Getting the Mercy

Preaching, Book Distribution, and the Ultimate Goal

Caitanya Chandra dasa

First edition: 2019

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Chapter 5: Going further

Our basic spiritual process is to hear and then repeat. It’s what we do in kirtanas for example, where we hear the leader (sravanam) and then we repeat (kirtana). For the leader, it is the same process since he does his sravanam when the others repeat. This process doesn’t apply only to the chanting, but for the philosophy as well. We get knowledge from studying our books, by hearing classes and so on, but then we need to repeat, to teach others, otherwise, all this knowledge just enters in one ear and leaves through the other, it never really becomes ours. We may then develop a mass of theoretical knowledge, but keep struggling to put it into practice because it never really goes into the heart.

"Preaching this is showing real mercy to living entities. Other types of humanitarian work may be temporarily beneficial for the body, but because a living entity is spirit soul, ultimately one can show him real mercy only by revealing knowledge of his spiritual existence. As Caitanya Mahaprabhu says, jivera ‘svarupa’ haya — krsnera ‘nitya-dasa’: “Every living entity is constitutionally a servant of Krsna.” One should know this fact perfectly and should preach it to the mass of people. If one realizes that he is an eternal servant of Krsna but does not preach it, his realization is imperfect.” (SB 4.29.1b purport)

On the other hand, when we start to repeat this knowledge, we start to realize it very easily. Even basic concepts, like "I'm not this body" may take a long time to really become realized knowledge if we don't practice by teaching others. That's why book distribution is so useful for our own spiritual lives: it's very difficult to find another activity in devotional service that gives us this opportunity. One can give Bhagavatam classes, for example, but it will be just one hour and not every day. But if we go to the street, we will have the opportunity to preach and repeat the philosophy for as long as we want. One can stay six hours a day, eight hours or even more.

Not only is it an unlimited opportunity to repeat the philosophy, but also forces us to deal with contrary arguments. Some persons are on the mental platform, others on the intellectual platform and so on, and they present so many different arguments and reasons. We need to use all our accumulated knowledge to address whatever misconceptions they have and defeat all their objections, so they can accept a book and start their process of devotional service. Not only that, but we are also forced to learn how to present the philosophy in a practical way, which is actually the test to see if one is really understanding.

When we understand the philosophy in just a superficial way, we may think that it's a "one size fits all", that to follow the Bhagavad-Gita means that everybody needs to abandon everything, shave their heads, go to live in the ashram, dress in a specific way, behave in a specific way, etc. which is actually a sectarian view. But once we start to really realize the knowledge, it becomes much deeper and flexible. One starts to realize that it is a knowledge that applies to everyone, in every sphere of life: it's useful for workers, businessmen, housewives, students, and so on. Everybody can apply this knowledge of the Bhagavad-Gita in his own life, and in this way advance in spiritual life without having to change his occupation. In the beginning of the Bhagavad-Gita, Arjuna was a fighter, and in the end, he was still a fighter. He didn't become a sannyasi or went to live in the temple. That's why Bhagavad-Gita is so amazing: it can be applied to everybody, it contains the keys to solve all problems. The same applies to all our books, to our whole philosophy.

Preaching also means that we should try to improve ourselves, try to become better devotees, so we can be empowered to inspire others:

HH Kadamba Kanana Swami: "In the Caitanya Siksamrta, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, has explained that a devotee who has nistha can create faith in the heart of conditioned souls. He said a devotee who is in the stage of bhava can lift others up to the stage of ruci because this devotee in ecstasy, is sharing that ecstasy with others. That is why others are also getting a taste in spiritual life. And when that taste becomes more regular, due to regular association, then a person can actually come to the stage of ruci, a stage where one lives in that taste of serving Krsna, glorifying Krsna and so on. It is said that a devotee on the platform of Krsna-prema, there is no limit in how much such a devotee can elevate any conditioned soul; he can raise that conditioned soul up to the platform of prema." (Lecture, 21 December  2011, Cape Town)

In this way, to have compassion means to try to be the most effective as possible as a preacher. And, in turn, to be a powerful preacher means to be a sincere devotee. We should understand that the more we can follow devotional life seriously and advance, the more we will be able to help others. Therefore, we should be determined in spiritual life.

Krsna is the Doer

One idea that we hear constantly in book distribution is that "Krsna is the doer". This is the kind of concept that may be easy to accept intellectually, but that is very difficult to truly realize. In that connection, I would like to share one experience.

In 2015 there was an abnormal weather phenomenon in Brazil that resulted in bad weather for several months. In a particular week, there was very harsh weather in the whole state. The rain was just falling, and falling and then falling more. Many cities got flooded, people lost their houses, etc. The news was saying that it was the worst rains in the last 50 years. This came on top of the deep crisis that the country was in, which was comparable to the crisis in Russia in 2014. If that was not enough, I got also problems with the car, not only once, but twice in the week. Still, that week was one of my best weeks of book distribution in the year.

There was a storm on that Thursday. I saw it coming on the forecast, so I tried to go to another city where I was hoping the weather would be better, but actually, I just got to a worse place. During the day there was a never-ending rain with very strong winds. Products from the stores were flying on the street and some of them were closing. I was under the marquise of a store in a crossing, trying to keep the books dry (I was not using an umbrella, since it would just break in minutes because of the wind), trying to distribute to the distressed people that were running around with their broken umbrellas. Still, some people were taking books. At some point, the rain stopped for about one hour and a half, and in that short period, almost half of the books that I had were distributed to the few people that were passing. Amazingly, at the end of the day, all the books were gone.

On that Sunday, despite the rain and the extended holiday (that made the city almost deserted), I ended distributing more than on a normal day. At one point, I stopped a group of young teenagers, seven or eight of them. I just started handing them books and speaking something and to my surprise, they all started to take out money and take books! They took all the books I had in my hands and I had to bring more from the cart, without even giving them the complete mantra!

This all made me realize another important point about sankirtana: we may think that we are big book distributors, but, as far as our false ego may go, we are actually just carrying books around, just like a donkey. The master may load the donkey with tons of products and make him walk here and there while he sells to the people, and the donkey may get puffed-up thinking that he is a big merchant that can convince all kinds of people to buy the products, but in reality, the master is the one doing everything. Actually, when the donkey starts to try to talk and convince people with his arguments, he just disturbs the work of the master with his grunts.

Similarly, when we go out to distribute books, we may think that we are very big and learned sankirtana devotees, the pure devotees that are going to save the fallen persons on the street from the nefarious influence of the Kali-yuga, but actually all that we are doing is carrying the books around, just like a donkey. Any book distribution that may happen is being done by the Lord. He is the one sending people, He is the one making them stop, He is the one giving the arguments and He is the one giving them the inspiration from inside to take the books (He is even the one giving them the money to buy!). Everything is completely under His control. Our part is just to carry the books around and follow His dictation.

As long as we don't get mental and run away from the field, and don't disturb His work with our whims, the Lord is perfectly capable of distributing any amount of books He may want, regardless of the circumstance: rain, snow, cold, scorching heat, storm or whatever. We just need to go out and do our part of the job.

The sum-up is that when we are distributing books, we are working for Krsna, we are using our energy to assist Srila Prabhupada and our spiritual master in their preaching mission. Even if He is actually the one doing everything, Krsna is so kind that just because of our effort He gives us so much mercy. On top of that, we are doing kirtana, therefore our hearts are being cleansed. And because it's a very intensive process, this cleaning process is very fast, Krsna quickly reciprocates.

It's not possible to do book distribution if we are in maya. If we start to get into maya, we simply can't continue doing it: we start to get mental, lazy, etc. and we can't maintain it. Also, because we are talking and dealing with people, it's very immediate: any contamination that we have appears very quickly, people take notice. In this way, we are forced to improve ourselves and to deal with our deficiencies.

That's one of the reasons sometimes we have a very hard time distributing books: it can be a really revealing and shocking experience. We may be around for some time, following and practicing Krsna consciousness, thinking that we are almost pure devotees, but when we try to preach, we realize that we are not even close. The false ego is smashed; we realize that there are so many things that need to be corrected and all the hidden anarthas start to stick out. Despite being a disturbing and humbling experience, it is actually a very good chance to become more serious. Otherwise, we may stay around for many years without realizing all these deficiencies.

Samadhi on book distribution

When we are distributing books, especially on the street, we tend to see many things: the sky, the stores, the trees, etc. We also tend to pay attention to different persons who are passing by, speculating about what they are thinking, how they are dressed, maybe paying attention to some beautiful girl or boy…

One of the secrets of book distribution is to be focused, to see only the person who we are talking to, or the one we are going to stop next, instead of paying attention to so many things. This way, we maintain our concentration and don’t waste our energy with irrelevant details. One of the reasons we feel tired after a few hours of book distribution is exactly because we waste our energy with so many things not directly connected with our service. If we can simply focus on the essential aspects of our book distribution and keep our cool, our energy will last much longer. In relation to this, there is a famous passage from the Mahabharata, where Arjuna is shooting the bird on the tree:

"One day, Drona decided to test his students’ abilities. He placed an artificial bird high in a tree. Calling together all the princes, he said to each of them, “Take your bows and aim for the bird’s eye. One by one I shall call you forward to shoot.”

The first to be called was Yudhisthira. When he had placed an arrow on his bow and aimed, Drona said, “O prince, tell me what you see.”

Yudhisthira replied that he saw his brothers, Drona, the tree and the bird. Drona asked him again and again what he saw and each time received the same reply. Drona then reproached him and told him to stand down without firing his arrow. “You will not be able to hit the mark,” he said with annoyance.

Duryodhana was the next to be called. When he was ready to fire Drona asked him the same question. The prince replied as Yudhisthira had replied, and again Drona told him to stand down. One by one the princes were called and each responded to Drona similarly and was not allowed to shoot at the bird.

Finally Arjuna was called. When he was prepared to shoot and was standing with his bow drawn in a semicircle, Drona said, “Tell me what you see. Can you see myself, your brothers and the tree?”

Arjuna replied, “I see only the bird. I cannot see you or my brothers, nor the tree.” Drona was pleased. He waited a moment and asked, “If you see the bird, then please describe it to me.”

Arjuna responded, “I see only the bird’s head. I cannot see its body.”

Drona felt his hair stand on end with delight. He said, “Shoot!”

Arjuna released his arrow and it struck the wooden bird in the eye, sending it tumbling to the ground." (Mahabharata - Retold by Krsna Dharma, ch. 1.5)

To be able to keep concentrated on book distribution, to just keep seeing the next person to stop, despite the external situation, is a type of samadhi, actually the most elevated platform in yoga. Because devotional service is absolute, there is no difference between being concentrated in the service and to be fixed on direct meditation on Krsna. As Srila Prabhupada wrote in his purport to SB 10.2.37: "By fully concentrating on distributing books for Kṛṣṇa, one is fully absorbed in Krsna. This is samadhi."

Actually, advanced book distributors are not less advanced in meditation than the most powerful yogis: they just use an easier process to achieve the same result. Because they can achieve samadhi through fixed meditation in their service, other things, like controlling the senses and the mind come automatically. Srila Prabhupada speaks about that in a letter to Prabhavisnu Prabhu, from 3 January 1973:


“So I can understand that it is not an easy matter to travel extensively over long periods of time without proper food, rest, and sometimes it must be very cold there also, and still, because you are getting so much enjoyment, spiritual enjoyment, from it, it seems like play to you. That is advanced stage of spiritual life, never attained by even the greatest yogis and so-called jyanis. But let any man see our devotees working so hard for Krishna, then let anyone say that they are not better than any millions of so-called yogis and transcendentalists, that is my challenge! Because you are rightly understanding through your personal realization this philosophy of Krishna Consciousness, therefore in such a short time you have surpassed all the stages of yoga processes to come to the highest point of surrendering to Krishna. That I can very much appreciate, thank you very much for helping me in this way”.

