Preaching, Book Distribution, and the Ultimate Goal
Caitanya Chandra dasa
First edition: 2019
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Lord Caitanya came to personally inaugurate and spread the sankirtana movement, but He never stepped out of India. That’s His mercy, so we could have the opportunity to serve Him by assisting Srila Prabhupada in his preaching mission. As he jokingly said one time:
“Devotee: Prabhupada, they said that if Caitanya Mahaprabhu wanted Krsna consciousness in the Western countries, why didn't He go there Himself? That's what they told us.
Srila Prabhupada: So He left the credit for me. (laughter)” (Morning Walk, Nellore, 4 January 1976)
This chapter is centered around the process of book distribution, with all the why’s, when’s and how’s. It includes ideas about how to interact with the public, how to present the books, ask for donations and so on, and also about traps and pitfalls on the path of book distribution as well as how to become more fixed and how to improve our results.
“I thank you very much for the good news. The enthusiasm of the devotees is a very good sign. The more they become enthused and anxious to preach the more they become Krishna conscious. Ya idam paramam guhyam mad-bhaktesv abhidhasyati, na ca tasman manusyesu kascin me priya-krttamah [Bg 18.68]. One who explains the supreme secret to the devotees is the most dear to Krsna and never will there be one more dear. So always keep them enthused in this book distribution. This pleases me very much”. (Srila Prabhupada, letter to Mahatma dasa, 22 September 1976)
In the Sri Caitanya Caritamrta (Madhya 7.128), Lord Caitanya orders us: "Instruct everyone to follow the orders of Lord Sri Krsna as they are given in the Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam. In this way become a spiritual master and try to liberate everyone in this land".
In the next verse, the Lord continues:
kabhu na badhibe tomara visaya-taranga
punarapi ei thani pabe mora sanga”
“Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu further advised the brahmana Kurma, "If you follow this instruction, your materialistic life at home will not obstruct your spiritual advancement. Indeed, if you follow these regulative principles, we will again meet here, or, rather, you will never lose My company." (CC Madhya 7.129)
Srila Prabhupada wrote a very beautiful purport for this verse:
“This is an opportunity for everyone. If one simply follows the instructions of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, under the guidance of His representative, and chants the Hare Krsna mantra, teaching everyone as far as possible the same principle, the contamination of the materialistic way of life will not even touch him. It does not matter whether one lives in a holy place like Vrndavana, Navadvipa or Jagannatha Puri or in the midst of European cities, where the materialistic way of life is very prominent. If a devotee follows the instructions of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, he lives in the company of the Lord. Wherever he lives, he converts that place into Vrndavana and Navadvipa. This means that materialism cannot touch him. This is the secret of success for one advancing in Krsna consciousness”.
A little later, in the same chapter, the Lord gives a similar instruction to the brahmana Vasudeva, who used to live in the same village. Vasudeva Vipra was suffering from leprosy, but by embracing him, Lord Caitanya simultaneously cured his disease and severed all his material attachments:
krsna upadesi’ kara jivera nistara
acirate krsna toma karibena angikara”
“Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu also advised Vasudeva to preach about Krsna and thus liberated living entities. As a result, Krsna would very soon accept him as His devotee.” (CC Madhya 7.148)
Purport: Although Vasudeva Vipra was a leper and had suffered greatly, still, after Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu cured him He instructed him to preach Krsna consciousness. Indeed, the only return the Lord wanted was that Vasudeva preach the instructions of Krsna and liberate all human beings. That is the process of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Each and every member of this Society was rescued from a very abominable condition, but now they are engaged in preaching the cult of Krsna consciousness. They are not only cured of the disease called materialism but are also living a very happy life. Everyone accepts them as great devotees of Krsna, and their qualities are manifest in their very faces. If one wants to be recognized as a devotee by Krsna, he should take to preaching work, following the advice of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. Then one will undoubtedly attain the lotus feet of Sri Krsna Caitanya, Lord Krsna Himself, without delay.
From this, we can understand that Krsna consciousness is a very great opportunity. Just by following Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, by practicing the principles of Krsna consciousness and teaching others, we can keep ourselves in a spiritual environment, even while living in a materialistic metropolis. By the mercy of Srila Prabhupada, we don't even need to be very eloquent or vastly proficient in the philosophy in order to preach, simply by distributing books we can do our part.
We understand that sankirtana means two things: harinama and book distribution. Both things are important and, in one sense, they are non-different, being on the transcendental plane. Yet, there is a difference in how the transcendental vibration expands from these two practices. When we do harinama, we chant for a few hours but eventually get tired. Even a very inspired kirtaniya has limits of endurance. At the same time, even with amplification, his voice can be heard for a limited distance, maybe a hundred or two hundred meters, but not much more. The books, on the other hand, chant continuously, 24 hours a day. That's why it's called brhat mrdanga: millions and millions of books chanting hari-katha 24 hours a day, in all corners of the world.
“According to Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, distributing literature is like playing on a great mrdanga. Consequently we always request members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness to publish as many books as possible and distribute them widely throughout the world. By thus following in the footsteps of Srila Rupa Gosvami, one can become a rupanuga devotee.” (CC Madhya 19.132 purport)
Our goal as devotees is to achieve Krsna prema, to join Krsna's pastimes in Goloka Vrindavana. However, this is normally a very high and difficult goal. In the Brhad Bhagavatamrta, we get the information that even extraordinarily exalted devotees, like Narada and Uddhava, aspire to join Krsna's pastimes there. The only real way for us is through the mercy of Lord Caitanya, who is easily satisfied when someone preaches Krsna consciousness.
When Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the great gardener, sees that people are chanting, dancing and laughing and that some of them are rolling on the floor and some are making loud humming sounds, He smiles with great pleasure. (CC Adi 9.50)
Purport: This attitude of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu is very important for persons engaged in the Hare Krsna movement of Krsna consciousness. In every center of our institution, ISKCON, we have arranged for a love feast every Sunday, and when we actually see people come to our center, chant, dance, take prasadam, become jubilant and purchase books, we know that certainly Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu is always present in such transcendental activities, and He is very pleased and satisfied. Therefore the members of ISKCON must increase this movement more and more, according to the principles that we are presently trying to execute. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, thus being pleased, will smilingly glance upon them, bestowing His favor, and the movement will be successful.
Srila Prabhupada put so much emphasis on book distribution, and usually we take this in the sense of spreading the movement and helping others. However, HH Tamal Krsna Goswami on one of his classes shares his realization about how book distribution is not just for the benefit of others, but for ourselves. He explains that Srila Prabhupada wanted us to preach so we could advance, get rid of our anarthas, develop humility and compassion, and attract the mercy of the previous acaryas. Srila Prabhupada wanted us to distribute books for our own sake, for our own advancement. As Maharaja writes in his book, Servant of the Servant:
"As we dropped off the remaining men at various locations around the city I appreciated more than ever before the great mercy of sankirtana. Though I had preached under a variety of circumstances in numerous countries around the world, this particular style of sankirtana -- going out on one's own and distributing Prabhupada's books -- seemed to be the most difficult of all. And because of this difficulty, the reward was that much greater. The added austerity increases the exchange between Lord Caitanya and His servant, because book distribution forces the devotee to take complete shelter of the Lord and of his spiritual master. And this total dependence was the greatest guarantee of Krsna's protection, because Krsna gives special consideration to those who risk the most. Just as front-line soldiers receive the greatest attention in time of war, so the soldiers of Lord Caitanya's sankirtana army were recipients of His special mercy. If anyone took complete shelter of sankirtana, then Lord Caitanya would be prepared to sell Himself out to such a devotee." (HH Tamal Krsna Maharaja, Servant of the Servant, ch. 15)
This point is also confirmed in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (8.7.44):
sadhavah prayaso janah
paramaradhanam tad dhi
It is said that great personalities almost always accept voluntary suffering because of the suffering of people in general. This is considered the highest method of worshiping the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is present in everyone's heart.
In the purport, Srila Prabhupada emphasises the point that to distribute Krsna consciousness is the ultimate welfare activity. When someone accepts this mission, despite any inconveniences, he becomes the recipient of the Lord's mercy.
“One should endeavor for that which is never obtained by wandering up and down the universe as a result of the reactions of karma. What is that? One should endeavor to become Krsna conscious. If one tries to spread Krsna consciousness all over the world, he should be understood to be performing the best welfare activity. The Lord is automatically very pleased with him. If the Lord is pleased with him, what is left for him to achieve? If one has been recognized by the Lord, even if he does not ask the Lord for anything, the Lord, who is within everyone, supplies him whatever he wants. This is also confirmed in Bhagavad-gita (tesam nityabhiyuktanam yoga-ksemam vahamy aham [Bg. 9.22]). Again, as stated here, tapyante loka-tapena sadhavah prayaso janah. The best welfare activity is raising people to the platform of Krsna consciousness, since the conditioned souls are suffering only for want of Krsna consciousness.” (SB 8.7.44 purport)
Srila Prabhupada once said that we can't imagine how much reciprocation from the parampara we get by distributing these books. By distributing books and preaching we can satisfy and get the mercy of all our disciplic succession, up to Lord Caitanya and Lord Nityananda, and if they are satisfied with our effort, they will give us at the time of death whatever is missing for us to go back to Godhead. Without their mercy, by sadhana alone, this can take many lifetimes.
“So I am so much pleased upon all of the boys and girls in Los Angeles and all over the world who are understanding and appreciating this unique quality of our transcendental literature and voluntarily they are going out to distribute despite all circumstances of difficulty. By this effort alone they are assured to go back to home, back to Godhead.” (Srila Prabhupada, letter to Ramesvara, January 9 1973)
The first important point about book distribution, in my realization, is that we can’t distribute what we don’t have. We go out to try to give people Krsna consciousness and to convince them about the importance of Srila Prabhupada’s books, but it’s not possible to do that if we ourselves are not Krsna conscious, and don’t have faith in his words.
According to the descriptions of different disciples of Srila Prabhupada who were in the movement in the 1970s, one of the major differences at those times was that devotees had a very strong faith in Srila Prabhupada’s words, and were very much into studying his books, anxiously waiting for new volumes to come. Devotees would read, discuss together different points, have mock philosophical disputes (where one would play the role of an atheist, impersonalist, etc. and the other one would try to defeat him using arguments from the books), and so on, and therefore they would quickly get a good understanding of the philosophy and become firmly convinced about the value of Srila Prabhupada’s books. By having such understanding and faith, they were able to present the books with conviction and therefore to inspire the public to take books and adopt Krsna consciousness.
It’s not always possible to have close association with Srila Prabhupada’s disciples, and many already left this planet. However, we can always associate with them through the Memories of Srila Prabhupada series, which contain the memories of numbers of disciples who had personal contact with him. By hearing from them, and from other devotees that have firm fate, we can get infused with the same spirit. That's the essence of the parampara system: the message is transmitted from one generation to the next thorough oral reception.
In any case, the progression is the same for us. The first step is to study the books, understand their value, get convinced about the philosophy and apply it to our own lives. We need to develop our connection with Srila Prabhupada and our faith in his words. From such faith, we will get the necessary conviction to go out and distribute his books. One who is not convinced himself will not be able to convince others. Actually, the opposite may happen: he may end up getting convinced by the people he is trying to preach to. This is what actually happens when we go on book distribution and become mental. This means that the conviction of the people on their materialistic activities is actually stronger than our determination in spreading Krsna consciousness, therefore they continue their activities, but we become mental and go home.
Personally, I don’t recommend that one try to go out before he attains such conviction. It’s better to wait, continue studying, associating with devotees and doing service until such faith is established. Srila Prabhupada himself gave a similar instruction to Madhava dasa in 1975:
“Better read these books thoroughly and be firmly convinced yourself before going to these demons for convincing them. if you are weak yourself, while trying to convert them, you will be converted by them. Don't try any hard task before you are very strong. Chant 16 rounds daily, follow the rules and regulations, and read our books. Don't become very big preacher immediately.” (Srila Prabhupada, Letter to Madhava, 20 May 1975)
The second point is to develop our own Krsna consciousness. If we live close to a temple, we can join the morning programs and do some service. If we live far, or can’t go for different reasons, we should at least create a routine that allows us to read and chant our japa in the morning. This will give a lot of spiritual strength.
Our minds are very restless, therefore we have to put some effort into controlling them, in order to chant attentively. The first step is to follow the four principles and to avoid or, at least restrict our exposure to materialistic pollution, like TV, mundane movies and music, etc. These things create powerful samskaras which stay in our minds for a long time, creating remembrances, desires and fantasies that destroy our concentration while chanting. If one can stay for a certain period without contact with any of these things, simply immersed in studying the books, chanting and performing different devotional activities, he will notice that his mind will become much more peaceful.
While chanting, the best is to just sit down and concentrate on the mantra, the vibration of Krsna’s names, focussing all our attention on the chanting until we chant all our rounds. Naturally, for this to work, we have to be well rested, otherwise we will just fall asleep. Therefore, it’s important to go to sleep early, so we can wake up early and at the same time be well rested. In days when we are feeling tired, we can chant while standing or pacing back and forth. Srila Prabhupada himself was teaching this:
HG Srutakirti Prabhu: In New Dwaraka he told me, "In the evening, if I get tired, I walk and chant. If you are tired, then walk and chant like I do. Sometimes, if I am tired, I pace back and forth in the room. Simply, in one room you can do everything. If you are tired, you can stand up and chant, like I do." (Srila Prabhupada Uvaca, 62)
Usually, it’s easier to concentrate while sitting, looking at the tip of the nose, or with closed eyes, so the mind can be fully absorbed, but to stand or pace back and forth is our second best option, useful for when we are too tired to be able to concentrate while sitting (much better to chant while walking than to just fall asleep). Anyway, it’s recommendable to practice and try to chant at least part of our rounds seated, in full concentration.
"Chanting japa should be done early in the morning with full concentration preferably during the Brahma Muhurta time. Concentrate fully on the sound vibration of the mantra, pronouncing each name distinctly and gradually your speed in chanting will increase naturally. Do not worry so much about chanting fast, most important is the hearing." (Srila Prabhupada, Letter to Radhavallabha, 6 January 1972)
In any case, our japa is the first battle of the day. If we lose this battle, the tendency is that everything else will go even worse, especially book distribution. Better to start the day well.
As we concentrate on the chanting, we may start meditating on one particular form of the Lord, but this should come naturally, not in a forced or artificial way. The first step is to feel the presence of the Lord in the chanting and understand that He and His names are non-different. As explained by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura: “When anarthas will be removed due to chanting the Holy Name, then Krishna's form, qualities and pastimes will automatically manifest from the name. There is no need to make an endeavor to artificially remember His form, qualities and pastimes.”
Maya is waiting for us with her sledgehammer. As soon as we go out to distribute books, she starts trying to smash us with her weapon, testing our strength and determination. If we are not careful in our spiritual practice and not determined in chanting 16 rounds or more before going out, we will not stand a chance.
"If you want to stay in Krsna Consciousness you will have to develop firm faith in Guru and Sastra. Therefore, you must study my books very scrutinizingly, follow the four regulative principles very strictly and chant 16 rounds daily avoiding the ten offenses. Don't take this movement as something cheap." (Srila Prabhupada, letter to Srutadeva 30 October 1976)
The third point is that to study Srila Prabhupada’s books regularly is essential for any devotee, but for book distributors it’s eminently crucial. Book distribution is a powerful type of yajna, and as in any other type of yajna, it requires that we make some sacrifice. Instead of sacrificing grains and ghee, we sacrifice our energy, time and effort. In order to be able to continue, we should know well why we are doing it, and for that, we have to study the books. As Srila Prabhupada wrote: “Actually these books are the foundation stone of our movement.” (letter to Hrdayananda, 31 October 1974).
During the discussion for the custody of Ajamila, the Visnudutas challenged the Yamadutas on the meaning of religious principles and the symptoms of irreligion. Having studied under Yamaraja, the Yamadutas gave a convincing sastric explanation. Naturally, the Visnudutas were operating under a higher principle and in the end they won the argument, but the example of the Yamadutas is very significative for us. In his purport, Srila Prabhupada emphasizes that all devotees, but especially preachers, must be well versed in the philosophy, and thus be able to give convincing answers when challenged by others. When preaching, we are representing our guru, Srila Prabhupada and all previous acaryas, therefore we must know well the mission and philosophy of our movement.
“The question posed by the Visnudutas was very suitable. One who represents someone else must fully know that person’s mission. The devotees in the Krsna consciousness movement must therefore be fully aware of the mission of Krsna and Lord Caitanya; otherwise they will be considered foolish. All devotees, especially preachers, must know the philosophy of Krsna consciousness so as not to be embarrassed and insulted when they preach.” (SB 6.1.38 purport)
Another point is that when we are distributing books, we are trying to convince the public about the importance of spiritual life and spiritual knowledge. If we are not cultivating spiritual knowledge ourselves, our so-called preaching becomes a farce. As Srila Prabhupada points out in a letter to Tribhuvanatha Prabhu, from 16 June 1972:
“I am very much stressing nowadays that my students shall increase their reading of my books and try to understand them from different angles of vision. Each sloka can be seen from many, many angles of vision, so become practiced in seeing things like this. If we are selling the books but we do not know what is inside the book, then that will be a farce, especially if you are preaching and selling books to the students of Edinburgh”.
The secret is to read the books in a disciplined way, always reading for a certain time, or a fixed number of pages daily. Srila Prabhupada wanted us to study for at least one or two hours a day. If you can read 40 pages per day, you’re going to read the whole Srimad-Bhagavatam in less than one year. Then, in another year, you can read all the rest of Srila Prabhupada’s books, with still some time left to read a few other books by his disciples and grand-disciples. If you continue like that until the end of your life, you’ll have enough time to read all Srila Prabhupada’s books 10, 15 or even 20 times!
Even if you can read only 10 pages per day, still you will finish all the books in around 7 years. In other words: just by reading 10 pages daily, you can read all the books three times or more during your lifetime. There’s really no excuse, except, perhaps, lack of interest in spiritual life. Sometimes, when giving classes, I ask how many devotees have read all Srila Prabhupada's books, or at least the whole Srimad Bhagavatam. Usually, I become disheartened by how few devotees raise their hands. I’m convinced that this lack of study is the cause of most problems we face in our movement. If you are really interested in spiritual life, if you are not just some kind of spiritual tourist who is planning to leave next year, my humble request is that you take your time to seriously study Srila Prabhupada’s books. In addition to spiritual knowledge, you can learn about practically anything by studying his books: history, psychology, sociology, science, theology, logic, languages, astronomy, etc. They contain perfect knowledge, directly inspired by Krsna, that will help in all spheres of life.
Different from mundane books, spiritual literature can be read unlimited times, since every time we read, we learn new things and get new realizations. There is unlimited taste, and the more we study, the more it increases:
“We read the scriptures again and again and it is still fresh. When there is time I go on reading my own books.” (Srila Prabhupada, letter to Hamsaduta, 01 October 1974)
“Bhagavad-gita can be read or heard many times, but because it gives great pleasure, the more one reads Bhagavad-gita the more he gets the appetite to read and understand it, and each time he gets new enlightenment. That is the nature of the transcendental message. Similarly, we find that transcendental happiness in the Srimad-Bhagavatam. The more we hear and chant the glories of the Lord, the more we become happy.” (SB 3.25.2, Purport)
“Another specific description here is srnvan bhagavato ’bhiksnam avatara-kathamrtam. It is not that because one has once finished Bhagavad-gita he should not hear it again. The word abhiksnam is very important. We should hear again and again. There is no question of stopping: even if one has read these topics many times, he should go on reading again and again because bhagavat-katha, the words spoken by Krsna and spoken by Krsna’s devotees about Krsna, are amrtam, nectar. The more one drinks this amrtam, the more he advances in his eternal life.” (SB 7.14.3–4 Purport)
"I am very pleased that you are keeping to a very strict schedule and are reading my literature daily. If you continue in this manner you will grow up to be a first class preacher of Krsna consciousness. And this is the highest service that you can perform." (Srila Prabhupada, letter to Ekendra, 03 February 1972)
Before building a house, we must spend time building a good foundation. Without it, we can build the most beautiful house, but it will fall apart in a short time. Similarly, to study Srila Prabhupada's books is the foundation of our spiritual lives, and such foundation is especially tested when we go out to distribute books. Not only are the people going to question why we are distributing these books, but our minds are going to demand convincing explanations. Without the right philosophical foundations, we are not going to last. We have to build and continuously reinforce our foundation with the regular study of Srila Prabhupada’s books.
In one sense, book distribution is a simple activity: we just try to present spiritual knowledge to people. Still, when we come to the practical application of this simple idea, the details start to multiply unlimitedly. These are a few points that I can present according to what I have heard from seniors and from my personal experience.
The first important point is to learn how to use our time in an effective way. Just like we understand that laksmi belong to Krsna and should be properly used in His service, our time on book distribution also belongs to Krsna and needs to be used in an effective way. We should be attentive to spend our time really stopping and talking to people, and not just spacing out and wasting time. Apart from our consciousness, there is also a mathematical facet to book distribution: the more people we stop and talk to in a proper way, the more books we will distribute. Even on the most difficult days, if we keep stopping people, some of them will take, and by stopping a number of people, we will end up distributing a number of books. On the other hand, if we become dispirited and start spacing out, time will just pass, and the books will remain in our bags.
We should also be aware of the time when talking to people. Sometimes, it may be just one’s style to talk longer with people, to make each encounter very personal, but in general it's not necessary to spend more than two or three minutes with each person to distribute a book: we just need to keep it simple and light, and bring the person to the "why not?" point, where he gets interested in the book and once understanding that the book is not expensive, he just takes it.
The first step is to look at the person and try to make eye contact. Then we say "hello" or wave, some kind of a greeting to attract his attention. If he looks and shows some interest, then you ask a question; something simple, just to break the ice and start a conversation. After the person stops, you can present yourself and start your mantra.
You may start with questions like: “Where are you from?”, "Are you from here?", "Do you work here?", "You always walk here?". While these also work, the best is to formulate questions in such a way that the person always gives a positive answer. For example, if you ask "Do you work here?", the answer may be "yes" or "no", and it's not so good to begin the conversation with a "no".
You can try questions like: "Are you from here or from out of town?", "Do you work here or are you just passing by?". This way you always get a positive answer: "Yes, I work here", or "Yes, I'm just passing by", which are a good start. These questions about what the person does, where he lives or works, etc. are usually the most used by book distributors (normally people feel great pleasure in talking about themselves), but you can also use other types of questions. When I’m on a crowded street, full of busy people running around, I sometimes start to ask questions like: “Why are people always in such a hurry nowadays?”, “Do you think people don’t have time, or don’t know how to use their time?”, “Are you in a good mood, bad mood, or just busy?”.
Many persons really stop and start to think, giving us a chance to start a conversation and present the books. You can use other questions that make the person think a little bit to give an answer like, for example, "How many books did you read this year?”. I try to use these questions in a light way, smiling, joking and so on, and this usually has the effect of making people relax and open up.
If I see a nice person who is rushing I sometimes just ask “You are in a hurry right?” When he confirms, I say “We have a nice book for busy people, take a look!”, and from there I start the mantra with something that fits in his immediate mood, like for example: “These books teach how we can find inner peace amongst the chaos of modern life.” By starting with something that gets a person's attention from whatever it was previously, we can make a person stop to hear for a minute and thus give him a chance of taking a few books before resuming his busy schedule.
