardhana by circumambulating it. Drifting off after the long walk, he dreamt that a young cowherd boy called Gopala took him by the hand and led him to a bush in the jungle at the foot of Govardhana. "When the Muslims attacked my temple, the priest who was serving me hid me in this bush,” he said. “Then he ran away out of fear of the attack. Since then, I have been staying here and suffering very much from severe cold, rain showers, winds and scorching heat. Please bring the people of the village and get them to take me out of this bush. Then construct a temple on top of the hill, and install me in it.”
Madhavendra Puri awoke with a start. The boy had been none other than Lord Krishna Himself! He rushed to the nearby village of Aniyor, yelling, “There is a deity hidden on Govardhana hill! You must come help me rescue him!”
When the villagers hacked through the jungle and discovered a beautiful deity of Gopal covered with dirt and grass, they were struck with wonder. Several of the stronger men carried the heavy deity to the top of the hill. There they placed him on a large stone for a throne, with another stone behind him for support. Later, a temple was built, and Madhavendra Puri installed Gopal in it, engaging Bengali Vaishnavas in his service for the next sixteen years.
Gopal later became known as Nathji, and shortly after Madhavendra Puri’s disappearance, his worship was taken over by the Vallabha Sampradaya.
In modern times, there has been some controversy over ISKCON and other Gaudiya Vaishnavas worshipping a deity from the Vallabha Sampradaya, which is known for its differences to us both in philosophy and sentiment. Yet it is obvious from this story, taken from the Caitanya Caritamrita, that Nathji was originally a Gaudiya Vaishnava deity. Later acaryas in our line, including Rupa Goswami and Bhaktivinode Thakur, confirmed this by encouraging worship of Sri Nathji in their respective works. And in a letter dated October 11, 1974, inviting Sri Nathji worshippers to the opening of ISKCON’s Krishna Balarama Mandir, Srila Prabhupada also asserts that Nathji is a Gaudiya Vaishnava deity.
Of course, Krishna gives of himself equally to all his devotees, and members of the Vallabha-Sampradaya, having taken care of Nathji in an exemplary way for hundreds of years, are obviously just as entitled to his service. In fact, according to the Bhakti-ratnakara, Raghunatha Dasa Goswami saw the love the Vallabhites had for Nathji and personally passed his service on to Vallabhacharya’s son Vitthalanatha Goswami. It seems that our past acaryas had much closer association with acaryas of the Vallabha Sampradaya – according to the Caitanya Caritamrita, Madhya Lila 18.47, several of them even stayed at Vitthalanatha Goswami’s home near Mathura, and saw Sri Nathji there.
In 1672, many deities of Vrindavana were moved due to Muslim threats. Following suite, Vitthalantha Goswami’s great grandson, Damodaraji, moved Nathji from Govardhan to Rajasthan, where the town of Nathdvara sprang up around him. And there he has been opulently worshipped ever since.
Of course, Nathji, or Gopal, wasn’t just popular in India. During medieval times, Gaudiya preachers founded Sri Nathji temples in Dera Ghazi Khan (present day Pakistan), other places on the Central Asian trade routes, and even as far away as Russia’s lower Volga region.
But it wasn’t until the 1980s that Sri Nathji, the Master of all Creation, was worshipped as far west as the United States of America.
Appearing in the West
It all began in 1978, when Gujarati Vaishnava life members at ISKCON New York’s 55th street temple, who had been exposed to the worship of Sri Nathji for generations, desired a deity to be established locally.
Enter Vedavyasa-priya Swami, himself originally from Gujarat. In 1974, three years after moving to New York, he had also been a life member, and had assisted ISKCON by raising $51,000 for the famous “Brainwashing” court case. No stranger to challenges, he decided to step up to this one. “I proposed that we should install Nathji to encourage our Gujarati congregation’s spiritual lives, and the GBC approved the plan,” he says. “So our carpenter Mahesvara Dasa carved a deity of Sri Nathji based on a traditional picture, with the help of a generous donation from life member Kirtikant Shah.”
