Srila Prabhupada inherited the mission to distribute books on Krishna consciousness from his spiritual master, and passed it on to his disciples.
“I felt disillusioned with performing the Catholic rituals I grew up with,” explains Christina Camacho. “I abandoned them and went looking at various Eastern doctrines. I finished my master’s degree in counseling and took a trip to Japan to study Buddhism, but it didn’t touch my heart.”
In 1976, Christina, now known as Pavaka Dasi, bought a copy of Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is from a devotee at the Los Angeles airport. She read it and was inspired to order the rest of Prabhupada’s books, one after another, through the mail.
“Only through Srila Prabhupada’s books,” Pavaka says, “was I able to become centered on myself as the soul and take up the process of devotional service. For ten years I didn’t spend much time at a temple, but Prabhupada became my guru through the purports in his books.”
Now Pavaka acts as coordinator for the life membership program at the ISKCON temple in Los Angeles. She got that first book because a devotee of Krishna went to a public place and sifted through hundreds of passersby to find a person who showed interest. Those who embrace the uplifting concepts found in Srila Prabhupada’s books often like to share his books with others.
Formerly the Sanskrit literature was not easily available, even in India. Some well-to-do people had copies in their homes, but the books were more or less the treasure of the brahmanas, the priestly class, and often kept within the temple. Srila Prabhupada’s spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, had a more liberal attitude and encouraged his disciples to print and distribute the Vaishnava scriptures generously. Srila Prabhupada carefully translated and wrote commentary on these transcendental scriptures and took up the task of distributing them on a grand scale.
Srila Prabhupada gave his full blessings to disciples who accepted the mission to distribute the books he translated.
Bhrigupati Dasa, a full-time distributor of Srila Prabhupada’s books for thirty-five years, explains, “On more than one occasion, Srila Prabhupada told us that preachers are very quickly recognized by Krishna. That’s our objective, so why not take shelter of a particularly effective way to achieve it? I very much like the experience of Krishna’s using me as His instrument to engage the people I meet in devotional service.”
Srila Prabhupada Initiates Book Distribution
With powerful determination, Srila Prabhupada acted on his guru’s ideas for printing and distributing books. Before departing for America in 1965, with little financial support he began translating and publishing the Srimad-Bhagavatam, a monumental work about God and His devotees. He carried a trunkload of the first three volumes with him as he crossed the Atlantic on an ocean freighter to America. Alone in his early days in the West, he was not shy about selling the three-volume set to anyone who showed genuine interest.
In 1972, the Macmillan Company published Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is. It received acclaim from scholars at many leading universities and quickly gained popularity. It can now be read in over one hundred languages.
Soon after, Krishna: The Supreme Personality of Godhead was printed in Tokyo. Known in ISKCON as “the Krishna book,” it is Prabhupada’s summary study of the Tenth Canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, which describes Krishna’s activities on this planet fifty centuries ago. When Prabhupada was presented the first carton of the Krishna book, one book was missing—the disciple delivering the books from Japan had sold one to a businessman on the plane.
“Ah, this is very auspicious,” Prabhupada said. “The first book has already been distributed.”
He told his disciples to sell the rest of the books, not even keeping one for himself.
But his disciples were unsure how to sell the books. Then one day two devotees got the idea to trade a book for a tank of gasoline. The station attendant readily agreed, and they became convinced that the books could be sold in other ways.
Devotees tried selling the books at concerts and found interested customers. It was exciting for them to share Krishna in this way. They sold the book by talking about the philosophy it contained and felt deeply connected to their spiritual master by doing so. News spread from temple to temple that distributing books was a great way to please Srila Prabhupada. The excitement grew. Many locations for book distribution were attempted—shopping malls, parking lots, fairs, airports, and so on.
There were few vegetarians then, and terms such as yoga, karma, and guru were new. Americans were pledging themselves to rapid material advancement through science and technology. Yet Srila Prabhupada’s books, which denounce the godless life of materialistic sense gratification, poured forth like a sudden flood from an unlimited ocean.