We can get a lot of information by the way each person reacts when we greet them, especially by their facial expression. You can combine this with other clues you can get by the way a person dresses and presents himself to decide what kind of question you can use on your approach. The best is to develop a repertory of different questions, so you can present a variety of questions according to the person. There are also many cases where a simpler approach, with a small compliment (“Nice hair!”, “Nice shirt!”, etc.) or some small joke is more effective than a question, and also cases of persons who are open or favourable, where you can just use a direct approach like “can I show you a book?” or “did you see our books already?”. Each person is an individual case. Ideally, you should train to be able to understand the general mood of each person and use an individual approach to each. This is an art that we can normally master only after many years of practice, but the result is going to be very positive to your book distribution.
Sometimes, depending on the public you are speaking to, you can even go to direct questions, like: “In your opinion, what is the goal of life?”, “What do you think about atheism?”, “Do you think our society is evolving in the right track?”, “Who do you think created the universe”, “What do you think about the evolution theory?”. Many people do stop to answer (and some give quite surprising answers), and from there it’s easy to involve them in a conversation and start presenting books. The secret, in this case, is to smile and keep the conversation light, without being confrontational (which just makes people defensive). The idea that we try to transmit is that we are not evangelizing people, but just presenting something new. Generally, it’s much more effective to make people curious than to try to directly convince them. A person who becomes curious about a book will probably buy it, while someone who you are trying to convince will probably just get defensive and eventually just leave (many times after dragging you into a long discussion).
If, for example, someone says that he doesn't agree with the theory of evolution (and it’s surprising how many don’t agree, especially older people), you can offer a Life Comes from Life, explaining that we’ve published this book exactly to give him all the arguments to defeat these pesky evolutionists and prove that God is the creator, and so on.
HG Navina Nirada Prabhu: When we meet people, it’s important that we have a very positive attitude. People are facing a lot of negativity, a lot of rejection, a lot of boredom, a lot of depression and aggression, in life, so if they meet a devotee, they want to feel that relief, that mood, that spirit of fearlessness. If we have that by carrying a very positive attitude, a Krsna Conscious attitude, people will automatically become attracted.
When I meet people, I usually greet them, and I ask them: “Hi! How are you doing?”, an opening question that gets them to talk, and in this way, I engage them in a conversation. I ask everybody: “Where are you from?”, and they say: “Oh, I’m from Oxford”, then I say: “That’s where all the nice people live, right?”. So I say something nice, I say something positive, and they agree. If you get people to smile twice, they will take the book. If they ask: “What is this?”, I say: “We call them books!”, or: “Books on yoga, meditation, teaches you how to get free from stress. Have you heard of stress before?”.
Often, I tell them: “I teach happiness, have you heard of happiness? You can’t buy it in the store, everyone talks about it, but where is it? It’s right there in your own heart. This book teaches you how to reconnect with the happiness in your own heart”. If they are a little bit more interested, I get in the topic of spiritual practice, mantra meditation... we have to be sensitive and see how much time do people have, how much are they open, how much are they going to listen, otherwise just make a connection, give them some words of encouragement, give them one of Prabhupada’s books and ask them for a contribution. It can all happen in a couple of seconds, it doesn’t take that long. It’s a matter of being focused, in being connected with Krsna’s internal potency; like Arjuna in the battlefield: he was connected with Krsna’s internal potency, so he saw a target and he did not miss anyone, because he was Krsna’s instrument, so if we see ourselves as Krsna’s instruments, our goal should also be: don’t miss anyone, don’t let anyone escape, try to give Krsna consciousness to every person that you meet. (Podcast to London devotees, Winter Marathon 2016)
To use questions is difficult in the beginning, because our reaction has to be very fast. The right question needs to come immediately to our mind, as if some kind of muscular memory. We don’t have time to stop and think. One time, I talked with a martial arts instructor. He explained to me that in any martial art, the secret is to train every stroke and technique exhaustively, thousands of times. You have to train a punch two thousand times, he said, to have a chance of using it correctly one time during a fight. Similarly, to use questions in the right time and circumstance, we need to train thousands of times. That’s why it’s important to be persistent. It may be difficult in the beginning (just like learning kung-fu), and it may take years for you to master it, but it’s the right path for developing your book distribution. Without developing the art of asking questions, one will stay indefinitely on the mantra stage, just repeating the same mantra with every person that passes.
One very important thing about questions is to master the exact timing to use them. Also, you can’t ask the same questions to every person that passes, this will just sound ridiculous. In other words, don't waste your questions: Ask your questions to nice people who you see as real candidates to take books.
Actually, our goal with these questions is not to make every single person stop, but to select the nice persons and make them stop in a favourable mood. Even if there was some miraculous approach that would make everyone stop, it would not be very productive, since we would end up stopping all kinds of grumpy people and have many unpleasant interactions. Not everyone in the street is ready to take a book, therefore it is better to use positive and polite approaches, that allow us to stop the ripe fruits and make them open to hear the mantra and take a book. The ones who are not so ripe may stop and take some other day, when they are ready.
The first step is to look the person in the eyes and say some small greeting. From the way they react, you can quickly understand if there is a real possibility of them stopping and taking a book or not. If the person doesn't look back, then you can just go to the next one. To the ones who look back or give some kind of answer you may proceed asking a question or giving a compliment, and from there to a full mantra. The advantage of using greetings to select our public is that we can do our book distribution in a very sattvic way, just walking and greeting people, talking only with the ones who are more or less favourable or receptive, with who we can create some connection. These are the persons who are real candidates to take books. With experience, this can become a very effective and energy-efficient way of distributing books.
You can also say, "May I ask you a question?" or “Can you answer a question?” after the greeting, and proceed to ask questions to the ones who stop or who you see are curious or willing to give you attention. This extra question makes the process less efficient, since it’s less spontaneous, but at the same time makes it easier and can be used even by new book distributors. To say "May I ask you a question?" is also very polite, so it works well with older and upper-class people, who expect a more formal approach.
One good way to use it is to combine with the classical “are you a nice person?”:
This can also be combined with a compliment, which makes it more effective, like: “You look like a very intelligent person, can I ask you a question?” or: “Oh, you are such an elegant lady, can I ask you a question?”.
We should try to get used to adapt quickly according to the person's reaction. If you try a spontaneous approach and he doesn’t stop, you can quickly use the “may I ask you a question” or some other line when he is about to pass, for example. If it works, then you can just continue from there.
The best platform for distributing books is when we can be informal with people. In an informal conversation, it’s very easy to break the ice and create some personal connection, and from there it’s easy to distribute a book. Naturally, you should consider time, place and circumstance. In Brazil, for example, people like to be informal, so to be very open and informal is the most effective way to distribute books. A typical approach would be to combine a greeting, a small compliment and a question, like, for example: “Hello! (pause) You look like an intelligent person, can you answer a question? (pause) Why do people rush so much nowadays?”
In other places, people may not be so open, so you may have to use a more cultured and polite approach, or use a mixture of different approaches according to who you are speaking to. In any case, you should keep in mind that a more cheerful and laid-back attitude is usually much more conducive to book distribution than a very formal attitude, so you should try to find ways to make people open-up as far as possible. Being informal as much as possible, but at the same time be polite and respectful to people.
HG Navina Nirada Prabhu: I try to be very happy with the people, because people are living a boring life, and they are looking for some positivity, they are looking for something that uplifts them. So, by having a positive attitude, and being helpful, being in a prayerful mood, being humorous, we will help people to appreciate Krsna consciousness. Often we can just use parts of slokas, like I speak about the panditah sama-darsinah, that a wise person sees and appreciates life everywhere, not only the human form, the animal forms, in the plants, but everywhere, and people appreciate this equal vision, it is an universal concept, to appreciate equal vision. Also to appreciate inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness, that is very much appreciated. So when we connect with people through some simple forms of communication, it makes so much easier for them to appreciate Krsna consciousness. (Podcast to London devotees, Winter Marathon 2016)
Questions are highly dependent on the culture, language and mentality of people in each country. We should use sentences that sound funny or witty in the local language and resonate positively with the local mentality. For example, when distributing in Brazil I use approaches, questions and jokes that are probably only going to work in this particular country. If it's raining I sometimes ask people "Are you always here or you came just because of the rain?". If it’s cold I could use something like: "Do you know when the mayor is going to install the heater here in downtown?". Somehow these lines sound funny in Brazil, but in other places it would not make sense. You should create your own lines, or get some from local book distributors.
Another approach that I use frequently is to use affirmative sentences to stop people instead of questions. This has a more subtle twist and is a little more difficult to get right, but it has a few advantages: it is faster and it tends to create a more natural flow, putting the conversation in a lighter mood from the start.
First step (as always) is to smile and greet the person in a friendly way. If you can create an emotional connection with the person at this stage, you can just use a short sentence to stop them, like: “We are talking with all nice persons.”, “We are showing these books to all busy people.”, “We are talking with all intelligent people.”, etc. The main advantage of this approach is that it is very direct. If everything goes well and they stop, you can start showing the books right away, instead of having to first start a conversation. The main difference in this approach (and what makes it more difficult to master) is that you need to create a connection with the person right from the beginning, when you greet them, instead of doing that through a conversation. It works well with certain people but not with everyone.
A common mistake, especially when one is starting on book distribution, is to draw out the book too soon, before stopping the person or introducing yourself, like if the book is a pamphlet. This is the quickest way to burn out a sankirtana field. Everyone sees the book, they see other people refusing it and they get the idea that it’s a valueless thing. Many think that you are giving the books away, and therefore snatch books from your hands without even stopping and so on. This is a terrible practice that has too many disadvantages to enumerate.
The proper way is to first stop people (by asking some question or starting a conversation) and to start showing books only when they stop. Keep in mind that our books are something valuable, and therefore you should not show them to everyone like a pamphlet. This way, the presentation of the books gets a much stronger effect and people are going to take them seriously. This practice helps them to perceive the books as something valuable. If the person is impolite, too defensive, etc. and you see that the conversation is not going to work, then it’s better to finish politely without showing any book.
HG Navina Nirada Prabhu: "I like Vaisesika's point about picking the ripe fruits. If the fruit is not ripe, leave it on the tree, don't break the branch. Pick the ripe fruits and leave the unripe fruits in the tree".
When you do it this way, other persons are going to see you showing books only to appreciative persons, and thus many are going to at least become curious about what these books speak about (thus getting a seed of interest that may make them stop on another day). Persons who don’t stop, don’t get further information about what you are doing, so they also may get curious and may stop another day. Another advantage is that our book distribution becomes much more discreet, which helps to avoid trouble, especially in places where there is repression to our book distribution, like in Russia or China.
It's important to be aware of the way we speak, training a little bit, and correcting habits that are not favourable for or book distribution. We should speak in a loud and clear way, transmitting confidence to the persons we are talking to. An important tip is to learn to articulate the voice, changing the intonation, making small pauses between sentences, and so on. Our voice should not be flat or boring. Our mantras should have a begin, middle and end, and should be based in simple ideas. We should be attentive to see if people are understand what is being spoken, and, above all, we should sound enthusiastic
In “normal” places, where most people are more or less open, usually the most effective approach is to just carry a stack of books in our hands. This usually has a polarizing effect, making the ones who are a little open, curious about what we are carrying and the ones who are not so nice, more closed and disinterested. This can actually be used to make our book distribution more effective, by choosing the persons who are not repulsed by the simple fact that we are carrying a pile of books. From there, if you politely ask questions and establish a connection with people before taking a book from the stack and start showing them, you're probably going to get good results. On “burned” places, where people are too defensive (which may happen in places where devotees were already distributing books for a long time using the wrong tactics, or where there are a lot of beggars and street vendors, for example), or in places where you are not allowed to distribute, you may be more discreet, hiding the books in a shoulder bag. The idea remains the same: to draw out the book only after the person stopped and you established a conversation. The only difference is that they don’t see you carrying the stack.
Another important point is about the timing of your presentation. As in many other situations, there is a certain timing to it. You should not show books too soon, before you get a person’s attention and he stops, but also not show too late. If the book distributor just keeps talking without showing a book, he creates an awkward situation and time is wasted. It is better to be direct. When a person stop, try to present a book as soon as possible. For example:
If you stop a person in a nice way, as soon as you stretch your arm handing over a book, the natural instinct will be for him to grab it. That’s the function of the hand: to grab things. That’s the psychology used in supermarkets for example, where products are put within reach, so people can freely grab them and put them in their carts. When handing a book, it’s important to get the timing right (not so slow, nor too fast), and to aim it at the lower chest level (not higher, at the level of the neck or face, nor too low), where it’s comfortable for the hand to grab it.
Many people will have some block, and not take the book when you show it. If they don’t make the motion to take the book in one or two seconds, you should immediately withdraw your hand (while continuing talking). It works as a reverse psychology: When you get something and then you lose, immediately your curiosity or attachment for this object will increase. The person will get a feeling of missing something.
In many cases, when you withdraw your hand, the person will immediately stretch out his arm, wanting the book. That’s an unconscious reaction to the phenomenon I was describing. If this doesn’t happen, just keep talking for a few seconds more, and repeat the gesture of handing the book (it can be a different book, or even the same book, doesn’t matter so much!). If the person again doesn’t stretch his arm to grab it, you can safely presume that he is not interested. You can then just give a quick exit mantra and desire him good luck before parting ways. There are exceptions, like situations when they are already holding something, or when they don’t want to take their hands out of their pockets because it’s cold, for example, but most of the time, that’s how it works.
Don’t get sentimental thinking that you are going to purify people just by making them see or touch the books. Srila Prabhupada used to emphasize the potency of our books saying that just by touching the books, or reading even one word people get benefit, but we can’t use it as an excuse to make our goal to just make people see or touch the books instead of distributing them.
Our goal is to make people take books and read them. This is where the real benefit lies. Therefore, we should formulate our strategies in a way that is going to give people the best possible chance of taking books and getting the message. If we start doing silly things with some sentimental ideas that actually make people suspicious or disinterested, then we may actually be pushing them away from the path and thus doing a disservice.
Usually, when someone doesn't even want to hold the book or to hear our presentation, it means that he has some serious misconception or prejudice, just like many Orthodox Christians in Russia, that think that our books are from the devil because they hear that from their priests. In such cases, the best approach is to just thank them and finish the conversation in a polite way.
If you want to insist, a better way is to make a small joke. For example, I sometimes just smile and say: “Oh, come on! Such a big guy afraid of a small book?”. If you want them to touch the books you can say: “Don't worry, they don’t bite, they are inoffensive, just see” (and you start touching the book to your head and then very gently to their head) “See, nothing bad happened!”, and from there you can see. Sometimes by using jokes you can make them relax and hold the books and from there you can start your mantra. If even with jokes they remain defensive, then it’s better to finish politely and go to another person.
Generally speaking, if you are just starting on book distribution, you should try to speak only with persons who are polite and show some interest. Little by little, you can learn how to approach the difficult cases and also distribute books to them, but to engage these difficult persons effectively demands experience and therefore may take some time. It’s essential to have patience.
Another important point is to not walk alongside people trying to convince them, especially while showing books. A lot of times, devotees persist with persons who don’t want to stop, frantically walking alongside them and trying to show them books. This is a very bad practice that looks terrible and burns people out. Instead, we should keep our cool and talk only to the persons who stop, even if it means making several attempts. People who don’t want to stop very rarely end up taking books anyway, no matter what we do or how much we insist, so there is very little sense in wasting our energy.
Many times, people show interest, but don’t stop immediately when we start speaking to them, therefore we have to follow them for a few steps to not lose the timing, and other times people pass by us and stop a little bit ahead, so again we have to walk one or two steps to close the distance, which is fine. But apart from that, do not walk alongside people, except in rare, exceptional cases.
The general process is to greet the person or say something to make him stop. If he just ignores you, then it is best to just let him go and focus on the next one. In cases where the person says something, but continues walking, it’s sometimes possible to make them stop with some quick follow-up. In any case, you should only show the books after he stops and gives you some attention. The ones who are not stopping may stop and take books some other day, but at the time there is no point in insisting.
In my experience, this is one of the most important aspects of book distribution: to be sensitive enough to recognise persons who are open and may be interested, and to be detached enough to let go of the people who just want you to get out of their way.
To repeatedly approach the wrong persons not only quickly burns out our energy and creates so many unpleasant interactions, but it also makes us lose precious time that could be used to successfully distribute books to interested people. In every place, there is always a mixture of the two classes. If we keep insisting with the uninterested ones, we will miss out the nice people who are actually looking for this knowledge.
As you get more experienced and learn how to distinguish persons from different groups, you may start using more personal questions, directed specifically towards each individual. To a smart looking boy you could ask, “Excuse me, is there some scientist in your family? You look very intelligent!”, or “You look very intelligent! How many books have you read this year?”. To a happy looking person you could say, “You look so jubilant! What is your secret? That’s rare nowadays!” or “Are you into yoga or meditation? You look very spiritual!”.
HG Navina Nirada Prabhu: "When I meet backpackers or people traveling with luggage, I always ask them: "Do you need some more luggage?" They start laughing, and I give them a book. So, I just say something that relate to then and their situation. I always point out the obvious. If a person is carrying a guitar, I ask them if they play the guitar. Same with any other tool or equipment. This always make a connection. Just point out the obvious, state the obvious. People like that, they can relate to that, it puts them at easy.”
Apart from general lines, that work more or less everywhere, there also specific lines that work well only on certain places or cultures. For example, in Brazil Sophia Loren was extremely popular in the 1970s, so most ladies that are 50, 60 or 70 years old remember it. So, if we say to a grandma: “You are so elegant, you look like Sophia Loren! What’s your secret?”, many are going to become ecstatic. In other places, however, this may not work so well. In any case, these lines are just examples. You should try to understand the principle and adjust the details according to the circumstance to create your own lines.
Everybody has some self-image, seeing themselves as some kind of undercover hero. When you start glorifying their qualities, immediately they get interested. If you can do it sincerely, that’s the best approach. It really puts the conversation on a very personal level right from the start. Everybody is a part and parcel of Krsna, therefore every soul has all the good qualities. Once you can start understanding that, you will not have any difficulties in finding many good things about every person.
HG Vijaya Prabhu: The more we are able to understand that we are the soul within and that everyone is a soul, part and parcel of Krsna, and that we are all Krsna’s servants, the more we can be friendly toward everyone and be free of the obnoxious poison of envy. Then sankirtana reaches a very pleasing level, where you feel that everyone you approach is like an old friend. This is the reality: everyone is part of Krsna’s family, and when we approach people we’re inviting them back to the spiritual world, where Krsna has His family. The books are invitations for people to come back to their real home, where they will meet Krsna, their best friend and intimate relative. (The Treasure of the Brhat Mrdanga ch. 5)
This kind of direct personal approach is much harder to master than the mechanical questions which I explained previously. It’s not just a technique that you can quickly master. It demands a certain level of realization, to be able to see everyone as who they really are: spirit souls, parts and parcels of Krsna; and talk to each person on a very personal level. It requires that we become honestly interested in them, breaking with the more impersonal mentality that we may develop when just using mantras.
On top of that, it requires a lot of experience, wittiness and perception to get it right. On the other hand, the benefit is tremendous. When I was distributing books in Russia, for example, I noticed that the generic mantras and “weak” questions like “are you from here, or are you visiting the city?” don’t work so well there; a few persons stop, but most just ignore you. The personal approach, on the other hand, works well. By asking the right questions, smiling and treating a person like an old friend, it’s possible to stop most people.
HG Navina Nirada Prabhu: "That's something I often use. If I see a person that look favourable, I just go up to him and say "Hi!" and then I either shake their hand, or do the fist bomb, or whatever greeting is appropriate, and I say: "Yeah, I'm Nicolas, from Zurich!" and them the person says their name and from where they are from, so you just introduce yourself. In this way, it starts off in a very personal level. Once they agree to that, it's very hard for them to walk away or to just become impersonal or cold again, so it melts the ice right from the start. It separates the sincere from the insincere, and it requires a bit of shakti and focus. "
In the beginning, one may have difficulty finding good qualities in people to talk about. If that's the case, I can suggest studying chapters 21 and 22 of the Nectar of Devotion, that describes the qualities of Krsna. As mentioned, the first 50 qualities are also manifested by the fragmentary soul in minute quantity. Naturally, in the conditioned stage these qualities may be covered, but under the coverings, everyone is effulgent, strong, truthful, intelligent, learned, artistic, clever, expert, grateful, pure, magnanimous, heroic, gentle, liberal, auspicious, powerful, famous, attractive, etc. People like to be reminded of that, therefore don’t be shy of using adjectives like that when addressing people. Not only is it true, but when you mention such good qualities, people tend to reciprocate and really show these qualities when talking to you. Once I stopped an old lady and she replied “What do you want?” in an annoyed tone. I replied, in my most humble expression: “Today we are trying to show these books to the most beautiful, gentle ladies in the city, that’s why I stopped you.” The grumpy expression of this old lady completely changed, she smiled broadly and said enthusiastically: “Oh my dear son, you are such a nice boy! What can I do for you??” I started showing her the books and she happily took a small set. Many people just need a small encouragement.
Another important point is information gathering. Usually, when you say something about them, people immediately get curious and stop. Don’t be afraid of using any information that you can get from their expression, the way they dress, the symbols and accessories that they use, etc. in your initial approach and mantra. Can you detect what is his profession? (The key is often how they are dressed). Where he works? (Uniform, badge, or other symbols). Is he or she happily married? (Ring on the finger, happy face, looking healthy, etc.). Has children? (Pendants, photo on the t-shirt, etc.) Is he from some specific group or follows some religion? (Style of dress, facial expression, different symbols, carrying specific books). Does he have some hobby? (Often we can detect it by different symbols, particular expressions or types of body) Does he have some special liking for animals? Cats? Dogs? Whales? Does he like some particular band or actor? (Dress style, hair cut, accessories, symbols, names on the t-shirt). From which city is he? (Dress style, mannerisms, accent, symbols) Has he visited some particular city or country during his vacation? (Often they use a shirt or some other souvenir acquired there). Does he like some particular movie or TV series? (Often we just need to read what is written on the t-shirt). Is he into practice of yoga or has any special spiritual interest?
For example, you notice that a young lady is using a pendant with a triangle, a circle and a stick. This means that she likes Harry Potter. You could use it to stop her: “Hey, do you like Harry Potter right? Today we are making a special promotion to Hogwarts students!”. If a person is using a shirt from some zombie series, you could ask: “Oh, you like zombies right? Do you think zombies have a soul?”. One time I stopped one man using a shirt from some football team. I used this on my initial approach and started to talk to him as if he was a player of the team, congratulating him to be playing in the winning team and so on. Somehow it connected well, he became very happy and ended taking a small set, despite not being very interested in the books. In the end, he commented that this was actually the second time that he took books from me. He said that he took the first set some time ago just because I made a joke about Batman defeating Superman (happened that this guy was a Batman addict, so this apparently gave him great pleasure). Somehow, by these two incidents, this guy, who was not at all interested in spirituality, ended taking six books in total!
