Any talk about what I called “schools” of saṅkīrtana would be incomplete without talking about some of the devotees who epitomize them. In this case they would be Prabhupāda’s disciples from the US and second generation devotees from Europe.
Unfortunately, most of the legends of Radha Damodar Traveling Sankirtan Party are no longer with us and some of the big name book distributors from those days had a fallout with GBC and left ISKCON. This makes talking about them complicated. They obviously got enormous amounts of mercy from Śrīla Prabhupāda and Lord Caitanya and so are above criticism, though taking stuff they are preaching now seriously would be a big mistake. We should just see it as Kṛṣṇa’s arrangement, for some reason He decided to sow seeds of discord in our movement. It could be that their book distribution methods weren’t exactly to Kṛṣṇa’s taste and while they worked in those circumstances He didn’t want to see them enshrined and propagated later on. Or there could be another reason and their sales techniques should stay above reproach. I think it’s better not to talk about this, it’s a sensitive matter.
There’s still Vaiseśika Prabhu around, though, and he gives mean saṅkīrtana seminars, he is a truly inspirational speaker. His approach is comprehensive and he covers all aspects of book distribution. To my own taste, however, some of it sounds too much like motivational seminars in any other field. Whatever I feel about it, it works. Once he had challenged a volunteer devotee to come out of the seminar and sell Bhagavad Gītā right outside to the first person he’d meet, on Saturday morning somewhere in suburbs, and the devotee did just that. Vaiseśika can really fire up the audience. Maybe this enthusiasm is unsustainable but same can be said about preaching by devotees from that other school, too, but for slightly different reasons.
Last I checked, Navīna Nīrada was our Book Distribution minister and he constantly travels all around the world, not just lecturing but still distributing books, too. He is the most visible example of that second generation of saṅkīrtana devotees.
He’s got a lot going for him – he is tall, handsome, and Swiss, which is even better than Canadian as far as image is concerned. He is like a perfect human male specimen, one of those you look at and think that some men are truly awesome. With these assets book distribution must be easy – no one can ever say no to him. This, of course, is a very artificial understanding and it leads to poor excuses for our own inability to sell books. Instead of talking about him, however, I want to talk about his mentor, one Harināmananda Dāsa.
Clicking around World Sankirtan Newsletter site one can find world records. These days all the top places are held by Indian devotees but their method of book distribution is very very different. By their count Jayapatāka Mahārāja had his best book distribution period in the past two years when he was practically incapacitated after a stroke. Harināmananda, however, still holds the lifetime record in the big book category.
He is practically invisible now, I couldn’t find a single picture of him on the internet, only as part of a collage on some Russian language site:
It encapsulates him perfectly, though, it’s just how I remember him, not that I know him personally. There was a time when he taught how to distribute books, too, though mostly it was other people talking about him. Just see how he did that – by walking and carrying about a dozen books in his hands. Day in and day out. His average for over several years, in fact probably over all seventeen years that WSN keep records of, is a hundred big books a day. Not just once, not just on weekends, but every day of every year. It tapered off in the later nineties but it’s still very very impressive, humanly impossible.
How did he do it? It was certainly not a matter of technique but a matter of mercy. His personal record is closer to a thousand big books a day rather than a hundred, all personally carried in his hands. There’s no technique that could explain it. When I was talking about saṅkīrtana temples the other day, he was the living example of how it should be done. One must be the best devotee around, fully absorbed in his service and completely free from all other motivations, one must absolutely incorruptible, one must be a genuine friend of all living beings, and a perfectly transparent vehicle for guru and Kṛṣṇa. Then mercy starts to flow and things start happening.
That thousand book a day sale (or it was 900+, I don’t remember) happened in a small Swiss town he covered before, his first thought was that he had ran out of new places that week and he didn’t want to return there but there was no choice. First half of the day was horrible, people were giving him suspicious looks, some clearly remembering him just from a couple of days earlier. He thought he was finished and he made a big mistake, and then he started praying. Somehow he remembered the story of Dhruva Mahārāja being overwhelmed by Yakṣas’ mystic powers and how Dhruva drew a special arrow given to him by Lord Nārāyaṇa, which immediately dispelled the illusion. It’s what happened to Harināmananda, too, because then everybody in that little town, including some mountaineers who descend into villages only once a month, suddenly started buying his books. His records was set in just one afternoon. What technique is there for this kind of mercy?
Stories like that are not the most important thing we should learn from Harināmananda’s life, however. To me, the most memorable part is his penetrating words. He could stop literally anybody in the street, tell them that they NEED these books, and people would oblige. Sometimes he didn’t even have to finish the sentence, just a few words and one look into their eyes and people would give him their first newborn. He wasn’t messing around, he meant every word he said – people absolutely NEED these books.
We don’t even get it ourselves – yes, books are important, but they are still just books in our limited view. For devotees like Harināmananda, however, buying these books is the most important event in people’s lives and he was not going to minimize its importance by diverting his attention to anything else. For those few seconds it was as people were listening to God himself, he was such a perfect via medium.
One more thing that needs to be said about him is his amazing humility. He is such an unassuming person, he doesn’t talk much, and he always looks like he is going to serve absolutely everybody around him. He is the living example of tṛṇād api su-nīcena verse – thinking himself lower than the blade of grass, always ready to offer respect and serve, and always absorbed in Lord Caitanya’s saṅkīrtana.
Those who know him better might argue that this description is historically inaccurate, I don’t really have all the facts, but it’s my memory of him and it’s as factual to me as the Sun rising in the morning. Maybe it’s a legend but it’s a legend worth remembering and, in fact, keeping deep within one’s heart. Let them have all the other facts, I don’t care.