Brihad Mridanga

Who doesn’t know this famous explanation?

My Guru Mahārāja used to say that this press is bṛhad-mṛdaṅga. Bṛhat means bigger, at large, bigger mṛdaṅga, bigger. Just like we are playing mṛdaṅga. This mṛdaṅga can be vibrated in the neighboring quarter, but our mṛdaṅga, Back to Godhead, that will go far, far away. So therefore this press was considered by my Guru Mahārāja as bṛhad-mṛdaṅga.

June 11, 1969, New Virndavan

Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati even had printing press installed in the temple room, though after his departure it was sold. I couldn’t find any pictures of it but the one below supposed to show the press on which Srila Prabhupada’s Delhi Bhagavatams were printed. It doesn’t look like it belongs to a temple room but still – Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati founded printing press before founding any temples. It’s the beating heart of our movement.

“Books are the basis”, Srila Prabhupada also taught us. So publishing books is called Brihad Mridanga and even if ISKCON for some reason ceases to exist a new organization will inevitably rise up based on the same books, which will be the law for the next ten thousand years. What more needs to be said? Quite a lot, actually.

Printed books are on their way out and in a few years or decades there won’t be any actual law books left – everything would go digital. Even paper money is on its way out – I remember reading news from Sweden where some shops refuse to accept cash because it’s such a backward way of payment. Where does it leave us with our “big mridanga”? Should we all go digital as well? Here is where we need to rethink the concept, I believe.

In the quote above only one principle is announced directly: “… our mṛdaṅga, Back to Godhead, that will go far, far away.” Other foundational aspects of it were implied and they should not be forgotten, for they are the same for any form of preaching at any time in history. Let’s see how “Brihad Mridanga” itself worked in those days.

India was ruled by the British who were big on technology and printing was one of their magical inventions. Actually, printing press was invented even before Lord Caitanya but it became “Brihad Mridanga” only when Bhaktivinoda Thakur got to play on it. So here is one foundational principle – it should be used by pure devotees. Srila Prabhupada didn’t need to mention it in that lecture and Back To Godheads devotees were publishing then were considered as fully transcendental literature.

Coming back to the press itself – people were genuinely impressed by the technology and automatically offered any printing material greater value than to talking sadhus. Anybody can talk and talk is cheap, but one who has the ability and power to get himself printed must automatically be considered as being on a higher platform. His words matter, his words have weight, his words have value.

When we combine the two – pure devotees producing books that become automatically revered by ordinary people we have perfect conditions for their words to actually sink in and change people’s hearts. Lord Caitanya took sannyasa for the same reason – so that people started treating Him as an authority rather than a neighborhood boy who went crazy after some gopi girls.

Respect itself isn’t enough – people had to pay for the books and magazines, which means they had to make a sacrifice and give away something very very dear to them – their money. When you pay for what you read or hear you naturally want to extract the most value out of it in return, which means you have to really pay attention and hope that the words actually work and change your life for the better. In the case of Lord Caitanya – sannyasis must have been fed. It was customary to give something to a sadhu as gratitude for his teachings, for reminding people of their dharma.

Srila Prabhupada’s experiences with Back To Godhead provide a valuable lesson here. At first it was great – printed, up to day, interesting topics, but eventually, as Indian society evolved, the value of periodical press, which has to be read once and then discarded, declined. Somebody told this to Srila Prabhupada directly – no one cares for you two paisa papers (I don’t know exact cost), if you want to be taken seriously you should give them a book. And that’s how Srila Prabhupada decided to translate Srimad Bhagavatam.

In other words, printed or not, but the value of what we offer should be sufficiently high for it to be taken seriously, and I mean monetary value here. Transcendental value is not going to be appreciated right away by the general mass of people but it obviously should be there, too – see the first principle I mentioned above.

Let’s look at transitioning to digital now. This can be of two kinds – selling ebooks and preaching on the internet. Both have been tried by our devotees. Ebooks are there and Vaisesika’s people even produced a manual on how to distribute them, but I haven’t heard stories of success with it yet. Possibly because Vaisesika still focuses on distributed actual Bhagavatams, which deserves a separate consideration.

One of his arguments is that once the novelty of ebooks, Kindles, and tablets wears off people return to paper again. He gives statistics which confirm this trend. Ten years ago they proudly announced that they were selling more ebooks but by the end of the decade 80% of sold books were still printed on paper. One reason is that people who were supposed to embrace this digital revolution were not into books at all – their attention span is too short and they can’t read lines longer than “Kaboom” in their “graphic novels”. On the other hand, people who still read books like to hold them in their hands and flip their actual pages instead of pressing buttons.

In any case, even if printed book market shrinks it doesn’t really concern us – we sell only about half a million books a year and this number has little to do with popularity of books. Maybe example of Vivaldi browser can demonstrate it better. People behind Vivaldi counted their numbers and discovered that they only need two million or so of daily users to create the browser they think is the best. They don’t care about market share, they only wanted to make the browser they like for people who would appreciate it, and two million, and maybe only one million in the beginning, was all they needed.

This should make us look at book distribution from a different perspective, too – we have the books that we think are the best and we need to find people who share our opinion, and, historically, this number hovers around half a million books a year.

So Vaisesika’s answer to digital challenge is, basically, that we still have enough people who buy paper and are limited only by our abilities, so why worry?

This is for selling ebooks, now let’s look at “preaching on the internet”, which now includes all kinds of media, social networks, podcasting etc. The variety is great, but it’s still “internet” as far as people of my generation are concerned. One important feature of it is that it’s free, and another is that you can’t trust anything on the internet. This is directly opposite of the two foundational principles I discussed above – our “products” should be seen as valuable and trustworthy.

