Vanity thought #1779. Casting

Yesterday I discussed how physical reality affects our ability to distribute books, to conduct saṅkīrtana. There’s a lot more to this relationship between nature and our lives and our service, too. Eventually I’ll get to a chapter from Mystic Universe which explains importance of physical features of certain places and why scriptures pay so much attention to it. I won’t go into it today, however, but expand on our “old school” saṅkīrtana.

To recapitulate – our temple then was physically structured in such a way as to keep everyone in their perfect spiritual position as servants of the saṅkīrtana mission. There was no fraternizing, there was always physically enforced respect, there was no familiarity to breed contempt, and saṅkīrtana devotees themselves were forced to be no more but servants of their master – their saṅkīrtana leader.

A couple of words here – one would normally expect saṅkīrtana leader to be an inspirational figure, one to give speeches and pep talk, like a football coach or something, but in our case it was different, and that difference proved helpful, too. Incidentally, his name was Yamarāja and it fit him very well – strict, feared, but respected for his fairness, and you’d always want to keep your distance, and Yamarāja is not known as an inspirational speaker either. By delegating philosophy and speaking to gurus, visiting devotees, and Prabhupāda, our saṅkīrtana leader firmly established himself as no more than a servant so no one could really challenge him on anything – he was just doing his job making sure that saṅkīrtana spirit found its full manifestation within his domain. He also never failed at anything we expected him to do. One can put it down to his personal qualities but the arrangement where you must be a servant at all times helps, too – Lord Caitanya’s mercy stops flowing the moment you think you are the boss and no one in the temple at the time could reasonably claim that position, not even the temple president.

Temple president’s position was curious. On one hand he was officially the boss, on the other hand saṅkīrtana department was so big and important and financially profitable that his own service seemed utterly insignificant by comparison. He could not control or direct saṅkīrtana so he naturally saw himself as its servant, too.

All in all, it was a perfect physical and administrative arrangement for facilitating book distribution in every possible way. Is it possible to repeat that? I don’t think so, I think you need to start from scratch – make book distribution your main goal, build a community of like minded people, and then hope that a suitable temple manifests itself. Our current temple was not designed for that purpose and I don’t see how it can be reconfigured. It does what it does well, though.

My main point today was to describe prominent saṅkīrtana personalities of that time. Their names are not important, some are no longer with ISKCON, and I don’t mean it as a comprehensive catalog of book distributors qualities and characters. These were the guys who were at the top, it just happened, and they were all attractive in their own ways but it doesn’t mean that these are the only options and one must always emulate one of them.

I happened to be with the guy who was intellectual. He had dark eyes and his stare would drill into people’s souls while he delivered one unbeatable argument after the other why we are not these bodies, why God is not Indian or Christian, and why everyone needed to buy our books. I’ve never seen anyone successfully challenge him on anything even as many tried. Perhaps people were not yet familiar with Hare Kṛṣṇas, perhaps they didn’t know winning arguments yet, perhaps they didn’t know our history, but whatever they did know he could immediately refute and leave people stumped.

I’ve tried that myself, having heard his presentation so many times, but it didn’t work for me. Why? Looking back I think it’s because I didn’t have firm faith in these arguments myself yet and people sensed it, and maybe because my voice and demeanor didn’t convey that sense of urgency, no could I stare down into people’s eyes without blinking and my mind wondering off somewhere else. There was no single-mindedness in me so “intellectualism” didn’t help.

Another devotee was just a bundle of joy. When he talked about Kṛṣṇa consciousness he could barely contain himself, he was so excited. People couldn’t pass on that kind of happiness and wanted to experience it, too. I don’t remember how he preached, I doubt anyone could – it was his emotional state that attracted people and they forgot anything else. You can’t imitate this kind of excitement, I certainly could and still can’t, and it’s probably impossible to maintain it for a prolonged period of time. Maybe so and maybe later story of this devotee turned very different but he WAS very excited then and it lasted for several years during which he distributed hundreds of thousands of books. So if you have some temporary personality trait that helps – use it to the full advantage while you can. That would be the best possible service for it ever.

