for ISKCON News on Nov. 23, 2012
Moscow’s Bhaktivedanta Ashram is in the business of inspiration.
It’s a quality that shines through when talking with Mathurananda Das, a round-faced, beaming and effulgent brahmachari (celibate monk) who serves on the Ashram’s council and helps run many of its programs.
Speaking through translator Arunalochana Das, he explains that the main function of the Ashram—located near ISKCON Moscow’s Sri Sri Doyal Nitay Saci Suta Mandir—is to be a place of study for its twenty-five resident brahmacharis.
But it’s also a place of inspiration and education for beginners and complete newcomers on the path of Krishna consciousness. In fact, a major focus of the brahmacharis’ study is to get to the point where they are capable of ministering to the congregation.
People who have just recently begun practicing bhakti-yoga and want to introduce friends completely unfamiliar with the process often invite them to Bhaktivedanta Ashram’s twice-weekly cooking classes.
Held at various yoga clubs around Moscow city, the classes are two hours long and taught by a series of senior devotees skilled in the culinary arts.
“In every class, we demonstrate to fifteen students how to cook nice dishes very quickly,” says Mathurananda. “We teach three or four simple Vedic recipes per class, including subji, rice, pakoras, puris, chapatis, and koftas.”
A group of new devotees chant japa at one of Bhaktivedanta Ashram's retreats
The classes, which ask for “free-will donations” rather than pushing a set fee, are quickly becoming more and more popular. Soon, devotees expect, they’ll have to increase their regularity.
Bhaktivedanta Ashram devotees also reach out to newcomers by responding to invitations from organizers of various New Age festivals to cater their outdoor events in the countryside.
Devotees spend a full month of their summer camping out at two major festivals: Grad Mira (City of Peace) and Zhizne Grad (Life City).
“They really like prasadam, and they like devotees,” says Mathurananda. “As well as feeding them, we organize some kirtans, seminars, yoga and cooking classes, and even perform dramas.”
Bhaktivedanta Ashram is in the business of inspiration -- and it's working!
Over the course of the festivals, devotees meet around 2,000 people, many of which are interested in learning more about Krishna consciousness and are invited to visit Bhaktivedanta Ashram.
A popular time for such people to visit is the Ashram’s biannual open-day festival, for which devotees invite all their friends. Around 200 people usually attend the one-day events, which include a yajna (fire ceremony), abhisekha (bathing of the Deities), kirtans, a philosophy lecture by a visiting Swami, and a delicious feast.
“We also have a present for each guest,” Mathurananda says. “Usually it’s a small package including some photos of our Gaura Nitai Deities, some maha-prasadam, and a spiritual CD or DVD.”
Life is simple at Bhaktivedanta Ashram
For those who want to take their interest in Krishna consciousness to the next level, the Ashram offers basic philosophical courses.
Then, those who have been practicing Krishna consciousness for at least six months and chanting at least eight rounds of japa per day are invited to attend its popular weekend retreats, which give people the full experience of devotee life.
The retreats are for men only, as they are held in a celibate monk ashram. Ocurring every two weeks, they are attended by a different group of twenty to twenty-five people each time.
Mathurananda Das teaches students at one of his bi-weekly cooking classes
Each retreat begins on Friday evening after work and runs until 7pm on Sunday. Attendees join the resident brahmacharis in rising extremely early—at 3:00am each morning.
They then attend the full traditional morning program, including mangal arati at 4:00am, japa meditation for two hours, guru puja, and class on the Srimad-Bhagavatam, with the addition of an hour-long hatha yoga session.
“After breakfast, we start our first seminar session of the day,” says Mathurananda. “The seminars are taught by senior devotees and tailored specially for newcomers on topics such as the Holy Name, the Guru, and Vaishnava etiquette.”
People line up for prasadam at a New Age festival
After two one-and-a-half hour classes, participants take dinner and relax for an hour, before the third and final session of the day—a two-hour kirtan—begins at 4pm.
“After that, we gather together to drink hot milk with dried fruit and share our realizations from the day in a friendly atmosphere,” Mathurananda says. “People often express how much they like the programs and how much they help them improve their faith.”
Like Bhaktivedanta Ashram’s cooking programs, the retreats are not priced—organizers instead accept donations according to participants’ capacity. And like the cooking program, the retreats are increasing in popularity—their mailing list of twenty people when the program began one year ago has since grown to a list of two hundred.
Relaxing and reflection time
“The retreats are a great opportunity for people to increase their knowledge, associate with senior devotees, and get inspired to rise early, chant japa, and do some practical devotional service,” says Mathurananda.
People who want to improve their Krishna conscious practice even more, meanwhile, can further experience brahmachari life with either a two-month or a two-year program.
Devotee education isn’t ignored, either. Senior brahmacharis from Bhaktivedanta Ashram often travel to ISKCON temples in different Russian cities to deliver popular seminars such as Shrijisnu Dasa’s Vaishnava Etiquette, Vatsala’s Devotee Care, or Aksaja’s Guru-tattva and Nama-tattva.
The Moscow Food For Life Team
In the future, Bhaktivedanta Ashram would like to introduce online education programs, and to see their retreats become a part of ISKCON Moscow’s official educational programs along with Bhakti-Sastri and the Bhakta program.
They also hope to increase their involvement in Food for Life programs in the city.
For Mathurananda, there’s nothing to be gained in all this work greater than simply serving Srila Prabhupada’s mission.
“There is a Russian expression in this regard,” he says. “ ‘The best benediction is just to work hard for the business that’s worth it.’ ”
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