Teaching by Example

By Bhurijana Dasa - 22.5 2023

Setting a Good Example

We should concentrate on training the children up in Krsna consciousness, not so much formal academic educationa little reading, writing, mathematics, that’s allbut more by giving them facility to follow the examples of the older devotees in the regular Krsna conscious program.

Letter to Satsvarupa dasa, February 16, 1972

Let the children associate with the elders as much as possible in the routine Krsna conscious program.

Letter to Aniruddha dasa, February 16, 1972

The best way to train the children is by letting them associate with their elders in the regular schedule of devotional practices.

Letter to Satsvarupa dasa, February 28, 1972

By the good association of their parents and other older members, they will become nicely fixed in Krsna consciousness.

Letter to Satyabhama-dev das, February 28, 1972

Simply by associating with the elderly members, the children will learn everything. The quality of the elderly members must also be exactly to the standard of excellent Vaisnavas. Otherwise, the children learn by example, and they will be very easily misguided if their senior godbrothers and godsisters are themselves neglectful.

Letter to Satsvarupa dasa Gosvam, July 1, 1972

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The basic principle of a Krsna conscious teacher is that he teaches by example.

ei malakara khaya ei prema-phala

niravadhi matta rahe, vivasa-vihvala

The great gardener, Lord Caitanya, personally eats this fruit, and as a result He constantly remains mad, as if helpless and bewildered.

Purport: It is the mission of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu to act Himself and teach the people. He says, apani acari’ bhakti karila pracara (Cc., sdi 4.41). One must first act himself and then teach. This is the function of a real teacher. Unless one is able to understand the philosophy that he speaks, it will not be effective. Therefore, one should not only understand the philosophy of the Caitanya cult but also implement it practically in one’s life.

Cc., sdi 9.51

Students learn even when no formal instructional attempts are being made. All learners, not just young children, only need to see the behavior demonstrated by their teacher to spark the natural tendency to imitate a superior. In the Vedic system, therefore, the teacher is called acarya. Within this word is acara (activities), for acting properly is the first principle for a teacher, especially one in the line of Lord Caitanya.

Srila Prabhupada: Leader means they should behave in such a way so that by following them, others will be benefited. That is leader.

Conversations, Vol. 10, Los Angeles, July 9, 1974

When used purposefully, teaching by example, or modeling, can be a powerful teaching tool. Many things are learned better through observation and imitation than through verbal explanations and instructions.

Awareness of Example

We have all learned our native language and most of our attitudes, values, and social behavior without having had any systematic instruction. In fact, the examples we have seen have influenced us more powerfully than the verbal instructions we have received.

With this in mind, we can consider that any behavior a teacher exhibits constitutes teaching; teaching does not only take place while deliberately instructing students. Teaching by example goes on at all times. This places great pressure on teachers to live up to their ideals.

If students observe discrepancies between what is demanded and what is actually allowed, they will behave according to what is allowed. For example, students will obey the teacher for the first few days if they are told to do their seat work quietly and on their own. If it gradually becomes clear, however, that the teacher does not intervene in any way when students do not work quietly or when they copy from one another, they will see that the teacher does not mean what he says. They will often become disobedient.

This points again to the need for teachers to be aware that the only requirement for teaching to take place is that a student sees behavior modeled before him.

What is Learned from Example?

Exposure to a teacher’s example can result in either or both of two responses by the learner: imitation and inference.

Imitative learning

In imitation, a student observes his role model’s behavior and then imitates it on his own. Often this is used as a teaching technique, as when students observe their teacher performing a task (such as counting mantras on one’s fingers) and the student is asked to repeat the process on his own.

Unfortunately, unplanned and sometimes undesirable imitation also occurs. Students often pick up distinctive expressions, speech patterns, or gestures that their teacher uses, whether or not the teacher uses them consciously. Students also take cues from their teacher in learning how to react in ambiguous situations. If a teacher responds to student embarrassment with tact and sympathy, students will tend to follow suit. If, however, a teacher reacts with insensitive sarcasm or ridicule, students will probably laugh and call out taunts of their own.

Inferential learning

Besides imitation, observation also produces inferential learning. The learner observes the role model’s behavior, and, on the basis of these observations, makes inferences about the role model’s beliefs, attitudes, values, and personal qualities. Here the learner makes inferences about why the role model is behaving a particular way or about what type of person the role model is. This is also called incidental learning because it involves acquisition of information in addition to, or instead of, what the role model is trying to convey.