HG Bhayahari Prabhu: Jayananda became absorbed in practical devotional service. He was constantly serving the Lord, whether buying supplies, cooking prasadam, cleaning the kitchen, taking out the trash, or teaching new devotees. He did all this after a full day of taxi cab driving, by which he’d pay the temple’s bills. He became an expert in anything needed to spread Krsna consciousness. He went out to sell Prabhupada’s Teachings of Lord Caitanya, becoming a pioneer in a service dear to Prabhupada’s heart – the public distribution of books on Krsna consciousness. (Article: Sriman Jayananda Dasa – A Modern Saint)

Sometimes, we think that to be an advanced devotee means to be able to see Krsna and manifest ecstatic symptoms, but frequently Srila Prabhupada would give much more practical explanations, emphasizing determination, resilience and preaching effort as indicators of advancement, instead of other more esoteric factors. According to these explanations, a pure devotee is more like a humble, hard-working person, who is giving his heart and soul to the preaching mission, than someone who just lives in a solitary place trying to imitate Haridasa Thakura:

“‘My dear mind, what kind of devotee are you? Simply for cheap adoration, you sit in a solitary place and pretend to chant the Hare Krsna maha-mantra, but this is all cheating.” Recently at Mayapur an African devotee wanted to imitate Haridasa Thakura, but after fifteen days he became restless and went away. Do not suddenly try to imitate Haridasa Thakura. Engage yourself in Krsna conscious activities, and gradually you will come to the stage of liberation (muktir hitvanyatha rupam svarupena vyavasthitih).” (SB 8.1.14 purport)

On the Nectar of Instruction, verse 5, Srila Prabhupada gives a very interesting definition of the symptoms of an uttama-adhikārī devotee, emphasizing the qualities of following the principles strictly, chanting and preaching:

“In this Krsna consciousness movement a chance is given to everyone without discrimination of caste, creed or color. Everyone is invited to join this movement, sit with us, take prasada and hear about Krsna. When we see that someone is actually interested in Krsna consciousness and wants to be initiated, we accept him as a disciple for the chanting of the holy name of the Lord. When a neophyte devotee is actually initiated and engaged in devotional service by the orders of the spiritual master, he should be accepted immediately as a bona fide Vaishava, and obeisances should be offered unto him. Out of many such Vaishavas, one may be found to be very seriously engaged in the service of the Lord and strictly following all the regulative principles, chanting the prescribed number of rounds on japa beads and always thinking of how to expand the Krsna consciousness movement. Such a Vaishnava should be accepted as an uttama-adhikari, a highly advanced devotee, and his association should always be sought”.

HH Niranjana Maharaja: “There are many examples; like the famous bhakta who went to Radha Kunda. He went there, following the babajis, simply chanting 64 rounds a day. His name was Bhakta Richard. Srila Prabhupada said, “Some day, when Bhakta Richard becomes advanced enough, he’ll leave Radha Kunda and come back and preach in our movement.” He said, “When he becomes advanced enough.” [Maharaja laughs]

So, devotees need to hear this. They need to be inspired. If a devotee really wants Prabhupada’s mercy, they’ll take up some responsibility in his mission.

I’ll never forget the time, when I was a book distributor for many years. I used to do traveling sankirtana. Srila Prabhupada made a statement; he said, “Devotees who travel in vans and distribute books, they get my extra special mercy.” And, I was already traveling and distributing books, and sometimes when we were distributing — in those days we were distributing for ten hours a day. When I heard that Srila Prabhupada said that he’s ready to give extra special mercy, I was thinking, “I’m getting so much mercy now, and Srila Prabhupada wants to give some extra special mercy!” He drove us a literally crazy. [Maharaja laughs]” (Class from 2015)

Mature book distribution

One common complaint I hear from new book distributors is that book distribution is difficult, and they feel drained and exhausted after a few hours. Therefore, it's difficult to keep a regulated daily schedule.

One difficult aspect of book distribution is that people, in general, are not very much interested in spiritual life, and on top of that they are usually busy and concerned about other things, so when we try to stop them, their reactions are far from being enthusiastic. Also, many people act openly antagonistically; their attitude may be nasty or even hostile. When we start book distribution, our first instinct is to try to stop everyone who crosses our path, without discrimination. If someone doesn't want to stop, we insist, we walk alongside such person trying to convince him to stop and take a look at the books. Even if someone is hostile, what usually happens is that we still try to talk and present the books in a humble way, sometimes even insisting until the person gets exasperated. We get inspired by passages like Lord Nityananda begging to Jagai and Madhai to chant the holy names even after they had attacked and injured Him, and by verses such as Bg. 6.9, which emphasizes that we should see friends and enemies, favorable and unfavorable persons with an equal mind. But the result is that we frequently hear many insults, find our books in trash cans, feel exhausted, etc.

During the first years of my book distribution, I was doing just that: frantically trying to stop everyone, insisting with hostile persons and so on. And I would frequently feel exhausted, unmotivated, etc., just like so many book distributors.

For several years, I was meditating deeply on this, and several experiences started changing my perspective. One central problem, I realized, is that often we try to prematurely achieve some kind of uttama adhikari vision, seeing everyone equally, trying to give mercy to everyone without discrimination and so on, without having the necessary spiritual strength. In other words, sometimes we artificially and naively try to jump to a much higher platform than the one we really are, which brings adverse results.

Different classes of devotees

Practically speaking, preaching is the business of madhyama adhikaris. A neophyte is usually not so fixed in spiritual life, he still doesn’t feel compassion for others and therefore is not very much attracted to preaching:

“One should not remain a kanistha-adhikari, one who is situated on the lowest platform of devotional service and is interested only in worshiping the Deity in the temple. Such a devotee is described in the Eleventh Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.2.47):

arcayam eva haraye

pujam yah sraddhayehate

na tad-bhaktesu canyesu

sa bhaktah prakrtah smrtah

“A person who is very faithfully engaged in the worship of the Deity in the temple, but who does not know how to behave toward devotees or people in general is called a prakrta-bhakta, or kanistha-adhikari.”

One therefore has to raise himself from the position of kanistha-adhikari to the platform of madhyama-adhikari.” (Nectar of Instruction, verse 5).

Naturally, the problem is not with the deity worship or with chanting (pure devotees also chant and worship, these are essential parts of our practice), the problem is to selfishly limit oneself to a superficial practice of these activities, without progressing to higher spheres of devotional service.

On the other extreme, is the uttama adhikari devotee, who sees the presence of the Lord in everything, and sees that the whole creation is completely under His control. Because of his intense meditation, he feels a deep sense of humility, and therefore is also not so inclined to preach:

“The most advanced devotee sees within everything the soul of all souls, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Sri Krsna. Consequently he sees everything in relation to the Supreme Lord and understands that everything that exists is eternally situated within the Lord” (SB 11.2.45)

In a lecture on Bg. 7.1, from 13th December 1972, Ahmedabad, Srila Prabhupada explains in details about the position of the uttama-adhikari devotee:

“But when one becomes uttama-adhikari, maha-bhagavata, he does not see anyone as demon. He sees, "Everyone is worshiping Krsna. I am not worshiping." This is maha-bhagavata. Just like Radharani. Radharani always feels that "I do not know how to love Krsna. Oh, he, here is a gopi. How she loves Krsna." That is Her... This is called maha-bhava. So we should not imitate Radharani. Caitanya Mahaprabhu... Just like Caitanya Mahaprabhu, He's the symbol of Radharani's maha-bhava. He says that "I do not love Krsna. I do not know how to love Krsna." Then if you, somebody, if somebody says, "Then why You are crying?" "Well, that is a show. I am making a show. I am crying." Then what is the symptom? "The symptom is that if I would have loved Krsna, then without Him I have died long, long ago. I should have died. I am living still without Krsna; that means I do not love Krsna." This is maha-bhagavata-bhava, separation.”

When such perfect devotees desire to preach, they need to adjust their vision to the intermediate platform, as did Srila Prabhupada, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, and other acaryas. This special type of uttama bhakta is also described by Srila Prabhupada in his purport to the 5th verse of the Nectar of Instruction:

“When a person realizes himself to be an eternal servitor of Krsna, he loses interest in everything but Krsna’s service. Always thinking of Krsna, devising means by which to spread the holy name of Krsna, he understands that his only business is in spreading the Krsna consciousness movement all over the world. Such a person is to be recognized as an uttama-adhikari”.

Conversely, when neophytes get involved in preaching, they need to follow in the footsteps of senior preachers and be guided by such experienced devotees until they also get promoted to the intermediate platform. Srila Prabhupada alerts us that to just remain a neophyte is dangerous, since if someone who is not pure remains engaged only in temple worship, he may eventually become restless and fall down. Better to get elevated to the second platform, by becoming a preacher.

On the same class from Ahmedabad, that I quoted earlier, Srila Prabhupada makes several remarks in this connection:

“So a neophyte devotee should be engaged in temple worship, but if he does not make further improvement, if he sticks to the simply temple worship, then he remains a kanistha-adhikari, lower-standard devotee.”

“Therefore along with the worship of Krsna in the temple, this hearing should be sravanam kirtanam. Just like we are doing. We do not engage only the devotees to the temple worship, but there must be program for hearing Bhagavad-gita, Srimad-Bhagavatam, the science of God. Otherwise, after some times, simply if you ring the bell, after time you'll be disgusted and the whole thing will be lost.”

“The improvement means he must know what is Krsna. Simply if he remains attached to the temple worship and does not try to understand who is a Krsna’s devotee and how he has to deal with others, na tad-bhaktesu canyesu. We have got some duty to others. This is preaching work. This is preaching work. One should not be satisfied simply by worshiping in the temple. Then he'll remain a neophyte. He must become a preacher, Krsna consciousness. Then he comes to the second platform.” (Prabhupada, Lecture on Bg 7.1 -- 13 December, 1972)

A word from the scriptures

Srimad Bhagavatam 11.2.46 gives a description of the symptoms of a madhyama devotee:

isvare tad-adhinesu

balisesu dvisatsu ca


yah karoti sa madhyamah

"An intermediate or second-class devotee, called madhyama-adhikari, offers his love to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is a sincere friend to all the devotees of the Lord, shows mercy to ignorant people who are innocent and disregards those who are envious of the Supreme Personality of Godhead."

This implies that, far from trying to treat everyone equally, the preacher should consciously distinguish between three classes of people: adhinesu, balisesu, dvisatsu (the devotee, the innocent and the envious) and act appropriately, showing friendship to the devotees, showing mercy to the innocent, and avoiding or showing indifference to the envious or atheistic.

The purport to this verse, written by disciples of Srila Prabhupada based on commentaries of our acaryas, go deep into this point:

"According to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, although a second-class devotee is eager to preach to the innocent conditioned souls, he should avoid the atheistic class of men so that he will not become disturbed or polluted by their association. Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura has confirmed that a Vaisnava should be indifferent to those who are envious of the Supreme Lord. It is practically seen that when such persons are informed of the glories of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, they attempt to ridicule the Supreme Lord, thus further deteriorating their polluted existence. In this connection Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura has quoted from the Tenth Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam (10.20.36):

girayo mumucus toyam

kvacin na mumucuh sivam

yatha jnanamrtam kale

jnanino dadate na va

“‘Sometimes in autumn the water falls down from the tops of the hills to supply clean water, and sometimes the water stops. Similarly, sometimes great saintly persons distribute clear knowledge, and sometimes they are silent.’”

“In this regard, Srila Jiva Gosvami has mentioned that although the first-class devotee of the Lord may at times exhibit apparent hatred toward the demons because of entering the mood of the Lord's pastimes, the intermediate devotees should avoid such feelings. Furthermore, the intermediate devotee should not in any way associate with the powerful atheistic class of men, because there is danger that his mind will become bewildered by such association. According to Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura, if a Vaisnava preacher encounters one who is envious of him, the preacher should remain far away from such an envious person. But the Vaisnava preacher may meditate upon ways to save the envious class of men. Such meditation is called sad-acara, or saintly behavior.”

“Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura has given an elaborate explanation to prove that the discrimination employed by a madhyama-adhikari preacher does not at all show a lack of mercy. He states that upeksa, or neglect, as mentioned in this verse, is the proper medicine for those who are inimical to the Supreme Lord and His devotees. Indifference from the preacher checks feelings of hostility on both sides. Although there is a Vedic injunction that one should cut out the tongue of a person who offends the Supreme Lord and His devotees, in this age it is best simply to avoid potential offenders and thus prevent them from committing further sinful activities against the Vaisnavas. It is the duty of a Vaisnava preacher to point out the futility of any process besides surrendering to the Supreme Lord. An envious person, however, will resent such strong preaching by a Vaisnava and disrespect him, considering the devotee to be unnecessarily criticizing others. Such a person, who cannot appreciate the mercy of Vaisnavas, should be neglected. Otherwise, according to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, his cheating mentality will increase day by day.”

“Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura has strongly rejected those foolish persons who, under a plea of mercy and equal vision, perceive that a faithless person is also a devotee of the Supreme Lord and who thus try to thrust the hari-nama, or holy name of God, upon such offensive people.”

“The wonderful loving dealings between Vaisnavas on the topmost platform are demonstrated in the pastimes of Caitanya-caritamrta. In other words, although a Vaisnava sees every living entity as part and parcel of Krsna, he must discriminate in his external behavior so as not to interfere with the original purpose of the Lord's creation, which is to reform the living entities so that they can gradually come back home, back to Godhead. A pure devotee does not foolishly pretend equal vision and approach envious persons; rather, he respects the mission of the Lord, as stated in Bhagavad-gita (4.11) by the words ye yatha mam prapadyante tams tathaiva bhajamy aham.”

Using our discrimination

As devotees, we should always try to help people we encounter, so that every encounter is beneficial, bringing each person a little closer to Krsna. This purport, however, advises us that in dealing with some particular classes of people, to neglect and keep distance is actually the way to show them mercy, depriving them of the opportunity of committing offences that will further degrade their position: "upeksa, or neglect, as mentioned in this verse, is the proper medicine for those who are inimical to the Supreme Lord and His devotees. Indifference from the preacher checks feelings of hostility on both sides". Also, we should know our own capacity to see who we can help and who we can't.

A nurse with a first-aid kit running in the battlefield will not be able to treat someone who has been shot in the head. Similarly, many people are so deep in ignorance that we can’t realistically help them (and we may need a little bit of humility to be able to admit that), therefore it’s more productive for us to focus on the ones who we can help, and leave the difficult cases to more experienced preachers. There is no point in insisting with someone who will just commit offenses. In the 8th chapter of his Jaiva Dharma, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura alert us to this point:

“When an inimical person who has adopted discordant or inconsistent opinions hears glorification of suddha-bhakti or virtuous instructions regarding bhakti, he will immediately retort with some futile argument which is not beneficial for you or for him.

One should avoid such fruitless arguments, and interact with such people only as far as necessary in routine social dealings. One may think that one should include inimical people among the ignorant, and therefore bestow mercy upon them, but if one does so, one will not help them and will only harm oneself. One should be benevolent, but with caution.”

Later, in the 24th chapter, he explains:

“Of all the various instructions in the Vedas, the instructions on hari-nama are the most important, and only those who have faith in exclusive bhakti are qualified to hear sri-nama’s glories. It is an offense to give instruction on hari-nama to those who do not have faith, who are averse to the transcendental service of Hari, or who have no taste for hearing nama. It is beneficial to give instruction that hari-nama is the most exalted of all spiritual practices, and that all who accept hari-nama will become most fortunate, but one should not give such instructions on hari-nama to the unqualified. When you become a parama-bhagavata, then you will also be able to transmit sakti. Such a great Vaisnava can first create faith in sri-nama by bestowing spiritual sakti on the jivas, and after that instruct them about hari-nama. However, as long as you remain a madhyama Vaisnava, you must neglect those who are faithless, disinterested and envious.”

In a class on the Sri Caitanya Caritamrta (Madhya 20.100), given on July 5th, 1976, Srila Prabhupada comments on that same Bhagavatam verse quoted earlier:

"If they are not open to hear about Krsna, then don't waste your time. The simple thing. There are four things. For a preacher, there are four things:

isvare tad-adhinesu

balisesu dvisatsu ca


yah karoti sa madhyamah

When in the lower stage of devotional service, he cannot become preacher. When he's in a little upper, second stage, he can become preacher. So preacher has to see four things. First of all God, isvara, and tad-adhinesu, and those who are devotees. God, His devotees, and balisa, innocent. He does not know anything about... So three: God, devotee, and the innocent. And dvisat, envious, atheist class. He has to see four things, and he has to deal with four persons differently.

With God, isvare prema: how to advance my love for God, these dealings. Prema-maitri, and to the devotees, we have to make friendship with them. Prema-maitri. And to the innocent, we have to preach, krpa: ‘Oh, here is an innocent person. He does not know; he's eager to learn.’ There teaching is required. Teaching, you cannot teach God or you cannot teach God's devotees. But you can teach the innocent. And those who are dvisat, atheist, upeksa, don't go there, save yourself.

These are the four things. So when one is not open to hear, then don't bother yourself. That requires very strong preacher to convince the atheist class, provided he is reasonable also. If he's stubborn, obstinate, then it is also very difficult. But preaching is meant, innocent, that one who is actually sincere but he does not know what is God, what is my relationship with God, there is necessity of preaching. Not to the envious or those who are already advanced, or to God."

One point that must be misunderstood is that when we speak about upeksa, or neglect, we are not speaking about being rude, impolite or much less hostile to such persons. Cordiality and proper social behavior should be always present, this is an essential point. As Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura explains:

“The word upeksa, neglect, does not imply that one should abandon all social dealings that are normal between human beings. Nor does it mean that one should fail to alleviate an inimical person's difficulty or deprivation if he falls into distress. Grhastha Vaishnavas remain within society, so they have many types of relationships, for instance, with relatives through marriage, and with others through business dealings, through the maintenance of property and bringing up of animals, through endeavoring to mitigate the suffering and ailments of others, and through their position as citizens of the state. These different social relations entail connection with inimical people, and avoidance does not mean that one should at once give them up. One is obliged to conduct routine affairs and interact with people who are indifferent to Isvara, but one should not take their association when it comes to spiritual matters.” (Jaiva Dharma, ch. 8)

While distributing books in the street, we meet representatives of both the innocent and the envious; it’s imperative to learn how to discriminate between the two. All successful styles of book distribution are based on the idea of somehow finding the right persons. For example, Jaya Caitanya Prabhu from the United States describes how table book distribution revolutionized his sankirtana: by setting-up his table in an attractive way, with a visible sign, the ripe fruits would automatically come to him. In this case, the presentation of his table would act like a pre-mantra that would attract favorable people. When doing person to person, the same basic idea apply: to give people a little bit of information, based on the way we present ourselves, and be attentive to select the ripe fruits from the way the way they react. In some cases, we may be able to understand a person with just a quick glance, other times we may need to speak with him for a little while, but in both cases the same principle applies: to distinguish between the ripe fruits, that we can give all attention, and the lost cases, with whom we should interact politely, but shortly.

My experience is that most persons can be divided into eight classes:

1. The ripe fruits

Some persons are just ripe fruits: pious, nice people that are usually already in search of spiritual knowledge. When you approach them, they easily become interested and they are ready to take books. Even new book distributors can easily distribute books to them since often they are being guided by the Supersoul to take.

As Srila Prabhupada explains, once one starts in the path of devotional service, his advancement is never lost. The result of devotional service is more devotional service, therefore once someone starts in the path, even if just doing some very small service, or even unknowingly, this small step is going to bring him to situations where he can do more devotional service. The Lord in the heart is going to guide and inspire him in this direction.

Generally, ripe fruits are persons who started their path of devotional service earlier, or in previous lives. Therefore, when they see a devotee, the Lord inspire them and they easily take a book. Naturally, they are also the best candidates for becoming devotees, therefore we should take their contacts and spend some time with them. Many times they are just like a sponge, that is read to absorb whatever you can give to them.  

That’s another reason why harinamas, prasadam distribution and other similar programs are so important. The people that are listening to the harinama or taking prasadam today, are going to become the ripe fruits of tomorrow.

2. The innocent/suspicious

Another class is people that are generally open to spiritual knowledge, but have some mental blocks, reservations or misconceptions that we need to perceive and address before they can agree to take a book. They are also part of the innocent group, but we need to work a little harder to distribute a book to them. Sometimes, because of their misconceptions, they may act in an antagonistic way at first, but by speaking in a nice and skillful way we can turn them around. The main symptom is that they are not envious.

These are actually the largest section of the population. Modern societies are composed by a majority of innocent persons, that are misguided by a minority. Most people perform sinful acts just because they don’t know better. They are unhappy with their situation, and many times question the values of modern societies and look for alternatives. Despite what it may look at first glance, they are actually looking for guidance and inspiration. The greatest differential of experienced book distributors is that they are able to inspire this section of the population and thus distribute more books, while new book distributors can usually only distribute to the ripe fruits. Most of the examples of mantras and different approaches in chapter 3 are exactly to help you to distribute books to this large section of the population.

Although the description of the other types ended becoming more extensive, you should keep in mind that this second group is the one that, at the end of the day, takes most of our books.

3. The drones

The third group, in my experience, are the tortured people of modern times. I call them “drones”. They are rushing to work, late to some appointment, worried about something, etc. Such a person may be nice and pious and in the future may also take a book, but now it’s not the right time. Usually, if you try to stop these people, you just waste your energy, since they are too disturbed and distracted to hear you. If you insist, they may react in a dismissive way or become angry, therefore it's important to know when to stop.

When a person is rushing like this, his consciousness shrinks under the influence of the lower modes, becoming similar to that of a beast, like a horse or a camel. As long as he remains in such a state, it’s practically impossible to engage him in any meaningful discussion about spiritual topics. Even if somehow they stop, their minds will remain spinning around their immediate problems, and they will not be able to hear you. Even if they somehow take a book due to some trick, they will just throw it somewhere.

The best course of action is to just avoid them for now: maybe in another situation they will be more relaxed and will be able to stop and take a book. There are always people that are walking around in a more natural state, that you can stop and have a conversation with. These are much better candidates to take a book and have their lives changed by the deep knowledge contained inside.

Many of these persons who are just rushed and uninterested now, may be more accessible in other situations, when you meet then at a park or at a concert, for example. Others may become interested later, due to different circumstances in life.

One time, I stopped a middle-aged man. He was walking slowly and stopped easily. He was attentive when I was presenting the books and in the end took a small set, gave a good donation for the books and started to ask a few questions about the soul, the purpose of life, etc. Definitely a very ripe fruit. He said that actually he saw me a few times in the past, but was always rushing, and concerned about work, so he never stopped. Recently, however, he had a major tragedy in his life: in an unfortunate coincidence, both the wife and the daughter where diagnosed with cancer in a short timeframe. The daughter had died a year earlier and the wife was in terminal condition, with only a few months to live. Being on the verge of losing everything he cared for, his interest in spiritual life awakened. As hard as it may seem, one of the main reasons for so much suffering in the world is that the material nature shakes us, trying to make us frustrated with material life, so we may turn to self-realization. Many people need to go through different situations to start enquiring about spiritual life, and the material energy is gradually providing these hard experiences on a case-by-case basis. Everyone has his own timing. As Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura explains in his Jaiva Dharma (chapter 16):

“Misery and happiness are conditions of the mind. Thus what we may consider misery is happiness for one engrossed in it. Since all varieties of material sense gratification finally result in nothing but misery, a materialistic person only achieves suffering. When that suffering becomes excessive, it gives rise to a search for happiness. From that desire, discrimination arises, and from discrimination, the tendency for inquiry is born. As a result of this, one attains sat-sanga (the association of saintly people), whereupon sraddha develops. When sraddha is born, the jiva ascends to a higher stage, namely the path of bhakti.

Gold is purified by heating and hammering. Being indifferent to Krsna, the jiva has become impure through engaging in mundane sense gratification. Therefore, he must be purified by being beaten with the hammers of misery on the anvil of this material world. By this process, the misery of the jivas averse to Krsna finally culminates in happiness. Suffering is therefore just a sign of Bhagavan's mercy.”

Stopping people in the street is like picking-up fruits in a tree. There is a mixture of green fruits, that are bitter, and ripe fruits, that are sweet. As in collecting fruits in a tree, the easiest approach in book distribution is to each day pick the ripe fruits. The green fruits are also going to become ripe eventually.

