Every story has two sides and even though book distribution is considered an all around wholesome service it has potential downsides, too.
This is not to re-examine our commitment to book distribution, just to raise awareness, as we are pretty safe and protected if we follow in the footsteps of Srila Prabhupada. Not so much with previous acharyas, though.
I’m talking about a couple of cases in our Gaudiya Vaishnavism history where unlimited book distribution wasn’t looked upon too kindly.
Yesterday I mentioned Srila Jiva Goswami sandarbhas, well, one thing he says about them right in the beginning is that he would lay a curse on any non-devotee ever reading them. So much for book distribution. In fact his proposed adhikar for studying the sandarbhas pretty much rules out all our general ISKCON membership – he restricted it to only devotees without any material desires. Who among us would consider himself qualified? Even those who are qualified would excuse themselves out of humility.
He probably didn’t mean it that way, it is probably okay if one values unalloyed devotion above anything else even theoretically, it’s definitely not okay to give sandarbhas to non-devotees, though. What is even more puzzling is that his sandarbhas do not go deep into esoteric, intimate stuff of Krishna’s relationships with the gopis, they are meant to lay philosophical foundation for our understanding of Srimad Bhagavatam.
We are supposed to study the sandarbhas so that we can hold our ground in any philosophical debate and destroy anybody’s illusions about superiority of devotional service to Krishna, and yet they are meant only for our internal consumption, we can’t let outsiders scrutinize Srila Jiva Goswami’s work.
The other episode involves Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati’s desire to print Govinda Lilamrita, when he asked his father, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur’s permission he didn’t get it, the answer was “no”. Later on Bhaktivinoda Thakur allowed to print one copy of the book, for posterity, and certainly not for distribution. Some say that the rest of the existing copies were recommended to be destroyed.
The excuse, of course, is that Govinda Lilamrita deals with confidential topics that shouldn’t be discussed among people with materialistic consciousness. This has two implications – that we should be very careful in mentioning anything about Krishna and the gopis to general public, let alone in public debates with atheists and other assorted infidels in defense of our faith (and they love to pick up on Krishna’ “amorality”).
The other implication is that we shouldn’t be jumping into reading these books ourselves. Some years ago it was a popular argument against ISKCON – we only talk basics and don’t delve into real devotional stuff. Well, maybe we shouldn’t, not unless we have proper qualifications.
The third example is also from the life of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati – when he sought blessings to print vaishnava literature from his spiritual master, Srila Gaurakishora Dasa Babaji, he didn’t get them. Even if his father was urging him to publish books in order to spread the teachings of Lord Chaitanya, Gaurakishora Dasa Babaji was still skeptical. He said it was a waste of time and no one would read them, eventually he acceded but with one condition – the job itself should be outsourced.
I think Gaurakishora Dasa Babaji had a valid point, too, from a bhajananandi perspective publishing job is contaminating. It’s not less valid today, I believe, we only manage to survive due to exceptional mercy of Srila Prabhupada.
Come to think of it – Srila Prabhupada turned the whole babaji culture upside down, and not just that, he proved himself right, too. I can’t think of any time in human history, either the modern one or the history we learn from Vedic scriptures, when pure, unalloyed devotion to Krishna was so widely propagated all over the planet, so freely distributed to anyone who would happen to come across the devotees.
Even in Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati’s time they didn’t have enough devotees to publish Gaudiya Math periodicals in Hindi or any other vernacular, only Bengali and, of course, The Harmonist in English. Now there’s no person in this world who can’t learn about Krishna because of the language barrier, everyone, absolutely everyone has access to vaishnava literature.
I’m also pretty sure this has never happened before, as in previous yugas lots of people were forbidden from reading our books because of their varna restrictions. Now it’s free for all, and totally legit, thanks to Srila Prabhupada’s unique presentation – unlike Govinda Lilamrita everyone can and should read Krishna book, for example.
Prior to this it was “yajnaih sankirtana prayair yajanti hi sumedhasah“, now anyone, of whatever level of intelligence, can pick up a phone, call up the nearest Hare Krishna temple or a center and join sankirtana yajna in no time, at most next weekend.
I’ll say this again – this level of penetration is extraordinary in human history, so, thanks to Srila Prabhupada, old restrictions can’t be applied blindly but we still have to be aware, the law is the law, preaching Krishna’s glory to non-believers is still an offense.