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A History of Education in ISKCON

Yadunandana Swami

In his role as principal of Bhaktivedanta College, ISKCON’s first theological seminary, Yadunandana Swami is uniquely placed to author this introduction to ISKCON’s often troubled educational history. In it he speaks with some of the people who were responsible for the development of education in ISKCON and charts the development of ISKCON education from being primarily concerned with teaching children to focusing on the Society’s adult members. This paper provides a context for understanding education in ISKCON today.

Introduction

This paper examines the history of education in ISKCON: the successes, achievements, challenges, and failures. To construct a picture of how systematic education in ISKCON started and developed, I interviewed or corresponded with the three individuals who have held the post of Minister of Education: Jagadīśa Dāsa (1976–87), Harikeśa Swami (1996–8)1 and Śeṣa Dāsa (1999–present). I also corresponded with several members of the ISKCON Board of Education (1989–95), which operated when there was no standing Minister of Education. My interviews followed a qualitative approach, with the intent of extracting as much relevant experience as possible. I also contacted prominent ISKCON educators and school administrators and drew on my own twenty years’ experience in the areas of education, leadership, and preaching.

This article focuses particularly on the formal and institutional aspects of ISKCON’s educational history. There are other histories to be written that emphasise other dimensions of the movement’s educational development, such as the growth of individual projects and the experiences and activities of ISKCON’s general membership. Nevertheless, this overview aims to help readers chart the institutional history of ISKCON education in order to gain a better understanding of how ISKCON has arrived at this stage in its educational development. This, I hope, will lead to an open and constructive discussion on ISKCON’s educational needs and how best to meet them.

Prabhupāda’s vision

Less than a year after arriving in America, in mid-1965, ISKCON’s founder, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda, established the first ISKCON centre in New York City. The articles of incorporation that he wrote show what he wanted to achieve. Systematic spiritual education is mentioned as the first of the seven purposes of ISKCON:

To systematically propagate spiritual knowledge to society at large and to educate all peoples in the techniques of spiritual life in order to check the imbalance of values in life and to achieve real unity and peace in the world. (Satsvarūpa Dāsa Goswami 1980, p. 132)

Prabhupāda said that knowledge and science become complete when they are used to glorify God. (Prabhupāda 1987, pp. 268–9)2 Thus, he encouraged some of his disciples to become educated in regular educational institutions and to develop educational programmes for children and adults. (Prabhupāda 1992, pp. 731–4; 751–63) Prabhupāda foresaw that systematic education would help his followers perform successful missionary work and take responsibilities of leadership within ISKCON. He wrote to a disciple in 1967:

One must be educated. The education may be taken either in schools or privately but one must be educated. We want many preachers to broadcast this message of Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Without education we cannot preach, because a preacher has to meet many kinds of opposite elements. (Letter to Līlāśuka, December 1967)

An important consideration in this regard is that Prabhupāda preferred a spiritual education system aligned with the social organisational principles of daivī varṇāśrama, rather than the secular educational system prevalent in wider society. Since the spiritual master’s vision, desires, and instructions are highly valued in Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism (as in other Indian traditions), Prabhupāda’s vision played a central role in shaping the development of the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement. However, his followers were not always able to meet his high expectations.

The pioneering years

Two years after registering ISKCON, Prabhupāda encouraged disciples to start Kṛṣṇa conscious schools.3 Originally his idea was to open the first primary school in New Vrindaban, ISKCON’s first farm community, in West Virginia. Prabhupāda preferred to start a school in the countryside:

Actually, I have no desire to start the school in any city. City life, especially in this age of Kali-yuga, is very much polluted. Poet Cowper stated that the city is made by man and the village is made by God. So in the village there is a natural tendency for Kṛṣṇa consciousness. (Letter to Satyabhama Dāsī, 27 December 1968)

However, a school did not form in New Vrindaban. Instead, in 1971, ISKCON purchased a large church in Dallas, which became the site of its first primary school. Within a short time the school had more than fifty children. (Satsvarūpa Dāsa Goswami 1983a, p. 112) It was a boarding school based on a traditional gurukula (‘residence of the guru’) model. Ideally, in a gurukula children are trained in spiritual knowledge and practices in order to understand higher values, and they also receive specific training necessary for a livelihood. (Best 2006, pp. 57–8)

The Ministry of Education’s first ten years

In 1976 Prabhupāda asked Jagadīśa Dāsa to become the GBC4 Minister of Education. This was a new concept in ISKCON, since the GBC representatives generally oversaw a geographic zone. Jagadīśa told me in a personal communication (April 2007):

When Prabhupāda asked me to become the Minister of Education in 1976, it was a new idea. At the GBC meetings in Māyāpur that year he had introduced the idea of having ministers oversee different departments of management. I had a large zone to manage, and in that zone was our Dallas school, so Prabhupāda asked me to be the Minister of Education. I had no training or experience in children’s education, but I accepted this as what Kṛṣṇa wanted me to do.

During this time, the Texas state government imposed many restrictions on the Dallas school.5 Jagadīśa spent nine months trying to solve the problems by promoting a spirit of cooperation among the devotees involved in the project and by including parents in the decision making process. However, Prabhupāda decided that it would be wiser to move the school to Vṛndāvana, because in India no one would place restrictions on the school. On the contrary, the school would be encouraged by the government. In addition, the children would be able to absorb the spiritual atmosphere of Vṛndāvana, the holy place that was Lord Kṛṣṇa’s village. (Satsvarūpa Dāsa Goswami 1983b, p. 339) The school moved in 1976, and by the summer of 1977 the construction of a large building for the gurukula was almost complete.

