It was as far back as 1972 when ISKCON devotees first discovered the potential for distributing large amounts of spiritual literature during the December Christmas rush. As we begin another marathon for our founder Srila Prabhupada thirty-six years later, observers may still be asking the question, “Why is distributing books so important for ISKCON devotees?”
Veteran book distributor Vaisesika Dasa, who has been handing out books by Swami Prabhupada for all but one of those years, is crystal clear on why he does it. “Great saints of old describe the knowledge contained in these books as the panacea for the sufferings of humanity,” he explains.
The holy name of Krishna (God) has long been thought by Gaudiya Vaishnava teachers to be so powerful that just singing it (kirtan) or even hearing it can set one right on the path to love of God and freedom from suffering. Recent teachers such as Bhaktivinode Thakur, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, and ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada have praised spiritual literature as written kirtan, extolling its far-reaching effects. Prabhupada even insisted that all of ISKCON’s outreach programs should include books – our most permanent asset, they would outlast temples and communities to leave an indelible stamp for Gaudiya Vaishnavism, he said.
But according to Vaisesika, new generations of ISKCON devotees are often unaware of the priority Srila Prabhupada placed on book distribution, leading to a dearth in the practice. Vaisesika is leading a move back to organizing temples around the purposeful propogation of Krishna consciousness through chanting, prasadam, and especially book distribution – starting with his base in ISKCON Silicon Valley, California. And it’s not just a half-hearted attempt. Eloquent and bubbling with enthusiasm, he has put much thought into every aspect of his plan, including motivation, environment and training.
“Devotees should be trained properly so as to have a positive effect – they should look professional, leave everyone with a good impression, and keep in touch with people after they meet,” he says, speaking from his home in San Jose. “Trained, enlightened and mature book distributors will create positive impressions in their local communities and all over America and the world.”
The key, he explains, is that we should stop depending on the same few stalwarts to go out on book distribution. “The future of our movement is in empowering everyone in our communities, big and small, to participate directly in distributing books and prasadam and chanting the holy names in public,” he says. “And believe it or not, everybody likes sankirtana if they’re given the proper encouragement and environment. Devotees should feel that their voice is heard and that they have a stake in this spiritual movement. Then they will feel strongly that Krishna consciousness is such a wonderful thing that they simply have to give it to others.”
His proof is ISKCON Silicon Valley, where he obtains permits and legal permission to create “safe havens” for book distribution. There, even children venture out, in parentally-protected groups of twenty to forty, all aged between five and fourteen years old. And they have such fun that they often don’t want to go home when it’s time to. Elderly people also head for the streets, resulting in grandfathers, grandmothers, fathers and mothers accompanying the young children to preach as a family.
“It’s a common misconception that sankirtana (book distribution) is scary or hard, or that people don’t like us,” Vaisesika says. “The opposite is true – people are very happy to see someone is actually giving a practical spiritual solution, rather than using spirituality as a front for some commercial endeavor or dogma. They want the real thing, and most solutions out there are not satisfying because they don’t go deep enough -- they don’t teach about the soul and an eternal, personal relationship with God.”
Vaisesika keeps devotees excited about delivering this message by constantly introducing variety, new goals, and an impressive list of innovative systems, including:
Sastra Dana: An ambitious pair of devotees approached hotel and motel owners proposing that they put Bhagavad-gitas in every bedside drawer next to the Holy Bible. Thousands agreed, and the response from hotel guests reading the books has been tremendous.
Smart Boxes: This small book display sits on the counter of a retail store or organization. Price tags and a collection box with instructions tell people all they need to know – pick a book you like, put a donation in the box, and take the book home with you. This passive bookseller has been a great success. “They’re sweeping the nation and the world,” Vaisesika says with typical bombast.
Smart Table: Using the same self-serve principle as the Smart Box, these book display tables are placed in ISKCON temples across the country. With thousands of guests visiting annually, Smart Tables at some temples have sold $20,000 – $30,000 worth of books per year.