One of the top distributors had a similarly attractive personality but of a slightly different kind. He was a kind of man you expect to come to rescue any time something goes wrong. He’d show up to change you tire or pull your car out of mud or catch you when you slip and fall or pull you out of the fire. It’s the kind of man that when you are in trouble and you see him you think “Thank god, now I’m safe.” When he talked to people they could instantly relate to him and trust him in every way and when he told them that they needed to buy his books they obeyed unquestionably. If he said so it must be true.

These three devotees had some personal traits that helped in their book distribution, one had a strong intellect, a broad knowledge base, and quick thinking, another had a contagiously joyous personality, and the third immediately elicited trust. You can’t emulate that, you either have it or not, but then everyone has these qualities to some degree anyway and any saṅkīrtana devotee can utilize them in his preaching. Trust, happiness, and knowledge – these three qualities will always attract people no matter how they are mixed together, hopefully enough to sell them a book.

There were two other devotees who always stood apart from the rest of saṅkīrtana crowd and they deserve their own post, so tomorrow, holiday schedule permitting.

Vanity thought #1778. Reality matters

As I was watching Prabhupāda marathon pledging procedure at our local temple and wondering why we can’t bring back years of record saṅkīrtana numbers I realized that the situation is completely different today and our current reality is simply not conducive. So let’s take a trip down memory lane and see what I mean.

First, most our temple devotees then were brahmacārīs. Gṛhasthas were only in management positions, like temple treasurer and temple president. They didn’t live in the temple, couldn’t come to maṅgala ārati, left before the evening program, and so weren’t really part of temple life, plus their rank kept them above the main body of devotees, too. That way everybody had a brahmacārī spirit in them and there were no gṛhastha contamination at all. To book distribution this mattered a lot.

We tend to think that gṛhasthas are allowed to associate with women and have sex but that’s not the difference here. For the purposes of saṅkīrtana the main problem with gṛhasthas is that they had to make money. Brahmacārī, on the other hand, is completely transcendental to money matters. Book prices were set by the temple, the book distributor didn’t even think about keeping anything to himself, and his only concern was that collected lakṣmī matched with the number of sold books exactly. There was no question of discounts, no free giveaway materials, every book had its price and that was it, it was non-negotiable.

When a gṛhastha is expected to make profit from books all sorts of things enter into his consciousness and pollute it. People sense that a mile away and they see buying a book as a typical trade – I want this, you have a weakness for that, so let’s exchange something to mutual satisfaction. Late in the day, for example, both the buyer and the seller think that it’s time to give a discount. The buyer senses that he can get something cheap and the seller thinks that he can reduce his price so that he doesn’t have to carry books back. This reduction in profit is the price he is ready to pay for the comfort of not having to carry books back and look like a bad distributor, even to himself. The buyer senses this desire for comfort and this is what he wants to trade on – you get your comfort and I pay you less money. It’s tempting, and temptations pollute our minds, we lose the focus and single mindedness of our service.

Sometimes a book distributor might forego the profit altogether and chalk the books up as his personal donation to the temple where he got them from. He might then choose to give them away or keep them until next time, or practically forever. This correlation between personal well-being, well-being of the family, and saṅkīrtana does not help at all. Brahmacārīs don’t suffer from that.

Next, our temple at the time was a large two story building which previously housed some offices, I think. The point was that it had many completely separate units with separate entrances and they have been converted to āśramas. BBT had it’s office there, too, and it was completely off limits to ISKCON devotees. They shared a ground entrance but had a lock with a door code even before you got to second floor landing. You couldn’t walk in there unless you have been invited in and most of temple devotees have never been inside, like ever. BBT had its own kitchen and they brought their supplies separately, too.

To us, temple devotees, it was a practical demonstration that BBT is the heart of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s movement and serving there is more important than anything else. Printing books comes first, distributing them comes later.

Book distribution for us was the heart of ISKCON and saṅkīrtana āśrama (well, we called it “ashram”, not “ashrama”, so I’ll drop diacritics here) was the biggest ashram among temple departments. Temple room was the single biggest room in the temple, of course, but pūjārīs quarters and paraphernalia rooms behind it were incomparable in size to saṅkīrtana ashram, though it wasn’t much bigger than others. It had a door and, unless you lived there, you’d have to knock, but it was never locked, like BBT’s, and they didn’t have their separate kitchen. They did have their separate prasādam room, however, which helped book distribution.

