The Bhaktivedanta Swami International Gurukula ISKCON's flagship school for boys is proving the value of teaching the time-honored Vedic way.
A DAY OR TWO after arriving in Vrndavana, I had just finished my lunch and was waiting to wash my plate at the communal water taps. Just in front of me was a group of cute-looking little boys dressed in yellow dhotis. Each boy had a tiny tuft of hair hanging down from the back of his otherwise clean-shaven head. The boys were playing together and enjoying themselves in a way only six-year-olds can while doing something as ordinary as washing a plate.
I was fascinated by them, and as they chattered away amongst themselves at a hundred miles an hour I tried to engage them in a conversation. They told me they had been to the Yamuna River that morning but hadn't been able to swim because the river had swollen and was too dangerous. One tiny little boy told me he had tried to swim but had been dragged off by the currents and "Prabhuji" (the asrama supervisor) had swum out to save him.
"You're very lucky that your Prabhuji was there. Otherwise, you would have been in real trouble," I said, picturing this half-pint-sized boy in the raging river.
The boy was a little surprised at my reaction. He looked me squarely in the eyes and said, "No. Don't forget that this is Vrndavana, Krsna's holy place, and the Yamuna is His holy river. If you die here you go back home, back to Godhead." With a big smile he flung his hands in the air, said, "Hari bol!" and then skipped off to catch up with his friends.
That was the first time I had received spiritual instruction from a six-year-old. And it wasn't the last, because I ended up staying a year at the Bhaktivedanta Swami International Gurukula.
Gurukula means "the school of the spiritual master," and this school gets its name from its founder, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. His disciples and grand-disciples now run the gurukula and train a hundred local and foreign boys by following the ancient Vedic standard of knowledge. Besides attending classes on scriptures, mathematics, geography, and languages, the boys learn cleanliness, honesty, tolerance, and simplicity. In recreational time they learn swimming, painting, drama, and music. They follow a strict program of "early to bed and early to rise" and take part in the spiritual activities of ISKCON's Krsna-Balarama Mandir, one of Vrndavana's most popular temples.
The school may sound like something from Satya-yuga (the golden age), and it is except for the computers and the school bus. Some may doubt whether it is possible to re-create Satya-yuga in this most fallen of ages. If you're skeptical, maybe you'd like to judge for yourself by meeting some of the staff and boys.
Meeting the Staff
The first person you should meet is the principal, Dhanurdhara Swami. At dawn he can be seen pacing up and down the long verandas of the gurukula building, softly chanting the maha-mantra on his japa beads. He has been working at the school since it was founded by Srila Prabhupada almost twenty years ago. Dhanurdhara Swami's plans and hopes for the gurukula stretch far into the future. His spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, gave him a vision of an institution that would "train honest brahmanabrahmacaris" and play a major role in respiritualizing the planet.
Dhanurdhara Swami invites me into his office. He reverently shows me his altar with his Govardhana-sila, a worshipable form of Krsna. Then he sits me down and in his strong New Yorkese shares with me his enthusiasm for the gurukula:
"Srila Prabhupada told us that the gurukula depends on the teachers. They have to be good devotees and qualified teachers. The secret of a successful gurukula is to create the right atmosphere to attract such people. Here in Vrndavana we have always tried to maintain the vision of Srila Prabhupada. He said that the goal of gurukula is to train children to be Krsna conscious so they can help spread Krsna consciousness. Because we have kept a pure objective, we have attracted very qualified devotees to come here and teach.
"But I want to make a point here." The swami raises his index finger and looks at me intently. "Just because we are an institution with spiritual goals, that doesn't mean our students are uneducated." His hand thumps onto the arm rest.
"Recently a woman from Europe visited our school. She runs a successful secular school in her country. Yet she was surprised at how much more our students learn. She was seeing the capacity for our students to learn because of their discipline and obedience. That discipline is not forced it's the natural result of the whole gurukula system. The children obey because of their affection for their teachers. When you have that principle in a gurukula, then you can really talk about learning. The students will become just like sponges for knowledge. When students are self-controlled and follow the brahmacari system of celibacy, their capacity to learn is enormous.
"I'm the principal, and I can say to you that this year not one boy has come to my office for discipline.
