In my last article, I suggested that ISKCON was entering a new
and dynamic 'third phase' of development in which a systematic approach
towards training and education would be an important characteristic.1
Since then, several education initiatives have progressed significantly.2Nevertheless,
in some cases, they have aroused concern from some members of the
Society for drawing on philosophies and practices from beyond the
Vaisnava tradition. This essay will explore how one such discipline,
quite conventional in secular education, relates to its Vedic3
counterpart. It seems under scrutiny that the two are not inconsistent.
By amalgamating both we will produce a new model which will serve
as a basis for further research and development. This model can
also be used as a measure to examine where ISKCON stands in terms
of its evolution in education. Evidence will be presented to suggest
that formal education is perhaps the most important element in ISKCON's
continuing social and theological development. In conclusion, some
specific proposals will be put forward for the development of the
In this study I will largely draw on my own experience, thus focusing
primarily on adult education, though many conclusions will also
be relevant to primary and secondary education (gurukula).
This essay is also a response to 'Education and ISKCON' presented
in the last issue of this journal by Sefton Davies.
Knowledge, skills and values
Modern educationalists divide all that we learn into three broad
what the student will know
what the student will be able to do
Values and Attitudes
how the student will be
Comprehension of these three items are essential when establishing
the aims and objectives for any learning process as the aims and
objectives invariably fall within these three divisions. Furthermore,
various learning methods are deemed more or less appropriate for
each of these categories. Sefton Davies highlighted this in his
last article,4 explaining the benefits
of experiential learning for teaching skills. He also highlights
the inordinate emphasis that ISKCON places on knowledge acquisition
and the corresponding modes of teaching.
I have been using the knowledge, skills and values model for over
three years, particularly in training other devotees as teachers.
During this time I have personally become convinced of the value
of this method. The response from my students was also very positive.
Nevertheless, for some time I was feeling uneasy, on two accounts.
Firstly, I had little conclusive scriptural endorsement for my
teaching practices, a point that contributed to some devotees questioning
their validity.5 Secondly, as I
attempted to gain a better understanding of my subject three important
questions remained unanswered:
- How do the three objectives rank chronologically? Is any one
predominant at a specific stage within the learning process?6
- Is there a hierarchy of importance among the three, and if
- Where does the concept of 'understanding' fit in?7
Naturally, my colleagues and I had our own ideas, largely distilled
from personal experience. In response to question (1) above, we
surmised that knowledge-transmission was typically predominant at
the start of any scheme of learning. Nevertheless, we were not sure
about the respective positions of 'skills' and 'values'. Do they
develop concurrently or one before the other?
Our response to the second question was less equivocal. We concluded
that (within ISKCON at least) the category of 'values' achieves
top priority. We identified scriptural examples to support our case-that
the ultimate goal of education is to transform the nature of one's
being or, in other words, to become Krishna conscious. This
involves becoming humble, tolerant, compassionate and developing
all the twenty-six qualities of a Vaishnava.8
A subsequent study of the first of 'The Seven Purposes of ISKCON',
adopted at the Society's incorporation in 1966, appeared to endorse
our conclusion that the whole thrust of ISKCON's education is to
effect a change in values.9 The
first of these purposes is 'To systematically propagate spiritual
knowledge to society at large and to educate all people in
the techniques of spiritual life in order to check the imbalance
of values in life and to achieve real unity and peace in
the world'. (Emphasis mine.)
My observations were as follows:
- Our three 'key words' are contained herein, 'skills' being replaced
- Srila Prabhupada wishes our approach to be systematic-in other
words, 'formal education'.
- There is a tangible link between the Society's problems and
any imbalance in values. This is relevant in that it supports
the proposal that systematic training and education is one of
the most important ways of constructively addressing ISKCON's
internal, sociological issues.
- The ultimate purpose of education is to transform people's values:
that is what we value, which is so clearly connected to
how we perceive the world. Whilst developing education programmes
in ISKCON, many devotees considered that this was far more important
for devotees (or religious people in general) than for others.
Some, therefore, preferred the term 'character formation' in preference
to 'values and attitudes'. It is also clear that the ultimate
purpose of Vaishnava education is self-realisation. This
has raised the issue (though I will not address it here directly)
of whether or not 'character formation' is synonymous with self-realisation,
or superfluous to it.
Evidence from the Vedic scripture
Despite these findings, we were far from a definitive understanding
of the education process. Then my god-brother, Bhakti Vidya Purna
Swami,10 kindly directed my research
towards some interesting religious texts which shed some light on
my research. According to the Brihadaranyaka Upanisad (2.4.5),
there are three broad stages to any learning process. They are:
- Sravana-hearing knowledge from the teacher
- Manana-gaining an intellectual understanding by
reflecting on what is learned.