Temple prasādam was a long drawn affair and in marathon times saṅkīrtana prasādam was served during Bhāgavatam class, for example, so that saṅkīrtana devotees could leave for book distribution right after the class was over rather than wait until temple room was prepared for serving and then wait until everybody is served. All in all, they left for saṅkkirtana a full hour earlier and their lunch time wasn’t fixed either, unlike lunch in the temple room, so they didn’t have to worry about making it back on time.

This physical separation and privileges made everyone treat saṅkīrtana mission as special and superior. The rest of the temple thought of themselves as no more than servants to that mission. Temple itself was more like a service pit on race tracks – saṅkīrtana devotees stopped there to recuperate and recharge themselves spiritually, their real life was on the streets, not in the temple.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time in that ashram and the atmosphere there was very different from the rest of the temple. The kind of topics they raised during prasādam, the small talk they made while waiting in line for a shower, it was all strictly Kṛṣṇa conscious, there was no prajalpa whatsoever. Down in the temple room and temple devotees ashram it was free for all, even saṅkīrtana drivers had to be given their own place where they could let themselves go, like drivers do. These devotees formely drove taxis and trucks and those habits were always with them. They were free to enter saṅkīrtana ashram at any time but they had to restrain themselves there.

It’s not like saṅkīrtana devotees thought of themselves as gods, they had their saṅkīrtana leader for that role. They obeyed him unconditionally, they were his subjects and did not even think about going against his instructions. Even temple president wouldn’t dare to approach them without consulting with saṅkīrtana leader first. They were his servants in every practical sense and he was the only person responsible for their maintenance – he made sure they had food, shelter, clothes, cars – everything. If he didn’t provide something they had to accept it as austerity and no one has ever rebelled, in my memory. It was unthinkable.

The point is that this physical arrangement was the key to growing healthy spiritual relationships between devotees in different departments. Everyone then knew his role, who he had to serve, and who he had to take care of. Every relationship was personal on the spiritual level, not on some mundane character compatibility, and everything worked like a clock. That’s how we were able to break records then.

With current setup at our temple it would simply be impossible. We don’t have a single brahmacārī there, for starters, only visiting ones. Most of the congregation is visiting, too. There’s simply no place for cultivation of single-mindedness there, no facilities for maintaining a proper inner attitude necessary for successful saṅkīrtana. I’ll write more about attitudes of saṅkīrtana devotees tomorrow.

Vanity thought #1777. Missing things

One more important holiday that happened during my absence here was Gītā Jayanti. I don’t think I’ve ever paid serious attention to it in my life and I missed it this time around, too. It’s big in India, sure, but ISKCON temple where I grew up had Prabhupāda marathon taking up all energy and focus on this day. It was never a time to celebrate anything, only work our socks off trying to distribute as many books as possible.

I also must admit that I have never been a Gītā man. I know devotees who read Bhagavad Gītā every day just as they chant their rounds. My daily requirement is to read something from Bhāgavatam, which I, personally, consider the book of all books. I also feel distance from Lord Caitanya if I don’t read something about him, but another must is something about Śrīla Prabhupāda, either his biographies or devotees reminiscing about him. Bhagavad Gītā, I’m sorry to say, comes last on the list. Apart from that I read other books, like that Mystic Universe. Recently I also got Rāmāyaṇa by Bhakti Vikasa Swami – never knew he had a translation and it’s not on vedabase website. I was told that it’s more Prabhupāda-like in its approach rather than general story telling. The book starts with discussing personality of Rāma as the Supreme Lord, for example. Other storytellers simply state it once and move along but Bhakti Vikasa Svami really dwells on the subject of tattva there. That’s as far as I have progressed so far, sorry.

Still, the importance of Bhagabad Gītā cannot be overestimated. I remember once, many many years ago, I opened it on a random page and it said that reading even a few words from it can free oneself from the burden of all his karma, and at that moment I really felt like my accumulated karma disappeared from the back of my consciousness. Like a heavy weight you carry on your shoulders for so long you don’t even realize it’s there anymore, and then it’s lifted and you suddenly feel so light you feel you are a different person now.

