ISKCON Goes Back to School

By Madhava Smullen on 18 Sep 2010
It’s a new school year, with children in the United States and in many countries around the world slinging on their backpacks and packing their lunches after the summer.

Sesa DasSesa Dasa, ISKCON’s minister for Educational Development.

It’s a new school year, with children in the United States and in many countries around the world slinging on their backpacks and packing their lunches after the summer.

ISKCON children—some attending ISKCON institutions and others public schools—are amongst them. So what’s in store for our children’s education this year, and in the future?

Speaking to ISKCON’s Minister for Educational Development Sesa Dasa, ISKCON News discovered that the current picture of education in our society is a positive one, albeit one that needs some continued work.

“Several of our schools, especially in India, are thriving,” he says. “In July this year, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) professor Lila Purushottama Dasa became the new principal of Bhaktivedanta Swami Gurukula and International School in Vrindavana, taking some time off from his other career to run the school with several of his colleagues from IIT.”

The new administration has raised the school’s already high academic and spiritual standards, and is attracting a wide variety of students—children of full-time ISKCON temple devotees, those of ISKCON life members, and even children of the traditional Goswami families that run Vrindavana’s 108 temples.

Meanwhile ISKCON’s headquarters in Mayapur, West Bengal, is becoming a hub of excellent education for children as families move there from all over the world to be part of the construction and eventual operation of the brand new Temple of the Vedic Planetarium.

The community’s International School is accredited with Cambridge University in the UK, and all students take their exams through that establishment, while its National School—an English medium school provided for the Bengali population around Mayapur—is very well received by locals, and its students are doing exceptionally well academically.

Of course, not everything has been going swimmingly. There are some ongoing challenges in ISKCON education. On mainland Europe, ISKCON schools are few and far between since a significant number of countries don’t allow education outside their government-based program. The ISKCON school in Radhadesh, Belgium, for instance, was closed down and the students had to attend local government schools.

“I’m a member of the Ministry of Educational Development (MED), a GBC organization that promotes and facilitates educational initiatives in ISKCON,” Sesa says. “And we’re trying to coordinate some alternatives. Arudha Dasi, mother of the ISKCON Professor Radhika Ramana Dasa (Dr. Ravi Gupta) established her own homeschooling curriculum—and last year she traveled throughout these restrictive European countries providing seminars, information, resources, and support for parents homeschooling their children.”

Of course, homeschooling as a replacement for public school may not even be an option in some countries. “But we want to give parents as many options as possible,” Sesa says. “Because education is so important and has such an effect on the child’s life, that if they have to go to a government school, then at least in the home they should be able to supplement that education with Krishna conscious experiences.”

Another challenge that has faced education of devotee children in recent years is the decline in the number of “ISKCON schools.” This began with the disappearance of Gurukula boarding schools in the 1980s and early 1990s. Of course, local day schools within ISKCON communities—such as those in Alachua Florida, Dallas, and Los Angeles—soon replaced boarding schools as the prominent model. But they were staffed by the same dedicated teachers who had been teaching for decades with little assistance, and no new, young people were coming on board.
Gradually, the teachers grew older and ran out of steam, and the schools ran out of steam with them, leading to the current situation where many ISKCON schools are staffed by only one or a handful of veteran flagbearers. “The future of this model is in doubt,” Sesa says. “Because when that person can no longer do it on a daily basis, then what happens to the school?”

Alachua is the exception to the trend—its Bhaktivedanta Academy is directed, taught and operated by younger, second generation devotees. “This is the only way to save the traditional ‘temple school’ model,” Sesa says. “When we get young people, whose children are actually in the school, involved, they will take responsibility for making sure the school continues.”

But there’s another very sturdy model—one that inspires much hope—that has appeared in recent years. In late 2008, the Krishna Avanti school opened in the London Borough of Harrow, funded by the British government’s program to facilitate religion-based education for their multi-faith population. The school’s administrators, who have business backgrounds and provide financing in addition to the government’s support, want to expand their tried and tested program to elementary primary and secondary schools around the country.

Schools at the ISKCON farms in New Varshana, New Zealand, and New Govardhana, Australia, employ the same model, with a slight alteration: they’re located in a devotee community rather than in a public place, but as in England are funded by the government and allowed to give faith-based education.

The second devotee-run school in Alachua, the Alachua Learning Center, employs another variation: due to the U.S. separation of church and state, it cannot present Krishna consciousness as part of its curriculum. Still, it is located right next to the ISKCON temple, and its staff and students are primarily Hare Krishna devotees.
“I think that this type of model and its variations are something we’ll see develop more around the world in years to come,” Sesa says.

Government financing gives these schools the advantage over the traditional temple school: infrastructural needs are always paid for, and in some cases so is the entire operational budget, including teachers’ salaries at local public school standards.

“The problem with the older ISKCON model that we grew up with was a lack of adequate funding—and that opened the door to many problems, both in terms of educational quality, child protection, and the ability to maintain and retain staff,” Sesa says. “In contrast, the money provided by the government-funded model goes a long way to making the things we want to see—good administration, good education, and a safe environment for our children—become a reality.”

Another bright light in progress is the ISKCON Governing Body Comission’s strategic planning of a revamped and more efficient management of the entire society. In this system, various standing committees will develop policy and direction for different areas of ISKCON. And at the last GBC meeting in Mayapur in February this year, the Ministry of Educational Development (MED) proposed that one such standing committee be formed for education.

“This is a very significant step, because historically education has been a stepchild in ISKCON’s planning and priorities,” Sesa says. “This would ensure that education would no longer be an afterthought, but would be included actively in the process of decision and policy making in ISKCON.”

To give a real-world example, major ISKCON projects—such as the new Temple of the Vedic Planetarium in Mayapur—have many resources allocated to them. The new move would ensure that education and training would be included in the budgeting for these projects.

“More important than projects is caring for the devotees involved in them,” Sesa says. And a big part of that is educating their children, making sure that their families are stable.”

And its families that are the most important part of education. “Children go to school a certain number of hours a day, but the rest of the time, they’re with their families,” says Sesa. “So giving families strength is a top priority for the MED. A lot of the courses that Ananda Vrindavaneswari offers around the world, for example, are focused on parental counseling. So providing facilities and resources for family development, and cultivating Krishna consciousness in the home are very much a part of what we do.”

The MED also wants to create a network of educators so that teachers around the world in ISKCON no longer feel isolated and like they’re carrying the burden alone. “We want to develop communication and resources,” Sesa says. “And bring teachers together so that they can share their experiences and difficulties and make a difference when they go back to their individual projects.”

Long term, the MED wants to provide what Sesa—in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner—calls “education from cradle to pyre.”

“Education doesn’t stop with children,” he says. “We want to link up all the programs around the world, such as the Mayapur Institute for Higher Education and Training, Vrindavana Institue for Higher Education, Bhaktivedanta College in South Africa, and the various other study programs in different temples and communities, to make education a part of devotees’ life from early childhood through to the end of their life.”

Sesa hopes that the MED can continue to fulfill its obligation to all the ISKCON students, parents, and teachers around the world by connecting them with each other and making resources available to them.

“And of course, “ he says, “We wish all the students, parents, and teachers a great new school year.”

For information and resources about ISKCON education, please visit the Ministry of Educational Development’s website at http://www.iskconeducation.org.

Posted in In the News.