The Vṛndāvana gurukula was only for boys. Other schools, mostly co-educational, opened around this time. By 1978 there were eleven boarding schools in North America. By the early 1980s, several other gurukulas had started in France, England, Sweden, Africa, and Australia. (Rochford 1998, p. 46) As the Minister of Education, Jagadīśa began overseeing these schools and also travelled to assess potential locations for future schools. He was assisted by three or four part-time volunteers. It was a difficult job given the lack of resources and experience, and he had no funding.

Despite Prabhupāda’s emphasis on the importance of the schools, untrained individuals were often engaged as teachers. Urmila Dāsī points this out clearly in her doctoral thesis:

From the opening of ISKCON’s first primary school until at least the mid-80s, if not the 90s, finding good teachers seemed a straightforward matter. The ideal teacher was deemed to be one who demonstrated strict following of Kṛṣṇa religious practices, while academic qualifications or training in pedagogy were considered minor in importance (Daner, 1976; Deadwyler, 2001). Sometimes members were asked to be teachers simply because they were deemed by local temple leaders as unfit for other service (Deadwyler, 2001). However, being a teacher in the early schools was a very demanding job. The students usually lived at school; there was little use of published textbooks or commercial educational materials, and few vacations. (Best 2006, p. 60)

Another challenge for the Ministry of Education was trying to develop schools based on the spiritual principles of daivī-varṇāśrama for children from a diverse, worldwide community. Jagadīśa said:

The main problem here, I think, is that the development of varṇāśrama will probably not occur uniformly everywhere because of the diversity of cultures. We had only Prabhupāda’s books to go on, and they described a once-fully-functioning varṇāśrama society. But we really had no precedents to look at. (Personal communication, 2007)

Despite Prabhupāda’s emphasis on daivī-varṇāśrama in his books, conversations, and letters, ISKCON’s development of varṇāśrama is an unfulfilled ideal. Ravīndra Svarūpa Dāsa writes:

Since the time Prabhupāda began speaking extensively about implementing varṇāśrama-dharma, there has been much discussion in ISKCON on the way to go about it. I can report that there is still little, if any, consensus. […] I also have my own views on the application of varṇāśrama-dharma, for I too have thought about the subject, but I assure you, that whatever I speak or write will not go uncontested by someone else in ISKCON. (Ravīndra Svarūpa Dāsa 1999, pp. 40–1)

From the beginning, ISKCON educators have struggled to define and implement varṇāśrama principles and practices in today’s socio-cultural settings. Jagadīśa said that this problem became evident when the children became teenagers:

To develop high-school programmes as the children grew was especially complex because we had mainly the varṇāśrama idea at that time. We, at the Ministry, did not object if parents wanted to send their children to outside schools. That was their responsibility, not ours. In the meantime we tried to develop a varṇāśrama-based training programme for the young teenagers. (Personal communication, 2007)

For three or four years, the Ministry oversaw some apprenticeship programmes to train youth. Whenever possible, these programmes were developed in coordination with parents and with some ISKCON farm communities. These programmes lasted for too short a period to allow for any judgements to be made about their results. When the Ministry became the Board of Education in 1988, the apprenticeship programme was brought to an end.

In the mid-1980s, to provide inspiration for ISKCON educators and others involved in the gurukulas, Jagadīśa published a handbook: Śrīla Prabhupāda on Gurukula. The handbook contains quotations from Prabhupāda’s teachings about gurukula and some comments by Jagadīśa. It provides an interesting look at the ideals that sustained children’s education during the first twenty years of ISKCON’s history. This early period was very challenging for the Ministry of Education, and ISKCON in general, because Prabhupāda passed on in November 1977, leaving his young disciples to lead the movement.

Tamāl Kṛṣṇa Goswami summarised the situation as follows:

The departure of ISKCON’s charismatic founder traumatised the Society’s entire membership and, as might be expected, inaugurated an extended struggle to resolve the issue of authority. His death was not sudden, but followed a protracted illness lasting a year. Although devotees had enough time to prepare themselves for the inevitable conclusion, their total dependence upon Prabhupāda left them deeply shaken by his absence. The aftershocks were felt again and again, individually and by ISKCON as a whole. Prabhupāda had warned that the ācārya’s departure is a great loss to the world; the spiritual vacuum thus created would be the cause of havoc in his institution, a view confirmed by the history of the Gauḍīya Maṭha. Despite such warnings, however, ISKCON’s leaders acted hastily to fill the void created by Prabhupāda’s departure. No doubt they were motivated by one of Prabhupāda’s final requests that they at least maintain what he had left them. Yet, immaturity and, on the part of some, desire and ambition, led to the establishment of a zonal ācārya system in the 1980s which threatened to leave ISKCON as divided as the Gauḍīya Maṭha. The 1980s also saw attempts to bring into ISKCON ācāryas from [other] Gauḍīya groups. It also saw the proposal that since none of Prabhupāda’s disciples were qualified to serve as guru, Prabhupāda himself would continue to initiate posthumously (the ritvik-ācārya theory). (Tamāl Kṛṣṇa Goswami 1997, pp. 21–2)

Although the zonal ācāryas, each in their own way, promoted a variety of missionary activities, educational and social development did not appear as priorities in most cases. The members of the Ministry of Education felt alienated. Jagadīśa recalls:

Following Prabhupāda’s example, I encouraged local initiative. We had headmaster meetings every year that were well attended and loved. We developed close friendships and commiserated over the problems we all encountered within the zonal ācārya system. None of us liked it at all. In fact, as I recall most of us experienced alienation.

