Wednesday, a second attempt was made by claimants representing Haridas Shastri to claim possession of Bhagavata Niwas after the High Court decision awarding them the right to two rooms and the seva-puja on the site.
Since there was a potential for trouble, the City Magistrate, the local Chief of Police, and a number of policemen also came to keep the peace.
The claimants are opposed by the actual residents of Bhagavata Niwasa, which consists of a small number of renounced Vaishnavas of the Gaudiya sampradaya, headed by Shukadev Das and Gaur Gopal Das. But in a display of support for them, many of Vrindavan’s leading citizens, business people and Vaishnavas came to prevent Haridas Shastri’s group from taking possession. In total there were an estimated 500 people in this group.
City Magistrate Ram Avatar Raman insisted that the court order be carried out to the letter, but Padmanabha Dasji and other representatives of Haridas Shastri claimed that they had the right to the entire property. Heated arguments ensued, but after three hours of discussion, the claimants were obliged to turn back and the status quo was maintained.
Bhagavata Niwas is a site with a short but noble history. Kripa Sindhu Das Babaji was one of the leading Gaudiya bhajananandis of Vrindavan in the 20th century, famous for memorizing the entire Govinda Lilamrita. It is said that he would start his bhajan at midnight so he could recite the text before noon. He would recite the verses of Govinda Lilamrita, chant his japa and do lila smaran.
In those days, Raman Reti was an empty forest, and several highly reputed babajis lived there in classical surroundings for the practice of devotion. Pandit Ramkrishna Das Babaji lived across the way in Dauji Bagicha, which now houses the Vrindavan Research Institute. He was the center of this goshthi. Gauranga Das Babaji also moved into a property next door, which today is known as Radha Raman Bagh. Many babas who were attracted by the prospect of association with these saints, who were famed for their strict adherence to their bhajan practices, the habits of eating only madhukari, and their evening ishtagoshtis in which the finer points of Gaudiya Vaishnava siddhanta and Radha Krishna lila would be discussed and theological disputes settled.
Even Goswamis from Bengal and Vrindavan attended these ishtagoshtis to discuss Gaudiya Vaishnava siddhanta, debate and accept the decisions of these authoritative scholars and practitioners.
The stories of all these Vaishnavas and many others who were regular participants in this society of advanced bhajananandis can be found in O.B.L. Kapoor’s book, Saints of Braj and Haridas Das Babaji’s Gaudiya Vaishnava Jivan.
In 1942, the property on which Kripa Sindhu as already living was bought by the pious wife of a wealthy businessman, Banarasi Devi. In 1945, she turned the land over to him. In 1946, he placed the property in the name of Girindra Bihari, the Govardhan shila that was worshiped there and thought by many to be the very shila that Mahaprabhu had given to Raghunath Das Goswami.
Kripa Sindhu did not himself register a trust. As a renounced Vaishnava, he did not have much of a mind for legal procedures, but in his legally attested will, signed not long before his death in 1973, he named a “circle of servants” (sevaka mandali) to manage the site and stipulated that they should form a trust to manage Bhagavata Niwas. He placed the following strictures on the proposed managing body:
- Only those living in Bhagavata Niwas could be members;
- Permission to live in Bhagavata Niwas was restricted to those who were serious about bhajan, and followed the lifestyle strictly, especially by eating madhukari;
- No special rights were to be given to anyone by reason of initiation from Kripa Sindhu Das, nor should any such disciplic connection with any trust board member bestow any such rights;
- The land was not to be sold to anyone but was to keep its original purpose in perpetuity.
- Moreover, Kripa Sindhu asked that should there be any conflict between the different members of the Trust, it was not to be settled in the courts, but that the final arbiter should be the Mahant of Raghunath Das Goswami’s peeth in Radha Kund.
Kripa Sindhu Dasji’s wish to have a trust formed by the eight members of the Sevaka Mandala was carried out in 1978, under the name Girindra Bihari Trust. By this time only five of the original eight members were still living, of whom Vishnudasji and Haridas Shastri were the prominent members. Haridas Shastri had, however, moved on by then to form his own ashram at Purana Kalidaha just near the Parikrama Marg. Nevertheless, because of his stature as a scholar and seniority, he remained as the president of the trust. Other positions on the trust were eventually filled by two of his disciples, one of whom was Haridas’s own disciple Padmanabha Das Babaji.
1993 is when the trouble really began. Vishnudasji asked Padmanabha to leave Bhagavata Niwas for irregularities regarding the nature of his activities, which were not in conformity with the rules set by Kripa Sindhu Dasji. Haridas Shastri considered this to be contrary to the spirit of cooperation, as the decision was taken unilaterally. This led to a split, with Vishnudasji forming a competing trust of the same name, with only resident Vaishnavas as members. Haridas Shastri was offered membership in this new trust, but he did not accept and contested its legality in court, winning his case.
However, possession of the property was the primary factor in successive court cases, and for one reason or another Haridas Shastri’s group claimed in their court case to have full possession, which was not true.
In the most recent decision, the Allahabad High Court awarded two rooms on the ground floor of the main building and the seva-puja of the deities. But Padmanabha Dasji, secretary of the Trust and representing Haridas Shastriji, president of the Trust, insisted on taking full possession of the ashram.
They have expressed their intention to remove those who are currently living there and many fear that Haridas Shastri’s intention is to use the ashram for commercial purposes, even though his group insists that this is not the case.
In fact, this seems to lie at the center of the dispute. Each side accuses the other of ulterior motives. Certain members of the business class, including those who are suspected of being involved in the current so-called “land mafia” are thought to be backing the babaji cause. Haridas Shastri is old and once he dies, his disciples feel, the current residents of Bhagavata Niwas will be susceptible to these interests who will be able to easily roll over them and take over what is now an extremely valuable property and turn it into some kind of development.
Certainly no sincere lover of Vrindavan wants this, as for the most part, this is one of the few places left in the municipal area that preserves the traditional devotional lifestyle that is a principal part of Vrindavan’s heritage. As such, it is hard to understand if both sides claim the preservation of Bhagavata Niwas as a place for pure bhajan practices that they should be able to find some ground for agreement. Naturally, if both sides are suspicious of each others motives, then such agreement may never be possible.