Vedavyasa-priya kept the temporary deity on a small separate altar at 55th street, and worshipped Him every Sunday. It wasn’t long before many new visitors began appearing at the Sunday feast program, while the spiritual activity of long term members increased dramatically.
In 1980, the 55th street temple was sold in favor of a plan for five temples spread throughout New York and New Jersey. Vedavyasa-priya was directed to establish a temple in Queens, which was to be the first full-fledged Sri Nathji temple in the West. “I asked my long-time friends Atmarama Dasa and his wife Revati Dasi to help me,” Vedavyasa-priya Swami says. “It wasn’t easy. We worshipped the wooden Sri Nathji deity in a rented apartment while trying to get a permanent facility. And when we got one, it was small, dirty, and located in a crowded business area.”
But they had to go on with their plan. In 1981, Revati Dasi travelled to Jaipur to meet with Mr. Pande, who made the deities for all ISKCON’s centers. She ordered a permanent black marble Sri Nathaji deity, whom her father, Sri Ramacandra Desai, shipped by Air India to New York.
But in 1982, what seemed like a disaster struck the struggling team. A new GBC took over management of ISKCON New York, and, assessing the situation, decided to discontinue the Sri Nathji temple preoject. The brand new deity and his servants were homeless.
But Vedavyasa-priya, Atamarama and Revati were determined. They embarked on the trip of a lifetime, traveling through twenty-two states, covering over twenty-thousand miles, and meeting about eight hundred Indian families. “Our goal was to raise awareness of our project within the Indian community, so that Sri Nathji could finally be installed in a temple that befit him,” Vedavyasa-priya says. “It was a success. Many people began stepping forward to support us.”
The campaign became famous, and by the end of the year, it had caught the interest of leaders in ISKCON’s New Vrindaban community, who had also been aspiring to install Sri Nathji in their new temple. “We met with them, and I told them that I had really taken the mission of installing Sri Nathji in the Western hemisphere for the first time to heart,” says Vedavyasa-priya. “They agreed that there was a huge demand for this, and that it would provide us with a wonderful opportunity to preach to the Indian community.”
Sri Nathji arrived in New Vrindaban on January 21, 1983 and was installed the following July 4th weekend.
At first, the Vallabha Sampradaya opposed this deity worship in the west – it went against their orthodox tradition. But gradually, its acharyas began to regularly visit New Vrindaban’s Sri Nathji. “Through this, they became inspired to establish temples in the USA to worship Sri Nathji in their own specific tradition,” Vedavyasa-priya says. “These new temples were, and still are, supported by many of ISKCON’s original life members. Many members also continue to support New Vrindaban to this day.”
It only took a few years for other ISKCON centers to follow in New Vrindaban’s footseteps and establish Sri Nathji worship. First came Mumbai and Gangpur in 1991, then Detroit’s Fisher Mansion in 1993, Ahmedabad in 1997, Phoenix, Arizona in 2000, and Surat in 2001. And Mahesvara’s original wooden Sri Nathji continues to be worshipped once a week in Towaco, New Jersey.
Bringing Sri Nathji to New Vrindaban and installing him had been an ordeal that spanned three years. Just as devotees 500 years ago had faced trials and tribulations while moving Sri Nathji during the Muslim attacks, Vedavyasa-priya, Atamarama and Revati struggled in their endeavors to worship him in the west. And just as the original deity of Sri Nathji found shelter in the hills of Rajasthan, their Nathji had found shelter in the hills of New Vrindaban.
“To this day, the Vallabha sampradaya leaders still fear that Sri Nathji will desire to leave Rajasthan for good and go back to Govardhana,” says Vedavyasa-priya Swami. “But, since New Vrindaban is non-different from Vrindavana, India, our Sri Nathji is already in his eternal home.”
He smiles, contented. “Thus we have no anxieties.”
See pictures of Nathji's 25th anniversary in New Vrindaban here.