In 1970 the Vrajavasi-Nandagrama villagers donated a large plot of land right next to the great saint Sanatana Goswami's Bhajan-kutir (place of worship) on the bank of Pavan-sarovar lake. Also attached to this great bhajan-kutir is the holy samadhi of Paramahansa Akincana Krsnadas Babaji Maharaj, who is the best friend of Srila Vana Maharaj. Babaji Maharaj always lived with Srila Vana Maharaj and in the end he chose to leave his old body here at Sanatana's bhajan kutir. Even now this sacred and VERY austere bhajan kutir is maintained by Tridandi Swami B.H. Vana Maharaj and his disciples.
This land was given to Srila Vana Maharaj on the condition that he build a primary school there. So, by the arrangement of Lord Sri Krsna, I was handed the task. First we drew up the plans and made a list of items that needed to be collected by donation: cement, bricks, iron girders, stone slabs, tools, and trucks to deliver it all to Nandagrama, plus cash to pay for labor, fixtures, and furnishings. Tridandi Swami B.S. Ashram Maharaj (Srila Vana Maharaj's intimate Godbrother) had been an architect in his house-holder life so he very expertly designed and calculated everything.
I was then sent into the field with instructions to first pay a visit to a man in Bihar state known as "The king of coal mines." One of the wealthiest men in India, this powerful magnate owned over one hundred coal mines and lived in a town in Bihar called Dhanbad. One brahmacari (Gopesa Prabhu) accompanied me as cook and assistant. We had no money so we road on the top of the bus to reach Mathura, where we had to beg for a little money to travel further.
We begged enough money to take a train from Mathura to a small town about halfway to Dhunbad. There we got off and found the local dharma-shala, a kind of dormitory set up as charity by wealthy individuals for wandering monks and mendicants. So we rested there for the night, and the next day we went around town and begged enough food and money to get us all the way to Bihar.
We disembarked at Dhunbad and went directly to the coal magnate's house.It was a huge villa enclosed by a high wall and protected by armed guards. I identified myself to the gatekeeper and requested a meeting with the big boss. The guard replied with a big belly laugh, then waved his cudgel at us and sternly warned us to go away and keep clear of the mansion.
So, we went into town and called upon the coal magnate's private secretary at his huge office. I introduced myself in Hindi, explained the mission, and some how impressed the secretary. Word quickly went up that a bare foot American monk in traditional Hindu robes wished permission for an audience with the boss to discuss an important charitable project near the sacred village of Vrndavana. Soon the magnate's eldest son agreed to meet us, and he was so happy that he invited us to stay as his personal guests in the family mansion.
So back we went to the house as honored guests --- right past the guard who'd threatened us earlier --- and met the whole family. They gave us comfortable rooms, assigned us servants, and fed us the best tasting vegetarian food I'd ever eaten.
The "King of coal mines" was, as are most wealthy Indians, a devout Hindu. After listening carefully and with growing interest to our presentation, he agreed to donate 200,000 rupees to the project -- 100,000 up front and another 100,000 after construction was already in progress (Note: In those days the US$ was about 7 Rs.). Without a moment's delay, he called for his checkbook and wrote a check for 100,000 rupees, which he handed over to me. He also instructed his son to buy train tickets back to Mathura for both of us.
We arrived in Vrndavana and presented the check, then we took another train to Delhi (riding for free on the roof) and begin collecting the bricks, iron, cement, and other materials we required to start building the school.
In Delhi we took a personal letter of introduction from Srila Vana Maharaj to Hansraj Gupta, who was the Mayor of Delhi as well as a big shot in the iron industry there. This time we had no trouble getting past the mayor's protective phalanx of guards and secretaries, and we were warmly received by him. Mayor Gupta enthusiastically endorsed the Nandagrama school project and arranged for me to speak about it in Hindi before the Rotary Club, Lions club, and other civic organizations in Delhi. He also wrote a personal letter of introduction on official stationary and gave us a list of people to approach for contributions in the city's sprawling iron works district. In order to encourage his fellow iron bosses to follow his own example, Gupta made a personal pledge in his letter of introduction to contribute six iron girders to the project.
Delhi's iron district is a cacophonous, gritty, pot-holed, open-holed, open-guttered patch of parched wasteland, crowded cheek to jowl with rusty tin shacks, bullock carts, screeching coolies, and a few fat rich men who sit like kings on their thrones in ramshackle offices. Mayor Gupta's letter, and his pledge to contribute six girders, paved a path through the muck and mire of this district and led me straight to the iron kings' desks. These otherwise hard-nosed, tight-fisted magnates matched the mayor's donation girder for girder. As we went door to door showing the next boss what the last one had pledged, donations snowballed until we had solicited all the iron girders required to construct the school.