Another time, I was distributing books with two younger brahmacharis. When I was already going back at the end of the day I saw one of them talking with a young lady. I saw that she was not getting interested, about to give the book back and go away. I noticed that she liked Star Wars, so I decided to intervene to try to save the situation. I told her: “You should keep this book, it’s very interesting. This is the knowledge that inspired George Lucas in creating Star Wars” (which is actually true). She started to get interested, so I continued “In previous eras, powerful yogis and mystics would learn how to control matter by practising this knowledge. They would be able to move things with their thought, read and manipulate people's minds, etc. just like the Jedis. If you practice this knowledge, you may be able to develop it too”. At this point her eyes started to really spark: “I want to read this book! I want! How much it costs??”.
The idea is to get into a person's mental state and from there connect something that may make him interested in a book (like in the case of the batman guy), or to use it to create arguments to make him interested (like with the Star Wars lady). If you make them remember something that they find pleasurable or interesting, this sensation can be transferred to the book that you are presenting. Actually, our books cover any topic in the world. Once you realize it, it’s actually very easy to make the bridge from the books to any other topic.
Of course you don’t need to see all TV series and other nonsenses to use when stopping people; you can learn these things just by observing and talking to people (sankirtana is the school of life, it’s amazing how much we can learn about practically any subject just by distributing books), and of course use whatever you already know. Once HH Mahadyuti Swami commented that in the 1970s there was one brahmacari in the BBT library party who used to sell a lot of sets to university professors by first talking with them about American football (he was a professional player before he joined). He would use his football talking to make them relax and become friends with them. By the time he would present the books, they could not refuse.
Also, a lot of times you can distribute books to persons who normally would not take them by being able to improvise. For example, once I was distributing books with a brahmacari from another city. He tried to stop one well-dressed lady and she quickly avoided him saying that she was not interested. I was a little bit ahead and approached the same lady when she passed: “Excuse-me! I’m his supervisor. I’m just conducting a short survey: What was the reason for you not stopping? Did you not like his approach? The clothes?”. The lady was taken by surprise and actually started to answer: “No, actually it was not because of that, I’m just very busy, life is very stressing nowadays...”. That was a good opportunity to present a book: “Oh! Actually, I have a book that speaks about how to deal with stress! Take a look!” And then, after a short mantra, the lady ended up taking a book. The whole exchange took just a few seconds.
Another time, I was distributing books in downtown Porto Alegre (south of Brazil) and I saw general Vilas Boas (who at the time was the commander of the Brazilian army) coming in my direction. He was old and sick, so he was being pushed on a wheelchair, surrounded by two dozen high-rank military personnel and bodyguards. It looked like an impregnable aksauhini. Although the chances to be able to talk to the general were small, it was too good of an opportunity to miss, so I gave it a try. Trying to approach the general directly was out of question, so I decided to try to take advantage of the military hierarchical mentality. I approached one of the military men on the side and exclaimed: "Oh! You must be the general right?". He sheepishly answered, "No, he is the general!". The general heard and looked on my direction, I greeted him respectfully and approached him. Somehow the bodyguards didn't prevent it.
He asked what I was doing, and I explained that I was distributing books with ancient wisdom from the Vedas. Knowledge about the soul and self-realization that has been transmitted to sages and saintly kings since time immemorial. Seeing that he became interested, I started to show him the books I had and he took a small set. He asked how much the books cost and I said to just give a donation from his heart. He signalled to one of the big-shots around him and he actually gave a generous donation. I talked a little bit more with him about the immortality of the soul and we parted ways. The interaction with the general ended being very positive, much deeper and personal than a formal meeting would have been. This general was a very nice and pious man, I was impressed. He got the books at a good time. Suffering from a degenerative disease, he didn't have much time to live. I hope he can become a Vaishnava and join our movement in his next life. His honesty and leadership capacity would be very appreciated in Krsna’s service.
To see everyone as part and parcel of Krsna and therefore treat every person in a respectful and personal way is another difference between material and spiritual consciousness. In material consciousness, we see ourselves as the enjoyers and others as objects of our enjoyment. Contaminated with this mentality we tend to treat people just like that: as objects. We treat nicely those who we think will be useful for our sense gratification and discard the others. Even when we treat someone nicely, it’s just because we want to enjoy him in some way: we flatter wishing to get something. If a person doesn’t act as we expect, we become angry and so on. Many times, we go out on book distribution with such mentality, and therefore our sankirtana becomes heavily contaminated by passion and ignorance. We hand out the books caring only about the scores, and not about the people. We become upset when someone doesn’t want a book or gives a small donation. We are impersonal and inconsiderate in our dealings.
Spiritual consciousness is the opposite: we see ourselves as servants and everyone else as recipients of our service. In spiritual consciousness we really care about people's well being, we desire good to everyone, and therefore we can be kind and personal with every person, treating them all like old friends, without expecting anything in return. We want to distribute a lot of books, yet the main point is to help people. We can understand this point by studying how Srila Prabhupada was dealing with everyone in a very personal and considerate way, out of deep understanding, humility and compassion.
HG Vijaya Prabhu: More important than people walk away with a book, is that everybody walks away with a very good impression. Prabhupada said that a devotee means perfect gentleman. This means that we are honest, we are compassionate, we are tolerant, we are friendly. And that's what it means to be an instrument in the hands of Krsna: nimitta-matram bhava savya-sacin, that we are out there with the good qualities of a Vaishnava, and when people walk away from us, they should feel that they met a very nice person, with very good qualities. (video interview, 2014)
In any case, no matter what you do, what you say or how expert you are, not everyone will stop, so it’s better not to worry much about it. This is another essential point on book distribution: detachment. We are looking for people who are open to spiritual knowledge, or whom we can make interested. Many may not be open at all, therefore we keep our interactions with them polite and very short, focusing on the most promising ones.
The general rule is that when there are several persons to choose from, we should choose the most promising ones. However, when there is only one person, we should give him a try, even if the chances are small. Sometimes even the most seemingly improbable people take books. One time, for example, I was distributing books in the downtown of a small city on a Sunday. There were not so many people to begin with, and to make things worse, it started to rain and the street became deserted. At one point, there was only one person passing by, a poor, dirty old man who was collecting discarded aluminium cans from the garbage. I didn’t have anything to lose, so I just approached him to see if he would somehow be interested. I started showing him some books and he revealed himself to be an inquisitive man. Eventually, I quoted Bg 5.18, that a sage sees everyone with equal vision. He smiled and said: “You know why I like you people? You follow what you preach!”. He took whatever little money he had and gave for the book. By the mercy of the Lord, the impossible happened: the garbage man took a book!
To stop people in the street always demands a bold and confident attitude. That’s why devotees who are more sociable and extrovert usually have more facility in the beginning. Their conditioning can be more readily applied in Krsna’s service. Still, the goal for everyone is to act on the spiritual platform; it’s not about from where we start, but to where we want to go. Many prominent book distributors were very shy or physically weak in the beginning, but by sincerely trying, Krsna helped them to ascend to the transcendental platform, and from there to distribute many books. He explains:
“To those who are constantly devoted to serving Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me.” (BG 10.10).
There is nothing we can’t do when we are determined in spiritual life and favoured by guru and Krsna. As Srila Prabhupada once said, in a letter dated from 4 April 1973: “Krsna has given everyone something extraordinary and to serve Krishna with one’s extraordinary talent means successful life.”
Back to book distribution. After stopping people, the next step is to present yourself in a brief and concise way. The first thing you would like to know when a stranger stops you in the street is with whom you’re talking to. You can explain that you are from the Vedic center, or that you are a travelling monk, a bhakti yoga teacher, or maybe just that you are from ISKCON. You don't need to give the details, just give some label which can satisfy the immediate curiosity. From there you can ask another question, or say something nice to the person to start a conversation and create a friendly atmosphere.
You can include positive sentences to break the ice, like “We are making a special presentation for special people”, “Today we are showing these books only to nice persons”, “We are trying to talk to the most intelligent people” and so on. The main thing when using such lines is your enthusiasm and energy, that’s what really attracts people, the words are actually secondary. If people notice that you are very enthusiastic and happy they will be curious about the books.
If you succeed to give a good impression in this first phase, the person will become naturally receptive. You can then go to the next stage: presenting the book and giving your mantra. HG Navina Nirada Prabhu teaches that at this point the person will have three questions in mind, which your mantra should be able to answer effectively:
1. Who are you?
2. What is this book?
3. What’s in it for me?
The goal is to make the person interested: to make him curious, to give him the feeling that this will improve his life; help him to develop a desire to acquire the book by a short and nice presentation. One point that is crucial at this stage is our conviction on the value of the transcendental knowledge inside the books. Even if one can’t speak so well, if he is convinced, he will be able to speak in a way that will inspire interest in the public. On the other hand, if one is not convinced himself, he will have a hard time convincing other people.
If we can make the person a little convinced, a little desirous to have the book, we can go to the donation part: "This book can be yours, it’s not for sale, we just ask for donations" (or something to that effect). Then, if the person is already interested, it will just click in his head: "Oh, I can take it?" "Yes, we just ask for donations to cover the printing, you can give as much as you can, there is no fixed price". At this point, it’ll be quite natural for him to take the book, since you’ve already removed most of the obstacles.
If we can cover at least one topic in which a person is really interested, chances are that he is going to take the book, if not out of genuine interest, at least out of curiosity. One time, for example, I was mentioning to a boy how our books help one to control the mind. The boy exclaimed: “Oh! This book teaches how I can control other people’s minds??”. I mentioned that the book teaches how we can control our own minds. He answered that he was then not interested, that he wanted to control other people’s minds. I answered: “How you can control other people’s minds if you can’t control your own mind? First, learn how to control your own mind and then you can see about controlling other people’s”. He stopped to think. “Good point…” he said, and decided to take the book.
Usually, we use terms like “spiritual”, “divine” or “transcendental”, instead of the term “God”, since it’s a word that became burned in most western countries due to people misusing religion, because of fanatics, and so on. Similarly, we use terms like “spiritual practice”, “self-realization”, “divine love” or “divine consciousness” instead of the word “religion”. The meaning is similar, but this makes people more receptive to hear our message, which is our goal. As stated right in the first verses of Srimad-Bhagavatam, this is a knowledge that is beyond all mundane religion, therefore, there is nothing wrong in using terms like that. Different approaches are going to be more effective in different places. This is, however, a principle applicable for most.
There are exceptions, however. Many people are directly searching for God, some may even be wanting to know more about Krsna, therefore we should be sensible. One time, a brahmacari approached a young lady. He offered her “books about yoga and meditation”. She quickly dismissed him saying that she was not interested in reading about meditation. He asked in which she was interested in. She answered: “I’m looking for a book about Krsna, do you have?”.
Of course, in most cases, it’s not so easy. Even if someone gets interested, still there may be something with the mind or intelligence preventing him from taking. For example, sometimes a person may think: "I have 10 with me, but it’s too little for this book, probably he will not accept", or "This book is too big for me, I won’t be able to read it", or "It's heavy, I don't want to carry it all the way". Different things.
In such cases, you need to be able to understand what the problem is and be able to disarm this mental block. For example, in a lot of cases, people say "I don't have money", but this is just a general excuse. It's like the blue screen on the old Windows computers. The blue screen could be caused by software problems, hardware problems, or even appear when there was no problem at all. Similarly, "I don't have money" is just a general excuse which doesn't have much meaning by itself. It can mean “I'm not interested”, "I have some money but I think it’s not enough for the book", "I have money but I’ll need it later", "I have money but I don't want to give it to you", "Actually I'm in a hurry, I need to go to the toilet", "I need to feed my dog!"… almost anything. In a few cases, it can even mean that the person really doesn't have any money!
Instead of getting discouraged, just use your sensibility to try to see what is the real problem and try to insist in the appropriate way. Naturally, in the beginning, you may not have this kind of experience, but you can try your best guess. If you don't have any better idea, you can simply insist by presenting a small book, "That's ok, take at least this small one, you can read it on the way, at the metro. If you find it interesting, you may take the big one another day". Presenting a smaller book works in many cases, since it reduces the level of commitment a person needs to assume. The book is smaller, quicker to read, lighter, cheaper, etc. making it easier for the mind to accept.
One thing that works in many "I don't have money" situations is to insist on the point that there is no minimum for the donation:
- Actually, there is no minimum, you can really give as much or as little as you can. You can give from one thousand to ten cents.
Or even better:
- Actually, there is no minimum, you can give as much or as little as you can. You just need to keep it under one million. Can you do that?
In many cases, the problem is simply that the person thinks that what he has is insufficient for the book. By making clear that you will accept even a small donation, the person "unlocks" and is able to take the book. In many cases, people who say “I don't have money” end up giving relatively large donations. Naturally, you should be attentive to be able to differentiate people who are nice and open from people who are simply not interested. If someone is not interested, there is no point in insisting about the price, since it will just devalue the book. Insisting in this way should be done only in cases of nice people who show interest, but get somehow stuck in the donation part.
Using this with big books may be risky (since a lot of times you will get less than the BBT price), but you can at least use this when insisting with a smaller book. In any case, by giving something and taking a book, a person gets eternal benefit, starting into the bhakti path. The effect of someone giving even a few coins and taking a book can’t be underestimated. As a general rule, we should give much higher priority into distributing books to interested persons than to collect big donations, since money tends to come automatically when we are doing some valuable preaching work. Srila Prabhupada explains that even a materialistic man will be prepared to spend huge amounts of money to promote himself (like they do during elections, for example), therefore we shouldn’t doubt that Krsna will be prepared to send the needed amount of money for devotees who are spreading His glories. It may be through other persons, or it may be through the same persons later, but it will come.
For example, one time I stopped two nice ladies. They were very interested in the books, but they didn’t have any money, classical case. I ended up giving two small books, one to each, telling them that they could read and come back another day to take more books. They became touched by the gesture and promised to read. Later on the same day, one of the ladies indeed came back. She gave me a donation of R$ 100 (which is a large donation by brazilian standards) and took three small sets, one for her, one for the other lady and one for a friend, 15 books in total!
A variation of the same idea is to insist on the idea of a small donation, but suggest a minimum which covers the amount you need for the book. You can say:
- These books are not expensive. Even if you can give just 10, it’s fine.
It still works, because, even doubling the BBT price, the cost of our books are still much less than what a person would pay for a similar book in a shop, so most people will consider the amount to be quite reasonable and take the book. Most people will not give less than what you suggested, so you can use it even for the maha-big books without fear.
One last point that is becoming increasingly important is to carry a credit card machine. More and more people are using credit and debit cards and not carrying money with them, so by carrying a machine, we get access to this large section of the public. In my book distribution, I often get 25% or more of the total in card donations, and most of them are people who I would lose without the machine. In addition, many of the big donations come through card: many people want to donate generously but are restricted by the little cash they are carrying. If we accept cards, they can donate the amount they want. Some people may even end up taking a Bhagavatam set.
There is an interesting pastime that I heard from HG Vijaya Prabhu. Devotees in the United States went to talk to a man in a car. They offered a Gita and he answered that he had it already. They asked if he had a Bhagavatam set, he answered that he didn’t. He asked how much it costs, they answered two hundred dollars. He complained that he didn’t have so much cash and the devotees quickly drew out a card machine. “It fits in the trunk of the car?” the man asked. The devotees quickly confirmed and the man decided to take the set just like that, using his card. The whole interaction took less than a minute!
The process of distributing a book in the street can generally be broken into three steps:
Normally, if we fail in one of these steps, the next ones are not going to work. For example, if a person is not willing to stop and you start to walk alongside him, rushingly trying to present a book, he is not going to really listen to your mantra, nor pay attention to the book, and as a result, he is not going to get interested. You then ask for a donation and he just dismisses you or, at best, gives a few coins just to get rid of this inconvenient person who is chasing him.
Similarly, even if a person stops and listens, if you fail to make him interested, he is again not going to be willing to take a book and to give a donation. He will not see any value in the book, and therefore he will not want it. Even if he eventually ends up taking a book because of your insistence, he will just give a few coins for it. You then may think that it’s a success because he took the book in the end, but it’s actually a failure. He will just throw that book somewhere. Unless Krsna has some plan to deliver that book to someone else, it will eventually just end up in the garbage bin.
Frequently, we fail in the first two stages, and then try to make it up in the end, by begging and insisting in the donation part. Many people are a little pious and give something when one starts to beg, and therefore he ends up distributing a few books, but to just do that repeatedly can easily become a dead-end in one’s book distribution career, making him just specialize in begging instead of becoming more effective in making people interested in our literature, which is our true job. Begging has a negative connotation in most parts of the world. That’s not something that will make people inspired about our message.
One way to avoid that is to, in the beginning, train each stage individually, progressing to the next stage only with persons where you were successful in the previous stage. In other words, to only show books to persons who stop and give you attention, and only ask for donations to persons who show some interest.
By doing that, you will get lower results in the short term (since you are not going to distribute to the persons who are not interested, but who end up taking a book just because you are begging), but this practice will force you to improve in the two main areas, that is to get people's attention and convince them about our books, instead of taking the easy route by just hammering people about donations. Once a person is interested, he will quickly take the book when you mention about the donation, and because he will see value in the book, he will tend to donate generously. That is a true success; the book will be read and valued.
After you get more experienced, you can start to do different things, acting according to time, place and circumstance to increase your distribution, but this early training will help to improve in the right way, instead of just hammering people on the donation part.
The two laws about insisting are to always do it in a polite way, and to know when to stop. To insist too much is really bad, the person gets annoyed and burned. He starts to think: "What's wrong with this guy, why is he so desperate?". When presenting a book you should always make it appear like a special offer: a very nice book for a special person, an opportunity to get access to a very ancient and profound knowledge which has practical application in our modern times. Actually, that's what we are doing: we are offering the most precious knowledge for a very low price in order to give all intelligent people access to it. We need to be convinced about the importance of the books ourselves, and act in a noble way, so people will be able to understand and also value them.
Generally speaking, we may insist two times maximum. If a person says "no" for the first time, we insist, if he says "no” again, we may insist for the second time, using a different strategy, but if he says "no" for the third time, then it's time to stop. Just accept the book back, thank the person and finish the conversation in a nice way, so he leaves with a good impression and maybe takes it on some other day. If the person is generally favourable, give an invitation card, pamphlet or a sweet ball and say some nice words to start cultivating him.
To insist is usually effective in cases where the person gets a little interested or curious about the book, but not enough to immediately buy. In such cases, by insisting in the appropriate way we can bridge the gap and make him take it. In cases where there is no interest whatsoever, it’s usually pointless to insist, since it will just be a waste of time, and will just make the person more defensive. In such cases, it is usually better to just finish politely, without insisting. This will save time and leave the person with a small doubt deep inside his mind, that will maybe make him take a book on some other day.
In such cases, it’s important to keep a long-term vision. Many people need to get several positive experiences before they can commit to take a book. Right now, a person may not be prepared to take, but if we can make him leave with a good impression, he may come back to take it another day. A person who is just a little interested today (not sufficiently to take a book), may take a Bhagavad-Gita tomorrow, and a Bhagavatam set next year. But if we put pressure on him, try to force him to take a book, he will just get burned and nothing good will come out of it.
Sometimes, one may have the idea that book distribution is about insisting and begging, but this is not a good approach. In reality, successful book distribution is more about finding favourable persons and speaking to them in a way that increases their interest or curiosity to the point of taking a book. For this, it’s important to keep our interactions with uninterested or hostile people polite, but short, so we have time for the ones who are open. When someone thinks that he knows everything and is all perfect already, it’s very difficult to change his mentality. It’s much more effective to focus on the ripe fruits.
We should also remember that we are few and there are so many people in each city. If we spend too much time speaking with a single person, this is violence to the others, who are deprived of also having a chance of receiving transcendental knowledge. There are a lot of persons out there who are looking for spiritual knowledge, just waiting for a chance to start their Krsna consciousness. If we insist one, two times and a person still doesn’t want the book, it’s time to go to the next one. He had his chance, now it’s time to give a chance to someone else. Naturally, when someone is nice and interested, we may spend more time, since then the goal is to make him a devotee, which should have a higher priority than to just distribute a book. The main point is that we should use our time wisely.
One important but often overlooked aspect of book distribution, is how we dress. The whole process of distributing a book depends on people getting a positive impression of the book distributor. If they get attracted to the book distributor’s mood, qualities, sincerity and appearance, they will stop and hear his presentation, but if they see him as an unpleasant person, it’s going to be very difficult to distribute books to them.
By dressing in a nice way, we increase our chances of making a good impression, and therefore to distribute a book. Krsna consciousness means to use our intelligence to do our service in the best possible way, and in book distribution this includes dressing in a presentable way. As Srila Prabhupada said to devotees of a chanting party in the 1970s: "I understand that you are renounced, but for my sake, please dress nicely!" When we go out, we are representing Srila Prabhupada and our previous acaryas, so we have the duty of presenting ourselves in a respectable way.
Srila Prabhupada didn't insist on the use of devotional clothes on book distribution (you can check, for example, his purport to CC Madhya 14.5). His main principle is that devotees should dress nicely. As he said one time: “Dress and then address”. If we go using devotional clothes, we need to use a good dhoti or sari, with a good kurta and good shoes. If we go on secular clothes, we should use respectable clothes (like ladies and gentlemen), being attentive especially to the shirt and shoes. Those are the items that people notice first. Needless to say, we must be very clean, and the clothes must be in pristine condition, without holes, stains, etc.
It’s important to always be nice and polite with people, even when they are rude to us. In some cases, we may just accept the book back and leave the person without interacting further, but we must resist the impulse of answering impolitely when someone is nasty. In such cases, better to stay silent or just say: “Thank you for your time, have a good day. My sincere good wishes to you”.
Even if someone offends you, if you don’t accept the offense, then the person will have to take it back. There is a history, usually attributed to Lord Buddha, that illustrates this point. There was a pure sadhu who was always peaceful. Somehow, one materialistic man became envious of him and would regularly come to him and shout all kinds of insults. Every time, the sadhu would just listen in silence, without showing any reaction. As a result, the man would eventually get frustrated and leave. One time the man couldn’t contain himself and asked: “Every day I come here and say so many insults, but you just hear in silence, how is it?”. The sadhu replied: “Yes, every day you come here and throw so much garbage, but because I don’t accept your garbage, every day you have to take it back with you.”
We should always remember SB 4.11.13 which I quoted earlier: “The Lord is very satisfied with His devotee when the devotee greets other people with tolerance, mercy, friendship and equality”. Nowadays people live very artificial and empty lives, therefore almost everyone is disturbed and insane to some extent. Our job is to keep our minds stable even in unpalatable circumstances, which demands that we get free from the clutches of the false ego and start doing what is better for the person whom we are talking to and for the mission, without trying to defend our pride or position like a materialist would do. This is part of our training.
HG Vaisesika Prabhu: There are a couple of practical things I’ve learned over the years in regard to customer care. For instance, we know that there are mantras to introduce a book. For example, devotees often say something like “This is a book on yoga and meditation. It helps you get free from stress and anxiety.” It’s stated in the Gita-mahatmya that one who carefully follows the instructions of the Bhagavad-gita will become free from all the miseries and anxieties of life. So this mantra exactly follows sastra and is true. If you read any of Srila Prabhupada’s books and follow the instructions given there, you’ll become free from the miseries of life. So this is a perfectly bona fide mantra. But there is also another type of mantra that I’ve been using. I call it an “exit mantra”. For example, when I finish speaking with someone I look the person squarely in the eye, shake the person’s hand, and tell him or her, “I want to thank you very much for taking your valuable time, and I want to tell you what an honor it was to meet you.”