There was a time when I tried to memorize Gītā verses, got to the middle of the second chapter, and then abandoned the idea when I had to move to a new place for while. I “pirated” Gītā content from vedabase and tweaked it to show Sanskrit and translation and collapse purports – it’s easier to read for memorizing that way. During that time I used to recite the verses from the beginning several times a day but now they are all gone from my memory and it’s this memory loss that stops me from resuming it again. What can I do? I tried, but that approach was clearly not for me.

I’ve also got to participate in book distribution this year and I helped to sell two Gītās. Not much but I’ll remember it for much longer than verses themselves, that’s for sure. I’ve also attended Marathon evening program at my local temple where they encouraged devotees to distribute books. I still don’t understand how it’s supposed to work, it just doesn’t make sense to me.

They’ve asked everyone to make “pledges”, that is to take a certain amount of books and pledge to give money for them. Some gave money upfront, most had their names entered into a ledger. The books were immediately put into their custody and they transferred them to their cars. As far as I understand, the temple doesn’t care whether they sell these books or give them away, all the book distribution for that (this, actually) month was done in the space of half an hour it took them to take the pledges. Maybe someone would pledge more later but overall that was it. “I pledge fifty Bhagavad Gītās” – “Jaya!”

I really don’t know how this shift in book distribution happened. I understand in India they get businessmen to give huge amounts of money and then book count goes to a devotee who took it. The second part is then to go out and give the books away. I don’t know how it works – if they collect donations before December and only give the books away during the Marathon – should they be counted for December or for November, too? What if they only collect donations during the Marathon and give away actual books after New Year?

It used to be individual devotees going out with books, meeting individual people, taking their money and giving them books immediately. The end result might be the same – money comes into the treasury and books are going to people, but this change of method changed how benefits are distributed, too. I mean when Mahārāja Yudhiṣṭhira conducted sacrifices he was supposed to be the main beneficiary and he got all the credit. It was HIS rajāsūya sacrifice, not anybody else’s. Many people have helped to collect the money for it, there were priests who conducted it on his behalf, there were brāhmaṇas who got gifts at the end and they all got something out of it, but it was still Yudhiṣṭhira’s sacrifice, not theirs.

When we sell a book to an individual and he pays his own money it’s HIS sacrifice and we are more like priests assisting him. All the main benefit goes to him according to how much he gave in proportion to his abilities. Who is the main beneficiary when one man gives the money and another gets a book? Obviously the donor, but the recipient will get a benefit later if he reads it and takes its instructions to the heart. A devotee in this case benefits twice – first when he assists the donor and then again when he puts a book in someone’s hand, but then again – these might be different devotees working as a team. It would certainly make more sense because collecting thousands of dollars/rupees in donations requires different skills then finding thousands of people ready to take the books.

The main point to consider here, however, is whether the books will have the same effect or not. If people take them like they do with “lose fat” pamphlets given out on the streets – carry them until they find a nearest bin, then what is the benefit of the whole sacrifice from start to finish? Donor’s money will all be wasted because his sacrifice isn’t actually complete until people start reading and become devotees, even if for a minute of their lives. As far as I remember, Prabhupāda’s instructions on this were clear – do not give books away for free, people should value them and this will force them to treat them with respect and try to extract as much benefit from reading them as possible to recoup their “investment”.

Having paid for the books isn’t a requirement for becoming a devotee, of course, but I have another post in mind to discuss how this physical arrangement matters, too. So, tomorrow.

Vanity thought #1776. Blog Revival

I’ve been absent from this blog for two months now and it’s time to bring it back to life. There was a period when I was fully expecting myself to resume blogging but other things occupied my mind then and took a lot of my time. It’s not that I couldn’t post anything at all but I wasn’t ready for daily writing of 1000+ words stories and so I postponed it again and again.

I even had specific ideas in my mind I thought I should have written about (apart from simply resuming commenting on Vedic Cosmology) but with time these ideas piled up and gradually dissolved into the background of my mind. I don’t think I have an interest in reviving them, nor do I want to go the easy road and just continue with Mystic Universe. Something, however, still sticks and needs to be said, so, in no particular order.

