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.