This article provides a comprehensive overview and analysis of Rasamandala's systematic approach to education and in reaching his significant audience.
In my last article I outlined the main achievements of ISKCON Educational Services (IES) in working with schools in the UK. I'd now like to further examine our methodology and to analyse the programme in terms of modern communications philosophy, with particular reference to research undertaken by Mukunda Maharaja. Through this exploration of the potential benefits of interaction with schools, I hope devotees worldwide will be encouraged to start or develop similar projects. In conclusion, I'll share with you some of my ideas about the future of the schools programme and how it may contribute towards the diversification of book distribution.
We started to develop our schools programme in the UK approximately three years ago. Although then unacquainted with the communications theory, IES enjoyed initial successes. It may be expedient to explore some of the principles we adopted, often by chance, though in the light of knowledge and terminology recently acquired from communications seminars, etc. I have analysed three important principles:
This principle entails knowing, acknowledging and satisfying the needs, interests and concerns of our 'customers' (or in communications terms, our 'target public'). In the UK, this has been reflected by attention to service quality: as stated by a member of the IES staff in a recent article in the Guardian Education Supplement: 'We try to provide what teachers want'. Though printed publicity material is invaluable - and we've produced a lot - our experience has been that the best advertising is through word of mouth. A well-earned reputation is far more valuable and satisfying than a glossy but superficial image.
Other practical demonstrations of our commitment to quality have been:
Showing consistency and accessibility
Giving prompt attention to enquiries
Establishing a database of all contacts
Keeping teachers informed of the services we offer
Taking the trouble to learn about religious education and its often complicated jargon
Being flexible and open to new ideas, especially from educationalists themselves
Going beyond the call of duty; for example, fitting in engagements at a moment's notice when a school has been let down by someone else (this is an excellent way to win friends!)
However, I've noticed a perhaps understandable reluctance from some devotees to heartily adopt the principles of customer care. Our tradition is one of descending knowledge where power of decision lies proportionately with those of greater purity and discrimination. Being entrusted, to different degrees, with the weighty responsibility of delivering unchanged the message of the parampara, we are often loathe to listen to advice from possibly 'impure' sources. Though we wish to embrace as wide and diverse a public as possible, we are also concerned to preserve the purity of ISKCON. I'd suggest, however, that listening and taking note of the needs, interests, concerns, opinions and feelings of those we consider spiritually 'our junior' neither undermines our benign hierarchical system nor our position in it. Rather, it empowers members, and particularly leaders, to make charitable decisions based on greater knowledge. Furthermore, the ability to listen without being unnecessarily swayed is a symptom of genuine purity and discrimination. Nevertheless, it requires a degree of self-knowledge and a clear awareness of our identity, purpose and boundaries.
Defining and Pursuing Clear Aims and Objectives
Customer care may be qualified with the following statement: 'We can satisfy the needs, concerns and interests of our public only in so much as they are consistent with, or contribute towards, our own aims and objectives.'
What are ISKCON's aims and objectives and how does the schools programme fit in with these? How can we link our own interests to those of educationalists? What is the relationship between preaching and teaching, the confessional and the professional?
It may be expedient to note that the word 'preach' usually has negative connotations with our public, although it is considered a 'buzz word' within ISKCON. However, I don't see this a stumbling block in relating our aims to those of the public as fortunately there is no exclusive theology at the base of our tradition. Our preaching activities are not directed towards conversion from one faith to another; rather we wish to encourage spiritual values that are common to all and embodied by diverse religious traditions. This goes a long way in validating ISKCON's 'missionary' aims in the eyes of educationalists.
Another significant point is that provision of information (i.e. teaching) is the basis of developing the understanding necessary for empathy (which is the purpose of preaching). The Rowland Company, a public relations group, endorsed this in a presentation to the GBC on 31 May 1991: 'Information begets knowledge which begets understanding'. Good preaching does not require coercion; respecting the integrity of the person and his or her ability to make meaningful decisions based on the information we provide, is part of our heritage. This is corroborated by Lord Krsna in the Bhagavad-gita (18.63): 'Thus I have explained to you knowledge still more confidential. Deliberate on this fully, and then do what you wish to do.' Srila Prabhupada further elaborates this point in his purport: '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.'
Is commitment inconsequential in teaching children about different religions or does it disturb the objectivity of the teaching process? Quite the contrary. In our experience, teachers appear to value the contribution of faith members, not just because of their extensive knowledge of their own tradition but because commitment is important in the teaching process. Real commitment is symptomised not by proselytising, but in respect for the integrity and faith allegiance of the individual.
