Centro Studi Bhaktivedanta: a dialogue between East and West
by Marco Ferrini (Matsya Avatar das)
The most important day of my life was when I met Srila Prabhupada for the first time, in August 1976. He accepted me as his disciple and I received my first initiation in 1977, on the holy day of Narasimha mahotsava.
This encounter with His Divine Grace illuminated all the next twenty years of my life, serving many ISKCON temples around the world and, most importantly, dedicating myself to the co-founding and development of the Villa Vrindavana temple in Florence, which in the 1980s became one of the largest ISKCON communities in the world.
From 1989 to 1993, I devoted myself to the design of the external and internal décor, from the marble floors to the mosaics of the dome, from the glazed terracotta sculptures to the shringasana of Srila Prabhupada's Pushpa-samadhi Mandir in Sridhama Mayapur.
Starting in the early 1990s, I felt that the academic project was gradually occupying all my thoughts, as if it were an impulse of the soul. At the same time, I experienced a growing realization that spreading Krishna consciousness in the academic and cultural spheres was the most important and most urgent devotional service to which to dedicate my sankirtan offered to Srila Prabhupada. As I have explained on several occasions, I really felt the lack of an academic environment capable of awakening people's inner vision and guiding them towards a contemplative-interior as well as an active-exterior dimension. I wanted to bring bhakti spirituality into universities.
Today, it represents the fundamental core of our Institute's mission: we have been spreading teachings based on Vaishnava Tradition through an academic method suited for Western culture during the last 27 years. All this comes from a dream and an increasingly pressing need I personally felt.
When I first met Srila Prabhupada, I was not living in a temple and the nearest one was 400 km away. I strongly wanted to live fully, rather than just survive, to be deeply inspired so that I could inspire others, and this was a turning point.
In my collaborations and interventions at universities and institutions where I was invited to lecture, it was necessary for me to compensate through CSB’s approach the teachings of Indo-Vedic texts by emphasizing their sacredness.
Without wishing to belittle the work done egregiously by Indologists, how could those who read with rigid detachment the sacred texts and are completely disconnected from the tradition share it?
It is a heritage that can only be made accessible by those who have adopted its spirit intimately and practice it seriously and purely as a life choice.
And this is what our institute conveys: the love of Bhakti, perceived through the joyful company of devotees, the study of sacred texts, religious practices and an ethical behavior based on Vaishnava-dharma, giving people the chance to experience it.
The academic milieu tends to deal with these issues in a distant manner, which risks becoming cold and sterile.
It is like wanting to taste honey without opening the jar and accessing its contents; we cannot savor it through the description of others, we must experience it, moving from knowledge - jnana - to the realized one - vijnana.
Our Academy is an institute for research, study and application of science and spiritual technologies, aimed at the elevation of the human being, in his perennial pursuit of reunion with God through love and by experiencing the quality of the soul: immortality, knowledge and happiness.
Our courses operate for the revival of the Indo-Vedic wisdom within a dialogue connecting thought and experiences of the East and the West.They are conceived conceived for an adult audience Our students average age is about 46 years, coming from all social categories: women and men seeking the true purpose of life, beyond birth and death.
A place to experience simple living and high thinking, to share such values with others making new friends on a soul level.
Today, we offer a study and participation methodology that enables people to make a life-transforming experience. We do not wish to offer duplicates of what already exists, but to provide what is lacking in contemporary society to improve individual and collective well-being.
I started bringing Bhakti into major Italian public and private institutions (for example Universities, Hospitals, Corporates, etc.) using an accessible language for secular contexts to let Bhakti flourish in society and within the life of many people hungry for spirituality, but who would be unprepared for a confessional approach.
Among the most significant achievements, the teachings of Bhakti and Srila Prabhupada have been brought to preeminent Italian Universities, such as through a 5-Year Academic Course at the Department of Philosophy of Religions of the University of Siena, whose courses have been recognized by the Siena Education Board as also valid refresher courses for education professionals on all levels; to the main Hospitals in Italy and to the Psychologist Professional Associations, by giving lectures related to CME (Continuing Medical Education) training courses accredited by the Italian Ministry of Health - for Doctors, Psycho-Oncologists and Healthcare Professionals; to Public Schools, to the Italian Parliament and to hundreds of Cultural Institutes, Trade Associations, Socio-Religious Institutions.
