Since August 2015, the ISKCON Disciples Course has been mandatory for all new initiates in ISKCON, and recommended for all devotees. Developed under the direction of the Guru Services Committee, it is designed to deepen devotees’ understanding of guru tattva (the meaning of guru) and guru padasraya (taking shelter of the guru).
So far tens of thousands worldwide have completed the course, which has inspired a family togetherness amongst devotees, as well as a strong dedication to Srila Prabhupada, their gurus, and Lord Chaitanya’s mission.
Along with an online version offered by Bhaktivedanta College and other educational institutions, the course has been given locally in person by ISKCON centers worldwide at least once a year.
This year with COVID-19 halting in-person courses, ISKCON Argentina National Council’s Department of Education decided to offer the Disciples Course in a unique way via Zoom, providing a very personal experience in a virtual space.
The course ran from June 15th to August 17th, consisting of ten meetings of two hours each for a total of 20 hours, easily fitting into busy schedules. With 100 devotees participating from all over Argentina, it was the largest ISKCON Disciples Course offered in Latin America so far.
The course was taught by Buenos Aires-based Prema Rupa Madhava Das, a member of the National Council and the Department of Education, as well as about a dozen other facilitators and co-facilitators from different parts of the country.
The ISKCON Disciples course emphasizes Srila Prabhupada’s position as ISKCON’s Founder-Acarya and pre-eminent siksa guru for all devotees in the society, and their relationship with him.
It also covers guru tattva, the process of guru padasraya, the Guru Parampara system (chain of teachers), types of gurus such as diksa (initiating) and siksa (instructional), and how to select a guru.
In addition the course teaches how to serve the guru in both his physical presence and through his instructions (vapu and vani); what to do if the guru deviates or has spiritual difficulty; and how to work together cooperatively in a multi-guru society.
Teaching the course using Zoom gave Prema Rupa Madhava Das and the other facilitators the opportunity to give Powerpoint presentations and interactive workshops online, and to divide students into smaller breakout groups when needed.
“We could divide the 100 students into ten groups of ten, each working on their own exercises in their own virtual space,” Prema Rupa Madhava says. “It was as if they were at different tables in an in-person course. They could interact with each other, and write their conclusions in the chatbox for the facilitator to read.”
Zoom also allowed faciliators to launch polls, which acted like multiple choice questions. “We could see in real time what devotees were voting,” Prema explains.
Upon conclusion of the course, students had two weeks to prepare and send an open book exam by August 31st. They then received diplomas endorsed by the ISKCON Governing Body Commission Guru Services Committee, certifying that they had successfully completed the ISKCON Disciples Course.
While the course was one hundred per cent free for all devotees, donations were welcomed, and all funds went directly to the maintenance and worship of Sri Sri Parama Karuna Gaura Nitai at the ISKCON Buenos Aires temple, which has faced financial challenges due to COVID-19.
According to Prema Rupa Madhava, devotees were very happy with the way the course was facilitated, and grateful for the opportunity it will give them to take initiation.
In addition, the course, which is based on Srila Prabhupada’s teachings and gives reference to writings from the broader Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, was extremely edifying for both junior and senior participants.
Eighty-five per cent of the students were uninitiated devotees, while fifteen per cent were already initiated. The latter took the course in order to become qualified to teach it, or simply to dive deeper into topics such as guru-tattva and Srila Prabhupada’s position. The variety of ages, combined with the fact that participants hailed from all over Argentina, was unifying for the Argentine yatra (community of devotees).
“One mataji had been in the movement for forty years; other devotees had come to Krishna consciousness only six months ago,” Prema Rupa Madhava says. “That mix was very wonderful, because you could see different generations interacting, and everybody was sharing happily. It was a very nice mood.”
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