Continuing, the fourth and fifth classes are the people already indoctrinated by some belief, such as self-declared atheists or Christians, and thus promptly reject our books and association. In this group, you will find a mixture of innocent people (that are just indoctrinated by some other belief, but are not envious by nature) and envious fanatics, and you need to be a little experienced to be able to distinguish between the two:

4. The indoctrinates

The fourth group is composed of the innocent group amongst the followers of different beliefs. Generally, we use a conciliatory presentation with them, praising their culture and qualities to open their guard, and then present the books in a skillful way. One simple mantra that HG Vijaya Prabhu teaches generally works well with them:

Another way is to quickly disarm their mental reservation by finding some common ground:

I can’t take this book, I’m Christian! 

— But you believe in God, right??

Of course I believe in god… 

— Which God do you believe?

Which one? The One, the Creator, the Supreme!

— Oh! Then that’s ok, it’s the same One! (smiling, relieved face)

The effect is usually that the person smiles and becomes more relaxed. From there you can start to speak about our philosophy in a nice way, make some small jokes and so on, making the point that his religion is very nice, but that there is always new things to know. A lot of times you can have a positive interaction with them and distribute a few books.

Another, more elaborate strategy is to appeal to the universality of the knowledge in the Vedas, and the concept of universal brotherhood amongst different religions, that are just different revelations of the same spiritual knowledge. These are ideas that were frequently used by Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura in his writings. This is one example of a mantra in this line that I use sometimes:

Another group of indoctrinates that we find frequently are atheists. No matter how much one may protest, atheism is just another “ism”, just another type of belief, based in faith. Therefore, our approach to distribute a book to an atheist is very similar: avoid direct conflict, use jokes to break the tension, find common ground and appeal to universal concepts through simple logic.

HG Vijaya Prabhu teaches that when someone says that he is an atheist, he makes a relieved face and say:


Sometimes I just say, casually, “That’s ok, nobody is perfect!”, and laugh, making it sound like a joke. Usually, the effect is the same: the person becomes a little relaxed and from there you can present the books. The main point is to use these small jokes to diffuse the tension and bring their attention to some common ground, instead of differences.

You can also use more elaborated approaches. Sometimes, when someone says that he is an atheist, I quickly ask since when he is an atheist. He may answer that he became an atheist during school, or during his youth, or even later in life due to some particular incident, which actually doesn’t matter much. The punchline comes later:

I’m not interested, I’m atheist! 
- Oh! Since when you are an atheist?

Since my adolescence.

- And did some disaster happen in your life after which you became an atheist? You got cancer, became poor or something like that?

Of course not!

- See, that’s the proof. Even after you became an atheist God is still taking care and making arrangements so things can go well for you. He is not so bad as you are thinking. (smiling face)

This usually makes people stop a little bit to think and from there it’s possible to connect more ideas. Even if they don’t take a book, this kind of interaction makes them more open and increases the possibility that they may take books or become interested in spiritual life later.

Just as we may find Christians that are nice and pious and Christians that are fanatic and hateful, there are also nice atheists and hateful atheists. Many people say that they are atheists when actually they are agnostics, that are just disappointed with mainstream religions. Many of them are actually nice people that can take books and even become devotees. Hateful atheists, on the other hand, are just another type of fanatics that should be avoided. This type of atheism doesn’t have much of a philosophical standing and can be defeated easily with logic, the problem is that, in most cases, the person is so obstinate that he is not able to hear good arguments. Better to stay far. There are other departments of the creation designed to correct such bewildered souls.

Our whole approach to members of other faiths is based in being able to distinguish between people that are open-minded and may take a book, and persons that are closed or fanatic. HG Navina Nirada Prabhu comments that he has a more reserved attitude to members of other faiths, using questions to make them qualify themselves and avoiding the ones that are not receptive:

HG Navina Nirada Prabhu: "With members of other religions, I always immediately ask them: "Are you allowed to read?" or "Are you open-minded?". Then, by a simple question, by their answer, they qualify or disqualify themselves. In this way, we are not judging them, but they are showing themselves in which bracket they fall, and that helps us to move on nicely. Usually, when people say I'm a Christian or I'm a Muslin, or I'm this or I'm that, depending on the tone of voice which they use, most of the time I just say: "God bless, have a fantastic day!", and I walk away. Because I do not push energy in that direction. Or, I meet Muslims in the airport, or in some other place, and I just say inshallah or ojala, and I walk away politely from them. Unless I see that they are more balanced and modest and open-minded."

Another essential point is about integrity. While we should try our best to present the philosophy in a positive and easily understandable way, that people can relate to, sometimes even bending things a little bit so people can accept the basic concepts, we must maintain our integrity, resisting the temptation of making compromises and telling lies with the goal of selling a book.

If someone asks if these books speak about God, we should answer “yes”, even if the person is an atheist. Instead of becoming apologetical, it’s better to hold our ground and then confront the person on the reason he doesn't agree or has some prejudice. Ask why he doesn’t agree, let him speak a little bit and then present good arguments exploiting the gaps in his logic and understanding.

When someone would challenge Srila Prabhupada on some particular point or philosophy, Srila Prabhupada would almost always start by making questions, letting the person speak a little bit and then proceed to defeat him by exposing the incongruencies in his logic. That’s also the best approach on book distribution: hold our ground, make the person speak a little bit, and then proceed on quickly defeating him by exposing the faults in his philosophy.

Doing this has a much better effect than becoming apologetic and making compromises: people start to respect our boldness and integrity, and many times they end up taking books. That’s also good training for us.

One time I stopped a couple of students. As soon as I started to present the books, they became a little bit disturbed and asked if the books spoke about God. I smilingly answered: “Yes, God is one, and these books speak about Him. What do you think about this?”. They became a little defensive and said that they did not believe in God. I asked: “On what do you believe?”. The man answered that they believed that everybody was God, that he was God, his girlfriend was God and I was God also, therefore there was no reason to believe in a separate God. I simply looked him in the eyes, paused for half a second and then proceeded, calmly: “No, you are not God, and she is not God. You are just suffering like everybody else, and there is nothing you can do about it”. This answer shocked them a little bit, it was apparent that their brains started to work. They looked at each other and the man asked: “How much are these books??”. In the end, they took three books and gave a sufficient donation. As the saying goes: “Nothing beats the truth”.

Another time, I was speaking with a well-dressed lady. She became interested in the Veda book. At some point she asked: “But this book doesn’t speak about God, right?”. I answered: “Yes, it speaks about many things, including the source of everything, or God”. She became defensive, saying that she was not interested in hearing anything about God. I said in a friendly tone: “If someone would come here with a BMW, and say that the car appeared in his garage by chance, would you believe?”. She immediately started to argue: “Of course not, this would be silly. We know from where cars come, but the universe…” I interrupted on this point: “Yes, the universe includes the BMW and all other cars. If the universe was created by chance, then the BMW and everything else was created by chance. This doesn’t make much sense. Everything has a creator, or a source. We may not know who created it, but there is a creator. The Vedas discuss it in a logical way, that’s why intelligent people like Einstein and Emerson were studying the Bhagavad-Gita. I see that, like them, you are a very intelligent person, so I’m sure you will also be interested in this knowledge”. She took the book and gave a good donation for it.

In this interaction, I combined a simple argument with a little bit of flattery, which is usually an effective combination. When talking with people, it’s important to focus on simple ideas, since complicated concepts tend to just drive them away. There is always the possibility that the person will refuse the book, but my point is that holding our ground on essential points and maintaining our integrity is essential. It’s better to speak the truth and risk not distributing the book than to distribute a book by telling lies.

5. The envious fanatics

With the envious group, on the other hand, we may get quickly bogged down in an endless argument, which will just waste our time and drain our energy. Best is to get rid of them quickly. Once, HH Bhakti Narasimha Maharaja commented that when he was distributing books in London, frequently he would be addressed by fanatical Christians. He would show an interested face and ask from which Church they were, get the address and time of the services and then just say “Yes, I will come to your service on Sunday, see you there. By the way, I saw that you were busy, right? Sorry for taking so much of your time. Have a nice day!”. This way he would get free of them in a smart way.

The main point about fanatics is to understand and see them in the proper way: as immature persons who don’t have genuine knowledge nor culture. You can therefore just treat them like you would treat a child: not taking them seriously and outsmarting them.

One time, I was distributing in the downtown area of a medium-sized city, in dhoti and tilaka, and a crazy evangelical Christian man (of the type that shouts in the middle of the street with a Bible in hand) appeared. Normally this type just glues to you and when this happens, it's very difficult to get free of them.

I tried to avoid him, but he spotted me and started to walk in my direction. Before he had a chance to talk, I greeted him: “
Hey brother! How are you doing? Good to have company in spreading the words of God!”. This got him a little off-guard, he asked from which church I was, I answered that I was from ISKCON. He asked who was our minister, I answered “Srila Prabhupada”. He got confused by these unfamiliar names, and I proceeded, confidently telling him that we are from an ancient lineage, from the times of the old testament, that we use clothes similar to the ones people were using in the time of Christ, but that he probably never saw us because we are from another state and so on. There are so many of these evangelical churches all over the country and they are all different from each other (anyone can say that he met Jesus in a dream or something like that and start his own church), so he probably just thought I was from one of these other churches.

I was careful to speak using the same terminology that they usually use, not lying, but also not telling the whole truth. Somehow he got fooled by my presentation. I suggested to him that we should split and each stay in one side of the street, so more people would have the opportunity to hear the Gospel of God from us. He happily agreed and stayed the whole day on the other side of the street doing his business of shouting and scaring people without disturbing my book distribution.

With the ones that are pushy or aggressive, you can just say: “Please wait here for a minute, I just need to go there quickly ok? Just a minute!”. From there you can just go to another spot and leave them there. A variation of this same line can be used with drunkards, hooligans and aggressive people in general: “Please wait here for a minute, I will call the police. Just stay here, don’t move, ok?”. As you move, you will notice that they almost always disappear. If moving to another spot is not practical, you can also try the interrogated soldier technique, simply answering with the same sentence to anything one might say. For example: “Sorry, we don’t speak with fanatics”, “we don’t speak with fanatics”, “we don’t speak with fanatics”. If you just stay static and keep repeating the sentence in a firm, but at the same time calm and serene way, without showing any kind of hostility, they tend to quickly lose interest and go away.

Another possible tactic is the kafkatrap, where you postulate him as being a fanatic or something else, and use anything he says after that to reinforce the label, creating a situation where the aggressor becomes demoralized and can be easily dismissed. For example, if a fanatic comes to you demanding that you accept Jesus, you can answer “Oh, you are just a fanatic”, and then use anything he says to reinforce the label. For example:

An intelligent person may understand what you are doing and find ways to escape the trap, but normally people that do this kind of thing are not so bright and get easily caught.

The best tactic, however, is to say something positive when they start with their fanaticism. For example:

This last one is the most effective, since not only we can get free, but also leave a good impression. We convert a negative situation in a positive one. There are two difficulties however: First is that it will only work if we can keep a very calm and positive attitude, which is very difficult to do when a negative person comes to confront us. Second is that it works only if we are quick. The whole idea is to make the fanatic stop in his tracks and move away quickly before he realizes what happened. That’s why I also gave the other three alternatives, they are not so nice, but they are easier to use.

Sometimes, we may really be forced into a discussion, as in cases where they try to obstruct our distribution, are aggressive, disturb other devotees, etc. and we really can’t get free from them in a peaceful way. In such cases, when we are forced to be involved in a verbal fight, another way is to start speaking strongly and just go directly to the point. The way to defeat them in such cases is not to attack their belief, but to go ad hominem, focussing on their behavior, making the point that they are doing precisely the opposite that Christ was teaching. You can easily get them on the point that their philosophy is good, but they is not following it, developing envy, lust and greed instead of saintly qualities. Actually, they are misrepresenting Christ and therefore offending him, giving a bad name to all Christians, and so on. If you can be heavy enough to break their false ego and make them realize their mistakes, it works, but this can be done only by very experienced preachers, otherwise it's just going to become a brawl. This is something to try only as a last resort.

6. Negative, hostile or harsh people

The important thing when dealing with negative and hostile persons is to always deflect their questions instead of answering. Every time they make you a question you should answer with another question:

Why don’t you try to find a job? - Why do you ask?

Is it a sect? - What do you understand by sect?

Have you already accepted Jesus? - Did you? Are you following his teachings?

You don’t have anything better to do? - Do you have?

Did you study the Bible? - Did you? What did you learn from it?