Our main problems, practically everywhere, were related to lack of facilitation. The leaders of the movement were focused elsewhere for the most part. The gṛhasthas [married couples] in most places were expected to work for the temple and surrender their children to a gurukula. There were exceptions. Some gurukula projects were well looked after and well staffed, but almost everywhere the schools were subject to sudden decisions by managers that could negatively affect the educational process. (Personal communication, 2007)

Between 1986 and 1988, the zonal ācārya system collapsed, as several ācāryas fell from grace. This put the Society into a period of crisis and reform, and the Ministry of Education was also affected. But besides the challenging circumstances already discussed, perhaps the most formidable obstacle faced by the Ministry of Education was that physical, psychological, and sexual abuse of children was taking place in some boarding schools. (Rochford 1998 and Bharata Śreṣṭa Dāsa 1998) This added to an already difficult situation and made it unbearable for the members of the Ministry to continue. They resigned in 1987.6 Jagadīśa remembers:

My helpers and I had come to see that no matter how much we all worked to our maximum capacities, the situation would remain unbearable. Then there was placed in front of us the disgusting phenomenon of child abuse, with some ISKCON leaders themselves implicated, and it was doubly unbearable. Facing such insurmountable obstacles, some time in 1987 we together tendered our resignations and wrote a letter to the GBC proposing the formation of an ISKCON Board of Education, composed of GBC members and others who could contribute.

[…]

This was a major challenge for all of us in the Ministry, and I still cannot understand why it happened. People we knew and worked with and trusted turned out to be abusers. Once we understood that we had a serious and general problem, Śrī Rāma Prabhu began to organise a child protection programme, which still continues today.

I think there were three primary reasons for the dissolution of the Ministry. One was our discouragement and disgust over the disgraceful conduct of the zonal ācāryas for whose future disciples (as it was then seen) we had been organising educational programmes. Another was that most of us were in favour of turning over responsibility for educational development to local management, where, we felt, it belongs. The third was the child-abuse problem. How could this have happened? It was hard for us to feel responsible because we had no warning and no power. Yet here it was occurring during our watch. We felt compromised and ashamed. (Personal communication, 2007)

There were twenty to twenty-five schools at the time the Ministry dissolved. Most were in North America, many in Europe, and a few in India, Australia, New Zealand, and Latin America. Because of the child abuse, the situation changed dramatically, and many boarding schools closed or became day schools.

The ISKCON Board of Education (1988–95): a period of survival

During the GBC meeting of 1988 Jagadīśa’s resignation was accepted. The Ministry of Education was dissolved and replaced by the ISKCON Board of Education (IBE). The IBE was a GBC standing committee meant to oversee primary and secondary education, and composed of GBC and non-GBC members. Its task was to formulate and execute plans to ensure the quality of Kṛṣṇa conscious education throughout ISKCON. Besides taking over the responsibilities of the former Ministry of Education, the IBE was to establish and maintain an administrative office.

The first members of the IBE were Toṣaṇa Kṛṣṇa Dāsa (Chairman), Jagadīśa Goswami, Śivarāma Swami, Bhaktisvarūpa Dāmodara Swami, Ravīndra Svarūpa Dāsa, Bhūrijana Dāsa, Vrikodara Dāsa, Kirtīrāja Dāsa, Śrī Rāma Dāsa, Dhanvantari Swami, and Vṛṣa Dāsa. The IBE soon took steps to establish several child protection policies, which were approved by the GBC at its 1990 meeting.7 The IBE members met at least once a year, under four chairmen or coordinators: Toṣaṇa Kṛṣṇa Dāsa (one year), Śrī Rāma Dāsa (two years), Urmila Devī Dāsī (two years), and Murlivadaka Dāsa (two years).

According to several members of the IBE, Śrī Rāma Dāsa was perhaps the most active chairman. He promoted educational publications (e.g., Vaikuṇṭha Children, by Urmila Devī Dāsī), publicised and advocated home schooling, fostered high academic standards, and created awareness among leaders about how to prevent and deal with child abuse. He was also the main force behind the first GBC resolution on child protection policies. Gradually, because of ill health and financial concerns, Śrī Rāma gave up his involvement in education.

Another significant step during this period was the appearance of an education column in Back to Godhead magazine, the magazine of the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement, written first by Śrī Rāma and later by Urmila.

Despite IBE’s efforts, however, education was still not a priority for most of ISKCON’s leaders and members. Urmila said:

During those years that Murlivadaka and I had all the files and stuff, the ‘Ministry’ was a GBC committee that met once a year in Māyāpur and was really, from a practical point of view, useless. (Personal communication, 2007)

Harikeśa Swami, soon to become the Minister of Educational Development, confirmed this:

There was no functioning Minister at that time, and it seemed as if the devotees engaged in the Ministry of Education were taking care of it themselves. As far as I remember, it was very headless and mission-less. It really did not have a possibility of accomplishing much. There was no money; basically, it was not functioning. (Personal communication, 2007)

At the start of this period of struggle and survival, ISKCON was focused on the zonal ācārya crisis and guru reform, while the IBE had to deal with the aftermath of child abuse. These two factors kept the number of accomplishments small in the field of children’s education.

