The Vrindavan Gurukula: Would I Trust Them with My Own Son?
By Madhusudani Radha devi dasi
Reposted November 29, 2002

During my 11-year old son Matthew's recent mid-winter break, I was able to combine a work-related trip to New Delhi with my first ever visit to Vrindavan for both of us. Since we only had two days in the holy Dhama, our schedule was packed. There was so much I wanted us to see and do. In addition to visiting different temples, Govardhana Hill, Radha and Syama Kund and of course, doing the "mandatory" shopping, I also really wanted to see a more unusual "sightseeing site", namely the Vrindavan gurukula. After having heard so many horror stories of unspeakable things being done to our youngest, most vulnerable Vaisnavas there, I didn't think my visit would inspire me in my spiritual life, but it was something I felt I needed to see first hand.

My first impressions were not particularly positive, as I was standing outside the gurukula gate and looking at the imposing building with its peeling paint. I imagined what it must have looked like to a lonely, homesick 5-year old and those thoughts and images turned my stomach into knots. I took Matthew's hand and we walked through the gate.

As soon as we walked into the school courtyard, I heard a warm and friendly voice saying "Haribol!". It belonged to Ananda Vrindavan Prabhu, one of the school teachers and administrators, who is also a mother in the school and married to Braja Bihari Prabhu, its vice principal. She had agreed to take time out from her busy schedule to give me a tour of the gurukula. In contrast to many adults we had met on our trip, she immediately started talking with Matthew and made him feel at ease and comfortable enough to agree to sit in on 3 classes with the other 11-year olds. Quite impressive, given that he had previously not wanted to leave my side during this first visit to India.

Ananda and I started walking around the asramas, the administrative offices and the classrooms, all while she very patiently answered my many skeptical and sometimes challenging questions. Although I knew that the really bad old days were gone, I didn't expect that I'd find much that was truly positive in this school. I was therefore very surprised to find teachers with big hearts, who in spite of very meager salaries worked hard and cheerfully to make sure the boys were both learning and happy. Ananda told me that she sees teacher satisfaction as a big part of her administrative job. She has scheduled both asrama and classroom teachers into shifts that will give them enough free time to focus on their own sadhana, reading and even some relaxation. She also arranges for in-service training to help their professional development. "When the teachers are happy, they treat the children well," she said confidently. I was watching for signs of stress and for pretend shows of satisfaction during my observations of classroom and playtime behaviors, as well as during a school performance that we observed the following day. However, if anyone was acting, their performances would have been Oscar worthy. The kids seemed completely comfortable approaching their teachers and ran around laughing and playing and acting silly, just like kids do anywhere. when they feel at ease and loved. Similarly, Matthew later told me that the students in one of the classes had been practicing a skit for the next day's performance, but had goofed around so much that everyone had spent more time laughing than acting. Even the teacher had found it difficult to keep a straight face at times, although she had tried to bring them back on task. To him, the interactions in that class didn't seem too different from what he usually experiences in his regular U.S. public middle school. He looked at me strangely and firmly answered "no", when I asked him if the students had seemed intimidated by, or fearful of their teacher.

Although the school is definitely very "bare bones" in terms of its structure and resource materials, lots of effort has gone into making it as attractive as possible. The rooms have been rearranged to make them bright, spotless and even color coordinated and outside staff has been hired to come in and clean every day. The boys themselves do a once a week maha clean-up only. The women in charge of the school and asramas seem to have an eye for details that make a difference, such as drying the boys' clothes outside in the sun, instead of in a damp, dark laundry room. Their efforts makes a big difference. However, it can't make up for the fact that the school building could definitely use both some repair work and a new paint job. The school also need more money so that they can pay the teachers decent salaries. In spite of these limitations, what was most important, and probably most surprising to me was that I did not see any evidence that the children were suffering. That seems to have a great deal to do with its leadership. With Sesa and Braja Bihari Prabhus as principals, the students have authorities who truly like children and who are also parents themselves. When Sesa told the boys that he was proud of them after they performed their play, you could actually see them beaming. They know that their teachers believe in them and they are encouraged to think about their future after gurukula. To accomplish this, the staff takes advantage of the many devotees who visit Vrindavan and invite them as guest speakers. Two accomplished recent speakers, Rukmini and Manjari Prabhus, gave presentations about starting and running a business and going to college, respectively. After the first talk, all the boys were going to become businessmen. After the second one, they were all going to apply to college. It sounded like "career day" in the Vrindavan gurukula.

The school has also instituted many other changes that are crucial to child protection. It has a child protection team (CPT) in place and conducts workshops for both adults and children on an annual basis. All children are encouraged to write home frequently and the letters are private and not read by school staff. Although the students do follow the morning program, they go to bed at 6pm and thus get at least 9 hours of sleep every night. After their academic classes they have a bath, eat lunch (and rumor has it that it is better than what the temple restaurant serves) and then play sports in the afternoon. The day we were there, Matthew played badminton out on the lawn with some boys his age. Soccer is apparently another popular sport.

It's probably important to mention at this point that this article is not intended to be an advertisement for the Vrindavan gurukula. I continue to be skeptical regarding the appropriateness of sending young children away from their parents. However, I also want to be fair and let others know that things actually have changed at this much criticized school. I therefore think that it at least merits a visit for those parents who do think that their sons might do well in an asrama situation.

In my opinion, it was very inappropriate that parents used to send their 5-year old sons to Vrindavan simply because their temple authorities told them to. Similarly, it is unfortunate when devotees categorically write off the possibility without even having looked for themselves, at least if they themselves believe that there is a benefit to asrama-based schooling. It is crucial that any decision about our children's schooling should be taken only after we have thoroughly researched our options.

So would I sent Matthew to the Vrindavan gurukula? No, not for his regular school. He is very happy at his current public day school and I want him to remain at home. However, if Braja Bihari and Ananda Prabhus were to start conducting any 1-2 month programs with spiritual training, during convenient times of the year, I would definitely trust them with my son. What's perhaps more important, after his visit Matthew indicated that he thought such an experience might even be fun.

CHAKRA 05-Jun-2001