Getting the Mercy
Preaching, Book Distribution, and the Ultimate Goal
Caitanya Chandra dasa
First edition (revised): September 2019
This is a free e-book, a humble offering to all the exalted Vaishnavas in Srila Prabhupada's movement. It can be downloaded for free on: www.gettingthemercy.com
Feel free to share it with your friends.
If you have any thoughts or questions, be welcome to contact the author:
We gratefully acknowledge the BBT for the use of verses and purports from Srila Prabhupada’s books. All such verses and purports are copyright of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust International, Inc.
“Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu wanted His followers to move all over the world to preach in every town and village. In the Caitanya sampradaya, those who strictly follow the principles of Lord Caitanya must travel all over the world to preach the message of Lord Caitanya, which is the same as preaching the words of Krsna — Bhagavad-gita — and Srimad-Bhagavatam. The more the devotees preach the principles of Krsna-katha, the more people throughout the world will benefit.
Devotees like the great sage Narada, who travel all over to preach, are called gosthyanandi. Narada Muni is always wandering throughout the universe just to create different types of devotees. Narada even made a hunter a devotee. He also made Dhruva Maharaja and Prahlada devotees. Actually, all devotees are indebted to the great sage Narada, for he has wandered both in heaven and in hell. A devotee of the Lord is not even afraid of hell. He goes to preach the glories of the Lord everywhere — even in hell — because there is no distinction between heaven and hell for a devotee.” (SB 4.30.37 Purport)
To just stay in the same city, going to distribute books to the same places every day may be difficult, since our minds like variety. One way to provide this is to combine our regular book distribution in the city with traveling sankirtana, visiting different cities or countries. There are two ways of doing it.
Most devotees just travel to other yatras, where they can stay at the temple, or in someone's house, and from there they go on book distribution. This is the easiest and most comfortable option since you can stay in a normal house, with all the desired amenities, like heating, running water, toilet, kitchen (or ready-made prasadam), etc. and many times you have also access to devotees’ association and regular programs in the temple. For this, you don’t need so much planning, and you can also help the local yatra by joining their preaching efforts.
The second option is to go hardcore: get a van, prepare it for the travelings, get some basic provisions, fill it with books and take to the road, visiting all the cities that you pass through until the books are finished. Traveling sankirtana can be an adventure, and frequently the living conditions are austere, but it helps one tremendously to develop spiritual strength and to become more detached. Despite any material difficulties, the spiritual bliss that we experience is well worth it.
“I do not agree with your wife's statement that New York is unfit for human habitation. A real Krishna Conscious person can adjust things nicely even in hell. A fully Krishna Conscious person is always in transcendental position and he is not afraid of any place which is so called, unfit for human habitation. A Krishna Conscious person is always satisfied whether in Vaikuntha or in hell. His satisfaction is not the particular place but his sincere service attitude towards Krishna” (Srila Prabhupada, Letter to Gargamuni, 13 November 1967)
Traveling sankirtana offers an opportunity to live in a very simple way for some time, dedicating fully to distributing books. Not only does it allow us to visit many cities where devotees don’t normally go, but it gives us an inestimable experience about how to simplify our lives, reducing our bodily necessities. Traveling sankirtana also offers an opportunity to increase our service, and distribute for more hours than we normally do. There are far fewer distractions to our service, and much less temptation for finishing the day earlier and going back, since it would not be much better than staying on the street anyway. What's the point in baking in the car in summer, or freezing in winter? Better to just stay distributing books.
The combination of more hours of book distribution with fresh fields and new places can help to increase tremendously our results. As book distributors, we try to realize that Krsna is in control, learn to not be attached to the result, etc. but there is nothing more inspiring to us than to distribute a lot of books!
As Srila Prabhupada used to say, our temples should be bases from where we send our soldiers to fight with maya. Apart from the regular sankirtana parties, it’s very useful for any temple to also form traveling sankirtana parties, that allows us to expand the preaching to the whole region, instead of being restricted to the main city or metropolitan region. Srila Prabhupada was usually very happy with the efforts of his disciples doing traveling sankirtana.
“Let everyone take these books. If he simply reads one page then he is getting something substantial, a real eternal benefit. Or if he hands it over to his friend and he reads one page the same result is there. So continue these festivals constantly and make them all Krsna Conscious. Overflood the whole country by this preaching work. Let the whole United States become Vaisnavas, then everyone else in the whole world will follow. That is my real ambition. Therefore your program is very glorious. This is really preaching. Your intelligence is being properly utilized. In the beginning you took up the distribution of BTG’s and you sold the most. Now you have taken up this van program and you will also be successful in the same way. This preaching spirit will make you recognized by Krsna. There is so much wonderful potential in USA for this type of program. So organize hundreds of such parties. This is fulfilling the mission of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. I am very glad to hear that not only you are maintaining such program but that you want to expand it. Yes, this is our philosophy: anandambuddhi vardhanam. It means to expand or to increase. Therefore I strongly encourage you to double your program by getting three more buses if you can do it. There is no difficulty.” (Srila Prabhupada, letter to Tamala Krsna, 28 December 1974)
The spirit of freedom to preach and detachment of traveling sankirtana is especially good for brahmacharis, who can become really infused with the potency to dedicate their lives to the mission. As Srila Prabhupada once said, loaning an old proverb: “A rolling stone gathers no moss”. A brahmacari that always stays in the temple may secretly cultivate an attachment for comfort and material convenience, but someone who is always preaching, traveling to different places, is forced to really work on himself and sever his attachments. Apart from that, there is no greater bliss than to distribute Krsna consciousness.
Traveling preaching is also very good for married men, especially the ones who were preachers before entering family life. By taking some time for traveling sankirtana they can reconnect themselves with the mood of preaching and detachment, to sacrifice one’s own comfort to spread the mission, that is many times not so present in family life. This also gives them the opportunity to associate with the brahmacharis and therefore share experiences with them.
It is also possible for groups of ladies, but in their case it should be more carefully considered, considering the security and other factors. In countries like Brazil, it is not advisable at all for ladies to sleep in vans as the men may do, because of the lack of security. In other, safer places, like in Europe or the United States, it may be ok. As in many other details of traveling sankirtana, this is something that should be considered according to time, place and circumstance. There is not a certain rule that applies to all times. In any case, there is always the safer (and more comfortable) option of staying in temples and houses of congregation members while traveling. You can decide.
If you have the money, you may be tempted to just buy a ready-made motorhome, but usually they are not so useful for book distribution. The reason is that the internal space is always organized in ways that prioritize habitation and comfort, and not storage space. Not only will the motorhome not have much space to store books, but the van will be already close to the functional weight limit, and (even without considering the space) will not allow to carry many books, defeating the original purpose.
Motorhomes for book distribution need to be custom-made, with large spaces for storing books and a lean project that keeps the van light. Usually, a van can carry a total of around 1500 kg of weight. If 1200 kg in wood, insulations and equipments are added to make it a motorhome, it will be able to transport just 300 kg of books. If we reduce it to only 500 kg, for example, the van will be able to carry 1000 kg of books. It’s much easier (and cheaper) to start with an empty van and add things that are really needed from scratch, than to start with a bloated motorhome and try to remove things to reduce the load.
If more comfort is needed, a better option would be to go for a bus that will have plenty of space and capacity for carrying a lot of load, and will be able to host comfortably a whole party. Nowadays, the regulations in many countries prevent the use of buses with more than 10 years or so to transport passengers. Not having any use for these used busses, the companies have to sell them for any price they can get. Sometimes, a used bus can cost less than a van.
Another option is to use an SUV (with a strong diesel engine), pulling a trailer-home. Just like motorhomes, trailers are not designed to carry much weight, but in this case you can put the books in the SUV and use the trailer mainly for habitation. The choice of the vehicle depends mainly on the size of the party, the budget and the technical skill of the members of the group.
Ideally, the work can be done by the devotees themselves, which will lead to huge savings. Nowadays, there is a lot of information available on the web, including practical instructions on how to build a motorhome. If you can prepare your van or bus yourself, not only a lot of money can be saved, but there is also the possibility of creating a project that is cent-percent tailored to the needs of the book distributors and within the budget.
In general, it’s worth to spend resources in building a proper motorhome, so devotees can remain healthy. If properly maintained, a sankirtana van will last 10 years or more. Sometimes, vans that have a good construction and are well maintained, can be used up to 20 or 30 years! Different from a regular car, that you can change easily, a sankirtana van takes a lot of materials, work and investment, and therefore is a vehicle where you must be careful with the mechanical maintenance, so it can be used for a long time. Sankirtana vans are a durable asset, therefore it is a good place where to invest money.
The budget will vary according to the country and other factors. In general, in first world countries the living standards are better and materials are cheaper, therefore is not so difficult to invest one hundred thousand dollars in a nice motorhome, for example. In other places, things can be much more difficult and devotees have to do with whatever resources are available. Practically any type of van can be adapted for use in traveling sankirtana, from an antique Volkswagen Kombi, or a Soviet UAZ-452, to the latest models of the Mercedes Sprinter or Renault Master, and practically anything in between.
The most basic need is a plane space to sleep. In a van, the easiest way to do that is to create a raised horizontal platform to divide the space in about half. It’s possible to make this yourself using plaques of OSB wood as the plain part and pinus or other easily available wood for the supports.
This base will basically divide the space inside the van into two parts. The lower part serves as a convenient space for the book boxes, and the upper part is going to be the living space. A small van can host two persons comfortably using this arrangement. There are other, more complex arrangements, that may use the space in clever ways and thus make space for more people, but this is a good start.
Another thing that we will need is some arrangement for showering and washing. There are two ways of doing it. One is to use a gravity system, where a water reservoir is installed on top of the van, and gravity takes care of making the water go down. Another is to use a pressure pump to create a water system. These pumps are inexpensive and are directly connected to the battery of the car, without demanding any conversion. You need to pull a wire from the positive of the battery, and the negative is done by drilling a hole in any metal part of the body of the car and using a screw. You may get this done by any car electrician. There should be an interrupter before the pump, so you can turn it off when it’s not being used.
One side of the pump goes to a water reservoir (you can start with a 20 liter water container (and from there see how big you need) and the other side goes to your shower or tap. The pump works automatically by pressurization, activating automatically when you open the tap. Next, you can install a small sink to wash dishes (adding a siphon and another water container for the dirty water). The sink will be invaluable to wash dishes, brush your teeth and so on. You can get a small one and install it in a corner, near the door. Like almost everything else, the sink can be fixed by drilling holes in the hollow internal metal parts of the car and using screws. You can fill your water reservoir when you stop in gas stations and other places where water is available.
This initial electrical installation can be expanded to include lights, chargers, and other devices that use 12v current. It’s also recommendable to get a few 12v fans for the summer. Just to have a fan blowing air on you is not very effective, because if there is no air circulation, the van will heat-up and the fan will be just moving hot air around. It’s necessary to make a small window and have an exhaust fan installed there, pushing cold air from the outside into the van, so the air can circulate. If possible, it’s good to install at least two or three windows to guarantee proper air circulation.
Technically, it’s possible to install practically anything inside a van, from a laptop computer to a plasma television. The main thing to consider is how much energy each device uses, since the amount of energy that can be stored in car batteries is very limited. Devices that use 12v are the simplest to integrate, and the most efficient in terms of energy usage. Devices that use 220v demand the use of an inverter, which makes them inefficient (a lot of energy is wasted in the conversion). I don’t recommend having anything much bigger than a small laptop computer or a portable DVD player, unless you want to go for a complicated system involving multiple batteries or a noisy generator.
It’s essential to mind your devices and turn them off while not in use, since you will not want to completely discharge the battery during the night and not be able to start the car the next morning. This can be minimized by using a separate battery for the internal electrical circuit. In this case, the first battery is reserved for the car and the second to all the other devices. The two are connected by a circuit breaker. When the car is parked, you would leave the circuit breaker in “off” position, disconnecting the two batteries. In this way, the first battery remains charged (and thus you don’t have problems to start the car next morning) and only the second battery is used. When you turn on the engine in the next morning, you would change it to “on”, connecting the two batteries and allowing the secondary battery to charge. The engine of the car is not so efficient in charging the battery (you may have to let the engine running for 6 hours or more to charge it completely), therefore you may consider installing a solar panel on the roof of the van to help maintain the charge of the batteries.
It’s strongly advisable to install some insulation in the internal walls of the van. Because the interior is metal, it tends to become very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter, which is of course very detrimental to our health. There are basically two materials that can be used: glass wool and styrofoam. Glass wool is more efficient, but it’s heavier and can cause serious allergies. Styrofoam is more balanced, since it’s lighter and easier to work with. You can glue the styrofoam boards, covering the walls and ceiling of the living space and afterwards cover the styrofoam with thin plaques of OSB wood treated with fire retardant. This “sandwich” of wood and styrofoam is very effective in keeping a stable temperature inside the van. Instead of OSB, it’s also possible to use PVC or other fire-resistant material, according to what is available. Don’t forget to sand and varnish any wooden surface inside the car, otherwise it may get moldy over time.
A fourth essential thing is some kind of camping stove and pots for cooking. In my travels I usually use a stove that burns ethanol, which is easily available at gas stations in Brazil; but it has its inconveniences. In most cases, camping stoves that use butane gas canisters are better, since they work well at any temperature. Water is another essential factor: you can buy bottled water, or get some reliable filter.
If the van is big enough, you can consider installing a small cabin for showering. This is usually the most complicated part since it has to be done in a proper way to avoid leaks. The easiest is to get a fiberglass shower cabin that can be integrated into your project. They are inexpensive and reliable. There are specific shower heads for motorhomes that limit the usage of water. This is an important factor in showering in a motorhome since you always have to fill-up the reservatory. In a pitch, you can just use a hose with a spray gun, they also work. There are portable toilets for motorhomes, but I don’t recommend them, they are just too nasty. In my humble opinion, it’s better to use toilets at gas stations, fast food restaurants, etc. One solution is to use empty water bottles for liquid residues, since you can just throw them away after use.