"The school has really come a long way in these twenty years. When a boy comes here now at the age of five, he's going to get the proper education; he's going to get the proper care. He enters an atmosphere in which all the students greatly respect their teachers.
"When the boys leave our school, they can do anything. Whether they're inside or outside ISKCON temples, we want them to be dedicated to Srila Prabhupada's mission. We want them to have a clear spiritual objective in life. In other words, their lives should be based on getting love of God. Whatever else they do is just to help them achieve that goal. Someone may become a householder, someone else a brahmacari monk. Someone may be a priest in the temple, someone else may work outside. But whatever they do is done only because it fits with achieving their spiritual goal.
"The boys are equipped to do whatever they want to when they leave the school because they have been trained to learn. They know how to receive knowledge. Even though our school is not a part of any government system, our graduates have been able to adapt to government standards for tertiary education because our students have discipline. Today's world is so unpredictable that the real element of success is going to be someone's character.
"Our objective is to give the boys such a depth of Krsna consciousness that they can become acaryas, great spiritual teachers. That takes training. Our idea is that we should have boys from all over the world and we should train them as acaryas. They should be so learned, so powerful, and so determined that they'll be respected wherever they go. Canakya Pandita said that a wealthy man is respected in his own village but a wise man is respected all over the world. Srila Prabhupada said here in Vrndavana during his last days, 'Train young men as preachers.' And I can see now that such young men are coming and they are being trained. We're hoping that the face of the planet will be changed by powerful preachers trained in the gurukula system."
Just two doors down from Dhanurdhara Swami's room you'll find the room of Yadu Dasa Brahmacari, the coordinator for Sanskrit studies. He always seems to have a group of students in his room and two or three other classes to supervise here and there in the building. If you want to stop him as you pass him in the corridor, just ask him about the Sanskrit grammar book for Vaisnavas by Jiva Gosvami. Yadu's eyes will light up, and with expressive Latin American gestures he will outline for you his ten-year teaching strategy for producing Sanskrit masters:
"We take the boys at age five, when their memories are keen, and give them three thousand grammar rules to memorize in four or five years. By nature's arrangement children of that age remember things very easily and they enjoy memorizing. When the boys reach ten they become a little more analytically inclined. We then begin to explain the meaning of the rules. The boys leap ahead because they already know every rule and every form by heart. With a little practice, they will be ready to tackle any Sanskrit text.
"Jiva Gosvami has cleverly designed the grammar so that every rule somehow contains at least one name of Krsna. Our boys often sound as if they're chanting Vedic mantras when in fact they're just learning grammar. Even if someone doesn't complete the full course and become a pandita, he still becomes a good devotee because he has done so much chanting."
After talking with Yadu, I go upstairs and see the local pandita, Satya Narayana Dasa. You'll always find Satya Narayana in his room on the second floor. He'll be seated in lotus position behind a low desk. As you open the door he will slowly lift his head from a pile of manuscripts, and with a gentle movement of the eyebrows he will invite you to come sit on the big straw mats that cover the stone floor. As you look around, you realize that the musty smell is coming from hundreds of old manuscripts, carefully wrapped and stacked on shelves that tower above you on every centimeter of wall space. When you're seated, he'll put down his pen and set aside his translation work. With another movement of the eyebrows and a gentle smile, he'll indicate that he's at your service.
You seize the opportunity to get rid of your doubts: "Panditaji, why so much emphasis on Sanskrit? No one speaks it anymore, and it's so hard that some boys may never master …"
"First of all," Satya Narayana cuts in, "as a teacher I always think that the students will learn." Although he speaks with strong conviction, somehow his intonation never seems to vary. The soft no-frills monotone suggests that he relies more on reason than rhetoric. "All our scriptures are in Sanskrit, so even if you learn a little, that is helpful. Here in India there are many people who don't know English fully they cannot speak it. Still, whatever they do know is helpful for them. Even the ricksha drivers know a few sentences in English, and that's helpful for them: 'Oh, Loi Bazaar? Ten rupees!' So it's the same with Sanskrit; whatever you learn will be useful for understanding the scriptures. And understanding the scriptures is vital for a Vaisnava.