- Nidhidhyasana-realisation and application in one's
From this verse I deduced the following:
- knowledge transmission is indeed the preliminary stage of education
(as we had suspected)
- understanding is part of a subsequent, second stage
- skills and values appear to be relevant later on (expressed
as 'application in one's life'11
and 'realisation' 12).
Nevertheless, it was still not clear as to whether stage two (manana
or theoretical understanding) represents a progression from stage
one in terms of skills or values (or a combination of the two).
In other words, does knowledge transform into understanding through
the acquisition of skills, the development of appropriate values
or through the parallel evolution of both? Further insight was gained
from a verse in the Nasadam,13
a Sanskrit poetical work, where Shriharsha delineates the following
four stages of learning:
- Adhiti-to learn a subject thoroughly
- Bodha -to gain insight and proficiency in one's
- Acarana-realising the purpose of, and living according
to, our learning
- Pracarana-giving this knowledge to others
It seems that the first three stages included in this verse from
the Nasadam correspond to those listed in the verse from
the Brihadaranyaka Upanisad. The fourth stage will not be
discussed here, although it is obviously important and clearly distinguished
from the other three.
From the verse in the Nasadam it became clear that the second
stage, according to our developing Vedic model, not only encompasses
an intellectual grasp of the subject, but the concomitant practical
application of such an understanding. It seems that skills are learnt
primarily at this second stage. Nevertheless, there is not full-realisation,
nor have those skills become 'second-nature'. This only occurs in
the final stage (when perfection is achieved), where the knowledge,
understanding and skills become internalised, or part of oneself.
In other words, the student or apprentice becomes an engineer,
a carpenter or a teacher (or in Krishna conscious terms, a pure
devotee). He lives and breathes his subject, easily and effortlessly.
This suggests the platform of spontaneity.
Towards an integrated philosophy of education
It seems possible to conclude that this second stage of our
Vedic model corresponds to skills and the third to values (which
represents the ultimate goal of learning). By attempting to distinguish
clearly between these two stages I have postulated that each of
their outcomes correspond to 'conscious competence' and 'unconscious
competence' respectively.15 In
this process of learning knowledge is the predominant factor during
the first stage. In the second stage skills are the most predominant
factor and in the third stage, values are the most predominant.
This model seems incomplete, since knowledge, skills and values
cannot be neglected at any of the three stages. (See table 2.)
In this model the three strands evolve in parallel throughout
the whole process and become perfectly integrated during the third
and final stage. Nevertheless, the explicit emphasis of teaching
changes at each stage. To clarify, knowledge progresses from
mere theoretical knowledge (conspicuous at the beginning of learning),
through intellectual understanding, to culminate in full-realisation.
Skills, latent in the beginning, form the focus of the second stage
and subsequently become fully internalised. It is here, at this
final stage that values take prominence, in the sense that knowledge
and actions must be integrated into one's life, becoming perfectly
congruent with self and desire.16 It is the stage of becoming exemplary in thought,
word and deed, as expressed in the term acharana.
For each strand three key characteristics are required of the student.
I have identified these from the Bhagavad-gita; they are
namely inquiry, submission and service.
17 The entire model, shown in table 2, may provide ISKCON with
a foundation for formulating a comprehensive philosophy of education,
firmly rooted in the Vaisnava tradition and explicitly endorsed
Principal Department of Knowledge
Sanskrit Terms for Stage
Brief Description in English
knowledge-acquiri ng senses
qualities + desires
Consciousness and Competence
Sambhanda (establishing the relationship)
Sravana or Adhiti
Hearing knowledge from the teacher, thus learning the subject
Factual and theoretical knowledge
attitudes (guna) including desire to learn
Latent ability/aptitude (karma)
Abhideya (acting in that relationship)
Manana or Bodha
Developing intellectual understanding (through reflection)
and proficiency in the corresponding skills
Clearing away of unwanted qualities and desires
Developing proficiency in skills
Prayojana (perfecting the relationship)
Nidhi- dhyasana or Acarana
Developing full realisation of the subject and the spontaneous
desire to apply it in one's life
Full realisation/ direct perception of one's identity and
Nurturing of all appropriate personal qualities and full
submission of self and will to application of knowledge
and skills in one's life
Application of skills
The Three Phases of Learning in Terms of Knowledge, Skills and
There remains ample scope for further research particularly
in scripture. Here are a few likely areas. The three terms 'knowledge',
'skills' and 'values' still beg precise definition.18
The Bhagavad-gita, particularly chapter eighteen, yields
further information (especially verses 13-45). According to our
initial definition, values relate to 'being'. This alludes to the
self, which the Bhagavad-gita describes as the 'knower' and
'the doer'.19 Values therefore
refers to the intrinsic nature of the self (however one conceives
of it), suggesting that this final stage of learning is identical
with 'the unfolding of the self', or realisation of one's sva-dharma.20
It also suggests desire, since what we value is largely determined
by the nature of our desires. In fact, according to the Bhagavad-gita,
our whole destiny rests upon the nature of our desire and the very
purpose of the spiritual path is to purify the heart of its materialistic
The other two terms, knowledge and action, cannot exist independent
of the self. (The converse is also true-there is no existence of
the self devoid of consciousness and activity.)22
There appears to be an ongoing reciprocation between the two, which,
I conclude, the experiential learning cycle demonstrates.23 There are numerous other quotes in the Bhagavad-gita
and other Vedic texts that demonstrate the various relationships
between our three strands.24
The analysis of education in terms of knowledge, skills and values
seems largely or wholly consistent with the Vedic model. Further,
I would suggest that the Vedic version positively embellish our
understanding of education and its ultimate purpose. Bhakti Vidya
Purna Swami has written, 'The thrust of education, therefore, must
be to develop character and philosophical realisation; external
knowledge and expertise are in a supportive role'.