Many groups prefer to install a small kitchen instead of a shower. In this case, the kitchen is made with an impermeable floor and a drain, so it can also be used to take showers. You can think and decide what is best in your case. If the van is too small, it’s possible to use a pop-up shower tent outside the van. They also work (at least in warm climates), but in this case, you will have the inconvenience of assembling and disassembling every time.
Cold shower in the winter for book distributors is a myth. It was invented at some point by temple presidents who wanted to save on heating. Prabhupada himself was not taking cold showers. Naturally, we take cold showers in the summer, when it is hot, or in situations where there is no other option, but it’s much better for the health to make some arrangement for heating the water in the winter. The Ayurveda recommends to take a warm bath and then use a little bit of colder water in the end. Cold bath is traditionally done by yogis and vanaprastas, who do it intentionally as a form of austerity. There are several options to heat water, from a gas water heater to a solar one (there are some small models that can be installed on the roof of the van).
If you don't have a heating system and got surprised by unusually cold weather, it’s sometimes possible to take a hot shower at gas stations by paying a small fee. Another option is to boil some water on the stove and mix it with cold water in a bucket to get warm water. That’s, by the way, the system that Srila Prabhupada was using: he would get two buckets, one with hot water and another with cold water and mix to get water with the desired temperature. Even later, when he was staying at different centers, he kept this habit of bathing using buckets and a lota. If there is electricity available, we can also heat water in the bucket using an immersion heater, like in India.
If you live in a tropical country, you will probably not have to be so concerned about ambient heating, but for devotees that live in the northern hemisphere, cold is a big problem. Just like one can live in a simple house in tropical climates but will need a much more sophisticated abode to be able to survive in Siberia. One can live in a very simple van in warm places, but will need a more elaborate arrangement for surviving the winter in cold locations.
There are several options of heaters that can be used. In some places (like in parking lots) it’s possible to negotiate some arrangement for using electricity. If electricity from the grid is available, you can just use an electrical heater (the radiator types are much better than the blow types), which makes everything simple. If electricity is not available, the next option is to use an LPG gas heater. There are several models available on the market. Some are dual-heaters that generate both ambient heat and hot water. The use of a gas heater must be very carefully considered, because they can be a serious hazard if not properly installed. Gas or carbon monoxide leaking inside the van can very easily cost your life.
For moderate cold, a simpler option is to just use the heating system from the van itself. It works using the heat from the engine, therefore if you leave the car running in neutral, you can use the heater during the whole night. Modern engines use relatively little fuel when just running on neutral (usually around half a liter per hour), so it's an option to be considered, especially if there is cold only occasionally. Actually, if you can find a clever mechanic, he may also be able to create a system to heat-up water for showering using the heat of the engine, by installing copper pipes around the hot parts. In this case, you would also have hot water as long as the engine is running.
There are also portable camping heaters that use butane gas cartridges (the same type used by camping stoves). They are cheap and small, therefore you may be tempted to use one inside the van. Don't! This type just burns the gas, just like a stove. They are for outdoor use only. To use one inside a closed van is a life-threatening hazard. They can be used only when the windows are open, just like a gas stove.
There are some options of fridges that use gas (instead of electricity), and thus are also an option for motorhomes. They don't have moving parts (they operate using a chemical reaction, instead of using a compressor, like a regular refrigerator), therefore they don't make noise. The only downside is that they use space and add weight to the van.
Technically, it's possible to install even an air-conditioner inside a van, but I would suggest you not to go for it, unless it is strictly necessary. Air conditioners use too much energy, therefore it's not possible to run one on batteries. They can be used only when there is energy from the grid available. It's better to use fans to make the air circulate. There are also options of coolers that use evaporation to generate cool air. They are not so effective (and work only in dry climates), but they are an option to be considered, since any help is welcome. They use little energy, some models can even run from a USB port. If an air conditioner is really necessary, the easiest solution is to just install an automotive AC for the van itself and use it with the engine running, just like with the heating.
While the possibilities for a sankirtana van or bus are practically unlimited, I recommend that you start with a simple setup, one that you can assemble with the help of other devotees, and improve it over time as the necessities appear. This way, you can add only what is really needed. As book distributors, we usually don't have so much money available, and even when there is plenty of money, we have to be responsible and not spend unnecessarily. Srila Prabhupada used to criticize some of his disciples for using huge quantities of money to solve simple problems.
Even if you have a very limited budget, it's possible to just buy a used van, do the bare minimum to make it survivable and trust that Krsna is going to send whatever is needed over time. If one never starts, he will never succeed. My first van did cost just about three thousand dollars, and I ended up keeping it for a long time because every year I had to decide between buying a new van, or lending money to the local BBT, so they could print books for the next year (as I mentioned, things can be difficult in undeveloped countries).
One time, one brahmacari was complaining that he was considering stopping his preaching because he didn't have financial backing. His complaint was that the congregation members were not donating sufficiently. I argued that if people donate or not is irrelevant because as preachers we are not maintained by specific individuals, but by Krsna Himself. If they donate for traveling preachers, this is beneficial to them, but if they don't, we should just continue our service with whatever resources are available. I mentioned that as preachers we should not impose conditions or be dependent on external factors, otherwise we would not be able to continue our service. I argued that we should not complain about what we have or don't have, understanding that Krsna is the One in control. He didn't agree. Next time I heard about him, he was wearing white.
It's also important to determine what is necessary to keep the body healthy and what is a luxury (the answer is going to be different according to each one's constitution). While we should provide what is necessary for the body to operate, we should avoid unnecessary expenditure on luxuries. The capacity of a book distributor to distribute books is directly connected with his spiritual strength, and spiritual strength is very much connected with austerity. Better material conditions do not always result in an increase in book distribution. We can see practically that brahmacharis in India (who frequently travel in austere conditions), frequently distribute more books than devotees in developed countries, who have better facilities. Similarly, in the 1970s and 1980s devotees had fewer facilities and were distributing more than most book distributors today.
As paradoxical as it may seem, more comfortable living conditions frequently end up reducing book distribution instead of increasing it, exactly because the principle of austerity is undermined. A book distributor that is too comfortable in his van may start having difficulty to go out, or may eventually not want to travel in a van in the first place. Therefore, we should be careful about not taking more than our quota, as mentioned in the Isopanisad.
The general idea when doing traveling sankirtana is to plan our travel itinerary in a way that we don’t need to travel more than 100 or 150 kilometers at each stretch. This way, you can wake up early, take a bath, travel during the early hours (when there is no traffic) and arrive in time to have a normal day of book distribution. Doing this, you can keep your schedule of book distribution despite the traveling. It’s usually possible to spend the night for free at gas stations: look for gas stations where truck drivers park, they are usually safe. In many of these gas stations, there are some structures that are used by truck-drivers, including some resting places with showers, places to cook and so on. When on the road, it’s good to try to make friends with truck drivers and get some information about these amenities from them. It’s recommendable to mark everything on the map, so you can remember the spots where different resources are available and share with other devotees that are preaching in the same region. Another option is to just stay in parking lots, which is generally the best option in the cities.
One essential point about traveling book distribution is about attentive driving. In the past, many devotees lost their lives because of someone falling asleep while driving, reckless driving, bad vehicle maintenance, etc. It's essential to keep the van in good conditions, to drive slowly, to avoid driving when one is tired, and especially to avoid long travelings late at night. It's better to travel safely during the day (and lose a day of book distribution, if that's the case) than to risk your life.
During my travels in Brazil, I spent most of my nights in paid parking lots inside the cities or at gas stations. Usually, the owners of parking lots that work 24 hours (where there is a guard during the night) don’t mind that you sleep in the car, as long as you pay, and such places usually offer some rudimentary infrastructure. In smaller cities (where such parking lots are not available) I usually spend the nights at gas stations. Usually, the ones that are a little bigger have some space for parking and they generally allow to spend the night there if we ask gently. I usually don’t stay in people's houses, because people almost always live far from the downtown area, and to drive back and forth every day takes a lot of time and energy. Normally I stay in houses only when the person is very favorable and I’m trying to cultivate them; in other words, not for convenience, but for preaching purposes.
While doing traveling sankirtana, we have two missions: one is, obviously, to distribute books and another is to cultivate people, trying make devotees and start local programs. Different devotees will give different priorities to these two missions. Some will give most of their energy to book distribution and not much to cultivation, while others may do the opposite, emphasizing more the cultivation. That’s why, if possible, the ideal is to have a group with a few devotees that can specialize in different aspects and thus be able to successfully not only distribute a lot of books but also make devotees and establish programs in new cities.
Another important point is that we should plan our trips taking into consideration the climate conditions. With proper arrangements, it's possible to live in a van throughout most climates, but in countries where it becomes too cold, we would do better in settling in some temple, house or hotel during the winter. In such cases, we can research options of sankirtana fields and accommodations for the winter and plan accordingly. Book distributors that are fortunate to live in warmer countries, however, can just distribute all year around and just be absorbed in book distribution samadhi.
I have been distributing most of the time in the southern part of Brazil, that has a climate similar to some countries in Europe, hot in the summer (up to 40ºC!) but cold and damp in the winter, with temperatures sometimes falling down below zero. This climate is a challenge for traveling sankirtana, demanding a lot of planning and resourcefulness. In the summer it’s very hot, so it’s not possible to stay in the car during the day: I need to stay the whole day out distributing books. In one sense it’s good, but sometimes it can lead to exhaustion. In the winter the problem is to keep warm, since the humidity makes the thermic sensation to feel much lower than the actual temperature.
On cold days, it’s important not to try to take a shower as soon as you wake-up (especially if you are taking shower outside the van), because at that time the body is cold and you may get sick. It’s better to put your warm clothes on, curl up in blankets and chant your rounds until you start to feel hot, and only then take a shower. Someone could argue that this is muci, but as Srila Prabhupada points out, spiritual life is 90% common-sense. It’s not possible to follow the same standards that we follow in the temple while doing traveling sankirtana: we need to adapt according to the circumstances. To keep our health is the first priority, to chant our rounds and study the books the second and to do our preaching service the third. Other principles should be subservient to these three.
Another problem on traveling sankirtana is how to wash clothes (and especially how to dry them). In large cities, it’s usually possible to find laundromats, which are naturally the best options, but they are not always available in small cities.
To wash is not so hard actually, you just need to put the clothes in a bucket with some detergent and a little bit of bleach (be careful with colored articles). If you leave them overnight, the next day you will just need to rub them a little bit and they will be clean, but to dry them is the problem. The best arrangement is to park the van under the sun, which basically converts it into an oven, allowing the clothes to dry surprisingly fast when hanging on a line (when it is really hot, you can even use the van to make dry fruits and vegetables, no kidding!). In the winter, things can be more difficult, especially when it's humid. The best option, in this case, is to use a heater.
In general, it's recommendable for traveling preachers to use silk dhotis, kurtas, and saris. Not only do they look nicer, but they also dry faster and don't become dirty so easily. It's possible to buy dhotis and kurtas of very nice and light silk for reasonable prices in Vrindavana. However, these thick gray silk dhotis that are becoming popular nowadays should be avoided, they just look terrible.
Other articles, like coats, sleeping clothes, and so on should be, as far as possible, of synthetic material. Not only do they dry faster, but also don't become damp in the winter (which is essential in humid climates). Cotton is not such a good friend for traveling preachers.
Traveling sankirtana requires a lot of resourcefulness. Most of the tricks that devotees use during parikramas in India and that people practice while camping, as well as modern urban survival, are very useful, since on traveling sankirtana we are basically camping in an urban environment. This kind of practice is actually very helpful in spiritual life, since it teaches one how to live in a simple way. We tend to think that we need so many things to live, but actually, all that we really need are three steps of land to lay down and a little bit of prasadam to eat. According to Lord Vamanadeva, someone who is not satisfied with little, will not be satisfied with no matter how much he has:
"The Personality of Godhead said: O my dear King, even the entirety of whatever there may be within the three worlds to satisfy one’s senses cannot satisfy a person whose senses are uncontrolled. If I were not satisfied with three paces of land, then surely I would not be satisfied even with possessing one of the seven islands, consisting of nine varsas. Even if I possessed one island, I would hope to get others." (SB 8.19.21-22)
Another important point is the need for maintaining our spiritual standards. To wake up early and to chant our rounds attentively is essential. An important practice is to have a short mangala-artik, chanting Sri Gurvastakam, pranamas to Srila Prabhupada and Panca Tattva and a few repetitions of the maha-mantra, then chanting to Lord Nrsimhadeva. The main point is to keep it very simple, short and devotional (if you start to make it complicated, you will probably stop doing it after a short period). You can then drive (if needed), cook, read for some time and take prasadam before starting book distribution.
You can take your shower before or after the mangala-artik and japa, according to the climate situation, but it is also an essential part of our sadhana. It’s important to always hear classes when we are preparing and taking prasadam and doing other routine activities. If you do that, you will see that it’s possible to hear up to three or four classes per day.
The main point about this morning routine (as in other aspects of traveling sankirtana), is to do everything in a quick and efficient way. If things start to take too long, time is wasted and we start to become tamasic. This is especially true if we are traveling in a group. The secret is to create a tight morning routine, where everything has its time, and just follow it every day. By following a routine, we train the mind, which allows us to avoid the influence of the mode of ignorance and continue distributing books in a regulated way.
Since you are going to spend so much time in the van, you may be tempted to have deities, but this is usually not a very good idea. Deities require a standard that is very difficult to maintain while living in a van. Srila Prabhupada always emphasized that deities should be properly taken care of. There is no point in inviting the Lord to your van just to commit offenses, and there is no point in just taking care of the deities in the van and not perform our main service which is to distribute books.