Full Set Distribution: Some devotees focus on selling entire sets of the Srimad-Bhagavatam or Caitanya Caritamrita. The added bonus? They personally deliver them to the customer’s house and install them with a special ceremony that says, “Your spiritual life has offically begun.”
Sankirtana Sundays: Once a month, the 100 or so attendees at ISV’s Sunday Feast are treated to a preliminary lecture explaining the benefits of sankirtana. During a short break in the program, guests can then decide if they’d like to try distributing books for themselves. They go out into the parking lot, where fifteen vehicles, each driven by a sankirtan leader, are lined up. A devotee with a clipboard and chart stands at the door ready to sign them up and assign them to different groups; first-timers can just watch and be trained.
“We started Sankirtana Sundays six months ago,” Vaisesika says. “At the last one, sixty devotees went out on book distribution for an hour and fifteen minutes. They came back so excited that it was like they’d just been shot from a cannon!” He laughs. “It’s a great way to instill in new people that our mission is to distribute Krishna consciousness to others, and it makes the Sunday Feast a unique experience.”
Monthly Sankirtana Festivals: Only three devotees live in the ISV temple – 99% of its congregation live outside with their families and have 9 – 5 jobs. But once a month, anywhere from 60 to 225 devotees spend their weekend going out on book distribution.
“We realized some time ago that a centralized model is not the most efficient, because everyone lives in different places,” Vaisesika says. “So duties are divided up and spread out to different neighborhoods. ISV’s book stockroom, for example, is at one devotee’s house – his whole family is in charge of ordering, storing, and recording the books.”
At ISV’s Monthly Sankirtana Festivals, 90% of book distributors work from a professional display table with a sign announcing yoga, vegetarianism and meditation. The wide variety of books includes many foreign language translations to cater to San Jose’s diverse population. And the meticulously packaged “Kiddy Packs,” complete with devotional toys, coloring book and crayons, ensure that no one is forgotten. “The tables create a safe base for devotees to work from, and show the public that we’re professional and have something valuable to offer,” Vaisesika says.
The ISV team give plenty of attention to every detail of their outreach. Free food distribution creates goodwill in public, and is an easy sell for new distributors before they move on to literature. And they plan all congregational chanting ahead of time, making sure to put on an attractive performances that draw a crowd.
With all this, it’s no surprise that ISV is among the top three temples in America in book sales, and is garnering more attention every day. But devotees there prefer to focus on book distribution as a spiritual practice, rather than a numbers game.
“We think that book distribution should be as beneficial to the devotees giving out the books as to those receiving them,” Vaisesika says. “So to this end, our community gathers every Wednesday for Bhagavad-gita class, and every Saturday for three hours of group chanting, reading and interactive discussion. We make sure that it’s a family atmosphere, with lots of encouragement, and loving exchanges.”
The community continues striving to improve; its motto, printed on t-shirts that every book distributor wears, is “Always Better Service.” After every Sankirtana event, they talk about what went well, and where there was room for improvement. Based on this, they then make plans to improve their infrastructure, systems and mood. This keeps them enlivened and on the cutting edge.
It’s thirty-six years on from ISKCON’s first December marathon, and ISV are still channeling the energy of a exuberant movement. Although many devotees travel during the winter, yielding a smaller turnout than at the height of the summer months, Vaisesika still aims to have at least 150 devotees go out on book distribution between mid-November and late December. And although all the devotees can only go out on weekends due to their full-time jobs, they are still determined to distribute 7,500 books, and to collect $10,000.
Vaisesika sees book distribution as vital to the future of ISKCON, not only to propagate its message, but to ensure that its members feel that they’re part of a movement with goals. “I see it increasing and becoming more of a congregation-based activity, as with other organizations,” he says. “The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for instance, encourage all of their members to go out regularly, and it has become part of their culture and practice. We will also begin to put this in the forefront and encourage everyone to be a part of it.”