People really like that. Sometimes they’re miraculously affected. They may have originally responded with something like “No, I’m not interested in this; I don’t want to give a donation; I’m a Christian and I don’t believe in this.” I thank the person from the bottom of my heart, telling him, “I want to thank you very much for taking your valuable time, and I want to tell you how much of an honor it was to meet you.” And while I’m saying that, I’m thinking of the verse in Sri Isopanisad which says that we should see every living entity as a spiritual spark, and that a person who sees like that has no anxiety or fear. This is the transcendental meditation on sankirtana. And after my “exit mantra,” the same person who said “I’m not interested” sometimes comes back a half hour later and tells me, “We would like to donate.” Several such experiences have really had a heavy impact on me and made me realize that “Wow, everything we do and say, and the way we do and say it, and even the way we think when we’re saying it and doing it, has a distinct and definite impact on the people we’re speaking to.” (The Treasure of the Brhat-mrdanga, ch. 12)
To not only be able to control our minds, but to actually be kind and polite to people who have offended us is the real test of sanctity, that demands a lot of maturity and spiritual advancement. This is something that is only possible to develop through serious spiritual practice and determination. On the other hand, the benefits of acting properly with people, both to our own consciousness and for our preaching are tremendous. In his book “Our Family Business”, HG Vaisesika Prabhu describes the practical use of his exit mantra and its effect:
“During my stay at the Honolulu temple, I would go out every day to distribute books along Kalakawa Avenue. One day, I happened to approach a newlywed couple from Kansas City, Missouri. After I greeted them, showed them the first volume of Srimad Bhagavatam's First Canto, and gave them a brief summary of the book, they abruptly handed it back. They told me that they were Born-again Christians, that they only read the Bible, and that they only give donations to their church. Despite this rebuff I didn't feel even slightly disturbed. Here's why.
All week long in Hawaii I had been hearing and chanting with my friend and traveling companion, Satyadeva Prabhu, as well as the devotees at ISKCON Honolulu's beautiful temple. Every day, we had the luxury of rising together early in the morning to attend mangala-arati, to sit and chant sixteen very focused rounds in the temple room, to hear a discourse on Srimad-Bhagavatam, to perform kirtana, to dance before Srila Prabhupada's form and the Deities of the Panca-tattva, and to honor krsna-prasada.
By this intense practice, I felt happy, equipoised, and enthusiastic. Consequently, when the newlyweds summarily rejected me, I neither expressed nor felt disappointment or annoyance. On the contrary, as a result of my strict practice of devotional service at the temple, I was able to feel and press nothing but goodwill toward them. Warmly, I voiced my appreciation for them, saying, "I completely understand your position. In fact, I am indebted to you for taking your valuable time to talk with me. I feel truly honored to have met you." I uttered these words as they rose directly from my heart. I later found out that those words had had a strong effect on the newlyweds. Anyone who practices strong sadhana, starting with focused chanting of japa, receives such empowerment. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu affirms in His famous Siksastaka that the Supreme Lord has kindly invested all of His spiritual potencies in His holy name (nija-sarva-saktis tatrarpita). And Srila Prabhupada writes that by chanting the Lord's holy name, “one can derive all the stipulated energy synchronized from all sources." Therefore, devotees who take the time each day to chant Hare Krsna with rapt attention purify their hearts and automatically develop good qualities such as tolerance and goodwill toward others, qualities that attract people's minds and hearts.
Having parted ways with the newlyweds, I happily continued distributing Srila Prabhupada's books. Thirty minutes later, as I was showing a college student a Bhagavad-gita As It Is, I noticed that the newlywed couple were standing nearby, watching me. When I finished speaking to the student, the newlyweds approached me to give a five-dollar donation. As they handed it to me they apologized for being dismissive earlier. They said that they had changed their minds about not giving a donation, that they felt I was sincerely trying to do something good to help the world, and that they wanted to help me. I thanked them and accepted their donation, but I also offered them the same book they had earlier rejected. I explained that it was my rule never to accept a donation without giving something in return. They hesitated for a moment, but then smiled and accepted the book. We spoke for a while and then parted as friends.
Needless to say, I was delighted to see the change in this newlywed couple. What's more, this encounter left me with two indelible impressions. First, people are sensitive; that is, they can perceive the motive of another person, just as the newlyweds sensed mine. Living entities are called sentient precisely because they have the ability to feel and perceive. Even animals are known for their capacity to sense goodwill in their caretakers or aggression in their abusers; how much more, then, must human beings be able to perceive such things.
The second impression I was left with was that the quality and effectiveness of my speech directly corresponds to the quality of my devotional practice. The warm words I had spoken in response to the newlywed couple's annoyance were manifestations of a descending grace that had come to me owing to my chanting of Krsna's holy name and the friendship I had enjoyed with the devotees of the Honolulu temple.
Book distributors who faithfully take the prescribed spiritual medicine of strong daily sadhana become naturally endowed with appealing and invaluable assets such as knowledge, detachment, and goodwill — assets that empower their service. What’s more, since their practice of devotional service affords them an overflow of taste, they have plenty to share with others.” (HG Vaisesika Prabhu, Our Family Business, chapter 13)
By being respectful with the public, we can avoid having many types of negative interactions with them. Not only that, in many cases people change quite remarkably because of our politeness. One time, I was distributing books in a small bus station in a remote city. At some point, a big, drunk man came to me shouting and demanded to know what these books are and why I was selling them. Quite an aggressive fellow. It was a small bus station, therefore there were no guards. People started to walk away, sensing trouble. I started to just talk very respectfully to him, answering his questions in a calm and polite way. After a few minutes he cooled down a little, and I finally offered him a book. He angrily asked: “How much is this??”. I put on my most sattvic face and answered: “Just give a donation from your heart”. Amazingly enough, this drunk, aggressive man took his wallet out and gave a good donation! I became a little bit bold and asked him if he had a family. He answered that he had a wife and a child. “Can you do me a favour?” I asked. He answered yes. “Can you bring these two books for them?”. He took the books and gave a little more. Not only I survived unharmed the giant drunkard, but in the end he took three books!
There is, however, an exception to this general rule. While we should always be respectful and tolerate offenses directed to ourselves, a preacher should never tolerate offenses directed to Vaishnavas, or to Krsna Himself. As Srila Prabhupada explains in his purport to CC Adi 10.85: “humility and meekness are appropriate when one’s own honor is insulted but not when Lord Visnu or the acaryas are blasphemed. In such cases one should not be humble and meek but must act.”
In the same purport, he elaborates further on this subject:
“One should follow the example given by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. Lord Caitanya says in His Siksastaka (3):trnad api su-nicena taror iva sahisnuna amanina mana-dena kirtaniyah sada harih “One can chant the holy name of the Lord in a humble state of mind, thinking himself lower than the straw in the street. One should be more tolerant than a tree, devoid of all sense of false prestige, and should be ready to offer all respect to others. In such a state of mind one can chant the holy name of the Lord constantly.” Nevertheless, when the Lord was informed that Nityananda Prabhu was injured by Jagai and Madhai, He immediately went to the spot, angry like fire, wanting to kill them. Thus Lord Caitanya has explained His verse by the example of His own behavior. One should tolerate insults against oneself, but when there is blasphemy committed against superiors such as other Vaisnavas, one should be neither humble nor meek: one must take proper steps to counteract such blasphemy. This is the duty of a servant of a guru and Vaisnavas.”
This is a principle that Srila Prabhupada was showing in his personal example. We can see many examples in his conversations, and also in memories of his disciples. He would never tolerate insults against Krsna, our previous acaryas, or even against his own preaching disciples. In every case, he would strongly object and defeat the opponent using arguments.
HH Badrinarayana Maharaja: There was a professor from Cal Tech who had studied Vedanta and who appreciated what he saw as Prabhupada's simplistic presentation, appropriate for the neophytes in the West. This professor thought that as one went further into Vedanta, one understood how the form becomes formless, and he quoted Sanskrit slokas to support his viewpoint. Prabhupada didn't even look at him. Prabhupada looked at the Deities of Radha and Krishna and chanted Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare... while the professor went on speaking. Finally the professor ran out of steam. Prabhupada said, "Are you finished?" and then Prabhupada started quoting from the Puranas, the Vedas, the Vedanta Sutra, the Upanisads, the Samhitas, as if he were hammering a nail into the ground. For this man it was like body blows. Everyone was sitting on a big rug, but this man was standing. As Prabhupada spoke in his lionlike way the professor stooped a little bit, then he was on his knees, then he could have melted into the floor. Prabhupada, with his noble bearing and his hand in his bead bag, made point after point. It came to a crescendo. Prabhupada finished and said, "Do you have any further questions?" The professor said, "Swami, can we have kirtan?" His complaint had been that we just chanted and danced like sentimentalists. The devotees said "Jaya!" The professor had seen the light, so to speak. (Memories Anecdotes of a Modern Day Saint - Volume 1)
Sometimes people just have misconceptions that can be gently brushed off, in such cases we can just explain things in a nice way and they will understand. If one is envious, however, he may actually blaspheme out of malice. In such cases, we need to strongly object, and defeat the offender with appropriate arguments, according to time, place and circumstance. The best is to learn how to do it quickly, so our time on book distribution is not wasted. If the situation is just not worth it, or if one is not learned enough to argue, he may just dismiss the offender and continue his book distribution (moving to a different spot if that’s the case) but in no circumstance should one remain sheepishly hearing.
Another important point is that sometimes we are very concerned about learning mantras, but mantras are of no use if we don’t have enough experience, the right qualities or enough spiritual strength to use them. We may learn all the mantras of great sankirtana devotees, but probably we will not be able to distribute nearly as many books as they do. The main thing is not the mantra itself, but the purity of the book distributor. It’s not just about repeating the words. Sankirtana mantras are like the celestial weapons used by ksatriyas in bygone eras: each weapon requires some special qualities of the wielder before it can be learned and used. One particular mantra may be effective only if we can control our enviousness or are perfectly peaceful. Another one may work only if we sincerely can see Krsna in the heart of everyone and therefore become truly humble, and so on. Without these particular qualities, we may repeat the words, but they are not going to have the same effect.
As we progress on sankirtana and get the association of more experienced devotees, naturally we start learning new things which we can use effectively according to our expertise and level of realization, but this is a slow process and requires that we simultaneously develop ourselves as devotees.
Nowadays most people have problems with stress and loneliness, are dissatisfied with their lives, frustrated for not finding their soulmate and so on, problems that our books address and solve better than anything else in the market. When presenting the books, we should be confident and use clever mantras that present them as solutions for contemporary problems, that are going to help people to solve their personal difficulties, become self-controlled and self-satisfied, advance spiritually, become better persons and find true happiness.
There are so many striking, beautiful and interesting passages in our books, therefore it's good to memorize and show some selected passages as part of your presentation. A good practice is to study carefully each book that you are going to distribute, select some especially interesting passages, memorize them (or at least remember the number of the page where they are) and try to show them to people at appropriate times. One verse that I use frequently is Bg. 6.6, that deals with one fundamental question of modern times: how to control our minds.
"For him who has conquered the mind, the mind is the best of friends; but for one who has failed to do so, his mind will remain the greatest enemy." (Bg. 6.6)
People feel so much frustration, anxiety and even get in trouble because of their minds, even more than devotees! Many people really become interested when they see how the Bhagavad-Gita teaches us how to control our minds. And not only that, it also teaches us how to find true happiness. One who is self-satisfied will be happy in any circumstance, without the need for cigarettes or chocolate!
"In the stage of perfection called trance, or samadhi, one’s mind is completely restrained from material mental activities by practice of yoga. This perfection is characterized by one’s ability to see the Self by the pure mind and to relish and rejoice in the Self. In that joyous state, one is situated in boundless transcendental happiness, realized through transcendental senses. Established thus, one never departs from the truth, and upon gaining this he thinks there is no greater gain. Being situated in such a position, one is never shaken, even in the midst of greatest difﬁculty. This indeed is actual freedom from all miseries arising from material contact." (Bg. 6.20-23)
Another classical verse is SB 1.3.43. Srila Prabhupada himself was teaching his disciples to show this verse when presenting Srimad Bhagavatam on book distribution:
"This Bhagavata Purana is as brilliant as the sun, and it has arisen just after the departure of Lord Krsna to His own abode, accompanied by religion, knowledge, etc. Persons who have lost their vision due to the dense darkness of ignorance in the age of Kali shall get light from this Purana." (SB 1.3.43)
HG Mulaprakriti Devi dasi: Prabhupada said, "See how beautifully Srimad-Bhagavatam sells itself. Anyone who heard this from Srimad-Bhagavatam would think, 'I must read that book, I must.' That's what you need to tell people. Tell them straight from Srimad-Bhagavatam. I am excited when I read Srimad-Bhagavatam, so certainly they will be as well." (Memories of Srila Prabhupada)
Many people refuse our books saying that they are not interested in religious books. With all the scandals and degradation of mainstream religions, it's understandable that many people are losing their faith in them. SB 1.1.2 is usually very effective in these cases:
"Completely rejecting all religious activities which are materially motivated, this Bhagavata Purana propounds the highest truth, which is understandable by those devotees who are fully pure in heart. The highest truth is reality distinguished from illusion for the welfare of all. Such truth uproots the threefold miseries." (SB 1.1.2)
We are teaching spiritual knowledge that goes much further than simple mundane religion or sectarian views. In fact, Srimad-Bhagavatam Himself rejects all kinds of cheating religions, offering the highest truth, reality distinguished from ignorance.
To preach like this, presenting verses and passages from the books, makes our preaching much more enjoyable and guarantees that even the ones who don't take books will get some purification by hearing spiritual knowledge.
The main point is that we should use passages from the books with the goal of inspiring people and awakening their interest. If we use the book like a club, showing heavy passages to prove that a person is wrong, it will have the opposite effect. People nowadays have a great deal of aversion to authority. If they meet a strange guy in the street who starts to hammer them with passages from an unknown book, trying to prove that everything they believe is wrong, they are going to have a very strong impulse to reject it.
The way to make people interested is to present our books in a way that makes them curious, that connects the knowledge in the books with their reality and shows how they can help one to solve his practical problems in life, finding peace, happiness and so on. Instead of confronting people’s beliefs, we present a positive alternative. This way the chances of a person taking a book are much higher, and even the ones who don’t take will leave with a good impression, and thus become more open to take in future interactions. This is an art that takes time to master, but it is essential to become effective as a preacher. To just hammer people down with quotes is not only ineffective, but also counterproductive.
Apart from all the do’s and don'ts, probably the most important thing on book distribution is to be able to smile sincerely to the persons we are speaking to. By his simplicity, a sincere devotee can win people’s hearts. Simply by smiling, we can create a lot of empathy and quickly make a person relax and become open to take a book and to hear about transcendental knowledge. In addition, by smiling we can get away with many things that we can’t otherwise. It allows us to talk informally, make witty jokes, or even to poke or softly rebuke people. Such smiling by a devotee has the power to attract a person to Krsna consciousness.
To be able to do that, it is essential that we are practicing our spiritual lives seriously and are able to keep ourselves connected with the spiritual energy. If we are happy in our spiritual lives, and in our services, to smile will become just a natural thing, and we are going to be able to attract people. The happiness that we feel inside will just start to overflow. A fake smile will not have the same effect.
One time I told one Prabhu about the importance of smiling on book distribution, and he decided to try. A few minutes later he came back with a sad face: “I tried to smile to a young lady, but she became scared, she said that she was scared of me, that I looked like a psychopath!”. I asked him to show his smile, and indeed, the way he was artificially showing his teeth was a little scary… But he kept trying, and when I saw him the following year, he was smiling much more naturally and his book distribution improved tremendously.
When distributing, it’s important to be attentive to opportunities that may present themselves to augment our book distribution. An interested person may put you in contact with a group of other nice persons, where you can distribute a number of books to quality people. Different events in the town attract different types of persons, and many of such groups may be favourable to our books. By going there and talking to people when they are entering or leaving (or sometimes even when they are inside), you can again get in contact with quality people who may be much more interested than most people in the street. In the United States, for example, devotees distribute large amounts of books at the entrance of rock concerts, where the young public is generally quite receptive. There are so many nice people that a lot of times they just start to scream: “Books about yoga and meditation!” and interested persons go to them.
Even on ordinary days, when we are just distributing in the street, there are always some opportunities: persons who are waiting for someone, groups of people, and so on. Lines can be an especially interesting target, because we have a stream of bored people just waiting. One problem with lines is that when people see others refusing the books, they tend to adopt a herd behaviour, and also start to refuse, creating a chain reaction. One way to avoid this is to start from the end of the line (so people don’t see you until you approach them). Another is to combine different techniques that we use on person to person sankirtana (choosing the right persons, disarming their initial impulse to reject, use jokes, smiling, etc.) to do a frontal attack, starting from the front of the line. The secret is to choose a nice person to start with: when he takes the books and starts looking and hearing your mantra, try to involve the others that are near, using small jokes and other tactics, so they also hold books and listen to your mantra. It’s difficult to master, but if you can do this effectively, you can end up speaking your mantra to three or six people at a time. When you finish with the first group, find another nice person a little ahead (just quickly greeting the grumpy ones) and start again. If you can convince the first person to take a book, chances are that others in the group will also take (it’s the same herd effect that normally makes people refuse, but this time used the other way around), so you may end up distributing books up to three or six people at a time with just a two minute mantra, making the distribution very effective.
In commercial districts, many times the people working in the stores are actually nicer and more interested than the ones in the street, so you can augment your distribution by also distributing to the workers and owners of the stores. Naturally, that's a different style of book distribution, that has its own particularities, but where there is a will, there is a way.
Even when doing person to person distribution in the street, there are always opportunities to stop groups of people. It works the same way: if you can identify the leader and convince him to take a book, there is a good chance that all the others are going to take also. Another interesting thing is that sometimes, under the right circumstances, it is possible to stop a second or even a third person while you are already talking with the first one. This is very difficult to do, but can be learned with practice. If both you and the person you are talking to look happy, some of the other people who pass by are going to be attracted. You will notice that some of them will be looking to you, or showing some obvious signs. If you can make them stop using your look, some discrete hand signal, or some very short sentence (without disturbing the flow of the conversation with the first person), it’s possible to seamlessly include one or two more people in the conversation, converting it into a group. The same general idea applies: if the first person takes books, the others are also probably going to take.
To distribute books without speaking may sound like something very mystical, but it is actually a problem that we may face frequently. One situation is when you lose your voice because of a throat infection or some other temporary problem. Another situation is when you are visiting a foreign country and you don’t know the language. Both situations are similar, since you can’t use your communication skills freely.
In my experience, the best approach in this situation is to dress nicely (with nice and groomed devotional clothes, or in respectable karmi clothes), be peaceful and happy and, from this platform, stop people by looking them in the eyes and by using gestures.
By doing that, you are going to stop fewer people than when using questions and jokes, but it has two advantages: you are going to stop only nice people, and people who do stop will be attentive, since they will understand that you can’t communicate well. It is a style that will stop only the ripe fruits, which is exactly what we need in this situation since we are not going to able to speak in an articulate way, much less to enter into heated discussions.
To dress well and to be peaceful and happy is especially needed in this case, since without speaking we have to stop people based only on the first impression we give and in our spiritual energy. If we chant our rounds attentively in the morning, it will work, because sincere people will be attracted to our energy.
In case you can speak (just not very well), like if you have an infection in the throat and can’t speak clearly, or if you can speak a few sentences in the local language, but not very much, you can just give your mantra in a paused way, using gestures, facial expressions and looking the person in the eyes. Since you are going to be speaking mainly with ripe fruits, you can have some pretty deep interactions with people, even without speaking much.
Even if you can’t speak at all, it is still possible to distribute by making cards with sentences of your mantra. You can make some nice printed cards with different sentences and laminate them to make them durable.
Once a person stops, you may gesticulate that you can’t talk and start showing cards from the deck and presenting books, making gestures and facial expressions, like in old silent films. This kind of presentation actually works well, since people tend to become attentive. It is even possible to make decks of mantra cards in different languages to “talk” with people of different nationalities.
While we will speak with fewer people using these approaches, the end result may not be bad, because we may compensate in the quality of the interactions. There are days that I need to distribute like this because I lost my voice and the result ends up being more or less the same as a normal day. The main point is that when we are distributing books, we work as gears in Mahaprabhu’s preaching machine. If we have the proper mentality and do what we can, according to the situation, Krsna can put us in contact with people who we can help, even in that particular situation. Even if we can't speak, Krsna can use us to distribute books to people who can be convinced by a smile and a few short sentences. The main thing is to engage whatever energy we have in the mission, no matter what‘s the condition.
A more advanced aspect of book distribution, that we can develop with time, is the art of reading minds and identifying people by their physical appearance and attributes.
When one mentions something about “reading minds” we think about yogi's with siddhis, but in this case, it is something much less mystical. Srila Prabhupada explains that the face is the index of the mind, therefore by attentively following the facial expressions and other reactions of a person, it’s possible to accurately understand what is going on inside his head.
Another point is to understand a person's consciousness from the appearance of his body. This is actually a Vedic art, called physiognomy, and is briefly described in SB 1.19.28:
He was blackish and very beautiful due to his youth. Because of the glamor of his body and his attractive smiles, he was pleasing to women. Though he tried to cover his natural glories, the great sages present there were all expert in the art of physiognomy, and so they honored him by rising from their seats.
When someone is inside the womb of his mother, the body is slowly formed, molded around his consciousness. Since the body is constructed around the consciousness, like a piece of cloth, it’s possible to get clues about the consciousness of the soul living inside that particular body just by studying the body itself. That was how the sages in Naimisharanya were able to recognize Sukadeva Gosvami when he appeared, even though he didn't manifest symptoms of belonging to any social order or status of life, was not properly dressed and was surrounded with women and children. From the assembly of sages, only Vyasadeva and Narada Muni knew Sukadeva Gosvami, and they did not say anything. Still, all the sages immediately understood who he was and paid him their respects.
These are two subtle arts that take time to master, but they are invaluable on book distribution, since they allow one to identify which persons are prone to take a book in a crowd, to approach them in an appropriate way, to understand if a person is interested or not, and so on.
A third art, that is still more advanced, is to be connected with the Lord and be able to hear Him and follow His dictations. The Lord is in the heart of everyone, and He knows everything. When a sankirtana devotee is truly connected with the Lord in the heart, he is connected with the source of all knowledge, therefore he can get transcendental tips from Him. The devotee may not be able to explain why or how, but somehow he just knows that he needs to be in a particular place, that he needs to speak some particular thing to a specific person and so on. This naturally supersedes any mundane art.