Śrīla Prabhupāda’s disappearance day is marked in the calendar and everyone talks about difference between vāṇī and vapu and Prabhupāda’s disciples reminisce, including about adjusting to a new reality of life without Prabhupāda’s personal presence, but people like me, the second and third generation devotees, have never been in his presence to begin with. What’s different for us? Nothing.

Relatively few of us have an experience of losing their guru, I haven’t had a chance to hear how it feels from their mouths so I really don’t know what it’s like. In any case, with Śrīla Prabhupāda all we ever had was vāṇī – all our realizations of him, all our love and devotion is based on keeping his vāṇī in our hearts and nothing else. Technically speaking, his disappearance hadn’t made any changes to our lives and so we will go on in the same vein regardless.

I like binge reading Prabhupāda’s Daily Meditations posted on Dandavats. They’ve been going for over a year but it’s still 1966 there, with wonderful memories making his life vivid like never before. Many people described the very same experiences, some written books about these same events, there are videos, too, but it’s Satsvarupa Dasa Gosvami’s personal approach that brings up new colors into them. I won’t mention names but some come across as somewhat aloof and objective but SDG really opens up his heart there, with all the nuances of personal interactions, personal faults, personal response, and general imperfections that make our lives into what they are rather than smoothed out biographies of them.

One time someone asked Prabhupāda why he was putting chili sauce on his prasādam. Good question. Can a devotee have personal tastes different from Kṛṣṇa’s? Can he “improve” prasādam to suit those tastes? Or was the food cooked not for Kṛṣṇa Himself but for the tastes of Prabhupāda’s disciples? There are no easy answers here, but sometimes Prabhupāda spiced food up after it was offered, though not in the later years when he didn’t have to eat the same food as his disciples. Should we really be fixated on that?

Another time Satsvarupa came to Prabhupāda’s room to discuss what he understood from a book by Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura, Prabhupāda listened to him for couple of minutes and then told him to, effectively, get lost and stop wasting his time. Was he really that busy or did he think that Satsvarupa’s discussions of topics far beyond his understanding was cute but a wasteful?

We also tend to think that those early years were magical and Prabhupāda was converting people on the spot. It was more like out of ten who came only one would stay, and very very few of them are still with ISKCON now. The churn rate was high but Prabhupāda also met a lot of people to keep the movement growing.

I’ve been also watching Following Srila Prabhupada videos on youtube. I understand that it’s practically the whole footage we have of him but with a voiceover by different devotees describing what was happening or telling their personal stories connected with the videos. On one hand this is very enlightening, on the other hand sometimes you want to hear Śrīla Prabhupāda himself instead of someone else talking over him.

There’s also often repeated misconception, at least in my circles, that Prabhupāda started his preaching with harināmas in Thomson Square Park in New York. This is not right – he had the temple of 26th Second Avenue first, harināmas came several months later. On the surface it doesn’t sound like a big deal but not if you use it as a template for starting a local community.

When Prabhupāda was chanting in the park there were dozens of devotees with him, there was food and pamphlet distribution, and people could come to the temple three-four times a week for public programs. This is very different from sitting there and having nothing else to offer and no one else to help either.

In reality Prabhupāda started with kīrtanas and lectures in private settings first, right after he arrived and was taken to Butler. He then received invitations here and there and always responded to them. His time with Dr Mishra was a very important stepping stone for starting his own society and he kept visiting his ashram even after getting his first temple. Public, open for all harināmas came after that. Externally, Śrīla Prabhupāda depended on Dr Mishra for several months even if he was a genuine māyāvādī – we should not forget that, too. They are not always our sworn enemies and sometimes we can’t do anything without them. Whatever Prabhupāda said about māyāvādīs later should be seen through the prism of that experience in late 65 early 66, it comes on top of it and does not replace it. Life becomes so much richer that way.

That’s how we should see dissenting devotees, too – their dissent does not replace their devotion to Prabhupāda, it comes on top of it. Dissent, even outright criticism, grows out of their devotion, too, even if heavily mixed with outside influences. One more argument for becoming paramahaṁsas who extract only Kṛṣṇa’s nectar from everything they see. After all, what’s the use of seeing the world from a point of view of cats and dogs masquerading as humans?