In the 1970s, the Radha Damodara party had very beautiful deities of Radha and Krsna in the leading bus. This was an exception, possible only because HH Vishnujana Maharaja was personally taking care of them. In India, there are also cases of groups that have vans with altars in the back, but in their case the altars are an important part of their preaching strategy, attracting the public.
As mentioned before, our books are themselves deities. We don’t even have to ask the Lord to come by having an installation ceremony because they are His direct expansions. We can offer bhoga to the books, we can offer artik to the books, we can do kirtana for the books, and we can of course study and distribute the books. Actually, our sankirtana vans have the highest concentration of installed deities per square feet in the entire world!
If you are based in a big city and want to preach in the surrounding area, a good idea is to organize the trips as “petals”, going in one direction as far as you can go, covering different cities while going and returning to the main city. After a few days resting and resupplying, you can do the same in another direction.
On my trips in Brazil, for example, I organized all the cities that I would visit in a series of trips in different directions that I do throughout the year. I make my planning for the whole year, and then try to just follow the initial plan. During the travelings, I keep a detailed spreadsheet with the book distribution results, how many hours of book distribution, how many days I spent in each city, collection, expenses, how the climate was and so on. At the end of the year, all this information gives objective information that helps to plan the travelings for the next year. Maybe you will want to exclude some cities and add some new ones, organize the travelings in a different way to take advantage of different seasonal preaching opportunities, taking into account the climate situation of different places at different times of the year, and so on. This part of planning is essential, and you should spend some time on it. Every minute that you spend to make a good planning will result in many additional books distributed throughout the year during your trips.
I found that, generally, the most effective way to cover a large field is to organize the trips in such a way that every city in the field is visited once a year. You may spend from a few days (in the case of small cities) to a few weeks (in the larger ones). The idea is to try to make as much noise as possible during this period, distributing books, taking contacts of interested people, organizing programs, contacting local media channels and so on. People tend to be more interested in taking books when it's a new thing, and are much more likely to attend a program when it’s a one-time event, so by concentrating our efforts in a short timeframe, we potentialize this.
By the time people are starting to become saturated, we can move to another city, keeping contact only with interested people. This way, we give local people the opportunity of missing us. When you come back the next year, people who took books already had the opportunity of reading them. Visitors that attended the last year program will be eager for more and your contacts will be missing you. People will have time to comment with their friends and relatives and so on. The field will be ready for another push.
The results are especially interesting in book distribution, since you will have the opportunity of distributing different books to the same people every year. In the cities that I visit, there are many that became “regulars” and take new books as soon as they see me. There are cases of people who already have 12 or 15 different books (many of them already read more books from Srila Prabhupada than many of our ISKCON devotees). Most are still not ready to become devotees, but their interest in our philosophy leads to many changes in their lives and consciousness. Sometimes, during book distribution, people ask about the correct pronunciation of the mantra, how to offer food to Krsna, or even philosophical questions, like why bhakti is better than jnana or why Krsna was encouraging Arjuna to kill in the battle of Kurukshetra. There are people who really become devotees, chanting on beads and following the four principles even without ever visiting a temple, as well as the classical cases of mahatmas that go to live in a temple after reading a book.
These annual visits may continue up to the point where there are some local devotees and resources to hold local programs. At this point, the local group can organize a regular preaching program, assisted by different visitor preachers, and regular visits of the sankirtana group. By these regular visits, a well motivated party can bring many people to Krsna consciousness, and start new groups, which may progress up to the stage of establishing new temples. Even a single individual, with limited resources, can do some valuable preaching in this way.
Instead of having boxes of different books in the car (and having to daily waste time counting and organizing different books while preparing the sankirtana cart), I use ready-made boxes, each one with a mixture of books in the quantities that I normally distribute. This way, I can just put a few boxes in the sankirtana cart in the morning and immediately go to the place where I’m distributing.
Each stack corresponds to the amount of books that I carry by hand to distribute at each time. I take one stack, distribute until it’s finished, take another one from the cart and so on. This system of using stacks was apparently created by devotees in the Zurich temple in the 1980s. It is a big improvement over the “manual” system of taking individual books from different boxes and having to take time to count and organize them.
You can just create some combination of books that you like to distribute, in a fixed number, and make pre-organized boxes with a certain number of such stacks. For some time, for example, I was distributing sets of three books, so I was taking stacks with 8 of such sets (24 books), which weighed about 4 kilos (the books we distribute in Brazil are mainly big books, with 304 pages, alongside medium or small books, that are relatively light).
You can make your stacks bigger or smaller, according to the amount that you can carry comfortably. In general, the maximum recommended would be 3 to 4 kilos per stack for men and 2 kilos per stack for ladies. Each box may have four stacks or more, according to the size. These boxes can be prepared by other devotees, or by yourself on your free days.
The system is to take one stack and keep distributing until you finish it. Then, you can go back to the cart, drink a little water, take another stack and so on, until all the books are gone. Apart from these stacks, that contain the books that I distribute in major quantities (according to the titles that are available at the BBT), I normally also take a few dozens of other assorted books to add variety (Bhagavad-Gitas, cookbooks, small books and so on) to distribute during the day. I usually start by presenting three or four titles and from there see how many books each person can be inspired to take. Many times, people are not so enthusiastic and take only one or two books, but most of the time they agree to take three books or more. Sometimes, a single person can take six or eight different books, and in other situations a group of friends may take three or four books each. Occasionally, it’s possible to distribute twelve, sixteen or even twenty books at a single time to different people in a group.
The main point is to maintain our concentration and keep stopping one person after the other, showing the books we have in our hands in different combinations. Sometimes, one title may run out first. In such cases, we just continue distributing the others. This teaches us how to present the books in different combinations, not becoming attached to present the books in a particular order. My experience is that Krsna almost always sends the right persons to take the books that we have in our hands at any given moment. Nothing happens by chance.
Apart from saving time in the morning, this system also saves time at the end of the day, since we don’t need to stop again to count the books that are left. Just by counting the number of stacks that were distributed and doing some quick math, we can get the precise number of books distributed.
This organization of stacks of books and pre-arranged boxes help a lot during the travelings. My observation is that all around it saves me up to one hour per day, that I can use to do different things. It also helps to maintain concentration, since the mind automatically starts to meditate on ways to distribute the stack that we are holding as quick as possible. If we just keep meditating on how to finish one stack, and then another, and another, the day passes very quickly. The combination of a clearly defined goal for the day, the use of stacks, distribution of the books in sets and deep concentration during the distribution is the secret to distribute large amounts of books. That’s how devotees in the Zurich yatra were distributing 200 to 500 hardcover books a day in the 1980s.
HG Harinamananda Prabhu: The stack method has proven to be the most successful for distributing many books. You can use it everywhere, wherever there are many people, and even while distributing door to door in flats or villages. We prepare stacks of seventeen or eighteen big books and two or three maha-big books, alternating them to have as much variety as possible. These stacks are all identical. During marathons they are prepared by the devotees of our temple so that we can pack them right into our van's book compartments. This makes things simple, and it is easy to count the amount distributed in the evening. You distribute the whole day without thinking of numbers, and you count the stacks at night. During the marathons we are distributing from the van. During the year while going door to door our stacks are smaller, because there is more distance to walk between the people we're meeting. If we are distributing in big blocks of flats, then it's practically like doing the street. For this kind of distribution we have two-wheel carts like the postmen and housewives use. But they are specially constructed and can handle up to 150 books. We are going to people with big stacks of books and trying to give them as many books as possible. So the point is very simple: If you want to distribute many books, you have to have many books with you, and then the people become inspired to take many books. (The Nectar of Book Distribution, p. 192)
While holding the stack, you should press it against your stomach, transferring thus part of the weight from the arms to the abdomen. This reduces the weight sustained by the backbone, making it more comfortable and reducing the risk of lesions. Since we will be carrying stacks all day long, it's important to do that in an ergonomic way. In the past, devotees were committing the mistake of carrying too much weight (there were cases of devotees carrying stacks of up to 15 kilos!), and this created serious problems. Many devotees would end up developing problems in their backs, shoulders, and feet after a few years of intense book distribution, dramatically shortening their careers. We should not repeat the mistakes from the past. Books and other materials written in this period, occasionally recommend the use of big, heavy stacks, but this is outdated information. It was a mistake that many book distributors of that period regret. Now the order is to use smaller, lighter stacks to avoid injuries.
Stacks are a good way to increase our book distribution, but they must be used with caution. Be attentive to balance the weight in a proper way (always pressing the stack against your abdomen, as mentioned) and never carry more than you can carry comfortably. Finish one stack before taking the next (don’t accumulate books, otherwise you will end up carrying much more than initially planned). If you start having any kind of pain in your back, shoulders, arms, neck, legs or feet, you should go see a doctor as soon as possible.
Heavy side bags are another menace that should be avoided. On them, all the weight is concentrated on only one side, which can create all kinds of problems in the back and shoulders. They are useful to carry small things, like leaflets, money, credit card machine, etc. But in general, they should not be used to carry more than a few small books, something around one kilo or less (total, including the bag). Maximum.
If one has to carry a bigger amount of books in a concealed way, the best option is to use a backpack. They are far from ideal, but at least they are better than a side bag, distributing the weight evenly. If one has a strong back and good posture, he may get away with a backpack of 3 kilos, for example, but it should be avoided if possible. As mentioned earlier, if one plans to distribute more than a few books, it's practically unavoidable to use a sankirtana kart, locking it to a pole and getting books from there. In environments where it is not possible, the best is to use a trolley bag.
Any kind of extensive book distribution, especially traveling sankirtana, is a little dangerous for the health, therefore we need to be attentive for symptoms of different diseases. Srila Prabhupada used to say that fire, debt and disease should be treated immediately. If the body is healthy, our priority should be to keep it healthy. If it’s diseased, then the priority should be to regain its health.
“The purport is that activities performed with the help of the body for the satisfaction of the Absolute Truth (om tat sat) are never temporary, although performed by the temporary body. Indeed, such activities are everlasting. Therefore, the body should be properly cared for. Because the body is temporary, not permanent, one cannot expose the body to being devoured by a tiger or killed by an enemy. All precautions should be taken to protect the body.” (SB 8.19.40 purport)
Pure devotees can sometimes keep their service even when their bodies are terminally sick, occasionally even violating the physical laws, but this is something that we shouldn’t try to imitate. On the other hand, we should also understand that the body is just a vehicle, that it is perishable and will break eventually anyway, no matter what we do. Therefore we should not be hypochondriac, stopping our service on every small headache. We have to find a balance between these two principles.
The idea is that the body is meant to serve Krsna, therefore we should serve vigorously. At the same time, we should take care of it, so it can last as long as possible, as we would do with a car or any expensive machine. Just as one has to maintain a tree if he wants the fruits and flowers produced by it, the body is necessary to perform service, and service is the means for us to advance. To have a sick body is a handicap to our spiritual lives, because it doesn’t allow us to perform service. As Srila Prabhupada mentions on the same purport: “If the body is not properly maintained, it falls down and dries up like an uprooted tree, from which flowers and fruit can no longer be obtained.”
First point is about exercise. By distributing books we normally already walk a lot, carry weight, etc. so we usually don’t have the problem of becoming sedentary, like most people nowadays. The problem is that all this walking and weightlifting tend to make the muscles stiff and make the body inflexible. The muscles then don’t regenerate properly after the daily activities and the nerves start to become pressed between the muscles and bones, creating pain, sapping our energy, and leading to different problems, like sciatica.
This can be counteracted by doing some stretching or some simple yoga exercises. There are many options, exercises, and asanas that can be done in a standing position, in a sitting position, using a mat, or without using a mat, it’s just a question of learning from someone who knows. Ideally, it should be something simple, that you can learn and then do by yourself. Stretching and yoga asanas are usually only effective when done at a very slow pace, since the muscles need time to stretch, therefore it’s good to reserve some time for that when you can hear a class while exercising, so the time will always be well spent.
In terms of muscle stress regeneration, these yoga exercises (when properly done) usually do more for our health than anything that allopathic medicine has to offer. Allopathic medicine doesn’t have a solution for most problems that sankirtana devotees normally suffer, like problems in the back, muscles, and nerves. For some extreme conditions (like a herniated disc) there is surgery, but for almost everything else there is basically only palliative treatment, based on analgesics. Yoga exercises work by restoring the proper function of the circulatory and lymphatic system, muscles, nerves, and bones, helping the body to work better and to cure its own problems.
HG Nanda Kumara Prabhu: “One of the things that I had to give up when I moved to the temple was hatha-yoga practice. Everybody told me that it is not our yoga, our yoga is bhakti-yoga. Hatha-yoga is included in that, so you don't really need to do it, just dance in kirtana. I was stubborn about it for a while. When I moved to the temple there was just no place to do it, and no time. Then, when I got to be with Prabhupada, I started doing it again. I would go in the mid-morning, before doing his cooking in the backyard and do some yoga asanas. So, I wanted to make sure it was ok. I was doing it for two or three days, and I decided that I'm going to ask Prabhupada if this is ok.
He brought it up before I did (laugh). I cooked his lunch and I had full intention to ask him about it that day. When I brought his plate he said: "I see that you are doing yoga exercises in the yard". I said: Actually I was going to ask you about that. Devotees told me that it is not bonafide, that it is not our process. And he said: "Actually these exercises are very good for your health. We don't want anyone to get distracted, so we don't teach it, but for you, it’s very good, and I encourage you to do it". Then, a short time afterward we were in San Diego, taking a walk in the park, and there was someone doing the headstand off in the distance. Srila Prabhupada looked over and said: "Oh, that's surasya asana, very good for the health". He said: "There are so many of these exercises, surasya asana, yoga asana, padma asana", he named. He said: "Very good for the health". And an elder god-brother, in a bit of a sarcastic tone towards yoga, said: "So we should do this every day, Prabhupada?". And he didn't answer; he just kept walking and when he finally came back to the car he turned around and said: "It is not necessary". And I remember what he had told me and I realized that he was answering in the mood of the question. That the real idea is whatever is good for your Krsna consciousness, do it, whatever is not good, stop it.” (Memories of Srila Prabhupada series)
Naturally, the main point is to understand that we are just using them as exercises for the body, and not as some kind of method for self-realization. As Arjuna points out in the 6th chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita, astanga-yoga is not useful as a method for self-realization in Kali-yuga. Still, the asanas offer a simple way to keep the body fit for practicing devotional service, especially book distribution, and in this capacity, they should be practiced.