The one who is asking the questions is the one in control of the conversation, and therefore can steer its course and finish it at any point he wants. By answering their questions with other questions, you keep yourself in control and can get free from them easily. If they don’t want to answer, but keep insisting that you should answer, then you can just finish the conversation: “Why should I answer your questions if you don’t want to answer my questions?”.

Other times, persons who are not necessarily hostile will come to you asking different questions about the books or about what you are doing. My realization is that in cases where the person is not openly hostile (just a little harsh or challenging) the best approach is to keep your cool and give short and concise answers to their questions, in a relaxed, but bold and confident way, sometimes using questions to make them stop and think:

Who are you? - I’m a monk.

From where? - From ISKCON.

What are you doing? - I’m presenting books about God consciousness.

Are you selling them? - We are showing them to intelligent persons.

Who is this one? - This is Krsna.

He is a hindu god? - No, He is God.

How he can be God? - What do you understand about God?

If you just answer openly, without getting nervous or intimidated, they tend to get impressed, ending up taking books in many cases. By keeping your answers very concise, the whole conversation can end up being very short (you may answer 10 questions in 45 seconds or so), so whatever the outcome, it doesn't take much of your time.

Another point to understand is that each person is an individual, therefore we need to be perceptive to understand what will benefit each particular soul. Most of the time, the way to touch people's hearts is by speaking kind words, but in some particular cases, sweet words are not the best approach, especially when dealing with hostile persons. To deal with such cases demands a lot of sensibility and experience. To be able to say hard words with a kind heart, without malice, with the sole goal of affecting a lost soul in a positive way is probably the supreme test for a book distributor. This example by HG Vaisesika Prabhu is highly instructive in this sense:

"Of course, engaging people appropriately includes making distinctions between them. Sweet words are not always the appropriate response in every situation. Once, my friend Prema Kishor dasa and I in dhotis and tilaka, went to distribute books on New York City's Canal Street, a rough and tumble district crammed with tourists and street hustlers selling knockoff Rolexes and Gucci handbags. I approached a young man wearing loose-fitting jeans riding low on his hips a baggy Tshirt, and a baseball cap pulled slightly askew. He was sucking at the end of a straw stuck in an enormous Mc Donald's milkshake cup. As if sensing my approach, he lifted his gaze and, as if flicking a bug at me, said cavalierly, "I don't give to beggars."

In the Srimad-Bhagavatam(11.23.3), Lord Krsna tells Uddhava: "Sharp arrows which pierce one's chest and reach the heart do not cause as much suffering as the arrows of harsh insulting words that become lodged within the heart when spoken by uncivilized men." I didn't hesitate. "I'm no beggar and I don't need your money. We have plenty of our own. Actually, I'm trying to do you a favor by allowing you to make some spiritual advancement today. We don't need you, but you need us.’’

The young man was visibly taken aback and apologized. I had stood up for what I was doing as a representative of my spiritual master, but without malice or even taking his words to heart. My approach affected the young man positively and changed his attitude. So being sensitive to the people you meet and true to yourself in how you respond to them are also aspects of a refined approach to book distribution." (Our Family Business, chapter 24)

7. The pious materialists

Another class is the pious, but deep materialist. Such people may stop to hear you and may seem nice, etc., but because they’re inveterate materialists, they will not be interested in spiritual knowledge at all. They are a kind of middle class between the innocent and the envious. Usually, preaching to them is a waste of time, since they see materialism as the only way, and any kind of spiritual knowledge as primitive superstition, but often you can distribute books to them by being flattering or by connecting the subject of the books with something in which they are interested. They may take a Bhagavad-Gita because “it is a famous book, that was studied by many of the most enlightened minds, like Einstein, Gandhi, Emerson, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc., and this is the most authoritative edition, including the original Sanskrit text and word-for-word translation” or a Krsna Book because “it's full of adventure, mystery, drama, and beauty, speaking about the glory and chivalry of bygone ages, complete with an introduction by George Harrison”.

You can try to use some lines like these, but it's better not to spend much time with them, since they tend to sap your energy. Also, because they are firmly convinced about materialism, a weak preacher may end up getting convinced by them instead of the opposite. As Srila Prabhupada used to say: “You need to learn how to get the big fish without getting wet”. For a neophyte devotee, this is the most dangerous type of people, therefore only experienced preachers should try to speak protractedly with them.

Two variations inside the same category are the “full-cup” persons and the “time-killers”. The full-cups think that they already know about everything. They already know everything about the Vedas, they read some book on Hinduism or saw something on television, etc. No matter how stupid they are, they think that they already know everything, therefore usually it’s not very productive to try to discuss philosophy with them.

Srila Prabhupada gives an analogy that fits them well: sometimes a jackfruit stops developing in an early stage and just gets stuck on the tree for a long time. This small jackfruit is useless for all purposes, but somehow or other it thinks that it’s already fully grown and refuses to develop further. Similarly, when a person thinks that he already knows, it's useless to try to present anything higher. This attitude actually comes from pride, and blocks his development. When someone is like that, not only will he not be interested in the books, but even if somehow he takes one, he will not be able to appreciate the knowledge inside.

Usually, the way to engage such persons in devotional service is to use indirect ways, like making them take prasadam, hear the maha-mantra, give donations, etc. They may not be interested in taking a set of books, but they may be interested in donating for a program of prasadam distribution to school children, for example. In such cases, we need to be able to quickly evaluate if there is some indirect route that we can pursue (it’s usually better to focus on simple approaches that invoke an emotional response than on intellectual arguments), or if it’s better to just finish the conversation in a polite way and go to the next person.

The time-killers are actually a more difficult problem, because they may pose as interested persons, and therefore make you inclined to spend time on them when in reality they are not interested at all in the books or in the philosophy. They don't have anything better to do, so they just want to stay around, having some empty talk with you, sucking your energy. If you allow, they may just stay around for hours, asking all kinds of personal questions about you, talking about their psychedelic experiences and so on. Every time someone is not interested in the books, but at the same time is interested to talk, you should be attentive because there is every possibility that you are dealing with a time-killer.

The more time you spend with them, the harder it is to get free, so it’s better to end the conversation quickly. I personally try to keep the focus of every conversation on the books, not letting the conversation drift for more than one or two minutes, before bringing it back to them. If you keep bringing the conversation back to the books, the tendency is that the time-killers will not be so much interested. To the persistent ones you can just politely excuse yourself, saying that you are busy at the moment, but that they can come to the Sunday festival and you will be pleased to talk as much as they want. Usually, it’s useful to give them something, like a card, a pamphlet or even some small booklet. When you give them something, it’s easy to get free without having to be impolite, making the point that they can get answers on the booklet and contact you later.

If one is persistent, the next thing that you can try are closed-end questions, like: “I’m here selling books, do you want to buy a book?” or: “These books cost 10 euros, do you have 10 euros?”. These types of questions can only be answered with a “yes” or “no”, and they demand immediate action. If the answer is “no”, or if the person is not ready to back his “yes” with the appropriate action (in this case, to buy a book) then you get the opportunity to dismiss him. If nothing else works, I sometimes just play dumb, saying that I’m just selling books and don’t know much myself, but if he wants to ask questions, he can call the number on the card. Usually, this also makes them lose interest.

Some time-killers have a quite negative mentality and have a propensity to offend. They are actually more in the 8th category than in the 7th. This type often tries to involve you in a conversation by making negative remarks about different subjects (or sometimes about our movement or philosophy) and try to hook you by saying things that affect your false ego and make you take a defensive stance, or by using other mind tricks. In essence, they are negative people that want to use your negative tendencies to engage you in a negative discussion. This is a type that should be strictly avoided, even at the risk of being impolite.

8. The lost cases

Finally, we have the last group of persons, who are openly envious, antagonistic and atheistic. Souls that, due to the influence of illusion, are for countless lifetimes engaged in demoniac work. They may sometimes pose as religious people, using religion as an excuse to pursue their materialistic goals. These are the ones to whom we can show mercy by avoiding. This class of people is different from the pious materialists (that despite being inveterate materialists, have a coat of piety) and from general hostile people (that are bitter on the outside, but frequently not so bad inside).

In the Bhagavad-gita (7.15), the Lord divides them into four classes:

"Those miscreants who are grossly foolish, who are lowest among mankind, whose knowledge is stolen by illusion, and who partake of the atheistic nature of demons do not surrender unto Me."

Usually, one of the main characteristics of such persons is that they are very arrogant and have the propensity to become angry and aggressive, which are symptoms of someone strongly influenced by the lower modes. Every time you meet someone who is very arrogant, you should be careful, because chances are that you are in front of a demon. Arrogance is the single worst disqualification for spiritual advancement. The more arrogant we are, the more we are distant from Krsna.

In a Lecture on Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.15.34, December 12, 1973) Srila Prabhupada gives us a simple way to distinguish between the innocent person and the stubborn miscreant:

"What is the difference between a demon and devotee? A demon is puffed up. That's all. Falsely. That is demon. And a devotee is submissive, meek and mild. This is the difference... We go, 'My dear sir, we have got these books to understand Krishna, the Supreme Lord. So you kindly read this book. You will be benefited.' 'Ah, what is God? Who is God? I am God.' This is demonism. And demigod or a devotee means 'Oh, here is a book, something about God, Krishna. All right, let me read it.' That is the difference."

Someone who is innocent tends to be receptive or at least neutral when presented with something new. They are not arrogant and therefore are more or less open to receive spiritual knowledge. They are usually not going to receive us with open arms, but they can be engaged in a conversation and thus be convinced to take a book using the strategies that we discussed previously. The demon, on the other hand, is presumptuous and thinks that he is already perfect. As Krsna explains in Bg 16.13-15:

“The demoniac person thinks: "So much wealth do I have today, and I will gain more according to my schemes. So much is mine now, and it will increase in the future, more and more. He is my enemy, and I have killed him; and my other enemy will also be killed. I am the lord of everything, I am the enjoyer, I am perfect, powerful and happy. I am the richest man, surrounded by aristocratic relatives. There is none so powerful and happy as I am.”

This type of person is extremely difficult to change, and most of the time any attempt will do more harm than good, since they tend to just commit offenses when approached by devotees. People in this last category tend to have an unconscious aversion to devotees and spiritual knowledge. Their energy is also quite different than that of an innocent person. By noticing these characteristics, it’s possible to avoid them. Most of the time, they will not want to speak with us anyway.

They can be helped in other ways (by hearing the holy names, by getting prasadam, etc.) but books are not the best approach, because they are not going to be able to appreciate them. Very advanced devotees can sometimes transform even the most envious atheists into saints, but less experienced preachers should not try to imitate. As Srila Prabhupada points out in the lecture that I quoted earlier: “That requires very strong preacher to convince the atheist class, provided he is reasonable also. If he's stubborn, obstinate, then it is also very difficult.

Discrimination, compassion, and humility

To learn how to distinguish between these different groups, we need a good deal of practice and realization, which, in any case, is essential to be effective as a preacher. Without discrimination, we will lose too much of our energy with the wrong people or in helpless situations, and book distribution will remain a struggle. Worse still is that sometimes when we can't make people interested we start to beg: "Please, just one minute", "Please, at least give a donation", "Please, at least touch the books…”. If we go on that path, we ourselves may eventually get the impression that book distribution is just about begging. We then pass this impression to newer devotees and wonder why they don't get interested in book distribution.

HG Sanjaya Prabhu: Humility means to work boldly for Krsna—to have confidence that we’re offering people the highest of all things. And then just see how Krsna reciprocates! Initially book distribution may be very difficult, but somehow Krsna helps. Just blissfully present the book to as many people as possible. Do not get disturbed if someone shuns you or insults you or starts blaspheming. Just ignore them and approach the innocent ones. As His Holiness Tamal Krishna Goswami once said, "We do not have the potency of Sri Nityananda Prabhu or Srila Haridasa Thakura or Srila Prabhupada to convince the most fallen." Try to convince, but stay away from arguments, because if you argue then passion and ignorance may overcome you. His Holiness Kavicandra Swami once said, "Book distribution is like cycling uphill. The moment you lose enthusiasm, you glide downwards. So it is a constant ecstatic struggle. The more people you approach, the higher the probability of quality people taking a book from you." (The Treasure of the Brhat-mrdanga, ch. 7)

Another danger in the path is for us to start nourishing negative feelings towards persons who react negatively, seeing them as enemies, demons and so on, or even starting to hate them to some extent. This negativity not only affects our consciousness, grounding us to the lower modes of nature, but also makes the persons become even more hostile to us.

While externally discriminating between different classes of people and thus trying to do our service in an effective way, we should internally try to develop an equipoised mentality, seeing everyone as part and parcel of Krsna, and thus trying to develop love and compassion to all. If someone acts in a hostile way, we should not interact further to not give him the opportunity to commit offenses. If someone is really not interested, we should not insist and so on, but at the same time, we should internally try to keep an equipoised mentality and meditate on the ways to also save them if possible.

HG Madhukari Prabhu: I was trying to distribute books in Philadelphia one day. I was having a very difficult time. My method was not really working. Most people were ignoring me and not many books were distributed. I became very frustrated. I wanted to give up but I could not give up because I am an eternal servant of Krishna and book distribution is my service so I will eternally distribute books. However, I did not want to suffer while performing my service.  So I decided that no matter what anyone does to me, I would simply love them. It did not matter if everyone ignored me, I would love them.  

As soon as I made this determination, my whole body relaxed. My heart relaxed and I approached a person and loved them. When this happened I perceived some energy emanate from my heart and touch the person. When the energy touched the person, they stopped. I tried to stay with the loving energy while I was talking to them and after my explanation, they took some books and gave a donation. The same thing happened with the next person and then the next and in the next hour, all my books were distributed.

From that time I always try to stay with the loving energy in everything I do and it has always led to a good outcome. (Brazilian Sankirtana Newsletter, June 2015)

Actually, the highest level on book distribution is when one can sincerely love all persons, seeing them as parts and parcels of Krsna. By sincerely becoming a well-wisher we can create a spiritual bond with them, and start to change their hearts, distributing thus even to persons who would not normally take books. That's the secret of empowered book distributors. It's not so much about what they say to people: it’s their consciousness and compassion that makes the difference.

The point is that such a level can’t be imitated. One who doesn't sincerely love the people, will just fall back unto the inefficient sentimental level when trying to imitate. Until we can attain such elevated stage, the best option is to use discrimination and try to speak with the right persons as discussed previously, being honest, polite, friendly, compassionate and cordial and at the same time try to work on ourselves internally. Some extraordinarily powerful preacher may have the potency to turn all kinds of rascals into devotees, just as Lord Shiva has the potency to drink the ocean of poison, but others who try to imitate such achievements may just harm themselves or others.

More practical considerations

Instead of exerting ourselves, trying to stop each and every person on the street, and convince every envious fellow that we meet to take a book, it’s much more energy-efficient to be more reserved, focusing on the most promising ones. One simple thing that I learned to do is to just smile, wave and say "good afternoon” or some small compliment in a relaxed way to the passers-by, and then stop only the ones who also smile or react in some positive way. From this, it’s possible not only to quickly identify those who are favorable, but create some empathy and also understand something about them from the way they react. The hostile or unfavorable people generally just ignore you or say something impolite, which is also good since you can quickly identify them and not spend time and energy in some unpleasant exchange. For the favorable people you would quickly connect some follow-up and from there start your mantra. The main thing, in this case, is to be quick and to be alert for opportunities.

Another thing that helps a lot while doing the above is to walk slowly toward the persons instead of just standing. This has several advantages. First is that when you just stand, people can see from a distance that you’re trying to stop people, and they’ll have time to think about how to avoid you. But when you walk in their direction, people tend to be caught more off guard. The second advantage is that if someone reacts negatively (without stopping), you can also keep walking, without having to interact further. A third advantage is that it is actually less tiring (both physically and mentally) to keep walking at a very slow pace than to keep standing in one place. You don't need to go far; you can just walk a few dozen steps, then turn back, continuing to walk always in the same area. If you keep yourself cool, greeting people and talking to the nice ones, without getting tense, you can go on for many hours without feeling tired. We normally don't find more than five, ten or at most fifteen persons who will take books in an hour, so it's better to remain peaceful and keep in mind that all you have to do is to find such five, ten or fifteen people. Krsna is in everyone’s heart, so if we pray to Him, He can help us to find them.

Naturally, it's possible to find a mixture of innocent and envious people in every group of individuals; therefore it’s not a matter of choosing people based on external appearance: It is not a matter of stopping only the young or only the old, only the rich or only the poor, only the black or only the white, etc. Discrimination should be based on time, place and individual, not on externals.

The problem about trying to use discrimination, like I described, is that as soon as we start to examine people and try to choose the most favorable ones, we tend to lose momentum and become tamasic and demotivated, starting to just spend our time looking at people instead of stopping them, which is naturally not the goal.

The best approach, in my experience, is to keep greeting a number of persons and then select the ones to really have a conversation based on their reactions. This demands a little bit of practice, since we need to react very quickly, but it is something that we can teach our minds to do automatically. That’s one thing that the mind is good at: to study situations and react quickly to them. It does this all the time already, it’s just a matter of using this propensity in Krsna’s service. We just need to practice.

One analogy that I can give is the way that expert archers like Arjuna and Bhisma were shooting their arrows in Vedic times. Instead of drawing the bow, taking aim with one eye closed and only then releasing the arrow, as modern archers do, they would train exhaustively to be able to instinctively shoot the arrow at the target. They would look at the target with both eyes, and with a single movement draw the bow, aim, and shoot. Their minds were so trained that the arrow would automatically hit the target that they were looking at. That’s how they would be able to shoot their arrows in such a quick and precise way as is described in the Mahabharata. Similarly, by training our minds and intelligence through constant practice, we become better in recognizing favorable and unfavorable people in a crowd and selecting the most favorable ones.

The 9th offense

Another point about preaching to unfavorable people is that we all know that one of the ten offenses is to instruct a faithless person about the glories of the holy names. The Lord Himself tells us in the Bhagavad-gita (18.67) that:

"This confidential knowledge may never be explained to those who are not austere, or devoted, or engaged in devotional service, nor to one who is envious of Me."

Srila Prabhupada explains that despite the order of the Lord, the preacher takes the risk of preaching to the masses because he knows the inner purpose of the Lord in delivering the suffering conditioned souls. Still, we need to be a little cautious, presenting the glories of the Lord to the innocent, who are willing to receive them with open heart, but refraining from doing so with people who are openly envious. By feeding such people with high knowledge and descriptions of the intimate dealings of the Lord, we only feed their envy, making them commit offenses against the Lord and His devotees, which will only make their situation worse. For facilitating such offenses, we also get implicated, and often the result is that we lose the taste for book distribution. As stated in the purport to SB 11.2.46 (quoted earlier):

"Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura has strongly rejected those foolish persons who, under a plea of mercy and equal vision, perceive that a faithless person is also a devotee of the Supreme Lord and who thus try to thrust the hari-nama, or holy name of God, upon such offensive people..."

And also: 

"A pure devotee does not foolishly pretend equal vision and approach envious persons; rather, he respects the mission of the Lord, as stated in Bhagavad-gita (4.11) by the words ye yatha mam prapadyante tams tathaiva bhajamy aham..." [“As all surrender unto Me, I reward them accordingly. Everyone follows My path in all respects, O son of Prtha.’’]

We can learn the art of discussing philosophy with opposing elements from recordings of Srila Prabhupada’s morning walks and conversations. Instead of going into high philosophy, Prabhupada would usually use simple logical arguments and keep hammering simple ideas until the person was convinced, before going to higher points. One example is the conversation with Cardinal Danielou: despite speaking with one of the highest names of the Catholic church in France, throughout the whole conversation Srila Prabhupada kept hammering the point about not eating meat. When the priest protested that maybe that's not an important point and tried to change the subject, Srila Prabhupada just put him back on the hook. If you decide to have a discussion with an atheist, for example, first you need to make him accept the existence of God with logical arguments. Then you may speak about how God conducts the material world, how He is present everywhere, etc., long before revealing that He’s a blue boy playing a flute and tending cows.

Contrary arguments

An attentive reader of Srila Prabhupada's books could ask, quoting CC Adi 9.29, how this text correlates with the ones that I quoted earlier:

mage va na mage keha, patra va apatra

ihara vicara nahi jane, deya matra

Not considering who asked for it and who did not, nor who was fit and who unfit to receive it, Caitanya Mahaprabhu distributed the fruit of devotional service.

Purport: This is the sum and substance of Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana movement. There is no distinction made between those who are fit and those who are not fit to hear or take part in the sankirtana movement. It should therefore be preached without discrimination. The only purpose of the preachers of the sankirtana movement must be to go on preaching without restriction. That is the way in which Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu introduced this sankirtana movement to the world.

This verse appears to contradict the purport on SB 11.2.46 that I quoted earlier, since it says that devotional service should be distributed in an unrestricted way, without discrimination. Laghu Bhagavatamrta (5.327) states that: “When contradictions are found in the Vedic scripture, it is not that one statement is wrong. Rather both statements should be seen in such a way that there is no contradiction.

When there are some apparent contradictions in the scriptures, they must be conciliated, since both references must be correct. So, in one place we hear that a preacher should discriminate and in another that devotional service should be distributed without discrimination. How to conciliate both ideas?

Actually, there is no contradiction at all. In ISKCON we distribute knowledge and engage people in devotional service freely. Our temples are open to whomever may want to visit, regardless of age, gender, social or educational level, profession, marital status, caste, etc. When we distribute books, we don't refuse to sell books to any person who shows interest; even the ones who may not fulfill the requirements that Krsna gives in Bg 18.67. Even if someone is hostile or offensive at first, if somehow he turns around later and shows interest, he still gets a book. The idea is that we are distributing knowledge freely and trying to engage everybody in devotional service. The question raised in this chapter is how to do this in an effective way and how to deal with people that deliberately refuse or are hostile and antagonistic to such distribution.

“As explained in the previous verse, there are three types of devotees – kanistha-adhikari, madhyama-adhikari and uttama-adhikari. The kanistha-adhikari cannot distinguish between a devotee and nondevotee. He is simply concerned with worshiping the Deity in the temple. A madhyama-adhikari, however, can distinguish between the devotee and nondevotee, as well as between the devotee and the Lord. Thus he treats the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the devotee and the nondevotee in different ways”. (Nectar of Instruction verse 6, purport)

If we take into consideration only CC Adi 9.29, disregarding SB 11.2.46 and other references, we may act as sentimentalists and therefore become ineffective as preachers. Lord Caitanya Himself shows discrimination in the pastime of Jagai and Madhai. When Lord Nityananda was attacked, Lord Caitanya immediately became extremely angry and rushed there with His Sudarshana chakra ready to kill both on the spot. Only when they repented, begged for forgiveness and were pardoned by Lord Nityananda did the Lord become pacified.

The transformation of Jagai and Madhai was actually a miracle performed by Lord Nityananda. Similarly to what Lord Caitanya did in the Jarikanda forest, making the tigers and deers chant Hare Krsna and embrace each other, Lord Nityananda was able to transform these two grievous sinners into pure devotees through His personal character and potency. Lord Nityananda is Lord Balarama Himself, the Supreme spiritual master, therefore He has the potency to do anything. We are not so potent, therefore we usually end up doing more harm than good by trying to imitate such pastimes. Instead of trying to force the Jagais and Madhais to take books when they don't want them, it is better to allow them to hear the harinamas and get some sweet balls, and in this way become slowly purified, until their sukriti accumulates and they become able to accept more.

The next question is: How to distinguish the envious from the innocent? In the beginning, someone may commit the mistake of trying to distinguish people based on externals, such as their dress, their educational level, etc., which is of course incorrect. There are envious and innocent people mixed in every group of individuals: students, old ladies, businessmen, workers, beggars and so on.

An experienced book distributor may start getting insights just by glimpsing at people, but in most cases, we can't be sure who is who just by the way they look: we need to actually approach them and have some kind of interaction. The secret, in my experience, is to prioritize the most promising people, avoiding lost cases and keeping the interactions with envious and hostile people as short as possible. This way we can save time and energy to invest in the nice and innocent people that are the main target in our preaching. HG Vaisesika Prabhu brilliantly resumes this idea in a simple slogan: “Pick the ripe fruits”.

Good Christians are going to become devotees

Another point is that those genuinely practicing any religious process will develop godly qualities like compassion, tolerance, etc., while getting rid of demoniac qualities such as enviousness, harshness and fault-finding. These people will appreciate that you’re trying to preach about God and practice spiritual life. In their own way, these non-envious practitioners of other lines are also devotees of the Lord, therefore we should treat them respectfully. Many times, they end taking books and becoming quite interested.

If some persons say they’re religious but act in a nasty and envious way, we can understand that they’re not actually following their own process, which means that they’re either very neophyte or envious. Generally, these people are too much in darkness to be able to appreciate transcendental knowledge, therefore we shouldn't bother with them. However, those who are sincere will tend to be eventually promoted to the platform of devotional service. Their reward for sincerely following their faith will be to become devotees -- either later in this life or in the next life.

“There is no dharma other than vaisnava-dharma. All other dharmas that are or ever will be propagated in the world are either steps on the staircase of vaisnava-dharma, or else distortions of it. Those dharmas that are steps leading to bhakti should be respected in proportion to their degree of purity. One should not bear any malice towards dharmas that are distortions of bhakti, but one should focus exclusively on the cultivation of one’s own devotional truths. One should not maintain any animosity towards the followers of other religions. When the time is ripe, the followers of various other dharmas will become Vaisnavas easily. Of this there is no doubt.” (Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, Jaiva Dharma, Chapter 8)

Once I met an old lady who told me she was a Catholic nun (which I hadn’t recognized at first because she wasn’t wearing their traditional dress). She was polite and respectful, and by speaking with her I could understand that she was actually quite advanced in spiritual realization. I started to speak about Srila Prabhupada and presented a book. She was appreciative, but at the end, she said: "I would like so much to read this book, but I understand that you need some contribution for it and I don't have any money with me." I was ready to offer the book to her as a present, but at that exact moment one man that was nearby, hearing the conversation (who didn't know either her or me), immediately intervened and said: "Oh, then I will give the book to you!" The nun became happy, and after a little more chatting, she left. I continued then speaking with this man and his wife; he also took books and gave a large donation both for his books and for the one he had bought for the nun. This nun was sincerely trying to understand God, and Krsna reciprocated by arranging for her to get one of Srila Prabhupada’s books, so she could deepen her spiritual understanding.

We should understand that we have the highest philosophy and that our books are the most valuable treasures in the whole universe. As they are so precious, not everyone is ready to take them, just as not everyone is ready to buy diamonds. There’s a price; a certain level of sincerity and piety is needed. We should try our best to present the books as described previously, trying to give each person the best chance we possibly can, but at the same time we should understand that everyone has his or her free will that even Krsna respects. When Srila Prabhupada was trying to distribute Back to Godhead’s in the tea-stalls in India, not everyone was taking. Surely not everyone will take from us, also. The special quality that Srila Prabhupada demonstrated at that time was not to be able to convince everyone, but to keep going despite all difficulties and inconveniences. That's the quality we also need to develop. Krsna is watching.

HG Hari Sauri Prabhu: After Navayauvana and I both attempted to reply, Srila Prabhupada gave the definition he was looking for. "Faith means that you are meant for giving some service to Krishna. You should stick to that service, that path, in spite of all impediments. That is the passing of test. Generally, just like we are meant for preaching Krishna consciousness. So there may be severe test, but still we shall remain determined. That is wanted. There may be so many impediments, punishment, still you should do that. That is test. Not that as soon as there is some difficulty I give it up. There may be severe test, but still we shall not give it up. We must go on. That is determination." "Passing the test means executing the order of the spiritual master," Navayauvana said. Prabhupada agreed. "Yes, that is spiritual life. One has to take order from the spiritual master and execute it, despite all impediments. That is determination." (A Transcendental Diary Vol 4)

Training new book distributors

There is a saying that goes: “Better than to distribute books is to make devotees”. We could continue, saying that even better than to make devotees is to train devotees to distribute books, closing the circle by that means. We may distribute a certain quantity of books during our lifetime, but if we can train some strong devotees, they can distribute even more books and train others to continue the distribution after them, keeping book distribution ever alive within ISKCON.

The first priority in training new devotees is to show the proper example ourselves, practicing spiritual life seriously, getting rid of our anarthas and becoming fixed in devotional service. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura explains that someone who is very fixed in his practice can also inspire faith in others. That’s the duty of the leader. A leader that leads by example will have a powerful influence over his followers.

Next step is to help others also practice spiritual life deeply and get rid of their anarthas. For someone very much on the mental platform, full of anger, envy, lust and hankering, it’s very difficult to distribute books. Someone on the material platform lives in a world of duality, where he becomes happy by obtaining something that gratifies his senses and getting angry, morose, etc. when his desires are not satisfied. On book distribution there is not much material enjoyment to begin with (the enjoyment is solely on the spiritual platform), and to make things worse, things are completely out of our control. Someone may have the idea of distributing hundreds of books and thus becoming very famous and respected as a great book distributor, but his dream will be probably shattered on the first days. Instead of glory, fame, and fortune, he will frequently have to deal with the harshness, lack of interest and apathy of the people, and will have to come to terms with the idea that he is not so spiritually advanced as he previously thought, which can be a shocking experience to many.

Book distribution is such a powerful process because it forces us to deal with our anarthas and false ego, that are the main obstacles to our spiritual advancement. However, book distribution can be a difficult process in itself, that demands a certain level of purification and surrendering. One needs to start from somewhere: before a new devotee can effectively be engaged in book distribution, he needs to follow the process for some time, study the books and so on. This will start the process of cleaning the heart, so book distribution can be feasible. A few devotees are just “naturals”, they are already bringing a lot of spiritual advancement in their baggage from past lives, therefore they can start distributing books with determination right away, but for most, that’s a gradual process.

To send very new people on book distribution is a mistake. They don’t know the philosophy and are not fixed in spiritual life. At best, they are going to misrepresent our movement and do some anti-preaching. At worst you can create some trauma or serious problem in their spiritual development. As Srila Prabhupada explains, to do good to others, first we need to learn how to do good for ourselves. To make devotees, first one needs to become a devotee himself:

Guru-krpa: What if sometimes disciple, he may go to preach, but he's not preaching in the exact same spirit of his spiritual master?

Prabhupada: Therefore he is not to be preached. Caitanya Mahaprabhu says, janma sarthaka kari' kara para-upakara: (CC Adi 9.41) "Go to do good to others. First of all you do good to yourself." First of all you become really preacher. Then go to preach. Caitanya Mahaprabhu never sent neophyte to go to preach. For neophyte the preaching is not their business. For neophyte, one should stick to the worship of Deity in the temple. And those who have understood the philosophy, applied the philosophy in his life, he should go for preaching. Otherwise he'll preach wrongly, like.... What is that? Charan das Babaji. And it will stop. He wanted to preach, but he did not know how to preach, and therefore, after his life, it is finished. So Caitanya Mahaprabhu does not say like that, that "You remain a rascal and go to preach." No. Janma sarthaka kari. "Your first business is that you make your life perfect. Then go to preach. Perfect means you learn how to obey My orders." That is perfection. Amara ajnaya. So if you are actually, perfectly carrying out the orders of Caitanya Mahaprabhu, then you are preaching. Otherwise you will do wrongly, mislead. Don't do that. Andha yathandhair upaniyamanah (SB 7.5.31). If you remain blind, don't try to lead other blind men. That is misleading. First of all open your eyes. Everything is there. Nobody can do anything whimsically. If you do whimsically, concoctedly, that will be failure. It will not be effective. (Srila Prabhupada, Room Conversation, Fiji 02 May, 1976)

“So this preaching work, this Krsna conscious preaching work, we must be very cautious that those who are preachers, they must be pure Vaisnavas. Anyabhilasita-sunyam, not for money sake, not for reputation sake, but only for serving Krsna. This is pure Vaisnavism. One has to satisfy Krsna, not for any other reason. So this preaching work should be taken by pure Vaisnava, and if the sastric injunctions, if they are presented as they are, surely there will be effect. It has been proved and it is being proved. So this process we should adopt, and the success of the Krsna consciousness movement is assured.”  (Srila Prabhupada, lecture on SB 2.1.5, 14 November, 1972)

For one to be successful and stable as a preacher, he needs to be elevated to the madhyama stage, the second class of devotional service, where he has full faith and develops transcendental knowledge and realization. However, to be elevated to the second class, he first needs to become stable in the third class (kanistha). For this, it’s essential to go to the temple, to see the deity, to chant, to do some service. That’s why Srila Prabhupada opened so many temples: to give a chance for the public to visit and learn how to become devotees. By doing this regularly, one becomes purified and starts to become fixed in devotional service. The first step is to visit the temple, practice and become a little fixed in devotional service. Then you can start training them to preach and thus they can get elevated to the second platform.

“The form of the Lord as worshiped in the temples is called arca-vigraha or arcavatara, the worshipable form, the Deity incarnation. This facility is offered to neophyte devotees so that they can see the real form of the Lord face to face and offer their respectful obeisances and sacrifices in the form of arca. Through such facilities the neophytes gradually invoke their original Krsna consciousness. Deity worship in the form of temple worship is the most valuable benediction given by the Lord to beginners. All neophytes must therefore engage in the worship of the Lord by keeping the arca-vigraha (arcavatara) at home or in the temple”. (SB 4.30.27 purport)

Once someone starts to distribute books, the spiritual practice becomes even more essential, since he now needs to keep his spiritual strength to be able to continue his service. It’s common for advanced devotees to achieve a level where instead of losing, they actually get more energy by going on book distribution, returning even more happy and enthusiastic than when they went out. Such devotees can even survive for years just distributing books alone in some distant place, without any association, since they derive bliss and realization from the book distribution itself, and therefore are fixed in their service. New devotees on the other hand, normally lose energy when they go out, and therefore need to balance the book distribution with spiritual practice and association with other book distributors. They are not strong enough to maintain themselves, their only chance is to keep close association with other book distributors and thus remain influenced by their energy until they also start to have their own light.

According to my personal observation, there are three levels of book distributors: mantra, articulate and spiritual quality.

The ones who are on the third level, mantra, are still inexperienced, and therefore don’t know how to deal properly with the public, nor to give convincing answers to their arguments. Therefore, they just keep repeating different mantras that they have learned from other devotees, often with little variation. Sometimes, they can also distribute a lot of books just by working hard, but the quality of their preaching is not the same as the other two classes.

The next class is the articulate book distributor. He is already experienced and therefore can talk with people in a natural way, improvise according to the circumstances, present good arguments and therefore convince people by presenting the philosophy in a nice and practical way. Not only do these devotees have facility to distribute greater amounts of books, but also their preaching is more effective than of the third class. Because they are more experienced, they are able to stay more relaxed while distributing books. As a consequence, their book distribution becomes much more natural and they can go on for longer time.

Finally, the first class are the really advanced devotees. On top of being able to deal in a very nice and polite way with the public, and at the same time present very strong arguments based on the sastra, they show some special spiritual quality that really impresses and attracts people. These are devotees that can cause a really deep impression and change in people's lives in just a short encounter.

Devotees on the second and first level can be created only through a combination of practice and spiritual development. Only someone who is sincere in the process of Krsna consciousness, and who follows the process of studying the books and going out to preach can develop these qualities, and even then, only after a considerable time of practice and purification. It’s not possible to teach this at a seminar. Still, it is possible to elevate new devotees at least to the mantra stage by giving them the proper training, first teaching them how to be devotees, then about the importance of preaching, and finally teaching them how to deal properly with the public, how to present themselves, etc. At very least, they need to be already fixed in their spiritual practice, to know a few mantras and be well motivated and confident in using them.

The leader or senior in charge can help by understanding the mentality and characteristics of each devotee and by creating simple mantras for each, that they can use as a starting point. You can make them practice the mantras with each other and discuss different aspects of book distribution until they feel confident enough to go out in the street. When a soldier goes to the battlefield, he needs to have at least one weapon that he knows how to use well. Then, as he gets more experienced, he will naturally learn how to use other weapons and thus become more deadly to the enemy. Similarly, before sending someone to the street for the first time, at least you need to teach him his first mantras, so at least he has something from where to start.