With this purpose in mind, I founded in 1995 a Non-Profit Cultural Association and for Social Promotion, called “Centro Studi Bhaktivedanta”(CSB) – today also known as Institute of Indo-Vedic Studies - with the approval of the ISKCON Italian National Council, together with the support and appreciation of many godbrothers; the Institute, located in Tuscany, is an independent body, although within ISKCON milieu, aimed to serve it. It is named after Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada and is dedicated to Him. All CSB activities strive for widespreading His teachings and the siddhanta of Brahma Madhva Gaudiya Vaishnava Sampradaya, especially into Western secular domains.
Today, Centro Studi Bhaktivedanta is recognized by the MIUR (Italian Ministry of Education, Universities and Research), providing accredited training courses for teachers and Italian school staff, in accordance with Directive 170/2016.
Further, all CSB courses have been recognized for their academic value by the Dev Sanskriti University of Haridwar, with whom the CSB has been collaborating also for the development of Scientific Research Projects since 2010, and GLA University of Mathura; both universities are recognized by the Indian Government.
Centro Studi Bhaktivedanta’s aim is to preserve the holy scriptures and traditions of the Vaishnavas, the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, Itihasas, Yoga Darshana and Ayurveda; to study them, following academic methods, in their historical and philosophical context. Thus, we foster an intercultural dialogue between East and West, between Tradition and Modernity by means of a contemporary language and a suitable methodology for nowadays’ issues.
To start with, we edited our own books, quoting and adhering to the ancient sources in a coherent way, maintaining the authenticity of the original teachings and always referring to them. We do not make our course books commercially available, but rather accessible only to our students.
Today, our Distance Learning Programs are available in multiple languages). Our methodologies are flexible and accessible to everyone, in order to make available the universal values, knowledge and practices of the Bhakti Yoga tradition through qualified educational paths and the comfort of home-studying.
Courses allow for the attainment of official certificates for both a personal and professional development and are coordinated by our four academic departments:
Department of Indo-Vedic Studies: Distance Learning Courses in Traditional Sciences of Yoga and Human Resources
The core of our Institute is represented by the Department of Indo-Vedic Studies. The department offers courses at various levels, in-person and online, in different academic fields, such as Psychology and Philosophy of the Upanishads, of the Bhagavad Gita, of the Vedas, of Vedanta, of Yoga Darshan, etc.
Combining academic rigor and personal self-discovery, these courses enable people to find deep intellectual satisfaction and empower them to engage ancient wisdom in their practical activities, taking full advantage of life’s opportunities. The courses’ contents focus on the siddhanta of the Gaudiya Vaishnava Tradition within an intercultural dialogue between East and West, through different perspectives and a suitable language for contemporary society.
In this manner our institute takes up the task of accompanying the spiritual traveler, who envisions a metaphysical destination, through our nine academic paths, towards the achievement of his highest personal aims.
Students thereby discover the sense of life and of self-realization on a path of academic subjects and constructive exchanges with professors (the most of them are devotees), increasing their sense of responsibility by focusing on the real purpose of their journey as incarnated beings.
Department of Yoga and Ayurveda: Online and Onsite Training Courses for Yoga Teachers
The Yoga with Love© method, developed by the CSB’s Yoga Department, has been approved by a national sporting body, as a CONI-recognized discipline (CONI is the National Olympic Committee in Italy). We offer a high-quality and professional Yoga Teacher Training Course, enabling people to learn the original discipline of Yoga with specific subjects of study, like Psychology and Philosophy of Samkhya and of Yoga Darshana. Our courses highlight the individual need to deepen knowledge of oneself, understand the psychic dynamics and improve self-awareness, rather than undergoing mind conditioning and a distorted perception of reality which undermine the quality of life. Conscious of our bridging role between East and West, at the Department of Yoga and Ayurveda we aim to nourish this inherent ability to discern between reality and appearance with suitable words and modalities for the Western world. Our intent is to cleanse Yoga from any contamination that has denatured its spirituality and restore its authentic splendor, bringing it back to the ancient Vedic source.