This sankirtana story about HG Bhrigupati Prabhu illustrates this point. In one sense, Krsna made the man give twenty dollars because Bhrigupati Prabhu said it would be so, but on the other hand, he said it because, somehow, he knew it was the will of the Lord. Just like Lord Nrshinhadeva came out of the pillar because Prahlada Maharaja said, but Prahlada said it only because the Lord was about to come. This kind of connection with the Lord is quite frequent in sincere devotees:
HG Chandrasekhar Acarya Prabhu: "Bhrigupati Prabhu, the grandfather Bhisma of Sankirtana (26 years of book distribution- almost all of which as full-time book distribution), who lives in New Dwarka and who goes to the LAX airport everyday to bless numberless souls with Srila Prabhupada's books, says something and that thing becomes true immediately: Several months ago, I was sitting with him in one of the seats in the United Airlines terminal, having lunch. In the middle of our samosa, he noticed a young man walking by. Bhrigupati Prabhu told me "go, run up to him and show him the Bhagavad Gita- he'll give you twenty dollars." I ran up to him with my hands still moochy and I somehow showed him the Gita. To my surprise, he gave me twenty dollars. Yesterday, Bhakta Alex was with Bhrigupati Prabhu in Continental Airlines. A young man passed by, Bhrigupati Prabhu told Alex "go, catch up with him and sell him a book- he'll give you twenty." Sure enough, Bhakta Alex caught up with the man, showed him the book, and he gave Alex twenty dollars. Even Bhrigupati himself was surprised!" (Article: The Power of Bhrigupati Prabhu)
Another example is a passtime from HG Harinamananda Prabhu, told by HG Navina Nirada Prabhu. Once, devotees were in the van, coming back from book distribution. Out of the blue, when passing thru a residential area, Harinamananda Prabhu insisted to stop the van. The driver complied and he hurried out of the car, carrying a Bhagavatam set. He went straight to a particular house and knocked the door. A man opened and he offered him the set. A few minutes later, he came back to the van without the set. From inside the heart, Krsna told him that this man, in this particular house, would take a set.
Finally, there is the question of how to remember persons who we have spoken with previously. Naturally, many times we will remember a person, especially the ones with who we spent more time with and had some meaningful interaction, but no matter how good our memory is, we can’t remember everyone. You can just imagine a book distributor like HG Bhrigupati Prabhu, who is distributing since the 1980's and already has distributed almost half a million books. He can’t possibly remember everyone who he talked to!
The secret is to observe people’s reactions when you try to stop them. Most of the times, you may not remember the person, but the person will remember you, therefore by their reaction you can understand that you spoke with them previously. In other words, they usually give the game away. Most of the time it’s something subtle: the person looks at you and pauses for half a second, making a particular type of face, as though saying: “do you remember me?”. Other times they just smile and greet you in a very warm way, because they remember you as a friend from your previous conversation. When you get the giveaway, you can understand that you already spoke with him previously and react in an appropriate way: “Oh! We spoke the other day, right?!”.
Of course, sometimes we may understand things in the wrong way (maybe the person pauses just because he is confused, or smiles in an extraordinary way just because he’s an open person), but it doesn’t matter much. To say something like “Hey, we already spoke a few months ago right? How are you!?” is also a good way to stop a person, since he will have to stop to think from where he knows you. If he says that he doesn't remember you, then you can just quickly change the subject and start presenting the books, since he has already stopped: “We didn't speak? Well, it must be someone very like you then… Anyway, can I show you something?”
With all these details, one could get the impression that book distribution is a very complicated activity, but once we start putting our heart into it, it becomes quite natural. The soul’s nature is to love and serve Krsna, and book distribution is a manifestation of this true nature. Book distribution is connected with the natural inclination of the soul, therefore to distribute books is quite a natural activity for anybody, we just need to forget about all these temporary designations and simply be connected with our true nature. Navina Nirada Prabhu summarizes the most important points:
HG Navina Nirada Prabhu: People want to know three things: Who are you, what's this book and what's in it for me. If we learn how to present it in an attractive, in a relatable, in a current way, people can actually become attracted. Just to give you a few lines that I have been using, and that work well for me: I go up to people and I say --I just start off with a question, either "Are you from here?", or "How is your mind?", "Are you mindful or mindless?", "How are things going?", "How do you feel?", something that opens them up for a discussion. And immediately I can see whether they are ready to engage or not. If not, simply move on, there is plenty of people out there. But if they respond, then just get into a conversation, and then, as soon as possible present the book. Put it in their hands: if the book is in your hand, it will stay there; if it is in their hands it will stay with them. Don't throw it at then, but just hand over nicely, and say something about the book, ask them a few questions, relate the book to their person and then ask for a contribution. It's not rocket science, it's been done before.
What is the secret? We have to actually like the people. In order to like the people, it requires our understanding that these are our eternal brothers and sisters. They are family, so of course we like them, they are part of our family, they are Krsna's parts and parcels, so I love doing sankirtana because I meet a lot of my relatives, I meet a lot of friends out there. Then sankirtana becomes very enlivening. I don't see anybody as an enemy or anybody as a person who I can gain something from, I simply try to go out and help them. One of the secrets is really, besides liking the people, to not get in the way, just try take ourselves out of the center and to let the energy flow without obstruction, not to become a wall between Krsna's potency and the people. (Podcast to London devotees, 2018).
There are two kinds of sankirtana: book distribution and chanting of the holy names (harinama). When Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu started the sankirtana movement, there was no distribution of books, so “sankirtana” meant literally to go out in groups chanting the holy names. When Srila Prabhupada started the Hare Krsna movement in the West, there were still no books for mass distribution, so he also instituted the public chanting of the holy names as the main preaching activity for devotees. As devotees also needed some laksmi to survive, it was common to use a box or conch-shells to receive donations from people. At this time it was also not uncommon for temple devotees (even brahmacharis) to work outside, donating their salary to the temple, since laksmi was so scarce. Srila Prabhupada himself instituted it on the basis that if someone works outside and gives his entire salary to Krsna, he is actually in the renounced order and therefore such work doesn’t conflict with his status of brahmacari. Srila Prabhupada explains this point in his purport to Bg. 18.11:
“It is said in Bhagavad-gita that one can never give up work at any time. Therefore he who works for Krsna and does not enjoy the fruitive results, who offers everything to Krsna, is actually a renouncer. There are many members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness who work very hard in their office or in the factory or some other place, and whatever they earn they give to the Society. Such highly elevated souls are actually sanyasis and are situated in the renounced order of life. It is clearly outlined here how to renounce the fruits of work and for what purpose fruits should be renounced”.
Sometimes we get the idea that to renounce means to stop working, but that’s actually the opposite conclusion of the Bhagavad-gita. Again and again, Srila Prabhupada makes the point that to renounce actually means to work for Krsna. Nonetheless, the brahmacharis working outside were not so enthusiastic about their jobs, therefore eventually Srila Prabhupada said they could just do harinama the whole day and just surrender to Krsna, maintaining the temple with whatever donations they would receive.
Soon the books started to come, and in big quantities, so devotes started to combine the harinamas with book distribution. Srila Prabhupada devised a plan to solve both the preaching and financial problems: sell the books with some profit, so people would get benefited both ways (by taking the books and giving donations to devotees) and the movement could use the laksmi to maintain itself and expand. The formula was simple: the BBT would produce the books and sell them to the temples at double the printing cost and the temples would sell them to the public at double the BBT cost. The BBT would use the profit to maintain itself, print more and more books and finance acquisitions of properties to open new temples and the temples would use their profits to maintain their activities. This general rule of selling for double of the BBT price doesn’t need to always be rigidly applied (Srila Prabhupada himself created many exceptions, and always emphasized that the most important is to increase the distribution and to make the books reach interested persons) but this is a general rule of the thumb that offers a sustainable way to distribute books and at the same time financially maintain our missionary activities. The main law is that we should preach and that whatever we do needs to be sustainable.
To conciliate the goal of preaching and distributing books with the goal of getting a certain amount of profit necessary to pay for the books and maintain different activities can be a difficult endeavour. We can't simply start to give the books away, otherwise, there won’t be money to pay the BBT, maintain the temple, the sankirtana group and ourselves. On the other hand, if we start thinking too much about the money, our sankirtana will get contaminated and we will lose the taste for it.
Instead of setting a fixed price for the books (as it was done in the beginning), nowadays most devotees ask for a donation. This offers many advantages:
a) We can develop a detached mentality: since we don't have a direct influence on how much people are giving, we can just depend on Krsna and accept whatever comes.
b) The book distribution becomes more like a religious fundraising activity (instead of a selling business) which raises opportunities for distribution of our books in many places where selling activities are not permitted.
c) People usually go away with a good impression, since they can give the amount they feel comfortable giving.
Yet, there are downsides, also:
a) We can easily develop a “prostitute mentality”, stopping those who appear capable of giving bigger donations, using tricks to make them give more than they are prepared to give, etc.
b) We can't control how much people give, so we can’t be sure to receive a certain amount for the books.
c) There is a tendency to start begging (especially for new book distributors), which is also dangerous.
There are a few easy things we can do to reduce these shortcomings:
Don’t get attached to receive a certain amount every time. Some people may give just the BBT price, or even less, but others will give five or ten times more. It's better to get detached and try to just keep an average, adjusting the size and the number of books given to people according to the characteristics of the people on each sankirtana field. In places where people normally give good donations, you can offer packages of one maha-big and two or three smaller books, trying to distribute multiple books every time and get substantial donations. In places where people give small donations, you can offer sets of two or three small books, or offer one book at a time.
If a person is really interested, you may give a book even for free (the main goal is that he reads the book and becomes a devotee); but if he is not particularly interested, it’s not good to sell big books for a derisory price, since the person will get the impression that these books are something cheap. Usually what I do is to accept any donation which at least covers the BBT price, or smaller donations from people who are interested but lack the money. When a person gives too little, you can say:
This is a nice way to present it. In most cases, the person will go for the small book or will give a little more. You can also ask sometimes if the person can give a little more, politely explaining that we need to cover the printing costs. The secret is to do it in a soft way:
This has a similar effect, transmitting the idea without forcing the person.
Usually, people will give a little more. If not, that’s also fine, just accept whatever they are offering and go to the next person. Krsna is in control. Frequently I have experiences of multiple persons giving very small donations in a row and then suddenly Krsna sending someone to give a very big donation that more than covers them all. Since Krsna is already controlling, we don’t need to try to also control: only one controller is enough.
During the 2013 marathon, I spent several days in front of a big shopping mall, distributing books to the people who were going there to buy their Christmas presents. I was getting very good results for a few days in a row already, but on one particular day I got a very peculiar situation: during the whole day, I was only meeting broke people, with no money. Many were interested and were eager to take books, but I was only receiving ridiculously small donations. It was a kind of miracle: just before Christmas, in front of a big shopping mall, stopping people who were supposedly going there to buy presents, and still, no one had money. Still, I was giving books to interested people, but I was definitely in the red, with less than the BBT price. Then, suddenly, when I had only a few stacks of books left, I stopped a lawyer with his wife. He was very appreciative and in the end, took three books and left a donation of R$ 100 (unusually big for Brazil). From there, I started to stop a number of very nice people in sequence, all giving unusually large donations. On the last hour, practically everyone who I stopped gave some generous donation: it was another miracle. By the end of the day, I had more lakshmi than I was getting in the previous days, most of it as a result of this miracle in the last hour. To me, this incident proved that Krsna is indeed in control, and He can control things in both ways.
Still, if you are getting less than necessary in a regular fashion, you should change your strategy, starting to offer smaller books or doing something else.
One particularly important point that we should be aware of is that donations are usually proportional to the level of interest, or to how much each person values the books. This is in turn directly connected with our presentation. Experienced book distributors get bigger donations simply because they can present the books in a much more consistent way and evoke a genuine interest and appreciation in the public. When someone appreciates the book and our preaching work, he will not hesitate to give a generous donation. First, we have to make the person interested and then ask for the donation: it’s a science. If we find the right persons and present the books in a proper way, they will be happy to support our work and money will never be a problem.
“My Guru Maharaja used to say, “Don’t worry about money. Do something nice for Krsna and money will come.” So we should always be thinking how to distribute the message of Krsna, and surely he will give us facility. Even an ordinary man, if he wants publicity, then he gives so much money for the propaganda work. Similarly, Krsna is not poor. He can supply any amount for the devotees engaged in broadcasting his glories.” (Srila Prabhupada, letter to Karandhara, 30 November 1970)
Inexperienced book distributors, on the other hand, frequently don’t know how to present the books properly, and therefore tend to just insist on the idea of donation, as if they were begging. The person doesn’t get convinced and therefore doesn’t want the book, but because the book distributor keeps insisting, he ends up giving some small donation just to get rid of him, or out of pithiness, and such donations are usually very small.
“Members of the Krsna consciousness movement have no business begging. Instead, they work very hard to introduce some literatures about Krsna consciousness so that people can read them and be benefited.“ (CC Madhya 8.39, Purport)
The point is that if we are consistently receiving small donations, even from well-to-do people, we should try to improve our presentation of the books, not blame the public. It’s usually better to start with small books (which are easy to distribute and can be given for even small donations) and gradually change to bigger books as we get more experienced.
“You should be very enthusiastic for distributing our books to schools, colleges, libraries, bookstores, and wherever else you can imagine that they will be well received. These books are so nice that anyone who reads them is sure to become Krishna Conscious. You can show them Krsna books and ask them to read any part and if they like what they have read they should purchase, and if not you will walk away. Who could resist? Krsna book is so nice that everyone will like it, either as a story book or history or philosophy or whatever, they are sure to be attracted. Simply it depends on your presentation. So do it nicely and Krsna will help you”. (Srila Prabhupada, letter to Sukadeva, 25 March 1971)
On one hand, we do need to collect some specific amount for each book to keep our preaching work. Without sufficient money, we wouldn't be able to pay to the BBT. The BBT, in turn, would not be able to continue printing books and our whole preaching mission would be hampered. Still, we should never forget that our main business is to preach, distribute as many books as possible and thus spread the movement and help the conditioned souls. Don’t let a business consciousness get in the way. If on some days things are really austere and the contributions are small, fine. There will be also days when contributions will be good and we will get multiple times the BBT price. We just need to keep an average.
Not everybody who takes a book will become a devotee (Krsna Himself says in the Bhagavad-gita 7.3 that out of thousands of men, one may endeavor for perfection), but everyone gets some purification, and thus gets a step closer to Krsna. In a Room Conversation in Bombay, from 10 January 1977, Srila Prabhupada makes this point:
Prabhupada: There is no consideration of big profit. Simply we want big number, distribution. That’s all.
Gopala Krsna: Also this will increase our prestige as a movement.
Prabhupada: Big number, as big as possible. My Guru Maharaja, he had magazines in six languages: English, Hindi, Bengali, Oriya, Assamese, and one Bengali daily. So if our men complained that “Such and such men are not giving their subscription, so, what we can do? Stop the supply?” Oh, he would become very angry. He asked them, “Are you commercial-hired fools? No! Supply free!” He used to say like that. He was asking, “Whether we shall stop supply? The subscription is not coming.” So immediately he became angry: “Are you commercial-hired? If he’s not giving price, supply him free.” That was his policy. So less perfect or…, try to see how many numbers of books.
In the end, these two ideas must be conciliated: that we need to distribute as much as possible and that we should somehow get sufficient money to pay for the books and maintain our missionary activities. If we take only one of these principles and forget the other, we can create havoc.
On some days, we will get smaller donations than usual. It's not uncommon to get several persons in a row giving only a few coins for example. In such circumstances, some devotees tend to start taking the big books from people's hands, giving them small books instead. This is a very bad practice which burns people away, especially when done in a blunt way.
HH Sivarama Swami: When distributing books, we should make as good an impression as possible on the people. They should think all devotees are saints. After buying books, they should be so inspired that they run home and immediately read what they’ve bought. Our books are about how people can change their lives by becoming Krsna conscious. Therefore sankirtana devotees must be prime examples of perfect people. This is preaching— preaching by words and by example. To do this nicely, rely on the Lord within, who will give you all intelligence.
When I met George Harrison, he said he had become interested in devotees because they were in the streets chanting and selling books under any condition—rain, snow, hot sunshine. He knew they could do this austerity only by getting a higher taste. Thus he respected devotees before he even met them.
Sankirtana can be done regularly only by devotees who are getting the blissful higher taste from their devotional practices and from the sankirtana itself. Both must be there. Preaching begins by giving people faith. And faith grows from an appreciation of Krsna consciousness. Therefore in our preaching, we must give people a favorable impression of us if we want them to read the books, chant Hare Krsna, and finally make a commitment to becoming devotees. Srila Prabhupada said, “We don’t want to irritate anyone, however. If he goes away by your aggressive tactics, then you are nonsense and it is your failure. Neither you could sell a book, neither he would remain. But if he buys a book, that is the real successful preaching.” (The Treasure of the Brhat-mrdanga, ch. 12)
One of our highest priorities on sankirtana is to be truthful. Srila Prabhupada once said that "our devotees should be adored by their honesty". Whatever we say when distributing books, we need to honour. If we give a big book and say that we are not selling the book, only asking for spontaneous donations, then whatever the person offers, we need to accept. If people start to give very small donations, or if some start to take advantage, then we should change our tactic, but we can't change the rules in the middle of the game and grab the book away, burning the person just because we are not happy with the amount given.
Our job is to do our best and leave the result up to Krsna. Even if someone gives a very small donation, still he is getting benefit, therefore we should not get upset. Just like in the story of the mendicant brahmachari who received a pile of ashes. This brahmachari was going out every day to collect alms, but the lady at a particular house would always refuse to give him anything. One day, the lady had a fight with her husband and was in a very bad mood. When the brahmacari knocked and asked for alms, she just filled his begging bowl with a pile of ashes from the fire. The brahmacari just smiled and said “Thank you!” in a cheerful mood. The lady got confused and asked why he didn’t get angry. The brahmacari answered: “So many times I came here and you never donated anything. Today you started the process of giving!”.
Even if someone gives a very small donation, still, by taking a book he gets benefited. This will add to his piety, which may allow him to give more in the future. By giving a small amount he started the process of giving.
Continuing, another big mistake is to use unfair sales techniques or cheating on our book distribution. This may increase the results in the short term, but it will have a lasting negative effect on the reputation of our whole movement and in our own spiritual advancement in the long run. Srila Prabhupada never approved the distribution through dishonest means.
“If we simply speak nicely to a person and try sincerely to get him to take the book he’ll take it. Why should we adopt unfair means? We should not do anything which will create a bad impression or make us unpopular. People are after these books, they are hankering for them. We don’t need to take cheating method. I never had to use any cheating method when I first began. I simply presented the real thing”. (Srila Prabhupada, letter to Ramesvara, 01 January 1975)
"The brahmamas are always truthful, even to their enemies. There is sufficient merit in our books that if you simply describe them sincerely to anyone, they will buy. That art you must develop, not art of lying. Convince them to give by your preaching the Absolute Truth, not by tricking, that is more mature stage of development of Krishna Consciousness. (Letter to Sri Govinda, 26 December 1972)
When we ask for donations, we can't expect that everyone will give a sufficient amount for the book. As mentioned before, we don't need that every single person gives a huge donation, we just need to keep an average. However, if you are consistently getting less than necessary, or if on a particular day everybody is giving small donations and you are getting in anxiety, you can change your strategy and start offering smaller books, suitable for the average amount you are receiving, and offering bigger books for a fixed price to favorable people or those who already took the small books. You can say, for example:
- We also have this one, the Bhagavad-Gita. This is a classic from eastern literature. It was written 5000 years ago and was studied by many great personalities, like Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Tolstoy. It deals with practical problems that we face in life. This one is a little expensive to print, so we ask 20 for it.
In this case, the big book is offered as an extra, after you already concluded your initial presentation of the smaller book. According to their level of interest, a person may take only the small book, take only the big book, or take both.
There are many ways to help people to give more for a book. You can suggest an amount giving examples of classes of people, for example: “Usually businessmen give 50, housewives 20, students 10...”. I like to joke with high numbers: “Some people give two hundred, others three hundred... ” (then, when people make a scared face I tell that it’s a joke and ask them to just relax and give whatever they can). My experience is that by joking with big numbers, people tend to see what they are going to give in proportion with these big numbers and thus becoming more liberal in giving more. The main point to understand is that every person has a certain maximum amount that they are comfortable in giving, based on the value that they see in the book, their economic situation and so on. We want them to break with their miserly propensity to give just a few coins and come close to this maximum amount, but we don’t want to make them feel pressured to give more than they can, otherwise they will just give-up in taking the book, or even if they take, they will leave with a bad impression. Just like in many other areas in book distribution, this is a kind of art.
HG Navina Nirada Prabhu: "When I meet people and they ask how much, usually I just say, like in India, we say "one lakh or one chore", and then we laugh and I say "I just give 100 rupees". They always give the smallest amount. Or if I meet people from Brazil, I just say "cien reais" and they start laughing and they easily give you 10 or 20 dollars. So, it's just a matter of pointing out the maximum and then, whatever smallest amount you quote, that's the amount they really give easily. I also tell them "10 is average, 20 is generous, 50 is outrageous, and 108 is auspicious", that also works.”
Sometimes, we can insist a little bit on the amount, after the person already donated, so he gets inspired to give a little more, but you can do that only if you are capable of presenting it in a very light and nice way, usually making some small joke.
If someone gives some derisive amount for a big book, I just politely ask if he’s really interested in the book, or if he’s really going to read it. In many cases, the person just admits that he doesn't want the book and gives it back (as I pointed out previously, a very small donation usually means that the person actually doesn’t want the book and is not going to read it). At this point, I usually try to present a smaller book, seeing if it’s possible to make the person interested at least in the small one. In such cases (uninterested persons), you may also present a cookbook or some bridge-preaching book.
Instead of presenting only big books or only small books, you can start to present a set of three books of different sizes: one big or maha-big book, one medium book and one small book, and let each person choose which one to take. Many are sensible and will take the small book when giving small donations, and others will just go for the small book because they are not so interested, creating a balance between the number of small and big books distributed, making it easy to make ends meet at the end of the day.
Of course, there will also be cases of persons giving very small donations and going for the big book, but at least part will take the small books, helping to improve your average. One tip in this regard is that people tend to take more frequently the book that you present first; so if you want to distribute more big books, present the big book first, and if you have more small books, present the small book first.
Naturally, there are also other ways. Instead of asking donations, you can suggest a minimum amount. This is usually the best strategy when distributing big and maha-big books, since apart from the small donations problem, people tend to get insecure about how much to offer, a lot of times taking the easy route of just saying “no”. You can, for example, present a number of different big and maha-big books and then say:
- These books cost about 10 each to print; whatever you can give above that will be a donation.
In this case, you are giving an approximate value, which works as a minimum (since the person will automatically presume that he shouldn’t give less than the cost) but at the same time leaves the door open for generous persons to give more. The suggested amount can be a value a little over the BBT cost of the book, or close to the amount you need for the book (in case you need to collect a specific amount for each book, including the necessary profit for the temple), in both situations it’s ok, since in any case that’s the cost of the book for you.
Since you are saying “cost about 10”, not that “it costs 10”, this is not a lie, you are just giving an approximation. It’s also important that it is a round number, don’t say something like “it costs about 13.60”, always use round numbers, like 10, 15, 20, 30 and so on.
The person then thinks: “Okay, they’ve spent about 10 to print this book. I can give 10 and only pay only for the printing, or I can give a little more and assist them”. If the person doesn’t have at least 10, or doesn’t want to give 10, he will say: “I don’t have money”, “I don’t want”, “I’m not interested”, etc. and then, according to the case, you can either insist a little bit or just finish politely go to the next person. If he wants the book but has less than 10, you can still give the big book (and cover with a larger donation later) or offer a smaller book suitable to the amount, according to the circumstances.
