“The standard of material education is sense gratification, but the highest standard of spiritual education is knowledge of the science of Krishna.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Teachings of Lord Chaitanya, Ch 31)
The immature child can be likened to a skull full of mush; their mind can be molded and shaped into pretty much anything through proper training and education. Therefore the nature of the instruction they receive becomes all the more important, as when the ultimate objective in life is properly identified the necessary steps can be taken towards meeting it. Otherwise the education given to young children simply enhances their ability to eat, sleep, mate and defend; activities which are already prevalent in the animal community. As the human being is the most advanced species in terms of intelligence capacity, the instruction given to impressionable youths should be aimed at enabling them to transcend the basic demands of the senses through strict austerity, penance and adherence to regulative principles. This instilled discipline will ideally allow the soul to have freedom in the future.
Stating that a child should be taught austerity and penance is necessary because the modern system of education fails to provide this instruction. There is certainly some type of discipline and regulation instilled simply based off the schedule of a school system. If the child has to wake up early to catch the school bus and remain in each of their classes for an allotted period of time, there is some discipline automatically built in. But in the larger picture, the nature of the information presented and the exercises recommended to realize that knowledge are what are at issue.
In any basic primary educational institution, young children are taught reading, writing, arithmetic, science and maybe some history. Such knowledge and understanding are essential if one wants to be a productive adult, as reading and math skills are necessary for landing decent paying jobs that allow the individual to maintain a home and family. But when you delve further into these activities, you see that they focus primarily on the ability to eat, sleep and mate on a higher level in the adult aged years. After all, working to maintain a living that sees sense gratification as the most important driving force for activity must, by definition, be aimed at increasing the comforts of sleeping, eating and sex life.
Is this focus harmful? Is it detrimental in some way? What should the focus of education be? In the Vedic tradition, the ancient system of spirituality emanating from India at the beginning of time, the first instruction taught to aspiring transcendentalists is aham brahmasmi, which means “I am Brahman.” Brahman can be thought of as the all-pervasive aspect of the Absolute Truth, or God, but in reality it is simply the beam of transcendental light emanating off of the inconceivably large, transcendental body of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Brahman realization is stressed from the very beginning because understanding that one is not their body, which is temporary and destined for destruction, is the most difficult task in life.
The equality movements focusing on breaking barriers erected through prejudices formed off of race, class, religion and gender all try to tackle the same issue that is dealt with right from the very beginning by the Vedic teachers. He who is looking for racial equality tries to compare the black man and the white man and show that they are equal, and she who is looking for gender equality espouses the belief that men and women are equal in all respects, but only the spiritual master, or guru, of the Vedic tradition presents the most inclusive definition for equality, wherein all life forms, even the ants, cows, birds, beasts, etc., are considered equal to the human being. This understanding is absent in society today due to the influence of Kali Yuga, the age known for its rampant quarrel and hypocrisy.
When the young student learns that they are Brahman, or pure spirit, they can take the necessary steps to truly understand what that means and then act off of that disposition. If we learn that we are gifted in music, sports or writing, naturally we will then take the proper training to hone in our skills in that particular discipline, thereby making the best use of our talents. In a similar manner, since every individual is a spirit soul, when they learn how to act off of their constitutional position, they can achieve the highest gain in life, a condition of eternal felicity that simultaneously brings alleviation from all distresses rooted in the activities that currently take precedence in importance.
The strongest inhibiting factor in understanding that we are Brahman is the influence of the senses. In this respect the animals have no chance at ever realizing their equality in spiritual makeup. A dog, cat, pig, or bird cannot be given instruction on the wisdom of the Vedas, nor can they be guided along in spiritual practices. Young children, however, most certainly can. Therefore along with the first instruction comes a set of procedures aimed at allowing the influence of the senses to be transcended. Since eating is the most difficult of the material sense urges to control, a required austerity for children is to regulate food intake. In the classic Vedic system, students would attend the gurukula, or school run by the family spiritual master, who is considered a bona fide representative of the Supreme Lord. The guru is not equal to God, but he is to be treated on the same level. The idea is that all the obeisances offered to the guru eventually make their way up the chain of disciplic succession back to the Supreme Lord Himself, who is the fountainhead of all knowledge.
In addition to taking instruction daily from the guru, the students would go out and beg for alms from the householders. Through this system so many issues were solved without any outside help needed from government bodies. The food for the students was taken care of, as well as the well-being of the guru. Therefore no tuition was required, as the member of the brahmana class, the priestly order, lives a very simple lifestyle dedicated to serving God and preaching His glories to others. The food procured by each student would not be partaken of directly; it would first be handed to the guru, who would then distribute it as he saw fit. If the student didn’t get any food from his guru, it was understood that he had to fast that day. Obviously there wasn’t an overabundance of food to go around, as through begging the food intake will be limited. So, automatically students were taught tapasya, or austerity, in their eating habits.