While the emphasis on children’s education was diminished, however, a stronger trend toward adult education started to develop. In 1987, Bhūrijana Dāsa, supported by Jayādvaita Swami and Dhanurdhara Swami, founded the Vaiṣṇava Institute for Higher Education (VIHE)8 in Vṛndāvana, India. Its purpose was to create a brahminical or intellectual culture in ISKCON, based on studying Prabhupāda’s books. In the twenty years since then, VIHE has been successfully offering many courses on spiritual development and practical skills to ISKCON devotees from all over the world. Bhūrijana Dāsa remembered the rationale behind the project and its first successes:

Jagadīśa, Jayādvaita Swami, Dhanurdhara Swami, and I discussed the concept in 1986, after the zonal ācārya system had died at the GBC meeting of that year. We decided that I would organise things, and I did. The first semester was held during Kārttika 1987. About twenty-five students attended from all around the world. It was powerful – a real spiritual journey, a spiritual experience: chanting, hearing, and the association of devotees in Vṛndāvana. We saw the need for adult education in ISKCON. We saw that the devotees were crying – dying – for it. The demise of the zonal ācārya system allowed us the freedom to organise it, and the devotees the freedom to attend. (Personal communication, 2007)

As a result of VIHE’s success, attempts were made to expand the concept to other areas of the world. In 1992, Braja Bihārī Dāsa of the VIHE organised courses in the Radhadesh community in Belgium. The previous year, in June 1991, Śaunaka Ṛṣi Dāsa, the Director of ISKCON Communications Europe, had established ISKCON Communications Europe, and inaugurated Communications Seminars, where educational sessions were offered by some of ISKCON’s leading lecturers. An important aspect of these Seminars was that non-ISKCON scholars and speakers were also invited to talk. Perhaps for the first time in an official ISKCON forum, ISKCON members had the opportunity to broaden their perspectives by hearing what non-ISKCON thinkers had to say about their organisation. In the summer of 1992, the VIHE courses were launched in Europe but did not attract the expected numbers, possibly because they were held just before the now popular Communications Seminars. Śaunaka Ṛṣi Dāsa and Braja Bihārī Dāsa decided to merge their educational efforts by holding the ISKCON Convention in Radhadesh. The Conventions, beginning in 1993, ran successfully until being wound down in 2006 (letter from the organisers, 4 June 2007). It was an attempt to foster participative, open, and self-critical discussions among ISKCON members.

Moreover, the Communications Seminars and its successor, the ISKCON Convention, became fertile fields where other educational initiatives were conceived. One of the most important of these is the Vaiṣṇava Training and Education Team (VTE)9, which was formed in 1992, after seminars focusing on ISKCON’s educational needs had been taught. The VTE has since developed both canonical and skills courses, the flagship being its Teacher Training courses. Other VTE courses include: Bhakti-śāstri,10 Book Distribution,11 Communications, Leadership and Management, GṛhasthaTraining (for couples),12 and the latest addition, a Guru Training course.13 Other courses that use an interactive VTE approach are continually being created by teachers sharing the VTE ethos and methodology.

A short, exciting period: 1996–8

In 1996, Prabhupāda’s centennial year, the GBC decided to nurture ministries that promote social and educational programmes. These included the Ministry for Gṛhastha Affairs and the Women’s Ministry. The same year there was a confrontation between several ISKCON teenagers and an ISKCON leader who had been the head of the Vṛndāvana gurukula when the child abuse took place. These gurukula alumni were very dissatisfied with the progress of the child abuse cases. In that situation Harikeśa Swami proposed creating a Ministry of Educational Development14 and funding it. He was a prominent GBC and guru and had access to financial resources. The proposal was well received, and it was approved during the next GBC meeting, in 1997. The GBC resolution read:

Harikeśa Swami is appointed the Minister of Educational Development. He is to work on:

(a) development of curriculum from gurukula to university level,

(b) finding and training teachers,

(c) creating higher educational institutions (high school and upwards), and

(d) coordinating experts in ISKCON education.

With the creation of the MED, the IBE naturally dissolved.

The Ministry’s new name indicated a new chapter in the history of education in ISKCON. By using the expression ‘educational development’ the Ministry’s founders intended to establish a clear separation between the unfortunate events that had taken place in ISKCON’s primary and secondary schools during the first decade of the Ministry of Education and the concept of systematic and responsible development of education they now envisioned for ISKCON.

According to many ISKCON educators involved at that time, this was the most exciting period so far in the history of ISKCON education. The two main factors that made this period so promising were that for the first time the Ministry had abundant funds and an influential ISKCON leader fully supporting educators. Harikeśa Swami funded one international meeting in Abentheuer, Germany, where thirty committed educators gathered to discuss strategies and programmes. Sefton Davies, an educational consultant who greatly helped the VTE team, facilitated the conference. (Personal communication with Śaunaka Ṛṣi Dāsa, 2007) Solidarity among ISKCON educators was strengthened, a shared vision grew among them, and a strategy with practical steps was formulated.

An important shift during this period was that adult education became a formal priority for the MED. The MED adopted the rationale of the VTE team that the primary question was who trains the teachers. There was a need to train teachers, who could then successfully educate other ISKCON members. Harikeśa Swami remarks:

Previously, teachers used to come from anywhere, any part of ISKCON, which meant basically they couldn’t do anything else – they couldn’t go out to distribute books, they couldn’t manage something. They couldn’t do things that other people would have thought were valuable or money-making, so they were sent to the schools.