That same refulgence that illuminated Carl Gustav Jung's search for the Self. Jung, who is considered one of the most authoritative source of Western culture, found inspiration in the study of the Vedas, Patanjali's Yoga Sutras and the Bhavagad-Gita, thus reformulating new techniques and theories of depth psychology. He affirmed in his writings: “Yoga is the most eloquent expression of the Indian spirit, a spiritual achievement that represents one of the greatest things ever created by the human spirit”. He thereby led his students to the conclusion that the experience and realization of the self is “the authentic goal of Indian Yoga”, recommending to study the Philosophy and Psychology of Yoga, from which one can learn many theoretical fundamentals of practical utility.
Department I Viaggi dell'Anima® - The Journeys of the Soul
Our Journeys for the Soul allow participants to undertake an inner journey, between earth and heaven, in which places, images, sounds and gestures of ancient symbolism and sacredness accompany participants in search of the deepest meaning of life, to the origins of consciousness and knowledge. Unique experiences of a simple life and spirituality, to retrace the inner realizations of the ancient sages through the study of the texts of Yoga and Bhakti.
The itineraries in India, as well as in Italy, include visits to ancient temples, places of meditation and pilgrimage, immersing oneself in the ancient narratives of saintly personalities and mystics from the East and West who lived in those sacred places and whose teachings can inspire and guide in the search of one's own spiritual essence. Each destination of our travel itineraries is a unique place, characterized by art, culture, history, intense spirituality and evocative natural landscapes.
Department of Relational Counseling and Spiritual Assistance for the accompaniment in end of life (based on Bhakti Yoga Psychology): Online and Onsite Training Courses to become professional counselors
The training and development offered through our Bhaktivedanta Counseling and Spiritual Care courses reflect the necessity of integrating theoretical knowledge and practical experience, based on the art of listening and speaking from the heart, the role of empathy in helping relationships, the alleviation of conflicts and communication across differences, with their practical application in contemporary society. Teachings are rooted in the Vaishnava Tradition and adapted to the needs of a fast-changing society, giving special attention to the accompaniment at the end of life. These courses are meant to provide the right perspective to terminal ill patients, giving them not only the hope but the gift of next life experience. Textbooks are edited by the CSB, with particular reference to the work "Yoga Psychology of the Life Cycle".
Further, we offer courses on Leadership of Wellbeing, a training for new generations of leaders to embrace their responsibilities with profound ethical awareness of individual and collective needs for sustainable development and spiritual advancement.
Department Cooking for the Soul: Online and Onsite Training Courses in Natural, Vegetarian and Ayurvedic Cuisine
Cooking for the Soul is inspired by the millenary Sciences of Yoga and Ayurveda, combined with traditional Italian cuisine.
The department’s courses teach nutrition to promote health, well-being, longevity, vigor, and body-psyche-spirit harmony.
Ideal for people who love a natural diet or wish to experiment with other ways of cooking, learn new recipes, and for those who care about their wellbeing. Therefore courses are within everyone's reach, varied, in harmony with creatures, creation and the Creator: people can learn how to eat healthfully and tastefully every day and on special occasions. But want counts the most, is that practical workshops and the participation of star Chefs, who became devotees, have contributed to the dissemination on a large-scale and the highest level of Vaishnava Philosophy, spreading the culture of Prasadam, as sanctified food offered to Shri Krishna.
