ISKCON’s Krishna House in Gainesville, Florida—just across the street from the University of Florida (UF), one of the biggest universities in the United States—kicked off the third successful year of its “Bhakti Academy” this month.
“The basic premise is that students can live at the Krishna House and attend classes at UF or Santa Fe Community College, provided that they attend the temple morning program from Monday through Friday and chant at least eight rounds of the Hare Krishna mantra per day—a 15-hour a week commitment to spiritual practices,” says president Kalakantha Dasa. “They also either contribute for their room and board or do our Krishna Lunch Work Study program in exchange for it.”
The Krishna Lunch, served to students on the UF campus since ISKCON first set up shop in Gainesville back in 1971, has been a massive success and a precedent for the Bhakti Academy.
Beginning on a “whatever-you-want-to-give” basis, the program looked like it would come to an end in 1998 when devotees could no longer subsidize the cost—but it really hit its stride when they discovered that students were more comfortable contributing the cost of the delicious vegetarian fare than they were accepting charity. Since then, the Lunch’s attendance has more than doubled, and about 5,000 students are regulars.
These students were interested in more than just Krishna food, however. Some took a special interest in the philosophy and spiritual practices, and wanted to see how they could apply them.
“One student told me that every time she came for Krishna Lunch, she would watch the group of devotees who sit on a blanket on the campus lawn singing kirtan,” says President Kalakantha Dasa. “She began to wish more and more that she could join them. Then one day, she finally got up the courage to go and sit and chant with them. As she did, she felt in her heart, ‘I’m a devotee too.’”
Eager to show students that they didn’t have to work in the mission in order to practice Krishna consciousness, the Krishna House began to offer a number of outreach programs—including cooking classes, yoga classes, and philosophy classes. But Kalakantha wanted to take it further. And so in 2007, the Bhakti Academy was launched.
The Academy’s attendance has grown from seven students in its first year, to fourteen in its second, to eighteen this year, packing the Krishna House’s ashram accommodation and temple room to capacity. Some attendees are second generation ISKCON devotees, while some are initiated devotees who felt they needed more training; but most are students completely new to Krishna consciousness.
“The Bhakti Academy program runs for about seven months, or two academic semesters,” Kalakantha says. “Since we have limited time, we’ve designed a curriculum that will give students the broadest exposure to Srila Prabhupada’s books in the shortest amount of time. For example, although we don’t cover the whole in-depth bhakti-sastri curriculum used in ISKCON educational establishments, we do read all the books included in it: Bhagavad-gita, Nectar of Devotion, Nectar of Instruction and Sri Isopanisad.”
This year, they’ve stepped up study of the epic text Srimad-Bhagavatam from the first canto only to an overview of its entire 12 cantos. The special curriculum, based on Narayani Dasi’s book “Srimad-Bhagavatam at a Glance,” features a daily class in which 108 verses carefully selected from each canto are read, and everything that has transpired in between them is discussed. Classes are given by a roster of six or seven learned senior devotees from ISKCON nearby rural Alachua community.
In addition, all bhajans—or songs—sung at the morning service every day are accompanied by an LCD screen which clearly shows their English translations, allowing students to internalize their meanings.
Students also learn how to play instruments, how to lead kirtan, how to give philosophy classes, how to cook, and how to perform various other devotional arts and skills—everything that they would need to start their own ISKCON center, should they want to in the future.
A graduation is held at the end of the academic year in late April, awarding students who completed the full course with a certificate. Some may continue on with their university studies and stay at the Krishna House for a second year, and may choose to begin chanting sixteen rounds a day and apply for initiation into the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition. They are also introduced to various ISKCON spiritual masters and encouraged to listen to their lectures.
Others may continue on with their spiritual training and career. “Two of last year’s students went to the Bhaktivedanta Ashram in Manhattan, New York to study brahmachari (celibate) life and have remained as practicing brahmacharis there,” Kalakantha says. “One student is in India right now taking the Bhakti Sastri course. Other students have gotten married and moved out of the ashram into householder life. Some have even applied for the GBC’s ISKCON leadership training program.”
Kalakantha feels that if Krishna House had the facilities, the Bhakti Academy could attract up to fifty students per year, and possibly more—after all, there are no less than 50,000 students at the University of Florida. “Of course, that would require a significant investment to tear down some of our existing buildings and construct a suitable temple room and ashram complex,” Kalakantha says. “So it’s an idea that is yet to take practical shape. But it’s definitely our hope for the future.”
In the meantime, Kalakantha is happy to serve. “When ISKCON guru Sridhara Swami was passing away in 2004, I called him and asked him if he had any last instructions for me,” he says. “He told me, ‘Share the love that Srila Prabhupada gave to you with others.’ I love serving at the Krishna House because I get the chance to do that. I realize that everyone in this world is just looking for that same unconditional affection that Srila Prabhupada gave us. And so I’m trying to pass that on to others.”
For more information, please visit: http://www.krishnalunch.com/
The names of all the devotees in the photo at the beginning of the article are as follows:
Ballabha Sena das (resident teacher), Jitamitra dasi (pujari/treasurer), Kalakantha das (TP), Sunanda das (head chef), and Madhava das (director/visiting teacher).
Holding Srila Prabhupada's picture:
Hanan Prabhu (Krishna lunch director), Andres Prabhu (assistant manager) and, next to him, Ali Krishna dasi (Bhakti Academy Director).
The others are (roughly left to right):
Nimai Pandit das, Bhakta Akshay, Krishnasarana das, Nanda Kumar das, Bhakta Bart, Bhakta Tony, Bhakta Ankush, Bhakta Vaibhava, Jagganath Puri Dhama das, Bhakta Sagar, Gopal das, Bhaktin Michelle, Bhakta Derek, Caitanya dasi, Bhaktin Dipti, Bhaktin Sona, Bhaktin Jane, Bhaktin Sashi, Braja Hari das, Bhakta Naveen, Jahnavee Priya dasi, Bhakta Garrison and Bhaktin Vicki.