The Album of My Festive Year

Skimming through a photo album of my ten months at Bhaktivedanta College (2002–2003), I slowed down near the end and remembered my mixed feelings on June 28, our graduation day, as we walked through a forest at Radhadesh, Belgium. We were the first graduating class. We played drums and karatalas and sang Krishna’s names as we walked toward a green field where we would hold our last meeting.

Our months together were the best time of my life. I felt happy, inspired, and enlightened by the experience, but I was sad it was all ending. And I had to abruptly leave my classmates the next day to visit my family and the devotees in Israel. While sitting together, sharing thoughts, exchanging concluding words, and looking into the future, we reflected on various experiences throughout the year. Those ten months were like a long hallway, and the various courses like so many open doors on both sides.

According to our inclinations, we eventually chose different paths to pursue. Bram received initiation (as Vasudeva Dasa), returned home to Holland, and became the new president of the Amsterdam temple for one year. Krishna Candra, our youngest classmate (her parents are disciples of Srila Prabhupada), went to a university in Canada, where she is from. Rabin, of Indian descent and from Holland, had inspired us with his meditations on Lord Chaitanya. He has now dedicated two years to serving on the College staff. After visiting Israel, I accepted an earlier invitation to join the staff of the Vaishnava Academy for Girls in Alachua, Florida. In my service here I use the knowledge, skills, and values I acquired during my studies. I often take guidance from the teacher training I received, and sometimes I refer to my textbooks. I still turn to my College friends, too, and obtain much inspiration from them.

Since we graduated from the one-year ministerial program, Bhaktivedanta College has formed a partnership with the University of Wales, Lampeter (UK). The university’s Open Learning Theology and Religious Studies Program allows the College to offer its students different levels of accredited courses, each with a corresponding certificate or diploma as part of the student’s development towards the award of a degree from the University of Wales, Lampeter. Bhaktivedanta College is now running its one-year program for the third time, with fifteen students. In September 2005, the second year of studies will be launched, and in 2006 the third year of accredited courses. The trustees and supporters are planning a building for the College and discussing how the College’s success can be duplicated in Mayapur and Mumbai.

Hooked on the Idea

My Bhaktivedanta College experience started in late 2001, when two trustees, Braja Bihari Dasa and Shaunaka Rishi Dasa, gave a presentation at Radhadesh about the College, which was to open the following academic year. They said that for many years systematic adult education had been the dream of some devotees. A Krishna conscious education, they said, could include academic studies, vocational skills, and personal introspection and devotion. As they described the courses, my enthusiasm grew. I learned that the teachers would be senior devotees, some of whom I’d always aspired to learn from, and the students would be devotees too. I thought that our quiet, rural location was highly conducive for studying. This would be a big step in my personal and spiritual development. What more could I ask for? It was what I had often dreamed of when I joined ISKCON.

At that time I was teaching at Radhadesh’s children’s school. After two years there, the Radhadesh temple had become my home, and its community my family. Radhadesh is in a beautiful green mountainous area. The ISKCON property is well maintained, and the project is constantly developing. Couples are raising families, and the visitors program brings in thousands of people. Since I love studying, I was attracted to staying there to study.

So I was looking forward to it all: diving into Srila Prabhupada’s books under the guidance of advanced devotees and learning how to apply the spiritual wisdom in my attempts to become Krishna conscious; expanding my knowledge of other philosophies, religions, and social and ethical theories, and evaluating them in the light of spiritual knowledge; becoming equipped with the tools and methods of teaching others, inside and outside of ISKCON; deepening my faith, increasing my taste for hearing and chanting Krishna’s names, and coming closer to the desired surrender at the Lord’s lotus feet.

A College trustee and the sponsor of the library, Mahaprabhu Dasa, then gave me a full scholarship. How could I refuse? I was extremely eager to go. And I wasn’t disappointed in the least. My experience exceeded my expectations.

Initial Apprehension

As the time drew nearer to start the College, though, some doubts crept in: Would I, a young devotee from Israel, be able to write academic and devotional essays in English? Would I be able to fit in with a group of students I mostly didn’t know? This was the first year of the College, and we were the guinea pigs, so who knew what could go wrong? But soon my doubts were all dispelled.

Many senior devotees attended the opening ceremony, in early September 2002, and offered blessings and support. The College, like a newborn baby, was attended to by many well-wishers, just as parents and relatives nourish and caress an infant with love. All the assembled Vaishnavas (and even many who were not there) had already taken great care for the College’s early development. After a few years of labor, so to speak, the successful birth had taken place. Finally, the College had become a reality, and very soon, with great support, it began safely and successfully taking its first steps.