It’s also possible to obtain similar effects with the right types of massage. Srila Prabhupada was receiving massages daily, and he said on different occasions that these massages were what was keeping him alive. In our case, however, it’s easier to do yoga stretches, since we are not going to always have a masseur around.
A few exercises with weight can be included for maintaining the muscles. The most effective options for book distributors are the ones that use the weight of the body itself (and therefore don’t demand any equipment). A good example is the plank, that involves maintaining a position similar to a push-up for a determined amount of time. It may look easy but is actually pretty hard to maintain it for more than one minute (if you are doing it correctly). Just by doing three or four series of one minute each, you can strengthen most of the core muscles of the body, including the abdomen, back, and shoulders, which is really beneficial for book distributors.
While exercises themselves are just a tool, one problem is that too much exercise can lead to bodily identification, therefore Srila Prabhupada was very careful about recommending it to his disciples, fearing that they could go off the path and transform our society into a hatha-yoga or bodybuilding society. We should not forget also that as Vaishnavas our main activity and prescribed exercise is to dance in the kirtanas, which serves as both spiritual and physical exercise. Nowadays, in many places, devotees don’t jump and dance in the kirtanas, and as a result, they need to spend so much time running and squatting in fitness centers to keep their health.
The key is actually in our consciousness. If one does exercises with the consciousness that he is maintaining his body to be able to serve Krsna, the exercises are going to help him to become Krsna conscious, but if he exercises to make the body fit and thus be able to get more material enjoyment, the exercises are just going to increase his bodily identification. We need to use our common sense to find the best balance according to our bodily condition, position in life and priorities. We need to reconcile the need of working hard for Krsna with the need of conserving our health, so we can serve for a long time.
“Yes, you can become very healthy. But does it mean that health is the perfection of life? Do you mean to say healthy life will not die, will not change his body? So health is required, but health is not the ultimate goal of life. Ultimate goal of life is here.” (Srila Prabhupada, Room Conversation, 10 May 1969)
To have a proper diet is essential to keep our health. It's even more important than exercise. If we can keep a healthy diet, we can prevent many different health problems, keep the immune system working properly and increase the longevity of the body, without having to spend time and money in different treatments.
“In Kali-yuga, the duration of life is shortened not so much because of insufficient food but because of irregular habits. By keeping regular habits and eating simple food, any man can maintain his health. Overeating, over-sense gratification, overdependence on another’s mercy, and artificial standards of living sap the very vitality of human energy. Therefore the duration of life is shortened.” (SB 1.1.10 purport)
Nowadays, most devotees have very unhealthy diets. This is another factor that shortens the career of many book distributors. Once the body becomes sick, it’s very difficult to continue book distribution. There are even cases of devotees that abandon spiritual life altogether. A proper diet is the main factor in maintaining our health and therefore is eminently important for all book distributors, especially the ones doing traveling sankirtana.
We can see this practically when we go to Mayapur, for example. The local Bengalis work very hard, practically every day until old age, and rarely become sick. Our western devotees, on the other hand, frequently have a hard time just functioning. One important difference is that the Bengalis have a simple diet, based on rice, dhal, and vegetables, while our western devotees tend to base their diets in breads, cakes, sweets, pizzas and festival prasadam, with lots of fried preparations.
I’m not a doctor, therefore my capacity in this field is very limited. However, there are a few things that I have learned over the years that I can share. You can read, meditate on it, and see what you can apply in your own routine.
What we normally call a “sumptuous feast” is not always very nutritional. Quite the opposite: it usually contains a lot of refined carbohydrates, fried preparations, sweets, and so on, that may gratify the tongue, but is very unbalanced nutritionally. Once there was a special feast in a temple, with many different preparations, but I noticed that actually, the main ingredients for all the different preparations were basically the same: rice, white flour, oil, sugar, and potatoes, with a few preparations containing a little milk, paneer or fruits. The different preparations were basically just variations of the same ingredients, mixed with heaps of oil and sugar.
Most people in the so-called “developed countries” have a diet based on white flour, rice, refined oils, sugar, potatoes, and meat. As devotees, we, of course, skip the meat, but we tend to mimic most of the rest of the diet, not only eating a lot of refined, poorly nutritious, processed, sugar-coated and deep-fried food, but also overeating. This combination of refined food and overeating wreak havoc in our bodies, causing all kinds of premature problems. As Srila Prabhupada points out, the secret is in eating healthy, wholesome foods and in a moderated way:
“People in rich nations eat more, become fat, and then pay exorbitant prices to so-called yoga instructors in order to reduce. People try to reduce by all these artificial gymnastics; they do not understand that if they just eat vegetables or fruits and grains, they will never get fat. People get fat because they eat voraciously, because they eat meat. People who eat voraciously suffer from diabetes, overweight, heart attacks, etc., and those who eat insufficiently suffer from tuberculosis. Therefore moderation is required, and moderation in eating means that we eat only what is needed to keep body and soul together. If we eat more than we need or less, we will become diseased.” (Path to Perfection, ch. 4)
In his purport to SB 4.26.13, Srila Prabhupada emphasizes that we should have a simple and balanced diet. Too much rich foodstuffs, he points out, can make one fall down, making him attracted to sense gratification:
“Sattvika-ahara, foodstuffs in the mode of goodness, are described in the sastras as wheat, rice, vegetables, fruits, milk, sugar, and milk products. Simple food like rice, dal, capatis, vegetables, milk and sugar constitute a balanced diet, but sometimes it is found that an initiated person, in the name of prasada, eats very luxurious foodstuffs. Due to his past sinful life he becomes attracted by Cupid and eats good food voraciously. It is clearly visible that when a neophyte in Krsna consciousness eats too much, he falls down. Instead of being elevated to pure Krsna consciousness, he becomes attracted by Cupid.”
As the Lord explains in the Bhagavad-Gita (17.8), one of the symptoms of food in the mode of goodness is that it is wholesome: pure, nutritious and health-giving. The effects of such foods are that they “increase the duration of life, purify one’s existence and give strength, health, happiness and satisfaction”. Most food that people eat nowadays is refined, with most of the nutrients taken away, which is a characteristic of food in the mode of passion. As the Lord points out, it “causes distress, misery and disease.”
Traveling sankirtana presents a two-fold problem: not only do we need to be able to follow a proper diet, but we also have to be able to daily prepare everything in the van, cooking in simple conditions. One could try to be “austere” and eat in an irregular way, just filling-up the tank with granola and peanuts, but this is not very wise. To be able to continue our book distribution, we must maintain a proper diet.
It's possible to cook regular prasadam, with rice, dhal, sabji, etc. on traveling sankirtan, using a camping stove and an improvised kitchen, but to cook a full meal takes time and therefore most devotees end up simplifying it, starting to eat kichiri, that is basically rice, dhal and sabji combined, with the advantage that you can cook using only one pot. In India, kichiri is called “the sadhu’s meal”, because it offers a full meal, in an easy-to-make and easy-to-digest package. Not only can it be cooked quickly with just one pan, but there is also no hard and fast recipe: you can make it combining rice with different types of dhal, spices, and vegetables, according to which ingredients are available.
One extremely important point that I have learned, not only for traveling sankirtan but for life in general, is the importance of learning how to cook simple preparations quickly. To make kichiri, can take as little as five minutes of your time: you just need to put the rice and dhal in the pan, wash them quickly, add salt, spices, a little bit of ghee and some vegetables, add water and put it to cook. While it cooks, you can chant japa or read. When it's done, you can combine it with a few fruits, nuts or whatever you have available.
Similarly, other simple preparations can also be done very fast if you learn the art. If one learns how to cook simple meals quickly, he can keep a healthy diet wherever he is, without being dependent on others. This is an invaluable skill for any traveling preacher. Srila Prabhupada himself was teaching this by his personal example: he found a way to cook the meals that he was habituated to (rice, dhal, sabji and chapatis) quickly and in only one burner using a special three-tiered pan that he invented himself. There are even instances where he would cook a whole feast for dozens of devotees in less than one hour! Naturally, we may never reach such a level of excellence, but at least we should learn how to make kichiri and a few other simple preparations quickly, so we can maintain body and soul together.
Another advantage of being able to cook quickly is that we can cultivate the habit of cooking only the quantity that we are going to eat and cook again in the next meal, instead of storing cooked food and eating the same thing over and over again. Cooked preparations tend to quickly lose their nutrients, therefore to eat the same preparation that was cooked hours ago not only stimulate the mode of ignorance but is also unhealthy. Naturally, it’s said that prasadam is transcendental, but we can’t use that as an excuse to be lazy and eat the same old prasadam from the fridge the whole week.
Generally, Srila Prabhupada would recommend that temple devotees should stick to the standard Vaishnava diet: rice, dhal, sabji (made from a variety of vegetables, not just potatoes), chapatis, milk and fruits, that is a good combination for most people, but in different circumstances, he would recommend simpler diets. The main thing is that we should eat moderately, and in a way that preserves the health of the body and gives us sufficient energy to serve Krsna.
"My Dear Dayananda, Please accept my blessings. Regarding your letter asking me permission for taking prasadam comprising fruits, nuts, milk product and green leaf vegetables,—if the __ to your health for rendering service to Krishna with more energy, then you must take such Prasdam instead of cooked food. If required you can take raw cereals soaked in water overnight that is also good. The thing is you must accept such food as will keep you fit. Not more nor less that is the injunction of Lord Krishna in the B.G. Hope you are well." (Srila Prabhupada, Letter to Dayananda, 23 March 1969)
"Even if you don't eat these foodgrains, that is preferred, better. Vegetable and fruits and milk, that is sufficient nutritious. There is no question of disease. But for our tongue taste we eat so many cooked food, but if we eat vegetables, boiled vegetables and fruits and milk, ah, it is sufficient. Ekadashi, daily Ekadashi. And these peanuts, a few grains. Not much. That is also nice. Cashew, peanut, yes.” (Srila Prabhupada, A Transcendental Diary, 4-3: Hyderabad)
Many devotees end up experimenting at some point with some variety of raw diet. It’s possible to avoid eating cooked foods (and thus not having the trouble of cooking) by having a diet based on milk, fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts. Milk has all the amino acids and most vitamins and minerals that the body needs, therefore by drinking a good quantity of milk, combined with fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts we still provide the body with all necessary nutrients. Although a little expensive and austere, such a diet can be very healthy and favorable to spiritual development, as explained by Srila Prabhupada.
The problem is that the way most people do raw diets nowadays, eating only fruits and vegetables (excluding milk, grains and milk products) or taking too much olive oil or honey is actually detrimental to their health. Raw diets based on fruits and vegetables are very high in vitamins and other micronutrients, which is good, the problem is that fruits and most vegetables are very low in protein and especially on essential amino acids. Many raw food eaters end up getting health problems related to lack of essential amino acids after a year or two and that’s not a coincidence. Another problem is that most fruits and vegetables available nowadays are heavily contaminated with pesticides and chemicals from fertilizers used on them. Despite all this, we still need to eat fruits and vegetables, but it’s prudent to avoid eating too much, unless we can be sure that we are getting organic. Basing one’s whole diet on chemically cultivated vegetables may not be such a good idea.
Book distributors are generally not very good candidates for a raw diet, because they require energy to walk around and distribute books the whole day, and raw diets are, in principle, low in calories. If one can’t adjust to that, he will end up doing some unbalanced diet that will not be healthy. The usual pattern is that one starts to feel hungry, and begins to exaggerate with oils or sugars. I saw one Prabhu on a raw diet that was adding a quarter of a liter of olive oil per day on his salad (!), and a lady that was eating half a kilo of honey daily (!!). In both cases, the results were obviously not good, no need to mention the details. For most, a balanced diet with a combination of rice and dhal, fruits and vegetables, milk, nuts, and seeds works much better. It’s simple, it’s nutritional, it’s cheaper and it’s healthier.
Rice and dhal are the easiest way to supply our bodies with an adequate amount of amino acids. There are eight amino acids that our bodies can’t produce on their own. Legumes (a family that includes most types of dhal and beans) are rich in the first seven, but poor in methionine. Grains (including rice) are rich in methionine, therefore by combining the two, we get a balanced supply of all the essential amino acids, solving the problem. There are also certain grains and seeds that are complete proteins, supplying by themselves all the necessary amino acids that the body needs, like buckwheat, quinoa, and ragi. If they are available, they can be used instead of rice and dhal, just like in Russia, where devotees have the habit of eating grechka (buckwheat) or in south India, where ragi is a staple food.
It’s not a coincidence that the traditional Indian diet is based on rice, dhal, and sabji. The rice and dhal provide protein, including all the essential amino acids, plus energy in the form of carbohydrates. The sabji made with different fresh vegetables provides vitamins and other micronutrients and the small amount of ghee on both provides the necessary fats.
In my experience, combining a moderate amount of rice and dhal with some nuts, a generous quantity of vegetables and fruits, and some milk is the easiest way to remain healthy. Most of the experiences that I had outside this combination failed miserably. One time, for example, I tried a diet based on oat flakes, nuts, ginger, olives, and fruits (so I would not have to cook), but the result was far from being positive.
One important point, that I discovered the hard way during this period, and it is about the balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats. I was eating oats in the form of a soup, with a generous quantity of sunflower oil in it (that many doctors say is healthy…) and a big quantity of nuts (also healthy, right?). This way I was eating a lot of polyunsaturated fats (again, in line with the advice of health specialists), but after a short period I started to not feel well and this continued for as long as I kept insisting on that combination.