"In India education doesn't count for much anymore. Getting a job ultimately depends on whether you know someone or how much of a bribe you can give. What's more, at the schools the students just pick up bad habits. But here there are good devotees, good association, and a good atmosphere.
After all, the life of a child is molded by his association. Especially in Vrndavana because of the place, the people, the visitors there is a holy effect. Everything is related with holiness here. The children go outside on a Sunday, and they hear more about Krsna. During the holy month of Kartika and on Janmastami, Lord Krsna's appearance day, there are festivities going on everywhere. All this greatly affects a child's mind. The boys go outside and see so many people dressed in dhotis, and on every wall is written, 'Radhe! Radhe!' Vrndavana is also a good place for teachers; it attracts good people."
On the ground floor we meet "Candrika Mataji," as the children call her. On the order of her spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, Candrika Devi Dasi and her husband brought a handful of Western children to India seventeen years ago.
"Every day I go before Radha and Krsna in the temple with a list of little requests. Radharani knows I'm from the gurukula because I'm always asking for things we need maybe a boy's health, or a teacher's resident visa."
Her forehead furrows with genuine concern as she explains the measures the school is taking against child abuse: "The bad influence of the Age of Kali is such that child abuse is rampant in schools all over the world. We can't be naive. Although we live in a holy place, we still have to protect the children. That's why we've set up a full child-protection program at the school. The program was developed by the New South Wales Department of Education in Australia. Both teachers and children follow a twenty-day course. We have arranged the timetable and the layout of the school to ensure that the children are always safe. Someone would have to be pretty stupid to try anything at this school."
On the first floor is the classroom of Vaijayanti Mala Dasi. Although she has been teaching for the last eighteen years (inside and outside ISKCON), she says she has never been happier as a teacher:
"Because the children live here in the asrama, they become very spiritually minded, very Krsna conscious, and therefore they are a pleasure to teach. We screen both children and teachers before allowing them to be part of the school. They are all first-class devotees. There is no one of dubious character on our staff. In such an environment the students really blossom. Then the teachers are inspired to teach, and the energy of the school just keeps on increasing.
"For teachers to be so enthusiastic to go to school every day is rare. In most schools, teachers have to take sedatives before they go to class. Otherwise they can't last, because today's children put so much pressure on the teachers. But here the children are of such good character and are so Krsna conscious that we as teachers are inspired to dedicate ourselves completely."
While we're on the first floor, we should go and meet the Hindi teacher, Nrisinghadeva Goswami. He's the son of a priest at the historic Radha-Ramana temple here in Vrndavana. His family can be traced back to the first priests appointed by Gopala Bhata Gosvami 450 years ago. Nrisinghadeva Goswami has been serving in the Radha-Ramana temple since he was ten years old. He has a B.A. and a B.Sc. and is presently doing his M.A. in Hindi literature. De-spite his aristocratic manner and imposing presence, he turns out to be very eager to chat (in Hindi, of course):
"We used to live in Madhya Pradesh, and we would come to Vrndavana quite often to serve Radha-Ramanaji. When my father retired, he decided to come to Vrndavana to live and dedicate himself fully to Krsna. I had just graduated from the university, and I thought, 'I should also go to Vrndavana and get the association of the Lord's devotees.' Satya Narayanaji would come to our house sometimes, and one day he suggested that I come to the gurukula to teach. Of course, some of my friends from the university are surprised to see me wearing dhoti and tilaka, but they're also surprised to see me so happy.
"This gurukula is really filling a big gap in our modern society. Material education by itself is not enough to make human society happy or successful. What is really lacking now is spiritual and moral training. There is no higher spiritual or moral message than that of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, which is taught in this gurukula. The lives of the boys at this school will be auspicious, and they will make the lives of others auspicious."
Some Facts and Figures
Total number of boys: 81
Age range: 6-16
Age range: 27-63
Average age: 41
Average teaching experience: 10 years
Average years of devotional service: 14 years
Teacher to student ratio: 1:5
Nila Madhava Dasa, a disciple of Indradyumna Swami, joined ISKCON in 1982 in France. Since 1991 he has been studying Hindi and Sanskrit full time at the Australian National University in Canberra. As a part of that degree work, he spent a year on scholarship at the Vrndavana gurukula. He is writing a thesis on poetry by Narottama Dasa Thakura and Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura.