This year, as the Mayapur Institute for Higher Education and Training (MIHET) enters its tenth year, staff and students alike look back on a decade of learning, inspiration and, of course, hard work.
The seed for the project was planted between the years of 1988 and 1996, when American-born Janmastami Dasa traveled to India on seven different occasions to attend courses at the Vrindavana Institute for Higher Education (VIHE). Each time, he found himself more inspired and spiritually nourished—ready to plunge back into his services of distributing books by ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada and managing an ISKCON temple.
“Hearing Krishna conscious philosophy from senior devotees in the sanctity of Krishna’s birthplace actually transformed my spiritual life,” he says. “And, although I didn’t know it then, served as the foundational inspiration for starting the Mayapur Institute.”
As God’s plan unraveled, Janmastami moved to Mayapur, India with his wife and two sons in 1997. Living in a holy place brought a further rush of inspiration, and Janmastami began to wonder if he could introduce to Mayapur the courses he had enjoyed so much in Vrindavana. During the annual Gaura Purnima festival in March 1999—a celebration of the birth and life of Gaudiya Vaishnavism founder Chaitanya Mahaprabhu—Janmastami decided to act on his dream. Using classrooms that had just been built for the Vaishnava Academy, he offered a teacher training course and a leadership management course developed by his friends Kaustubha Dasa and Bhakta Vatsala Dasa.
Janmastami saw this only as a small attempt that he hoped would benefit the local Mayapur school. But the level of interest in his courses was unprecendented. “I was amazed,” he says. “We had to turn twenty per cent of the devotees away because we had limited seats available.”
It was obvious to Janmastami that the demand for such courses within ISKCON was huge. In the spring of 1999, he met with ISKCON Mayapur co-directors Jayapataka Swami and Hari Sauri Dasa, who agreed that the Mayapur Institute for Higher Education and Training should be established. Jayapataka Swami asked Janmastami to make a five-year commitment as director of the project. He agreed.
At first, the MIHET office was run out of Janmastami’s home. “The Institute might not exist today had my wife, Samkalpa Dasi, not been so supportive, tolerant and patient during those years,” he says. Classes, meanwhile, were given in existing facilities belonging to the Mayapur community’s schools, temple and Vaishnava Academy.
Despite these humble beginnings, MIHET’s first courses, offered during the year 2000’s Gaura Purnima festival, were a stunning success. An impressive list of highly regarded ISKCON scholars and experts agreed to teach the twenty-four courses, including Bhaktitirtha Swami, Sridhara Swami, Sacinanda Swami, Jayadvaita Swami, Rasamandala Dasa, Anuttama Dasa, Jananivasa Dasa, Pankajanghri Dasa, Braja Bihari Dasa, Nrsimha Kavaca Dasa, and Prasanta Dasi. Their classes were attended by over 500 students. All of them loved MIHET’s interactive teaching methods, which gave them the opportunity to play a more active role in their learning.
In 2002, Atul Krishna Dasa joined the team. Now MIHET’s senior teaching and administrative staff member, Atul joined ISKCON in Melbourne, Australia in the mid 1980s and, like Janmastami, served for many years as a book distributor. His curriculum for Bhakti-Sastri, an in-depth course on Prabhupada’s books, took MIHET to a new level.
“When we started our Bhakti-sastri program, we knew that it was not a common choice amongst ISKCON devotees,” Janmastami says. “So we tried our best to get very well-known devotees like sannyasis (traveling renunciants) and gurus to teach, so that devotees would be inspired to attend.”
The strategy worked beyond their greatest expectations. Students were moved and inspired, and enrollments for the Bhakti-Sastri course increased dramatically with each passing year.
In 2006, when MIHET began gender separate courses, the Bhakti-sastri program became even more popular. “Both the women and men have had much more positive experiences in this environment,” Janmastami says. “In fact, their praise of the course has encouraged many of their friends to attend as well.”
Lasting thirteen weeks, the Bhakti-sastri course begins by teaching concepts from the Bhagavad-gita. Students then learn how to personally apply these philosophical concepts, drawing from Nectar of Devotion, Nectar of Instruction, and Sri Isopanisad. Finally, facilitators address appropriate attitudes for a Bhakti-sastri graduate by thoroughly exploring topics such as appropriate attitudes towards ISKCON gurus, perpetuating Srila Prabhupada’s mood and mission, and cooperation within ISKCON.
