Pujaris from all over North America gathered in New Vrindaban, West Virginia in January to gain inspiration, support and training from two events organized by the ISKCON Deity Worship Ministry: the inaugural North American Head Pujari Sanga, followed by the third annual Weekend Pujari Training.
First off, twenty-one head pujaris and deity department managers from seventeen temples gathered for the Head Pujari Sanga, from January 3rd to 5th.
Proceedings began with attendees taking the time to get to know each other, brainstorming and discussing what they wanted to achieve during a one-hour orientation, as a major goal of the sanga was for pujaris to develop lasting relationships amongst each other.
The group then had a forty-five-minute teleconference with Global ISKCON Deity Worship Minister Nrsimha Kavacha Das, who elaborated on the various roles and responsibilities of a head pujari.
This was followed by the pujaris identifying some of the universal challenges they shared in their service, and how to overcome them.
“For instance, at the top of the list is the shortage of pujari teams to cover the worship in many temples,” says North American Deity Worship Minister Jayananda Das, who led the Sanga. “Many head pujaris find themselves having to pick up a lot of additional service. So we discussed how, when devotees come forward to get involved in their temples, we can have a proactive focus on getting them engaged in their deity departments.”
The head pujaris also shared best practices. Assistant head pujari from ISKCON Los Angeles Vaninatha Raya Das, for example, explained how whenever an offering or arati is late, it is recorded and posted on the wall, so that the issue can later be addressed to improve punctuality.
North American Deity Worship Minister Jayananda Das speaks to the head pujaris
Meanwhile second-generation pujari Sri Caitanya Hari Das from Vancover shared how his department handles the common problem of deity jewelry being haphazardly put away and left in a disorganized state. Instead of leaving the task to the evening pujari, who is already exhausted from a long day, they set it aside for someone else to come in and properly organize it the next morning. Many representatives from other temples expressed their eagerness to try this system too.
The next day, Braja Bihari Das of ISKCON Resolve led a three-hour workshop entitled “Getting to the Heart of Conflict and Communications for Head Pujaris.” Among the many interpersonal challenges for pujaris discussed were those between younger and older generations, who came into the service with vastly different moods and training.
“A better understanding of conflict resolution helps these challenges,” says Jayananda. “For example, a central point was that we make so many assumptions about others that are often incorrect. But if head pujaris ask open-ended questions, and try to come to an understanding of what someone’s interests are, rather than just opposing their position, then we can often come to a collaborative solution. It’s important to get beyond the ‘I win, you lose’ mentality to a ‘win-win’ approach.”
Later that afternoon, Malati Devi, who played a key role in the beginning of deity worship in ISKCON and is still hugely supportive of deity worship in North America, led a team-building exercise. Called “Bundle of Sticks,” it showed how pujaris working together in cooperation are much stronger than they are going at it alone. Malati also shared some of Srila Prabhupada’s instructions on deity worship.
Finally, there was a brainstorming session about what head pujaris needed to be more successful in their service, and how the North American GBC and Deity Worship Ministry could support and assist them.
On the last day of the sanga, Jayananda facilitated more sharing of best practices, and discussed some of the Deity Worship Ministry’s current efforts and future goals. These included the Ministry recently taking up management of a deity dressmaking shop in Mayapur that aims to make deity outfit creation an internal operation.
“Currently ISKCON Temples worldwide pay literally millions annually to outside businesses for their deity dresses,” says Jayananda. “We would like to scale the shop’s operations up so that it can handle demand, allowing us to be able to keep it inside the ISKCON family.”
The shop will be headed up by Ananda Lila Dasi, who considers deity dressmaking a personal passion and has been serving and teaching at the Mayapur Academy for many years. Profits will go towards supporting ISKCON Deity Worship Ministry’s training efforts around the world as well as new school buildings in Mayapur.
Graduates from the Pujari Training Seminar
Concluding the Head Pujari Sanga, everyone discussed how best to stay connected, and Jayananda resolved to develop an internal website featuring informational documents and relevant Srila Prabhupada quotes. He also plans to set up a Google Group so that head pujaris across North America can post questions and continue to share best practices.
Afterwards, head pujaris who attended were effusive in their feedback. “As a second generation devotee, who now finds myself in a managerial role within our community of Vancouver, Canada – this was one of the most enlivening and engaging experiences I’ve had since coming on board,” said Sri Caitanya Hari Das.
“I feel completely recharged, inspired, and determined to do better,” said Indulekha Dasi from ISKCON Boston.
ISKCON Miami head pujari Dharma Das – the seniormost head pujari in North America, having consistently served the Miami deities for well over forty years – said, “I sometimes become a little overwhelmed with so much service at our temple. Being at this meeting helped me realize that the problems that we experience at ISKCON Miami are also experienced almost everywhere.”
And Prana-Hari Das of ISKCON Denver said, “This sanga unified head pujaris across North America so that we can work together to fulfill Srila Prabhupada’s desires concerning Deity worship in ISKCON.”
After the Head Pujari Sanga, thirty-three devotees attended the third annual Weekend Pujari Training from Friday January 6th through Sunday the 8th. They came from all over the country and ranged from young new bhaktas and bhaktins to senior pujaris – some head pujaris stayed to brush up on their skills.
The most thorough deity worship training offered in North America today, the three-day program included nearly twenty hours of training. The first half covered the foundational and theoretical aspects of deity worship – why we do it, what are its benefits, qualifications required, and the position of the spiritual master.
The second half was practical, with demonstrations on how to perform acamana, wake the deities and put them to rest, offer bhoga and arati, and perform festival abhisekhas. The grand finale consisted of a demonstration of an elaborate sixteen-item puja to Sri Sri Gaura Nitai.
Jayananda hopes to offer the Weekend Pujari Training again in April or May 2018, once again at New Vrindaban, which he finds to be an ideal location. “ISKCON New Vrindaban offers perhaps the best facilities for accommodating multiple guests of any temple in North America, and they are very supportive and accommodating,” he says.
For Jayananda, providing all this training and support for pujaris is essential. “Deity worship is a core activity of our vaidhi sadhana bhakti,” he says. “And we see how Srila Prabhupada put so much effort into establishing temples and deities all around the world. So it’s of utmost importance that we do our best to serve the Lord favorably and to the best of our abilities. And systematic training goes a long way to that end!”
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