For example, suppose a teacher calls on a student to go to the blackboard and write the Sanskrit and English to a Bhagavad-gita verse. The teacher serves as a role model by the way he reacts to the student’s mistakes. One teacher points out that there is a mistake and asks the student to look at his work again to try to locate the error. Another teacher informs the student of his mistake and then calls on someone else to go the board and correct the problem. Both teachers are teaching the sastric content, but the inferential learning acquired by the student called to the board, and by the rest of the class in this situation, will differ with the two teachers.

In the first case the students may learn: “The teacher is friendly and helpful. It is safe to make a mistake. You will have a chance to correct yourself if you can do so, or you’ll get some help if you can’t.” In the second teacher’s class the students may learn: “You better be ready to perform when you get called to the board. The teacher wants to see the problem done correctly and he has limited patience with anybody who can’t do it right. If you know the answer, raise your hand and try to get called on to go to the board. If you’re not sure, try to escape the teacher’s attention so you won’t get embarrassed.”

What inferential learning might take place as a result of the following conversation with Srila Prabhupada?

Devotee: But isn’t that not good because the politicians nowadays, when they are running their campaign, they say so many lies to the public, that “When I am elected I will do this and I will do that.” They pay off so many people in order that they can become elected. So always the good persons also have to cheat in order to get in position, but usually the . . .

Srila Prabhupada: Therefore we have stopped our political activities. It is not good. It will hamper our spiritual understanding.

Devotee: Because we will also have to do that.

Srila Prabhupada: If you want to dance, you cannot be shy. There is a Bengali proverb, nate vase gunthana tana. You understand Bengali? No. “When you are going to dance . . .” A girl, or a lady was supposed to dance on the platform, on the stage, and when she came, she saw thousands of people. Then she drew her veil, what is called, gunthana, became little ashamed. “So you are going to dance. What is the use of veiling yourself?” So similarly, when one takes part in politics, if you don’t take all the tactics of politics, then you cannot gain ground.

Conversations, Vol. 10, Paris, June 14, 1974

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Inferential learning goes on whenever students observe their teacher. Teachers rarely try to teach the information that students are inferentially learning; nevertheless, students learn by observing them.

What might a student inferentially learn from the following conversation with Srila Prabhupada?

Srila Prabhupada: No, no, no. Sama-darsinah means there is no distinction between sin and virtue. That is sama-darsinah. As soon as you see, “This is virtue, and this is sin,” it is not sama-darsinah.

Guest: Virtue and sin become the same in sama-darsinah.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. That is sama-darsinah.

Guest: In other words, the sin does not remain sin any longer.

Srila Prabhupada: That is another thing. But he has no vision that “This is sin, and this is virtue.” That is sama-darsinah. As soon as you make distinction, you are not sama-darsinah.

Guest: In another interpretation, in . . .

Srila Prabhupada: You may interpret in a different way. Sama-darsinah, this is plain word. Sama-darsinah means there is no difference, that’s all.

Guest: But sama-darsinah equals sama-darsinah. The sin and virtue are the same.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, that is sama-darsinah because here it is said clearly, vidya-vinaya-sampanne brahmana. A brahmana, learned brahmana, and vinaya, very humble. That is the sign of goodness. Vidya-vinaya-sampanne . . . gavi hastini suni ca. runi ca means dog. Now he is seeing a dog and a learned brahmana same. Dog is supposed to be sinful, and this learned brahmana is supposed to be virtuous. Therefore his vision, the virtuous and the sinful, the same. That is sama-darsi.

Guest: I think that they have made many mistakes in writing of the slokas.

Srila Prabhupada: That’s all right. Now you are finding mistake with Vyasa, so who can talk with you?

Guest: No, but, but . . .

Srila Prabhupada: Please excuse me. Please go out. Please go out. Don’t trouble. You are finding faults with Vyasa.

Guest: We only want you to be understood here.

Srila Prabhupada: [shouting]. I am not sama-darsinah! I don’t say I’m sama-darsinah! I don’t say, sama-darsinah. So you say sama-darsinah. Sama-darsinah.

Guest: You should be sama-darsinah.

Srila Prabhupada: But I am not in that stage. I say because you don’t surrender to Krsna, you are sinful. That is my darsana.

Conversations, Vol. 10, Allahabad, January 18, 1971

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Factors Affecting the Influence of the Teacher

Aside from external, situational factors, the effect a teacher has upon his students varies according to the personality and behavior of the teacher himself. And, of course, with the depth of his Krsna consciousness. Students will tend to imitate a teacher whom they admire and respect, and they are likely to adopt his attitudes and beliefs. Students are less likely to imitate a teacher whom they dislike or do not respect – especially in adopting that teacher’s beliefs. In addition, much undesirable inferential learning will occur from the observation of such teachers, but relatively few desirable modeling effects are likely.