[…]

Some things I thought were wrong were related to the fact that I thought the teachers need to be trained as teachers. The first thing was to make sure everybody was educated, everybody had a degree, everybody was psychologically fit, everybody was emotionally fit, everybody was a proper person you want to put your children with. So we went into educating teachers. (Personal conversation, 2007)

MED established an International Primary and Secondary Education Team (IPSET) to supervise the training of teachers and to assure the quality of the schools. A document describing its functions reads:

IPSET will be responsible for acting as a resource centre and for providing leadership and vision to all primary and secondary schools in ISKCON. It will also establish and maintain a regular programme of teacher training, and in-service training seminars. Initially IPSET will be responsible for overseeing the writing of both the curriculum for teacher training and an accreditation procedure. By the end of 1999, this Ministry will be responsible for all the record-keeping that is connected with these two functions. IPSET will maintain a database of all primary and secondary schools in ISKCON, their enrolment, staff, tuition, aims, and objectives, etc. IPSET will also establish regular communication, through mail and personal visits with all schools and school administrators in ISKCON. (Document provided by Urmila Dāsī 2007)

According to Harikeśa Swami, MED made it a priority to rectify the former policy of separating children from their parents in boarding schools, and it took steps to close any remaining boarding schools that did not have a community where the children’s parents could live. MED also started to develop programmes to train parents and to write curricula and textbooks. Harikeśa Swami donated equipment and funded several educational projects in different parts of the world.

During this same period, the ISKCON Communications Europe Leadership Team (ICELT) made a proposal to the GBC for the foundation of a Child Protection Office that would work towards making amends for past cases of child abuse and preventing new cases by means of education and supervision. The ICELT also developed an initial board to follow-up on these issues until the Child Protection Office was established. The ICELT requested Harikeśa Swami to champion this proposal through the GBC process to establish the Child Protection Office, which he did successfully, also providing some of the funding (personal communication, Śaunaka Ṛṣi Dāsa 2007).15

However, in the summer of 1998, only a year and a half after MED was established, Harikeśa Swami made a major change in his life and distanced himself from ISKCON, bringing this brief chapter to a close.

A significant, related achievement during this period was the foundation of a project independent of ISKCON: the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies (OCHS). The OCHS is a Recognised Independent Centre (RIC) of Oxford University, dedicated to research and teaching. Śaunaka Ṛṣi has been the director of this project since its inception in 1997. One rationale behind the Centre is that Oxford D.Phil. graduates can become teachers in Hindu communities, qualified to teach at any level, from university level to primary education; thus, from the top down, education in Hinduism could expand. Over the next decade a community of ISKCON scholars developed around the OCHS. These scholars contribute to ISKCON and to society at large by teaching in educational institutions and publishing their research work.

Even though Prabhupāda himself gave importance to scholarship, the tendency in ISKCON during its first two decades or more was to see academic studies as unimportant and unrelated to missionary work. ISKCON scholars were frequently viewed as less devout and impractical. Some ISKCON members became scholars on their own, without much institutional support, and sometimes they faced opposition from other community members. This institutional trend shifted during the 1990s, when some ISKCON gurus16 decided to finish or even start their university studies.

Focusing on adult education: 1998–2008

Shortly after Harikeśa Swami’s resignation, Śeṣa Dāsa became the Minister of Educational Development in March 1999, working together with three members of the MED Executive Committee. In 2007 two more members were added to the Executive Committee, and the MED gained a secretary.

With Harikeśa Swami’s departure, the funding had stopped, and again the MED was penniless. The Ministry was unable to establish an office between 1998 and 2006, but did open one in 2007. The GBC now provides the MED with some funding. But considering its limited resources, the MED decided to adjust its strategy. Śeṣa explains:

My role as the Chairman and the Minister is different from Harikeśa Swami’s, because he was the financer, whereas MED really became more like a committee when I became its Minister. The MED Executive Committee was formed, and it had four of us on it: me, Braja Bihārī, Laxmimoni, and Śaunaka Ṛṣi. It became more of a collaborative kind of body. The strategy we decided to take – after realising that the resources weren’t there – was to become an advisory body and not an executive body. This is, again, a difference compared with Harikeśa Swami, who acted as an executive because he had the money and could decide on and do things. (Personal conversation, 2007)

During this decade, many ex-gurukula students who had been abused took legal action against ISKCON’s North American temples. (Rochford 1998; Bharata Śreṣṭa Dāsa 1998) This factor prompted the MED to distance itself from taking direct responsibility for any primary or secondary school. The Ministry decided that there were no ISKCON schools per se. Śeṣa explains:

So we understood that we could not be responsible for the schools in ISKCON. We said that there is no such thing as an ISKCON school. Schools can be started by individuals, or else the GBC in the zone is responsible for the school, not the Ministry of Educational Development, because we didn’t have the manpower or financial resources to take responsibility for managing schools. It had to be under the responsibility of the GBCs. We made this very clear to the GBC, say, maybe around 2001 or 2002. (Interview 2007)

The MED increased its policy of training from the top down, that is, concentrating on adult education with the aim of developing children’s education. Śeṣa describes the MED’s overall strategy:

The MED was more like a consultative body. One thing that happened as a result of the ministry developing like this was that individuals with resources, or [those] who could generate resources, developed projects. Śaunaka Ṛṣi took the responsibility to develop Bhaktivedanta College and the Oxford project [OCHS]. His idea was (and we discussed this in MED executive meetings) that there will be a trickle-down effect, starting at the top with Oxford and Bhaktivedanta College, and letting the benefits of those programmes trickle down in the form of teachers, curriculum development, etc. to other levels of education in ISKCON. Of course, that left people like Laxmimoni (who ran a secondary school within ISKCON for 30 years) dissatisfied, because over the years that these programmes developed nothing really happened on the primary and secondary levels. The primary and secondary levels started to fade away in ISKCON, and that was a concern for Laxmimoni. That’s what was happening, so that was a bit troublesome. And this has been a problem for the MED in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish. Not much has been done in those fields. (Interview, 2007)

In this regard, due to the lack of funding, and the strategy designed by the MED Executive Committee, IPSET became a dormant project.