Moreover, the abundance of free content on the internet has grown into the realization that it’s us, the consumers, who are the product. We read/watch/listen to some stuff and the records of our consumption are sold to Google, Facebook, and others. In this way the value shifts from the product offered to us, to the act of our agreeing to look at it. We have the power. We can tweet about it, we can give it high or low rating, we can start social campaigns, we can bring down brands and entire companies. We are the power!

You absolutely can’t preach to people like that. It should not be even tried when they are in this mood, and it would be offensive to he Holy Name.

The subject of trust is also tricky – people have become so partisan and opinionated that they do not trust anything from certain sources and they make their minds about it rather fast. If your articles have been published by NYTimes or The Guardian there will be millions of people who won’t listen to a word you say, and it works the same for the opposing camp, too. What’s your standing on vaccination? Half the public won’t accept it whatever it is. Okay, maybe you can avoid talking about Covid, but then there are so many other triggers that can cause a full meltdown so you can’t possibly account for them all.

Devotees were attacked and killed in Bangladesh recently, less than two weeks ago, and we already have “protect Hindu minorities” and “we are not Hindus” camps in our society. Let me repeat that – two camps in our own society, what to speak of the rest of the world. Whatever we say on whatever topic, chances are somebody will get triggered by it.

How to navigate these systemic problems of “internet preaching”? No one knows, but it’s definitely not about platforms and choice of medium – we need people to act according to the above mentioned principles first – respect, trust, and value. Value also includes commitment – it should be high enough for people to invest sufficient time and energy for the message to take hold.

This was about the method of communication, but we should not forget that the message should come from pure devotees, which is not a concern when selling Prabhupada’s books but becomes important for “internet preaching”, and that the recipients should be ready, too. After all, Srila Prabhupada spent decades trying to preach to Indians and they just wouldn’t listen. I suspect even to this day Indians support ISKCON for reasons other than pure devotion.

What does it all say for the prospects of our Brihad Mridanga? Well, I can repeat what I said earlier – printing press was invented even before Lord Caitanya and it tool several hundred years before all the other components fell into place – pure devotees, intelligent and perceptive audience, relationships of respect, creation of trust, and creation of value, and these all should be on the mass scale. It’s not a question of technology or connectivity at all. It’s not that we can just replace that printing press in the picture by the latest model and all will be alright again. We have to address the underlying principles first.

Real Bhajana Rahasya for Our Age

Just before Radhashtami Bhakti Vikasa Swami gave a series of talks called “There are no gopis in ISKCON”. I didn’t mean these in my previous post, but in the second installment he recalled “gopi bhava club” incident from Hari Sauri’s Transcendental Diary. The end of Prabupada’s argument there was “preaching will stop” and it seems very conclusive, but I don’t think it would work on “gopi-bhava” devotees themselves.

For them preaching is an external activity, external reason for Lord Caitanya’s appearance, while they are interested in the internal reason, which we all accept as being higher. They would also argue that external behavior, ie preaching, is automatically manifested from the internal one. I’m sure you’ve heard it many many times practically everywhere – preaching should come from the heart. If you heart is not pure then it’s not preaching, people can sense it, and it has no value. Aindra argued like that, for example. It’s very common and it’s common sense, too. I don’t think I have an objection to it either.

So how is “preaching will stop” argument is going to stop “gopi-bhava” proponents? They would also say that by preaching we actually mean accumulating money, followers, and temples, not actual preaching. They might also argue that it was super important during ISKCON expansion in Srila Prabhupada’s time so preaching had relatively higher value back then. They would also mention “boil the milk” instruction and another instruction not to open any more temples but only restaurants given to Tamal Krishna Goswami. This makes sense, too – everybody who was ready to surrender themselves had already joined and the rest needed only kirtans and prasadam, but mostly prasadam – because eating is the only activity that never stops.

Does Srila Prabhupada’s “preaching will stop” argument sounds as conclusive now? I hope it still does, but for a different reason – it is not as external as gopi-bhava devotees think. When done properly it is absolutely internal with absolutely no connection to events of this world. It is a pure manifestation of those same internal emotions cherished by gopi-bhava devotees, and it is nothing else. Whatever they mention – experience of Radharani’s love, experience of separation, experience of Lord Caitanya experiencing these things – it’s all there, on the street. You want bhramara-gita – it’s there, nobody can be as mad as a book distributor. You want kapalika yogi talk from CC? It’s there on the streets, too. A book distributor sees all kinds of forms as weirdly connected to Krishna, even the most abominable – because nothing can touch him, no substance of this world is able of polluting him, and so every connection to the Lord, however small, shines forth like a million of Suns.

Of course this level of realization takes years to attain but it won’t come from discussing gopi-bhava, it comes from being out there on the streets and actually learning how Lord Caitanya’s mercy works. For real, not from the books.

In other words, when Srila Prabhupada warned us “preaching will stop” he didn’t mean the external activity of making new devotees but the actual flow of Lord Caitanya’s mercy. Fools think it can be found anywhere else but in sankirtana, and only ignorants think that this mercy doesn’t flow when talking to meat-eaters. They think that unless you talk about gopi-bhava it doesn’t flow, but it does! And it doesn’t appear externally – it’s not in the words, so if you record and transcribe the conversation you won’t see it. Actual gopi-bhava is a lot more subtle than that and it is perceived by the heart even as a person mumbles something about money in his wallet. Only a real “bhavuka” devotee can see how, despite his mumbling and lame excuses, this person is totally on the hook already and his arguments are like gopis’ arguments when they were standing neck deep in cold waters of Yamuna and telling Krishna they don’t want to come out and they don’t want Him to see them naked.

Out in the streets you can actually see and feel how this pastime plays out, and this is how we are expected to realize its meaning and its rasa. But if people think “it’s only external” and think they can extract this rasa by talking – they are only fooling themselves. You would actually have to go out, find a potential gopi in the not so mature stage of development of her prema, show her Krishna, and watch how she struggles being torn between obligations to this world and these mind blowing books that simply can’t be resisted even if they say completely outrageous things on the surface. “On the surface”… – at this point only gopis’ heads were above the surface and their minds were telling them one thing but their hearts, deep within prema filled waters of Yamuna, were saying another. The hearts wanted to come out and the minds were trying to stop it.

Just go out in the streets and actually experience this pastime in real life, and don’t pay attention to people who call this “external”. It isn’t. And Srila Prabhupada was absolutely right – if preaching stops our actual spiritual progress stops, too, and it can’t be revived by reading those CC and SB chapters or tons of other books going into minute details. Even those subtle shades of rasa can be found on the streets, if you are worried about missing out.

Or we can challenge external-internal dichotomy itself. If someone says the pinnacle of siddhanta is separation experienced by Radharani in Vrindavan, or as it was experienced by Lord Caitanya in Gambhira, we can answer that no, there is something higher than that – the same experience as manifested through otherwise most separated parts of the Absolute Truth – specs of His material energy. That would, logically, be the pinnacle of acintya bheda-abheda tattva – the farther you go away from Krishna the closer it feels. Or the more insignificant you become the greater the rasa.

So let the fools deride us for being only external devotees who talk to people about trivial things like they are not the bodies. What do they know? Certainly not the actual rasa.

And, of course, we could be telling people about reincarnation and know nothing about rasa, too – if we think it’s only about getting a donation or about book scores or about **doing** our service – all kinds of external reasons and explanations. We actually have to learn how to find these gopis in the streets, eternally connected to Krishna underneath their external appearances. We can’t theorize or only imagine it either, we actually have to see, and this vision is given by Lord’s mercy. There are ways to attain it but, ultimately, **He** has to give it.

This is not a theory.

Srila Prabhupada’s Disappearance

We almost midway between Srila Prabhupada’s disappearance day of 2020 and of 2021, so what am I talking about? There is a paradox of sorts there – on his disappearance days we make special efforts to remember him and so we come closer, he actually “appears” in our consciousness, while in the middle of the year he kind of “disappears”. But that’s not what this article is about.

What I want to reflect on here is largely an Indian thing, though it manifests among western devotees, too, in somewhat different ways. When I say it’s an “Indian” thing it doesn’t mean all Indians are affected in the same way – there are simply too many Indian devotees to fit under any particular umbrella. I’m talking about a particular slice I see in particular communities and I hope it doesn’t spread to other Indian devotees elsewhere. These affected sangas are significant and non-trivial, and therefore I feel the problem deserves to be addressed.

It’s “Indian” because they see Srila Prabhupada as one of them. Krishna is their God, not Prabhupada’s God. Bhagavatam is their purana, not Prabhupada’s purana. Lord Caitanya is their saint, not Prabhupada’s. Okay, Gaudiya Vaishnavas consider Lord Caitanya to be Krishna Himself, but for most Indians He was only a saint and if Gaydiyas make claims otherwise they accept them as “okay okay, whatever…” Indians are followers of “sanatana dharma”, as they love to proclaim, not followers of Prabhupada.

In other words, Srila Prabhupada is not as essential to them as to western devotees who had no idea of any of those things before Prabhupada came and informed them. Indians put Prabhupada in context of their religion and culture, but for western devotees Prabhupada himself created context from scratch and they put Indian culture into this context created by Prabhupada.

See how their visions are fundamentally different, how they are practically mirrors. It doesn’t matter for the moment which vision is correct and which isn’t, just that they are completely at odds.

Typical reconciliation is that Srila Prabhupada gave us the true, correct, and pure culture while today’s Indians live in some kind of degraded forms of it. Indians can accept this argument, too – no one would argue that onions are bona fide, for example, or that common Indian perceptions of God are not tinged with mayavada. Nevertheless, approaching Prabhupada from these two different angles cannot be reconciled completely and sooner or later the differences will come up to the surface.

Typical example of that is disagreements over some aspects of the siddhanta. For western devotees whatever Srila Prabhupada said is accepted as final truth and everybody else’s opinions to the contrary are rejected, but for Indian devotees allegiance to previous acharyas are never to be dropped. If previous acharyas said something than it must be accommodated, and, if necessary, Prabhupada’s opinion put aside. Note how I said “opinion” – not truth, but only an opinion. Sometimes it can be elevated to “personal realization”, but still not to the level of “truth”.

Srila Prabhupada might have spoken strongly on demigod worship but Indian vernacular doesn’t even have “demigods” in the vocabulary, so Prabhupada’s statements need interpretation. Maybe he didn’t mean it, or maybe he meant it only for westerners, or maybe he meant it only to certain types of demigod worship. At the end of the day, Indians are bound by their karma to respect the worship done by their ancestors and by their acharyas, they can’t give it up just because Srila Prabhupada said something somewhere.