Here we will continue our exploration of the education procedure,
including that which is considered more progressive. We will examine
how it may be applicable within ISKCON and indeed, where it may
be inappropriate. We will focus on aims and objectives and how they
are delivered through a variety of teaching methods. Our conclusions
will again be useful in helping us analyse where ISKCON currently
stands and in formulating proposals for education development.
Aims and objectives
An essential feature in the design of any learning programme
is the clear definition of aims. In my last article, I identified
the pressing need to establish the concept of 'graduation from the
training ashrams' (ashrams are the four vedic developmental
divisions of the human life-cycle which are meant to elevate one
to spiritual perfection). This would enable the Society to keep
a focus on its main objective and to formulate clear aims in terms
of its most important resource-its committed members. Without such
formal education, there is no question of a deliberate and pro-active
approach towards developing the Society, and the various categories
of its membership. Shrila Prabhupada confirms the importance of
setting aims, comparing a man without aims to a ship without a rudder.26
We will examine later how the Society's trainers are often unclear
as to what constitutes their specific goals (although, quite ironically,
often claiming that they are obvious and hence require no explicit
delineation). We will return to this in Part Three. It is sufficient
to mention here that there are two further stages in planning developed
in response to the questions included below:
- Aims-What do you, or your organisation, want to achieve,
taking into account the learning needs of the students?
- Objectives -What will students be able to do at the end
of your lesson or course which will demonstrate that you are meeting
- Assessment-How you will assess whether students are meeting
their objectives (and hence whether you are successful in meeting
These three steps are essential in planning and must be formulated
sequentially. The tendency is to look over them and to consider
content immediately, and I suspect that this is equally true for
both devotees and non-devotees alike. The reader may reflect on
his or her own preparation of a class or lecture. Most of us will:
- identify topics related to our main subject and
- determine what exciting learning experiences could be included
If we are more experienced, we may also initially pinpoint a theme
that we intend to follow throughout. Even so, this approach remains
relatively ineffective. Education experts term it as 'content-driven'.
Teachers remain more concerned for what is taught rather
than for why they are teaching in the first place. It is
essential to have clearly focused aims without which we will undoubtedly
run into difficulties, such as leaning excessively towards knowledge-transmission.
This will result in the marginalisation of skills and values (though
this is not to suggest that the transmission of information is unimportant).
One of Sefton Davies' principal criticisms of ISKCON was that its
education processes focuses on knowledge acquisition, as demonstrated
by its predominant modes of teaching.
Let us now examine some of these different methods and the possible
rationale behind them.
Teaching methods and styles
One aim of my training has been to broaden devotees' understanding
of what constitutes effective teaching and in particular trying
to introduce more interactive teaching methods. Most devotees have
warmly welcomed these changes as reflecting a positive shift in
values. Nevertheless (and quite understandably), these changes have
not been without their critics. A parallel debate exists in the
secular world between the advocates of traditional and progressive
Sefton Davies highlights this dynamic, contrasting education which
is primarily concerned with 'putting in,' based on telling and with
that which is largely 'drawing out', based on asking. He writes,
'The extreme case of putting in is that of indoctrination,
where an educator wishes to implant a fixed set of ideas and
to exclude the possibility of contrary ideas being considered and
accepted.' Here he indirectly addresses two issues:
- The correlation between any society's education and its style
of government (as a particular mode of education may well reflect
the prevailing ethos within its leadership).
- The dialectic between the needs for (a) authority (represented
by the Society) and (b) exercise of free will (as expressed through
These are two essential points for ISKCON to consider and themes
we will pick up later in the article.
