Real Education, from the Very Beginning

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Determined to give their two young daughters a real education, a devotee couple encourage them to systematically study Srila Prabhupada's books from an early age.

"These children are given to us by Krishna," Srila Prabhupada wrote in a 1972 letter to a disciple. "They are Vaisnavas, and we must be very careful to protect them. These are not ordinary children. They are Vaikuntha children, and we are very fortunate we can give them the chance to advance further in Krishna consciousness."

Both my husband and I came to Krishna consciousness after having spent more than sixteen years in an education system that made no mention of the science of understanding the soul. We were studying in one of the best colleges in the world, and we were taught skills, not real education. We were determined to do things differently with our children.

Srila Prabhupada said, "Actually, at the present moment there is no education, because education means to understand my identity. . . . The modern education – they are simply giving lessons on some art, generally known as technology." (Lecture, Mexico City, February 17, 1975) Srila Prabhupada repeatedly stressed that our children must be given spiritual education: "I am so glad to see that you are raising your daughter in Krishna consciousness, and that is your duty as a conscientious mother – to give the child a proper education in spiritual living." (Letter to Balai Dasi, August 17, 1970) And this must be done from the very beginning: "Young children should be educated from the very beginning about God consciousness or the science of God. We had the opportunity in our childhood. My father taught. And then, when I was grown up, my spiritual master taught. So for that reason we have got some sense. Spiritual education should be given." (Room conversation, Atlanta, March 1, 1975)

When our elder daughter, Krishangi, was a few months old, I compiled an album of Krishna conscious paintings, and we spent many happy hours leafing through it. As she grew up a little, we started reading Srila Prabhupada's book Krishna to her. When she was about two and a half years old, one day I was chanting aloud the Gita verse dhyayato vishayan pumsah . . . (2.62) and was surprised that she learned it by heart within minutes. I started to conduct children's classes, teaching verses and basic philosophy to a group of children about her age.

After a few years, our younger daughter, Gaurangi was born. As a three-year-old she loved to look at all the pictures in the Srimad-Bhagavatam. Once, when we were listening to a recorded Srimad-Bhagavatam reading, she ran to the bookshelf, pulled out the correct volume, and flipped it open to show us the relevant picture.

All this occurred while we were living in Middle East countries, where my husband, Tapana Mishra Dasa, was working. We were also helping to establish ISKCON's presence there. In these Islamic countries, ISKCON's activities are underground, so there is no question of having an ISKCON school. The girls were going to a regular school, and I was teaching them shastra at home. We had a nice morning program: Krishangi would chant a few rounds, we would read together and chant a few verses, and then she would go to school. But when she was nine and moved to grade five, the school hours increased and so did the homework, to say nothing of the unsuitable association. At that time, after watching a YouTube video about children studying in Sridham Mayapur, she expressed a desire to move there, and mercifully, Lord Chaitanya allowed us to do so.

A Radical Suggestion

It would be the biggest understatement to say that everything improved for the better. From a situation where we could not step out of the house with our bead bags or with tilaka on, now we were surrounded by devotees and the sound of the holy name. We could attend the mangala-arati program at the temple every day. It was such a treat!

At that time my husband suggested something radical. He said that we should begin teaching shastra to Krishangi in a more systematic way, so we should enroll her in the Bhakti Sastri course offered by Mayapur Institute. Knowing that the course includes assessments of the students' knowledge of the material, I was doubtful. She was only ten. Even though she already knew many verses and could possibly handle the closed-book tests, what about the essays? Apart from deep contemplation, they required writing skills that I wasn't sure she had. Also, the pace of the Bhakti Sastri course is so fast that I wondered how she would be able to keep up.

As if by divine arrangement, at that time Mayapur Institute introduced a new program – part-time Bhakti Sastri. It was for resident devotees, and unlike the full-time course attended by devotees from around the world and which runs for three and a half months, it would span a year, with classes twice a week in the evening. Thinking that this would give Krishangi enough time to read and understand between classes, we encouraged her to enroll in the course. Although she was unsure in the beginning, she found it very satisfying to be studying Srila Prabhupada's books systematically and told us that she was determined to give it her best shot. She would go to Sri Mayapur International School during the day and attend the Bhakti Sastri classes in the evening.

When she had to write her first essay, I gave her simple guidelines: do the research first, make notes of what you want to say, and then organize the content with an introduction, the main body, and a conclusion. Her first draft still had plenty of room for improvement. I again gave some suggestions, and finally her essay was complete. While proofreading, I was happy to note that although her realizations were simple and childlike, her understanding of the philosophy was good. Her language was not the most eloquent, but coherent enough to convey the points. Thus we progressed from one module to another. She would read the relevant portion before the class, we would discuss the main points and I would answer any query she had, and then I would sit with her during the classes to make sure she was following everything. At the age of eleven, she had completed studying the four books required – Bhagavad-gita As It Is, The Nectar of Instruction, Sri Ishopanishad, and The Nectar of Devotion – and she received her Bhakti Sastri certificate.

At the same time, due to the dedicated teacher she had at school, she managed to keep up with the schoolwork quite well, so much so that her teacher suggested she skip a grade, and from grade six she went directly to grade eight.