Another positive point of that approach is that by specifying a minimum amount, you can present multiple big books to each person without being afraid of receiving small donations. Just do the best you can while presenting the books, and let each person see how many books they want. One may take just one book and give 10 or 20, another may take three or four books and give 50, for example. By doing that you can start to develop the ability to distribute multiple books to each person, which will increase your distribution tremendously. That is usually the secret of big book distributors, who can distribute 200, 300 or even 500 books in a day. Usually, there is a ceiling of around 100 people who take books in a day, no matter how expert or empowered one is (since we can only talk with a limited number of persons). By being able to distribute several books to each person, we create a multiplying effect. If 100 persons take sets of 3 books, you will end distributing 300 books in the day. If you somehow find a way to distribute sets of 5 books, you will end in the 500 mark!
The danger of trying to distribute multiple books to each person is that you can develop a pushy mentality, trying to force people to take more books than they want, which is naturally bad, not only annoying people who would be otherwise interested, but also affecting their notion of the value of our books. The difficult part about distributing sets is to be able to present the books in such a nice way that people are going to be attracted to the idea of taking multiple books themselves. In any case, it’s important to be sensible and learn how to understand people’s mentality and be able to correctly ascertain if there is the possibility of including more books in the deal, or if it’s better to settle on just one book. Many of the nicest people will only want to take one book, and it’s exactly because they see value in it. They like to take one book, give a nice donation for it, read, think about it, and then come back to take another one. In such cases, if you try to pile-up two, three, five books more, just because they gave a good donation, you are going to just blow up the whole thing. If you are getting more laksmi than you need, it’s better to reserve the surplus to be able to give free books to interested people than to try to force people to take more books than they want.
In any case, going back to the initial topic, don’t be afraid to ask the needed amount for the books. These books are valuable and the price we ask for them is very reasonable. Nowadays most people have spare money and use it to buy all kinds of meaningless things, from fashion clothes and accessories to hamburgers and ice-cream. If you can convince them to give a sufficient amount and take a set of books, this will bring great benefit both for them and for you. People are used to pay for different things, if you can make them a little bit interested, they will not mind donating for our cause. You just need to be a little bold and very determined.
“Go on spreading the sankirtana movement more and more. I am only one person, but because all of you have kindly cooperated with me, this movement has now become a success all over the world. Be assured that there is no more direct way to preach than to distribute Krsna conscious books. Whoever gets a book is benefitted. If he reads the book he is benefitted still more, or if he gives the book to someone else for reading, both he and the other person are benefited. Even if one does not read the book but simply holds it and sees it, he is benefitted. If he simply gives small donation towards the work of Krsna consciousness he is benefitted. And anyone who distributes these transcendental literatures, he is also benefited”. (Srila Prabhupada, letter to German Disciples, 6 May 1977)
In any case, we should keep in mind that everything that happens is under the control of Krsna, as He states in the Bhagavad-Gita: “Everyone follows My path in all respects, O son of Prtha”. Since everything is under Krsna’s control, we should not grieve in any circumstance, even if someone steals a book. In a class, HH Tamal Krsna Maharaja recollects that once a Godbrother confided to him that he actually stole his first book from a sankirtana devotee. He then added: “And I’m still working to pay for that book!”. Nobody can cheat Krsna, He always has some plan.
In one sense, we should be practical (and not sentimental), trying our best to present the books in nice and clever ways, to inspire confidence in people and make them give good donations, that can sustain our preaching efforts. On the other hand, we should keep in mind that even if someone gives a very small donation for a book or tries to cheat us in some way, still he is getting benefit for somehow getting in contact with spiritual knowledge, therefore we should just smile, just like the begging brahmacari who got a pile of ashes. We should keep in mind that Krsna is the biggest cheater, and anyone who tries to cheat Him ends up being cheated in the end, and that such cheating by Krsna is always for the person's spiritual benefit. Maybe he will end up becoming a book distributor in his next life to pay for the books he stole in this one… :-)
When we are distributing books, we should maintain the mood of a giver. That should be our main priority: how to bring transcendental knowledge to people. Our meditation should be on how to make people interested and take books, and not just on how much laksmi we will have collected at the end of the day. When a book distributor has this mood of giving, people become attracted, touched. They see that here is a person who genuinely wants to give them something nice, and they become inclined to accept. On the other hand, if a book distributor has the mood of taking (or worse, the intention of taking advantage of people), they will notice, and react in a defensive or confrontational way.
For a resourceful book distributor, there’s actually no bad weather: there is only improper clothing and equipment. Naturally, if we had the choice, we would prefer that every day had a pleasant temperature, with sun and some nice breeze, but unfortunately, we are not the ones in control. Some days will be very hot, others very cold, sometimes there will be scorching sun, others torrential rain, sometimes cloudy sky, sometimes snow. To just tolerate is not always a good idea, since to just stay on freezing weather without proper clothing, or to get soaked under the rain is dangerous for your health. The best thing is to adapt, using the proper clothing and equipment.
Cold weather demands a good coat, gloves, boots, hat, scarf, wool socks and so on, maybe even a hand warmer. If you are going to distribute regularly in such a climate, then you should spend whatever is necessary to have proper clothing, you shouldn’t be cold for extended periods of time. Human beings can survive even in very extreme climates, like in Antarctica, where temperatures can go as low as -70C, it’s just a matter of getting proper equipment.
On the opposite extreme, we have very hot days, with scorching sun over our heads. The best in such cases is to stay under some cover, like the marquise of a department store. If you need to stay under the sun, you need to get a sun hat or a sun guard. Clothing should be light, appropriate for the hot climate. To do more austerity than necessary is not really a good quality, since our bodies are not our property, but Krsna’s. Therefore, we need to take proper care of them in order to continue distributing books for long.
On rainy days, apart from the proper equipment, including an umbrella, raincoat and waterproof boots, a good strategy is to stay in some covered place and try to stop those who are passing or going in and out. Stopping people under the rain usually doesn’t work very well, since usually they are already disturbed by the rain. Fortunately, days where it rains strongly the whole day are rare: normally it showers for some period and then the rain becomes very light or stops. If you tolerate and do what you can during the rain, you will have a better chance later, when it stops.
If there is no other alternative apart from staying under the rain, then the best strategy is to get a good umbrella and impermeable boots and to try to make jokes and be informal when speaking to people to break the negative atmosphere. If the person is not using an umbrella, use yours to cover him when he stops. One challenge is that for presenting the books you need to always have one free hand, which (unless you have four arms already) means that you need to hold both the umbrella and the stack of books with the other hand, which demands a little practice. Another option is to keep the books in a side bag and take them out as you present them.
Unfortunately, one common problem for long time book distributors is damage of the back and shoulders, due to carrying heavy loads for extended periods of time. That was very common in the early days, when devotees used to carry heavy bags, many times carrying all the books of the day on their backs the whole time. It’s possible to reduce the risk by doing specific exercises to strengthen the core muscles, but the main thing is to not carry much weight in the first place. Unless you are going to distribute only five or ten books per day, you need to get a cart to carry your books. Leave all your books in the cart and carry just a small stack with you (sufficient for 30 to 45 minutes of distribution) and go back to pick more books in the cart when your stack is finishing. The best is to become friends with some shopkeeper or street vendor, and leave your cart with him. If that’s not possible, you can just use chain and padlock to fasten your cart to some pole or tree. As long as your cart doesn’t look too fancy, people are not going to try to steal it. Usually, robbers are interested in phones and tablets, not in books. With all the terrorism paranoia that we have nowadays, an abandoned cart may look suspicious, therefore it’s important to notify some people who work close that the cart is yours and that you are near.
Once, there was a case of a prabhu that was getting back problems because of book distribution. He used to distribute not more than 10 books or so per day, so I asked him what exactly he was doing. He told me that he used to carry a few books in his arms and the rest in a backpack. I was still not understanding, since he wouldn’t have gotten problems in the back just by carrying 6 or 7 books in a backpack (that in this case would be less than two kilos). He explained that although he was distributing only 10 books per day, he liked to “try to shoot the rhinoceros”, and therefore he would gallantly take a minimum of 40 books with him. He was bravely carrying these 40 books during the whole day in his backpack, no wonder he was getting back problems! It’s good to be chivalrous and try to shoot the rhinoceros, but we should use our heads. Somehow I convinced him to start using a cart and his back problem disappeared. The knight got a chariot.
When distributing books, especially in commercial districts, we are going to find basically two types of persons. One are those who work around or pass there every day. You can easily recognize them because they usually look tense and busy, and walk in a very fast and focused way. Since they pass there every day, there is nothing new for them, they are all business. I call them “regulars”.
The second type are the “visitors”, persons who are just passing by. They came to buy something, to visit some place, as tourists, etc. They are easy to distinguish from the first group: they walk more slowly and look more relaxed, they look at the showcases of the stores. It’s a new place, therefore they are in exploration mode, open to new things.
While you can also distribute books to the first group, they are much harder targets. Not only are they busy and generally in a bad mood, but they probably saw you many times already. It’s much easier and effective to focus on the second group. Naturally, people can be divided into many different groups, and each one can be most effectively approached in a particular way, and ultimately each person is unique, but this simple distinction between regulars and visitors can already help a lot on our distribution.
While the persons in the first group may be more numerous, they are a kind of finite resource, since it’s more or less the same persons passing there every day. The second group, on the other hand, is an almost infinite resource, since these are persons who are going to pass there only one or a few times, therefore every day there are going to be new persons. A lot of times we focus too much on the first group and get the impression that a place is “burned” after going there for only a few times. The first group may already know you, but you are going to always meet new people from the second group, and many of them are going to take books. There are cases of devotees distributing books for decades in the same spot, and every day distributing a considerable number of books to new persons.
Actually, the main factor that distinguishes a “good” sankirtana spot from a “hard” one is exactly the proportion of persons from the first and second groups. Places where there is a lot of regulars and a little number of visitors tend to be difficult places to distribute and get “burned” quickly, since once all the regulars already know you, there will be not many people to talk to. In comparison, places where there are more visitors tend to be the easy and sweet places, where you can distribute for a long time and still every day find new persons. While selecting sankirtana spots, it’s important to take this into consideration. The best places are not necessarily the busiest ones, but the ones where there is a steady flux of new people every day.
In Brazil, I travel through a number of small cities, trying to visit each one for a few days every year or at least every two years. There are cases of cities with 250.000 inhabitants where more than 40.000 books were distributed in recent years. Still, every time I go there I find new persons and distribute a number of books.
Normally, we “burn” places when we use bad or unfair practices on book distribution. If people walk away with a bad impression from the book distributors, they are going to react in impolite or hostile ways when we try to approach them again, making the distribution progressively more difficult. During a certain period in the United States, devotees were using some unfair and aggressive sales practices, and as a result, a great number of persons became hostile to the devotees, to a point where book distribution almost stopped. A similar case occurred in Germany in the 1970s, where devotees were collecting large amounts of money in the name of the food relief projects in India, but actually keeping the money in their projects in Germany. Eventually, the scheme became public and devotees got a very bad reputation amongst the general people, which made book distribution extremely hard in Germany for a whole generation.
If we use all kinds of cheating and unfair techniques, we are going to always burn places very quickly. On the other hand, when we treat people well and they walk away with a good impression from the devotees, usually the opposite happens: people actually start to become more interested and favourable over time. Even persons who already got a book will take more on subsequent encounters if they get a favourable impression from devotees.
“That is real preaching work. If you sell a book to someone, that is better than your speaking to them — what will your three minutes' preaching do? But if they read a book it may turn their life”. (Srila Prabhupada, letter to Brahmananda, 03 November 1972)
While distributing books, our role is not to preach for two hours to each person and try to convince them to shave their heads and surrender to Krsna. Not only is this impractical, but also unproductive, since we would spend the whole day talking to just a few persons.
Instead, we act as vartma pradarshaka gurus, who give each person just a small push, so they can get a book and start their spiritual lives. We keep the whole process simple, so the person can stop, hold the book, hear some glorification about it and easily take it home after giving a donation. People have short memory nowadays, even if we try to preach protractedly and some get a little inspired, chances are that they will forget everything in half an hour or less. If instead we can convince them to take a book, they will have something which they can study and remember, a permanent asset.
HG Srutha Kirthi Prabhu: “Srila Prabhupada said that our real preaching was distributing books. "What can you say to a person in three minutes?" he asked. "But if he reads one page of a book it may turn him around.” (Srila Prabhupada Uvacha)
For the same reason, we should try to not waste time answering too many questions on sankirtana. It's much better to answer just one or two questions in a short and conclusive way and then point the person to the right book. Our books have all the answers already, you just need to conduct the person to the book that will solve his problems, like a transcendental consultant. If you just answer all his questions, the person will feel that he already knows everything (and therefore will not want the books), and you will end up just wasting your time.
When distributing books, we are more or less giving people "free samples" of knowledge through our mantras and talking, so they can get the taste and then take the real thing: the books. Just like when they distribute free samples of a new product in a supermarket, so that people get interested and buy the product. We need to give our sample and then, while the person is interested, conduct him to the book. He may ask for more, but we politely refuse, pointing out that if he wants more he needs to buy the full package. If we keep giving free samples until he’s satisfied, why would he want to buy?
Sometimes, we find people who are not interested in the books but want to talk about themselves, ask about our lives and so on. These are usually just a waste of time, since if a person is not interested in the books, means he is not interested in the philosophy and in our practices in general, he just has some superficial curiosity. Sometimes we may be tempted to spend a great deal of time talking with such a person about amenities (our mind is always ready to talk about useless things, especially when there is someone listening to us), but we should keep our focus on the books and not fall into the trap. If we can use this initial interest to conduct the person to the books, then it's good, otherwise, it's better to just end the conversation politely, inviting the person to some local program or giving him some pamphlet or booklet.
We should always remember that our goal is to distribute books, not just talk uselessly. Usually, the best targets for longer conversations are those who already have some books and are interested in the philosophy. Yet, even in such cases, it’s generally more effective to just give them a little more to make them interested and then invite them to the next level: visit the temple or join a bhakti vriksa group or another program, so they can become devotees.
Our time on sankirtana is Krsna's time and should be properly utilized, just like the money in the temple. Time is a finite resource, and it needs to be invested wisely, in the persons and situations where it will be converted in the maximum amount of books distributed and result in the maximum amount of interested people.
One thing which HG Vaisesika Prabhu insists on is that we should get the "ripe fruits", go to those who are already in a favourable situation and are already inclined to take books. We don't need to spend half an hour with every fanatical atheist or Christian whom we meet. It's much easier to go to people who are favorable, who can take books easily. At every moment we should try to recognize those who have a higher probability of taking books. These are the ripe fruits: the most effective persons in terms of time and effort. We should develop this kind of discernment and go first to them. When there are no such persons available, then we may try to stop whoever is around. As time goes on and we become more experienced, we will start understanding people much better and it will become easier.
Navina Nirada Prabhu: “Pick the ripe fruits. Go for the ripe fruits. How do we know it’s a ripe fruit? By looking, by communicating, by experience, by feedback, Krsna will give it to you. Don’t run after people. If somehow he looks the other way and walks away, let him go. You need to know that there are eight billion people on the planet. Don’t run after someone who doesn’t want to talk to you. Turn around and someone else will be smiling at you. If you go after the first fellow, probably you will lose this other nice one. It’s always like that, if you are detached, sometimes even the person who already walked away starts to look back. You know why? Because Paramatma told him: “Hey, look back, there is something there for you”. But if you chase him, he will start running even faster. We have a saying: “Don't chase the game, let the game come to you”.
I don’t run after people. I practice what I call python yoga. Python yoga means that you find a good spot and you just stand there and whatever comes. You just deal with what comes to you. So, pick the ripe fruits, don’t waste your time and energy, because people don’t like someone running after them. If someone wants to tackle them, jump on them. (Graduate Course on Book Distribution, Mayapur, 2018)
In order to take a book, a person needs to be a little bit pious, to have a bit of sukriti. That's why programs of prasadam distribution, harinamas, etc. are so important: they purify the public, so in the future more persons can take books and become devotees. The good news is that as we become more purified and talented, we will be able to convince persons who would look impossible in the beginning; a lot of times Krsna may just give the correct words from the heart. That's another thing that shouldn't be ignored on sankirtana: if you have some feeling or intuition, you should go for it: often that's Krsna giving you some guidance from inside the heart, steering you to the right persons.
Once I met a man who looked dirty, almost like a street man, with ungroomed clothes, slippers and a long beard. Usually, I would avoid such a person, but this particular time I had some feeling and stopped him. Amazingly, he turned to be a very cultured and interested person, who in the end took three books and gave a good donation (I still don’t know why he was dressed in such a way). Another time, there was a teenage boy seated, looking poor and uneducated. I felt a similar push and went to present books to him. He took the books, but was just staring at them with an empty face while I was explaining, as if he was not understanding anything. Not a very communicative person. Then, out of the blue, he pulled out a R$ 50 bill (an uncommonly high donation for a young person) and gave to me as a donation for the books, without speaking a word. Afterwards, he just kept reading for a long time, until he got up and left. In both cases, Krsna showed me that, despite the appearances, they were the right persons to talk to.
As commented before, one especially important thing about sankirtana is confidence. That’s a point I would like to emphasize, even at the risk of being repetitive. When stopping people, distributing books and preaching, we need to understand that every person is an eternal servant of Krsna and that this is the most important knowledge. We need to be perfectly confident, determined, and even a little bit bold. Sometimes we may see a businessman or some professor with a big false ego and feel somewhat insecure or intimidated. However, to properly do our job as book distributors, we can't fall into this trap; we have to be confident.
We should know who is the Supreme and what is the value of these books. If we would charge the real value of these books, not even Lord Brahma would be able to buy them. It's priceless, it's spiritual knowledge. “All the wealth in the three worlds cannot equal the value of one such nectarean fruit of devotional service.” (CC Adi 9.28)
HG Hari-Sauri Prabhu: When Prabhupada got Svarupa Damodara dasa — brahmacari at that time, now Bhakti Svarupa Damodara Swami — when he brought him into the fold, the ranks of the devotees, initiated him, he told him, he said “I wanted to defeat the scientists; now I am not a scientist, and I don’t know the scientific arguments,” but he said, “I am convinced I can defeat them, all of them, on the basis of the Vedas.” He had that conviction, and he knew the Veda is correct, it’s axiomatic, and that there is nothing in material science that can actually match it. He knew that, but he didn’t have the words, the methodology, that would convince a material scientist that, “Oh this is something worth hearing.” So he said, “Therefore, Krishna sent you along.” He is a scientist. “So you can defeat them.” So he told him, “You go out and challenge them all over the world. Challenge them and defeat them.” (Seminar on Sri Isopanisad -- Mayapur, 31.01.06 at MIHET)
One could question how this relates to the qualities of a Vaishnava, since a devotee is supposed to be humble. The answer is that this confidence or boldness on sankirtana doesn't conflict with Vaishnava humility, since when we are preaching we are not glorifying or defending our own position, but Krsna's position as the Supreme Lord. A devotee should be very humble and meek in the temple, when dealing with other Vaishnavas (like a bengali mother, as Srila Prabhupada once said), but when he’s preaching outside he should be like a lion: ready to present the philosophy and defeat any contrary argument, ready to shatter the illusion which covers each conditioned soul.
This is explained in the purport of Srimad-Bhagavatam 11.11.29-32, where the qualities of the Vaishnava are described:
"(4) Satya-sara. A devotee always remembers that he is the eternal servant of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is omniscient, the reservoir of all pleasure and the ultimate enjoyer of all activities. By avoiding activities outside devotional service, a devotee remains fixed in the truth, does not uselessly waste time and thus becomes bold, powerful and steady".
As Srila Prabhupada wrote to Sukadeva dasa on 16 August 1972:
“I want that you all my advanced disciples become very bold preachers and take up this task of saving the fallen humanity from its worst condition of sinfulness. If you simply convert the leaders of your country to our philosophy, then the whole world will follow and be saved from ruin. Otherwise, they are all doomed to become animals like hogs and dogs. So you preach like that, very strongly, to especially the hippie class of men and the student class of men and convince them to give up their sinful activities and find out their real perfection of life in this Krishna Consciousness movement.”
When people see this confidence and determination, they tend to get impressed, understanding that this is something valuable, genuine. From there you can present the books in a concise and powerful way, going directly to the point. If we impress people in this way, using the strength of our message, to distribute several books to the same person and get a substantial donation will not be a problem.
Once, I stopped a cultured man. He was polite, and showed interest in the books, but was still a little bit skeptical. He asked why I was doing this difficult service, stopping people and so on. I answered that it made me happy. He asked if I could further elaborate on that. I answered that many people are just selfish, they live only for themselves, pursuing their personal gratification, and usually they are not very happy. Others, get married, have children and dedicate their lives to serve their families. They develop a spirit of self-sacrifice, going through inconveniences for the sake of their families, and despite any inconveniences, they are usually much happier than the first group. Another class of people transcend this level of service to the family, and decide to serve the whole humanity, becoming philanthropists. Many of them become very pious and enlightened, and some are remembered as saints. Amongst the three groups, they are the happiest.
From all types of philanthropy, I told him, to give knowledge is the best, since if you give bread to a man, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him to cultivate the land, you feed him for his whole life. From all types of knowledge, spiritual knowledge is the best, since it solves the real problems of life: birth, death, old age and disease, allowing one to achieve immortality and put an end to all anxiety, that comes from the identification with the body. We are distributing such knowledge in the form of these books. We are doing the best service to all humanity, and therefore we are the happiest of all. This explanation apparently had a deep effect on him. He took a small set of books and gave a generous donation.
Another time I met a well to do man with his wife and two daughters. The lady looked interested, but the man was very skeptical. He tried to dismiss the books saying that he was not interested in organized religion because religion was responsible for most of the wars and atrocities in the history of humanity. I answered, in a composed way, that actually most of the deaths and wars were carried out by quite secular leaders, like Hitler, Stalin and Mao Tsé-Tung, and even most wars that had a religious connotation were actually instigated by unscrupulous leaders who manipulated the sentiments of the uneducated public towards their selfish goals, like in the second Iraq war, where Bush tried to present the war to the American public as a kind of crusade, painting a war that was purely economical in religious colors.
I proceeded to point out that actually what causes wars and atrocities is ignorance, and it doesn't have to do with any religion or particular ideology. He challenged then on why I was distributing books if I was not trying to push a particular ideology. I answered that we are distributing knowledge, that is the antidote to ignorance, and therefore he should support us, since we are combating the very thing he was objecting to. I continued telling him that this is actually the best welfare activity, since knowledge is the only solution to the true problems of the world. Not only is it vital, but it is needed by both the poor and the rich, and sometimes the rich need it even more than the poor.
He got temporarily stunned by these arguments, so I had time to present the books to his wife, who became interested in practically all of them. The man came back arguing that he didn't have time to read and so on. I started to make some humor, saying that he actually had his entire life ahead, up to ninety years or more, and eventually just got to the point that he had to be more positive. “Consciousness creates reality”, I said, and therefore if he would practice developing a more positive attitude to life he would improve not only his reality, but the reality of all his family and actually improve the situation of the world at large. At this point, the lady was laughing (apparently they were one of these incompatible couples, where the lady tolerates the husband, but actually deep inside resents his ways), and saying to him that he really should read one of our books. The man didn’t have any other alternative than to just open his wallet and give the amount his wife wanted to donate.