Sefton Davies' statement implies that an education system favouring
'putting-in' may be rooted in the desire to preserve and perpetuate
a fixed set of ideas. Ideological groups, including ISKCON, fall
within this category. However, can they adopt progressive styles
of education? Sefton Davies has personally shared with me his conviction
that it is (almost) impossible. In other words, any organisation
with a fixed doctrine is obliged to be prescriptive. His ideas are
probably not without foundation. We may reasonably question how
ISKCON teachers can afford to draw answers from students since some
responses will inevitably be at variance with Gaudiya Vaishnava
I will attempt to answer this question by relating an experience
from my own school days. Mr Jones, my physics teacher, would regularly
ask the class to conduct laboratory experiments. There was one in
particular that I recall. Our task was to measure the effective
weights of different objects immersed in water. We were then to
plot a graph of two sets of readings and estimate a corresponding
formula. On this day, I remember, I could not be bothered to finish
the experiment and besides, I was a theorist anyway and believed
that I already knew the correct answer. Therefore, I worked backwards,
constructing the graph from the formula, and then dotting co-ordinates
along its length. It was then easy to fill in the corresponding
'readings' and to gloat over my early finish.
I was naturally convinced of the accuracy of my 'experiment',
but significantly less than if I had actually performed it! Nor
was the teacher anticipating much of a variation in the results
of his students. Why, then, did he have sufficient faith in his
students (providing, of course, that they correctly followed the
standard experimental procedure)? The answer seems to be clear:
fundamental laws of nature cannot be contravened. Consequently,
the events that such principles govern are entirely predictable.
According to Vaishnava theology, such universal laws apply just
as much to subtle phenomena (such as the mind and intelligence)
as to gross physical elements (such as earth and water), to living
beings as much as to dead matter.
This evidence suggests that student-based learning is appropriate
when we are dealing with axiomatic or universal principles where
we consider the subject to be a science rather than merely faith
or belief. Conversely, such methods may not be suitable where
the predominant beliefs, values and practices of a society or individual
are incongruent with reality. Such ignorance can hardly flourish
in an atmosphere of open and honest inquiry, but requires a healthy
dose of unquestioning compliance, as is evident even in the scientific
world, as well as the 'overtly' religious. We may therefore rightly
suspect the integrity of any organisation or society, which restricts,
explicitly or implicitly, the right of the individual to inquire
Another argument supporting a student-centred approach concerns
the residing place of knowledge, which the Vedas consider to be
locked within the heart.27 The
process of teaching is to unlock that inherent wisdom. The procedure
of 'drawing out' is consistent with this understanding and, if performed
expertly, it will yield accurate and effective results.
My personal experience of teaching confirms this. If devotees observe
their spiritual practices, then the facilitator, through nurturing
honesty, introspection and self-expression, can usually evoke the
'right' answers from students themselves. Naturally, there are risks
involved for anyone who dares teach in a more dynamic, student-centred
way. It naturally puts an onus on the teacher to truly understand
and realise the subject or to admit his inadequacies.28
In either case, it calls for depth of character and a willingness
to take risks! Again, this suggests that teaching methods reflect
not only the managerial or organisational ethos, as previously implied,
but the values held by teachers themselves.29
This may further indicate that in borrowing methods of education
from outside ISKCON, devotees must be careful not to adopt values
which are inconsistent with their tradition.30
An analysis of experiential learning
Certainly, my own support for progressive education practice
is not without qualification. For example, I often teach according
to the experiential learning cycle as Sefton Davies outlined in
his essay. See figure Figure 1.
From a Krishna conscious perspective, however, this
process is to abstract not so much ideas as realisations.
Therefore, to differentiate between factual and erroneous conclusions,
student perceptions 31
must constantly be tested against scripture.32
This requires, in most cases, that students have some preliminary
scriptural knowledge. In addition, the process of drawing out answers
is dependent on the student having adequate experience of the subject.
These two conclusions further imply that 'putting in' is more appropriate
towards the beginning of any learning process, (at the stage of
knowledge acquisition) whereas drawing-out is more suitable later
on (when one tries to understand their realisations).
Similarly, there are other features of effective learning
which predominate in the earlier and later stages respectively.
These are shown below:
These two sets of criteria closely correspond
to the traditional and progressive models. I propose that each is
relevant, and each essential, at its respective stage.33
The progressive model may not be appropriate without students having
passed through the earlier stage. Similarly, to maintain highly
didactic methods for mature students may prove equally counter-productive.
The criteria listed above may again help us analyse
ISKCON in its provision of education opportunities.
The importance of principles
Let us return to our examination of experiential learning. We
have identified the need to speak of realisations rather than ideas.
Further, it seems the whole thrust of experiential learning is to
abstract not simply policies or guidelines, but primarily principles.34
This point needs to be emphasised because unless a social group
understands the foundational principles behind its specific raison-d'Ítre
it will not be able to effectively respond to changing circumstances,
nor preserve its tradition. Specifically, it must discern between
context-relevant instructions (or temporary policies) and unchanging,
axiomatic truths. Otherwise, it will commit one of two blunders:
- taking account of, and reacting to, changing circumstances and
public opinion, but losing grip on its core beliefs, values, mission
and so forth, or,
- sticking rigidly to externals, and to doctrine, often in the
name of preventing mission-shift, but losing the real essence
of that which needs to be preserved and perpetuated.