It has been established that the aim of the schools programme is not to 'recruit' but to favourably influence public opinion of the moral and philosophical integrity of ISKCON. In order to achieve this aim, the Society needs to value its heritage and what it can offer to its various publics, not just in terms of nebulous transcendental aspirations but in concrete, practical services. In the UK, the IES knows it can offer a first-class service to schools, though is constantly aware of where it needs to improve. On this basis I am enthusiastic and confident that we can achieve our goals: to be the leading educational authority on the Vedic Hindu tradition and to make a substantial and valuable contribution to ISKCON and society.
Establishing Genuine, Sustainable Relationships
Effecting changes in society requires positive interaction with its members. I believe the ability to establish and sustain relationships based on genuine appreciation is central to the development of the Krsna consciousness movement.
This third principle is consistent with the idea of making a 'customer' rather than a 'sale' (or in our terms, making a 'friend' rather than a 'programme'). For me, this means trying to interact closely with those who are not devotees without being judgemental and thinking 'I'm only here to preach to them .'. I try to appreciate that many non-devotees have an empathy for the principles upon which our Society is founded, and to feel that we can be of service by offering solutions to their problems.
Modern communications has surpassed the cosmetic type of public relations. It's no longer about projecting a false and non-sustainable image, but establishing a fine reputation based on reality. Mukunda Maharaja goes even further: 'Excellent communications in today's world seeks not just to change an organisation's reputation, but to change society.' (ISKCON Communications Briefing May/June 1992). He continues: 'The application of tested communications methods for changing the way people behave towards ISKCON, involves employing an established system of planning in which one decides what target publics (social groupings) we want to speak to, what messages we want to speak to each public and how we want to communicate those messages.'
There are three basic stages here on which I will enlarge, though I will largely concentrate on the first two. I'll begin by identifying our publics.
Defining our Schools Public
. In the UK this encompasses all children between four and eighteen years of age. For them, religious education is compulsory and includes the study of the principal world religions (usually represented by Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism).
Notable features of this public are:
a) It encompasses almost a whole generation (except perhaps children who are home-tutored) and necessarily includes future prime ministers, archbishops, academics, journalists, press editors, police chiefs, multi-millionaires and spiritual aspirants);
b) It's substantial. In the UK there are 9.16 million school children comprising 16.27% (or nearly one-sixth) of the population;
c) Its members are at an age when they're particularly receptive to new ideas and information, with their prejudices and misconceptions not so deeply rooted.
Since teachers organise engagements and are highly influential with our previous public, it's essential to firmly establish ISKCON's reputation with them. We must keep this in mind when making presentations to school audiences where teachers are usually present.
When analysing teachers as a public, we've noted the following characteristics:
a) In the UK alone, there are over half a million teachers (approximately 0.95% of the total population);
b) Of these, some will have particular responsibility for religious education (RE). I have no exact figures, but in the UK there are approximately seven thousand secondary schools, each with at least one teacher specialising in this subject. These teachers are often involved with religious education because of a personal, as well as professional, interest. We should obviously avoid over-generalisation but there are many amongst them who will appreciate and respect our commitment to spiritual values. In primary schools the staff teach all subjects to their year groups but at least fifty per cent of these schools will have RE co-ordinators;
c) Teachers represent the largest brahminically-inclined social grouping in the UK and this possibly applies to other countries as well. They are therefore an extremely influential public.
As the members of this particular public are future teachers, establishing relationships from the beginning of their careers is naturally advantageous. This is especially important in moulding their perspectives on the Vedic tradition - which is often significantly misunderstood and misrepresented though largely not through any fault of teachers themselves.
Teacher trainers. This public is connected with the previous one. By establishing our reputation as a genuine authority on the Vedic/Hindu tradition we will often be invited to make presentations to trainees.
Religious education advisers. This public is particular to the UK, although it is assumed they have counterparts in other countries. There are perhaps two hundred who advise and support RE teachers regionally. Their support is instrumental in establishing our reputation as they encourage RE teachers to interact with faith communities and specifically recommend those they believe are most suitable.
Academics connected with Religious Studies and Religious Education. The direction that RE takes in schools and the schools' perception of individual religions, is largely moulded by academics specialising in religious studies. Contact with this public is extremely important bearing in mind the discrepancies between our tradition and how it is often perceived and portrayed, particularly in school textbooks.
These are some of the main social groupings. There are others, including government executives dealing with religious education and educational officers for other faiths. Parents are another important factor. In the UK, they frequently accompany school trips to temples. In addition, they are a significant 'second-hand' public. For example, if Susan has had a fantastic time on her school trip to the temple the chances are she'll tell mum or dad. Devotees are beginning to meet parents who say, 'Ah, yes, you came to my daughter's school .' or, 'My son visited your temple and really enjoyed himself .'.
