On Wednesday and Thursday, June 21 and 22, 2007, students of Bhaktivedanta College, atRadhadesh, Belgium, celebrated the end of the academic year. The first six students to complete the three-year Ministerial Programme were going to receive Bachelor of Theology degrees from the college, in partnership with the University of Wales Lampeter. This is a milestone in ISKCON history: Srila Prabhupada had recommended this sort of relationship between ISKCON and a university.
On Wednesday afternoon, the students and staff took a guided tour of the Hotton Caves, an outstanding natural heritage site, to associate with one another after the final days of exams and essays. Joining them was Bhakti Vijnana Goswami, a sannyasi from Russia and the guest of honor for the graduation ceremony. He’d flown in from California the day before to encourage the college project because his strong interests include leadership training. Also on hand were Janmastami Dasa, the director of the Mayapur Institute for Higher Education and Training, and his wife, Samkalpa Dasi (from Germany), and their two teenage sons.
At the Hotten Caves, descending many wet staircases (concrete or grated steel) and going seventy meters below ground, the devotees saw deep chasms and entered a gigantic gallery. This experience resembled going to hell. The depths maintain a constant temperature of twelve degrees Celsius. You see limestone-deposits (created at the rate of one centimeter per century) that resemble heads of broccoli and asparagus or even types of pasta.
One college tourist brought along “cave katha”: citations about caves from the Srimad-Bhagavatam. In one pastime of Krishna’s, Brahma laid the Vrindavan cows and cowherd boys down in a cave for a year. The students got a feeling of what that must have been like. Later, back on the ground, the temporary cave dwellers enjoyed a picnic of prasadam sandwiches, fruits, yogurt, drinks, and sweets.
Thursday was the Graduation Day. The college received a donation from a devotee-florist of eight hundred red, white, and yellow carnations, and ten devotees stayed up Wednesday night making flower outfits for Sri Sri Radha-Gopinatha, Lalita, Visakha, and little Radha-Krishna. (The pujaris said that this was the first time in years the Deities had been offered flower outfits.) Seeing the wonderful outfits, the devotees felt elevated in Krishna consciousness, and this led to a wonderful kirtan during Srila Prabhupada’s guru-puja and afterward, led by Yadunandana Dasa, the College Principal. Bhakti Vijnana Maharaja gave a Bhagavatam class about Narada Muni, Dhruva Maharaja, and bhakti-yoga.
The graduation ceremony took place from five to eight p.m. in the temple room, and then everyone was invited to eat pizza and ice-cream prasadam in honor of this extraordinary event. Bhakta Re’em was the M.C. for the ceremony. The small Radha-Krishna Deities stood on a throne in the temple room, and about sixty devotees offered Sri Sri Radha-Krishna flower petals while Bhaktin Kai, and then Kalindi Dasi, led congregational chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra. These two singers had opened the program by playing a harmonium and guitar and chanting in harmony several times “om namo bhagavate vasudevaya.”
Next, leaders gave talks. Yadunandana pointed out that this was the first time that students were receiving a Bachelor of Theology degree for studies in Vaisnava theology; till now, this sort of degree has been reserved for studies of Christian theology. He and Bhakti Vijnana Goswami both gave credit to some of the devotees who were instrumental in the project, including Visnu Murti Dasa, one of the first patrons.
Hrdaya Caitanya Dasa, the temple president of Radhadesh, mentioned the professional educator Sefton Davies, to whose memory this ceremony was dedicated (since he had recently passed away). He’d offered leadership and management training to devotees, including the GBC, and transfered his know-how in curriculum development and teacher training to ISKCON’s office of Vaisnava Training and Education. He was the father-in-law of Saunaka Rsi Dasa, who both established the Oxford Center for Hindu Studies and envisioned Bhaktivedanta College twenty years ago.
Mahaprabhu Dasa, the main donor to the library of Bhaktivedanta College, said that the students had come a long way in a short time despite various obstacles and that ISKCON needs young talented dedicated devotees.
Janmastami said that graduations in America are called commencement exercises because they are the beginning of the students’ life in the world. He recalled Srila Prabhupada saying that modern societies have no head or brain because they lack spiritually advanced leaders.
Three students, one from each class, then spoke briefly: Siddha Rupa Dasi (Mexico) from Year One, Bhaktavasa Govinda Dasa (Poland) from Year Two, and Anupama Dasi (Croatia) from Year Three. Anupama recalled the first dreary, rainy day she’d arrived at the college, after a long, tiring trip from her country, and she’d wondered whether it would all be worth it. Indeed, it was, she said, as the students now felt competent to serve Srila Prabhupada in his mission, thanks to the good wishes of all the devotees and teachers. Srila Prabhupada, she noted, had written that Krishna consciousness will be spread by education, culture, and devotion.
Yadunandana then invited the students of the three classes to receive their certificates, diplomas, and degrees from Bhakti Vijnana Goswami. Yadunandana mentioned several traits or qualities of each student as he called them up. In describing the Year Three students, he told about some of their plans: Yugala Kisora Dasa, has been accepted into the master’s program in religious studies at the University of Cardiff; Anupama will help establish a new ISKCON office of the Ministry of Education at Radhadesh and teach at Bhaktivedanta College.
The other four students receiving Bachelor’s degrees were Visvatamadeva Dasa, Sudevi Dasi, Bhakta Rabin, and Bhakta Re’em.
Finally, the students gave gifts to the various leaders, including Jaya Krsna Dasa, the Administrator Director of Bhaktivedanta College, Alakananda Dasi, the Secretary, and Mahendra Dasa, the Assistant Course Director. On behalf of the staff, Jaya Krsna gave Yadunandana a gift in the name of all the staff members and said that they look forward to working with him for many years.