It is essential that ISKCON preserves its legacy, and
in this training and education will play a vital role.
A further advantage of a principle-based approach (over
one which simply defines practice and procedure) is that it legitimately
accommodates diversity. It maintains and communicates clear standards
by which to gauge a variety of practices. It does not promote a
culture of rigid compliance and conformity, but one which values
individuality and initiative (though within the bounds of the mission
which defines its membership). Additionally, a principle-based approach
will enable the mission to synthesise its conservative and radical
features and avoid fragmentation into various opposing camps. The
principles which form the bedrock of continuity are found within
Shrila Prabhupada's books.35
The role of scripture
One may, however, question the need to use experiential learning
at all. The Vedas are considered infallible. Why not just accept
them-end of story? One danger to such a prescriptive approach, especially
devoid of the opportunity to question, is that students fail to
question not only the validity of scripture, but also their understanding
of such sacred injunctions. Consequently, they may pretend
to understand, or possess the prescribed levels of conviction.
Lack of opportunity to clear away doubts subsequently impedes progress.
This naturally involves a degree of self-deception. Leaders and
teachers in such societies may be more concerned with belief and
faith allegiance than an open exploration of truth. There may also
be a preference for 'yes-men', an 'us and them' mind-set and a reliance
on hype, slogans, and peer-pressure to support practices that are
often carefully tended as sacred cows.
Therefore, we may conclude that an effective education
system promotes understanding and realisation achieved by internalisation
of knowledge derived from appropriate authority.
The basis of commitment
Our discussion raises another question: is commitment based
on a full exploration of facts or a suspension of the critical faculties?
In the eighteenth chapter of the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna
apparently supports the former option, favouring the well-informed
decision. After instructing Arjuna for the best part of an hour,
the Lord tells him, 'Thus I have explained to you knowledge more
confidential. Deliberate on this fully, and then do what you wish
to do.' Shrila Prabhupada further explains in his purport, 'Surrender
to the Supreme Personality of Godhead is in the best interest of
the living entities. It is not for the interest of the Supreme.
Before surrendering, one is free to deliberate on this subject as
far as the intelligence goes; that is the best way to accept
the instructions of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.'36
This text not only endorses teaching methods which stimulate real
understanding, but enrolment policies which acknowledge the free
will and individuality of the student.
Assessment should precede each stage of commitment,
so that the candidate can take full responsibility for his or her
decision. Contrary procedure may lead to premature commitment, which
not only causes later retractions, but may also result in bitterness
towards the organisation that failed to meet unrealistic expectations.
A society such as ISKCON has a responsibility to explain clearly
to candidates their future prospects and any corresponding rights
Any enrolment policy simultaneously requires the clear
understanding of the specific purposes of that particular programme.
Unfortunately, as we will see later, there are very few ISKCON initiatives
with such clearly focused aims. In fact, until recently there has
hardly been any formal education at all. In other words, the Society
and its leaders have not yet recognised the benefits. Which leads
to the obvious question-why not?
Leadership and values
Whatever the answer to this, it is clear that education does
not take place within a vacuum. It requires not only endorsement
but also the active and heartfelt support of the entire Society
and particularly its leadership.
Values are determined not so much by what is spoken
from the vyasasana (elevated seat for a teacher in class).
Rather, they are largely moulded by social interactions, particularly
through forms of reward and punishment (however subtle). Therefore,
the prevalent leadership ethos will significantly determine the
nature of a Society's education system. It is also the duty of leaders
to ensure, through appropriate evaluation, that their organisation
is on course for meeting its aims.
From my experience, I see striking parallels between
the managerial and education processes. Secular management often
recognises the importance of on-going training for its entire staff.
Nevertheless, in these professional organisations, training is usually
a matter of expediency in meeting financial goals. It is clear that
ISKCON's very aims are education-based, as revealed through the
first of its Seven Purposes. For this reason, the managerial function
must serve the education processes, rather than vice versa. The
following analysis of ISKCON and subsequent proposals are intended
especially for consideration by the leaders of the Society.
So far, we have explored the learning process in terms of (1)
knowledge, skills and values and (2) aims and objectives. We have
also examined briefly some variety in teaching methods and identified
the need for education to be principle-based and grounded in scripture.
In so doing, we have identified criteria to help us ascertain how
far and how effectively ISKCON's education has progressed and where
there is further room for improvement.
This naturally involves identifying the Society's shortcomings:
not in a mood of criticism but as an attempt to move realistically
and constructively forward. Despite the challenges-and they are
numerous-there are indications as I mentioned in my earlier article,
that the movement is positively evolving as it enters 'Phase Three'
of its development.