Analysing our target public, we can observe that it's large and broad although the focus is quite precise, there being a definite ethos and ethic to the educational world.
Categorising our public in this way has served two purposes. Firstly, to demonstrate the benefits of a schools programme. Secondly, to help us identify with whom we must communicate and establish relationships.
It's not enough to simply identify our public; at some stage we need to know something about them. What makes them tick? What are their needs? What interests them? What do they dislike or wish to avoid? These enquires are not specifically mentioned in the communications procedure we're currently studying but this exercise is consistent with it. It's particularly appropriate when making presentations to educational audiences (and I will be discussing this in a future article). However, I give below brief, worked examples for our first two schools publics ( with suggested appropriate responses in brackets).
Need to be respected as valuable individuals (don't put them down)
Need to have a good time (no boring sermons!)
Need to have their senses, mind and intelligence stimulated (remember that children are perceptive and often philosophically astute)
Are interested in relationships, sex, money, music, etc. (be a real person)
Are concerned that guest speakers are often boring, stuffy and authoritarian (be lively and Krsna conscious)
Need resources and teaching ideas (provide them)
Are interested in people of other faiths (be prepared to share yourself and your own experience of life)
Are concerned that trips to temple or visits from guest speakers may go wildly wrong (don't proselytise, denigrate other faiths, be sexist, etc.)
This list could be considerably extended; in summary, however, it's important to get to know our public and understand the principles and ethics upon which it operates.
According to Mukunda Maharaja (ISKCON Communications Briefing May/June 1992), the next step is to analyse each of these target publics, one by one, asking the following seven questions:
1. How are we perceived?
2. How do we want to be perceived?
3. What behavioural responses do we want?
4. What messages best facilitate these responses?
5. What are the obstacles to achieving these responses?
6. What programmes do we currently offer to deliver these messages?
7. What strategies will achieve the desired response?
The eighth, and final step is known as 'Action Plan'.
The dynamics of the whole procedure is based on the first two stages and in trying to minimise the difference between the answers to each question. In other words, success is realised when our public's perception of us tallies with our own ideal.
Time and space do not permit exploration of the answers to these questions for all our schools publics, although it's an exercise you may consider undertaking yourself. However, I've written down some possible answers derived from experience: example one represents how we are perceived before a schools programme with example two being the desired response following it.
Q1: Strange ('look at the way they dress')
Q2: Unusually good fun ('the best school trip ever')
Q1: Confessional approach to life (thoughtless commitment, etc.)
Q2: Professional/educational (thoughtful, self-reflective, stimulating)
Q1: Socially removed and out of touch.
Q2: Socially aware (integrated and active in the community)
Q2: Having similar aims and concerns to ourselves
You may come up with other suggestions or use this methodology in your own field of service. My experience is that school programmes considerably improve pupils' and teachers' perception of ISKCON, making it more realistic and favourable.
Let's move on to question three: the behavioural responses we would like from our first public, the pupils. Give up everything and join? Definitely not, at least for the moment. When pupils reach eighteen they'll automatically have that option. And for the spiritual seeker, experiences gained as a pupil will not be in vain. More immediately, though, here are some possibilities:
1. To speak favourably about the tradition and its members
2. To study us further (i.e., renewed or continual contact). Visits in themselves are good - not just a step to something higher or better
3. To write to us (through our correspondence service)
4. To explore the relevance of Krsna consciousness in their own lives
5. To explore the relevance of Krsna consciousness in global, social and moral issues
With regard to the latter three religious education in the UK emphasises learning from, as well as about, different religions. However, I must reiterate a point made in my last article, that if you respect the integrity of the individual, he or she will feel safe to explore the relevance of Krsna consciousness in their own lives. If we try to 'break them down' or 'smash their false egos' we may end up doing little more than revealing our own inadequacies and scaring people away.
Continuing the eight-step procedure, step four is particularly important in the light of work done by Mukunda Maharaja.
The fourth step is to determine the messages that enhance our reputation and help invoke the required behavioural responses. Mukunda Maharaja has analysed three fundamental messages that we should attempt to communicate regarding ISKCON, namely that it is:
2. Culturally rich
3. Socially responsible
One of the main problems experienced by the schools programme in attempting to communicate the above messages has undoubtedly been the 'cult' label. Whilst here in the UK we're steadily moving away from that image, it remains a severe problem in other countries. Although our connection with a broader, long-standing tradition is immediately clear to those who study our heritage, in the UK (as I suspect in most countries) there is no way we can interact productively with schools if we deny our connection to what is commonly called Hinduism. Since the schools programme in the UK can only operate under the banner of Hinduism, its popularity alone demonstrates that teachers and educationalists accept ISKCON as authentic. (There are, of course, subtle questions about the acceptance of the validity of the broader tradition which will again be addressed in a later issue).