In one sense, the book distributor needs to be polite, respectful and kind with people, but on the other hand he also needs to have a fierce side, being able to present strong arguments when challenged, not in a malicious way, to just assert his ego, but in a peaceful, concise and philosophical way, correcting people’s misconceptions when needed. As explained, the secret is to conciliate this boldness, enthusiasm and confidence with our typical Vaishnava qualities, being at the same time calm, gentle, magnanimous, kind and detached. Our boldness should come from a sincere desire to present Krsna’s message, by the realization that this is the most important knowledge, and not by ordinary influence of the mode of passion. Naturally, not everybody will appreciate, but this is also not a problem: every soul has his free will. Still, as devotees we should do our best to give them a chance of receiving transcendental knowledge.
While we must be attentive to not cheat people or change the message, we should be intelligent enough to present it in a way that is going to be attractive, according to the mentality of the public we are preaching to. That’s actually our main job as preachers. To just present things in a silly or fanatical way is not a symptom of being faithful to the previous acaryas, but of naiveness. As Srila Prabhupada explains in his purport to SB 1.4.1: “He must have full confidence in the previous acarya, and at the same time he must realize the subject matter so nicely that he can present the matter for the particular circumstances in a suitable manner. The original purpose of the text must be maintained. No obscure meaning should be screwed out of it, yet it should be presented in an interesting manner for the understanding of the audience. This is called realization.”
The Bhagavad-gita As It Is, for example, is a very important book. One way to distribute it is to make people desirous for the book, making the point that it is a very deep and important book for very intelligent people:
This way we make the person feel important. “Yes, I’m such an important person and this is an important book, I should have this book!”. If you can give this impression, he will take the Bhagavad-gita easily. Naturally, this same idea can be applied to any of our books, but it works especially well for the Bhagavad-Gita, which is such an impressive and eminent book.
Everyone in the material world thinks that he is great, therefore when you glorify them a little bit they tend to relax, their mind and false ego get pleased. After this, it’s much easier to connect the soul with Krsna by presenting the books. Some may think that people nowadays are not interested in spiritual knowledge and so on, but actually there was never a time in recent history when people were interested: it’s the devotees purity and determination that makes things happen. In the 1970s it was harder than nowadays and still, devotees were distributing so many books. For those who are devoted, Krsna gives the knowledge from inside the heart.
Another point is dedication. Dedication means that when we are doing some particular service, we must do it in the best possible way. Not only should we put all our energy there, but also continuously try to improve. In preaching, this means to see what mood or qualities are more effective in our service of explaining the philosophy and attracting conditioned souls to Krsna’s service.
Everyone has some kind of self-image which is basically a byproduct of false ego. When we preach, though, we should try to abandon it and show the qualities which are going to be more useful in our preaching service. A particular lady may be very shy, for example, but when she goes to distribute books, she needs to temporarily leave this behind and show boldness and confidence in the books that she is carrying.
“There is no comparison. There is no literature throughout the universe like Srimad-Bhagavatam. There is no comparison. There is no competition. Every word is for the good of the human society. Every word, each and every word”. (Srila Prabhupada, lecture on SB 1.16.8 -- 05 January 1974)
HG Bhakta dasa: He asked: what is humility? And Srila Prabhupada said: "Humility is to act boldly for Krsna". We get the idea that humility is to be very meek and quiet, or submissive, but no, Prabhupada didn't say it. He said: "Be bold for Krsna". (Memories of Srila Prabhupada, part 12)
We should always understand that we have the highest knowledge. Our books contain the knowledge that can solve all the problems, bring one all the way up to Goloka. Any other bona fide spiritual knowledge that may exist in the world is just a fraction of what we have. The Christians or Muslims may have two per cent, the Buddhists one per cent and so on, but we have 100%. Just like if someone has twenty thousand dollars and another ten thousand dollars. If you have one million dollars, it already includes the twenty thousand and the ten thousand.
Apart from confidence, we need empowerment to be able to cause an impression in the people we are preaching to. Shakti comes from Krsna. To manifest potency, we have to be connected to the source of the potency. Just like a light bulb. No light bulb has light by itself: when they are in the shelf at the supermarket they are all dark. The light comes when you connect it to the light socket and turn on the interrupter. It’s from contact with the electrical current that the light comes. Similarly, our light comes from the contact with Krsna, through the medium of disciplic succession. When we are connected with Krsna we have so much shakti, but when disconnected, we have none. That’s why Srila Prabhupada would always insist that book distributors should have a very serious spiritual practice, follow the principles strictly and always study his books. Without spiritual practice, we fade.
Krsna is the Supreme Controller, therefore He is the one Who chooses when and how much He wants to empower us. So many lifetimes we spent trying to enjoy this world, turning our backs to Him, therefore He may want to wait and test us a little bit, to be sure about our sincerity. We need to prove ourselves by continuing.
"This, our book distribution, is the most important task in our society. Therefore I am giving so much stress and I am working so hard on this. Because this is my life and soul according to the order of my Guru Maharaja. And by his grace it is to some extent successful. And I took it seriously. I take it seriously still now. That is my life and soul. I never tried in India to construct big temples or even in your country we didn't. I never tried. But I was selling personally books. That is the history." (Srila Prabhupada, Room Conversation, 31 December 1976)
Another point is about questions that we are not able to answer. In one sense, as book distributors, we should try to not waste much time answering questions (best is to convince the person to take a book, that has the answers to all questions). However, at the same time, we should be able to give convincing answers to any person who asks or challenges us. We are representing Srila Prabhupada's movement, so if we can't answer some question and end up appearing foolish, fanatical fellows, then Srila Prabhupada's movement looks bad. The idea is to know the philosophy well enough to give correct and convincing answers in a quick and efficient way, so that the person gets his answer (or gets defeated in his challenge), and at the same time we don't waste our precious time of book distribution.
If we can't answer someone’s question on sankirtana, we can get his contact. We can say: "Sorry, I'm new. I don't know the answer to this question; but I will ask my seniors and call you to give the answer”. Then it becomes a form of cultivation. We call the person, give him the answer, he may then have further questions and so on. This gives us the opportunity to preach and start a friendship. That's what devotees were doing in the Gaudiya Matha at the times of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura: whenever they could not answer a question when preaching, they’d take note of the question, ask some senior and on the next day go back and give the answer. This would go on until the person got convinced. Their idea was that Krsna conscious philosophy is the most advanced, and our preachers should be able to answer any question and defeat any bogus idea that people may bring to them. Of course, this demands a level of expertise which comes only after years of practice. However, we should do our best to accelerate our learning process as much as possible by studying the philosophy, discussing amongst ourselves and posing intelligent questions to our seniors in order to learn the answers from them.
Another problem that we may have on sankirtana is to be mechanical, just stopping one person after the other, speaking the same thing, as if in a production line of a factory, without feeling. This comes from a subtle contamination of impersonalism. It can be counteracted by a deeper personal realization, the understanding that every soul is part and parcel of Krsna, and that everyone is an individual, a personality with particular tastes, preferences, and so on. Even if we are just repeating the same mantra, every interaction should be unique, since every soul is a different personality. We can practice this by being honestly concerned and compassionate about every person. The way to achieve that is by developing humility and love for Krsna. Only someone who loves Krsna can love everyone.
Sometimes we may have a hard time on book distribution, staying for half an hour, one hour, two hours or even more without distributing a single book. In situations like this the mind becomes disturbed, we get angry, or feel morose, etc. We should understand that all these emotions are just creations of the mind and they all come from material attachment. Material platform means that we become happy when we get something desirable and get morose or gloomy when we don’t. Therefore in the Bhagavad-gita Krsna explains that we have the right to perform our duty, but not to enjoy the fruits. It means that we have the right to stay and do our duty of presenting transcendental knowledge to conditioned souls and thus advance, but the result is not up to us, but up to Krsna: it may come or not come, according to His desire. Still, my personal experience is that when we stay and insist, we end up eventually being able to distribute all our books. It may take time, but sooner or later the right persons start to appear. Sometimes real miracles happen, you may distribute your last hundred books in the final hour, for example.
One time, for example, there was a program arranged for the evening. I was doing my best to distribute all books before the specified time, but it was not being enough. Despite all my effort, five minutes before the time I had to stop, there were still about 35 books left. In normal circumstances, it’s simply impossible to distribute 35 books in five minutes. However, as Srila Prabhupada used to say, impossible is a word in the fool’s dictionary. When I was about to give up, I stopped a funny chubby lady who started to repeat very loudly, in a very funny way things connected to my mantra “Yes! Who doesn’t have problems with stress nowadays? I have stress! I need some yoga! My husband needs too!”. It was such a peculiar situation that a small crowd started to gather, and I naturally started to hand books to them, trying to include everyone in the conversation. When the funny lady started to scream: “I’m going to take! I’m going to take! How much does it cost? Only a donation?? Is 20 ok for two books??” everyone started to take out money and give for the books. I was left without a single book, with still one minute to spare. It was a miracle!
Usually, when things are not going well, it means that Krsna is trying to teach us something, to give us a test which will qualify us to a higher stage of devotional service. When we start going regularly on book distribution, we start to face many of such tests in succession. A determined devotee is able to pass the tests and thus progress quickly, while another who frequently goes back when things don’t go as he planned, tends to repeatedly fail on the same tests and therefore not advance so quickly.
Finally, our results on book distribution tend to be strongly related to our mental state and to our spiritual potency. Experienced book distributors tend to be very stable in their consciousness, therefore their results tend to be very stable also. Often such devotees establish a quota for themselves and are able to distribute the same amount of books day after day.
New devotees, on the other hand, tend to be more unstable, sometimes very euphoric, other times morose, mental or even angry, and thus the results also tend to vary wildly. The solution is to keep the focus on our devotional practices and to keep going out to distribute books, creating a routine. The best process to control the mind is to combine good sadhana and regular service, in a very disciplined way.
In this book, I speak mainly about person to person sankirtana, which is my main style. However, you should be aware that person to person is not the only style of book distribution, and in many places it’s not even the best one.
Person to person is effective in places where there is a strong flux of people. Usually, the best places are commercial districts (where people go to buy) and leisure places (where they go to relax and have social life). In such places, people are usually in a favorable mood and every day you have new persons, therefore it is easy to distribute books. A third field are transportation hubs, like metro stations, train stations and bus terminals. It is usually not so good as the first two options, but it can work as a “bread and butter” field for distribution on working days.
The traditional European model is to build cities around a crowded downtown area, where most of the commercial establishments are concentrated. Usually, there is one or a few very busy streets that concentrate the pedestrian flux of the whole city. Even people who usually move by car have to park it and walk around there doing different things, so it’s a very good place to distribute books. Most cities in Brazil where I distribute follow this model, so for me the most effective way is to go to the main street in each city and to distribute person to person. Even relatively small cities, with 40.000 or 50.000 inhabitants usually have a busy street suitable for book distribution.
In many countries, cities follow the American model, where the stores, banks, malls and other commercial establishments are spread-out around the city, and most people move to different places by car. Frequently in such cities, there is not an obvious spot to distribute books, because the pedestrian traffic is spread-out through the city. Consequently, the opportunities for person to person sankirtana are more limited, and one has to be creative to find other ways to distribute books, exploring book distribution in apartments, offices and other niches, like parking lots and universities.
Every big city has an almost unlimited amount of residential apartments. By finding creative ways to get in and talk with the residents, and learning the best times and the best ways, we can not only distribute a lot of books, but also create a database of favorable persons, who you can cultivate and thus convert into new devotees.
Usually, in apartment blocks where there are no security guards, you can enter by following some resident who is entering, or by calling one of the flats thru the intercom and saying that you need to enter but don’t have a key (which is actually not a lie, since it’s true that you need to enter and true that you don’t have a key). It helps a lot if you can learn people's names and call them by the name when you ring the door, or call thru the intercom. Sometimes, the name is written in the mailbox, or at the door, other times you can ask the neighbors (when talking with the first person in a building, you can ask the name of the next, and so on). If you don't know the name, you can just answer “It's me!” when they ask who it is. If you can reply with conviction, it works. As far as possible, you can try to build networking, asking favourable people to present you to the neighbors. If they go with you and present you to the other dwellers they are friends with, it becomes easy.
Distribution in offices, stores and businesses allows us to talk to persons during the working hours, when we are not going to find them at the street or at home. By combining street sankirtana with apartment blocks and offices it’s possible to have a much bigger field for distribution and to distribute around the clock, going to apartments in the mornings and evenings, and to offices and busy streets in the working hours, for example.
At the same time, a proper cultivation program will open the doors to the distribution of sets, which add a whole new field. As always in spiritual life, the best results can be obtained by combined efforts. As Srila Prabhupada used to say, we need to tax our brains to find new and creative ways to distribute books and make devotees.
Traffic lights are another field that should not be underestimated. They not only frequently offer a more diverse public than person to person, but also present a captive public, that is already stationary, simply waiting for our approach. The secret on traffic lights is to create simple and catch mantras, with one or two strong sentences, that attracts one's mind and makes him take a book quickly, before the intelligence starts questioning.
You can find a traffic light that stays closed for a little longer (many may stay closed for up to two minutes), use a very short pre-mantra to select persons who are promising, and use the complete mantra (that should also be short, from 10 to 20 seconds) on the ones who show some interest. In this way, with some practice, you may be able to approach 10 or 12 persons with the pre-mantra, and give the longer mantra to two or three persons every time the signal closes. It’s definitely more mechanical than person to person, but offers the opportunity to talk to more people. Experienced devotees usually can distribute more on person to person, especially big and maha-big books, but new devotees usually find the traffic lights much easier.
Normally, we should as far as possible try to distribute books in open spots, following the law. If you need to get some permission to legally distribute in some particular spot, then you should take the trouble to obtain it and do things in a nice way. Still, in many countries and in specific places there are laws or rules that prohibit book distribution altogether, like in many muslim countries, private spaces like shopping malls, as well as airports, train stations and so on.
Even if it’s against the rules, a determined book distributor may still want to distribute in such places, especially if there are a number of interested persons. The order of the Lord of bringing mercy to the conditioned souls takes precedence over any mundane rule or law. The only question is to evaluate the risks and to find ways to stay underground, distributing books in discreet ways, so one doesn’t get caught.
In most private spaces, to try to distribute books and get caught means merely to get some verbal advertence from the security guards. They may try to intimidate and threaten us, but apart from taking some of our time and escorting us out of the place, there is usually little that they can do. In such situations, the risk is small, therefore if there is a good prospect of book distribution, it is worth a try. On the other extreme, there are countries where to distribute books about Krsna consciousness is a serious criminal offense, that can result in deportation (in the case of a foreigner) or up to several years in jail. You should evaluate the risks and see if the risk is worth it, without being fanatical. Many devotees went to prisons and to Gulag camps in the former Soviet Union. While on one hand, this was a heroic sacrifice to spread the sankirtana movement, on the other, one could argue that several devotees could have been spared of great suffering and even the loss of their lives if things would be conducted in a different way.
Preachers are the most valuable asset of our society, so their security must be a priority. It’s better to distribute many years peacefully on an open spot than facing risks that may jeopardize one's preaching career. Still, to accept risks for Krsna also has its merits, so if after evaluating the opportunities and risks, you are determined to go ahead, here are a few ideas that I can offer.
The first thing is the way you dress. You will want to draw as little as possible attention to yourself, therefore you should observe how people dress and behave in that particular environment and try to mimic them as closely as possible, dressing and behaving in a similar way. Even when using secular clothes, devotees tend to dress in peculiar ways, usually mixing some western and indian articles: the men tend to dress a little bit like hippies and the ladies a little bit like gypsies. Therefore, when the guards see them talking with different people, sometimes holding a book, they immediately can understand what is going on.
In most situations, the men should dress in a respectable way, in a social or “sport chic” attire, with social pants and shirts and good shoes, and the ladies with some kind of elegant dress or long skirt, in both cases using a suitcase to carry the books, like a tourist. In very informal places (like music concerts) you may dress in a more relaxed way, according to what most people are using, but always in a respectable manner.
The second important point is to try to identify potential threats. See where there are security cameras, where the guards stay, what areas they cover, etc. Try to identify “blind spots”, where you can talk to people with little risk of being spotted. From there, you can formulate your strategy.
A third thing is to always keep moving. Don’t stay in the same spot for long and always change the spot after talking to a person. Keep walking around and try to identify opportunities. Places with seated people and external areas, where people go to sit or to smoke are usually good places.
Finally, you should select the persons who you are going to speak to. Select the apparently more favourable people and start by asking some questions and establishing a small conversation. If at this stage you notice that the person is not so nice, or if he appears to be someone who could be inimical or cause problems, just finish the conversation politely and move to another spot, without showing the books or giving the game away by showing information that allows him to understand what you are doing. The books should be hidden in a suitcase or backpack and shown only to persons who you are convinced would be receptive. Finally, you should be very discreet when speaking to them, keeping the conversation light and friendly (like two friends speaking), not showing more than one book at a time and so on.
Naturally, this makes this type of sankirtana very technical and slow, but by doing everything properly it’s possible to distribute books in this way in places where normal styles of sankirtana are not possible. Instead of quantity, you would prioritize quality, talking to a relatively small number of persons, but trying to make every interaction count, talking to each one in a very personal level, getting good donations, taking the person's contacts, and so on.
In the 2012 marathon, for example, I spent many days distributing books in the local airport. Normally, that airport is half empty, not such a good place, but in December it gets crowded and becomes a good place to distribute to the thousands of travelers going on vacation. I started by distributing books in the external areas of the airport, walking around and talking to persons who were seated, the ones waiting for someone to pick them up, the ones smoking around the external ashtrays, and so on.
After studying better the security of the airport, I found a system to be able to distribute in the internal embarking areas. I would buy a cheap ticket for the end of the day, arrive very early and hide my book boxes in the external safes for storing luggage. I got a suitcase (small enough to fit into the airport regulations for hand baggage) and a side bag, that would jointly hold an entire box of books. Taking one box at a time from the safe, I would move the books to the suitcase and the side bag at the toilets, and enter the embarking area using my ticket. The security personnel would be concerned about metal, water and other things related to security, so they would not pay attention to my books. Once inside the terminal, I would discreetly distribute my books, talking mainly to people who were sitting, and sometimes to people on the line to take the plane (in places where they would block the vision of the cameras). I discovered that, in this particular airport, the guards would all stay in the baggage checking area, so the main threats were the cameras and the passengers themselves.
When the books were finished, I would go out from a separate gate (different from the one from where I entered), take more books, spend some time walking in the external area and then go inside again, paying attention to the work shifts of the guards, so I would not pass through the same security check more than one time in the same shift while entering the terminal. Since my tickets would be always for the end of the day, I would be able to enter and leave several times during the day, taking more books on each leave. The rules at the time allowed to print the ticket and enter the embarking area at any time on a 24 hours period before the flight (only the baggage dispatch would open later), so by buying a cheap ticket for each day, I would be able to spend the whole day distributing there.
On the last days they caught me a couple of times, but since I had a valid ticket, I would just maintain that I was going to travel, and was just talking to a few people during my wait period. Only on the last day they really figured out what I was doing and finally kicked me out for good, but then the marathon was finished anyway.
Later, I ended up abandoning this distribution in airports, because it’s very technical and slow, and therefore one needs to stay for many hours to distribute a reasonable quantity of books. With time, I started to be able to distribute faster in the street. Still, I sometimes distribute a little bit in airports when I’m traveling. Talking with HG Navina Nirada Prabhu, he disclosed that he does this almost every time he travels. If it’s just a one-time thing, the security guards tend to be tolerant once you show your boarding pass. However, I would not recommend doing this in Russia, China or in any muslim country.
When we are distributing books, we have two priorities. One is obviously to distribute as many books as possible. Once Srila Prabhupada said: “The success of your preaching will be substantiated by how many book are sold. The art is to sell many, many books and not to irritate the public.”. Another time he said: “Distribution of books and magazines is our most important activity. Without books, our preaching has no solid basis.” (Letter to Cyavana).
“The real preaching is selling books. You should know the tactic how to sell without irritating. What your lecture will do for three minutes, but if he reads one page his life may be turned. We don't want to irritate anyone, however. If he goes away by your agressive tactics, then you are nonsense and it is your failure. Neither you could sell a book, neither he would remain. But if he buys a book that is the real successful preaching. That is the certificate of my Guru Maharaja, if someone, brahmacari, would sell a one paise magazine, if one of our brahmacaris would go and sell a few copies, he would be very very glad and say "Oh, you are so nice!'' So distribution of literature is our real preaching.” (Letter to Bali-mardana, 30 September 1972).
Still, we have another priority, that is not less important: to make devotees. When we distribute books, we give people knowledge about the reality of spiritual life, so the ones who are sincere, who are already fed up with this rotten material world, can have a chance of hearing about Krsna. We plant the seeds.
For a seed to sprout, it needs to have the right conditions. One is that the soil needs to be fertile: a person needs to be dissatisfied with material life, to be in search of knowledge, distressed, curious or looking for some change in his life. Another one is that there is a need for water and sunlight, as well as for some protection against the weather, against insects and different animals that may destroy the plant. In some cases, one is so eager that just by receiving a book he comes to the temple and decides to surrender to Krsna by himself, but in most cases people need cultivation. Without some care from devotees, the seed of devotional service will remain in an embryonic state: the person will make some advancement by reading the book and applying something in his life, but he will not come all the way to become a full-fledged devotee.
When we distribute a book to a sincerely interested person, we should make the extra effort to take his contact and calling or messaging after a few days, gently asking if they are reading the book, what is his impression or if he has any question, some simple contact. The goal is not to preach and convince him, but just to show that you care. Let the person follow his own rhythm. If he wants to know more, you can invite him to some bhakti-vriksa or nama-hatta program, or even to have a lunch at the local prasadam restaurant. If he is a little bit interested, but not so much, you can put him in your mailing list and send him messages with nice quotes periodically, so he doesn’t forget you and has the opportunity of making contact if he becomes interested. For these messages, you can use whatever medium people are currently using (Whatsapp, Vkontakte, Facebook, SMS, etc. according to the place and circumstance)
Normally, you will divide the persons who you are trying to cultivate in two groups: the first one will be a smaller group with the most interested ones, with whom you will keep a more personal contact, calling them sometimes, messaging and so on. The second group, usually much bigger, will contain persons who were interested at some point but waned for different reasons. The best approach to them is to keep them in a mailing list (as I suggested in the previous paragraph) and send them quotes or short devotional inspirational messages that they can relate to their lives. This is a way to keep contact that will not take so much of your time.
In my case, for example, I have (2019) mainly been using Whatsapp for keeping contact with interested people, since it’s the platform everyone uses in Brazil. When I meet an interested person, I add his number and send him a message to open an individual chat, and also add him in a group where I’m regularly sending messages explaining different points of the philosophy and spiritual practice. In this way, there is a group, where he regularly receives messages and also a personal chat where he can ask private questions. According to the person’s interests, I can also put them in contact with other devotees. It is a small scale program that I maintain in my free time, but it already is giving fruits. You can find your own model, according to your resources, personal preferences and the public you are preaching to, this is just an example.
Apart from being friendly and attentive, the essential point about cultivation is to not become attached to the people we are trying to help. To help means to do what is best for the person. Attachment means we try to make him act for our benefit, which breaks the system. We then start to insist, press the person, become angry when he doesn't act as we want, try to control and so on. Instead of cultivating, we end up just burning out sincere persons and thus doing a disservice.
