25 Years of Vrajabhumi – A Piece of the Spiritual Sky in Brazil

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Presenting a rational spirituality, practical techniques of self-improvement and a wisdom free of fanaticism are some of the mottos of Vrajabhumi, a beautiful, warm and rich project of devotion, worthy of being known all over the world.

To start to tell the story of Vrajabhumi we must introduce Sergio, a typical playboy of the seventies. He worked with Law and was a partygoer in Rio nightlife. His penthouse in Copacabana, one of the richest neighborhoods of Rio, was a place for parties, where people swapped the day for the night. Almost suddenly, however, his life would change. After reading the book Beyond Birth and Death, written by Srila Prabhupada, founder-acharya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the clubber Sergio began to face life otherwise. His apartment then became a central meeting place for spiritualists. Once again, times have changed, but this time his day would begin early, at dawn, for meditations.

In 1976, Sergio went to the Hare Krishna Festival in New York, where he personally met Srila Prabhupada, getting his initiation and a new name: Shatrukotivinasana Dasa (Shatru, to his friends). Shatru now wanted to devote himself exclusively to spirituality and, with the master’s blessings, he traded his apartment and imported car for a land in Teresópolis, a city 2 hours from Rio de Janeiro, with the intention of turning it into, as he would say, “a piece of the spiritual sky.” With this idea in his heart, Shatru personally requested Srila Prabhupada to give a name to that place. Prabhupada closed his eyes for a moment and, still with his eyes closed, pronounced: “Vrajabhumi”. “New Vrajabhumi?” Sergio asked Srila Prabhupada, since many communities had names beginning with “new”. Srila Prabhupada said, “No. Just Vrajabhumi”. Since then, Shatru dedicated himself to the establishment and development of that community as the work of his life, his offering to God.

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Shatrukotivinasana Dasa, founder of the Ashram Vrajabhumi, in front of the first temple of the community.

His main goal was to have a pioneering project that allied tourism, self-sufficiency and sophisticated preaching to reach the population that normally would not approach Krishna consciousness. From the beginning and even today, Vrajabhumi goers constitute mostly middle class people or high-class, college-educated and interested in wellness and health as well as rational spirituality, self-improvement and a wisdom free of fanaticism. “The intention is not any form of elitism,” says Nrsimhananda Dasa, current president of Vrajabhumi, “but as we know, the ‘Plan A’ of Srila Prabhupada in the West was to influence the leaders of society, opinion leaders, because, as Krishna says in Bhagavad-gita, what they do will be naturally followed by other classes of men. We try to fulfill that Prabhupada’s purpose.”

Shatru was a man ahead of his time. Even in the 70s, he was able to predict that the typical ISKCON economy of devotees selling books on the street could not be sustainable or produce resources in a long term. He wanted a temple that remained even without a congregation. The way found to implement it was to rely on the tourism potential of the region where Vrajabhumi is located. Just 100 kilometers from Rio de Janeiro, Teresopolis is a beloved destination for locals when they want to escape a little from the hustle and bustle of this great capital and gather in hotels with an atmosphere of farm and simplicity.

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One of the cozy cottages available in the community.

Vrajabhumi has a beautiful guest house and very nice cottages, as well as a framework for conducting retreats and receiving yoga groups. Those who come for the retreats offer donations, which are the main source of funds for Vrajabhumi, as originally planned by Shatru. Moreover, Vrajabhumi has a lacto-vegetarian and vegan restaurant and offers yoga classes, hikes through the beautiful landscapes of the region and different therapies, thus composing a range of attractions for the project.

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Lalita Gopi, the devotee ahead of Vrajabhumi restaurant.

Due to its strategic location, Vrajabhumi is an attractive place for retreats of yoga groups across the southeastern region of Brazil, precisely the largest holder of economic and cultural influence in the country. For some time, several of the main centers of yoga and holistic groups in Brazil have attended Vrajabhumi and had the opportunity to be introduced to Krishna consciousness in attractive, consistent and culturally justified way.

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Vrajabhumi is an attractive place for retreats of yoga groups.

“Certainly settling so solid in a competitive environment such as yoga, while preserving its identity as a spiritual retreat, was the great historical challenge of Vrajabhumi,” said Nrsimhananda. “I think it is a very proper and wise decision to keep Vrajabhumi aligned equidistantly within yoga audience, because everybody ends up understanding that Vrajabhumi is not a rival, but a project that can add to everyone’s groups.”

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Lilaraja Dasa, a resident of Vraja for more than 30 years.

Lilaraja Dasa, a Vrajabhumi resident since 1982 (years before its official opening with the installation of the Deities), adds: “We receive people and present Krishna consciousness to make friends – friends from yoga, ecology, vegetarianism and other fields… If someone is naturally convinced that the knowledge of the three modes of nature is something objective and practical, that we cannot be happy in the material world, that Krishna is wonderful, it happens by itself. We need not be proselytizers.”

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Murti of Srila Prabhupada, installed in 2010.

For more than 30 years in Vrajabhumi for “total identification”, Lilaraja Dasa talks about the main objective of Krishna consciousness there, “We try to facilitate access to the final goal of life. In general, people need to do asanas to get a healthy body and sit to think of the Supreme, and do pranayama for the mind to be quiet. Vrajabhumi already gives people the benefits of asanas and pranayama with its comfortable facilities, healthy and holy food and a paradisiacal environment. People need only to meditate on the Supreme with all this ease. This is our special feature.”

