A leading ISKCON educator highlights the need for 
introducing a devotional curriculum for children.

Urmila Devi Dasi

We present an interview with one of the foremost educators within ISKCON, a veteran disciple of Srila Prabhupada, Urmila Devi Dasi a.k.a. Dr. Edith Best. She holds a Master of School Administration degree and a Doctor of Education degree from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has nearly three decades of experience in educating children. She is also the author of a popular book Vaikuntha Children and the recent acclaimed series of books teaching children how to read English using devotional motifs. Additionally, she serves as an editor for the Back to Godhead International Magazine and as a member of the Shastric Advisory Council for ISKCON. Presently, she travels to devotee communities in various parts of the world sharing both the message of Krishna consciousness and her experience and expertise at education.
How were you introduced to Krishna consciousness?
I heard the Brahma-samhita on the radio, a recording of Prabhupada chanting in a shop, and read Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is. 
What inspired you to make education as your major service focus?
When our middle child, our daughter, was 1 year old, I met Jyotirmayi Devi Dasi. She trained me in the attitude and methods of teaching and I found that I loved it. When our oldest son was 7, the gurukula he was in closed and the Governing Body Commission (GBC) asked my husband to start a school. Within a year I was working in the gurukula. I took courses on education. Within a year of my becoming a teacher, our GBC asked me to lead the school. I went to the international gurukula meetings where I was asked to start working on curriculum.  When I brought some material on curriculum to the second meeting, the participants asked me to create a book. That became Vaikuntha Children. 
There was a need, my husband and the local GBC wanted me to do the service, and I studied and worked to do it. Altogether I spent about three decades teaching primary and secondary school. In 1991 the editors of Back to Godhead magazine asked me to write a regular column on education, which I did for eight years. 
While serving as an ISKCON educator, you also chose to acquire a doctorate in education from a secular university. Why? 
I was often introduced as the leading educator in ISKCON. Many senior devotees convinced me that I needed an advanced degree in education in order to have Prabhupada’s movement be respectable. There is no ISKCON institution that offers accredited degrees in education, so my only choice was a secular university. I lived close to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a leader in education studies in the US. I got into the masters’ program, and within two months the head of the College of Education invited me to go into the PhD program, so I got a masters and doctorate together. His reason for putting me in the advanced program was my many years of experience in teaching, curriculum development, and school administration in ISKCON. 
How has it helped you in improving education within ISKCON?
Both my graduate degrees are in educational leadership and management. My studies have, therefore, given me a background from which I have been able to be of service on many levels of management in ISKCON. Also, I recently worked with 200 people, including some of the leading literacy experts in the world, to create the first program to teach children how to read that is grounded in Krishna consciousness and Vedic principles. It is very easy to use, and each color book can be heard in 25 languages by touching each page. You can get more information on this series from http:/ www.learntoreadenglish.co.uk, http://talkingpen.in/ and http://store.Krsna.com/Page.bok?template=Shops_Kids (See the September 2011 issue of BTG)
What are the similarities and differences in secular and devotional educational systems and scenarios?
Both involve the teaching of skills for preparing for a livelihood, being a good citizen, etc. Both involve the transmission of culture. Both involve buildings, teachers, books, materials, money, and management. Both can use similar approaches to how to organize and deliver knowledge. Some differences are obvious, such as sanctified vegetarian food (prasada) served in a devotional school. A devotional school has time for prayer, mantra meditation, shastra study, and worship of Krishna’s murti. Those differences are quickly and readily apparent. Perhaps the most important differences, however, are more foundational and only indirectly discernable. Those who serve in a devotional educational system understand the identity of the students and teachers as eternal souls, servants of Lord Krishna. The purpose of a devotional school is to aid everyone concerned to achieve unmotivated love for the Lord. The process of learning and teaching is also understood differently. A secular school is based on the premise that knowledge is an intellectual process dependent on ability and diligence. In the Bhagavad-gita’s 13th chapter we get a different view of the process of knowledge coming to the mode of goodness (sattva-guna). From goodness, knowledge becomes revealed through the agency of Supersoul. So, on the platform of philosophy identity, goal of learning, and process of knowledge there is a gulf of difference. And, this philosophical difference affects all the teaching and learning in the institution, in subtle yet profound ways. 
What are the challenges that you have faced while focusing on educational development in our movement? 
