Some of the poorest children in Nepal are finding refuge and education at a new ISKCON Gurukula school in Sanga, a village 22 kilometers from Katmandu that lies in the shade of a colossal 108-foot deity of the demigod Shiva.
The Sri Jagannath Fun School is now home to a modest eight boys and three girls, between four and nine years of age, who live and learn at the newly constructed three-storey building. It’s a rare breed in today’s ISKCON—an ashram boarding school.
“It all began seven years ago, when Patri Prabhu from Russia visited Nepal to share Krishna consciousness, and started a center in the city of Bagbazar,” recalls the school’s principal Mamata Joshi. “Many children began attending his Saturday feast programs, but when they were not able to concentrate during the lectures, he asked me to start a special children’s program. I did, and gradually it grew into a gurukula for these underprivileged kids.”
The school was officially registered with the Nepalese government in January of this year, with an opening ceremony conducted by Patri Dasa on Gaura Purnima, and legal affiliation with ISKCON in July.
The five devotee teachers teach a curriculum sanctioned by the government that includes English, math, science, social studies and health, as well as more Krishna conscious-oriented subjects like Sanskrit, Bhagavad-gita studies, yoga, and Vaishnava etiquette.
However, since they live at the school, the students’ day begins at 4:30am with mangal arati worship, followed by chanting Hare Krishna, Guru Puja, and a class on the ancient scripture the Srimad-Bhagavatam. Their academic school day begins at 10:15am, and ends at 4:30pm, with recitation of verses from the ancient spiritual texts. During holidays, they are often taken on retreats to places of historical and religious significance.
With most other schools in ISKCON now using the day school model instead of the boarding school model of the 1970s and 1980s—which had largely disastrous results—some may wonder why the Sri Jagannath Fun School has chosen the ashram route.
“Much of it is a practical consideration—these students are from far off villages which they can’t travel from and to every day,” explains Mamata Joshi. “But it’s also our experience that an ashram environment is very helpful in maintaining these children’s Krishna consciousness, as they are not from devotee families. And of course, we have learned from the problems of the past, and are determined not to commit the same mistakes here.”
For instance, avoiding one major mistake of the past, the Sri Jagannath Fun School provides their students with an education that they can use to succeed in the world outside ISKCON. Students will receive their School leaving Certificate from the Nepalese Government at grade ten, when they’re around fifteen; and their certificate from the HSEB (Higher Secondary Education Board) at grade twelve, when they’re seventeen.
The school also follows the government’s “child-friendly environment” laws, which are not practically implemented by many other schools in Nepal.
All this is a major achievement in a country that has the 12th highest illiteracy rate in the world, and where fifty per cent of children between ten and fourteen are out working instead of attending school.
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“And of course, we are unique because we are not only graduating our students, but also giving them high standards in morality and spirituality,” Joshi says.
In the future, Sri Jagannath plans to have three schools: A missionary school educating the poorest section of society; a private paid boarding school catering to affluent families; and a Vedic Gurukula, similar to the one at ISKCON’s headquarters in Mayapur, India.
Sri Jagannath has also already received permission from the government for a day school with one hundred spaces, which it plans to launch next year.
“We hope all our students will become an instrument in Krishna’s hand, and in Srila Prabhupada’s mission,” says Joshi.