Gurukula, "the school of the guru," has no equivalent in Western education. It is all at once a place of spiritual formation, character development, academics, and vocational training. A student enters usually at age five and stays as long as his or her aptitudes permit. On gaining minimum proficiency, a child may either go on to higher studies or take up apprenticeship in a career suited to his or her character. The purpose of gurukula is to assist children in living a God-centered life. Bhurijana dasa joined the Krsna consciousness movement in 1968, taught in Hong Kong for four years, and for the past three years has been headmaster of the gurukula at the Krsna farm near Port Royal, Pennsylvania. Here freelance writer Kurt Ald poses some often asked questions:
Mr. Ald: Isn't gurukula training rather isolating? How much do the children learn of the world around them?
Bhurijana dasa: Gurukula is not isolating; but is insulating. Parents and teachers have a duty to safeguard children from disturbing influences.
Mr. Ald: But then, one could argue that it's a cold cruel world out there, and children have to take care of themselves.
Bhurijana dasa: First of all, how could any six-year-old or even ten-year-old take care of himself? Children must be protected. Later, after proper training, they'll have their exposure to the cold cruel world. If someone has been trained intelligently, with a view to his or her God consciousness, that child will handle living in the material world better than any child trained in a secular or public school. Most people know that just plain exposure really isn't good. If it were, then they'd educate their children by sending them out into the streets. No, people want their children to be properly trained first. As far as exposure for gurukula children is concerned, it is selective. For example, we have a current events class, but not a television.
Mr. Ald: But how will the children become acquainted with the conditions of the larger society? How do you decide just what is insulating and what is isolating? Do gurukula children get to interact with other children?
Bhurijana dasa: Sure. They're constantly in touch with the people who come to see our temples and farms, and they visit relatives. We take field trips, also. Their environment is not "closed." At the same time, we are not shy about saying that Lord Krsna is the goal of life. The goal of our educational system is to become conscious of Krsna, specifically. So we can make certain value judgments, because we have a standard. The children don't usually see movies or commercial theater, because there is little or no spiritual benefit in such activities.
Mr. Ald: Moving on from gurukula could really be tough if they've known only a devotional environment.
Bhurijana dasa: If a child has been trained in gurukula, his mind will be very sharp. If education centers upon helping the child understand the existence of the soul and the soul's relationship with Krsna, or God, then the child gets a clear idea of how to handle everyday life situations.
Mr. Ald: Let's be specific. How will these children earn their living? .
Bhurijana dasa: In the traditional Vedic system, vocational training starts early; according to the aptitudes of the student.
Mr. Ald: Don't gurukula children have a rather narrow frame of reference for choosing a vocation?
Bhurijana dasa: We know we can't force someone who doesn't have brahminical (or priestly) inclination, but still the training is based on spiritual elevation. Whatever a gurukula graduate does in life, whatever occupation or livelihood he takes, this character training will never be lost. It is not that a child must be inclined to the priesthood in order to become Krsna conscious. According to his tendencies or disposition, the child might not wish to take up spiritual teaching as his life's work. Krsna consciousness has to do with the child's realization whatever his activities may be that God is the supreme controller, the supreme enjoyer, and our greatest friend. With that philosophical understanding, devotees engage in a wide variety of services.
Mr. Ald: So you're saying that your Krsna society is a world within a world; there won't be any necessity for these children to confront the ordinary world.
Bhurijana dasa: No. Why do you say that? Why do you think they won't have the practical experience? Working knowledge of the material world is a skill like any other skill. It has to be developed. If someone has a certain talent, then why shouldn't he develop it? If you're going to see a printer or negotiate some business, of course you won't take a seven-year-old with you, but an older child who has that tendency could dress up in a suit and tie. "Here's my protege."
Mr. Ald: Would a girl with administrative ability and intelligence be allowed to develop her skills?
Bhurijana dasa: Certainly, as much as anyone else, to the level of his or her competence. But we don't follow the Peter Principle, where you rise to your level of incompetence and sometimes far, far beyond it. In gurukula it doesn't matter whether one is a boy or girl. The teachers and administrators are looking to encourage the students to develop spiritually, first and foremost. Then, whatever their life's work, they can learn it. But the motivation never becomes promotion- or success-oriented. The motivation is always, "How can I serve Krsna purely?"
Mr. Ald: Does gurukula cover areas like health, hygiene?
Bhurijana dasa: All gurukula children receive training in these areas. Naturally, a devotee has to know how to take care of the material body cleanliness, first aid …
Mr. Ald: If a gurukula student were sick, would you bring him to a Western doctor?
Bhurijana dasa: We're always concerned with practicality first. If the medicine works, that's fine. Unfortunately, so much of Western medicine is guesswork; but we don't have anything against it per se. Do you?
Mr. Ald: I want to know does gurukula make children feel that the world is a bad place and that therefore they should stay away from it?
Bhurijana dasa: The whole foundation of gurukula training is learning how to relate with the world and other people. Gurukula children learn not to see ordinary people in a malicious way, but rather to see them as souls and to look compassionately on them. A devotee sees that the spiritual self, or soul, is different from the material body, totally free of its miseries but that people who are absorbed in a bodily concept of themselves are forced to identify with the miseries of old age, disease, and death. Everything the children learn is geared to this spiritual, compassionate, nonsectarian way of looking at life. We don't have any desire to isolate our students. Rather, they get exposure, but at the same time they learn how to interpret their experiences. That's what education means: learning how to view the experiences of life with spiritual insight.
Mr. Ald: Sounds like brainwashing.
Bhurijana dasa: Then every educational system in the world is also brainwashing. In the U.S., the students are taught to look at the Communist nations in a particular way. The Communists are taught to look at Americans in a particular way. It's inevitable. Every educational system has its own angle of vision.
Mr. Ald: Aren't there schools that advocate open classrooms, total freedom of choice for the students?
Bhurijana dasa: Claiming not to have a viewpoint is also a viewpoint. The children will learn that same viewpoint. We're not going to hold anything back. We say that Krsna is God, that we are part and parcel of Him and are meant to serve Him with love and devotion. And more, we say that if people don't serve God but look only for temporary, body-based pleasures, then they can't find the lasting, spiritual peace and happiness that lie within. This is not a unique point of view. Everyone knows we come into this world with nothing and go out with nothing, but very few people take it seriously. Nobody thinks about the final experience death because nobody has received any real spiritual training. That is the most brainwashed position to live without awareness of life's ultimate realities, like death. So gurukula education wakes children up to this awareness of the precariousness of a life without God consciousness. We don't want the children to reject the world; we want them to see it properly.