But not everything was peaches and cream as we made our rounds. We got more insults than we did girders. Some of these guys would sit with their feet up on their desks, teeth all red from chewing betel, toss us a ten-paise coin and tell us to get out. Others accused me of being a CIA agent and threatened to call the police. Muslims spat on me because I was both Hindu and white, and Hindus asked me what the hell I thought I was doing wearing Hindu monks robes and told me to go home. But we persisted anyway, by Krsna's grace.
Meanwhile, my health continued to deteriorate rapidly. What had earlier been diagnosed as chronic dysentery had now become a severe case of colitis. my digestive functions slowed to a trickle, and I could eat nothing but the blandest foods without suffering severe discomfort. Sometimes the cramps in my gut got so bad that all I could do was roll around on the floor howling with pain.
Next we had to figure out a way to haul all the iron girders from Delhi over to Nandagrama, so we paid a visit to the trucking companies that serviced Delhi's iron industry. These were mostly owned by Sikhs, a jovial, open-hearted sect of former Hindus who had once been India's warrior caste. We had no trouble dealing with them, and soon we obtained pledges to provide ten trucks to transport the girders to Nandagrama. In order to pay for the labor required to load the iron onto the trucks, I solicited the necessary funds by giving a another Hindi speech before the Lions club in Delhi.
After all the iron girders had been safely delivered to Nandagrama, Gopesh Prabhu and I turned our attention to the next stage of this campaign -- collecting stone slabs (for roofing). We decided that the place to go for these was Jaipur, the "Pink City," famous throughout the ages for its quarries and exquisite stone carving. From our friend the Mayor of Delhi we obtained an introduction to Kasi Prasad Srivastava, Chief of Police of Jaipur and an ardent devotee of Lord Krsna.
He was a big, strong brawny man, kind of a cross between Broderick Crawford and Ed Asner. He was the kind of a guy that whenever he walked into the police station, everyone jumped to his feet and saluted. But he was also an incredibly pious man and was deeply devoted to Krsna, so he invited us to stay as his personal guest atthe police dormitory (kotwali) in Jaipur.
Srivastava wrote another letter of introduction, this one introducing me to the biggest stone magnate in northern India, a man named Mr. Tewari, who had a huge quarry in a remote corner of Rajastan called Karoli (home to Sri Sri Radha-Madan-mohan), which is many bumpy hours by bus from Jaipur.
Forearmed with the letter, we boarded a bus for the long hot ride to Karoli...Srila Sanatana Goswami's Sri Sri Radha-Madan-mohan By the infinite mercy of Srila Sanatana Goswami we were able to actually take darshan of Their Lordships Sri Sri Radha-Madan-mohan. These original Deities of Sanatan Goswami had been moved far from Vrndavana to Jaipur (Rajasthan), along with many other important Vrndavana Deities of the Six Goswami's, to protect Them from the Mogul hoards invading India during that time. Later, the Deities of Radha-Madan-mohan were moved from Jaipur to Karoli when the Prince of Karoli married the Princess of Jaipur. She had fallen completely in love with Sri Madan-mohan, and she insisted that He (along with Srimati Radharani) come with her when she moved to Karoli.
In all we stayed in Karoli on two occasions for a total of about four weeks, and every day we would walk into the old palace fort (Karoli still has a royal family) and on to the temple. There we often found Their Lordships completely unattended and not a person anywhere. We would be in complete solitude, alone with Srila Sanatana's own worshipful Deities, Sri Sri Radha-Madan-mohan. In Their presence we would try to reflect deeply upon "sambandha tattva" or our eternal relationship with the Supreme Lord.
The whole fort seemed to be built of the same red stone slabs for which Karoli was famous. We stayed in the dharma-shala at the edge of town and there was no electric nor toilet. Every morning we had direct experience of the "hogs eating stool" teaching, when I would venture into the snake infested field to relieve nature. A lota (pot) of water in one hand and a rock in the other to hold off the hogs!!!
Karoli was a hard, rough-and-tumble town, and the sudden appearance there of a mleccha (born beef-eating foreigner) dressed in the robes of a Hindu monk caused quite a stir. After making a few inquiries around town and waving our letter of introduction from the chief of police of Jaipur we finally found my way into Mr. Tewari's presence.
He was without a doubt the fattest man I've ever seen in my life. He could have made a good living as a fat man in a circus. He must have weighed at least 1,000 pounds! He was so huge that wherever he went he had to be carried around in a palanquin by many servants. He had a specially built car with just one huge door for him to get in.
This man also had it in his head that he was the most highly learned devotee on Earth, so he treated us like naive little kids, even though we were initiated Vaisnavas. But we were very humble in his presence, and he actually took a liking to us.
Mr. Tewari promised to give all the stone slabs needed under one condition: we would have to arrange for the stones to be transported back to Nandagram. So we (Gopesa Prabhu & I) had to spend two weeks in Karoli going around to all the trucking companies there to solicit free transport for the stones. When this was (somehow) accomplished, and we returned to Mr. Tewari to show him the written pledges from the truckers, Mr. Tewari promised to send the stones down to Nandagrama as soon as possible, and we went back to Vrndavana.
But he failed to deliver, so we had to return all the way from Vrndavana back to Jaipur to find him and persuade him to fulfill his pledge. Tewari wheezed and huffed with excuses, but he finally agreed to sign the order releasing the stones from his quarry. We then had to take the bus back out to Karoli again to present the order at the quarry, and we spent a few weeks there living in the dharma-shala in order to supervise the cutting of the stones into slabs of the correct size and shape for the school.
Finally, we had all the slabs loaded onto the world's most dilapidated trucks, and with us sitting in the lead vehicle, the entire convoy rolled out of Karoli for the long dusty night time drive to Nandagrama. In the early morning when we arrived in the village, we were met with resounding cheers and festive celebrations by the villagers, who were very excited about this first Nandagrama school.
Meanwhile, bricks and tools had already been purchased with the first 100,000 - rupee donation from the coal king in Bihar, leaving only the cement to be collected. This turned out to be the most difficult item of all to obtain, for it was strictly controlled by the government and carefully rationed for maximum profit by the producers. By now thoroughly familiar with the ropes of fund-raising in India, we went straight to the top, and visited the biggest cement producer in India, the Karnork Cement Company, and requested a personal meeting with the big boss at the company headquarters in Delhi.
Sri Jaya Dayal Dalmia, chairman of Karnork Cement and at least a dozen other major enterprises in India, was at the time one of the richest men in India. He was also one of India's most famous philanthropists. He was fanatically opposed to any animal products, and he even produced his own brand of "animal free" soap. As usual, we first befriended his personal (Brahman) secretary, who also happened to be a Vaisnava and a Sanskrit scholar, and soon we were received by the big boss himself.
Barefoot and in our simple monk's attire, we entered one of the most sumptuous offices in India and met a man wealthy beyond imagination. But Mr. Dalmia's demeanor belied his great wealth and power. Neither fat nor ostentatious like most Indian tycoons, he listened with interest to our proposal and was so impressed that he not only agreed to donate and deliver all the cement we required, he also invited us to stay at his mansion that night and extended a standing invitation to stay there whenever we visited Delhi.
Dalmia's house was like a huge hotel. It had a big lobby with a marble reception desk for guests and a switchboard with about a hundred lines in it. There were doormen, bellboys, maids, chauffeurs, gardeners, all kinds of servants running around in various uniforms. It was unbelievable that one man could own such a huge house. He was the Indian version of J. Paul Getty!
We would eat the best Brahmin-cooked vegetarian. Indian "prasadam" in the world (off a golden thali), while alas, Dalmiaji could only take barley water. Barley water was all he could digest. So much money, but he could only drink barley! But he was a devout Vaisnava and loved Lord Krsna above all Forms. He had undertaken to completely rebuild Krsna-janma-bhumi, with a structure so large that it would be bigger than the current mosque. It is now completed,
When all the building materials had finally been delivered to Nandagrama and construction was underway, Gopesh Prabhu and I made another trip back to Bihar to collect the second 100,000 - rupee check from the coal magnate there, and with that we completed the mission. The whole thing had taken six months to accomplish.
The villagers at Nandagrama were ecstatic over the completion of their new school - the first school ever to exist there since the time of Lord Krsna. A big celebration was organized by Swami Vana Maharaj to inaugurate the school, and holy men from all around the region were invited to attend the festivities. Milk was brought in from all surrounding villages, and an enormous iron vat was set up in the courtyard to cook sweet milk-rice for the entire village and all the visitors who attended the inauguration. It took a full day to cook and yielded about 250 gallons of fragrant sweet rice simmered in milk, the sacred food of Lord Krsna. It provided the biggest meal that any of the villagers in Nandagrama had enjoyed in living memory, and the inauguration of the school was perhaps the greatest event to transpire there for many centuries.
I remember watching all the Vrajavasi kids lined up stuffing themselves with sweet rice, and wondering what this humble service to Vraja-dham would mean to my spiritual life.
NOTE: This wonderful school which was built by the will of Lord Krsna is still in great condition after 29 years and the bare court yard is now full of shady trees. In the last few years, whenever any devotees visit for Vraja Parikrama the Nandagrama vasi's allow them to reside in the school during the night. And since 1970 the Nandagrama vasi children no longer must travel by bus to Kosi for studies, because they have their very own school, Sri Krishna-Chaitanya Academy.
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