I’m not sure I’m in a sufficiently purified consciousness to properly elucidate reasons and arguments I’m about to propose. I’m still on relative merits of book distribution vis-à-vis all the other services. Simply proving that saṅkīrtana is better is relatively easy (books is preaching by Prabhupāda and they last forever) but I myself am not impressed by these arguments anymore. I want to go deeper and see the unity of all preaching and all service, albeit if it’s done on a pure platform.
This is actually the catch – platform of purity. Let’s take plain, straightforward preaching which was the staple in the early days of our movement. Whenever devotees could organize a public meeting they would come and speak, if Prabhupāda was visiting all the better but they didn’t have to wait. In India meetings like this were a norm wherever Prabhupāda went. It’s still going on, Rādhānātha Svāmī being the most visible speaker of this kind.
How do we judge success of such preaching? It’s not as easy as it sounds. We are not the only ones delivering sermons, compared to motivational speakers or Indian politicians we are rather shy. How do we compare ourselves to all those people who can speak of hours and hours non-stop?
We can judge our success by the reaction of the audience. Were they listening attentively? Did they ask pertinent questions? Did they react appropriately to humor or to the most serious parts of the speech? Did they applaud at the end? Was there an invisible but nevertheless palpable connect between the speaker and the audience? Did they visibly enjoy stories about Kṛṣṇa? There are plenty of signs to conclude that the speech was received well. Well, guess what – it works exactly the same for all the other big talkers, too, so what does it prove?
Some speakers might not say a word about God but there are plenty who exploit this topic very cleverly, especially māyāvādīs. Bhāgavata Saptāha speakers are very adept at story telling and very expert at controlling the audience, they got paid good money for that, they are professionals. They talk about Kṛṣṇa all the time, they also talk about devotion, and yet all their words are completely devoid of any spiritual value. Next to them we are amateurs, by all objective criteria, so how do we know if our preaching was successful?
One sure way to judge it if people come and offer service at the end. Some offer donations, some offer land, some offer their professional help, some become devotees. That’s how we judged success in Prabhupāda days but now it all has become rather murky. We get more benefits like that from personal, one on one meetings rather than from public engagements. In many cases the afterwards donation is obligatory just as participants expect a “welcome bag” with goodies, it’s part of the ritual, not a sign of devotion, and it’s specifically meant to make sure that everybody, starting from the speaker, had a good experience. It’s pretty much like Vedic yajñās – people go there to show themselves, it’s a big social event, everything is properly organized, but none of it is about devotion, only about making themselves feel good.
My point is that it’s very easy to fool ourselves into thinking that our preaching matters, the organizers and participants actually conspire to leave us with that illusion because they all get something out of it and want us to continue serving them, the idea of actually serving Kṛṣṇa doesn’t even cross their minds.
This can surely happen on saṅkīrtana, too – if our goal is to sell books. People appreciate the effort, like our company, love being pampered by God, love being loved and appreciated and spoken to as if they matter, books are also gorgeous, so they give money for that. We walk away with a book being sold, which will earn us a place at the saṅkīrtana table, good graces with the management, and continued safe residence in the temple. Everybody happy, except no one had given one thought to Kṛṣṇa.
A real saṅkīrtana devotee doesn’t tell people he’s giving them a gift from God, who loves them no matter what and wants to make them happy, instead he inspires people to become God’s servants and give gifts to Him. Saṅkīrtana devotee doesn’t come to give, he comes to take. Well, he gives them path to love of Godhead, the opportunity for God to take their lives away through devotional service. After meeting such a saṅkīrtana devotee a person doesn’t feel he has got something for himself, he feels he has given something to God, there’s a fundamental difference.
So, in both forms of preaching, if they are done right, Kṛṣṇa comes out the winner, and both forms of preaching can end up with people completely missing the point, therefore they are simultaneously one and different. The advantage of book distribution is that in the end everybody must give money so the chances of success are higher. I mean if the book is sold the chances are high that preaching worked. In case of public speaking no one is actually obliged to do anything, most listeners just walk away, books are usually left untouched, and so while the speech might have gone objectively well the preaching might not have happened at all. This has been observed at various “bhakti-fests”, for example, some say that they are the worst audience when it comes to giving something to Kṛṣṇa even though they are all nice and “love the experience”.
A few words of appreciation and a token gesture is all we personally need to feel good about ourselves. For a book distributor, however, it’s not enough, only a few books sold is a burden and lots of books sold is a temptation. Book distribution forces us to become detached from results and invest our hearts only in the process. Book distribution gives us service itself as the most valuable achievement, divorcing us from the book point tally. This is very hard to achieve, though not impossible, by doing other kinds of preaching.
Book distribution done as means of maintenance or as means to advance up the hierarchy deserves to be condemned. If one becomes puffed up by being a book distributor and starts looking down on the service done by others he needs to be avoided, too, but so do people who sing kīrtanas to get the girls or the gigs, who distribute prasādam to get famous and important, who deliver speeches to rub shoulders with VIPs and so on.
The fact of material life is that all these cheap substitutions are possible, people do it all the time, it works. It doesn’t work with book distribution, though. No one can distribute books steadily for a long period of time without having actual mercy of Lord Caitanya, and therefore it’s the safest method to avoid the traps of māyā and defeat the illusion in our hearts. Question is – are we qualified for it or are we destined to live with non-devotional duplicates of the real thing?