Around ninety Russian-speaking devotees attended the 3rd anniversary celebrations of London’s Russian Bhakti Vriksha program on Saturday February 15th.
The event was held at Covent Garden’s Swiss Church, a beautiful sacred space built in the 1850s that has become home to many Vaishnava gatherings.
A warm family atmosphere pervaded as attendees -- men, women and children -- danced and chanted with deep devotion and joy beneath the high, white ceilings.
Angira Muni Das, a veteran of the Bhakti Vriksha program who oversees eighty groups in Moscow alone, spoke to the crowd through Skype.
Devotees who had successfully completed the program and were moving on to head up their own Bhakti Vriksha groups were named and honored.
And finally, everyone enjoyed delicious prasadam including a cake topped with a heart and the number three; and many hugs, garlands and other expressions of mutual appreciation were exchanged.
Bhakti Vriksha, started in 1996 by Jayapataka Swami of the ISKCON Congregational Development Ministry, is a systematic sixty-four-week program devised to provide spiritual association for congregational members in their homes and to help them advance in Krishna consciousness.
There are already around twenty English-speaking Bhakti Vriksha groups in an and around London. But the Russian-speaking group was born when Shaktyavesha Avatar Das, a Russian native who had participated in Angira Muni’s Moscow Bhakti Vriksha program, moved to England.
Seeing that there were about 300,000 Russian speakers in London, he took permission from Radha Krishna Temple president Jai Nitai Das, enlisted his friend Bhakta Nikita and others, and started a Russian Bhakti Vriksha group.
“Whether they’re Chinese, or Russian, or African, people of a certain background have a tendency to converge,” he says. “And my observation was that often people would go to a football match or a concert by a band who wasn’t even their favorite just for the sake of getting together with other Russians. So I thought, let’s try to give them some spiritual basis for interaction.”
Starting with thirty to forty Russian devotees who had already been practicing Krishna consciousness for some time, the Bhakti Vriksha group grew, as newcomers who had come across ISKCON on the Internet, or were just searching for something spiritual, joined.
The programs began as part of the Sunday Feast at the Radha Krishna Temple on Soho Street, and then expanded into members’ homes.
A Bhakti Vriksha group, or cell, is usually attended by five to ten people, and splinters off into another group once the number of participants reaches fifteen.
Each cell lasts sixty-four weeks, and is broken into five modules of ten weeks each. Meetings are once a week and comprise six sections, originally outlined by the Vaishnava saint Bhaktivinode Thakura in his “Godruma Kalpa Tavi.”
First there’s “breaking the ice,” in which members get to know each other better, gain confidence in speaking, and share their progress.
This is followed by kirtan, japa meditation, reading from Srila Prabhupada’s books with group discussion, emphasis on the importance of outreach and sharing progress in this area, and honoring prasadam together.
“These essential elements are there to be the foundation of spiritual growth,” says Shaktyavesha. “But it’s not a system that kills individual love and devotion -- you can bring more to it with your personal approach, how you lead the Bhakti Vriksha and care for the devotees.”
The 64-week program ends with devotees making commitments to further their progress in Krishna consciousness by chanting sixteen rounds of the Hare Krishna mantra a day or beginning to develop a relationship with a prospective spiritual master.
Some, although not necessarily all, the members in the group also naturally want to share the nourishment they’ve been given, and start their own Bhakti Vriksha groups.
As a result, there are currently about 150 devotees enrolled in five different Russian Bhakti Vriksha groups in London, with fifteen graduates currently chanting sixteen rounds a day, and four aspiring for initiation by a guru.
With the second wave of Bhakti Vriksha groups coming to an end at the recent 3rd Anniversary celebrations, members will now once again start their own groups.
“Just like a tree grows more and more branches, every new Bhakti Vriksha will in due course of time give birth to another one, two or three Bhakti Vrikshas each,” says Shaktyavesha. “The overall scope of this program is quite overwhelming.”
In the future, Shaktyavesha Avatar hopes to expand the number of Russian Bhakti Vrikshas in London to 108, and of course to keep maintaining the standard of the existing ones, which have already given so much joy and fulfillment to so many people.
“It’s like a breath of fresh air,” said one devotee who attended this month’s 3rd Anniversary celebrations.
“It’s an ongoing flow of inspiration,” commented another.
Still others described the program as “miraculous,” “amazing,” and “something I can’t live without.”
For his part, Shaktyavesha Avatar says, “My prayer is to somehow keep on serving and looking after the Vaishnavas year after year.”
“My hope is that we never take this program for granted,” he concludes, “And always fill it with genuine spiritual emotion and a genuine spiritual desire to care.”[ avatara ] [ london ]