“O sober Vidura, King Indra, his honor having been insulted, poured water incessantly on Vrindavana, and thus the inhabitants of Vraja, the land of cows, were greatly distressed. But the compassionate Lord Krishna saved them from danger with His pastime umbrella, the Govardhana Hill.” (Uddhava, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 3.2.33)
When you hear that someone has a “pastime umbrella,” you probably think that it’s a smaller object turned into an umbrella for play. Either that or it’s an umbrella used only for fun, not necessarily for protection against the rain. You know, such and such person walks around with an umbrella for no reason, like Linus from the Peanuts with his blanket. Or such and such child loves to play with their tiny umbrella, which allows them to imitate the adults. For the Supreme Lord, the pastime umbrella is a magnificent hill that is so large that it takes many hours just to circumambulate.
Why would you think of circumambulating a hill? Where would you get that idea? What purpose would that serve?
Parikrama, or circumambulating, is a way of showing respect in the Vedic tradition. If we see our parents or grandparents after a long time, we may give them a hug. Indeed, this is a sign of respect. If you just say, “Hey, what’s up?”, you’re not really showing so much respect. That’s how you treat acquaintances. That’s how you treat people who you don’t know that well. The hug is a gesture of true affection. It is thus reserved for people you really care about.
In the Vedic tradition, you greet parents and elders by touching their feet. This is more than a sign of affection. It is a gesture of honor. It is a way to worship, to acknowledge the superiority of someone else. It requires humility on the part of the person offering the worship. There are reciprocal benefits as well. The elders are pleased by the show of humility. They are then more favorable to you. Their favor is important because they are likely wiser than you. They have lived longer, so just based on the strength of their experiences they have a leg up on you. If you are mean to them, if you are disrespectful, why would they feel comfortable openly sharing valuable insight into life’s troubling questions?
The show of humility also benefits the individual personally. The false ego, or ahankara, is both the initial cause of the fall into the material world and the cause for the continual stay in the land that is known for birth and death. There is an ego for sure, as we are all individuals. As an individual, I refer to myself as “I”, but under the sway of the false ego I don’t really know who that “I” refers to. I think it refers to my body, my strength, my vision, and my intelligence. I even sometimes think it refers to my house, my family, and my income.
The “I” really refers to the spirit soul, which is the essence of identity. That soul is the same in quality in me as it is in you. You and me are equal when you strip everything away. Ah, but to strip such things away without actually physically removing them, thereby only removing their influence with respect to vision, is very difficult. Humility offers us a way to remove the “false” aspect from the ego. If I openly admit with sincerity that someone else is superior to me, that I am obliged to touch their feet, I recognize that I am not everything. I don’t have everything, and neither will I ever. I should show respect because others are the same as me, and when I reach an older age, I will appreciate respect offered to me by the younger generation.
Circumambulating is a better way of offering respect. It is a tradition not typically applied today to other people. It is shown more towards objects of reverence, such as deities, temples and places of pilgrimage. We can understand the purpose to circumambulation as it relates to showing respect by looking to a famous story involving Lord Ganesha. By circumambulating his parents three times, he acknowledged that he had acquired all knowledge. Shiva and Parvati are the guardians of this material world, which is known as durga, or difficult to overcome. By respecting them, one is able to live here very nicely. Ganesha circled them three times, showing that they were everything to him.
Today, devotees often circumambulate a famous hill in Vrindavana. It gained its worshipable status directly through the influence of the Supreme Lord. He declared that it was non-different from Him, and so one who worshiped it worshiped Him at the same time. He is the creator of the material world. Earning His favor allows one to leave this land of birth and death and achieve a realm that is changeless. That realm is considered unmanifest, or avyakta, in comparison to the change that we see in the material land, but there is still all variety in activity available there, for everyone has spiritual bodies.
“That supreme abode is called unmanifested and infallible, and it is the supreme destination. When one goes there, he never comes back. That is My supreme abode.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.21)
This hill in Vrindavana was once the Supreme Lord’s pastime umbrella. He lifted it in sport after the king of heaven became angry over being slighted. The residents didn’t purposefully set out to anger him. Shri Krishna, the original Personality of Godhead, was manifesting His pastimes on the earthly realm at the time. He was in Vrindavana as a young child, taken care of by Nanda Maharaja and mother Yashoda. Krishna asked Nanda one year to skip the annual Indra puja and instead worship the neighboring hill named Govardhana. Nanda and the residents agreed, and everyone was happy afterwards.
Except Indra. He ordered that a massive torrential downpour hit the residents. About to float away from the floodwaters, they took shelter under a very large umbrella. That umbrella was the just-worshiped Govardhana Hill, which Krishna lifted to save the residents. If He can create all of the universes and their many planets, why can’t He lift a hill? Indeed, for Him such a massive hill is like a toy in the hands of a child. The skeptic won’t believe in such an incident, and they will chalk it up to mythology, but if you really think about it, if Krishna is God, why wouldn’t He be able to lift a hill? He was God before and God after, so He had to be God during as well. He didn’t become God by lifting the hill; He was already all-powerful.
Krishna can lift hills in sport and turn them into massive umbrellas, and He can also hear any prayer offered His way. Those which catch His ear are the ones that relate to serving Him. Service to Him is more than just a way to purify our existence. Service to Him is the very essence of our existence. In any other state we are impure. Thankfully Shri Krishna leaves Govardhana Hill and other important objects here to allow us to reclaim our essence.
Service to God is our real essence,
Thankfully we have Govardhana’s presence.
Served as pastime umbrella one time,
When residents struck by Indra unkind.
For Krishna it was easy to lift,
Delivering helping hand swift.
If such an object an umbrella He can make,
Then why not your prayers He can take?