Identifying areas in need of improvement
(1) There is an over-emphasis on knowledge-acquisition
Four years ago, at a public function in Bristol, I was chatting
to a lady who was a member of the congregation. She had recently
attended one of my weekend courses on teacher training. I was encouraging
her to try leading a local class. She, however, was hesitant. Finally,
she revealed that she felt unqualified. 'I don't know enough slokas!'
(verses from the scriptures), she admitted. I was astounded! Here
was a middle-aged woman, a certified counsellor, who had successfully
raised a family and demonstrated maturity in personal and professional
circles. I was simultaneously bewildered and enlightened! I was
convinced that the values prevalent in our temples were spilling
over into the congregation. She had the necessary skills and the
appropriate attitudes-yet considered the verses she could recite
the primary qualification for representing the Society.
It would be interesting, if not revealing, to ask academics,
media and faith leaders who have an interest in ISKCON what they
expect of our members. I suspect that they would give greater emphasis
to character and behaviour. We could also reflect on what our own
tradition says about the respective priorities afforded to knowledge,
skills and values.
(2) Education methods are almost entirely teacher-centred.
Within ISKCON temples, lecturing remains the prevalent mode
of teaching. Devotees are reluctant to use other means, often doubting
their validity. Some consider them non-traditional, or even heretical,
citing our standard process of descending knowledge from guru to
Amongst some progressive non-devotee educators, lecturing
is considered suitable for little more than knowledge-transmission.
Conversely, within Vaishnavism, a morning class is a place of honour
and cannot be equated with mere information-transfer. On this point,
there seems to be a clear rift between non-devotee specialists and
the tradition itself. I have noted that the morning Bhagavatam
class does not take place in isolation. It is one part of an
entire process, which has other highly experiential components.
Lectures are delivered most effectively at the end of the 'morning
programme.' The attendant spiritual practices, particularly the
chanting of the names of Krishna on japa beads, enhance the
consciousness, making the practitioner far more aware and receptive
to hearing. During the lecture, an effective teacher will draw from
life experience, speaking with direct realisation, which will powerfully
transform the heart of the sincere listener. The devotee then carries
forward what is learned into the day's service, meditating on the
teacher's words. My own perception of this process is that even
the lecture itself can be highly experiential, with the potency
to transform values.
For formal temple situations, I am reluctant to suggest
that devotees use radically different methods. Nevertheless, there
is scriptural evidence for using such technique (as we have already
examined). We have heard how realisation is one of the ultimate
goals of education. Let us now examine how Shrila Prabhupada defines
Personal realisation does not mean that one should, out of vanity,
attempt to show one's own learning by trying to surpass the previous
acharyas. He must have full confidence in the previous acharyas,
and at the same time he must realise the subject matter so nicely
that he can present the matter for the particular circumstances
in a suitable manner. The original purpose of the text must be
maintained. No obscure meaning should be screwed out of it, yet
it should be presented in an interesting manner for the understanding
of the audience. This is called realisation.
This endorses the principle of adjusting one's
presentation to suit the audience, and may indeed support the whole
concept of progressive education technique. I suggest that devotees
should seriously consider using progressive education techniques
outside the context of a temple lecture.
(3) The Society has little promotional material beyond
Recently, my father asked me to bring, on behalf of a friend,
some basic Krishna conscious literature. 'Nothing too fancy', he
specified. I happily agreed, but subsequently felt quite embarrassed
with what I could not find. There was no information on devotees
and their personal stories; very little on the Society's cultural
heritage; next-to-nothing on the opportunities it offers the public;
and little with any pictures! However, there are stacks of books
simply on doctrine, which, for most people, is quite inaccessible
to the newcomer.
Although theology is of the utmost importance for ISKCON,
many devotees now consider this insufficient on its own. They acutely
feel the need to practically live and demonstrate their teachings,
and to 'walk their talk'. For a society of our size and prominence,
the lack of suitable literature reveals, again, an inordinate emphasis
on knowledge alone and perhaps a reluctance to share ourselves with
those outside the movement.
(4) Little importance is attached to skills training.
Lack of skills training is evident in several ways. I have often
observed capable devotees performing relatively low-level tasks
in comparison to their non-devotee counterparts. ISKCON may indeed
have difficulty affording comparable training systems. What is becoming
apparent, though, is the immense cost of not training members
and the gross inefficiency of constantly re-inventing the wheel.
Inadequate skills also become conspicuous in areas that determine
public perception, such as our reception and telephone services.
The whole issue of public credibility can be effectively measured
in terms of skills and values, as these are reflected through conduct
and behaviour. Skills and values can be constructively addressed
through appropriate training schemes.
Another key issue is the lack of vocational training
for the vast majority of residential devotees who eventually marry.
The question often arises as to whether or not this is indeed the
responsibility of the Society.