A simplified version of the course, “Standard Bhakti-sastri,” will be offered this October 29th to address the needs of devotees who have had minimal prior experience of scriptural study. This course is currently only available for women, and the regular thematic Bhakti-sastri course for women will be offered simultaneously.
MIHET also offers Bhaktivaibhava, the next step up from Bhakti-Sastri. More elaborate, it covers the first six cantos of the devotional epic, Srimad-Bhagavatam. “To enable students to spend less time away from their preaching fields and optimize their learning while in Mayapur, we’ve developed the Preliminary Self-study program, in which students study much of the material before they travel to Mayapur,” Janmastami explains. “Most students spend an hour a day for about 26 weeks on it. They then take two modules of 13 weeks each on campus.”
Bhakti-Sastri and Bhaktivaibhava classes begin in October and finish in late February. The 2008 – 2009 session drew 81 Bhakti-sastri students and 27 Bhaktivaibhava students. An even bigger attendance is expected this year.
MIHET also offers several courses lasting from four to six days each during the Gaura Purnima festival, including Teacher Training, Leadership and Management, Communications, Varnashrama Development, Yoga Therapy, and Ayurvedic Self-healing. These attract up to one thousand students.
This year, the first half of the Bhaktivaibhava course will be offered right after the Gaura Purnima festival, since many Bhakti-sastri graduates want to continue immediately with Bhaktivaibhava after their graduation.
All these students will stay in off-campus guesthouses on the Mayapur property, just as they did back in 1999. But for classes, MIHET now has its own facilities. Two apartments have been converted into classrooms and administrative offices. These will house this year’s Bhaktivaibhava courses and women’s Bhakti-sastri courses, while the men’s Bhakti-sastri course will be held in the Mayapur community’s Caitanya Bhavan building.
As usual, the teacher-list for these courses includes many well-known names, with ten sannyasis presenting this year’s Bhakti-sastri and Bhaktivaibhava Courses. As well as Atul Krishna Dasa, MIHET’s core teachers—fifteen men and ten women—include Jayadvaita Swami, Kadamba Kanana Swami, Hari Sauri Dasa and Laksmimani Dasi.
The students themselves are a diverse crowd, with 30 per cent of men and 10 per cent of women coming from India, and the rest from Europe, South Africa, South America, and the USA. Most MIHET students are aged twenty to thirty, although five to ten senior devotees, including Prabhupada disciples and sannyasis, come as students every year.
“We ask students to give us a letter of recommendation from their ISKCON authority and from two other senior devotees,” Janmastami says. “They should have good written and spoken English skills, and should also be chanting sixteen rounds of the Hare Krishna mantra and following ISKCON’s four regulative principles. We encourage students to study in advance by learning Sanskrit verses and going through the homework assignments—all of which are available on our website mihet.org.”
MIHET staff hope that their students will continue to deepen their knowledge, understanding, and realization of Gaudiya Vaisnava philosophy as presented in the teachings of Srila Prabhupada and his faithful followers, and become spiritually enlivened and empowered to spread these teachings.
MIHET’s mission statement is to systematically strengthen its students’ spiritual practices, scriptural knowledge and understanding; to help them develop their practical skills in preaching, studying, teaching, serving, worshiping, leading, managing, and living in Krishna consciousness; and to enthuse them to dedicate their lives to Srila Prabhupada’s movement.
Many past students have themselves become teachers of spiritual education courses. Others, after building a strong devotional foundation at MIHET, have gone on to become empowered teachers of Krishna consciousness; and many have taken on leadership positions within ISKCON.
Many students have also gone on to jobs or education in the outside world. These say that their experiences at MIHET have helped them remain spiritually strong in situations that are not spiritually supportive.
“We hope to continue to do what we have been doing for the last ten years, as well as to add new courses,” Janmastami says. “We are also hoping to play a role in fulfilling Prabhupada’s dream of establishing a university in Mayapur.”
Janmastami, who has been the director of MIHET for the past ten years, has recently resigned due to health issues. He continues to teach MIHET courses, however, and serves as a consultant to the Institute’s administration.
“We have our strongest line-up of Bhakti-sastri teachers ever this year and we are hoping to have our biggest turnout of students,” he says. “This may be not new, but it is always an exciting event in Mayapur when our students arrive—both for the students and the Mayapur devotees.”