VOICE -- the ISKCON Poona-based Vedic Oasis for Culture, Inspiration and Education -- is making a big splash.
There are sixty VOICE training centers located next to colleges throughout India. Around 2,000 students are currently living in them and seriously practicing Krishna consciousness. And a further one to two thousand are in the process of being introduced to the path of devotion.
It all started in 1995. Radheshyam Das, then a devotee for just one year, was sent from the ISKCON Chowpatty temple in Mumbai, where he had joined, to Poona -- the second largest city in the Western Indian state of Maharashtra -- to assist with outreach.
Radheshyam had been a mechanical engineering student at IIT Mumbai, so he knew how to reach the student community. He wrote a series of books -- Discover Yourself, Your Best Friend, Your Secret Journey, and Victory Over Death -- in which he presented Srila Prabhupada’s teachings with a scientific flair that students could appreciate.
Using these, he began preaching in a handful of colleges. The program took off, and has been growing to this day.
Students attend a class at a VOICE Center
Now VOICE Centers are located at Indian Institutes of Technology and National Institutes of Technology around the country. There are twenty established and ten just launched centers in Poona itself. A further twenty in Kolkata and ten in Kanpur have been established by Poona devotees and then handed over to local devotees.
“Modern day youth are mixing freely between men and women, taking all types of intoxicants, and losing respect for their parents and teachers,” Radheshyam says. “They are becoming characterless. It is happening now in India on a large scale. Parents are worried, colleges are seeking help -- asking for educational courses to teach their students character and morality -- and companies are concerned that staff joining them will not be of good quality.”
It’s this quality, more than quantity, that VOICE is interested in. To make a difference, VOICE devotee personnel first visit a college in professional attire, and offer programs there on broad topics such as stress management, the art of self management, and the power of habits to five or six hundred students at one time.
Students dancing and chanting the Holy Name at a VOICE Center
They then offer about 150 students who are interested a six-session program called Discover Yourself on the basics of spirituality. Next, they give sixty to seventy who want to go further a five-session course on the essence of Bhagavad-gita.
Eventually, they whittle the group down to just twenty-five sincere, serious students (in some locations, forty or fifty).
These reside at their local VOICE Center, which Radheshyam describes as “like a mini ISKCON temple.”
There the students chant sixteen rounds of the maha-mantra every day, follow the four regulative principles -- no meat-eating, no intoxication, no gambling and no illicit sex -- and attend a full traditional temple morning program. During the day, they attend college, and in the evening do their college homework.
Students also put on dramas, have debate competitions, and learn public speaking. They are taught Vaishnava etiquette, how to play mridanga and kartals, and how to put on dhoti, kurta and tilak.
Students study Bhagavad-gita at a VOICE Center
Students are also trained in leadership. Each VOICE Center has a Project Advisor who is a senior devotee, and a Project Manager -- responsible for the daily running of the center. Under them are students who take on a variety of leadership roles including preaching coordinator, internal manager, and kirtan head.
“We call our system a ‘tech age gurukula,” says Radheshyam. “Because the students get the best of both worlds -- they get Vedic knowledge and their material degree, so they can go and take up a professional job and earn a living. But with their spiritual training, even after they get married and have children, they will raise their family very nicely in a devotional direction.”
VOICE students are trained so well in character and leadership, and are so often at the top of their class, that college teachers and directors are full of admiration.
“They appreciate our training program very much,” Radheshyam says. “Since we opened our new Vedic Cultural Center in Poona, many principals of colleges and schools are coming and asking us to please start something at their college. The director of NIT Suratkal was so pleased that he requested us, ‘I want this training to be given for the whole college.’”
Hundreds gather at Prerana, a monthly festival for students
While Radheshyam explained to the director that not everyone may be ready for training that requires such commitment and such a regulated lifestyle, he does plan to launch a more easily digestible program in the future which will be able to accommodate two to three thousand students per college.
Meanwhile, some students of the current VOICE program have moved to different parts of the world to pursue their professional careers, and others have even become professors at the same colleges they were educated at. But all are setting excellent examples for their students, employees, or co-workers.
“Good leadership qualities are declining very badly in modern times,” Radhesyam says. “We want to train our students in good character, competency in their field, and devotion to Lord Krishna and the Holy Name. And we want to create a class of leaders in society. Because as we have seen, anybody who becomes a proper devotee of Krishna, and develops character, competence, and devotion, becomes a very valuable element for society, and can bring about genuine happiness for all.”[ voice ]