(5) There is little or no service assessment and
Sincerity is often considered the sole qualification for maintaining
a position within the Society. Any attempt to assess devotees' performance
as functionaries may be construed as an affront to their spiritual
integrity. In temple leadership, the coups that sporadically tear
down temple presidents may be rightly attributed to a lack of formalised
evaluation. In the 1980s, initiating gurus were promoted to jet-set
executives, simply because of their spiritual standing. They were
equally expected to be knowledgeable on all aspects of life, whatever
their factual experience, placing them under considerable pressure
to perform according to such unrealistic expectations.37
A corollary of these phenomena has been the reluctance
of temple devotees to engage the skills of congregational experts
whose spiritual practices failed to meet temple standards.
In conclusion, material propensities and spiritual qualifications
have been totally muddled. What is ironic here is the apparent emphasis
on values, which does not bear up to scrutiny, as we will now see.
(6) There is a lack of congruence between the theoretical
knowledge and values that devotees demonstrate.
The early nineteen-eighties heralded the recognition of the
disparity between devotees' theology and their corresponding practices.
Shortcomings in values were reflected through poor, often shocking,
personal conduct and a striking increase in social anomalies.
I have listed below some of the values that the Society
seems to have nurtured in its members, perhaps unconsciously, and
which are inconsistent with scripture:
(a) Short-term results have been rewarded more highly than
Scripture emphasises the relative benefits of sreyas (ultimate
good) over preyas (the immediate result). Despite this,
new devotees who have contributed significantly towards fund-raising
initiatives have often received far greater acclaim from leaders
than older devotees who are no longer so financially productive.
It is therefore questionable, from an education perspective, whether
the appreciation a member receives is commensurate with his or
her factual spiritual advancement (as it should be). One noticeable
result has been that leadership often caters more effectively
for its younger followers but faisl to maintain their commitment
as these young followers mature.
(b) Devotees have favoured 'transcendence' in preference to
In the early days devotees failed to appreciate the important
and sustaining role of morality in the long, and often gruelling,
journey towards transcendence. Self-realisation, or perception
of the self as separate from the mind and body, was considered
quite different from character development. These attitudes naturally
mitigated the need for introspection and any deliberate assessment
of one's personal values.
(c) External renunciation has been valued far more than integrity
and personal responsibility.
The leaning towards artificial renunciation and consequent
irresponsibility is particularly evident when studying the brahmacaris'
(celibate students) often negative attitudes towards marriage.
The grihasta ashram for married householders has often
been equated, quite erroneously, with materialistic household
life. The consequences for brahmacaris changing ashrams
have been predictably disastrous.
(d) The prevalence of the 'welfare mentality'.
Devotees have often expected the Society to provide far more
of their needs than it has been able and have eventually become
disappointed. This raises the question of establishing mutual
expectations, and the qualifications of the candidate for residential
training, particularly in respect of their values. For example,
some candidates may already possess desirable traits, such as
honesty and cleanliness, whereas others are practically incorrigible
even after training. Residential training, some suggest, should
primarily be for more independent, thoughtful people who have
a strong sense of vocation.
(e) Unquestioning allegiance has been given preference to thoughtful
Faith based on suspension of the critical faculties certainly
results in a quick commitment, but usually not a lasting one.
(f) Spirituality is measured largely on the basis of external
practices, rather than inner development.
Although strict adherence to sadhana is undeniably
essential, there has been little open dialogue about personal
issues and what is really going on within the devotee's heart.
(7) Scripture has been misused to endorse erroneous practices
and their attendant values.
ISKCON has its share of emotionally charged words, which often
embody unquestionable truths and values. For example, when a devotee
is insensitive, he or she is invariably described as 'impersonal',
with all its negative connotations.38
Other terms worthy of exploration include 'surrender', 'humble',
'independent' and 'motivated'. Although these terms are theologically
significant, they may have been unconsciously misinterpreted for
tendentious purposes, usually related to maintaining a high degree
of hands-on control (such as for example, to keep the work-force
(8) Business (vaishya) values have been predominant.
Inappropriate values lie at the heart of many of the Society's
challenges and may be the natural consequence of the leaders' emphasis
on productivity, which itself has been moulded by circumstantial
economic pressures, rather than as a direct fault of the management
itself. Those with brahminical tendencies (who tend to be independently
resourceful) have not always found appreciation or satisfying services
within the Society. Many, after living initially in temples, have
ultimately pursued more academic careers away from the Society.
(9) Discerning people have been reluctant to become closely
Less-discerning residents have frightened away more intelligent
candidates, namely those with higher values. Many temple residents
became highly dependent on the institution for their material needs
and failed to win respect from the professional classes. When teaching
and questioned on subjects beyond their capacity, they often became
defensive, attempting to maintain their own perceived superiority
by borrowing strength, for example, from position or the length
of time they have spent in the movement. Traditionally the temple
and its residents are expected to be exemplary and such training
should be reserved for men and women of the highest calibre.
