In Cueramaro, North-Central Mexico, ISKCON devotees are using natural brick and plenty of glass to construct a brand new “green” building for their Colegio Bhaktivedanta that will blend into, rather than invade, its natural surroundings.
“We have just finished building the main classroom, and are planning to start there next summer,” vice principal Nrsimha-Kripa Das tells me in his Mexican-accented yet well-spoken English. He comes across as bright, friendly and radiating with excitement for the project.
Colegio Bhaktivedanta follows other colleges in Belgium and Hungary named after ISKCON Founder A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada, who was renowned for his impact on spiritual education.
But although it’s just getting a new home, and may not be as well-known as its counterparts, Colegio Bhaktivedanta is not quite the new kid on the block.
Established in 2007, it was the brainchild of Aravinda Das, a teacher of twenty years, who saw the need for devotees to study Srila Prabhupada’s books on Vaishnava scriptures more deeply.
Currently based in a loaned house in Cueramaro, the college now has forty students from all over South America -- Colombia, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Chile, and Argentina.
Most are relatively new devotees looking for a place to study and absorb the mood of Krishna consciousness, and all reside in the college and live a temple lifestyle.
The college is in session only during the summer, and offers three courses. Bhakti Sastri covers the Bhagavad-gita, Upadesamrita, Bhakti-Rasamrita Sindhu and Sri Ishopanishad, and lasts three months. Pada Padma covers the first and second cantos of Srimad-Bhagavatam, and is split into two three-month sections over two years.
There’s also an introductory course that lasts two weeks, and teaches newcomers to Krishna conscious about the basics of the philosophy and lifestyle.
Teachers Aravinda Das, Jayadeva Hari Das and Nrismha-kripa give their lessons in an interactive manner, adding questions and answers, games, debates, and other exercises to more typical classroom practices such as chapter overviews.
Meanwhile visiting teachers like Dhanvantari Swami, Hanumatpresaka Swami, Bhakti Bhusana Swami, Guru Prasad Swami, and Bhakti Sundar Goswami add more depth and realization to the courses.
Life at Colegio Bhaktivedanta is busy and completely absorbing. From Monday to Friday, students rise for mangala arati at 5:00am, attend the full standard ISKCON morning program, eat breakfast, and start classes at 9:30am. Each class lasts for one hour, with ten-minute breaks in between. After lunch at 2:30pm, students do homework and prepare for the next day’s studies. In the evening, they have kirtan and eat prasadam, go to sleep, and then start it all over again.
“One of our most important activities is training devotees in how to distribute books,” Nrsimha-kripa says. “So on Saturdays, we leave at 6:00am and do sankirtan in nearby cities like Morelia, Leon, Irapuato, and Guanajato, which is a beautiful UNESCO world heritage site. We get back at 9pm for a pizza feast. And on Sunday, there’s a free day and the Sunday feast!”
Once their course is over, many students participate in the college’s Bhaktivedanta Bus Tour, which is currently travelling through Central America since late August and will continue until the second week of October.
“The tour is like the fruit of the course,” says Nrsimha-kripa. “As the students study, they naturally have the desire to pass on the knowledge they have learned. So this bus tour charges everyone up with enthusiasm!”
Tour participants – there are 24 this year – stop at the main public universities in every country in Central America, making their way from Guatemala down through El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica all the way to Panama.
At every university, they meet with local devotees and put on programs featuring a talk on spirituality, bhajans, Bharat Natyam Dance, videos, and sanctified vegetarian food. These draw anywhere between 40 and 200 or more university students.
Between this two month road-trip and the three-month course preceding it, it’s no wonder that Colegio Bhaktivedanta students bond deeply.
“They develop a lot of very nice relationships between each other, and when they go, they feel a lot of separation,” Nrsimha-kripa says. “Many say that they feel that it’s one of the best experiences of their spiritual lives.”
Some devotees are so inspired by their experience at the college that they stay on afterwards, living in the ashram and distributing books.
Soon they’ll have an even better place to live, and greater educational possibilities.
The new college building being constructed this year is set in a beautiful natural environment that will be extremely conducive to peaceful and focused study. Built with natural brick, wood and expansive sections of glass, it will let in lots of sunlight and offer beautiful views of the surrounding countryside.
“It’s very non-invasive and respectful to the environment, which supports our philosophy also,” says Nrsimha-kripa.
Colegio Bhaktivedanta’s new home, which will be inaugurated in January 2015 and be open for studies in the summer, will feature a main room with an altar, two other classrooms, men’s and women’s ashrams, a dining room, and a kitchen, with planned cabins for introductory-course takers to come.
The college also plans to offer more educational opportunities in the future. There will be a four-year degree in Vaishnava Theology, with curricular value according to the Mexican government’s standardized system.
But Nrsimha-kripa also hopes to include three or four career courses on careers that gel with Krishna conscious ideals, such as cultivating the land and teaching, so that students can enter the world as working professionals after they leave life in the ashram.
It’s spiritual education, though, that will remain the core of Colegio Bhaktivedanta.
“I feel that you can be a lifetime devotee only if you understand the scriptures well,” says Nrsimha-kripa. “If students gain a very profound insight into Srila Prabhupada’s books, I am sure they will remain devotees throughout their lives. And that’s this school’s most important goal."
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