This is understandable, but it’s still not what I meant by “disappearance” in the title. I mean something far more radical – Srila Prabhupada, as he was known to his western disciples, was not a person of Indian origin, not even of Gaydiya Vaishnava origin. His appearance in the west was a total surprise even for Srila Prabhupada himself. He had no idea it would turn this way. He himself couldn’t attribute his success to anything “Indian”, it had full potency by itself. The only connection he could trace was to the orders of his spiritual master. This is what he said again and again – my guru ordered me to print books, I did it, and this is what happened. He didn’t say that his mother taught him how to cook and so everybody loved his prasadam, and that’s how his first ISKCON temple survived. He didn’t claim proficiency in singing or playing mridanga. By Aindra’s standards he wouldn’t be allowed to play karatals on his 24hour kirtan party. Okay, he dedicated Krishna Book to his father, but that was one off. All the other times he gave credit only to following his guru’s order. Not even to his guru as a full personality – only to following one specific order.

The point is that Srila Prabhupada’s success was unique and it had a life of its own. It didn’t depend on anything else and it couldn’t be described in any other terms – it was a substance by itself, a category by itself. I will repeat – I think when Srila Prabhupada arrived in the US he himself had no idea what it would be like, it was a total surprise.

When it came Srila Prabhupada embraced it exactly like that – like it had a potency of its own and it had to be served, not controlled. This “success” dictated how Srila Prabhupada had to to things, not the other way around. I use the word “success” as only a label, it had to be felt to be described, as I said. I think the word “success” conveys the undeniable aspect of it – everybody knows what “success” is, everybody knows how good it feels, and nobody can deny it. But what you or I experienced as “success” is not the same thing as what was experienced by Srila Prabhupada and his followers.

Srila Prabhupada gave some explanations, the root of which is that it was a mercy of Lord Caitanya – based on the statement in CC that preaching can become successful only if Lord Caitanya puts His potency in it. On other occasions he attributed it to the power of the holy name, which he saw as absolute. This is the point where I can finally start talking about disappearance – we don’t see the power of Hare Krishna mantra as absolute anymore. An example – one devotee complained about being overwhelmed by sexual desires and Srila Prabhupada’s answer was to simply chant. In his explanation the power of Hare Krishna would drive away all lust from disciple’s heart. In Prabhupada’s experience he saw that happening all around him – hippies were chanting Hare Krishna and forgetting drugs and girlfriends. He saw it worked. We don’t. We offer all kinds of other solutions instead, like “watch your diet” or “stop watching porn”. No one today would say that simply chanting Hare Krishna mantra will solve your lust problem in a minute but Srila Prabhupada meant it exactly like that – chant loudly and lust will be gone immediately.

This is what has disappeared – the power of the holy name, and I would argue that its disappearance is linked to disappearance of Srila Prabhupada. It worked in his presence, we have many anecdotes documenting how minds and hearts immediately became pure in his presence, it was undeniable. Now the name is still with us but without Prabhupada its power is not manifested to the same degree. What I mean to say is that it’s Srila Prabhupada who has disappeared, not the Hare Krishna mantra.

Hare Krishna mantra is not tied to Srila Prabhupada exclusively, we all know that, but Srila Prabhupada gave it a particular potency. Sooo many devotees felt it directly. The annotation to the first Hare Krishna mantra record spoke about it with absolute clarity as if it was obvious to everyone. It was repeated from devotee to devotee, it was all-pervading understanding back then. Now it’s absent and no one talks that way with any conviction.

For me, however, it’s the preaching aspect of that same potency of Srila Prabhupada that disappeared first. Maybe because I can’t recall any miracles associated with Hare Krishna mantra but I was fortunate enough to see mind blowing preaching in action. It had a life on its own and, listening to many remembrances of that era, I don’t know anyone who did not notice it. They usually say only a few words (“millions of books were distributed”) and move on but actually seeing these millions of books going away to meet their eager readers was something else. At the time it was spoken exactly like this – books were going away on their own. They were not sold, not distributed, not given – they were going away on their own, and the entire purpose of sankirtana, as it was called back then, was to find that sweet spot in space and time where, by Lord Caitanya’s mercy, books would get a life of their own and practically distribute themselves against all odds and against all objections. The power was irresistible.

This is what has become absent and, to me, it indicates disappearance of Srila Prabhupada. Of course books were not the only vehicle of this mercy. One time I clearly felt it was when one of Prabhupada’s early disciples was describing San Francisco Ratha Yatra. Not the first one in 1967 but the one a few years later where Srila Prabhpada started the address with “My dear frustrated youth of America” (not exact words, but that’s how some remember it). To me it was the same kind of potency, the same “rasa”, so to speak, as the one I remember from my own life. It still lives in the hearts of at least some of Prabhupada’s followers, but that particular disciple has left his body already. Others remember it but prefer to talk about something else, like today’s politics. There is a lot to be said about why and how and who but let’s not talk about it now.

This disappearance is “mostly Indian” problem because this aspect of Srila Prabhupada’s success was never known there in the first place. They don’t have reference points for it, except may be construction of Juhu and Mayapur temples, which is not a lot in context of the entire Indian history and gets easily overflown by memories and histories of other events. Those other events are no less significant, like self-manifested deity of Radha Ramana, for example, but they are not “Prabhupada”.

For the past twenty something years Indian devotees distributed many more millions of books, and yet I never hear them speaking of book distribution with the same “rasa”. It’s just absent and book distribution means something else to them. Likewise, TOVP is a massive project, far bigger than Juhu, but TOVP presentations do not carry the same “rasa” for me. They rely on other things to “prove” themselves – like everybody should do seva, or everybody should make donations, or everybody should bathe Srila Prabhupada with sacred waters etc, and because of this conviction one should… When Prabhupada was present the proposition itself, whatever it was, had a power of its own, it was self-evident, not reliant on one’s appreciation of “seva” or “donations” or “sacred rivers”. These are aspects of Indian culture and they were totally absent when Prabhupada came to the west. He didn’t have to rely on them at all – his preaching was self-evident and no one know what “seva” even was.