Here is a conversation with Srila Prabhupada revealing some of his mood and Krsna conscious personality that won the hearts of his disciples and caused them to follow his path.

Advaita: Swamiji, last night our window was broken. Was that maya striking?

Srila Prabhupada: Huh?

Advaita: Kids broke the window?

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Maya is always striking. Why do you take only a window? Why do you compact maya in the window? She is without window, within the window. Maya is not only, I mean to say, limited to a certain extent. The whole world is maya. Jagan mithya. The whole universe is maya. Only that part is not maya where chanting Hare Krsna is there.

Devotees: Haribol. Hare Krsna.

Srila Prabhupada: As soon as there was some slacking in Hare Krsna the maya struck. (Laughs.) Yes. Yes.

Govinda dasi: Swamiji?

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. You are asking at the last moment. You are very much careful about time.

Govinda dasi: Oh, I didn’t know.

Srila Prabhupada: No, you ask me.

Govinda dasi: No, I won’t ask.

Srila Prabhupada: No, no, no, you ask. Yes. Yes.

Govinda dasi: Could you describe Krsna’s pastimes as cowboy whenever He goes out in the morning with the cowherd boys?

Srila Prabhupada: You have no experience here in your country. Have you got any experience? But in India we have got experience how in the morning the cowboy takes some food from the mother and with the cows he goes to the field. The cows are let loose on the grazing ground. They are enjoying, and this cowboy is sometimes singing. The flute, Krsna’s flute, is because He is cowboy. The cowboys still play with that flute. In India you’ll find.

Conversations, Vol. 1, New York, April 11, 1969

What inferential learning do you think took place through this simple incident?

* * *

Students will readily accept instructions from a teacher whom they admire. Teachers, therefore, should keep themselves Krsna conscious and develop the qualifications of a devotee. The twenty-six qualities of a devotee are as follows:

Such qualified devotees will certainly attract the admiration and surrender of everyone.

Srila Prabhupada: Tell them, “Chant Hare Krsna!” You should chant, they will chant. You should behave yourself very strictly on discipline and they will follow.

DVARAKANATHA: It seems that we must become humble. We must become servants to them in the sense that we do everything that we can to facilitate their service. Then when they see we are surrendering to our service, they will surrender to us.

Srila Prabhupada: Very good idea. Example is better than precept. You should all be personal examples, and they will do that. If you do not practice, if you simply force them, that will not be good.

JAGADYSA: The teachers are setting a good example in that way.

Srila Prabhupada: Then the children will follow. You rest assured.

Conversation with teachers in Dallas, July, 1975

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Ways of Teaching by Example


The most obvious use of modeling occurs in a deliberate demonstration. In Gorakhpur, Srila Prabhupada once descended from his vyasasana to demonstrate to a disciple how to properly wash a floor with water and a cloth. He often entered the kitchen himself to teach his disciples how to cook and clean. In the early days in San Francisco, he personally taught Mukunda and Jivananda the mantras and basic mrdanga beats.

In teaching specific skills, especially to younger students, a demonstration is the method of choice.

Modeling Krsna conscious thinking

Teachers should regularly think aloud when making decisions and solving problems so that students can hear them model their Krsna conscious thinking processes.

This can be done with real decisions and problems the teacher faces, as well as with lessons in the curriculum. In giving directions about how to do seat work or homework, for example, and in dealing with students who are having difficulty, teachers can verbalize each step of their thinking process. Verbalizing will help students see the way the problem is approached. It will also help them see the answer as a logical conclusion following a chain of reasoning, rather than as something that the teacher just knew and that the student must commit to memory.

MADHUDVISA: This boy is Yugoslavian, and he has done some translating of your Isopanisad into Yugoslavian. So he is wondering if it is possible to spread Krsna consciousness in Yugoslavia?

Srila Prabhupada: Everywhere possible.

MADHUDVISA: But these countries are all under Communist rule. It is very difficult in those countries.

Srila Prabhupada: Not difficult. Nothing is difficult. For the time being it is difficult but in due course of time it will be very easy. Now who knew that in Europe and America or all over the world Hare Krsna will go on? Bon Maharaja left the field; others left the field. You see? Other swamis came. They talked all nonsense, yoga, this and that, nose pressing, eyes pressing — they are all finished. Now Hare Krsna is going on. Now people, the nose-presser and eyes-presser, they are no more important. Is it not? Eh? Now our men go and challenge these rascals. And in New York they did it.

Conversations, Vol.10, Melbourne, July 2, 1974

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Modeling beliefs

The strength of a teacher’s beliefs about particular subjects is sometimes demonstrated by how much time and emphasis he assigns to that subject. Such teacher behavior (e.g., more time or more excitement) will subtly communicate to students what the teacher considers important.