Both omega-3 and omega-6 are types of polyunsaturated fats that, in small amounts, are essential for different functions of the body. The problem starts when one gets too much of them. Omega-3 is usually beneficial, but too much omega-6 is dangerous because it provokes inflammation. When we do long hours of book distribution, our bodies already tend to become inflamed to some extent because of the natural process of healing the muscles, but too much omega-6 sharply accentuates this.
Ideally, we should eat a proportion close to 1:1 of omega-3 and omega-6, since they compete with each other in many bodily functions (the more omega-6 you eat, the more omega-3 you need to compensate). The tricky part is that most lacto vegetarian sources are imbalanced, containing a lot of omega-6 and little omega-3. Some sources, like milk and butter, offer more or less balanced amounts, but practically, only chia seeds and linseeds have more omega-3 than omega-6. Therefore, the best is to reduce the intake of polyunsaturated fats in general, so we keep the disbalance small.
Butter has only a small amount of polyunsaturated fats. Olive oil, sesame seed oil, and mustard oil are moderated, just like most grains and seeds. The biggest villains are the cheap vegetable oils, like sunflower oil, soy oil, corn oil, etc. These cheap vegetable oils are a new invention, and just like most modern inventions, they have a very detrimental effect on our health.
Traditionally, the only oils used by humans were ghee (in the case of civilized societies), animal fat (in the uncivilized ones) and cold pressed oils. Ghee has a lot of medicinal properties, but it also is very rich in saturated fats, therefore too much ghee can easily cause indigestion. Because it’s difficult to digest and expensive, people would use it in small quantities. Fried samosas and pakoras would be a rare occurrence, usually only on festivals. Cold pressed oils were also expensive, therefore also not used on a very large scale.
This changed dramatically in the last few decades, when cheap oils, made from sunflower seeds, corn, soy, rice, cottonseed, etc. became available in mass. At first, these oils were marketed as healthier alternatives to butter, but later it was discovered that they are very detrimental to our health, almost like margarine.
One particularly nasty thing about these cheap vegetable oils is that they are obtained through the use of chemical solvents like hexane, that comes from petrol and is toxic. The solvents allow the factories to extract almost all the oil from the seeds and grains (different from cold pressing, that extracts only a percentage), making the final product very cheap. The problem is that the final result is very unhealthy, heavily processed, devoid of useful nutrients and with residues of the chemicals used to extract and process them.
Even if we forget about the solvents (or find some brand that produces cold pressed oil), vegetable oils have another problem: they all have too much omega-6. Sunflower oil, for example, is almost 70% omega-6, with little saturated fat and almost zero omega-3. Even relatively small amounts of vegetable oils in our diet are going to create a disbalance in the omega-3/omega-6 ratio, and large amounts can create serious problems. Not only are they prejudicial, but because these oils are light and easy to digest, we tend to eat a lot. You can eat a plate full of samosas fried in sunflower oil and live to eat another day, leaving your body to somehow deal with all this omega-6 fat.
Another problem with vegetable oils is that they become toxic when heated to high temperatures. Most of us heard the instruction that we should not use olive oil for frying because it becomes toxic. The problem, however, is not only with olive oil: almost all vegetable oils share the same problem. It comes from the polyunsaturated fats present in them. These unstable fats produce hazardous compounds when heated to high temperatures, therefore they are not suitable for frying or for baking in high temperatures. Ghee is free from this problem, and also has a higher smoke point, making it the only recommended oil for deep frying, exactly as prescribed in the Ayurveda.
If you want to keep your body healthy to serve Krsna, it’s better to renounce all these samosas, pakoras and puris deep fried in vegetable oil. You can eat them sometimes when you get some fried in ghee, but even in this case it's important to not exaggerate.
Ghee is the best type of oil for human consumption. Naturally, if one takes too much ghee it can be harmful, as anything if exaggerated, but as long as one uses it in moderation, it should bring only benefits. Ghee never goes bad (as long as it is properly stored), so you can buy a few kilos of butter and make ghee for the whole year at once if needed.
If ghee is not available, a distant second option are cold pressed oils, like olive oil, sesame seed oil, mustard seed oil and coconut oil. Being cold pressed, these oils preserve the nutrients and are not chemically processed. The main problem is that cold pressed oils (especially olive oil) are expensive and thus frequently adulterated with cheaper vegetable oils (usually canola oil and soy oil). If you go this route, it's important to check if the oil you are buying is bonafide.
Another villain is sugar. Most agree that sugar is bad for our health. Srila Prabhupada was eating white sugar in different preparations, but in small amounts (different from what most of us tend to do). The problem with sugar is that the body needs a lot of different minerals and other nutrients to be able to metabolize it (it’s quite a complex process executed by the liver). Natural sources of sugar, like sugarcane and dates are also rich in minerals, as well as fibers, therefore the body gets what it needs. When the sugar is refined, such nutrients are lost, and the body has to sacrifice its own nutrients to metabolize the sugar, which leads to different problems. In other words, Krsna created fruits and vegetables rich in sugar as a package that contains what the body needs to digest it. Modern civilization dismantles the package and takes only the sugar, and thus everyone starts to become diseased.
If we eat a little bit of sugar in some preparation rich in nutrients (like when we take a burfi after prasadam, for example), it’s not going to do any harm, but if we consistently exaggerate in preparations that have a lot of sugar and little nutrients, we are going to face serious problems later.
Generally speaking, it’s better to use honey (provided you can get “real” honey, not the processed type that is sold nowadays under many brands). Chemically, honey may be similar to sugar, but the way it acts in the body is very different. Many modern studies point-out that honey has a positive effect on the body and the Ayurveda recommends it strongly as a means to preserve health and increase longevity. Different from white sugar, honey contains significant quantities of antioxidants, enzymes, and minerals, and is an antibacterial agent, that acts against microbes and germs, preventing different diseases (if you put honey in an open wound and cover it with a bandage, it will cure much faster, for example). By using small quantities of honey instead of sugar, we are taking out something that is harmful to our health and adding something that (in moderate amounts) is actually beneficial. Another option are dates. They are so sweet that they can also be used as a natural sweetener in many circumstances. However, just as honey, they contain several important nutrients, that (in the right quantities) makes them beneficial for our health.
Apart from sugar, another cause for concern should be refined carbohydrates, like wheat flour, corn starch, etc. They have the same fundamental problem as sugar: they are basically empty calories; carbohydrates in a form that is very easy to digest, devoid of other useful nutrients. White wheat flour, for example, have almost all the vitamins lost during the milling and bleaching process, ending as a fine white powder that contains basically only starch and gluten. The modern milled white wheat flour is very different from the stone ground whole wheat flour that people used to consume through the centuries.
Just like in the case of fruits, grains are made as a package, that combines carbohydrates which protein, fats, fibers, and different vitamins and minerals. This combination not only makes them rich nutritionally, but also causes the starches to be digested slowly, creating a stable release of energy and avoiding spikes of insulin. Although insulin in an essential hormone, in excess it causes damage to the body. If one eats refined carbohydrates (breads, cakes, biscuits, etc.) too frequently, the constant release of insulin can lead to a condition called insulin resistance, that is linked to a long list of diseases, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, fatty liver, obesity, diabetes, inflammatory conditions, cognitive decline (lack of concentration, brain fog, bad memory), etc. Recent studies point-out that most of the chronic diseases are caused or aggravated by an excess of insulin.
We can avoid it by using whole grains instead of white flour and other types of refined carbohydrates. We can, for example, make bread using whole grain wheat flour mixed with different seeds, nuts and grains (adding flax seeds, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, sunflower seeds, rolled oats, etc), as well as ingredients rich in fibers (like the fibers left from making vegetable juices, coconut flour, etc.) In this way, we create a package, adding fibers, protein, fat and other nutrients.
Just like fibers, health fats make the absorption of the starches slower, helping to prevent spikes of insulin. There is no need to deliberately make the food devoid of fat. In fact, in the Bhagavad-Gita Krsna defines food in the mode of goodness as being rasyah (juicy), snigdhah (fatty) and sthirah (pleasing to the heart) in opposition to food in the mode of passion, that is ruksa (dry, rough, devoid of fats). The body needs fat to function properly, it should be part of the package. The main point is to eat healthy fats (like ghee, butter, nuts, avocados, coconuts, etc.), instead of refined vegetable oils, and to eat in moderation.
If eating cakes and other preparations made with white flour is unavoidable (like in a festival, for example), the best way to contain the damage is to combine with other preparations rich in fibers and other nutrients (eating the cake after eating a plate of salad, for example). This way we also create a package and the damage is contained. The most dangerous situation is when we eat a lot of refined carbohydrates and sweets by themselves, like if we eat a lot of breads and cakes in a single sitting. If one overdo it, the best is to fast or eat only fruits and vegetables on the next day, giving the body time to repair the damage.
When we read the Caitanya Caritamrta, we find description of devotees taking very rich prasadam preparations, like fried rice cakes, sweet rice, fried puris in condensed milk, etc. The point we forget to notice is that they would generally fast during the whole day, performing kirtana and other physically demanding activities, usually taking prasadam only one time per day. Sometimes they would perform kirtana for several days straight and forget to eat, other times they would eat only mangos, etc. One may exaggerate a little bit if he follows the principle of “fasting and feasting”, but if one just feast constantly, the body will become quickly overwhelmed and health problems will appear.
Rice is much better than white flour, but it demands some consideration. The point about rice is that not all rice is the same. There are two basic types of rice: long rain rice (like the basmati and jasmine types) and short grain rice (that are usually cheaper and more common). Long grains are rich in resistant starch, and therefore have a much lower glycemic index. They are a type of slow-carb and can be easily recognized by the fact they remain firm and separate after cooking
Short grain types of rice on the other hand are rich in simple starch, and therefore are digested very quickly. They have a very high glycemic index and therefore are not so recommendable, since they make the insulin go very high. This type can be considered a type of refined carbohydrates. It can be easily recognized because the rice stick together in clumps when cooked.
Basmati rice is one of the best types of rice, since not only does it have a very low glycemic index (being a type of long grain) but have also a better vitamin and mineral content. That explains why it is considered a top-quality rice in India.
Another option is parboiled rice (converted rice). This is a type of rice that goes through a vapor treatment, that convert the simple starches in the short grain rice into resistant starch, also transferring more of the nutrients from the husk to the grain. The problem with parboiled rice is that it goes through a heating process, which can be considered a type of cooking, therefore many devotees may prefer to avoid it. If we consider only the health perspective, however, it is a better option to regular short grain rice when we don't have basmati or other type of long grain available. You can do your own research and decide what type to eat based on the time place and circumstance.
In any case, the rice should be combined with other ingredients or preparations (like when we eat kichiri, or rice, dhal and sabji, for example). It's not good to eat a lot of rice by itself. The basic rule is that our food should be a package of different ingredients.
We generally tend to associate expensive foods with health, but it is not necessarily like this. Vegetables and fruits that are cheap and easily available, like beets, carrots, cabbage, oranges, and bananas are amongst the healthiest options, and combined with grains, spices and milk products they can more than fulfill our nutritional needs without the need of spending much.
Carrots are an inexpensive, but very nutritious option, that is extremely healthy, especially if eaten raw. It’s very beneficial if you can eat a couple of raw carrots before each meal. You just need to peel and offer to Krsna.
Ginger is always good, regardless of the combination. You can add it to salads, to cooked preparations, to hot milk, teas, or even just eat it by itself. Another important aid is lemon: if you can take daily the juice of a few lemons, you are going to rarely get sick. Nuts are also a good complement, being rich in several nutrients, but they should be eaten in moderation because they also contain too much omega-6.
Vegetables and fruits should be the main component of our diets, since the body simply can’t operate in an efficient way without a good quantity of them. They contain vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients. A general rule is that we should eat one to two kilos of fruits and vegetables per day (it can be even more than that, if good quality vegetables are available).
It may not look so, but many vegetables are actually quite difficult for the body to digest, therefore, to cook them in the kichiri is a good option. The cooking may slightly reduce the nutritional value (compared to one that eats raw vegetables), but it makes much easier for us to eat and digest them.
If one has difficulty to eat a big volume of vegetables, one option is to get a juicer. This way, it's possible to get the nutrients without the bulk. Two kilos of vegetables become usually around one liter of juice. When doing juices, one should check which vegetables to use. Some vegetables (especially certain leaves, like spinach) are too rich in oxalates, which in high doses can cause problems, therefore are better cooked. There are two types of juicers: centrifugal and masticating types. The centrifugal juicers are cheaper, but they are much less efficient, and therefore a lot of juice is left in the pulp. Masticating juicers end being better in the long run, since they extract much more juice and therefore you need less vegetables to get the same amount.
Spices are also important, since they contain a lot of vitamins and antioxidants, serving as a secondary source of nutrients. An important point about spices is their quality. Many of the powdered spices we buy in the market are adulterated, mixed with cornstarch or other less benign contaminants, up to things like sawdust, corants, and chemicals. Such spices can do more harm than good. It’s better to buy spices in grain form, or at least powdered spices from reliable brands.
Apart from rice and dhal, one can also experiment with different types of grains and seeds. Whole wheat grains, chickpeas, and buckwheat, for example, can even be eaten raw with some salt if left to soak in water overnight. This is another way to enrich our diet with a variety of grains. This technique of soaking grains overnight can be also used to make them cook faster. Chickpeas, for example, are very difficult to cook without a pressure cooker, but if you let it soak during the night, they become soft and can be cooked quite quickly.
Another important point is to drink enough water. This is one of the most important points for keeping a good health, especially for a physically active person. It’s especially important to drink water in the morning, starting as soon as we wake-up, since this is the time the body is more active in flushing-out the toxins. We have to take good quality water, be it mineral water, or water filtered in a reliable filter.
