What is the difference between various forms of preaching and book distribution? In Bhagavad Gītā Kṛṣṇa simply says: “explain to my devotees” – abhidhāsyati (BG 18.68). The other vaiṣṇava translation gives it as “promulgates”, which fits with preaching even better. Is book distribution some special form of preaching or is it all the same?
I suppose there’s no point in comparing saṅkīrtana with meditation or offering fire sacrifices, or even with deity worship. Deity worship is prescribed for Kali yuga, too, as we have to follow pañcāratra system along with bhāgavata system (see here and here, for example), but Lord Caitanya established saṅkīrtana as dharma for this age, there’s no way around that.
If we perform saṅkīrtana with all our hearts our success is guaranteed and we will at least return back to Godhead but deity worship alone will probably not suffice, simply for a reason that hardly anyone is able to perform it to a satisfactory standard on his own. We need saṅkīrtana to maintain purity necessary for deity worship, and we need deity worship to maintain necessary purity when we are in the temples, when we are off saṅkīrtana, so to speak.
Both are the service to the Lord, both are authorized by our ācāryas and so both will be accepted if done right, there’s no difference in that sense, but saṅkīrtana is available to anyone, even a slight success will earn us Kṛṣṇa’s good graces forever and is enough for at least liberation. Deity worship requires a lot more time and training by comparison, those who can do it are safe, too, but most of us simply can’t. It’s much harder to get it right than saṅkīrtana.
If we see deities as dolls that need to be decorated and looked after we are not doing deity worship, it will earn us some brownies but it’s not service, it’s hardly better than child’s play. Preaching, on the contrary, works its magic under any and all circumstances, though we have our own creative ways to screw it up, too.
Let’s talk about different kinds of saṅkīrtana and see what makes it work and how book distribution fares by comparison. First we have harināma, of course, the original saṅkīrtana as started by Lord Caitanya. Simply walk the streets and sing the mantra, what could be easier? It purifies everyone who hears it regardless of whether they understand it or not or whether they agree with our preaching. It goes straight into the hearts and turns them inside out while people’s consciousness is still absorbed in gross matter. Hearing the holy name, hearing the mantra, is the original and the most trusted way to transmit spiritual knowledge and deliver the soul, no one will ever change that.
Here’s the caveat, though – people must hear from a pure source, from a self-realized devotee. The same name and the same mantra coming from the mouths of non-devotees do not transmit bhakti, only śuddha name does, and which one of us can deliver that? Lord Caitanya could, Śrīla Prabhupāda could, many of our ISKCON devotees could, but normally our public chanting is not that potent due to our low level of advancement. In harināma we are restricted by our own conditioning.
Book distribution remedies that because our own imperfect association is only the beginning of preaching, the bulk of it will happen when people start reading. When we sing the names in public and leave the place the name leaves with us, too, but books stay in people’s hands, the association with Śrīla Prabhupāda continues. We ourselves might have been terrible in our effort but if even one of those books makes someone into a pure devotee we will be saved simply by association. In short, harināma gives people the name as delivered by us, books give people the name as delivered by Prabhupāda, and people will keep his association as long as they read. Relative advantage of book distribution is clear in this case.
Our society also went through a period where we called everything we managed to sell “saṅkīrtana”. The idea was that the money were used for a good cause and people got the spiritual benefits regardless, as ajñāta sukṛti. However true, it’s not preaching, spiritual knowledge hasn’t been disseminated, Kṛṣṇa hasn’t been glorified, so it’s not saṅkīrtana in any sense. People were not made into devotees even for a brief second, which is essential to qualify by Gītā standard – this knowledge must be explained to devotees, to those who are ready to submit themselves to God.
Then there’s prasādam distribution. Śrīla Prabhupāda loved it and it was meant to be an integral part of our movement – chanting, temples, prasādam. In the beginning he didn’t even know how books would become our basis, he hasn’t written any yet, not for street distribution anyway. Still, prasādam must be accompanied by preaching to qualify as saṅkīrtana. People will get benefits regardless, and much bigger benefits than from buying a scented candle, but to qualify as saṅkīrtana preaching must be there, too. Quite often we don’t do that, skirting the issue of the source of our prasādam and presenting it as “food”. People come and get “free meals”, not taste remnants from Kṛṣṇa’s plate mixed with His saliva. Come to think of it, not many of our devotees meditate on Kṛṣṇa’s saliva while eating either, it’s still gross.
Then there’s a question of whether we serve prasādam at all. In order for Kṛṣṇa to accept the food it must be properly prepared and properly offered by a qualified devotee according to the instructions of his guru. We can’t rely on neophytes offering food with spontaneous devotion, which is the only other way for it to be accepted by the Lord. Otherwise it must be done according to the prescriptions of our ācāryas and offered through the entire paramparā, it’s strictly following these orders that guarantees that bhoga become prasādam fit for consumption by devotees. A lot of what we distribute hardly qualifies and we tell ourselves that it’s still good enough for non-devotees even though it might be substandard otherwise.
The quality of Prabhupāda’s books is not spiritually compromised in any way so the relative advantage of book distribution is again clear.
There’s still straightforward preaching, public programs and delivering lectures, and a couple more arguments for and against book distribution but I’ll leave them for another day. There’s one more thing I forgot to tell about “saṅkīrtana temples” when I wrote about those a couple of weeks ago – the food must always be spiritually top notch.
“Garbage in garbage out” was the understanding, saṅkīrtana devotees could not afford purity of their consciousness being compromised by substandard food, and it wasn’t about external quality and nutrients but the consciousness with which it was prepared. Only brāhmaṇa initiated devotees were allowed in the kitchen, it was a very serious business. The consciousness of the cooks must not be contaminated by laziness or sleepiness, let alone lust, and their minds must not wander anywhere from performing their task with love and devotion.
Food cooked this way and according to the instructions of our ācāryas regarding recipes and ingredients is fit for offering to Kṛṣṇa, is surely accepted, and it fills with divine consciousness anyone who is properly respecting it. It lifts saṅkīrtana devotees off their butts and flies them out into the streets. There should probably be a separate post on proper saṅkīrtana food, maybe later.