Preaching, book distribution, prasadam distribution, and many other focal points of ISKCON became so, not only because of Srila Prabhupada’s direct words, but because his attitude toward them was expressed by his behavior. He was thrilled when books were produced, translated, and distributed. He said that book distribution gave him life. He showed pride in his disciples’ bold preaching attempts in Communist countries, and he insisted that even inimical guests take prasadam before leaving his company. Teachers naturally model the way they think about a subject, so they should become aware of what they are communicating to their students.

What beliefs can you infer from the conversation below?

Srila Prabhupada: There is one bead bag lying for three hundred years there. Whose? He has taken initiation. He does not know where is the bead bag? Just see.

Karandhara: On the heater there’s someone’s beads.

Srila Prabhupada: So I saw it was lying in the bathroom. Then I brought it here, and it’s still lying unused. Whose it is?

BHAGAVAN: It is mine.

Srila Prabhupada: You are so forgetful?

BHAGAVAN: No, I was looking for them.

Srila Prabhupada: Why? Why did you . . . ?

BHAGAVAN: I left them on your bathroom door, I think.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Hmmm. So this kind of leadership will not make any solution, if you do not know what is the real goal.

Conversations, Vol.10, Paris, June 13, 1974

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Modeling curiosity and interest in learning

By the very nature of their service, teachers are committed to learning. This commitment should come across in their classroom behavior. They should model not only a specific interest in curriculum subject matter, but a general commitment to learning and knowledge.

One important situation in which teachers can show their commitment to learning is in responding to students’ questions, especially the spontaneous questions that a student may ask. Questions from the class are a sign of interest in the topic. They indicate that a student is thinking. Spontaneous questions also indicate a “teachable moment,” when students are open to learning.

Devotee: Swamiji, if all things here are a reflection of what is perfect in the spiritual world, then shouldn’t hate and frustration and despair and prejudice also appear in the spiritual world?

Srila Prabhupada: Yes.

Devotee: Does it?

Srila Prabhupada: Yes.

Devotee: Aren’t they bad?

Srila Prabhupada: But that frustration has no disappointment. (Laughter.) That is the beauty. Just like Lord Caitanya is manifesting that spiritual frustration, “Oh, Krsna, I could not see You.” He’s jumping into the sea in frustration. But that frustration is the highest perfection of love. Yes. Everything is there. But without inebriety. You are very intelligent boy. I thank you. Yes. Yes.

Conversations, Vol. 1, New York, April 11, 1969

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As questions are expressed, teachers should respond in a way that shows questions are not viewed as threats, but are welcomed and valued. The question can first be acknowledged or praised: “That’s a good question, Krsna dasa. It does seem foolish that we’d leave Krsna in the spiritual world.” Then the teacher can attempt to answer the question or can refer it to the class for discussion: “How about it, class? Why would a soul leave Krsna instead of staying in Goloka Vrndavana?”

The teacher can also reinforce curiosity and interest in learning through the asides and comments made in passing during class conversations. Without belaboring the point unnecessarily, the teacher can get across to the class that he regularly studies the Srimad Bhagavatam, appreciates how sweetly the Deities appear, and participates in and appreciates other transcendental pursuits (“Last night I read in the Bhagavatam . . . ,” or “I can’t get the Deities out of my mind since I saw Them this morning”). A teacher thus makes his students aware that he thinks carefully about his life and shows evidence of an active, inquiring Krsna conscious mind.

Socialization through modeling

Teachers socialize their students through modeling. That is, they shape the values, attitudes, and behavioral standards that their students adopt. Students’ ideas about appropriate behavior and about how they should look upon themselves and others are affected by what they see when they observe their teachers. If you wish your students to become gentle and concerned, you must model gentle and concerned behavior.

Srila Prabhupada: Where is that girl, Saradiya? Here is a nice girl. You see. And where is your husband? Oh, why are you so skinny?

SARADIYA: Prabhupada, he just got over jaundice. In Bombay.

Devotee: In Bombay he had jaundice.

Srila Prabhupada: Oh. So give him sugar candy water. Bring in the morning. You know sugar candy? Soak sugar candy at night in a glass, and the first business in the morning you should take that glass of sugar candy water.

SARADIYA: He is doing all that now.

Srila Prabhupada: Ah. And he should not at all take ghee. No fat preparations. And if possible secure papaya, raw papaya, green, and boil it. These are medicine for jaundice. He is inside this room? He has come back?

Conversations, Vol. 3, Vrindaban, October 15, 1972