This is a principal point, actually – people didn’t know what seva was and that it should have been offered – they offered service because Prabhupada was there and they felt they should do something in appreciation. Today it’s “you know that seva is important, and therefore you should go and offer it to Prabhupada.”

That’s why I’m saying that Srila Prabhpada has disappeared even though he is arguably at the most remembered stage in ISKCON’s recent history. His name and his pictures are everywhere, but not the actual memory of his presence.

Many of our senior devotees worry about it, they just express it differently. To me this disappearance is not very important – because Srila Prabhpada is present eternally, it’s only us who moved to a different location and, if we so desire, we can move into the place of his presence again.

What I really wanted to say but wrapped it in the disappearance topic is that Srila Prabhupada’s “success” was an entity of its own and even Srila Prabhupada was its servant, that even he wasn’t in control of it. To me this is the biggest manifestation of Lord Caitanya’s mercy and in decades since I haven’t found any substitutes that come even close. And I really mean “any substitutes” – not even if someone starts chanting three lakhs a day or cry incessantly or go into trance every time they see an image of Lord Jagannatha. I would even say that some big name ISKCON gurus of Indian origin have never seen it, simply because they weren’t there when it was manifested, they were in India, but that is a whole other can of worms.

I remember one of these big gurus wanted to visit the zone where preaching was booming but his request was rejected because “his mood would spoil everything”. Today this sounds ridiculous and great many devotees, each of them great in their own ways, would reject this argument out of hand but I, after deliberating on it for some time, would still argue that it was the right thing to do and that Srila Prabhupada’s preaching mood, his preaching rasa, should have been rightfully protected and that once that protection was withdrawn it simply disappeared – scroll to the top to see an explanation how and why.

Vanity thought #1783. Pioneering success

Yesterday I wrote about Kīrtirāja’s Prabhu efforts to penetrate behind the Iron Curtain and place our books into the hands of Russian (Soviet) people. One event that was truly seminal in nature in this regard was Moscow book fair of 1979 and it deserves its own mention.

First Moscow International Book Fair was held in 1977 and Gopāla Kṛṣṇa Gosvāmī went there on behalf of Indian BBT. It was the first time for everyone and so no one had a clear idea how to extract most benefits out of it. I mean even the potential buyers didn’t know how it would all work. In retrospective it could be said that all Gopāla Kṛṣṇa (not Svāmī yet) got was a certificate of participation, which he presented to Śrīla Prabhupāda, but the real benefit was in laying preparation for the next visit. That’s where Kīrtirāja came in.

Second fair was in 1979 and he was representing Indian BBT again so as not to look like spreading American propaganda. He also knew the rules and how to use them to full advantage. One such rule was that publishers couldn’t sell books at the fair but the workaround was that they could take orders so Kīrtirāja had BBT supply him with order forms with prices printed in roubles. During the fair he would collect the money and BBT filled this orders later, totally legally. Hundreds of books were sent into USSR that way.

Another rule was that there had to be an official interpreter but Kīrtirāja protested that our books contain so many technical terms that an ordinary interpreter wouldn’t be able to translate them correctly. He persuaded the organizers that his own interpreter, Ananta Śānti, was already perfect and their official interpreter can take a break. It worked.

Ananta Śānti brought half a dozen devotees to help him and it’s them who did most of the talking. They were preaching there non-stop even if they hadn’t read the books themselves yet.

Another rule was set by Kīrtirāja himself and it was that their booth should always have prasādam to distribute. He told the devotees to prepare “simply wonderfuls” and they rolled them day and night in shifts. Somehow they rolled them into small balls the size of M&Ms, they would wake up before sunrise, roll the sweets, and bring them to the fair with their hands covered in blisters.

Kīrtirāja’s rule was that there was only one ball per person and when they run out of sweets and new trays weren’t in yet he’d collect crumbs on small pieces of paper and people would eat them with a great deal of respect. To fully appreciate the kind of impact it had consider this – by Kīrtirāja’s own calculations they had distributed 26,000 thousand sweetballs. Twenty six thousand, roughly four-five thousand per day. Can you imagine what king of buzz was going on around their booth?

It certainly attracted organizers attention – so many people and instead of one official interpreter there were half a dozen Russian speakers. To smooth things out Kīrtirāja gave the boss a gift of Bhagavad Gītā. At that time they only had English books and this Bhagavad Gītā came from a special pack Kīrtirāja brought with him which will feature in the story a little bit later.

Another rule was that all the books presented at the fair had to be either taken back out of the country of given to some official Soviet charity. None of the devotees knew of any charity that would take a set of English books so it was a kind of a problem – Kīrtirāja didn’t want to go back, well, full-handed. Towards the end of the fair, however, a shy but inquisitive woman showed up, asking about this and that but never stating her purpose. Turned out she was a representative for Lenin’s Library, which was like a Library of Congress for the Soviet Union. They certainly had the means to purchase the books but she wanted to get them for free as charity.

Once Kīrtirāja realized what was going on he thought that it was a perfect charity placement of all – in the biggest library of the entire Soviet Union and they quickly organized the official transfer. There was only a small matter of that pack of Bhagavad Gītās, originally there were twelve there but now there were eleven, and Kīrtirāja was not in the mood to take them back either. They were specifically meant for distribution among the devotees, translation etc.