During the orientation week, we received excellent training in needed skills such as note taking, speed reading, and essay writing. Sita Rama Dasa and Anuradha Dasi (both from ISKCON Education in the UK) guided us through useful and pleasant exercises that dispelled both academic and social doubts. Although at first we students seemed like a coincidental collection of individuals, without losing that individuality we soon began to cooperate as a team. Day by day my appreciation for my classmates grew.

Students with Purpose

The oldest member of our class was Jaya Bhadra Devi Dasi, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada. After performing devotional service for thirty years in various capacities with great determination, she wanted to undertake a structured study of Srila Prabhupada’s books and develop more skills to increase her service. She took her studies seriously and shared many of her experiences with us. Now she has begun teaching Bhakti Shastri courses to devotees who enroll in this separate, four-month scriptural study program offered annually at the College. She has also traveled to Spain promote Krishna consciousness.

Jaya Govinda Dasa came to deepen his Krishna consciousness and to increase his service for ISKCON Italy. His contributions are too numerous to mention here, but I always hope to carry with me the many lessons I learned from him about Vaishnava behavior.

My dear roommate (in the beautiful new Radhadesh guesthouse) was Vrindadevi Dasi, from Switzerland, who became like a sister to me. We dealt with each other with great care, and our intimate sharing softened our hearts. After we graduated, she served on the College staff.

Daniel returned to England and is now a confident student of psychology at the University of Brookes, Oxford. Claire, from America, later received initiation (as Kumari-priya Devi Dasi) and returned to the College to help for some time; then she enrolled at Oxford University, where her father had studied.

Expert Vaishnava Teachers

After orientation week, each week-long (or two-weeks–long) course led smoothly to the next. We relished each seminar as we relish delicious preparations at a meal. I felt honored to receive personal training from teachers who are not only experts in their fields (communication, interfaith, management, world religions, philosophy, and so on) but also exemplary Vaishnavas and devoted followers of Srila Prabhupada.

We received an interesting overview of the six Indian philosophies from Pranava Dasa, a graduate student in Sweden. We were carefully given teacher training in two seminars by the teachers’ teacher Rasamandala Dasa, who started and runs the Vaishnava Training and Education office in England. Others, like Anuttama Dasa (ISKCON’s communications director), Krishna Kshetra Dasa (who was working on his Ph.D. at Oxford), and Shesha Dasa (the minister of ISKCON education), to mention just a few, shared their knowledge with us, and also their hearts. Every time a course ended and a teacher had to leave, I lamented because I had become attached to the teacher’s association. Each of them cared about us and extended themselves in many ways. Some attended our weekly student meetings and exchanged gifts with us or invited us for a pizza party at the cafeteria.

Among our teachers were two second-generation devotees who invoked our great admiration. Radhika Ramana Dasa and Kartamasa Dasa are both academically qualified (in Sanskrit and sociology, respectively), but they are even more exalted even because of their Vaishnava qualities and personal warmth.

A special blessing came upon us twice in the form of Shacinandana Swami, with his two courses on the holy name and the processes of devotional surrender.

Essay writing, though at times challenging, became almost one of my hobbies, and it was nice to have the tutorial help we received in polishing our papers, offered by Tattvavit Dasa, whose main service in ISKCON has been editing.

Our teacher in residence and the college principal, Yadunandana Dasa, in his unfailing, devoted support on all levels, was our primary guide and shelter. His course on the first two cantos of the Srimad-Bhagavatam ran throughout the year.

During the year we also took part in temple activities. Some of us served Sri Sri Radha-Gopinatha by cooking or making garlands, some of us by cooking for the devotees. Some delivered classes in the temple, some spoke at various programs, and some organized cultural events or dramas for the Radhadesh community. We actively took part in the temple’s morning programs. The College wonderfully integrated with the community, thanks to everyone involved. The festival-like year passed with great delight. My colleagues were like my family, our classes and student meetings my very means of nourishment. I gained great hope and confidence for my future practice of devotional service.

Taking It With Us

And so it was that the end of our school year was a time of great lamentation. But we had all learned to increase and improve our service, and it was now time to turn theory into practice. I was sad to leave, sad it was over, but happy to have gone through it and ready to move on and use it before I would lose it.

Lord Chaitanya instructed us to tell everyone we meet about Krishna, wherever we go. So I am spreading the word about the College. What is our impetus for sharing Krishna consciousness, if not our great love for it? Is it not our happiness and the recognition of the valuable gift of mercy that we have received? And is it not deep feelings of gratitude to those who kindly offered this gift to us? For these reasons I am writing about my experiences at Bhaktivedanta College.

And, no, my album is not yet closed. I leave it open. My affiliation with Bhaktivedanta College is still not over. You may meet me there sometime.