Education and ISKCON

Some Reflections from an Interested Observer

Sefton Davies

NB. The footnotes for this article are linked to a separate footnote page.


I have spent most of my life being educated or educating, yet at seventy years old I am still discovering new aspects of education that surprise and delight me. My experience ranges in time, from my own childhood in economically depressed South Wales in the nineteen thirties, through more affluent but turbulent social conditions in the fifties and sixties to the market economy strictures of modern state interventionism. It also ranges hierarchically from Primary school through Secondary school to Technical Colleges and Universities. I have worked in some of the most prestigious and technologically advanced universities in the Western world but also in the most basic conditions in Asia, Africa and Central America, where a school sometimes consists of a tree to provide shade with equipment limited to boards on which to write with a sharpened stick for a pen and mud for ink. As a result, I believed I knew what education was about. Then I was asked to help a Hare Krishna group formulate its ideas and plans for revising its own education provision, and I entered a new world, where many of my own, and most other people's, beliefs about education were invalid. In this article, I would like to explore some of these issues and relate them to the practicalities of education. I wish, however, to make clear that I believe the process of education to be objective, and my remarks are not intended to indicate support for the aims of any particular ideology, including ISKCON's.

Education is inevitable because we are genetically programmed to learn. What we generally mean by education therefore is an organised system of controlling this natural process, and the nature and aims of such a system are a major concern of all social groups. Whatever these aims, however, I doubt whether many would disagree that education is an enabling process which allows or causes people to change, and that, if there is no change there has been no education. Disagreement is, however, likely to be considerable about what change should occur and therefore, what form the process should take.

To many, the process is primarily one of 'putting in', to others of 'drawing out'. The extreme case of putting in is that of indoctrination, where an educator wishes to implant a fixed set of ideas or beliefs and to exclude the possibility of contrary ideas being considered and accepted. This process has dominated many totalitarian political regimes and some religious organisations. By comparison, the extreme form of drawing-out is a 'laissez faire' approach where the student is given access to a totally random range of ideas and knowledge and left to derive what he or she can from it with no intervention from others. Between these extremes there is, of course, a continuum of processes combining various degrees of prescription and freedom.

We cannot not educate! Every action we observe in others influences us, and this non-formal education is probably the most powerful of all, particularly when we are very young, when much learning is unconscious and unselective, that is, it is intrajected, or 'swallowed whole'. Such intrajection influences our later beliefs and behaviour even though we may have lost awareness of it, and accounts for much prejudice and other irrational behaviour. However, we have little control over learning of this kind, since we are often unaware how our actions affect others. We can, of course, choose to behave in 'good' ,1 rather than 'bad' ways; and this is the basis for much of the inferential, or imitative education advocated by Prabhupada and of the social education which occurs through interaction of individuals with their peers. However, a great deal of our education, particularly of our intellect, is formal, that is, it is planned and is implemented in controlled environments, like schools.

Formal education is socially determined and is a major means of achieving a group's desired outcomes of political and moral philosophy, economic doctrine or social cohesion. These outcomes collectively determine the group's vision of what sort of society it wishes to have: democracy or dictatorship, free enterprise economy or state controlled, theocratic or lay; these are just a few examples. All groups need to be clear what they are educating for, therefore, and to shape their education system accordingly. So, what does ISKCON want from its education system? The limited literature I have read suggests that it is strongly influenced by ideas and values emanating from India, which is understandable, given Prabhupada's background, but is it not now appropriate to implement the Vedic principle that education should be appropriate to the time and place in which it is practised, and to develop a set of guiding principles which are congruent with Hare Krishna beliefs, and therefore universally applicable, but which can be fashioned to the particular needs of local culture?

Education in and for ISKCON
Author's note: Although I have taken an interest in and worked within ISKCON, and have consulted extensively about its education programmes, I am not a devotee, so that the observations which follow may not fully represent the Society's beliefs and aims. Any faults result from ignorance, not design, and I hope my readers will be charitable towards them.

To be successful, ISKCON education must reflect its purpose. This is, as I understand, it to help people, both in and outside the movement, to understand and practise Krishna consciousness, so that success will be measurable in the degree to which the general public understand and are sympathetic to it and in the degree to which members understand and can communicate its principles and beliefs.