He and Ananta Śānti came up with a plan.

On the day of leaving they went to the airport together with Bhagavad Gītās packed in a separate bag. Ananta Śānti took a strategic position in a cafeteria right outside customs and Kīrtirāja went to the farthest custom officer and tried to make himself noticeable.

He had custom’s declaration with a set of BBT books and so he had to produce his charity paperwork and explain everything that happened. His customs form also had twelve Gītās on it but there were only eleven left so Kīrtirāja had to plea with customs agent that it was a gift to the fair organizer, there was nothing sinister about it etc etc. It worked.

As soon as Kīrtirāja passed the customs and got his stamp he quickly ran around the row of customs booths towards the end of it that was next to the cafeteria and begged the guard there to let him out because he was so thirsty and his papers were already in order and he loved Russian tea and that worked to.

When he entered the cafeteria he left his book bag at the table and went to get his drink. Ananta Śānti picked it up and hurried outside, just like in spy novels. Kīrtirāja waited until Ananta Śānti was in the taxi and taxi left the airport and returned to the custom agent who checked him in only a few minutes ago. “You again!” he exclaimed, and Kīrtirāja gave him the same excise about tea and the officer couldn’t be bothered to go and check with the guard on the other end whether Kīrtirāja had his bag when he was going out for tea or not. Everything worked perfectly.

That fair marked exponential growth in Soviet community. Before that visiting devotees had programs with less than ten people attending but after the fair, on their next visit, they were already hundreds, but that is a story for another day.

Vanity thought #1782. Pioneering days

I once watched a long video of Kīrtirāja Prabhu telling stories of the time when they tried to open up the Soviet Union. I’ve never heard these stories before, nor did I have any idea of the extent to which he was involved. I’m not going to retell them all, the video was several hours long, but a short recap is in order anyway.

In 1973 Śrīla Prabhupāda visited Moscow and met with a young man who later got initiated and who became the first Russian devotee. It’s so easy for to say “Russia” nowadays and it’s hard to remember that modern day Russia had something like half the population of Soviet Union and that many Hare Kṛṣṇa communities sprang up in places like Armenia or Latvia. To reduce them all to Russia now would be unfair to history.

There was no stable channel of communication between western devotees and that Ananta Śānti but devotees from Europe would often fly to India via Moscow and meet him at the airport. Better idea was to arrange a marriage with a female devotee who would then be able to live in or at least and visit USSR freely. One of the French devotees accepted the service, got the blessings of Śrīla Prabhupāda, but the marriage didn’t work out and only a couple years later she wanted out.

Meantime, Śrīla Prabhupāda initiated a Hungarian devotee in Germany in 1974 and that devotee learned Russian at school like any Hungarian of his generation would. He translated Easy Journey to Other Planets into Russian, and also into Polish, I think, and then BBT published it in the US. That’s where Kīrtirāja started his service in promoting Hare Kṛṣṇas in Soviet Union. I think his family has Russian roots or something but he had a natural interest and affinity for all things Russian. He couldn’t speak the language well but didn’t need an interpreter for simple tourist talk either. So he went to LA where BBT offices were.

LA has a huge port, of course, and plenty of Russian cargo ships docked there. At first Kīrtirāja tried to approach Russian, sorry Soviet, sailors while they were on leave but Soviets were prepared – they let them out in groups of three with one older guy chaperoning two younger ones. There was no way those older dudes would be duped into looking at American books, it was not going to happen.

Kīrtirāja then found another way in – he would approach the ship and ask for a tour, feigning a genuine interest in Soviet shipbuilding. After a short consultation with authorities he would be usually let in and taken around by a guide. Kīrtirāja had his coat pockets stuffed with that Easy Journey and he would leave copies in hidden places, behind TVs or radar screens, or he would take a book from a bookshelf, flip over few pages, try to read something aloud, and then would put it back in with an Easy Journey tacked behind it. Someone would eventually find our books, he thought, maybe a week or maybe a month later, but the books will find their readers. And then he got caught and kicked out of the ship.

If he found cargo crates getting loaded on Soviet ships he’s sneak in and stuff the books under plastic wraps, but that wasn’t very effective, obviously.

He became a member of some US-Soviet friendship society and that gave him access to visiting Russian dignitaries who went to the States on official trips. That way he could even give them prasādam but talking about straight Kṛṣṇa consciousness was still off limits.

Then he moved to London and eventually Sweden. From Europe it was easier to visit Russia as a tourist and he could even go on camping trips there but that was done by other devotees. He still continued his “book distribution” program, though. In Sweden he’d hunt Soviet cargo trucks, overtake them on highways, turn emergency lights on and wave them down to stop. Drivers were very scared that they did something wrong and stopped. Kīrtirāja then would approach them and start in his broken Russian: “Have you watched a documentary about Indian yogis?” Drivers could not believe what was happening but by the time they figured out there was no danger they were happy to receive a small gift of a book.

Meanwhile, other books got smuggled in and properly translated into Russian and then BBT published a compact Bhagavad Gītā As It Is. They were printing them in Germany, I think, and Kīrtirāja arranged for an extra run of “primer” or what it was called, but the result was that he had thousands printed copies of Introduction where Prabhupāda presented the essence of Kṛṣṇa consciousness. From the days in the US Kīrtirāja got a list of Soviet organization from some Soviet dissident and he thought it would be a good idea to mass mail this Introduction in ordinary envelopes.

