While talking about Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī’s disappearance and last instructions it would be very appropriate to discuss his views on saṅkīrtana and his contribution to book distribution and preaching in general.
My starting point in this series of posts during Prabhupāda marathon is an “ideal” saṅkīrtana temple where everything is centered on book distribution and where saṅkīrtana means book distribution first and foremost. We don’t have those anymore for many reasons and resurrecting them would probably be a Utopian idea but saṅkīrtana is not an arrangement for this world, it’s not supposed to fit here. Those who are after its nectar do not belong to this world either, they are just passing through. Consequently, this series of posts is not about how to make our lives here easier, but to remind us of a perfect life that exists in eternal service to Lord Caitanya, not in this world. It’s not about how to reconcile Vedas with science or evolution, or how to reconcile Kṛṣṇa consciousness and Christianity, or about any of the subjects concerned with worldly phenomena. Our only goal should be the mercy of Lord Caitanya which manifests in service to His mission, too bad if we do not live up to it.
In history of Gauḍiyā vaiṣṇavism we had saṅkīrtana as led by Lord Caitanya, then saṅkīrtana as led by Lord Nityānanda, then the Six Gosvāmīs, then the period of Narottama Dāsa Ṭhākura, then we had dark ages until Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura and his revival of Gauḍiyā tradition. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta continued that and then Śrīla Prabhupāda took it all over the world. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta then appears as just a link in a chain but he was so much more than that.
Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura wrote many books and started the bhakti vṛkṣa program but after his retirement from public preaching it practically stopped so Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta had to start literally from scratch and he did it on a scale never seen before. He didn’t just cultivate small groups of devotees, he built temples and entire communities around them, all around India. His reach was unprecedented, he got the ear of biggest political and government leaders and he had festivals attended by millions of people. He put saṅkīrtana on an industrial footing, so to speak.
It wasn’t about the books, though, he hardly printed any and he wasn’t a prolific writer himself. Nevertheless, he “discovered” bṛhat mṛdaṅga, before him it was just a printing press. Śrīla Bhaktivinoda had various publications going on during his life and he also printed his own books but that had all stopped and to revive it Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta needed new material, again starting from scratch.
Mostly he published periodicals, the main one being Gauḍiyā in Bengali. He also had Harmonist in English and a Hindi periodical as well. He published those in great numbers and had thousands of devotees go out and distribute them to the public, something Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura didn’t have in his time. Someone might correct me but the idea of investing all the money into printing books, the famous order given to our Śrīla Prabhupāda, occurred to him in last years of his life, he didn’t have time to put it in practice.
What I mean to say is that saṅkīrtana for him didn’t mean book distribution as it came to mean in ISKCON. Still, saṅkīrtana was the only life and soul of Gauḍiyā Maṭha, it just manifested differently.
Remembering Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s speeches and instructions, he always talked about Hari-kathā, which was his preferred manifestation of saṅkīrtana. He hardly ever sang the holy names but he always talked about Kṛṣṇa. He also used terms like Hari-bhajana, śuddha Hari-bhajana, Hari-seva-katha and the like. In simple words – we must always talk about Kṛṣṇa and of nothing else. This was saṅkīrtana in its purest form, free from all other motivations.
Devotees followed his example, too, and gave speeches everywhere they went, that’s how their mission had grown, just as we did in ISKCON half a century later. This is the heart of saṅkīrtana – talking about Kṛṣṇa to appreciating audience, to devotees. Every other form must not undermine this main principle. Find devotees and talk to them, if there aren’t any around – make people into devotees and talk to them. If you are alone – find devotees and talk about Kṛṣṇa in their association. There’s no other way. Even when we do japa we do it Haridāda Ṭhākura’s style – outloud so that there’s always some living entities who can hear it.
Every devotee in Gauḍiyā Maṭhas was expected to go out and preach every day just as they were required to chant their rounds. They were supposed to do it “Nityānanda style” – approach people and beg them to consider the message of Lord Caitanya. Devotees also asked for donations, which is an old tradition. People saw them as sādhus and hearing spiritual instructions and then giving donations was a part of the ritual.
What pleased Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta the most, however, was when devotees persuaded people to buy the magazines. That’s how he eventually got the idea of Bṛhat Mṛdaṅga – don’t just talk, leave something to read later, too. This is what our Śrīla Prabhupāda did as well – asked devotees to distribute Back To Godhead magazines along with harināma and prasādam. It was only later that the devotees figured out that they could distribute big books, too.
Eventually we got around to the idea that books can be what cows were to people in Vedic ages – foundation of the entire society and expression of wealth and prosperity. It’s a Kali yuga solution, though. If we want to build a varṇāśrama we need to go back to land and cows but if you do not worry about settling down and putting roots then books are the best. They are also not wealth per se, you can’t eat them, but they can be converted to money. Most importantly, they give everyone a chance to serve saṅkīrtana mission.
Some devotees in Gauḍiyā Maṭha got the wrong idea that donations were the basis, just like some of our devotees thought that books were the basis because they brought in money, but Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta cut them short. Preaching is the basis, as well as the goal and the method, money is just something that the universe provides to oil the wheels. Saṅkīrtana is never about the money, if one thinks like that he immediately looses all spiritual realizations.
One time Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta told the entire temple to stay in and wait and he left for saṅkīrtana all alone. He didn’t collect anything substantial, as far as I remember, but someone suddenly showed up with a big donation of foodstuff on his own and everybody was immediately convinced. As long as preaching is going on the universe will cooperate in this regard, we don’t need to make any separate efforts. This is another principle we should never forget if we talk about book distribution.
I wish I remembered something more on this topic but I don’t, so I’ll give it a rest.