I just realized that we have to kinds of “old school” when we talk about saṅkīrtana as book distribution in ISKCON.
The first is the original old school, which we can define geographically – American, and the second one would be European. However, these two schools were also separated by time so it could be said that Europeans followed the US and didn’t invent anything new. It could also be argued that European approach to book distribution was enriched by their own history that was unique to that part of the world so they can claim recognition as a school in its own right.
It’s better to say that these distinctions are artificial and no one ever uses them in real life. Plus Australians and Latin Americans can probably talk about their own schools but I just never heard about them. This “old school” moniker would probably make sense only in the scope of this very post and nowhere else.
Americans were the first to kick off book distribution, that is indisputable, but they also had no idea what they were doing. In the early days of our society book distribution was an ad-hoc affair, even Śrīla Prabhupāda himself was puzzled by the phenomenon.
Many of us tend to think of guru as omniscient, certainly a guru of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s stature, but that is philosophically incorrect. Guru knows what Kṛṣṇa tells him to know, no more no less. Also guru’s physical body acts in concert with time and modes of nature, we can’t expect Śrīla Prabhupāda to be fully conversant with the Internet, for example. He wasn’t conversant with mass scale book distribution either, it’s something we added to the repositories of our sampradāya ourselves.
He, of course, tried to distribute his books himself starting even in his household life. He put his first prints of Bhāgavatam in libraries around the world, too. He used to go to a library in New York and see his Bhāgavatam routinely checked out and presumably read. What he didn’t know was how to sell thousands of books a day in airports. I don’t expect anyone would deny his total surprise at reading reports of how it was all going down. There’s a famous letter describing last day of Prbhupāda marathon one year and a fierce competition between several temples for a top spot, which went to a team that got in fistfights and was briefly arrested by the police. He absolutely didn’t expect these things to happen.
This explains somewhat contradictory messages on how to conduct this book distribution properly. Normally, devotees are expected to be seen as vaiṣṇavas but we also have an approval to wear wigs, for example. We have instructions against cheating but also permission to sell books by hook and by crook. Śrīla Prabhupāda was trying to get the hang of it just as we did and that’s why I say that no one had a clue how to do it properly.
What does properly mean, anyway? Who decides what is proper and improper? We can fairly easily judge it from a material perspective but who get’s to judge on Kṛṣṇa’s behalf? This was one of the reasons why we let our devotees get away with some outrageous stuff under the pretext of saṅkīrtana. I’m still not sure how much of it was justified and how much backfired spectacularly.
That kind of book distribution is all forgotten, we don’t do it anymore, and I’m not going to argue for its resurrection, just for learning from experience.
Europeans in those days simply followed what devotees were doing in America but Europe wasn’t as free as the US then. In Germany, in particular, laws on selling stuff and soliciting donations were pretty strict, and for a good reason – from society’s point of view. Our devotees quickly run afoul and ISKCON was taken to court. Exact reasons were spurious and charges were trumped up but it gave a lot of grief to our leaders and to Śrīla Prabhupāda himself. We might have had a good court battle but we also learned how to co-exist in the future, and that was reflected in how the second old school conducted its saṅkīrtana business in the eighties and nineties when Europe was practically the only zone that kept growing.
It’s this old school that I want to talk about in detail. They deserve consideration because they did everything right, they had a solid philosophical and managerial backing for it, and they were very successful, not just in selling of books but in building the entire society around it.
In the beginning we had no books and we concentrated on preaching and building temples. In the eighties, however, we realized that books are the basis. We knew of this before, of course, but we also had historical examples of success that wasn’t connected with books at all, like opening London temple. Books weren’t the ONLY basis, at the very least, we managed for several years without them and it was spectacular. By the time eighties rolled in, however, we got nothing left, only books. We had no other source of mojo in our society. We also realized that we were spiritual midgets and our own achievements were insignificant and even our strongest leaders could have blooped at any moment. We could rely only on books, and that’s what Europeans decided to build their ISKCON around.
The sole existence of every temple was for book distribution. Without saṅkīrtana there was no reason to open and maintain them, no reason to invest money and manpower. Nowadays we can talk about temples as our spiritual shelter, as our homes, as standards for the rest of the community, as pillars, as embassies from Vaikuṇṭha etc etc but in those days temples existed strictly for saṅkīrtana and nothing else.
It doesn’t mean they were money making enterprises at all. No, but all life in the temples was centered about supporting saṅkīrtana mission. It’s a very highly evolved philosophical position to take. How many of us would dare to claim that our sole motivator in life is saṅkīrtana? That we eat, sleep, sit, stand, breathe etc just so that we can push this mission forward? Not many, I guess, but that was an uncompromising demand back then. We do not come to ISKCON for self-fulfillment, we do not come to ISKCON for transcendental bliss, we do not come here to become better human beings, we do not come to find husbands of wives, we do not come to make careers, we do not come to ISKCON even for self-realization, but solely to serve Śrīla Prabhupāda by distributing his books. Whether we become self-realized in the process or not is secondary, let’s make Śrīla Prabhupāda pleased first.
Once you look at your life and the life of our society that way many things start to fall into place, it’s living the first part of the famous verse (BG 2.41): vyavasāyātmikā buddhir ekeha kuru-nandana – “Those who are on this path are resolute in purpose, and their aim is one”. Since then our society has gone to fulfill the second part: bahu-śākhā hy anantāś ca buddhayo ’vyavasāyinām – “O beloved child of the Kurus, the intelligence of those who are irresolute is many-branched”, which isn’t progress but it happens as we speak.
That second old school is all but gone now and probably for good reasons, too, but it doesn’t mean we can’t learn lessons from it, especially on the personal level. Whether the rest of the society takes note or not is out of our hands but it’s not an excuse for us to slack off in our own consciousness.
I’ll continue on this subject tomorrow.