It was a big operation with devotees in several countries buying different colors and sizes of envelopes, putting the Intro in, and then sending them to Soviet addresses from different post offices in different cities. The idea was that even if KGB found some of these subversive letters they wouldn’t be able to find all of them, coming from different countries and all different from one another. It’s hard to say how effective this campaign was but they did get some replies asking for more. KGB couldn’t stop it all.

How they smuggled copies of Gītā and other books for translation is another story but I don’t think Kīrtirāja was a part of it. Devotees went on a camping trip through Russia and put dozens and dozens of books all around the van in plain sight – in glove compartments, under the seats, in the back, everywhere they could think of. Custom’s agent was curious about that but it wasn’t illegal to bring books for personal reading. When in Moscow devotees swapped these books for those bought in Russia and exited from a different location altogether. Their customs declaration only had “63 religious books” with no list of titles so to the officer on the exit it looked all legitimate. Otherwise their car was practically taken apart and they even dismantled the fuel tank. I can’t even imagine how devotees felt through this ordeal.

Hmm, this is getting longer than expected and so I should leave the rest for tomorrow.

Vanity thought #1781. Tribute to devotion

My previous post was actually typed up before New Year but with holidays sapping away my energy and time I was able to publish it only yesterday. I think I’ll say a few words before I continue.

Cancer visibly affects the extent of my prāṇa, which manifests in how far my interests in the world go. The effect was prominent when I started the treatment and it was heavy and when I physically felt that I had to grow up into my normal persona. For weeks my consciousness was confined to hospital bed and then I was driven home and the city seemed alien. Roads, grass, buildings, other cars, neighborhood, people, too – I had to indict all these things back into my consciousness and arrange them in some sort of order.

As I recovered my prāṇa extended itself, too, but one thing is clear – my overall universe has shrunk and it will never recover. There will be no mountain climbing or sky diving or traveling to far out places. At this point I realize that I won’t ever visit any new shopping malls in the city, nor will I ever go and see newly completed tallest building here. I don’t even want any of that.

I don’t know what will happen if I fully recover, I can’t see myself restarting a career, for example. I just don’t have that much interest in the world. I can’t even fully resume my usual blogging because it requires energy, time, and dedication. Donald Trump is seventy and he wants to be a president. I feel like I’m ninety compared to him.

It’s not that my senses have become weaker, if they did I haven’t noticed, but my prāṇa, my interest it the world, the extent to which I want to express myself here and sense objects I want to consume has diminished greatly. At this point I can see how one’s prāṇa might start withdrawing from outsides of one’s own body, losing control and awareness of limbs and senses, and it’s not that you become any less alive, it’s just that you are withdrawing from the world and kind of curious what will happen next.

In any case, next week I’ll have new tests and it will be clear whether I’m on the path to full recovery or cancer got a winning hand.

Back to the topic.

There were two devotees in our saṅkīrtana ashram who were out of this world and functioned on devotion alone. One was a disciple of a guru I couldn’t understand at the time. There was nothing wrong with him but I just couldn’t understand what other people saw in him. This guru wasn’t very inspirational, he wasn’t good looking, he wasn’t charismatic, he was a bad singer. So what if he said all the right things – everybody else said them, too, and so I couldn’t understand why people devoted their lives to him no matter how I tried. It took me years to get over this offensive attitude and now I think I can look past all that and see people’s devotion only.

This book distributor was very austere looking, which wasn’t generally attractive at all, and he was objectively a bad speaker. I don’t think he ever produced a long, complicated sentence, usually taking a break after every few words to think what to say next. How could he ever sell books was a mystery, but he did and he still does. The key was devotion to the orders of his guru, nothing else worked for him.

He was a kind of disciplinarian in the saṅkīrtana ashram. You would never see him leaning against the wall after a Sunday feast, for example. He always finished fast, never talked about anything, and when he got up everybody felt that they should stop their sense enjoyment, too. It worked for everybody – we felt glad that somebody straightened us up and he felt that his attitude towards sense enjoyment was validated – there’s no time for this in our lives, we should think only about saṅkīrtana.

I don’t know how people reacted to him on the streets. His pitch was very simple, he could read their minds and say what they needed to hear, but the main point was that he was absolutely convinced that he had to sell them books on the order of his guru. He wasn’t doing it for fun and he wasn’t promising the Moon, he just had this air of supreme importance of the mission that he carried. People could sense that urgency below small talk and usual sales pitch and they had no power to say no.

If you asked him why and how he was selling so many books for so many years he would say that it was the order of his guru and that’s what Prabhupada wanted and that was that. He had no other considerations in his life. Later he got sannyāsa, too.

Another devotee, our absolute best, was similar in his dedication but he was a very different person otherwise. They plucked him out of a math department of a big university and there was some nerdy look about him. Like Harinama Nanda I talked about in the previous post, you’d never notice him in a group photo but if you get to look at him closely you’d notice that he was not only shy and naturally humble but also very beautiful. He had beautiful eyes with long eyelashes, perfect skin, nicely rounded cheeks and do on. He also didn’t have any macho air about him like many others in our ashram.

I can’t say that he was austere, he never seemed to be making any conscious efforts for it and never forced anyone around him to cut on their sense enjoyment either. What we consider as austerity came naturally to him and he was actually very happy about it. For most of us, when it’s time to finish the feast and go read some books, we know that it’s not what our bodies want to do but for him the very thought of it was inspirational.

He distributed tons of books and so he had to have a helper team and there was a stiff competition to get a place on that team so devotees who served with him were similarly excited and enthusiastic and didn’t need anyone to whip them up to keep with their sādhana and this created an atmosphere very conducive to ecstatic service and no one ever left disappointed.

