Sri Rama Dasa

Sri Rama Dasa

The ISKCON gurukula (school) in Mayapur, India, has had some problems in the last year. A reorganization is underway. So far, things are looking good.

THE MAYAPUR GURUKULA will be our most important school. Not that I think ISKCON's other schools are unimportant it's just that no other community is likely to have Mayapur's facilities or potential for growth. No other gurukula will offer the same variety of meaningful career possibilities. No ISKCON project in our lifetime will possess the excitement of Mayapur as it develops into a true City of God.

I'm traveling to Mayapur to help make some changes in the school. It's unfortunate that there have been troubles, but problems give us an opportunity to improve. For me, working with the Mayapur gurukula is a chance to be involved in a project with tremendous impact on ISKCON education worldwide.

* * *

Things get off to an auspicious start. I share my flight from Delhi to Calcutta with Jayapataka Swami, one of the members of the GBC (ISKCON's governing body) and a longtime mainstay of the Mayapur project. After I slide into one of the empty seats at his side, we discuss his concerns for the school. When I return to my own seat, I discover my row companion is in charge of air traffic control for India's eighty-some airports. We discuss the possibility of air service to Mayapur, and I invite him to visit.

More good luck on the ground: As my luggage appears on the conveyor belt (speckled with white powder spewing from a broken container in my garment bag), I find I've arrived with Bhakta Henry from Washington, D.C. Henry is a friend of Bhakticaru Swami, who has sent a car to pick him up. Transportation problem solved! This is especially fortunate because Bhakticaru Swami has assumed responsibility for education in Mayapur. We'll be working together for the next five weeks.

We have a sumptuous feast at the house of Caitanya Dasa, one of Bhakticaru Swami's disciples. The feast is one of those Bengali affairs where if you take even a single bite of each preparation you're sure to over-eat. Then Bhakticaru Swami, Henry, and I take the four-hour torture-drive on the Calcutta-Mayapur "highway."

After a good night's rest, Bhakticaru Swami and I begin our work with the school. For five days we have almost back-to-back meetings, getting a good idea of the school's current operations and future needs. We talk to teachers, parents, Mayapur managers, more parents, more teachers. In one-to-one sessions with the staff, we discover a solid group of sincere and thoughtful devotees. Unfortunately, most lack the kind of educational experience we need right now.

We Forge Ahead

Our first big realization is that we need to divide the gurukula management into bite-sized chunks. Ideally, we should have separate supervisors for the asrama, for academics, and for general management. Unfortunately, we're only able to fill one of the spots: Krodhesvara Dasa, an experienced Prabhupada disciple from Australia, agrees to take charge of administration.

Second realization: There are no obvious candidates to fill the asrama and academic spots. Slowly we come to the inevitable conclusion that Bhakticaru Swami himself will have to take those jobs for the time being. Anyway, that he's ready to roll up his sleeves when required is a good sign. Gurukulas do better when the leaders aren't too aloof.

One fringe benefit of this job is taking my meals with Bhakticaru Swami. I never know what to expect at prasadam time. Breakfast is often a glass of bael juice lassi and a Bengali sweet; but once in a while he throws in some steaming upma or South Indian dosas for variety. He's one of the few sannyasis I know who often prepares his own meals. By his own admission, he is also the only ISKCON sannyasi who likes Chinese prasadam enough to cook it himself.

Our next step is to reorganize the asrama structure. Asrama teachers are responsible for everything in the student's life outside the academic classes it's the toughest and the most important job. We follow a simple formula: one building, one teacher, oneasrama. The previous arrangement was somewhat vague, with teachers overseeing multiple buildings and a more or less dysfunctional system of student monitors. We want to encourage a mood of comprehensive responsibility.

Another feature of the new structure is asrama focus. We are encouraging each teacher to develop an asrama mood, organizing the program around his own talents and interests. In the future we hope to have many teachers who will agree to take a few older boys and engage them meaningfully around the Mayapur project.

While we reorganize the asrama, we go through a few days of tension as the teachers wonder if we're turning their world upside down. As things turn out, transitions are pretty smooth. Bhakti-vidya-purna Swami, the former principal, seems reasonably satisfied with his new complement of fifteen boys preparing for the ISKCON bhakti-sastri exams.

Now it's time to let our students know what's going on. Krodhesvara Prabhu arranges a meeting with all the students. Another good sign: Bhakticaru Swami handles himself like a gurukula pro explaining changes, involving students, and offering bribes of copious prasadam. Even though he's only been at this ten days, I'd swear he's been doing gurukula service for twenty years.

After a couple of weeks, work begins to slow down as the GBC men arrive and their annual meetings start. Bhakticaru Swami seems always preoccupied now, but we manage to sneak in a gurukula meeting here and there. I get pretty entangled in the GBC meetings also, even though I'm not a member. As head of several GBC committees, I have to put in a fair amount of time. Still, I think I have the best of both worlds: I can drop in on the meetings I'm interested in and cut out when things get boring. Bhaktarupa Dasa, the GBC secretary, thinks it's the other way around the GBC men get my services when wanted, without having to listen to my comments through every discussion.


Now for the hard part sprucing up the academics. First we must decide what standard our students should work toward. This tends to be a delicate issue. Srila Prabhupada discouraged a heavy academic effort, but the kids still need enough education to pursue a variety of possible services. We tentatively settle on training the kids to reach the American GED standard by age eighteen.

GED stands for General Equivalancy Degree. It's basically an alternative to a high school diploma. GED tests usually cover skills in language, math, and social studies. Just enough so our students "won't be known as fools," as Srila Prabhupada put it. No academic overkill a nice balance.

It'll be good for students to have a clear goal. We've been hearing that some of them now feel a bit unsure of themselves, wondering whether or not they're really "educated."

Realization number three: We don't have enough teachers in the school to make the improvements we want. What to do? Make an alliance with the local parents, who seem to have a lot of teaching talent and experience. This is a somewhat unheard-of idea for the school here, but after a day or two everyone seems used to it.

In the afternoons we begin having curriculum meetings with parents and teachers. Some basic decisions are made, like schooling the boys and girls together for the first two years. This way we can teach all the kids with our limited number of teachers. A mood of cooperation is budding. But lack of a competent academic head severely limits us. Finding one becomes a high priority, but this trip we won't be able to do it.

* * *

As I look out from the porch of our residence building, my eyes and mind thoroughly enjoy Mayapur's beauty. Much has changed since my first visit in 1976, and I don't think I've ever seen it look so attractive. I want to remember this vision of small groups of buildings like tiny villages dotting the landscape of paddy fields and lush tropical trees. The intensive construction in the householder quarter is a sure sign of Mayapur's coming transformation into a full-fledged transcendental city. That will also be beautiful but in a different way.

If the weather were as pleasant all year as it is now in the spring, I'd even consider moving here. Perhaps when I'm older I won't be so attached to my comforts. Anyway, year by year it's getting easier for Western bodies to live here.

For now, at least I can visit regularly. Bhakticaru Swami and I have agreed I'll come here twice a year. Through Bhakta Henry's generosity, I've already got my plane fare to return in October. Now, that's a first for me!

I'm looking forward to it. Mayapur's a great place to come and contemplate the next ten thousand years.

* * *

Some last minute mercy from Krsna: Yesterday, we found an academics director. We'll spend today together in Calcutta going over curriculum details. Now I leave, a completely satisfied man. Krsna put everything together so nicely. Surely this means He wants the school to flourish.


Sri Rama Dasa is Chairman of the ISKCON Board of Education. Send correspondence to 3764 Watseka Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90034.