The recipients of this education will, therefore, be:

  • the general public
  • devotees wishing to further their knowledge and understanding of its principles
  • the children of devotees
  • devotees needing to be trained to teach their fellow devotees

and the curriculum2 for each cohort must suit its specific needs, that is, that which has the appropriate content and process to achieve the desired outcomes, which I understand to be that, after completion of the curriculum, recipients will:

  • understand the principles and practices of Krishna consciousness
  • be able to think for themselves, so as to use intelligently and build on the knowledge they have acquired
  • possess management skills enabling them to contribute fully to ISKCON in their immediate community and the wider world
  • develop practical skills, such as gardening or cookery, valuable to the welfare of their community
  • develop intrapersonal and interpersonal skills which lead to fulfilling and harmonious lives

These outcomes concern knowledge and skills, both of which are important but require different learning strategies:

  • knowledge acquisition, that is, familiarity with the scriptures and the teachings of Krishna consciousness, is about obtaining information and remembering it. In its simplest forms it can be achieved from direct observation, from books and by word of mouth, for example, from teachers. It is largely controlled for example by authors, teachers, etc, since they select and interpret the facts they convey. Knowledge by itself has very limited value, however, without skills of analysis, organisation and application.
  • skill acquisition requires more active learner involvement, since skills can only be acquired through personal practice and not from someone else, although the learner may seek the help of others who already possess them. It is important to remember that skills provide the practitioner with a culturally and morally neutral technology, that is, its effects vary according to his or her motives and attitudes.

SKILLS are acquired through personal experience of doing, as illustrated in the diagram below, which shows a behavioural, continuous and cumulative process with the following sequence:
DOING means undergoing a concrete experience. Let us use learning to play the piano as an illustrative example. I cannot learn to play the piano without playing the piano! I can read all the books there are, and attend every lecture on piano-playing, but I will never be able to play. So, ab initio, I must DO!
REFLECTION means reviewing and thinking about what happened. So, in trying to play the piano I make a horrible noise. I am now aware of the need to change. But how?
ABSTRACTION. At this stage I analyse why I produced horrible noise instead of sweet melodies but realise I need help to make this analysis, so I ask advice, and am told what I was doing wrong.
MODIFICATION. With this advice in mind I think I know how I might improve my playing, so I play again, but this time differently and hopefully with some improvement. By repeating this cycle, I should continue to improve until I have acquired the skill of piano-playing.

Just as I will never learn to play the piano by listening to lectures or reading books, so I will not learn to think analytically, to manage affairs, to engage in interpersonal interaction and so on, without doing these things, making mistakes, learning from them and repeating the process. Experiential learning is powerful - it is for example, how I learned to walk, to read, to write, to live (relatively) harmoniously with my fellow beings.

Young children learn most readily in this way because they do not yet have the maturity to abstract from information. They need, therefore, to develop concepts, or abstractions; for example, they will have no understanding of the word 'transport', but can gain it if they become familiar with for example, cars, lorries, trains-that is, from concrete examples. To try to teach young children abstract ideas about Krishna consciousness will, therefore, almost certainly be ineffective. They need to learn experientially through direct contact with nature, religious practices and so on, and from mimicking the behavioural models of their elders and peers. As they mature they will make the abstractions which constitute religious belief. Most adults also need experiential stimuli to promote their learning and to achieve the 'ah-hah' 3 moments when intrajected knowledge finally makes sense and become internalised into behaviour.


My experience of ISKCON education, which is admittedly limited, suggests that there is a strong focus on knowledge acquisition, with the teacher rather than the learner as the central protagonist, and passive attendance at lectures rather than experiential learning as the dominant process. Such emphases remind me of my experience in developing nations where schools are strongly teacher-centred and preoccupied with teaching, rather than learning; with discipline, rather than self-discipline; with knowledge-transmission, rather than skills-acquisition; and with little recognition of the need to adjust methodology to the maturity and varying needs of the learner . There is, I know, a move towards change, with excellent work being done in England and Ireland4 (and possibly elsewhere), but understand that many areas still promote more traditional methods. In fact, a central textbook on education advocates a strongly teacher-centred approach with an emphasis on the mechanics of teaching and knowledge transmission in which lecturing is seen as a principal mode of teaching children.5 I firmly believe that the central concern of education should be that the student learns, rather than the teacher teaches, and that learning comes from within and cannot be imposed by the teacher: unless I decide to learn, you cannot teach me. In saying this, I am not saying that teaching is unnecessary; merely that it should not interfere with learning.