Nevertheless, in the area of adult education, two important developments took place during these ten years: the opening in India of the Mayapura Institute for Higher Education and Training (MIHET), in 2000, and the opening of Bhaktivedanta College in Radhadesh, Belgium, in 2002. Janmāṣṭamī Dāsa was the force behind MIHET,17 and he has developed it over the last eight years. He says:

In January 1989, I attended the VIHE for the first time. At that time I was a book distributor and had been doing that for twelve years. I was regularly studying Prabhupāda’s books at least an hour a day. In the one month that I attended the VIHE courses (taught by senior devotees such as Tamāl Kṛṣṇa Goswami, Satsvarūpa Dāsa Goswami, Giriraja Swami, and Bhūrijana Prabhu), I felt I learned more than I had in the previous twelve years. Studying Prabhupāda’s books in a systematic way with advanced devotees in Vṛndāvana produced new deep realisations. I was amazed at the potency of this programme.

What amazed me more was that I returned to book distribution and my results increased thirty percent. My ability to inspire other distributors also increased. I attended the VIHE again the next year and had similar experiences during the courses and when I returned. I attended VIHE courses five more times before I started the MIHET. I wanted other devotees to experience what I had so powerfully experienced. (Personal communication, 2007)

The Bhaktivedanta College project began in discussion among ICELT and VTE members and became a natural home for VTE courses. Its purpose is to systematically educate devotees who can contribute to ISKCON as priests, teachers, scholars, leaders, managers, missionaries, or simply as exemplary members of mainstream society. A year after it opened, the College started offering academically accredited courses in partnership with the University of Wales, Lampeter. It now offers a three-year Ministerial Programme leading to a Bachelor’s degree in Theology. Six students received this degree in 2007 and seven in 2008. The curriculum includes three educational strands: theology and philosophy, vocational training, and spiritual practices. Bhaktivedanta College is planning an accredited department of Leadership and Management, leading to a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. The college trustees18 envision replicating this model in countries around the world.

While the MED did not take direct responsibility for any educational project, it still focused on supporting some of those that fit within its strategy, such as the association of scholars at OCHS, Bhaktivedanta College, the VIHE and MIHET, the Vaiṣṇava Academy for Girls in Alachua (USA)19, and the new ISKCON Studies Institute. The VIHE, inspired by Bhūrijana Dāsa and Nārāyanī Dāsī, has developed two advanced scriptural study courses over the last fifteen years, Bhaktivaibhava and Bhaktivedanta, that were first suggested by Prabhupāda (Letter to Svarupa Damodara, 10 January 1976), and other educational institutes have followed the VIHE’s lead in the area of scriptural study.

From the 1990s onwards, numerous adult-education initiatives developed independently around the ISKCON world. Some examples are the Bhaktivedanta College for Education and Culture in South Africa, founded in 1991 by Bṛhad-mṛdanga Dāsa; the Bhaktivedanta College in Budapest, which since 2002 has offered fully accredited degrees in Vaiṣṇava Theology (in the Hungarian language); the North American Institute for Oriental and Classical Studies; and the Govardhana Sanskrit School in India, which focuses on educating Sanskritists who can continue translating classical Vaiṣṇava texts to be published by the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (BBT).

Analysis: Lessons from ISKCON’s history

The chequered history of education in ISKCON invites careful analysis by members of ISKCON and outside observers. Such engagement with ISKCON’s history will be crucial to the success of future educational initiatives and, indeed, the health of the Society itself. Although a sustained analysis is beyond the scope of this essay, I would like to offer here some important questions that need to be addressed. My hope is that these questions and issues can serve as the basis for further studies of ISKCON’s educational history.

What is ISKCON’s relationship to external educational institutions?

Since ISKCON’s early days, Prabhupāda sometimes expressed a favourable disposition toward learning in educational institutions. Some examples follow (Prabhupāda 1992, pp. 751–3, 758):

My first instruction to you is that you must pass your MA Examination before any other consideration. Your degree will be a great asset for the society in the near future. (Letter to Janārdana, 1 May, 1967)

For the present you should continue going to school because education is important. Without education nobody has any social position, and all our students in Kṛṣṇa consciousness are expected to be preachers. (Letter to Indirā, 17 December 1967)

In the 1990s some ISKCON leaders decided to complete their formal education for the purpose of reinvigorating ISKCON and their missionary work. Kṛṣṇa Kṣetra Dāsa, an ISKCON guru who resumed his university studies and earned a Ph.D. at Oxford University, says:

In the early schools’ failures can be seen not only the necessity to find educational resources outside the Society (from kindergarten on up) but also the recognition that ISKCON was not in reality the hegemonic, all-encompassing institution it imagined itself to be. One may then ask to what extent present and future efforts in its educational development reflect an effort to make the Society indeed hegemonic or, alternatively, reflect a sense that it is an institution fulfilling certain needs while allowing that other institutions can fulfil certain other needs sufficiently or perhaps better than ISKCON. (Personal communication, 2007)

Indeed, such issues highlight the need to reflect on the question of ISKCON’s relationship to educational institutions at large. To what extent should ISKCON attempt to provide for all the educational needs of its members? In what ways should it make use of external institutions?

What is the place of education in ISKCON relative to other institutional priorities?