The first thing we need to understand is that everybody has his free will, that even Krsna respects. Not everyone is ready to become a devotee. We should respect each person's level and inclinations, trying to help as far as possible, but at the same time respecting his desire. Krsna doesn’t force anybody to follow devotional life and we should follow the example. We should offer our friendship and sincere guidance, and let people take as much as they want to take. We should act as well-wishers, as sincere friends who are always ready to help, without demanding anything in return.
Some devotees will specialize in book distribution, staying for long hours and distributing thousands of books. Because they are already spending all their energy distributing books, they will not have so much time for cultivation. They are like the “heavy gunners” of the sankirtana movement: shooting continuously with their four-barreled machine guns, causing devastation to the enemy, but not caring so much about where every individual bullet goes. On the other extreme, we have devotees who can’t spend so much of their time directly distributing books, and therefore spend most of their time cultivating the persons who they meet, through the phone and internet. They will not distribute so many books, but will make a lot of devotees. They are the snipers of Lord Caitanya: shooting just a few rounds, but with remarkable accuracy.
If someone can stay eight or ten hours in the street, six times a week, he will have a good excuse to not spend much of his time in cultivation. In such cases, he may just collect the contacts and give them to other devotees who may do the cultivation part. To just give the contacts to others is not the best, because the cultivation is much more effective when done by the book distributor himself (at least the initial contact should be done by him), but it is better than nothing. Anyway, because he is putting so much effort and distributing so many books, one can say that he is already doing his part.
On the other hand, we see that most devotees usually distribute for much less time, going for only a few hours at a time and even then not every day. If that is your case, there is no excuse: you should dedicate part of the time that you are not in the street on cultivation. In this way, you can keep yourself in the preaching mood even while doing other things. This will not only help others, but also help yourself to advance. Also, there are a lot of cases where the husband likes to distribute books, but the wife has a hard time going out, or vice-versa. Such couples can work as a team, with one doing the distribution and the other doing the cultivation.
In short, at first we contact interested people and try to establish some friendship. When a person becomes a little more interested, we can give him new books, start to send him some audio classes, mantras and even some devotional movies, trying to make him interested in devotional life.
When the time to invite him to attend some program arrives, it’s usually better to invite them to some home program: to your bhakti-vriksa cell or some nama-hatta. To visit someone's house is much less pressing than to visit a temple, and normally home programs tend to offer a much more cozy and relaxed atmosphere, where the guest will feel more at ease. Because temples involve so many people, busy doing so many things, they frequently have a more “big city” atmosphere, where guests don’t receive so much personal attention. Most of the time, devotees just ask them to sit and watch the singing or the class, without really explaining to them what is going on. Temples are important to train new devotees and to offer us a place to do devotional service and to practice spiritual life, but unless they are very well organized, they are frequently not really effective in making new devotees. Most of the new devotees nowadays are coming from bhakti-vriksa programs, and that’s not a coincidence: the more personal and friendly atmosphere in these programs is much more effective in engaging new people. Book distribution, bhakti-vriksa and temples fulfil different purposes, and thus we need to use them in a combined way for our preaching to have the maximum effect.
It’s like a pyramid: book distribution and different preaching programs bring new persons to the bhakti-vriksa and nama-hatta programs, where they receive some preliminary training. The most interested ones will naturally become also attracted to the activities in the temple, and by regularly attending programs or by living for some time in the ashrama, they get trained to become strong devotees and preachers, that, in turn, are going to bring new persons to the different programs, restarting the cycle.
As far as possible, we should make our preaching efforts very organized and professional, working in a very coordinated and structured way, where everyone can work effectively, using their talents for Krsna. For this to work properly, all the links in the chain should be functional,, which in turn demands a coordinated effort.
"These books are the best advertising, they are better than advertising. If we simply present Krsna consciousness in a serious and attractive way, without need to resort to fashionable slogans or tricks, that is sufficient. Our unique asset is our purity". (Srila Prabhupada, letter to Yogesvara, 28 December 1971)
Techniques on book distribution can give us some basic foundations and some results in the beginning, but ultimately the techniques are not so important. You can watch some videos of a great sankirtana devotee, like Vaisesika Prabhu, for example, and try to imitate what he is doing, to say the same things and try to emulate the same techniques. You may think that since it's working so well for him it’s going to also work well for you, and it may work to some extent, but you are not going to distribute books like Vaisesika Prabhu just because you are saying the same things, there is much more. In fact, when asked about how to train new book distributors, Srila Prabhupada answered that we should not teach them techniques, but rather, teach them how to be sincere. The main secret of empowered book distributors is their sincerity.
HG Navina Nirada Prabhu: "Once they asked Prabhupada, how do we teach people about book distribution, and Prabhupada said: Don't teach them techniques, just teach them how to be sincere. And then, he pointed with his palm to his heart and he said: Then, the Lord in the heart, the Supreme Master, He will teach them everything."
Techniques can be used as a starting point. For example, if one is completely new, just starting on book distribution today, he need to have some idea about what to say. A senior devotee can teach him some basic mantras and techniques: how to stop people, how to talk with them, how to ask for donations, etc. He then goes out, uses it and gets some results, distributes a few books.
However, to become really good book distributors, that can be stable on sankirtana and distribute many books for many years, we need to develop some real spiritual potency. Techniques are just something material that we use, that's part of what we need to do, but they are not all. Sankirtana is not just something in the intellectual platform, something mechanic where the same lines work all the time. Actually, sankirtana is all about how to contact the soul inside the body, and reconnect him with the spiritual energy.
The soul is an eternal servant of Krsna, he wants to know about Krsna, the problem is that the soul is covered by the different material layers that form the gross and subtle bodies: senses, mind, intelligence and false ego. To get to the soul we need to pierce all these coverings. Sankirtana is all about how to attract the senses, engage the mind, convince the intelligence, bypass the false ego, and contact the soul inside the body, who is an eternal servant of Krsna. We need to temporarily disarm the influence of the modes of material nature over this person and access directly the soul inside the body.
We see someone approaching a devotee. We see that the devotee stops the person, speaks something and hand him a book. We see then the person smiling, giving some donation and taking the book. To someone just looking from outside, it may appear as something very simple, but what really happened?
First of all, everyone has some kind of zone of influence, composed of subtle energy that emanates from him and goes up to a certain distance. Some people emanate a very negative energy, and anybody who comes near them feels a little down, a little disturbed. Some people have a very positive energy, people like to be around them because they make others feel well. A devotee, however, has a spiritual aura: anybody who comes close to a devotee, according to the devotee's potency, becomes a little bit purified, becomes a little bit inspired about spiritual life. So, at the moment a devotee stops someone, the person is already under the influence of his personal energy, so when he presents a book that speaks about self-realization, spiritual knowledge, etc. the person is already a little inclined to take it, because he is already getting purified.
When an advanced devotee looks at someone, he doesn't see "woman", "man", "rich", "poor", "young" or "old", he sees the soul inside the body. He doesn't care about the body, or how the body looks, he sees the soul, this shining personality who is an eternal servant of Krsna. He sees also that there are a lot of dark things, a lot of contamination around this soul. So, he looks at this person, makes some kind of eye contact and then says something.
What he says is generally more for the mind, not for the soul. The mind is always looking around for something. Therefore, he starts by saying something that attracts the mind. The person then stops, and the devotee starts to say something. This may be some simple or sentimental thing, that also appeals to the mind, or may be some logical argument or elaborate idea that may appeal to the intelligence (why the book is interesting, why he should take the book, etc.). Different devotees have different strategies about how to get there.
A lot of times the ego is also a problem. Then we speak some nice words, flatter the person a little bit, so the ego also gets pacified. Then, as soon he can pass through the mind, intelligence and false ego, he can get to the soul. The next step is to make the soul want the book, to convince him that the book has something for him, that it has knowledge that will reconnect him to his old friend.
“Don’t you recognize Me? I am your eternal friend. You may remember that many times in the past you have consulted Me. My dear friend, even though you cannot immediately recognize Me, can’t you remember that in the past you had a very intimate friend? Unfortunately, you gave up My company and accepted a position as enjoyer of this material world. My dear gentle friend, both you and I are exactly like two swans. We live together in the same heart, which is just like the Mānasa Lake. Although we have been living together for many thousands of years, we are still far away from our original home. My dear friend, you are now My very same friend. Since you left Me, you have become more and more materialistic, and not seeing Me, you have been traveling in different forms throughout this material world, which was created by some woman.” (SB 4.28.52-55)
The soul gets interested, he starts to remember. Then we say: "This book can be yours, no problem. Just give some donation, just give something", we try to make it very simple, so there are no obstacles. But then, sometimes, the intelligence gets in the way: "You are not going to read this book, you already have so many books!". We then need to again engage the intelligence, present some arguments to convince it. Sometimes the mind gets in the way. When it's the mind, it's usually not something very clear, because the mind is emotional, not logical. It will manifest in the form of some irrational feeling: "Oh, I don't know, I think actually I don't want...". Then we need to say something that convinces the mind, that gives the emotional connection or support that the mind needs. If we can disarm the mind and intelligence, there will be no obstacle for the soul to take the book.
Another question is how to make the person read the book. That's another challenge that we need to be aware of. Usually, a person relates the book to the devotee who gave him the book. If he has a good impression, if he likes the devotee, automatically this will be transferred to the book: he will be attracted to the book and will want to read it. If he doesn't like the book distributor, then automatically this negative feeling is transferred to the book. Not only he will not want to take the book, but even if somehow we can make him take it, chances are that he will just throw it away.
One time I was talking to someone, distributing books in Brazil and a happy old lady came: "You should take this book, this book is very nice, very interesting book! I got one another day, I never started reading it, but the book is very good, you should take one also!".
If we stop to think, this doesn't make much sense. If she didn't read her book, how can she so enthusiastically say that the book is very nice and interesting? How can she be so convinced that she is even advertising it to others? Actually, it is not about the book, it's the impression that she got from the book distributor who gave her the book. She got this strong good impression from the devotee, therefore it got immediately transferred to the book. Even before reading it, she is already firmly convinced that the book is good.
Another similar situation, that already happened to me a couple of times, is that I stop someone and he says: "Oh, I already have this book. This book is very nice! I was reading it. I couldn't understand anything, but the book is very good!". This is connected with the same phenomenon: he was not understanding, but still the impression from the devotee persisted. Even if not understanding, the person is still continuing to read the book, considering that the problem is not with the book, but with himself.
That's a very essential point: we should leave a good impression. People should see devotees as saints. One of the main factors is the way we deal with people. If we are honestly compassionate and honestly concerned about the well being of a person, as a soul, not just as a one hundred bill or something, this will manifest in our voice, and in the way we act, and people will get touched by it. If we can become very good devotees and develop this deep compassion to people, that's the main thing.
We should be always attentive to what works, what doesn't work, how people react to our lines, if we are speaking in a clear and understandable way, etc. Every time a person doesn't take a book, we should think a little bit about what we did wrong and how to improve our approach, and then try to do better next time we get a similar case. We should practice this day by day as we distribute, try to evolve. We should try to learn from other devotees, observe them and see what they are saying. We shouldn't get used to just repeat the same mantra, but should always try to improve, try new things and keep what works. Every time a person gives some argument or excuse, we should try to find ways to counter it. By doing that, we can come up with very amazing ideas.
Also, we should develop techniques that suit our own personalities. Every devotee has a particular personality and a particular set of attributes, therefore we should try to develop a style that suits our particular package. A devotee may look very bright and be very intelligent and articulate, and he may develop a style that suits his personality, using some very clever lines and giving very sharp answers. Others may try to imitate, but without having the same set of attributes, the lines alone will not have the same effect. Another devotee may be very grave and sober, and therefore speak in a very wise and compassionate way, that makes people interested and respectful, and achieve good results by it. But again, other devotees who don’t have the same gravity may look silly trying to imitate. We can't expect that some particular style will have the same effect with us, unless we have the same set of attributes. Since these attributes are largely determined before birth by our particular combination of guna and karma, it's better to try to find a style that suits our own set of attributes, instead of trying to develop the same attributes as someone else.
Every devotee is a personality and he has his own way to contact the soul inside the body. Of course, we have some general guidelines about what can be done on book distribution and what can't, but the main point is that it's about our own individual style. In the beginning, you may try to imitate some senior as a way to start, but as time goes on you should try to develop your own style, and this can be done only through practice and persistence. Book distribution is not something that can be learned just by attending some seminar or just by going out two or three times: if you go for ten or twenty years, then you can become a very experienced book distributor. During this process, we should always pray for Krsna's mercy, because He is the one Who will reveal new facets of book distribution as we progress. He reveals progressive levels of understanding to us. It may look simple for the uninitiated, but actually, book distribution is a very esoteric activity.
In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, our preaching in ISKCON was mainly centered around temples and book distribution. New devotees would be encouraged to live in the temples and once inside, they would go through an intensive daily program, including the morning programs, classes and different services during the day. With such full-time spiritual practice and association with senior preachers, it would be quite natural for such devotees to also start going on book distribution after a few months, weeks or even days after joining the temple. To start would not really be a problem, since they would just need to imitate what everyone else was doing.
Nowadays, our preaching is more based on bhakti-vriksa, nama-hatta and different types of bridge-preaching programs. These programs are very nice to attract new people and make devotees, because they offer a very familiar atmosphere, much less intimidating for newcomers than the classical temple atmosphere. On the other hand, the “preaching flow” of the earlier days is frequently absent, and therefore the learning curve for someone wanting to start on book distribution may be steep. If you want to do book distribution, but are having a hard time to start, here are a few points that may help:
1- Instead of going straight out on book distribution, it’s easier to start by going regularly on harinamas, where you can get used to presenting yourself as a devotee. There is no difference between book distribution and public chanting, therefore by going on harinamas you will already be doing sankirtana. Little by little you can then start to distribute books during the harinama until you start to feel comfortable to also distribute in other situations.
2- An easy way to start book distribution is to buy a few books and start to give them away to people who you interact with, starting with your own friends, and then going on to people who you meet in stores and markets while doing things, people who you meet in the subway, etc. From there you can start learning the art of starting a conversation with a stranger and presenting them a book. You can start with some generic questions to initiate a conversation, speak some small thing about yourself and start asking some small questions about what the person likes, his opinions, etc. When you see an opening, you can show the book, saying that you are reading it and heartily sharing how nice it is. You can read something interesting from the book, and if he gets interested you can offer it to him as a present. If you do this every time you go out, you will end up distributing quite a number of books. To just give books away is generally a little bit less effective (for the reasons we are going to analyse in the next topic), but it’s a good way to start.
3- Devotees who dedicate themselves to book distribution usually live from the donations that they receive from the books. To live by distributing knowledge and accepting donations is a very brahminical occupation, but it is not for everybody. Most devotees nowadays already have a job and a stable financial situation, therefore when they want to distribute books, the goal is simply to preach, not to raise funds. If that’s your case, book distribution becomes much simpler, since you can just present the books with an honest intent of giving something. You can just explain why these books are important, and how much they can teach and help a person to solve his real problems. When it comes to the donation part, just explain that this is nonprofit work and that you are collecting donations for charity. Explain that all the profit from the distribution of the books goes to different programs and for the printing of more books.
Even if one doesn't need the money, to ask donations is a good way to select who is really interested in the book and who is not, and thus make our distribution more effective. If we just give books away, most people are going to accept out of politeness, but the ones who are not genuinely interested may just throw the book away somewhere. Another problem is that, if done extensively, such distribution can cause a negative effect on the public, who will see our books as something valueless, and thus become less inclined to read. We can see that many Christian groups distribute their literature for free, and that’s generally the result. By making a person give something for the book (even if a small amount) we dramatically reduce this problem, since a person who doesn’t see value in a book will not be inclined to give any money for it. With the exception of interested people who genuinely don’t have any money, or people who you are already cultivating, it’s generally not recommendable to give books for free. You can even explain this point to people if they ask why you are asking money for the books.
4- Instead of distributing books in the street, you can try to distribute in apartment blocks, visiting on days when most people are at home, like on Sundays. While it’s possible to also distribute a lot of books in apartments, the main potential of this type of book distribution is on cultivation. When a person opens the door, you can present yourself as a member of the Vedic center, smile and make a few questions to start a conversation. At some point, you can start presenting the books, explaining that they have solutions for modern problems, that they teach about spirituality in a scientific and logical way, etc. You can show some passages from the books, show the illustrations and so on. At some point, you can give the idea that if he likes he can take the books he is interested in and give a donation that will go to the local center.
If you have the means, you can give complimentary books to person's who show genuine interest, even the ones who can’t give a donation. My experience is that every time you give a free book to a genuinely interested person who can’t pay for it, Krsna sends the laksmi later through some other person. In general, it’s easier to find people who want to donate money than sincere souls who are looking for spiritual knowledge.
You should take notes about what apartments you visited, to who you talked, if he is favorable or not, take note of some special interests, which book he took and other informations that may be relevant. The idea is to visit the same buildings periodically, visiting again the persons who showed interest, bringing them some prasadam, giving them new books and so on. In other words, your main goal should be to make friendship and to cultivate. The amount of books distributed in this case is secondary.
5- As explained, in one sense we should be careful about giving free books, because if someone is not interested, he will just perceive the free book as something valueless and just throw it somewhere. On the other hand, there are many cases of interested persons who, for some unfortunate coincidence, really don’t have any money on them at the time. In such cases, a free book can turn someone's life to Krsna consciousness.
One time, I met a young lady in a small city. She greeted me with “Hare Krsna!”, so I asked from where she knew devotees. She told me that not long ago she was in a very degraded condition, using drugs, spending most of her time in the street and and so on. Somehow, a devotee came to her and offered a Science of Self-Realization. She was interested, but she didn't have any money. The devotee was compassionate and gave her the book, so she started reading. After finishing, she became very interested, but she could not find the devotee again, so she started calling the temples listed in the last page and ended making a 20 hour bus trip to visit a temple in another state. She ended up staying for a few weeks and then came back briefly to her native city to say goodbye to her mother and grab a few things (that’s when I met her) and go back to the temple, this time for longer. She was so grateful for getting the book that changed her life. Soon, she started distributing books herself and became a determined book distributor, sometimes distributing 80 books in a day. Last time I heard, she was already distributing for five years.
Another time, in a small city, I stopped an intelligent boy. He was interested, but didn't have any money, so I gave him a small booklet that had the history of Mrgari the hunter. Later in the same day, he came back to me telling that the book had a profound impact on him, and that he was ready to "break his bow" (like Narada ordered the hunter in the book) and become a renunciant. I was not very impressed with his instant renunciation, so I gave him a "Journey of Self-Discovery" and told him to read it and came back the next day if he was still interested. Indeed, he came back, with different questions from the book. I took some time to answer and gave him another assignment, and he started to come back every day with additional questions. Later he really went to live in the temple.
A third interesting incident: Once I spoke with a hippie boy who was selling crafts in the street. He was very interested in the Bhagavad-Gita, but had just a few coins. I ended up just giving him the book, since he promised to study it. Later I found that this boy had become a very sincere brahmachari and was going to get initiated.
This is not the end of the story: Two years later, in another episode, I meta grandma in another small city. After I showed her some books she exclaimed that actually she just came back from a temple. Her daughter had become a devotee one year before and was living in the temple since. Now she got married ("with a nice boy", in her words), so the mother spent a week in the temple, helping with arrangements for the marriage. She said that she was actually a Christian, but she was happy with her daughter and grateful to Krsna consciousness, for saving her daughter from some bad habits that she was cultivating before. Later, I found out that actually the daughter took books from me a year before, in the same city, and later got married to the same boy who I mentioned before! Last time I saw them they were visiting Mayapur, still happily married and in Krsna consciousness.
6- It’s essential to associate with senior preachers as much as possible, hearing from them and observing the way they distribute books and preach. You can go on book distribution with them and observe how they are doing. By doing that, you can learn new things and get some of their shakti. For someone who is starting, this is even more important. If you can simply start to help a senior book distributor, going with him, carrying his books, staying with him and observing, very quickly you will also want to start distributing, without the need for any separate endeavour. That’s actually the easiest way to become a strong book distributor: by associating with the ones who are already strong and fixed in their service. As Krsna explains in Bg 4.34, the proper process for obtaining knowledge is by approaching seniors, rendering them some service, observing and presenting questions. Because they know the truth, such realized souls can impart knowledge and faith unto you.
7- As I explained previously, the main reason new devotees have huge variations in their book distribution scores, distributing well on some days and not distributing anything on others, is because their minds are unstable. If you seriously want to become a stable book distributor, the first step is to create a sadhana, fixing a time where you can distribute books, and going at the same time every day, six days a week, no matter what. By going every day at the same time, our book distribution will evolve little by little from the capricious stage to the regulated stage. Our minds will start to become more stable and the books will start to go out in a more regular fashion. Even if you can distribute for only half an hour a day, still by going regularly you are going to make progress, and from there you can start to, little by little, go for longer periods of time.
8- A good practice is to combine the distribution of Srila Prabhupada’s books with the distribution of some small periodical, that can be published by the devotees of the yatra, combining some articles and quotes from Srila Prabhupada with articles from senior devotees and some new writings, with the idea of introducing people to spiritual life and attracting them to the local programs. This periodical can be printed with donations from local devotees and distributed alongside with the books or given by itself to interested people. New devotees who are starting on book distribution can start by just distributing the periodical (which is much easier, since they don’t need to collect donations for it) and from there start with the books. The periodical, in this case, will have the role of “breaking the ice”, offering some introduction to the philosophy, or to our work and practices, offering some point of connection and some preliminary information, so the public can get attracted to the books. The important point is that the periodical should be distributed only to interested or favourable people who we meet. To just give it away randomly, like a pamphlet, gives very little result.
In the beginning of our movement, the Back to Godhead magazine had this introductory role, offering a bridge to the books, and working as a practice arena for devotees to write articles explaining the philosophy in simple and modern ways. Unfortunately, the Back to Godhead is now discontinued in most countries (or became a small publication for devotees) and therefore the chain became weakened.
Concluding, you can add to this list any other ideas that you may have. Any possibility to distribute a few books and reach a few new persons is worth a try. As Srila Prabhupada used to say, we should tax our brains on how to spread this movement. The main thing is to develop and maintain a preaching mood. From there, Krsna will help us from both inside and outside. As He explains in the Bhagavad-Gita:
“To those who are constantly devoted to serving Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me.
To show them special mercy, I, dwelling in their hearts, destroy with the shining lamp of knowledge the darkness born of ignorance.” (Bg 10.10-11)
As Srila Prabhupada points out in his purport, if someone is sincerely trying to work for Krsna and seeking proper association, even if he doesn’t have the necessary knowledge, Krsna is going to guide him from within:
“A person may have a bona ﬁde spiritual master and may be attached to a spiritual organization, but if he is still not intelligent enough to make progress, then Krsna from within gives him instructions so that he may ultimately come to Him without difﬁculty. The qualiﬁcation is that a person always engage himself in Krsna consciousness and with love and devotion render all kinds of services. He should perform some sort of work for Krsna, and that work should be with love. If a devotee is not intelligent enough to make progress on the path of self-realization but is sincere and devoted to the activities of devotional service, the Lord gives him a chance to make progress and ultimately attain to Him.” (Bg 10.10 purport)
21 basic points about book distribution:
From where to start?