One challenge is an immature understanding of spiritual education. Beginners in spiritual life sometimes think the material side of education can be eliminated or greatly downplayed. A challenge on the other end of the spectrum is putting so much emphasis on material education that students have little time or energy left for spiritual life. These two groups criticize each other, and can set up schools where one part of education is emphasized to the detriment of the other. Prabhupada wanted us to have a balanced life, and directed that we should know both matter and spirit. He wanted the students to be expert in material subject matter while being of the highest devotional caliber. The tension between those who take positions that are off-balance is particularly obvious in India, where ISKCON has the vast majority of its schools and students. 
Another challenge is the lack of Krishna-based learning resources. Even in a devotional school, if all the materials directly and indirectly teach materialism, the result will be less than what we desire. In ancient times, the main textbook was shastra itself. We have recently published Dr. Best Learn to Read, which is the first professional level Krishna-based curriculum material in the world. But there is also a great need for Krishna-based materials to teach science, mathematics, history, and so forth. 
We face the challenge of finding teachers who are both materially expert and grounded in spiritual understanding. There is a plan in Bhaktivedanta College in Belgium to begin an accredited bachelor’s degree in education. Presently, we do not have an institution that can train teachers how to teach in line with devotional philosophy. So, teachers bring in educational approaches and methods that are grounded in a different philosophy of learning and then try to adapt them to devotional teaching. The end product is not optimal.
Every educational endeavor needs funding, and yet another challenge is that those who are interested and capable to support devotional projects often choose to fund gorgeous temples or food distribution to the poor over devotional schools. 
Your new series of books have been hailed as a landmark in interactive education. What inspired you to develop them? What are their special features? What were the challenges?
I was inspired by Prabhupada’s requests in the late 60’s and early 70’s for books such as these, as well as the need I encountered as a teacher in devotional schools. The extraordinary feature most people notice is that by touching each page of the story books with a special “pen” one can hear that page in each of 25 languages. The pictures talk, and one can record one’s voice into the books. Children love using the books, begging for reading time! The series is a complete teaching program from the alphabet to fluency. Parents with no teaching experience to veteran teachers can use it, because there are detailed instructions and many activities for the children. The series can be used with a variety of reading techniques, including whole-language, synthetic phonics, and inductive whole-word phonics. The color books have a total of about 500 pieces of new, original artwork. The books contain stories from scripture, traditional tales of morality, and stories of modern children in both India and Western countries. There is full support for a vegetarian diet, cow protection, natural living, and spiritual development. 
The challenges were many we started with no money and few human resources. In the end, over 200 people worldwide worked on it, including two of the top world literacy experts. I worked on this series during a time when I was traveling and preaching, without a home base. Many of the artists didn’t speak English, which made it a challenge to communicate what was needed. The entire project was a wonderful experience in seeing how Krishna provides for what He wants and how He guides us in His service.
You are also one of the pioneers in the Grihastha Vision Team. Can you please tell us something about this program?
The Grihastha Vision Team has workshops to help those planning to marry as well as those already married. They also train mentor couples in communities who can help the newly married. And, they work with ISKCON leadership to have policies that support marriage and family. www.vaisnavafamilyresources.org/
You are one of the few Vaishnavis who are in a leadership position in our movement. What are the challenges involved in this and how did you deal with them? 
I think anyone, man or woman, who tries to give spiritual leadership at this time in history faces a lot of challenges from the degraded norms increasing in society at large. Whatever challenges I face, I try to see as ways of expressing our love and devotion for God, as long as one has the blessings of one’s spiritual authorities, of guru and Krishna. As for specific challenges, it can be more difficult for a woman to give priority to family responsibilities while assuming a leadership role than it is for a man. I took up most of my leadership responsibilities either conjointly with my husband or after we entered the vanaprastha-ashrama and our children were grown. Another challenge can be in people’s perceptions of women as spiritual leaders. There have been many women spiritual leaders in our tradition, and Srila Prabhupada encouraged all his followers, both men and women, to lead the world toward spiritual values. Even so, there are some people who believe that women’s only contribution to world spiritual development should be in the private sphere. Sometimes such persons can become aggressive in trying to convince others of their position. As long as we see that everyone on the spiritual path is doing their best to make progress and that we are all individuals with our own perspective, such differences of opinions do not disturb our service. 
Do you have any special message for our Vaishnavi readers?
The shastra gives us the best way to be happy in life. That means both the traditional life of wife and mother, along with the ultimate life of all of us unfolding our ultimate individuality in the ways we can love and serve Krishna both in our private life and for the good of the world.