People often asked him how he distributed books but he never had solid answers, save for one, which he rarely shared. One should always, always pray to the lotus feet of his guru in his heart. By the mercy of the guru one can get mercy of Lord Caitanya and Lord Nityānanda and together they will make the books look very attractive and inner voice in people’s hearts impossible to resist. They also will take control of you body and mind and they will put right words on your tongue or direct your feet to go in the right places.

As a saṅkīrtana devotee you have only one job to do – pray to your guru. Your mind, your eyes, your mouth, your feet – forget about trying to control them, leave this to your guru. When your prayers are sincere then, by his mercy, the Lord will become the owner of your prāṇa and the Lord will take care of everything. You are not this body, you are a tiny spirit soul, and lotus feet of your guru is your only treasure.

That devotee was the embodiment of this principle. That was the only secret, and somehow or other no one else could come even close to his level of samādhi in this regard.

Vanity thought #1780. From personalities to transcendence

Yesterday I talked about various personalities in our old sankirtana department. There were many devotees there, it’s impossible to describe every successful book distributor but there were remarkable in that their personality traits were distilled and I think that’s what made them relatively better distributors than others. This is only half of the story, though, so I’ll continue.

In those days the best in the world were Navina Nirada and Harinama Nanda and they were used as a point of reference in our sankirtana ashram. We shared stories about them but never had them visiting us personally until a couple of years later.

Navina Nirada was young, tall, handsome, and Swiss. It was a lethal combination and the word “charisma” doesn’t even begin to describe the effect he had on people. He was like a celebrity and everyone who saw him fought for the opportunity to do something for him and get noticed. If he said people needed to buy books they couldn’t refuse. Of course he said lots of other words as well but that was just a small talk around the real connection he established by simply paying attention to people.

Three kinds of attractive traits I mentioned yesterday were basically of the same type – something given to us by karma and something that would work in any circumstances, not limited to sankirtana. In that sense you looked at these devotees or at Navina Nirada in particular and your mind would tell you that if you had his looks you could distribute thousands of books, too, try to do it in your wretched and unattractive body.

Personality wise, Harinama Nanda was the opposite. He was smaller, somewhat hunched from carrying heavy books clutched to his chest for many years, and you would generally not notice his presence in the crowd. Navina Nirada was a natural center piece of any group photograph and Harinama Nanda was that forgettable face in the back row.

I’m exaggerating the contrast, of course. Navina Nirada also happened to embody “sankirtana is the soul of ISKCON” we adopted in our temple. It was he who taught us that every devotee in the temple was a sankirtana devotee, they just served in a different capacity.

We had one kitchen devotee who was handicapped. He didn’t just have a limp, he had to drag his leg like no person I’ve ever seen in my life. Walking for him was a big challenge and he had his share of mental problems, too, but when it was decided that book distributors need to eat bread to keep their stamina and not get hungry half an hour after a meal he too this task personally and started baking bread program in the temple, eventually getting a professional oven and everything.

And yet every time he had a chance he would load a traveling bag full of books and drag it out even as he could barely walk himself. This could fill one’s heart with pity but it was the moment when he had the happiest face in the world because finally he had a chance to bathe in the ocean of sankirtana. He didn’t distribute much but that time was his and his alone, between him and Lord Caitanya and everyone saw that it was REAL. Navina Nirada and his sankirtana seminars were one of the main sources where he received this attitude, so it’s not just looks, far from it.

Harinama Nanda was/is not the man of this world. Whatever body he got is irrelevant, his consciousness was never here and people could sense it right away. Turns out I don’t remember many actual sankirtana stories about him but the strength of his dedication is still vivid for me. It gave him a real mystic power of controlling other people. One story I do remember (probably wrong) was that he was standing outside and hunching over books in his car, putting dust jackets on them or something, when he sensed someone passing by. He straightened up, turned around, and told that man that he needs to buy these books right now because it’s more important than life or death, and the man obliged without a question.

Harinama Nanda was the one who revealed to us that “I don’t have money” is not an acceptable excuse to avoid buying books. Everybody has some money, they just don’t want to give it to us. The way to overcome this is to convey to the people the importance of donating money for knowledge about God, and the only way to impart this realization is to fully understand it yourself. It’s not even a matter of belief – because people might think “you believe this but I don’t”, but a matter of realized knowledge.

Srimad Bhagavatam verses spoken by a pure devotee reveal the Superme Personality of Godhead and so words uttered by a pure book distributor reveal the spiritual beauty of our books. It’s not a game, it’s not an empty promise. People could see God in Prabhupada’s instructions and people can see God in the presentation of a book distributor. The power is there, we only have to become perfect conduits.

When people see this spiritual light engulfing their souls they will give you everything they have for these books, it’s not an exaggeration. The key, however, is to remember that you are not in control of this process, Lord Caitanya is.

Just recently I read another sankritana story on Dandavats. A devotee was going door to door and met a nice gentleman, a Christian with appreciation for others devotion to God, too. When it was clear that the man wanted the books the question of price came up and suddenly the man’s face lit up. “You know,” he said, “I was driving today and for some unknown reason I felt compelled to stop by the ATM and withdraw some cash. I never keep cash in the house and I had no idea what it was until I met you but now I know!”

Perhaps the bigger lesson here is that we are only participants in Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana pastimes, we do not cause them, they already weaved into the history of the universe. We just have to beg to be placed in the right place at the right time, to be given the opportunity to be engaged in this service, which, incidentally, is the meaning of our Hare Krishna mantra.

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.