It’s essential to not eat food prepared by non-devotees, including most types of industrialized products. Srila Prabhupada was liberal in many aspects of spiritual life, but he was always very concerned about devotees eating food cooked by non-devotees. One time, having learned that devotees from a traveling sankirtana group in Germany were eating bread from bakeries, Srila Prabhupada became deeply concerned and insisted that they should immediately stop doing it. Even when devotees argued that bread was essential for Germans and that without it they would not be able to have the energy to distribute books all day long, Srila Prabhupada was firm, insisting that it could not be done. His suggestion was that devotees could bring a stock of bread from the temple.
Food cooked by non-devotees is very harmful to our consciousness, therefore we should avoid it to the maximum extent. A devotee doing traveling sankirtana is already in a precarious situation, being far away from the temple and from normal association with other devotees, therefore he needs to be particularly careful to not eat contaminated foods.
We should restrain ourselves to only eat what we (or other devotees in our party) cook and simple, uncooked foods like milk products, nuts, fruits and vegetables, honey, seeds (like chia), etc. Coincidently, these are the healthiest options anyway, so there is no need to pay more for polluted, industrialized food, that has almost all the nutrients taken away.
During the 1970s and 1980s, most temples in ISKCON followed a routine where the main prasadam would be cooked in the morning. The book distributors would take prasadam after the Bhagavatam class and go on book distribution. The ones that needed would bring a snack to eat during the day, and some lighter prasadam would be available at night, when the book distributors would return. This schedule was being used because it’s the most natural routine for a devotee who will be outside during the whole day. As time passed, the routine in many temples changed, and the main prasadam started to be served at 2:00 pm, since most devotees would not go out. In other words, as the priority changed from book distribution to other services in most temples, the routine changed accordingly, which a lot of times is inconvenient for the book distributors.
The normal schedule of taking the main meal at noon or 2:00 pm is not very optimal for book distributors, because it adds all the complexities of cooking and transporting prasadam, finding a place to eat, etc. It breaks our day in half and makes us heavy and sleepy afterwards. One may take some snack from the temple and just make a small pause to eat in the middle of the day, but to take a full meal while distributing books is not a very good idea.
You may organize your routine the way you like, but from the point of the book distribution, a routine with two meals, one before book distribution and another afterwards works much better.
Most devotees nowadays distribute for four to six hours daily. If one is used to distribute from 12:00 to 6:00 pm, for example, he may take prasadam at 10:00 or 11:00, before going, and take something more in the evening. Regardless of the time, the main point is to go out on book distribution immediately after eating, since we tend to quickly become tamasic as time passes. If one conditions his body to immediately go out after eating, he is not going to feel sleepy and will have the energy to distribute books. This also helps with the digestion.
One who prefers to start early and finish early, or someone who prefers to eat in the afternoon, may do the opposite, eating a light meal before book distribution and taking the main meal afterwards. Each body is different, therefore one has to see what is best for his constitution and adjust as necessary.
If needed, you can bring a snack to eat in the middle of the afternoon, or make a pause to read, or whatever works. The main idea is to keep things simple, so you can just concentrate on distributing books during the whole day, instead of being concerned about food.
During my trips, I try to apply these different principles, with the goal of having more energy and more time to distribute books.
I prefer to start book distribution early, therefore I try to wake-up early, having time to chant all my rounds and do my sadhana in the morning, finishing prasadam at 8:00 am. This way, I have time to clean-up, take my books, move to the field and start distributing at 9:00 am. By adopting this system, I can distribute books for around eight to nine hours on most days, and still have some free time to read and hear classes.
When I started doing traveling sankirtana, I didn’t knew how to cook in the van and maintain a proper diet, so I committed many mistakes. First time I travelled in the van, I didn’t even had a stove. Over the years, I ended-up learning a few things, some by advice from seniors, others by trial and error.
Initially, I started eating only kichiri and fruits. I would cook a big quantity of it, eat in the morning and eat again the same kichiri in the evening, after coming back from book distribution. It may look as a convenient arrangement, but soon I discovered it is not such a good idea. Apart from eating old prasadam, I was eating the same morning and evening. As a result my diet was unbalanced, with too much rice and too little vegetables.
One thing that I learned at that time is to, as far as possible, it's better to avoid eating the same thing in two consecutive meals. By eating different food groups in different meals, we assure that the body gets a variety of nutrients. Another mistake is to base too much of the diet in the same ingredients (too much rice, for example). This makes the meals poor in nutrients. To eat a good variety of foodstuffs (especially fruits and vegetables) is one of the secrets for good health.
Having learned this, I changed the routine, starting to eat kichiri only in the morning. In the evening, I would eat uncooked prasadam, combining fruits, milk, nuts, seeds, granola, vegetables, olives, cheese, dried fruits etc. One day I could eat milk with fruits, nuts and granola, with a few raw carrots or cucumbers and the other make a big salad with olives and cheese, for example. The secret, I learned, was to vary in this second meal (since the morning was always kichiri), achieving thus a more balanced diet.
It’s essential to eat every day a good quantity of fruits and vegetables, since grains alone don’t provide all the nutrients the body needs. By following this system, we can eat some vegetables in the morning in the kichiri (it’s good to augment it with a few raw vegetables, like carrots or cucumbers) and eat more vegetables, or fruits in the evening. In my case, I tend to prefer big fruits that can be cut in half and eaten with a spoon, like papayas, melons, watermelons, avocados (that are available at reasonable prices in Brazil most of the year) and so on. They are very practical for traveling sankirtana. Seeds that can be eaten raw, like chia seeds and sesame seeds are another important addition.
The idea is to keep it simple, to not have to cook a second time. There are two principles that we should combine when defining our meals. One is to eat in a healthy way, that nourishes the body. Another is to do things in a simple and efficient way, so we have more time for book distribution, reading, and other devotional activities.
Another thing I learned is how to do the morning cooking without sacrificing much time out of my sadhana. It’s not convenient to cook multiple preparations in the van, so kichiri is the most convenient preparation, since it’s easy to make and easy to digest. One can’t eat anything heavy in the morning, but kichiri works surprisingly well. I leave the dhal or chickpeas soaking in water in the previous evening, so in the morning I just need to add the rice and vegetables and leave it cooking while I chant my rounds. This way it actually takes very little time.
This routine of two meals a day, one with cooked food and the other with simpler prasadam is the one I believe is most suitable for the majority of book distributors. It is a system I followed for a long time, with good results.
Book distributors that have difficulty in staying many hours without eating may take a snack to eat during the day (nuts or raw carrots are a good option in this case) and older devotees may simplify furter, according to their needs.
The main principle is to keep it simple, so we can be effectively engaged in book distribution and spiritual activities, instead of just cooking, eating and sleeping.
Fasting has become some kind of tabu in our society, to the point that many devotees really think that they may die if they try to fast on Ekadasi, Janmastami or Gaura Purnima. There is some purpose in fasting, however, otherwise it would not be recommended in the scriptures, nor by our acaryas.
Some of the fastings prescribed for us go until noon, others until sunset and others until midnight (Janmastami) or the next-day (Ekadasis). All these fastings have a dual-purpose. The main purpose is to focus our attention on spiritual practice and thus progress. We are supposed to read the Krsna Book on Janmastami, chant extra rounds on Ekadasis and so on. However, there is also a secondary purpose, that is to help devotees to conserve their health and avoid becoming overweight.
The main point about fasting is to use common sense. If one decides to fast the whole day and eat twenty pieces of pizza at night, or to fast one day and eat double in the next, this will do much more harm than good. When breaking the fast, and in the subsequent days, our prasadam needs to be healthy and easy to digest: kichiri, vegetables, fruits, milk, nuts, etc. If one takes healthy prasadam, it will be difficult to overeat, and the result will be positive.
This is probably the most difficult part of this system: to be able to exert self-control. Once, there was a lady that decided to follow a vrata of eating only once per day for Kartika. She decided to take prasadam in the morning, with the other devotees in the temple. The problem is that she would be so anxious that she could eat only once, that she would try to eat as much as possible. She started eating so much that she would be unwell the rest of the day, just resting in bed without being able to do any practical service. She was eating more than she would normally eat three meals! Not a very healthy practice.
As mentioned in the Srimad Bhagavatam, human beings store food in their bellies. As time passes, the tendency is that we start to slowly gain weight. This extra weight, in turn, makes us feel tired and lazy, and is not considered favorable for the development of our Krsna consciousness. As Srila Prabhupada explains:
We can definitely see that to advance in Krsna consciousness one must control his bodily weight. If one becomes too fat, it is to be assumed that he is not advancing spiritually. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura severely criticized his fat disciples. The idea is that one who intends to advance in Krsna consciousness must not eat very much. Devotees used to go to forests, high hills or mountains on pilgrimages, but such severe austerities are not possible in these days. One should instead eat only prasada and no more than required. According to the Vaisnava calendar, there are many fasts, such as Ekadasi and the appearance and disappearance days of God and His devotees. All of these are meant to decrease the fat within the body so that one will not sleep more than desired and will not become inactive and lazy. Overindulgence in food will cause a man to sleep more than required. This human form of life is meant for austerity, and austerity means controlling sex, food intake, etc. In this way time can be saved for spiritual activity, and one can purify himself both externally and internally. Thus both body and mind can be cleansed. (SB 4.28.35-36 purport)
There is a multitude of repair processes in the body that start only twelve hours after the last meal. It starts to burn fat, the rate of repair in damaged tissues increases dramatically, existing cells are repaired, new neurons grow in the brain (fasting is probably the only thing that triggers the growth of new neurons), accumulated toxins are thrown out, defective immune and blood cells are reabsorbed (and later replaced), and different alien organisms living inside the body are attacked and digested. Even eventual cancer cells have a hard time, since not only are they being deprived of their source of nutrition (glucose), but are also attacked by the body, that wants to use them for energy.
The Ayurveda explains that all disease comes from the accumulation of Ama, a heavy, sticky, toxic waste that accumulates in our digestive tract and can eventually overflow into our channels and tissues. Ama is a byproduct of bad digestion, generated especially when one frequently eats again before the previous meal is properly digested. Fastings are, according to Ayurveda, a very effective way to reduce Ama. For this, regular short fasts of one, two or three days are recommended. That’s in line with the fastings we are recommended to follow according to the Vaishnava calendar.
Fasting also gives spiritual benefits, calming the mind and helping one ascend to the mode of goodness. It reduces bodily identification, helping enormously to develop renunciation. One who can fast regularly (and control his tongue, eating only simple food in the remaining days, without overeating) will have much more facility in controlling his mind and advancing in Krsna consciousness.
It’s said that amongst the senses, the tongue is the most voracious and difficult to control. Srila Prabhupada explains (NoI 1, purport) that the tongue, the belly, and the genitals form a straight line. The bodily demands begin with the tongue, therefore if one can restrain the demands of the tongue, the urges of the belly and the genitals can automatically be controlled. Once one can develop sufficient mental control to control his eating, learning to fast when necessary without becoming anxious, he becomes also capable of controlling his senses in other areas, which makes his practice of Krsna consciousness much easier. This is important both for brahmacharis and for householders, since in Krsna consciousness both are supposed to be able to control their senses.
It's not a coincidence that the scriptures prescribe a number of days for fasting (Ekadasi, appearance and disappearance days, etc.). And it's not only in our scriptures: both the Old and New Testament, as well as the Koran, prescribe fastings in a number of days. Christ was teaching it, Buddha was teaching it. The Muslims even follow a type of intermittent fasting for 30 days in a row during the Ramadan every year (when they eat only after sunset). Fasting is supposed to be an integral part of our spiritual practice.
There is a physiological mechanism that makes fasting difficult for one who is not used to it. Our bodies can work on two types of fuel: carbohydrates and fats. Once the body becomes accommodated in receiving food at regular intervals, it gets used to burning only carbohydrates and becomes sluggish in burning fat. Therefore, the day we don’t eat, we feel hungry and weak. Once we can successfully fast for a few times, the body becomes better at burning fat from our bellies, and we don’t have so much discomfort when fasting. As the body becomes more slender, it starts to work in a more efficient way, and we don’t need to eat so much to maintain it. This is one of the main secrets of eating in a moderated way, which is something that Srila Prabhupada recommends in numerous passages.
When I was younger, It used to be easy to distribute for 8 or 9 hours for several consecutive days, but as I got older it started to become harder. One way that I found to extend it is to distribute for 6 consecutive days and then rest and do a water fast on the 7th day. When I fast, the body recovers much better, so the practical result is that I can do more days of book distribution. Usually, I match these days of fasting with Ekadasis or other days of fasting, so I can fast on the appropriate day and both purposes can be accomplished.
Normally, we think that we need to eat more on the resting days to regain energy but, most of the time, what the body really needs is a break from the hard work of digesting all these mountains of prasadam that we normally eat. To digest food takes a lot of energy. Actually, the days when we don’t eat are a rest for the body, since without the need for spending energy for digesting food, the body becomes free to take out the toxins and recover. The extra energy is used for healing.
Unless one is doing nirjala for Ekadasi, it’s important to drink water when fasting. Not only this helps the body with its cleansing process, but it avoids many of the unpleasant effects of occasional fasting. Normally, our bodies need from two to three liters of liquids daily. We generally don’t need to drink so much because we get a lot of water from the food. When we are fasting, normally we need to drink more water than on a regular day. It's also important to be careful when breaking the fast, starting with a little bit of juice or diluted milk and gradually progressing to heavier foodstuffs.
If water fasting is too difficult, there is the option to start with partial fastings, taking only fruits and milk, or only natural juices, and from there see where to go based on the responses of the body. As in many other things in life, it’s much better to do things slowly, in a way that is sustainable (mode of goodness), than to try to do things in abrupt ways.
