ISHKON Spirituality and Fire Puja

After returning from Peru, I was able to secure a seasonal position at New Vrindaban. The job entailed attendant, organizing processes, maintenance, and material management for the temple and the lodge. I was interested in the experience and spirituality from the Krishna perspective.

New Vrindaban is an unincorporated area and an ISKCON intentional community located in Marshall County, West Virginia. The town consists of 1,204 acres and several building complexes, homes, apartment buildings, and businesses, including the Sri Sri Radha Vrindaban Chandra Temple and Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold. New Vrindaban was founded in 1968 under the direct guidance of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of ISKCON, by his disciple Kirtanananda Swami. It is named after the city of Vrindavan in India.

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), known colloquially as the Hare Krishna movement or Hare Krishnas, is a Gaudiya Vaishnava Hindu religious organization.[1] ISKCON was founded in 1966 in New York City by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.[2] Its core beliefs are based on the Hindu scriptures, particularly the Bhagavad Gita and the Bhagavata Purana, and the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, which has had adherents in India since the late 15th century and American and European devotees since the early 1900s.[3]

The organization was formed to spread the practice of Bhakti yoga, the practice of the love of God in which those involved (bhaktas) dedicate their thoughts and actions towards pleasing Krishna, the Supreme Lord.[4] Its most rapid expansions in membership as of 2007 have been within India and especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in Russia, Ukraine, and the rest of the ex-Soviet aligned states of Eastern Europe and Central Asia.[5]

My supervisor was a wise man named Astikia from Ajabijouan and his wife Sarasvati, from Russia. They were kind people and had a lot of experience with yoga and the eastern philosophies of Krishna, Hindu, and Buddhism. They were easy to work for and had little expectations in the typical sense of work and allowed people to develop their spirituality in creativity through service and participation.

I met some unique and memorable people while working with varying backgrounds; most approached life from a wide range of perspectives, with a deep devotion to spirituality and Krishna consciousness. Astikia took me under his wing immediately and began to teach me about Kriya yoga and breathing exercises, along with spirituality and ISHKON teachings. He had traveled to India, Tibet, and Bhutan for 13 years, developing his spirituality through meditation and practicing under gurus in various temples. He taught me a lot about the power of meditation and the things possible through constants practice and intense focus. We discussed all the deep questions in life, and he had a unique and passionate perspective. I studied the teachings of Krishna philosophies and how to practice them every day through reading, meditation, karma, chanting, eating (Prasaadam), offerings, and austerities.

Prasadam means Krishna’s mercy, and prasadam is the remnants of something that has been prepared for the pleasure of Krishna with love and offered to Him for His enjoyment. Because Krishna has tasted it or enjoyed it, prasadam is not a material thing. Once Krishna tastes something it becomes transcendental. Krishna and Krishna prasadam are no different. This means for example you can get the same benefits by honoring Krishna prasadam (eating Krishna prasadam, but devotees don’t say “eating prasadam”–it is honoring prasadam or respecting prasadam) as you could get by being personally present with Krishna face-to-face. Prasadam is potent.

Everything would all culminate in a Fire Puja ceremony that we practiced daily. Learning our mantras and breathing techniques was the main focus, along with the offerings we would make to the fire. During this time, A couple of new guys started working at the Lodge and were also interested in learning from Astikia. So Jared, Greg, and I continued to study under Astikia in preparation for the fire Puja. We would go to Astikias very early in the morning before sunrise and practice Kriya breathing techniques and learn about other philosophies, diet, and meditation. He also started advising us on setting up our altars at home for worship and chanting mantras. After about eight weeks of practice and preparation, we set a date for when we would participate in the fire puja. We also had to acquire many supplies and build a gazebo with a fire pit and specific stools at specific heights with tables to hold our offerings. Our supplies would consist of various seeds, oils, woods, containers, and fruits. I will not go into specifics details as they are secret to the ceremony. After acquiring our supplies, we met at my house under the pavilion at 5:00 AM to begin the ceremony. During the ceremony, the six of us would chant our mantras provided by Astikia 108 times for 36 rounds using our beads while altering between offering the fire; oils, seeds, and fruits. During the ceremony, there were particular rules as to not touch your face or feet without washing your hands before continuing with the tradition and using a specific towel for said purpose.

Normally, the burning pujas are offered at the end of great nearing retreats, three-year retreats, or short retreats of the enlightened being deities. These retreats are done with mantra recitation that brings you closer to the deity. The burning puja is offered to restore parts of the practice that were left out, or mantras that have been incorrectly recited or mixed up, performed with unclear concentration. It also generally purifies defilements and negative karma.

In general, there are four types of burning puja:

1. Pacifying. This is to pacify sicknesses, spirit harms, and to purify negative karma and defilements.

2. Increasing. This prolongs life, increases merit, wealth, realizations, and wisdom attainments.

3. Controlling. This gives you control over sentient beings so that they will listen to you and you can bring them into the right path, not only bringing them temporal happiness but also ultimate happiness, total liberation from suffering and its causes, to great liberation, full enlightenment, and peerless happiness. Having control over them is in order to benefit them. Also, by having control over evil beings, they stop continuously harming others and will listen to you. By having control over wealth, you can use it to benefit other beings and the teachings of the Buddha, as well as to create conducive conditions for your own practice.

4. Wrathful. This is used when other methods don’t work and only wrathful action can benefit. If evil beings are giving harm to sentient beings and the teachings of Buddha, wrathful actions can stop them. If you have realizations and power, it is possible to split the consciousness from that being and transfer it to a pure land, where there is not even the word “suffering,” as in suffering of rebirth, old age, sickness, relationship problems, AIDS, cancer, tsunamis, and so forth.

During the ceremony and intense energy is created and a heightened sense of deep concentration and trance. As the ceremony progressed the energy increased and the power of group prayer becomes evident. During the height of the ceremony, I went to a very deep place inside my mind containing amazing clarity and wisdom which I could only hold for a short instance but with practice I’m sure could be sustained. As the ceremony started to wind down each of us finished at varying times and could feel a great sense of peace and relaxation but also a very real physical and mental exhaustion. After the ceremony I was given the Krishna name Sankarshana who is also one of the four vyuha forms of Vishnu or Krishna, the other three being Vāsudeva, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha . Sankarshana expands himself as Garbhodakshayi-Vishnu at the beginning of the universe to create Brahma. In other words, Lord Sankarshana is Lord Narayana Himself. 

I am greatly appreciative of my experiences at New Vrindaban. After everything I had been through, this is where I needed to be at the time for my spiritual development. However, I did not see it as clearly then as I do now, but we rarely ever do.

If you are interested in Krishna consciousness pick up a copy of the Bhagavad Gita and start reading. It contains direct Godhead knowledge and depth that is unique and timeless. Research and read books by Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

If you have not visited New Vrindavan I highly recommend taking the trip to experience this amazing place of Krishna consciousness, nature, spirituality, and worship.