Little effective transmission of Vedic values is achieved in schools through simple pravachan - as previously mentioned childrens' attention span is limited; they hate sermons (especially the younger ones) and require constant stimulation of the mind and senses. In the UK we've developed a whole range of pastimes - music, drama, puppet shows, classical dance, dressing up, bullock cart rides and full vegetarian lunch, all conveying the message that Vedic culture is not dry and barren but sensually, emotionally and spiritually opulent.
What, then, of the third message regarding 'social responsibility'? It's an area I feel where ISKCON is making great strides both internally and externally. We're becoming aware of the practical and sociological perspectives of ISKCON, rather than just the philosophical, and of the need to practically demonstrate this philosophy, as well as speak it, in order to convince others of its relevance to the modern world. Our tradition has much to offer: its respect for all forms of life, attitude towards the environment and perspectives on sex, violence, drugs, crime and politics. The Vedic teachings embrace every aspect of human affairs.
Religions traditionally offer solutions to all life's challenges and religious education generally includes the study of these. There is increasing pressure from the British government for teachers to take responsibility for the spiritual and moral development of pupils. In addition, it's accepted that pupils may learn from their own faiths, or that of others, to make decisions relating to their own welfare in particular and global issues in general.
We also run workshops for older children which address topical issues. For example we will shortly be putting on programme for sixth formers entitled The Relevance of Vedic Values to the Modern World ". An almost identical programme was held last year featuring The Promise (advertised as a contemporary Hindu drama). The programme was educational rather than preachy and we've heard that pupils were still talking about it four months later. It's also significant to note how this type of programme ties in with the Communications Mission Statement: 'The Hare Krsna movement benefits the individual and society by offering practical solutions to today's material and spiritual problems'. I can therefore emphatically affirm that the schools programme, properly conducted, really pushes home these three messages!
In concluding this rationalisation of the schools programme in terms of modern communications theory and practice, and an analysis of some of our 'keys to success' in the UK, I sincerely hope it has encouraged devotees to start similar projects (or to develop ones already established) and that it gives a vision for the future. And what of our future, here in the UK?
Well, we've developed more interest than we can currently meet. At Bhaktivedanta Manor alone, we now undertake around five programmes a week, reaching twenty thousand children per year. We are also working with government officials in establishing syllabus guidelines for religious education. Step-by-step, and by Krsna's grace, it's possible to reach our goal of establishing ISKCON Education Services as the number one educational resource on the Vedic tradition.
What I've been acutely experiencing, though, is a dearth of written material suitable for our specific publics, especially schoolchildren. Furthermore, our work with teachers and educationalists has established that there is a market need for books on Hinduism. Of course, there is a recession, schools are under-resourced and any enterprise is risky. However, we have one distinct advantage in that there already exists both a market and a distribution network for childrens' literature in terms of our own children and those of Hindu families. What I suggest, therefore, is that we, as a Society, consider producing books that are suitable for all of these markets although we would also need to determine what books would appeal to schools in general. Devotees in the UK have already met to discuss this and came up with four options for future book production:
1. Krsna consciousness as representative of Hinduism.
2. Hinduism from the perspective of our particular tradition/denomination (e.g. Vaishnavism)
3. What is generally accepted as representative of the Hindu tradition
4. Subjects within Hinduism on which ISKCON is accepted as particularly expert
An analysis of these four options revealed the following:
Option 1 was perceived as being dishonest, ignoring the principles of understanding our public (although I do appreciate that according to Srila Prabhupada Krsna consciousness is the real Hinduism).
Option 2 would also be unacceptable to schools as there is very little specialised study within each tradition and teachers may view a denominational approach with suspicion. One possible exception would be a children's Bhagavad-gita.
Option 3 was initially rejected, it being considered that there are so many books of this kind on the market already producing more of the same would not further our aims. More recently, however, I've felt that there are tangible benefits to this option particularly in redressing certain identified misconceptions about the Hindu tradition which, if corrected, could enhance our reputation.
Option 4 was a favourite with us; for example, the role of Krsna within the Hindu tradition. The greatest potential, however, may be in storybooks as we have such a wealth of stories! Although some have already been published (largely with our own children in mind), these are generally unsuitable for the wider audience as the language is usually inconsistent, not appropriate to the intended readership or full of ISKCON-specific terminology. However, if these books were adapted for the general educational market, they would still be suitable for our own children and those of Hindu families.