Department ADAyur: Last born project is “Govardhan - ADAyur”, a new Agricultural Department inspired by Ayurvedic Sciences which we are currently developing in close synergy with all the others, in collaboration with Govardhan EcoVillage in India. The purpose of ADAyur is to progressively realize an emotional, spiritual, food and energy self-sufficiency project, in an educational farm centered on Ayurvedic Science and Bhakti Yoga, located in Italy to host people from all over the world. The location is close to CSB’s Campus. Govardhan - ADAyur aims to provide skills and experiences to all those who wish to learn how to nourish and cultivate the soil. A place where food is grown in accordance with principles of bio-economic sustainability, promoting self-care education and a lifestyle that enables people to become the best version of themselves, free from conditioning and fear of death. We teach how to take responsibility of one’s own health, practicing prevention through a balanced diet, self-massages, the use of ayurvedic oils and holistic healing herbs, etc. People learn and experience the culture and value of ethical behavior to improve individual and collective well-being.
We are setting up a farmhouse to accommodate short- to medium-term guests. It is primarily reserved for students enrolled in the educational program on basic principles of the Ayurveda Science and guests engaged in specific activities for site care or during the planting and harvesting seasons; especially welcome are those who seek the meaning of existence through contemplation and care of the earth to prepare themselves for the end of their life. There are reserved spaces for sacred worship, spiritual practices and to develop knowledge based on the teachings of the Vaishnava Tradition.
Among services and facilities at our Campus, there is also “Shanti Ashrama” with rooms dedicated to our students for short- to medium-term stay. There are 65 sleeping accommodations and a dining hall with 150 seats.
Through our Institute of Indo-Vedic Studies, we invite people to embark on a journey towards self-discovery and authenticity. Vaishnava wisdom sheds light on the extremely subtle balance between spirit and matter, between soul, mind and body.
This inquiry is at present the quintessential challenge. It has by now an anthropological magnitude and could be the real humanizing reaction to current transhumanistic trends. The hardest challenge of this third millennium: spiritual man or bionic man? That is the choice, the dilemma.
Never before as today have the teachings of the Bhaktivedanta Tradition been so urgently precious to face the challenges of a free-falling humankind, in terms of loss of values and identity. Losses that can undermine the quality of life on both a material and a spiritual plane.
Behind the much heralded economic progress and so-called well-being, one can notice a spreading and increasing barbarization of society. Millions of people fallen into ruthless materialism, destructive and alienating both on a material and a spiritual plane, have lost traditional values as well as their own identity.
In reality, life is a journey: It begins at birth and ends at death. But this is not the whole of life, it is just a segment thereof, between birth and death.
Therefore, in our courses we teach people that Bhakti Yoga Tradition explains also what happens before birth and what comes after death. It is a journey to discover ourselves, the truth within us and our own authenticity.
The purpose of each incarnation is to come closer to the realization of our spiritual nature, characterized by immortality, knowledge and bliss. A pursuit which proceeds with the progressive discovery of ourselves, of our relationship with God and of the loving kindness towards all creatures and creation.
During full-immersion events at our Institute, students have the opportunity to appreciate and experience first-hand the main benefits of Sadhana-bhakti: Mangala-aratika, Guru-puja, meditation on Hari Nama Japa, Prasadam, worship of Deities, Bhajan and Kirtan, and other important expressions of Vaishnava Bhakti.
Thanks to these activities over the past twenty-seven years, the teachings of Shrila Prabhupada, Shri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and the Acharyas in the Gaudiya Vaishnava line have successfully reached today's public and private institutions and, above all, have found their way into thousands of people’s hearts, people who have transformed their lives and, in some fortunate cases, have fully embraced the values of Krishna Bhakti Tradition and have received the sacred Diksha. Hence, they have become full members of the worldwide ISKCON Community and Family, welcoming into their heart Bhaktivedanta Swami Shrila Prabhupada’s teachings.
Looking ahead, our work so far has been comparatively minimal with respect to what we still have to do. We have sown the seeds of important concepts and of a righteous conduct, jnana and sadācāra. In order for the sown seeds to fructify in the “barren lands” of an ever more westernized, relativized, scientistic and atheistic world, the certified quality assurance of our contribution to the world is the governance of material and spiritual resources. Knowledge, conduct and governance of resources, fully respecting both spirit and matter, what in Indo-Vedic terms is known as daivin-varna-ashram-dharma, solely aimed at spiritual realization according to the modalities of Bhakti Vaishnava.