Golden domed temples and tastefully landscaped lawns have replaced dilapidated wooden houses in the riverside region of Nizhny Novgorod. A picturesque monastery complex now exists where there used to be an abandoned village. About a decade ago, a handful of Russian Hindu monks led by Swami Vishnudevanand laid the foundation of Divya Loka Ashram. They sought to expand the reach of Sanatana Dharma and to lead a life guided by the Vedas.
‘Veda’ in Sanskrit means ‘knowledge.’ The Vedas are ancient Indian scriptures which form the basis of Hinduism. When Vishnudevanand, still a young boy, didn’t find an explanation for his spiritual questions in the works of great philosophers such as Berdyaev, Solovyov, Schopenhauer, and Voltaire, he turned to the ancient wisdom of Hindu literatures. He had been introduced to the Bhagwad Gita by monks from ISKCON. He found a confirmation for his internal divine surge in the Gita, the Bhagwat Purana, and philosophical texts of Sri Sankracharya, who was the principal exponent of Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism.
“The doctrine of Advaita Vedanta points directly to the non-dual truth within us, which is beyond all names, forms, rituals, concepts, and definitions,” explains Ilya Kurylenko, a disciple of Vishnudevanand, “Swamiji realised that Vedanta is about a personal and direct experience of unity with God.” He has ever since written several books about this Vedic path to self-realisation and the ultimate nature of reality as well as yoga and meditation practices.
In 2010, during the Kumbh mela in Haridwar he was conferred the title of a mahamandaleshwar of Juna Akhara, which is one of the major sects of sages in India. A mahamandaleshwar is a high ranking monk of an akhara who is granted special authority and responsibility for the propagation of Hinduism. “This title is a blessing from the saints. It’s an honour which has opened many new possibilities. It enables me to serve Sanatana Dharma in Russia, to support and protect it,” the swami describes what being the first ever Russian mahamandaleshwar means to him. Following Swami Vishnudevanand’s footsteps, his disciple Anandlila Giri became the first Russian woman to be ordained such at the Maha Kumbh in Allahabad earlier this year.
She was introduced to Advaita through the books by Ramana Maharishi. In 1999 she gave up her career as a fashion designer to become a nun. Ever since she has been practicing yoga at the academy in Divya Loka and serving the organisation in many roles. “Her selfless service and ability to sit in meditation for long hours is an inspiration for all,” says Ilya Kurylenko. “Under her leadership our ashram has developed rapidly.”
Anandlila Giri continues to take care of the monastic culture, education system and practices at the academy. After the formal approval by the Juna Akhara she hopes to further the goals of the organisation, “I will try to spread the light of Sanatan Dharma in Russia, Europe and the world,” she says. In her position as a guardian and promoter of Hinduism she has a lot of tasks earmarked– “One of the main targets is construction of more temples. As a spiritual mentor she gives lectures and counselling to community members and also conducts yoga workshops and seminars,” Kurylenko says.
Considering an enhanced interest in spirituality in Russia, this academy works as a catalyst for promoting Indian values. Ilya suggests that Russians are especially interested in yoga and Vedic practices. “Many people read the books of Adavaita teachers such as Sri Ramana Maharishi, his disciple Papaji, Ramesh Balsekar, and Sri Nisargadatta,” he says. The academy reports that their recent Congress of Advaita Vedanta hosted in Moscow was attended by about five thousand people. The Vedic film festival held in St Petersburg and Vedic literature festival celebrated in Yekaterinburg were also heavily attended.
Divya Lok and its members propose the Vedic path for the spiritually inclined due to the depth of its philosophy and variety of Yoga practices - “It is possible for seekers to open inside themselves an inexhaustible source of love, compassion, and harmony.”