As the holiday season comes around, ISKCON devotees like to wrap up warm, pack their bags full of books by their Founder Acharya Srila Prabhupada, and head out on the streets to give the most valuable Christmas present of all: spiritual knowledge.
One of the most enthusiastic ISKCON communities of recent years in this endeavor has been ISKCON of Toronto, Canada. After a visit by North American Sankirtan Strategist Vaisesika Das, devotees used his techniques to jump from sales of just a few thousand books in 2008 to 35,000 in 2011.
In 2012, they distributed 40,000 books, and this year, they’ve set a goal for an incredible 50,000 books.
Twenty thousand of those are expected to be distributed during the winter “Prabhupada Marathon,” which is running from November 17th until December 31st this year.
“Since Vaisesika Prabhu came and revitalized everybody to make books the priority, our efforts become a bit more formalized, and we started things like the Monthly Sankirtan Festivals,” says Minakshi Dasi. A daughter of Srila Prabhupada disciples, she has been distributing books since childhood.
“One weekend a month, we gather as many people as possible -- congregation and core devotees -- and go out on the streets to distribute books in a big way,” she adds. “Normally we get anywhere from twenty to forty devotees going out. But during the marathon, it might be fifty plus.”
Devotees perform Harinam during a Monthly Sankirtan Festival
ISKCON Toronto also puts extra energy at Marathon time towards promoting Sastra Dhan. This is a program wherein community members donate to sponsor books that are then placed for free in libraries, hospitals, hotels, motels, homeless shelters, yoga centers, and nursing homes.
“In the last year and a half, we have placed between 1,500 and 2,000 Bhagavad-gitas in hospitals alone across the greater Toronto area, covering about eighty hospitals in the region,” says Minakshi. “We’ve had a lot of thank-you notes from hospital administration, asking for more Bhagavad-gitas, as well as audio CDs and large print Gitas for elderly patients.”
Another successful venue for book distribution is public events. Throughout the year devotees attend music festivals, summer festivals, and Holi events. And during the marathon they visit Diwali and Christmas events, where they do street book distribution or set up book tables.
“We also set up tables in malls or even train stations,” Minakshi says. “Last year, at one of the malls we went to, we did 400 books in one day.”
There’s also a big push during the marathon to do regular street book distribution, with devotees going out every single weekend, despite having full-time jobs and family lives.
Finally, there’s a chance to distribute huge amounts of books towards the end of the marathon on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas. In a similar spirit to Black Friday in the US, Boxing Day sees hundreds of people lining up in the early hours of the morning before the stores open in the hopes of getting great shopping deals.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper gives a speech at a Diwali event just before receiving a Bhagavad-gita from Minakshi
No strangers to rising early in the morning themselves, devotees also head out, to offer people special deals on books that could change their lives… and maybe switch their priorities from the material to the spiritual.
Of course, although devotees set higher and higher goals each year and try enthusiastically to reach them, the marathon’s focus is not on numbers but on people. It’s a perfect opportunity to bring devotees together, to inspire them in their Krishna consciousness, and to help them feel appreciated and encouraged.
“When we go out on Monthly Sankirtan festivals, devotees come early in the morning, and we do some sadhana (spiritual practice), talk about our goals for the day, and do some training together,” says Minakshi. “When we go out, everybody’s together. And when we come back afterwards, we have prasadam together at the temple. There are also sangas on Tuesdays for the Sankirtan Team, and appreciation events and picnics. So it’s a very nice cohesive, inspirational, and devotional atmosphere.”
The mood at ISKCON Toronto is certainly working for Minakshi, who is extremely enthusiastic about book distribution and is passing that enthusiasm on to her fourteen- year-old daughter Radha-Priya.
On November 9th, just before the marathon began, Minakshi and her daughter boldly reached out to the leaders of Canadian society, getting clearance to attend a national Diwali event put on by Canadian Conservative MP Deepak Obhrai.
The event, held at the Toronto International Centre in Mississauga, Ontario, was also attended by many high profile guests including the Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper.
At the event, Minakshi managed to get a brief audience with the Prime Minister and introduced herself to him.
Minakshi Dasi (left) with Transport Minister Lisa Raitt
“I shook his hand and briefly spoke to him about the Bhagavad Gita, explaining that it was a sacred Vedic Indian text,” she says. “Then I handed a copy to him. He took it, smiled, nodded acceptance, said thanks, and then security rushed him off.”
Minakshi also spoke about the Bhagavad-gita with Minister of Transport Lisa Raitt, who, like the Prime Minister, took one happily.
“It is the hope of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness that these influential leaders will read and benefit from the book, thereby benefiting all the citizens of Canada with the knowledge acquired from Krishna and explained by Srila Prabhupada,” commented Mahabhagavat Das, another member of Toronto’s Sankirtan team.
Meanwhile, Minakshi -- who says she’s excited about the marathon -- will keep distributing Prabhupada’s books.
“To me, book distribution is the closest to Srila Prabhupada’s heart,” she says, her voice breaking with emotion. “So even if somebody just touches a book, reads one page, or passes it along to someone else, because of Srila Prabhupada’s purity, it can change their life.”
“And we see that happening,” she continues. “We hear stories of people finding a book on a shelf or in an apartment building where someone had abandoned it years before. And suddenly they’re at the temple, telling us how they discovered it.”
But Minakshi takes no credit for these kinds of successes.
“It’s Srila Prabhupada’s writing that causes it,” she says. “We are just very tiny, humble instruments.”[ book-distribution ] [ book-review ] [ canada ] [ toronto ]