There was also complete celibacy throughout this time. A student attending the gurukula is known as a brahmachari, or one who is following the principles that allow for the understanding of Brahman, the Absolute Truth. Restraint in terms of association with women is vital in this period, as the sexual urges will only distract the student in their pursuit for higher knowledge. Indeed, it is seen that when there is trouble in relationships or when love goes unrequited, the scorned lover can be thrown into a tizzy, where they lose motivation for work, school and life in general. Therefore in the critical student years, association with women would be strictly prohibited, thereby instilling another form of restraint.
“Work done as a sacrifice for Vishnu has to be performed, otherwise work binds one to this material world. Therefore, O son of Kunti, perform your prescribed duties for His satisfaction, and in that way you will always remain unattached and free from bondage.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.9)
The secret to this ancient system of instruction was that once students would finish their studies, they would have a solid foundation on which to base their life’s activities. There was regular practice of austerity, penance and sacrifice. The yajna, or religious sacrifice, is meant for the pleasure of the Supreme Lord, who is known as the enjoyer of all sacrifice, Yajneshvara. In this age especially, the only recommended sacrifice is the sankirtana-yajna, wherein the holy names of the Lord found in the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, are recited regularly. When the student is taught that they are Brahman, they are also made to understand that the Supreme Spirit is Parabrahman; hence there is an inherent relationship between the two. One is superior and the other is inferior. When the inferior voluntarily acts in the interests of the superior without any motivation and without interruption, the resultant transcendental link becomes the greatest source of pleasure. The bond of pure love established with the Supreme Lord becomes the most valued possession. It is the rekindling of this relationship that forms the foremost mission for every single life form, but especially for the humans.
Education has no other purpose than to instill the understanding of Brahman and Parabrahman in students. Surely there will be different departments of instruction, with specific courses only focusing on a certain discipline, but the glue that holds everything together should be this mission of instilling sense control in the students so that they can go on to make the most of the valuable human form of life. The human being doesn’t need to be taught how to eat, sleep, mate or defend any better. These activities will take place even without explicit instruction. Though there may be sex education courses offered, no one needs to teach a man how to be attracted to a woman and vice versa. Though health and nutrition courses focus on the latest scientific studies pertaining to which foods to eat, man does not have to be taught how to look for food and enjoy it. It also should be noted that these scientific studies constantly contradict themselves, as they reach ridiculous conclusions that certain foods can prolong life while others cannot. There is no magic pill to living long, as the effects of karma, which manage cause and effect, determine the results of all action. Karma is another important concept ignored in modern education, as there is no thought given to the spiritual laws governing the actions of man. If one violates the laws of the state, they will surely be punished, so why should it be difficult to comprehend that violating the laws instituted by God will similarly bring negative consequences?
When the instruction of aham brahmasmi is taught to adults, the recommended practices become much more difficult to employ. Eating meat, gambling, taking to intoxication, and enjoying illicit sex can occur periodically or for one or two days, but as soon as the activities start to repeat, they turn into habits. These habits then become very difficult to break, regardless of how enthusiastic the spiritual instructor is. Therefore the acharyas, the exalted spiritual masters who lead by example, have recommended the sankirtana-yajna over any other practice. The tradition of strict austerity and proper education given in times past is very difficult to implement today, especially when the modern education establishment is focused more than ever on teaching about sense gratification and how to secure more of it.
When the senses are starved of association with maya, or material nature, there is a better opportunity for taking to bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. Bhakti is a natural engagement, as the spirit soul is charged with energy just waiting to be released in a service attitude. Indeed, in the absence of knowledge of bhakti and the need for it, the individual takes to serving so many other entities. When austerity is coupled with spiritual practice, the transcendental love found within the heart comes to the forefront and leads the enthusiastic soul towards finding more and more ways to serve their beloved Lord, who is known as Krishna in His original form due to His all-attractive nature.
Austerity and penance are the focus of instruction for human beings in their youth, but the ultimate objective is to find felicity in an active engagement, one that never fails to provide pleasure to the sincere worker. Therefore it is seen that the bhaktas, or devotees, not only take to chanting and refraining from sinful activities, but they will also read about Krishna, visit His temples, hear stories about Him, offer service to the devotees engaged in preaching the Lord’s glories to others, and participate in so many other transcendental activities. Armed with the proper education, which already exists within the soul, the devoted individual makes the best use of their valuable human form of body by remaining purely God conscious all the way up until the time of death, after which they return to the imperishable spiritual sky, where everyone not only realizes that they are Brahman, but also that Krishna is their ultimate source of pleasure.