Though Srila Prabhupada departed from this world in 1977, the distribution of his books has increased, especially in the former Soviet Union and more recently in India. By some estimates, nearly one billion books have been sold.
For the last thirty years, Nidra Dasi has served Srila Prabhupada by distributing his books in Denver.
“If a field has been well-seeded and is cultivated, watered, and so on,” she explains, “it is a better field, and that is my experience now. People of all age groups are more receptive than in previous years; it is a better field for distributing Krishna consciousness.”
Because many books are “out there,” whether up in attics or shelved in libraries, they continue to act on the consciousness of people who come in contact with them. Prabhupada said that just by keeping Lord Krishna’s literature in one’s home, one becomes purified.
Peter Antonakos was a small child when his father showed him an old copy of Srimad-Bhagavatam from the household bookshelf.
“When I was sixteen,” he says, “I got a copy of Bhagavad-gita As It Is from a distributor. Srila Prabhupada’s words cut through my illusions and material desires. His insight really impressed me. Recently, at age nineteen, I found the Chaitanya-charitamrita in a used-book store. The dazzling effulgence of the golden covers left me awestruck. The images are so captivating. I read it from beginning to end.”
On his college campus, Peter met Prabhupada’s disciple Ganapati Swami and has since taken up a life of service at the Denver temple. Several younger members of the Denver temple found old copies of Prabhupada’s books in stores or libraries and were inspired to take up the full-time practice of Krishna consciousness.
In 1999, Bhanu Nanduri was at the St. Louis airport when he saw a man wearing a white dhoti and kurta standing at a table covered with books.
“I was surprised to see this in the Midwest,” he says. “I came to America to get my master’s in electrical engineering, not for this. It was surreal. I took a paperback Bhagavad-gita As It Is from him and gave a donation. I had read several versions of the Gita from India, but they didn’t make sense to me. But when I read Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is, right away it really got me thinking about the value of my life. I thought, ‘I should be reading more of his books.’”
Eventually Bhanu ordered all of Srila Prabhupada’s books through Krishna.com. At the Honolulu temple he learned to chant on beads and helped prepare for the festival of Rama Navami with the devotees there.
“Now my whole family is very involved with the ISKCON center in San Jose, California, where we live,” says Bhanu. “I used to suffer a lot of stress and insomnia because of my job, but I’m no longer much affected by the stress of my work because I have changed my priorities. Now I attach the most importance to chanting and associating with devotees.”
Book Distribution Today
Bhanu and his family, along with the rest of the devotees from the Silicon Valley congregation, are enthusiastic to be “deployed” by their temple as “Weekend Warriors.” As many as two hundred members set up tables outside stores in the area, with permits from the store managers. They make attractive displays, with signs that say “Yoga and Meditation.” Their tables unfurl a full display of Vaishnava books, as well as cookbooks, packaged cookies, and “kiddie packs,” or gifts for kids who toddle up to the tables with their parents. They also take books and kiddie packs door to door in residential neighborhoods.
They like to show people the interesting illustrations in the books, such as “Changing Bodies,” “The Modes of Material Nature,” and “Chariot of the Mind and Senses.” These paintings leave a deep impression on those who have questions about life in this world and are looking for answers. The Silicon Valley distributors have a special program for cultivating people they meet to help them get involved right away. They call the program NETAD, for nurture, enlist, tutor, and deploy for service.
Vaisheshika Dasa, Silicon Valley book-distribution strategist, explains, “When people have the experience of going out on book distribution themselves, when they are deployed, then they see for themselves how the modes of material nature work, and they also see the mercy of Lord Chaitanya. These books are so extraordinary. We can see that by how they affect people’s lives.”
Six brahmacharis (celibate male students) who follow a string of concerts throughout North America and Canada have dedicated themselves to putting books in the hands of thousands of young concertgoers. In the summer of 2009, at forty-eight concerts they distributed an average of seven hundred books each day. They often bring large batches of prasadam cookies to the managers of the events, who appreciate Srila Prabhupada’s books and like to aid the devotees’ efforts.