The beginning of Vrajabhumi was simpler, of course. Nowadays, the beautiful lake with the beautiful lounge/island and fully windowed octagonal shape was just a “marsh”, and the temple was a modest construction of bricks and bamboos. Lilaraja talks on the enthusiasm of the early devotees involved: “We were obtaining recourses by marathons of distribution of books, and marathons for practical work and construction too.” Lilaraja remembers how they brought thousands and thousands of stones from a river nearby for using in the constructions. “We used to sing japa [chanting of mantras counted on rosaries] at 2 o’clock in the morning, then we did mangala-arati adoration and, before the sun comes up, we were already working on the constructions we dreamed to offer to Prabhupada.”

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Hall/island used to fire ceremonies, yoga classes and cultural activities.

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Façade of the temple of Krishna-Balarama.

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A bit of the beauty of Vrajabhumi night.

In 2001, with Chandramukha Swami’s support and along with some other devotees, like Krishna Mahotsava (Lilaraja’s wife), Jaya Advaita Dasa and Jaya Devaki Devi Dasi, the project already had all the characteristics of Shatru original idea. At that time, the structure for receiving guests was revitalized and the ashram widely reported by Chandramukha Swami’s preaching, which was highlighted in the media because of his musical work with Nando Reis, one of the most influential artists in Brazil, who became interested in recording a song with mantras due to being a George Harrison fan.

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Chandramukha Swami and other devotees appear in the official video clip of “Mantra” song, by Nando Reis, one of the most played songs in 2004 on MTV.

In the history of Vrajabhumi, many big events had local, national and international impact. Throughout the 1990s, there were annually “ashram” retreats, lasting between 7 and 15 days, with intense teachings of bhakti-yoga, with different leaders of ISKCON presenting systematically varied content of Vaishnava philosophy and secondary sciences, such as ayurveda and astrology. In total, more than 1,000 people attended these events, which formed many new devotees of Krishna.

Although the meetings which took place there are too numerous to name them all, Vrajabhumi has already hosted meetings of trustees of BBT, meetings of the highest administrative organ of Brazil, marathons of sankirtana, 7 days recitation of Srimad-Bhagavatam, conferences with themes such as ” Devotees Care“, “The Vaishnava Thought”, full course of bhakti-shastri in 1 year, Vaishnava Vedanta Yoga (the first training course for yoga instructors based on vaishnavism), japa retreats, advanced study of The Nectar of Devotion and many others.

“Nights of Vraja”, a pleasant evenings in the temple of the capital of Rio, with concerts of famous artists in Brazil, as the band 14 Bis and saxophonist Leo Gandelman, accompanied by elegant dinner served by waiters, fire ceremonies and lectures, were another successful events promoted by Vrajabhumi, even though outside of its facilities.

Vrajabhumi thus friendly attracts supporters and spiritualists at the same that helps with advanced studies for devotees of Krishna and fills with pride the influential leaders of the Hare Krishna movement. Jayadvaita Swami, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada and editor for The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, was impressed with Vrajabhumi and commented that “Vrajabhumi has a numerous and high qualified audience”. Madhusevita Prabhu, an Italian devotee also guru in ISKCON, found striking natural the integration between devotees and the general public in kirtanas and lectures. Harishauri, famous secretary and biographer of Srila Prabhupada, was keen to see each of the rooms and chalets of Vrajabhumi, know the great variety of trees, see the wild animals that eat from the hands of devotees and many other wonders of Vrajabhumi that filled his eyes.

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Something remarkable in Vrajabhumi of kirtanas is natural and spontaneous integration of devotees and visitors.

In the center of it all, of course, there are Krishna-Balarama, the Deities installed at the altar in 1991, completing 25 years of installation this year, on August 20, 2016. When responsible for a rural project that began in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, Chandramukha Swami acquired the Deities of Krishna-Balarama for its temple, but the Deities had other plans. Chandramukha Swami, shortly after acquiring Them, became president of ISKCON Rio de Janeiro and officially opened the Ashram Vrajabhumi, installing there the golden couple of Deities. In 2009, during Balarama Festival, the gorgeous black and white marble Krishna-Balarama Deities were installed, making the altar even more attractive.

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Installation of the original Deities.

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The captivating marble Deities.

With such a magnificent history, there is much to celebrate and the festivities will attend to its expectancies. The celebration of Vrajabhumi 25th anniversary will take place in 19-21 August, and the summit will be on the 20th, when there will be (in addition to the traditional programming of the temple) a parikrama (pilgrimage), the ritual of the bathing of the Deities, celebrations also for the 50th anniversary of ISKCON, a free party with 108 preparations and a variety of cultural attractions, culminating in Chandramukha Swami and Krishna Bandhu band show. Great leaders of the Hare Krishna Movement in Latin America will be present, such as Dhanvantari Swami, Chandramukha Swami, Keshava Dasa Swami, Purushatraya Swami and Yamunacharya Dasa Goswami. Famous yoga names will also be circulating through the event.

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Chandramukha Swami, most active spiritual leader in Vrajabhumi.

When we asked Nrsimhananda which moment of the festivities he believes will be the climax, he said, uncertain: “Hard to define one, but I believe that when the devotees who made Vrajabhumi a reality get together to tell its histories, I believe we are going to have a very special moment.”

Nrsimhananda talked a bit about the plans for the future: “We think of expanding the boundaries of Vrajabhumi to offer accommodation even when there are no retreats, provide Vedic philosophy courses full time and have a greater dialogue with the cultural activities in the region”.

Vrajabhumi also wants to offer, in innovative character, a complete kshatriya course, training devotees and people of good character for martial arts and leadership activities following the example of the saint kings described in the Vedic literature. In the same line, a program of “Scouts Vaishnava” for children and teens will be started.

Having past, present and future at Srila Prabhupada’s lotus feet, Vrajabhumi is a beautiful, warm and rich in devotion, a project worthy of being known all over the world.

Translation by Bhaktin Martha Leiros.