From the opening of the first ISKCON school in 1971 until the closing of most of them in the late 1980s, ISKCON focused on achieving results in terms of missionary work by distributing books, making new members, and so on, at the expense, in many cases, of proper education for both its children and adults. Bhūrijana Dāsa, one of ISKCON’s most experienced educators, points to the lack of prioritisation:

Perhaps in 1985 or 1986 I had a vision of the disaster courting ISKCON because of its neglect of gurukula education. ‘Neglect’ is perhaps the wrong word. More accurately, the lack was ISKCON’s unawareness of, and practical inability to offer, the resources actually required to educate its children in gurukula. (Personal communication 2007)

As a relatively new and growing institution, ISKCON faces many demands on its time and resources. How will these be prioritised? What place will education hold among them? And will this be reflected in management, policy, and leadership?

How will ISKCON provide for its educators?

Any good educational system depends upon recruiting, training, and retaining a qualified faculty of teachers. The resources invested in the care of teachers have a proportionate effect on the quality of students’ education. Bhūrijana Dāsa describes his own struggles as a teacher in the early years of the movement.

For me, learning to become a teacher was the prime challenge, as I started only with a liking for children. To become a teacher took me five years of experience, mistakes, tears, and outside reading and seminars. I began teaching when I was 28 and had no experience of a child going through the transformations of adolescence from childhood. I had a university degree, had a proclivity to teach, had no specific training in teaching, and I was inexperienced in life. At that time, I had no understanding of my limitations. I taught seven days a week, every week, every month. […] Because I had to learn the art of teaching on my own, basically with neither help nor support from others, I did further research and wrote a book entitled The Art of Teaching, so that others would not have to go through what I did – learning everything the hard way, through trial and error. (Personal communication 2007)

How will ISKCON attract the very best teachers to its educational institutions, and how will it provide the training and resources necessary for them to pursue their chosen vocation?

Whose responsibility is education?

In order to resolve many of the challenges we have discussed in this essay, it becomes crucial to address questions of responsibility and leadership. Whose responsibility is education and who will be empowered to develop it? What will be their relationship to the movement’s leadership? Bhūrijana describes his experience as a member of the Ministry of Education:

We disbanded the Ministry of Education in 1987 when it became clear that although we held the responsibility for education in ISKCON, actually we had insufficient authority. We had access to neither people nor money. Nor did we have facilities to gather these. Nor did we have the inclination or abilities to do so. We mostly were teachers and educators, not managers. Grasping that element of reality – that the zonal leaders, not us, were in control of the necessary ingredients for education in ISKCON (though we, the Ministry of Education, were being thought of as responsible for it) was specifically the cause of Jagadīśa’s handing in his resignation at the GBC meeting in 1987. (Personal communication, 2007)

The Ministry of Educational Development is now faced with several questions regarding its relationship to ISKCON as a whole. What is, or what should be, the role of the MED? Should it work in an advisory capacity as it is now doing? Should the Ministry generate resources and assign them to particular projects, or is it better that educational projects develop locally? If local development is preferred, what should be the relationship of the Ministry to these projects?

Beyond the MED, how can ISKCON gather and empower members who will take the initiative to develop its educational systems? Who will formulate and apply ISKCON’s educational strategy?

What is ISKCON’s philosophy of education?

The final question is perhaps the most fundamental – what are the guiding principles around which ISKCON will develop and pursue its educational strategy? What is ISKCON’s philosophy of education, and who will articulate it?

A well-formulated philosophy of education would shed light on many of the questions raised above, and provide guidance for developing educational initiatives within the movement. To what extent, for example, will ISKCON draw upon educational approaches articulated in other religious or secular institutions? Is it possible to apply social principles of daivī varṇāśrama-dharma in ISKCON communities, and if it is possible, then to what degree?20

Perhaps one of the greatest mistakes ISKCON made was to separate education from its missionary work and thereby create a false dichotomy between these two essential elements. A clearly articulated philosophy of education that integrates the various facets of ISKCON’s mission will provide the basis for sound policy decisions and the vision necessary for long term educational success.

Bibliography: 

A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda. Bhagavad-gītā As It Is. Los Angeles: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1986.

—— Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. Los Angeles: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1987.

—— Śrīla Prabhupāda Śikṣāmṛta. Los Angeles: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1992.

—— Śrī Īśopaniṣad. Los Angeles: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1997.

—— The Complete Teachings of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda. CD-ROM. Sandy Ridge, NC: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 2003.

Best, Edith Elizabeth (Urmila Devī Dāsī). Job Satisfaction of Teachers in Kṛṣṇa Primary and Secondary Schools (Ph.D. thesis). Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Unpublished, 2006.

Bharata Śreṣṭa Dāsa. ‘ISKCON’s Response to Child Abuse: 1990–1998’ in ISKCON Communications Journal, Vol. 6, No 1, June 1998.

Daner, F. J. ‘The American Children of Krishna: A Study of the Hare Krishna Movement’. In G. Sprindler & L. Sprindler (Eds.), Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1976.

Deadwyler, G. ‘Fifteen Years Later: A Critique of Gurukula’ in ISKCON Communications Journal, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2001.

Haberman, David. The Bhaktirasamrtasindhu of Rūpa Gosvāmīn, New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd, 2003.

Jagadīśa Goswami. Śrīla Prabhupāda on Gurukula. Dallas: ISKCON Gurukula Press, 2004.

Ravīndra Svarūpa Dāsa. ‘ISKCON and Varṇāśrama-dharma: A Mission Unfulfilled’ in ISKCON Communications Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, June 1999.

Rochford Jr., E. Burke with Jennifer Heinlein. ‘Child Abuse in the Hare Kṛṣṇa Movement: 1971–1986’ in ISKCON Communications Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1, June 1998.

Rochford Jr., E. Burke. ‘Prabhupāda Centennial Survey: A Summary of the Final Report’ in ISKCON Communications Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1, June 1999.