“This type of book distribution is wonderful,” says Omkara Dasa, who traveled with the tour. “The kids we meet at the concerts are young, friendly, and open-minded.”
Omkara recalls an incident in which he approached a young girl who clearly wanted the book he offered to her. But her father resisted.
“I thought, ‘Here I am, a missionary, offering this innocent-looking girl a book about God and spiritual knowledge, and there is her father, bringing her into a concert where meat, drugs, and alcohol are sold and consumed. What wrong can I be doing?’ So I humbly pleaded with the girl’s father. Eventually he relented and let her buy the book.”
Another favorite form of book distribution is called Sastra Dana, “giving scripture.” Sastra Dana devotees go from business to business (or beauty salon to tattoo parlor to doctor’s office to auto shop) and request the owner to keep a small selection of Prabhupada’s books on display in their waiting area. In this way the people who frequent the place get instant exposure to the books and can take one if it appeals to them. Sastra Dana provides a bookrack that devotees tend throughout the month by stocking it regularly and collecting money dropped into the slotted box fixed to the rack.
Volunteers of the Pancajanya Project (www.MotelGita.org) are dedicated to placing at least one million copies of Bhagavad-gita As It Is in hotel rooms across the U.S. and Canada. Putting this classic in a traditional setting such as a motel room has made Krishna’s message available to myriad travelers who might not otherwise buy or examine them.
The Pancajanya Project started when Dilip Patel, owner of Sea Breeze Motel in Pacifica, California, began placing Prabhupada’s Gita in his own rooms.
“I was surprised at the favorable reaction and comments I got from my non-Hindu guests,” says Dilip, a faithful devotee of Bhagavad-gita and its universal message.
Students Searching for Real Knowledge
Book distribution at colleges is welcomed by the students and professors alike. Vijaya Dasa sets up a book table for two days at a variety of universities across America.
“Book distribution is such an adventure,” says Vijaya. “You never know what’s going to happen. You always meet nice people who are interested and searching for guidance. A student came by, saw my display—I have a display of karma, the cycle of life, etc.—and exclaimed, ‘I never walk this direction, but something pulled me. This is it! I’m totally into everything you have here.’ He was so excited to see me on campus. He received some books, I got his email address, and he recently visited the temple for the first time.
“On another occasion, I had distributed a Bhagavad-gita to a student who came back to me and said, ‘I had the book on my desk during class. My professor saw it, and he came over and opened it up. He bent down and whispered to me, “Have you seen the amazing pictures in this book?” Then he started showing them to me, and explaining each one.’”
Vijaya has collected seven hundred email addresses from select students. He sends them a weekly Krishna conscious newsletter, invites them to their local temples, and exchanges correspondence with them.
Prabhupada said that college students are at the best age for inquiring about the purpose of life. So it was with Steve Reynolds, an only child whose parents had treated him to every imaginable electronic toy and gadget, as well as trips overseas.
“We used to move often,” Steve explains. “I remember how packing up all my stuff made me feel empty inside.”
When Steve’s parents divorced and his mother became very ill, he began to study different spiritual teachings. But he felt unsure about how to apply any of it. One day at the University of Arizona a friend showed Steve a copy of Prabhupada’s Path of Perfection. Steve and his friend took off together to find the devotee who had given his friend the little book. They saw him driving a van out of the parking lot. Though nearly run over by it, twenty-year-old Steve chased the van down and bought a Bhagavad-gita As It Is from the man inside, who read him one verse: “I was born in the darkness of ignorance, and my spiritual master opened my eyes with the torchlight of knowledge.”
“I love this,” Steve told the book distributor. “I want to be like you. I want to be a monk. I want to do this.”
Steve has since become a full-time member of the San Diego Hare Krishna temple. One of his many services there is giving people the transcendental gift of Srila Prabhupada’s books.