The next logical step for Krishangi was to begin studying the Srimad-Bhagavatam for theBhakti Vaibhava certificate. It seemed like a lofty goal, but slowly and surely she progressed from one unit to the next, and within the next two and a half years she wrote forty essays, memorized over a hundred verses, gave two Srimad-Bhagavatam lectures and two presentations, and wrote a thesis on a topic from the first six cantos of Srimad-Bhagavatam.

Little Sister Follows

About a year ago, when Krishangi was in the thick of studying Srimad-Bhagavatam, we turned our attention to our younger daughter, Gaurangi, suggesting that she take the Bhakti Sastri course. She was eight years old then. We weren't worried about whether she could handle the course, because she understood things quickly and had fairly developed writing skills, but the main challenge was to get her inspired enough to put her heart into it, since by nature she's more laid back and less inclined to put her energy into anything serious. Somehow or other we convinced her to attend the first few classes – again the part-time course.

By Krishna's mercy she loved it. She looked forward to the days when after school she could race over to Chaitanya Bhavan, where the classes were held. To make it more attractive for her, while we were walking to the class I would buy her a little prasadam treat on the way. Every essay she had to write and every closed-book test she had to prepare for began with a tantrum followed by an inspirational talk by either her father or me. We had to exercise much patience in cajoling and convincing her to sit down and focus, but it was so worth it because she has now read almost four of Srila Prabhupada's books cover to cover.

One day, as we sat down to watch one of the Srila Prabhupada Memories videos on YouTube, an advertisement popped up for a TV series entitled The Missing Link. The commentator claimed that the scientists were about to discover the missing link between apes and humans and ended dramatically by posing the question "Who is the father of modern man?"

"Manu," replied Gaurangi matter-of-factly.

Encouraging, Not Forcing

Sometimes the children would grumble that none of their friends were engaged in such extensive study of Srila Prabhupada's books. We explained to them that every family has to set their own priorities. Just as some devotees make it a point that their children attend the complete temple program and others are engaged in home deity worship, performing kirtana and so on, similarly as a family our current focus would be to study the books. We pointed out to them that everyone is trying to engage their children in one way or the other, so in that our situation was not unique.

We encouraged the children by making much of every little achievement. Every time they finished a unit, we would have a feast at home and periodically have a grand treat at Govinda's Pizzeria. This transcendental trick worked particularly well because at this age the girls are rather motivated by prasadam. My husband also promised Gaurangi that she could have anything in the world if she finished her Bhakti Sastri – she finally picked a doll's house.

It helped that while the girls were studying, I enrolled in Mayapur Institute's Bhakti Vaibhava program, which is run in the winter months. So studying Srila Prabhupada's books was an activity that we all engaged in together as a family. We had discussions and debates and learned verses together. My husband and I sat through Krishangi's presentations, and I typed the girls' essays for them.

One thing we always kept in mind was that the children should not feel that they were under any pressure to go through the courses, for the last thing we wanted was that they have any negative feelings associated with the activity. Our main idea was that they should develop some taste for reading Srila Prabhupada's books. So while I would (sometimes!) yell at them to finish their milk or tidy their shelves, I would be more patient when it came to remind them to work on their shastra and would always try to motivate and encourage them so that they were themselves convinced to do it, rather than simply doing it "because Mom says so."

We remain thankful that we have been allowed to bring up our daughters in Sridham Mayapur in the association of devotees. The purifying atmosphere is so conducive to spiritual study. Also, we are grateful to all the teachers at Mayapur Institute, particularly Atul Krishna Prabhu, who encouraged our girls every step of the way and gave much of his valuable time in guiding them.

Dovetailing the Children's Energy

The one condition that Krishangi had put during her studies was that we not reveal to anyone about her Bhakti Sastri and Bhakti Vaibhava courses because she said she didn't want to become proud. She said that this was her personal endeavor to please Srila Prabhupada and her intention was not to flaunt her achievements. She was horrified at the thought that her friends might think she has a holier-than-thou attitude because of her achievement. So, in one sense, writing this article would be a breach of our agreement with Krishangi. But she relented when we explained that many devotees had asked us to share our experience and wanted to know how the children were able to accomplish this. Our honest submission is that our children are not extraordinary. In the secular world, parents of very young children are training them for essay-writing competitions, elocutions, debates, public speaking, and so on. We are doing the same – with the important difference that our training is centered on Srila Prabhupada's books.

We mustn't underestimate our children. Particularly, children born in the Krishna consciousness movement have naturally sharp intellect due to being away from the contaminating influence of television and mundane literature. So all we have to do is channel their energy towards Krishna. Our children also play in the park, go to birthday parties, hang out with friends, watch dramas and movies in Srila Prabhupada's Samadhi auditorium, go for parikramas and kirtana melas, and so on, but at the same time we impressed upon them that a portion of their day must be kept aside for their sadhana. Srila Prabhupada comments on Narada Muni's serving the bhakti-vedantas: "The irresponsible life of sense enjoyment was unknown to the children of the followers of the varnashrama system." We pray that all the young children are given the opportunity to read Srila Prabhupada's books again and again, so that the teachings are deeply ingrained in their hearts.

About the Author: 

Indira-sakhi Devi Dasi

Indira-sakhi Devi Dasi (M.Tech, Computer Science, IIT Delhi) serves on the executive committee of ISKCON's Ministry of Education.