For someone who never fasted, a fast may sound scary, but if one gets used to it, fasting becomes relatively easy. The body gets used to burning fat for energy, therefore when the time for a fast comes, it is well prepared. Fastings are difficult only for the first few times.
In any case, one essential point about fasting is that it should be one’s own decision. If you are convinced that fasting can help in your spiritual life, you may fast and accept any risk or inconvenience that may be caused by your decision. Many devotees that I know fast regularly and are perfectly healthy and happy in their spiritual lives.
Naturally, fasting is recommended only for ones with healthy bodies. If someone is diseased, or in any kind of debilitating condition, he should take whatever is favorable for his health. There are also certain types of bodies that are not so favorable for fastings. One who has a vata constitution will have much more difficulties (and probably less physical benefits) than someone who has kapha constitution, for example. Usually, this type is energetic and skinny, therefore the body has fewer reserves. There are also cases of devotees with health conditions that make fasting not recommendable. Srila Prabhupada himself explained that if one becomes too weak, he may take fruits and milk, in other words, do a partial fasting (Lilamrta, vol. 2). As in many things in spiritual life, one should use his common sense, and, as Srila Prabhupada once said, “if you have none then consult with others” (letter, 25 October 1976).
Another point is that one should fast only if he can do his fasting without interrupting his service. There is not much point in fasting if this is going to prevent one doing his book distribution, for example. The idea is that by fasting regularly, we condition our bodies and minds, enabling us to serve normally even when fasting. This results in very important spiritual benefits, that help on other spheres in spiritual life.
In one sense, fasting is a secondary principle, but on another, it is an important part of our spiritual process that we should try to follow as far as possible. All our acaryas were observing fasting on the appropriate days and were recommending it to their disciples. Even when sick, Srila Prabhupada would observe fasting on Janmastami, Gaura Purnima and other days, and would recommend it to his disciples.
The problem with speaking about fastings and other types of restrictions and austerities is that it can be easily misused. The main danger is when people try to impose it on others, without considering each person's particular situation and requirements. For example, in the early days there were cases of authorities starving devotees, with the excuse of teaching them to be austere. This is something that each of us should try to develop individually, according to the constitution of our bodies and minds.
One point in which our movement evolved since the days of yore is on applying the philosophy in a more personal way. In the early days, frequently devotees would try to impose their particular views of spiritual life on others. Nowadays, we are evolving in the direction of a more personal approach, inspiring and guiding instead of forcing. Here I'm giving some information and conclusions that were helpful for me. I trust that you can consider these points and apply what is favourable to your particular situation without feeling pressured, and that you will not try to impose it on others.
The main principle is that we should keep our bodies fit to perform our service. Especially when devotees are starting, it’s much more effective to inspire then to do service (a positive approach) than to try to convince them to perform austerities (which is a negative approach). However, as we get older, we start to become more spiritually mature and, at the same time, the needs of the body gradually diminish. As a result, austerity starts to become more useful for spiritual realization.
One point that Srila Prabhupada emphasized in quite a few purports is that to become fat is not favorable for our spiritual advancement. As he mentioned, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati used to severely chastise his fat disciples.
If one is becoming fat, he should reduce his eating. There are three ways to reduce eating: to eat less at each meal, to eat less meals (eat only three times per day, without snacks, eat only two times per day, or even to eat only one time per day, according to one’s body constitution) or to fast regularly on Ekadasis and other appropriate days. One may choose one of these, or a combination of two or three alternatives, at his discretion.
An easy way to lose weight is to eat only one time per day during a certain period, like the Muslims do during the Ramadan. This is one of the vratas one can do for Kartika or for the month of Purushottama, for example, which awards one great spiritual merits. If one can do it correctly, it’s also a great way to improve his health. Ideally, one can do it in the resting month, when he can just focus on his sadhana. Kartika is a good period for it, since it is right before the marathon. The most common in such cases is for one to eat only one time in the afternoon or evening.
The main point in this case is to take food that is healthy and easy to digest and, especially, eating moderately (don’t do like the lady did in her vrata for Kartika). A good strategy is to start with fruits (that are easy to digest, and thus appropriate after a long period without eating), wait a little, then eat some vegetables (like a salad or sabji) and a few nuts, and only them eat the heavy prasadam (rice, dhal, etc.) This way, we can have a balanced meal, with all the different food groups.
The biggest danger of fasting is to eat junk food afterwards. If one does that, he will not only undo the benefits of the fast, but may actually cause harm to his body. This is especially important if one is going to try eating only one time per day, since this is basically a daily fast. If one has cravings and can't avoid eating junk food, it's better to first fix his eating habits, by first increasing the amounts of vegetables and healthy foods. Cravings are frequently a sign of deficiency in nutrients (lack of potassium, for example, makes one desire to eat sweets) and they tend to become a snowball, since by eating junk food one just increase the deficiencies. The way to escape is to break the routine, starting to eat healthy food, especially vegetables. Simple by eating healthy for a few weeks, the cravings should decrease substantially.
If one is mentally strong, he can do his normal activities during this period (if you are not doing anything extreme, it’s even possible to distribute books normally). I know devotees who eat once per day during long periods exactly as a way to improve their health and have more time for spiritual practices.
One may panic, saying that this can be unhealthy, but the Muslims do this every year on Ramadan, and we don’t see cases of Muslims dying because of that (quite the opposite, there is a lot of material written by Muslins exalting the health benefits of fasting during Ramadan). Similarly, fasting has been practiced by Buddhist monks, Christians and other groups throughout the centuries. If it was something bad, the scriptures would not recommend it. There is always the possibility that someone will do something foolish, therefore I’m quoting Srila Prabhupada again: “Use common sense and if you have none then consult with others.”
Apart from fasts, vratas and special periods, we should eat every day a combination of different food groups, including a good amount of fruits and vegetables, milk, grains, nuts, and ghee. As mentioned, it's better to not eat the same thing in two meals of the same day, keeping variety. Another principle to apply is about making meals balanced and to not eat junk food.
To avoid becoming overweight is actually an essential point for book distributors. It is already hard enough to continue distributing books after our 40 or 45 years, when the body starts to become old. If on top of that we add 10, 20 or 30 extra kilos, it is going to be thrice as difficult to continue. Too much fat in the body makes us tired and apathetic, not a very good combination for spiritual life, much less for book distribution.
“To be too fat is not very good for spiritually advanced life. Rather, one should reduce because if one becomes fat it is an impediment to progress in spiritual understanding. One should be careful not to eat too much, sleep too much or remain in a comfortable position. Voluntarily accepting some penances and difficulties, one should take less food and less sleep. These are the procedures for practicing any kind of yoga, whether bhakti-yoga, jnana-yoga or hatha-yoga.” (SB 3.33.14, purport)
When one is young, the body can take a lot of abuse. We may eat cake with lassi for breakfast, puris with fried potatoes at lunch, and pizza for dinner (with a few sweets and snacks in between), and still be able to function. However, as we get older, the body becomes much more sensible. It comes to a point (for most people it is around their 40’s) where we have to choose between cakes, pizzas and fried samosas and book distribution. The ones who choose wisely may be able to continue distributing for 10, 20 or even 30 years more. Others often end up stopping book distribution due to health issues.
To keep our body weight, and other aspects of good health, is an important aspect of our sadhana for book distribution. We should do it as an offering to Krsna, meditating that we are taking care of the machine He gave to us to be engaged in His service.
As Srila Prabhupada explains, apart from the health and spiritual benefits, to eat less also helps us to reduce sleep, which is also crucial for spiritual advancement, since it allows us to reserve more of the precious morning hours for spiritual practice. A sincere devotee may be able to go to sleep at 8:00 or 9:00 pm and wake-up at 2:00 am for example, and thus have time to chant 16 rounds and study a little even before everyone else starts to wake up.
When someone is new, the general recommendation is that he should eat a lot of prasadam, so he can lose the taste for mundane food and get attached to spiritual life. As one progresses, however, austerity becomes more and more useful as a way to control our senses and progress to higher levels of devotional service. We can observe that most of our acharyas (and even many of our contemporary spiritual masters) underwent several austerities at periods of their lives. Naturally, we should not try to imitate, but if we can follow their example by as far as possible, trying to control our eating and sleeping, we can progress faster in spiritual practice.
In short, what I learned during these years is that if we want to maintain the health of the body to serve Krsna, the first step is to eliminate all refined vegetable oils from our diet (use ghee or butter, in moderation) cut down drastically on sugar (use honey and dates instead, also in moderation), use whole grains instead of white wheat flour (and try to reduce or eliminate the use of refined carbohydrates in general), add some nuts, and increase the amount of fruits and vegetables (organic if possible). Reduce or eliminate the snacks, limiting yourself to eat just two or three times per day at regular times. After a short adjustment period, you are going to have much more energy to serve and a much better health.
It’s also important to eat freshly cooked prasadam and avoid eating from the fridge as much as possible. For this, it’s important to learn how to cook simple preparations quickly, so we can take fresh prasadam at every meal. Any kind of processed food is a no-no.
The next step is to try to find the exact amount of food the body needs, and adjust accordingly. As Krsna explains in the Bhagavad-Gita, one can’t perform yoga if he eats too much, or eats too little. This is something that can be noted not only in human beings, but also in animals. If there is no food, they starve, and their consciousness become focussed on food. If there is a lot of food available, they overeat, become sleepy and propense to sexual activity. However, if the food is just sufficient, they remain healthy and active. Therefore, the key for success is to be able to identify how much the body needs and give just as much. It's better to err by eating a little less than by exaggerating, since it's easy to just eat more if necessary.
One who eats too little may become emaciated and weak, but one who eats too much will become fat and diseased. Nowadays is much more common to see overweight devotees than emaciated devotees, so the priority for most of us should be to become more disciplined in our eating habits. To fast regularly on Ekadasis and other appropriate days help enormously on that, giving both material and spiritual benefits.
My experience is that these steps, combined with some attention to the signals of the body and regular resting periods can greatly extend one’s book distribution career.
Sometimes, traveling sankirtana devotees may start to develop an elitist mentality, thinking that temples are unnecessary burdens and that everybody should just leave everything and do traveling preaching. In the 1970s there was the famous Radha Damodara party, probably the most successful traveling sankirtana party of all times, with a dozen fully equipped buses, each one working as a mobile temple. However, the group became the center of a huge controversy when the temple presidents started to strongly complain that the brahmacharis of the group were stealing devotees from the temples, and using a style of preaching, amongst devotees, that was derogatory against women and family life. The tension grew to the point that Srila Prabhupada had to personally intervene.
This strife between traveling sankirtana devotees and temples tends to be reignited periodically in different places. The reason is frequently a lack of understanding of the role and importance of the temples to our society. As pointed out in the topic about training new book distributors, before someone can become effective as a preacher, he first needs to receive training and become stable as a devotee. It is possible to give such training in grassroots programs, like bhakti-vriksa groups, but a temple makes everything much more structured.
Our goal is to go back to Godhead, but for most of us, this is a long trip. Actually, the process is very simple, as Krsna explains in the Bhagavad-Gita: “Just surrender unto Me”, but because we are complicated, the process for us also becomes complicated. First, we need to go through bhajana-kriya, then through anartha nivritti, become purified and then start to develop love for Krsna. In the meantime, there is so much mental disturbance, fall downs, etc.
We understand that there are three levels of devotees: kanistha, madhyama and uttama. For most of us, it’s better not to think so much about the uttama stage. Not only is it too distant for us, but also this level can be attained only through mercy, that usually comes only after dedicating our lives to the mission. It’s better to focus on the first two levels, which are the levels that we can understand and follow.
Sometimes, we hear bad things about kanistha adhikari devotees, including passages from the books: neophyte, low level of devotion and so on. Naturally, when you compare a searchlight with the sun, the searchlight looks insignificant, but when there is no sun, the searchlight can be very useful, illuminating a large area at night. Similarly, the kanistha adhikari platform is quite good: it means following devotional service, worshiping, chanting, learning and developing love for Krsna. It’s just that the scriptures and our acaryas want us to go further, therefore they sometimes speak about it in a negative way, but it’s not that it is bad, it’s just not the best. In any case, if one doesn’t first get fixed on this third level, it’s not possible for him to advance to the second stage, therefore it’s a necessary step in our spiritual life. For some it may be very quick, for others it may take several lives, but everyone needs to go through it.
What does it mean to follow the third level of devotional service? First thing is to understand that the Deity is Krsna Himself, it’s not an idol or some figurative representation: it’s God in person. Then we learn how to pay our respects and to worship Krsna. We understand that Krsna has a form and that we can serve and have a relationship with Him. From there we start to develop love.
It’s important that the worship of the deity is done following the proper rules and regulations, with all awe and reverence. Just like when someone invites the king to his house: he needs to follow the proper etiquette, he can’t just do whatever he wants and neglect him. It’s very difficult to follow the proper process of worship at home, with just one or two persons involved, therefore it’s usually more recommended that devotees keep simple altars at home and participate in the worship in the temple as much as possible.
"So far your deity-worship of Lord Jagannatha, don't bother with it for the time being, that is my opinion. Householders can have small altars, and Guru-Gauranga and Jagannatha may be worshipped, but you should not spend a lot of time in this way to try to make the worship "first-class" as you say. You cannot make it first-class. That requires much time and money and men, so better to leave the worshipping of deities very nicely to the temples, and you may go there and worship. A small Guru-Gauranga altar, offer incense and flowers in morning, offer all home-prepared foodstuffs there--that's enough for the time being. Better to spend time chanting and following the other regulative principles and preaching and selling books”. (Srila Prabhupada Letter to Mangalamaya and Madhupuri, 20 February 1972)
Therefore we need temples, where there are many devotees around and where it’s possible to follow the proper standards, and thus give a chance to new members and to the general public to visit, participate and learn how to be devotees, with the proper mentality and the proper standards, to become pious and to advance spiritually.