I believe that education should:

  • use methods appropriate to the learner. Children do not have the capacity to learn like adults and require approaches which will enable them to develop abstract ideas from concrete experience. Similarly, all adults do not have the same intellectual gifts and need to be approached differently.
  • use all the learner's available senses. People have different ways of perceiving and remembering, for example, I am strongly visual and kinaesthetic, which means that I am more likely to learn through pictures and through my emotions than through sound; that is why I find lectures unstimulating and dry facts dry! During a project I led in Pakistan,6 merely introducing simple visual aids into classrooms had an immediate impact on the quality of learning, and when teachers added tactile experiences, for example, in organising 'hands-on' science lessons, the gain was further increased. The more varied the experience of the learner, the more readily he or she learns.
  • give learners ownership of the learning process by involving them in participative activities. With more mature students this can extend to the negotiation of learning contracts, where they identify their particular learning needs and cooperate with the teacher in planning strategies for meeting them; very young children can similarly take responsibility for their own learning, as in 'Highscope'7 and similar projects.
  • develop skills as well as transmitting knowledge. Knowledge is of limited value unless it is used, and using knowledge requires skills, such as analysis or decision-making. Unless ISKCON wishes merely to dictate to its members, which I doubt, it needs to build the development of such skills into its education system, so that the movement can develop and build on the foundations given to it by Prabhupada. Skills cannot be taught - they need to be learned experientially, and are most naturally developed through facing up to challenges individually or through interaction with others, so that the use of group and individual problem-solving assignments needs to be part of any learning programme. Other techniques, such as in-tray exercises and simulations,8 also encourage such skills. The basic unit of such education is the workshop (a place where people do), rather than the class (where people have things done for them), and the person responsible for organising is more of a facilitator than a teacher. The use of workshops is now central to most management training, an aspect of education which ISKCON, I know, wishes to develop.
  • be organised by qualified practitioners. Effective teaching requires knowledge of how learning occurs and how best to stimulate and nurture it, and skills in planning, organising and evaluating the process. To entrust this to anyone who happens to be interested in education would be foolhardy. This is not, of course, to say that the interest and enthusiasm of untrained members cannot be utilised; but their efforts need to be directed by qualified teachers, or else they need to be trained. I am aware that much of the educational policy-making and implementation within ISKCON have, hitherto, been undertaken by people undoubtedly wise and knowledgeable about the philosophy and practices of Krishna consciousness but who know very little about education. I would, therefore, advocate:
    1. identifying specialist teachers within the movement and entrusting them with organising its education programmes
    2. creating systems to ensure coordination of the efforts of such teachers, possibly by an international 'staff college'
    3. establishing training programmes for those who wish to assist the specialists, bearing in mind that training trainers is in itself a specialist field, requiring different methods from teaching students.
  • ISKCON needs to plan and manage its educational provision so as to optimise the use of its resources. While it is advisable to allow regional choice in how this is done, there is a need for support systems which might have the following characteristics:
  • an international office for the coordination of educational effort around the globe. Its functions would be:
    1. to define the vision and desired outcomes of the education process
    2. to design an integrated curriculum incorporating the essential princples of Krishna consciousness which need to be communicated to students
    3. to support national and regional initiatives in delivering the curriculum without directing a particular ethos or process. It is important to preserve the flexibility of decision-making which stimulates creativity and experimentationto disseminate information about educational matters and developments, including examples of successful practice. This might be through an educational journal along the lines of the current successful communications journal
    4. to develop an integrated curriculum for teacher training, possibly using outside experts to advise on appropriate methodology
    5. to set standards for teacher competence and to establish procedures for accrediting teacher competency
    6. to establish national educational offices which would coordinate the work of individual temples and groups involved in educational projects. Again, it is important that such offices should not dictate practice, but should support local initiatives, coordinate the development of resources and disseminate good practice.
    7. to establish regional centres for teacher training under the auspices of the international office. These centres could be developed as staff colleges for the provision of conferences, workshops, in-service training and general advice to serving teachers.

These, are some of my ideas for the development of education within ISKCON. They are entirely personal, possibly idiosyncratic, but intended to be helpful.