for ISKCON News on Jan. 15, 2011
After the success of a pilot Bhakti Sastri Online course by the Mayapur Institute for Higher Education (MIHE), the Institute will offer another round of this groundbreaking step in ISKCON education from January 29th 2011 to April 29th 2012.
Twenty-six devotees from different parts of the UK took part in the pilot course—a systematic study of Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad gita As It Is, Nectar of Devotion, Nectar of Instruction and Sri Isopanisad normally offered in physical classrooms—from January 28th 2009 to June 11th 2010 at www.iskconlife.org, and can now add the official title of ‘Bhakti Sastri’ to their spiritual names.
Work on the project began in March 2008 in the UK, inspired by MIHE founder and former director Janmastami Das, and current educational director Atul Krishna Das.
Using the MIHE’s Bhakti Sastri curriculum, the course was developed over ten months by tutor and Mayapur Institute almuni Raghupati Das and Antardwip Das, who runs Mayapur.tv and Online Programme, a virtual temple at iskconlife.org.
“Having run Online Programme for many years, Antardwip Prabhu already had a platform for live broadcast and Raghupati had worked with him giving live video classes for a few years—so the platform was already there,” says Atul Krishna Das. “What took time was to organize a course that was suitable for weekly webcasts. That meant preparing all the lessons on PowerPoint, organizing group discussions and ensuring we had invigilators in the different parts of the UK for closed book exams. In total, some 280 hours were spent in preparing the online course material, 56 hours in delivering and 30 hours in exams and invigilation.”
The course itself made use of the audio-visual media and web technologies, and was delivered through a weekly live webcast and online contact with students, so that they could have the classroom experience while in front of their PCs in the comfort of their own homes.
“In our classroom courses, students learn from the tutor’s delivery, and are also encouraged to participate in group discussions and making presentations,” says Atul Krishna. “On the online Bhakti Sastri course, this was made possible by weekly online lesson delivery from the tutor, Raghupati Prabhu, and then dividing the groups of students according to geographical location so that they could work together. Students living in remote area were encouraged to send their response via emails.”
The first ever Bhakti Sastri course was given by Srila Prabhupada himself during Janmastami, 1969, in Los Angeles. Prabhupada requested the devotees to read his books and prepare for the exam, which he personally administered.
After that, he periodically referred to Bhakti Sastri and other honorific titles, such as Bhaktivaibhava, Bhaktivedanta and Bhaktisarvabhauma, as a means of acknowledging a devotee’s proficiency in sastric knowledge.
In a 1969 letter to Hansadutta, he wrote, “I want that all of my spiritual sons and daughters will inherit this title of Bhaktivedanta, so that the family transcendental diploma will continue through the generations...”
“Bhaktivaibhava is the study of Srimad Bhagavatam cantos one through six, Bhaktivedanta the study of the entire Srimad Bhagavatam, and Bhaktisarvabhauma is the study of Sri Chaitanya Charitamrta,” Atul Krishna explains.
On January 6th, 1976, Srila Prabhupada officially directed the GBC to implement a graduated system of sastric examinations throughout ISKCON, to ensure that his disciples were carefully studying his books. In January 1990, the ISKCON Board of Examinations was set up to establish standards for such sastric study courses. The first formal examination based on standards set by the Board of Exams was held in Vrindavana, India in November 1993.
Since then, ISKCON has awarded more than 3,000 Bhakti Sastri degrees. There are currently more than twenty active Bhakti Sastri examination centers, and a few of them, such as Mayapur, Vrindaban, and Durban, function in multiple locations.
“ISKCON Chowpatty, Mumbai recently set the record for highest number of certificates awarded in a single batch,” Atul Krishna says. “The same exam was given there in three languages simultaneously, with 81 English candidates, 14 Hindi, and 26 Marathi. The passing marks totalled 121.”
For the individual student, the Bhakti-sastri course provides a personalized approach to learning which encourages one to go beyond simply memorizing the content of Srila Prabhupada's books by digesting the philosophy and practically applying it. Focusing on behavior and character, the courses nurture appropriate Vaishnava values in the participants.
“In 1976, Srila Prabhupada commented, ‘So every temple should be educational center, and the brahmanas should be engaged. They should be properly educated and they should teach others also. In this way, temple means education in spiritual life,’” Atul Krishna quotes. “So we believe that the Bhakti-sastri course is helping ISKCON fulfill Prabhupada’s vision for systematic spiritual education and training.”
While the pilot Bhakti Sastri Online course was offered only to devotees in the UK—and received such a positive response that it will receive a second round there this January—Atul Krishna says that others will get the chance to take the course soon too.
“The weekly webcasts require devotees to be located within the same geographic locations to be able to log on at an appropriate time of the day, so we can’t offer it internationally at the same time,” he explains. “But the plan is to extend the online program to other geographic locations in the near future—for example, we plan to start an online course from Mayapur for India and South Asian countries after Rama Navami in April 2011. We would also be interested to hear from devotees who may want to start similar courses in their countries.”
Atul Krishna is excited about the possibilities. “Students can now have a live, visible classroom experience from the comfort of their PCs, without having to travel to far away places like Mayapur and Vrindavana,” he says. “That is certainly a major step forward in ISKCON virtual education.”
Further information on upcoming online Bhakti Sastri courses, please visit
http://www.mihet.org/index.html. If you are interested in running a similar course in your own country, please contact the Mayapur Institute at MIHE@pamho.net or firstname.lastname@example.org