(10) There is little formulation of people-centred goals.
Members, according to their respective levels of commitment,
constitute ISKCON's most valuable asset and yet cars, books and
property have taken priority in setting goals. Material assets have
been often been considered the means to secure followers, rather
than vice-versa. This calls for a re-evaluation of the actual purposes
of the Society.
(11) There is very little continuity and progression.
Many congregational members complain that they have been listening
to the 'you are not this body' class for many years. Similar concerns
are expressed by temple residents. Both education content and methodology
lack continuity and progression. Teaching methods and styles are
more suitable for newer members. The rationale behind this is that:
(a) hearing is purifying anyway and (b) repetition is necessary,
because we tend to repeatedly forget and fall into maya
(illusion). This approach does not acknowledge and validate the
intelligence of students, nor recognise the progress they will have
inevitably made if education procedures are sound.
(12) There are few clearly delineated systems and structures
Less than thirty per cent of all temples world-wide have an
initial course for new-comers to temple life (bhakta / bhaktin courses),
what to speak of more extensive developmental programmes. Intelligent
people, who plan for the future, perceive few carefully formulated
prospects for a lifetime of spiritual growth. For many devotees
Krishna consciousness remains a distant dream rather than a goal
towards which they are consistently and perceivably moving.
(13) No clear enrolment policies.
In most temples, the criteria for who is eligible to join remains
a mystery and has thus been highly subjective (and hence subject
to gross inaccuracy). Candidates, who may have been accepted to
ensure that the pots are washed, often turn out to be quite unsuitable
for ashram life.
(14) New devotees are considered manpower rather than students.
Temple departmental heads have sometimes resisted moves to introduce
systematic training, fearing an initial loss of manpower. Ironically,
formal training and education is ultimately intended (amongst other
things) to equip temples with highly qualified staff. What is
clear is that the Society has not considered education a priority.
Fortunately, opinions are shifting; most notably amongst the
leadership, indicating that ISKCON is indeed entering a new phase
that is characterised by rapid strides in education.
The following proposals will be of particular interest to ISKCON
devotees, especially leaders, managers and educators. We need to:
(1) Clearly establish the vision, identity and function of all
ISKCON temples, with specific emphasis on their primary role as
(2) (a) Identify the different groups who have education needs.
I have isolated four major categories namely:
(i) leaders and managers
(ii) residential devotees (i.e. students)
(iii) congregational members
(iv) common-interest groups39
(b) Establish specific purposes of training and education for
each of these groups.
(c) For each group we establish paths of involvement, with aims
and objectives for each stage of training in terms of knowledge,
skills and understanding, and values.
(d) Each discipline within the Society establishes an education
team that will formulate the principles upon which its development
is based. These should largely come from Shrila Prabhupada's works.
These principles will then be used to evaluate its training policies
(3) Corresponding enrolment policies should be established for
all training courses and thereafter, scheduled periods of commitment
(4) We publish appropriate advertising material which clearly
differentiate between: (a) our theology (b) our understanding and
experience of Krishna consciousness (c) the opportunities which
ISKCON offers to individuals for interaction with the Society.
(5) Members who enter the Society for residential training do so
with clear understanding of their future prospects. They should
enter on a contractual basis with defined rights and responsibilities.
(6) All teachers and trainers will be trained and accredited,
according to international standards.
(7) All managers should be trained, particularly to appreciate:
(a) the basic principles of leadership and management with regard
to dividing society and training accordingly
(b) the value of supporting those with brahminical functions
(c) the importance of continually improving the organisational
culture of the Society, and ensuring that its representatives
are aligned with its mission.
(8) Strong links should be forged between managers and educators
to implement all the above and to ensure that the management procedures
serve the education purposes of the Society, and that the predominant
values within the Society are brahminical. This means that leadership
and management should be pro-active rather than reactive, responding
to situations promptly and anticipating what may be required in
Our discussion points to the need for a social system that is
based on the universal principle of service to Lord Krishna, and
yet accommodates all types of people with diverse values. This suggests
that the predominant values of the Society must be brahminical,
that is based on moral and ethical standards derived from scripture.
Since intellectual and religious leadership is naturally concerned
for the welfare of others, they base their decisions on principles,
rather than on political, economic or sensual expediency. We have
noted how any society's problems are rooted in an imbalance of values.
Our system must be one that can redress its imbalance of values
and address spiritual challenges-this I believe will come principally
through the education forum. In addition, a principle-based education
system may be the most effective arena for addressing ISKCON's current
social challenges. Furthermore, the suggestions outlined in this
discussion may provide a useful tool for delivering such remedial
measures. If the managerial and education leaders can co-operate
to introduce systematic training and education based on the principles
found in Srila Prabhupada's writings, then everything else will