Satsvarūpa Dāsa Goswami. Śrīla Prabhupāda Lilamṛta, Volume 2, Planting the Seed. Los Angeles: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1980.

—— Śrīla Prabhupāda Lilamṛta, Volume 5, Let There Be a Temple. Los Angeles: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1983a.

—— Śrīla Prabhupāda Lilamṛta, Volume 6, Uniting Two Worlds. Los Angeles: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1983b.

—— Śrīla Prabhupāda Lilamṛta, Volume 2 (of a two-volume edition). Los Angeles: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 2002.

Tamāl Kṛṣṇa Goswami. ‘The Perils of Succession: Heresies of Authority and Continuity in the Hare Kṛṣṇa Movement’ in ISKCON Communications Journal, Vol. 5, No. 1, June 1997.

Notes: 

1. This was the name given to him by Prabhupāda when he became a renunciant, or sannyāsī. Since his resignation from the sannyāsa order, in 1998, Harikeśa Swami prefers to be called Hari. In this article, however, I use the name Harikeśa Swami, since this was his name while acting as the Minister of Education.

2. Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 1.5.22, purport.

3. In a letter to Satyabhama Dāsī (27 December 1968) he wrote: ‘I am very glad to see your enthusiasm in the matter of starting a Kṛṣṇa consciousness primary school in New Vrindavan.’ (Prabhupada 1992, p. 761)

4. GBC stands for Governing Body Commission. In the early 1970s, Prabhupāda established the GBC as ISKCON’s highest managerial authority. The GBC is composed of members who oversee the activities of ISKCON centres in particular areas of the world. Today there are more than thirty members of the GBC. Prabhupāda established twelve original members and gradually added more. The GBC meets annually in Māyāpura, West Bengal.

5. Regarding the number of students, Bhaktarūpa Dāsa, a parent and staff member of the school in Dallas, said in a personal communication: ‘There were 135 students in the school at its peak, in late 1975.’

6. According to a report from a member of the Ministry of Education, members of the Ministry found out about child abuse during a meeting that took place in New Vrindaban in 1987. The report included the topics that had been discussed each year during the annual meetings organised by the Ministry. Until 1987, no mention of child abuse cases was made in any reports.

7. See www.childprotectionoffice.org/resolution.htm.

8. Now called the Vṛndāvana Institute for Higher Education, or VIHE.

9. The founding team members were: A. C. Bhaktivaibhava Swami, Akhandadhi Dāsa, Anuttamā Dāsa, Bhāgavata Āśrayā Dāsa, Jñāna Dāsa, Pūrṇacandra Dāsa, Rāsamaṇḍala Dāsa, Śacīnandana Swami, Śaunaka Ṛṣi Dāsa, and Sitā Rāma Dāsa.

10. The Bhakti-Śāstri course is a systematic study of four canonical texts established by Prabhupāda as foundational.

11. An important part of the missionary work in ISKCON is the distribution of Prabhupāda’s books. A course was developed to improve the quality of this missionary activity.

12. The gṛhastha course was an initiative of the North American Gṛhastha Vision Team. The VTE helped prepare the curriculum.

13. The VTE Guru Training Course was formally launched in Ujjain (India) in February 2008. More than twenty ISKCON leaders took the course, including GBC members and experienced and new gurus. It was well received and shortly after, during the annual GBC meeting, the GBC decided that this course should be offered every year for existing and future gurus.

14. www.iskconeducation.org.

15. Later all the GBC members and gurus contributed funding to the Child Protection Office.

16. Including Hṛdayānanda Dāsa Goswami, Tamāl Kṛṣṇa Goswami, and Kṛṣṇa Kṣetra Dāsa.

17. Many of the first MIHET teachers were very senior members of ISKCON: Bhakti Caru Swami, Bhakti-tīrtha Swami, B. V. V. Narasiṁha Swami, Jayapātāka Swami, Jayādvaita Swami, Kadamba Kānana Swami, Anuttamā Dāsa, Jananivāsa Dāsa, Pankajanghri Dāsa, Rāsamaṇḍala Dāsa, Atul Kṛṣṇa Dāsa, and Nṛsiṁha Kavaca Dāsa. The MIHET moved ahead administratively without a board of directors, but with the blessings of Jayapātāka Swami and Hari Sauri Dāsa, who were Mayapur Co-Directors at the time of its founding.

18. The founding Board of Trustees: Ambarīṣa Dāsa, Anuttamā Dāsa, Braja Bihārī Dāsa, Girirāja Swami, Hṛdaya Caitanya Dāsa, Mahāprabhu Dāsa, Rādhānatha Swami, Śaunaka Ṛṣi Dāsa, and Viṣṇu Mūrti Dāsa. The first executive team was Viṣṇu Mūrti Dāsa, Administrative Director, and Yadunandana Swami, Principal. Now Līlāśuka Dāsa, Jaya Kṛṣṇa Dāsa (Administrative Director), Mahendra Dāsa (Assistant Course Director), Rukmiṇī Dāsī, and Yadunandana Swami (Principal) are also trustees.

19. The Vaiṣṇava Academy for Girls closed in 2006, mainly for lack of a committed staff. An accredited boarding school for girls the ages of twelve to eighteen, it operated for more than twenty years.

20. Recently, Urmila Dāsī wrote a paper based on Śrī Īśopaniṣad about the philosophy of education to be followed at the new Kṛṣṇa Avanti school in Harrow, England, which opened in 2008; ISKCON is the faith advisor for the school. See www.krishna-avanti.org.uk for more information.