Bhakti Sastri – the systematic in-depth study of Srila Prabhupada’s books Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Sri Isopanisad, Nectar of Devotion and Nectar of Instruction – is designed for serious practitioners of Krishna consciousness. The program is intended to help students not only to understand the contents of Prabhupada’s books, but also to digest the philosophy and practically apply it in their daily lives.
For many years, Bhakti Sastri has been offered in person by organizations such as the Mayapur Institute for Higher Eductation (MIHE). Amid COVID-19 lockdowns around the world, however, a team led by GBC and ISKCON guru Bhakti Chaitanya Swami taught the course online, resulting in the largest number of graduates from one cycle of Bhakti Sastri yet.
720 devotees initially registered for the course, which began in June 2020. As time went on and lockdown restrictions eased, devotees returned to work and many could not continue with the busy lecture schedule. However, they received credits for the modules they completed. In March 2021, 320 students completed the full Bhakti Sastri program. The results included 10 High honours, 232 Honors and 75 Distinctions. 130 more devotees will finish the program shortly.
Students ranged in age from 17 to 70 and included full-time resident devotees, doctors, actuaries, students and retired people. They hailed from 30 different countries, including South Africa, Russia, UK, Lithuania, Sweden, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Mauritius, and New Zealand.
The program came about after Bhakti Chaitanya Swami – who has often taught Bhakti Sastri modules for MIHE over the years – could not travel and teach Krishna consciousness due to COVID-19 lockdown. Seizing the opportunity to engage and inspire thousands of devotees in an innovative way, he began doing so online instead, offering online japa sessions and seminars on Prabhupada’s books via daily live broadcasts.
To facilitate taking these efforts to the next level and offering devotees an accredited Bhakti Sastri degree, Bhakti Chaitanya Swami’s disciples Devadeva Das from South Africa, Mahaprabhu Kripa Das from Russia and Bhaktin Yurisha from the UK put together a team to create a fully online educational institution called BCAIS Education.
“Through the South African and Russian Education Ministries, we obtained permissions from ISKCON GBC’s Board of Examinations (BOEX) so that we could offer a fully compliant Bhakti Sastri degree program,” Devadeva explains. “The course was offered to devotees at no cost.”
The course consisted of six modules going through the books verse by verse, with approximately 250 hours of lectures and group work sessions. Live classes were given by Bhakti Chaitanya Swami every evening, five days a week, on Facebook, Zoom, Youtube, and Instagram. Broadcast in English, they were also simultaneously translated into several different languages such as Russian, Lithuanian, Hindi and Bengali.
Mahaprabhu Kripa Das, the main Russian coordinator, comments, “We had an amazing team of translators. Not only did they assist with live translations of lectures, but they also efficiently translated all the course materials and tests for the students.”
In addition, 40 assistant teachers covered verse testing and revision work with the devotees in smaller groups on a weekly basis.
Meanwhile essay assignments were given via Google Docs to test students’ understanding of the subject matter. “It wasn’t just like bookwork, where you learned off some theory to regurgitate it,” says student Vraja Vilasini Dasi, who serves as a pujari at ISKCON Cape Town, South Africa and works professionally as an actuary. “It tested our understanding on the different concepts and analogies in Srila Prabhupada’s purports, what was intended by them, how the analogies related to the philosophy, and more. We also had to be able to recite certain key verses from memory, both in Sanskrit and in English.”
At the end of each module, students had a question and answer session with Bhakti Chaitanya Swami, as well as a closed book examination via Google Classroom. Credit was received for each module completed, and students who did not finish the full course will be able to complete the outstanding modules at a future date to gain their full Bhakti Sastri Degree. Those who did complete the course are set to recive their certificates of completion sometime this month.
“Myself and a lot of friends of mine took it, and it was a great program,” Vraja Vilasini says. “Initially it seemed a daunting task, but the systematic way that it was broken down made studying these different texts so much easier. It also brought a lot of realizations, as to how to practically apply the teachings in our daily lives. So it really helps you grow spiritually.”
She adds, “Even for devotees who have been in the movement for a long time and have read Bhagavad-gita, studying it in this way, and writing an exam on it, is a completely different experience, and you see things in a different light. Even Bhakti Chaitanya Maharaja himself said that although he has taught Bhakti Sastri so many times, when he was going through the material to prepare for each module, he found new revelations all the time.”
BCAIS Education will kick off its next Bhakti Sastri cycle in May 2021. Follow HH Bhakti Chaitanya Swami’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/bhakticaitanyaswami) or email Education.firstname.lastname@example.org for further updates.
Following the success of the Bhakti Sastri Program, devotees are enthused to study Bhakti Vaibhava, the detailed study of the first 6 Cantos of Srimad Bhagavatam. His Holiness Bhakti Caitanya Swami plans to teach Bhakti Vaibhava from April 2022 onwards after his service as the Chairperson of the GBC Executive Committee comes to an end.
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