“This small boy, he has nothing, no understanding what is Krsna, but because he's dancing, because he's chanting, sometimes he's ringing the bell, these are pious activities. Automatically they'll do. So many people. Therefore temple is required. Temple is required. The innocent persons, those who are neophyte, for them, temple worship is essential. By seeing the Deity, by offering obeisances to the Deity, by taking caranamrta, by ringing the bell, by dancing, by taking little prasadam, by touching the feet of Vaisnava or touching the body of Vais..., in this way they're getting piety. This chance is given therefore to the ordinary... There is no question of becoming muni in the beginning. How it, one can be? It is not possible. Therefore Deity worship, temple worship, essential for the common general people. Simply by their coming, visiting and doing something, they'll be pious”. (Srila Prabhupada, lecture on SB 1.8.20 -- 30 September 1974)
By coming to the temple, doing service and associating with devotees, one develops a taste for chanting the holy names and hearing about Krsna. Some sincere souls may be able to adopt the process just by reading some of our books, or just by associating with traveling preachers who are visiting their cities, but most people need to have this training in the temple to become serious about devotional service. Therefore, temples are a fundamental part of our preaching, and they are essential to firmly establish devotional practices in a particular location.
“The neophytes, while serving the Supreme Lord with great faith, attain the mercy of the Lord. Then they get the opportunity to gradually give up their material conceptions. At that time, the desire for sense enjoyment, the performance of pious activities, and even the position of a mundane impersonalist who searches after Brahman appear insignificant to these kanistha adhikari Vaisnavas. They then become detached from material objects. Then their pride born of varna and wealth as well as their material sense gratification begin to diminish. While cultivating spiritual life, the materialistic Vaisnavas change their platform just as a leech changes its color.” (Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, Brahmana and Vaishnava)
Naturally, to fill their role properly, the temples should have very high standards, giving visitors the realization that “Here is God”, “Something important is happening here”. Srila Prabhupada was insisting strongly on this point, that our temples should have the highest standards. If we keep everything very nice, clean, opulent and devotional in our temples, automatically people who visit will feel attracted. Then our preaching effort becomes effective: devotees go out to distribute books and do other preaching activities, some people get interested and come to the temple, and by seeing such a nice atmosphere there, they get attracted to devotional life.
“So we have to keep ourselves always in the fire of Krsna consciousness; then everything is alright. (laughs) Otherwise, it will become dull and it will be simply idol worship. That's all. That is the difference between idol worship and Deity worship. If there is no life, then it is idol worship, hedonism. And when there is life, feeling, "Where is Krsna? Here is Krsna. Oh, I have to serve Krsna, I have to dress Him, I have to serve Radharani, She is here. Oh, I must do it very nicely. And as far as possible decorate Her to the best capacity." In this way, if you always feel Krsna conscious, then you are fire. The same example, keeping with the fire. And if you think it is a brass-made doll, I mean to say, idol... Ye yatha mam prapadyante tams tathaiva bhajamy aham [Bg. 4.11]. If you think this is a brass-made idol, then it will remain a brass-made idol to you forever”. (Srila Prabhupada, Installation of Sri Sri Rukmini Dvarakanatha, 16 July 1969)
HG Srutakirti Prabhu: When Srila Prabhupada arrived at the temple in Caracas, Venezuela it was like an instant replay of his arriving in Mexico City. He took darshan of the Deities and later in his room sampled the maha prasadam. Again Srila Prabhupada said, "These puris are terrible, the vegetable is horrible. This prasadam is not good. Deity worship must be first class. You must worship the Deity very nicely!" Again I was surprised as this was so unusual for Srila Prabhupada to reprimand his disciples saying they must improve the Deity worship. Either way, Srila Prabhupada very kindly encouraged his pious young disciples so that they could make advancement on the spiritual path.
It was never that Srila Prabhupada was upset with us and we were doomed. He would stress the importance of performing our service with care and attention. This is the example that our beloved Spiritual Master gave us. Everything Srila Prabhupada did was with the utmost of attention and devotion to the Lord. (Srila Prabhupada Uvaca)
By keeping the proper standards and by having motivated devotees, we can inspire the public to come, get inspiration and participate. From there, many will eventually become serious devotees. Later, when they become more mature, having attained stability in devotional practice, they can be raised to the second level, by learning how to become preachers. When the foundation is ready, one can start to build the house. By preaching, by becoming fixed on the second platform, eventually some may be able to ascend to the first platform. These are going to be the gurus and leaders of tomorrow.
One important difference between a neophyte and a full-fledged preacher is that the neophyte can see Krsna only in the temple. When he comes to the temple he understands: “Now I’m with Krsna”. The problem is that when he goes outside he thinks: “Oh, now I’m separated, now I can’t serve Krsna”. Therefore, it’s difficult for him to keep his devotional life outside the temple. As soon as he goes out, he starts to lose his energy, to lose his heat. But someone who is very fixed on the second platform can understand that “Krsna is in my heart”. Therefore, he understands that he is never separated from Krsna, “Krsna is always with me”. With this realization, he can go anywhere and preach, he never feels alone or separated from the Lord. Even if he is alone, he doesn’t have problems to wake-up early to chant his rounds and do his spiritual practice, nor does he get demotivated in executing his service.
"We can see that due to their cultivation of spiritual life, the madhyama adhikaris see the same Deity form as the kanistha adhikaris, yet with more mature spiritual vision. On that platform they do not consider the Deity as made of material elements. They then experience contact with the spiritual entity in their own existence and become qualified to discriminate between the different positions of the different devotees. Being situated on such a platform, they love all living entities, make friendship with those who are inclined towards Krsna, benefit others by preaching devotional service to Krsna, and give up the association of persons averse to the Lord. At this juncture they face various obstacles. Sometimes they are subdued by self-worshiping Mayavadis, sometimes they are condemned by foolish pious people, and sometimes they are attacked by unregulated persons who are simply absorbed in eating and drinking."
"The madhyama adhikaris gladly tolerate these disturbances and by the mercy of Krsna never deviate from the service of Hari. Since the madhyama adhikari's position is more fixed than the neophytes, who are prone to fall down, they cannot be threatened by persons who averse to Hari. The madhyama adhikaris realize that the Lord is situated in their hearts. As caitya guru -in the heart of the devotees, Lord Krsnacandra attracts them, considering them His own. By the mercy of Hari, the spiritual master, and the Vaisnavas, the madhyama adhikaris attain complete transcendental realization. In ordinary language this is called self-realization." (Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, Brahmana and Vaishnava)
If we put a third class devotee to live with karmis, without association with other devotees, he will slack his spiritual practices after some time, or even abandon spiritual life altogether. On the other hand, if we put a second class devotee in such a situation, he will start to preach and make devotees. After some time, there will be a small congregation there. It’s the karmis that will start to become devotees because of his association, not the opposite. It’s not that the second class devotee is a super-human being that can’t fall down (even very advanced devotees can fall down sometimes if they are not careful), but because he is fixed in his determination, his position is stable. As Krsna explains in Bg 2.41: “Those who are on this path are resolute in purpose, and their aim is one.”
Srila Prabhupada makes the point that a preacher can go even to hell to preach, and still he will be happy. Of course, that’s not something that we can achieve from one day to the next, but it should be our goal. And the way to develop that is by the preaching activities themselves. By facing challenges and difficulties and seeing that Krsna always helps, we start to really trust Him and understand that He is always there.
HG Satyaraja Prabhu: After a while, the two ISKCON compatriots split up, with Ghanashyama going to Eastern Europe. There he distributed Prabhupada’s books in communist countries, where in most cases religion was banned. He lived his Krishna conscious life in secret, and in austere conditions. In Russia he lived on public trains, going from one to another throughout the night, chanting his rounds in public bathrooms. Despite all contrary odds, he continued to distribute with great success, remaining the top Library Party salesman. His determination and positive results brought great pleasure to Srila Prabhupada. (Article: The Exemplary Life of Bhakti-tirtha Swami)
The combination of temples with solid standards and empowered traveling preachers is very powerful. The preachers attract new persons, the temples offer training and a place to practice spiritual life, and at the same time by visiting and giving classes, association, etc. the preachers inspire the temple devotees to keep advancing to higher levels, without getting accommodated. Then, the ones who are ready can also become preachers, and at the same time, the preachers who become too old for traveling preaching may stay in the temples and assist in the training of new devotees, creating a virtuous cycle.
One essential factor, not only in book distribution but in spiritual life in general, is to have senior friends that can help us to grow and to avoid the dangers on the path. None of us are the first devotee in history. Many devotees are older or more experienced than us. They faced problems and difficulties in spiritual life, they surpassed such challenges, and they learned from their experiences. If we can learn from them, we can avoid having to make the same mistakes.
The relationship with the diksa guru, or with a siksa guru is formal, based on awe and reverence. We are happy to stay close to the guru and learning from him, and he teaches us just like a father. Even though the guru is the most essential link in our Krsna consciousness, we also need to have friends, that enable us to grow properly. Just like a child, that needs friends almost as much as he needs the parents. The friends and parents have distinct roles in the development of the child, and both are essential.
As mentioned in the second chapter, one problem that we have is the tendency to just use socialization as a substitute for healthy spiritual association. Therefore, when we speak about friends we may have the idea of buddies with whom we go to the beach. That’s not what I’m talking about here.
Spiritual friends means devotees whose qualities we admire and whose personalities we love, devotees who we trust, with who we can share our spiritual realizations, inquire about our difficulties, discuss different philosophical points, chant together, share prasadam, do spiritual activities together, preach together. Spiritual friends means like-minded devotees, with who we can share and learn.
The relationship with such friends is different than a relationship with the spiritual master. Respect is present, but the relationship is not based on formality. One may disagree, present contrary arguments, make jokes and so on. It has a different flavor. We can learn from the friends who are senior to us, or who are more experienced in specific areas of spiritual life. We can cooperate with like-minded friends who share similar realizations, and we can assist and engage friends who are newer than us.
Senior friends are especially necessary. It’s not that we have to commit every possible mistake to be able to do anything in life. Senior friends can teach and guide us, making our spiritual path much easier. If you are starting with book distribution, try to approach someone who has been distributing for a long time. Go with him, learn from him. If you are planning to start traveling in a van, talk with someone who is already doing that, try to get information and advice from him. If you are wanting to get married, approach devotees who are successful in their family lives. Inquire about their realizations, learn about the dangers on the path. If we do that, we can go very far in our Krsna consciousness. One who is too scared, or too proud to ask is missing out.
Life in the spiritual world is based on relationships. Devotees that don’t cultivate warm relationships with other devotees, who isolate themselves, tend to develop a conceited or critical mentality over time, which is not favorable for our spiritual life. Unless one is self-realized and developed a personal relationship with Krsna, he needs to develop relationships with devotees that are living here. Lack of relationships makes one inclined to impersonalism, that is the greatest danger on our spiritual path.
If we don’t have good friends in Krsna consciousness, the tendency is that we are going to look for friends outside. That’s why people go through so many troubles to try to build a family: everyone has the need of having a home. Even when things are going bad, they tend to stick with their family members, to take shelter by them. Similarly, we should feel that this movement is our family, our home, a place we are not going to leave, even if there are difficulties. We should love other devotees and have devotees who love us. Without this, we may wake up one day and ask ourselves: “What am I doing here? I don’t like anyone, and nobody likes me that much either. Maybe I should look for better things outside”. Many promising devotees fell into this trap in the past, including even a few of our leaders. This is a real danger, even for one advanced in spiritual life. As declared by Lord Caitanya, this movement is destined to be a success. The holy name is going to be chanted in every town and village. The only question is: Are we going to be part of that success, or are we going to be part of the casualties?
As mentioned in the 3rd chapter, book distribution means to share the happiness we feel inside with people. We have to be happy in spiritual life to be able to share this ecstasy with the people we meet. To be happy, we need to have healthy spiritual relationships. If we are not happy, we are not going to be able to attract people to Krsna consciousness, and thus our preaching capacity will be seriously hampered. Therefore, even if one prefers to be depressed, he should become happy for the sake of others.
To have good friendships is essential, especially for brahmacharis and others following a renounced life. A grhastha may be able to go by without friends if he has healthy relationships with the members of his family, but if a brahmachari doesn’t cultivate healthy relationships with like-minded devotees, his mind will pull him towards relationships with ladies. Over the years I saw many unfortunate cases of brahmacharis that would cultivate secret relationships with ladies over the internet, becoming hypocrites. If one is determined to maintain his asrama, to cultivate good relationships is often a matter of success or failure.
Naturally, the problem starts when we use friends as a substitute for other components of our spiritual life. Just as we should have good friends, we have to study the books from Srila Prabhupada, we must have a spiritual master and follow his instructions, we must maintain a good sadhana, etc. We can’t take instructions from senior friends as a substitute for studying, we can’t use them as a replacement for our relationship with the guru, nor can we use their association as an excuse to not perform our sadhana. As in other spheres of spiritual life, the secret is to be balanced.
The main secret to make spiritual friends is to cultivate a bee mentality, instead of a fly mentality. With the exception of a few perfect souls who walk amongst us, every devotee has a combination of good qualities and bad qualities. One who focuses on the bad qualities of others, will end up coming to the conclusion that he is the best devotee (which is actually a symptom of someone in a very low position), while someone who focuses on the good qualities can appreciate all and learn from everyone. Material consciousness means to envy and compete for supremacy, while spiritual consciousness means to admire and cooperate.
When Duryodhana was asked by Dronacharya to find someone who is higher than him, he tried hard, but could not find anyone. He was so conceited, that he could not see good qualities in others. When Yudhisthira Maharaja was asked to find someone who was lower than him, he also came back empty-handed. Being able to see the good qualities in others, he came to the conclusion that everyone could do something better than him. Someone who has such a mentality can cooperate with and learn from everyone, just like the brahmana avadhuta mentioned in the 11th canto of Srimad Bhagavatam. He was able to learn valuable spiritual instructions even from birds, fish and a prostitute.