To send a new devotee without any previous training to distribute books is an extremely ineffective and dangerous practice. Not only they frequently give a bad impression to the public, but often they just become traumatized and resistant to book distribution after a difficult first experience. We can use a historical example to illustrate this. At the end of the second world war, the Russian army had become much bigger and more powerful than the Nazis. They were preparing a final assault on the German capital, mobilizing more than two million soldiers, well armed with thousands of tanks, planes, artillery and so on. The answer from the Germans to this onslaught was the “volkssturm”: brigades of old men with little or no training, armed with old rifles. Needless to say, they were massacred. Similarly, Maya is attacking with so many powerful weapons: television, cinema, magazines, facebook… If we just send a bunch of unprepared persons to battle this juggernaut, things are not going to end very well for us.

The duty of the leader is not to just inspire devotees to go out and distribute books, but to help them to advance in spiritual life, to follow the process properly. It’s not sufficient to just send them to the street: a leader needs to teach them how to be preachers, to elevate them. Just like in the war, it’s not sufficient to give rifles to old men and send them to be decimated by the enemy.

After the first day, it’s important to sit with the devotees to answer their questions and share experiences. As the saying goes: “No plan survives the first contact with the enemy”. Maybe some devotees will not be able to distribute any books, others will be mental and so on. It’s important to address all their doubts and insecurities before going out for the second time.

Being mental means being on the bodily platform. As Krsna explains in the Bhagavad-Gita (3.37): kama esa krodha esa rajo-guna-samudbhavah. Unless we are on a very elevated platform, we will always have lust in the heart, that comes from the contact with the mode of passion. When such lust is not satisfied, it is converted into wrath or lamentation. In other words, the mind becomes disturbed when it doesn’t get what it wants. It’s common for devotees to create some rosy image about book distribution, just to get disturbed when the reality fails to meet their expectations.

One way to deal with the problem is to adjust our expectations: there is a lot of spiritual bliss in book distribution, and it’s a wonderful way to deepen our spiritual practice and to serve, but people are not always going to receive us with open arms. We are not going to distribute 500 books in the first day, nor are we going to become pure devotees overnight just by distributing a few books. Another way is to deepen our spiritual practice and little by little get elevated to a more transcendental platform, where we can do our service without having to battle our minds so much.

As a leader, one should try to make them understand these points, and help them to find easier and jollier ways to distribute books and to evolve in the best way. HG Vaisesika Prabhu uses a mantra that should guide our efforts in this sense: “Book distribution is fun and easy”. If the leader can find ways in which devotees can distribute with this spirit, then everything becomes much easier.

Another important point is to teach devotees to distribute books in the appropriate way and avoid the different pitfalls that may be present on the path. Because they are frequently not so skilled, and therefore not so effective in convincing people about the value of the books, new devotees have a tendency to start begging, just asking for donations and then giving the books to persons who are donating, even if they are not interested. This is a bad practice, not only because it leaves the public with a bad impression of the devotees, seeing them as beggars, but it’s also bad for the devotee himself. Instead of learning how to preach and therefore gaining access to the unlimited ocean of bliss, he just learns how to become an expert beggar. This system of begging is actually a dead end, a trap in our development. As a leader, you need to be attentive, and teach devotees how to present the books in a proper way and make people interested. Even if the results are smaller in the beginning, still it’s much better, because it teaches devotees how to evolve on the correct path.

HH Sacinandana Swami: In sankirtana it’s very good to have the right type of identification. When you go out there you bring your whole life with you, and one very important aspect is the identity, or identification. From our identification streams our thinking. For example, if we think we are a mrdanga player, we are constantly thinking about rhythms. From our identification comes our feeling, our willing in what we do in life, and even what we do when we are asleep.

So when we go out to distribute transcendental literature, it’s very important that we have the right type of identification, then everything will go very smoothly because we will have a lot of strength which we will bring to the street, we are not divided.

When going out, we should understand that we are givers, not beggars. We give what has been given by Srila Prabhupada, and the most honorable guru-parampara, which is part of a tradition, a civilization which is enlightened. When you go out and think that you are a salesman, when you go out and think that “Well, I’m not sure that anyone will take anything today”, when you go out and think: “Well, I just want to be one who has the best marks, or the best results’’, your thinking and feeling, and willing will be influenced by this. But if you go and think: “I’m a giver! I’m giving the great gift of our honourable guru-parampara’’, then the guru-parampara will be behind you, Srila Prabhupada will be behind you and there will be a lot of enthusiastic strength with you there. (Podcast to London devotees, Winter Marathon 2016)

Another quality that is essential is honesty. Srila Prabhupada once said that our devotees should be adored by their honesty. If we start to use dishonest methods, our reputation will be destroyed and our book distribution will not be very effective.

In January of 1975, Srila Prabhupada wrote a letter to Rupanuga about honesty in book distribution:

“Regarding the controversy about book distribution techniques, you are right. Our occupation must be honest. Everyone should adore our members as honest. If we do something which is deteriorating to the popular sentiments of the public in favour of our movement, that is not good. Somehow or other we should not become unpopular in the public eye. These dishonest methods must be stopped. It is hampering our reputation all over the world”.

In the beginning, it’s better to focus on the basis, teaching new devotees to be very honest in their presentations and dealings, instead of a “the ends justify the means” mentality. It’s better to distribute fewer books at first, but give devotees the proper basis to develop, than to try to do something great from the start that will crumble later. As Srila Prabhupada said, we are not looking for shooting stars (that make some fuss but then disappear), we are looking for moons, that can illuminate the whole sky.

“It doesn’t matter if things are going a little slow, but make everything slow but sure. That is a good principle. To do things hastily and incorrectly is not good. There is a proverb in Bengali; ‘sabure mawaphale.’ This means that all valuable nuts like almonds, macadamias, walnuts, coconuts, etc. all take a long time to fructify. Anything valuable takes a little time to come into existence. Therefore there is no harm in waiting for the best thing. But everything is well that ends well. That should be the principle.” (Srila Prabhupada, letter to Shyamasundara, 15 July, 1969)


As you will quickly notice, to train new devotees to distribute books demands a lot of time and effort, therefore it’s important to train the most promising ones to help you with the others as soon as possible, creating some mentors from the ranks of your own group.

Some persons are like dry wood: when they get in contact with the fire they very quickly “ignite” and start doing things by themselves, even without being further stimulated by others. Since they have their own fire, they can also ignite others. Others are more like green wood. When you put them in the fire, at first only smoke comes, so much grumbling and complaints. Eventually, they also catch fire, but this fire is actually being maintained by the contact with the big fire. Once removed from the fire, they very quickly extinguish. Such devotees need to have constant association to be able to maintain their service. Only after a long time, they may become dry enough to really catch fire. When you are training new devotees, it’s important to be able to distinguish the two types. The ones who are like dry wood should receive more attention, so they can progress quickly and help the others.

Many devotees have a really hard time going out on book distribution. To talk to people, present the books, get donations and so on is very hard for them. In such cases, it’s important to not try to force. To give some fanatical inspirational discourse and then send them to the street, starting your personal reenactment of the Stalingrad battle, sending unprepared people to battle a strong enemy is the worst thing that you can do. Many devotees that are extremely shy or weak in the beginning eventually become fine book distributors, but it’s important to know how to cultivate them.

HG Vijaya Prabhu: In the early 70’s a lady who had been very shy and introverted throughout her life somehow became attracted to Krsna and joined ISKCON. At that time Srila Prabhupada was very much emphasizing book distribution, so practically everyone was going out. She also began going out. But shy as she was, she didn’t feel very comfortable approaching people. Still, she did it because all the other devotees were doing it and she knew Prabhupada wanted it. She knew he would be pleased, so she forced herself. But she would distribute very few books, while the others would do so many. Even though she was not very successful, she continued. One day she prayed very sincerely to Krsna to take away the shyness that was keeping her from being a successful instrument in Krsna’s hands. She went out the next day and the shyness was gone; she approached people like they were her old friends and distributed many books. Everyone was surprised. Eventually she became the first woman in ISKCON to distribute a hundred big books in a single day. Her name is Gauri Devi Dasi. (The Treasure of the Brhat Mrdanga, chapter 3)

A good practice is to, instead of sending new devotees to try to distribute books by themselves, things can be organized in such a way that they can go out along with senior book distributors, not to distribute, but just to help and observe. By serving senior devotees and by keeping close association with them, they will be gradually infused with the potency to distribute themselves. Then, after a few days or weeks observing, they will naturally also want to start stopping a few persons, and from there they can continue developing.

Another approach is to start by sending them out to distribute flyers or cards, invitations for festivals, Sunday feasts or special programs. To distribute invitations, they also need to deal with the public, stopping them, talking something and so on, but it’s much easier than to distribute a book. On the second stage, they can start to carry a few books, continuing to distribute invitations, but showing the books to persons who are nice or interested. After becoming comfortable in presenting themselves as devotees and dealing with the public, they can finally become fully fledged book distributors.

Generally, it’s better to emphasize group book scores than individual scores, this will make devotees work more like a team. By creating goals for the distribution, in terms of number of books, or in terms of growth in relation to the previous period, you can present a challenge to the devotees, and they can rise to meet it. One of the secrets of the increase in book distribution in the United States in recent years is that the leaders are working under annual goals. In 2012 and 2013 the goal was to increase 20% over the previous year, and in every subsequent year, the goal was for a further 10% increase. By creating goals and by inspiring the devotees to meet them, they have been increasing their distribution for several years in a row.

Similarly, it’s better to emphasize the number of books than the quantity of laksmi collected. Our main goal should be to bring these books to interested persons. If we do that, laksmi tends to come automatically. Yet, it's still better to emphasize making devotees than just distributing a number of books. By distributing many books, laksmi automatically comes, but by making devotees both book distribution and laksmi increases.

A lot of times, new devotees (under the mode of passion) tend to exert themselves to the point that they get exhausted, and become mental. It's better if the leader creates "classes", according to the level of training and practice, allowing devotees to go only for a determined length of time (one hour, two hours, four hours, etc.), stimulating new devotees to do the most possible during that time, but not allowing them to stay more before one "graduates" to new levels. As a rule, when training new devotees, it’s better to emphasize quality over quantity. Once they learn how to do their service with quality, it’s easy to increase the quantity also, but the opposite is difficult.

Of course, this applies to book distributors that go to the street, facing austere circumstances. New devotees may give books away to friends, and so on, in a more organic style of preaching, that doesn’t demand so much expertise and commitment. They should be encouraged to go on harinamas, where they can learn how to present themselves as devotees and to deal with the public, but in an easier and more reassuring way. Also, they should be engaged in different preaching programs, where they have definite roles, assisting other more experienced preachers, in ways that allow them to use their talents for Krsna.

The leader or organizer can get permission to set-up a table in some busy location and engage new devotees in helping to distribute at the table, for example. Also, he can organize a group to set-up a table and distribute books at the Sunday festival, and different programs, where devotees can be engaged in ways that are more easy and natural according to their inclinations. It’s a progression: one may start distributing once per week at the table, but as he gets the taste, he will want more. That’s how devotional life is supposed to work: we start by doing a little bit of service and gradually, as we advance, we get the taste and start to do more, up to the point where we can dedicate our lives.

As a leader, you need to provide positive experiences for the new devotees, in ways that allow them to get the taste for preaching without having to go through traumatic experiences. Provide them with a smooth path to grow and in due time you will have a group of mature book distributors. As a leader, you should be attentive to use your project to benefit the devotees, not to use the devotees to benefit your project.

Finally, as a leader, you have the mission of organizing your project, not only training devotees and defining goals, but also providing the conditions that will enable the achievement of these goals. The most essential thing is obviously the books: you can’t distribute books that you don’t have. There should be a sufficient stock of a variety of books. There is nothing more discouraging for a book distributor than not having a sufficient supply of books to distribute. From there, you need to address different logistical needs: how to organize devotees, bring them to the sankirtana fields, how to supply them with books and prasadam, as well as different types of equipment that they may need (sankirtana bags, carts, book tables, hats, umbrellas, etc.). To collect and account sankirtana scores, to organize meetings and planning sessions with devotees, to acquire and maintain vehicles for traveling sankirtana and so on. As time goes on, devotees tend to forget what the purpose of the group is, to become discouraged, or to start losing focus. To prevent this, it’s important to have clearly defined goals and to keep emphasizing them.

A good organization is fundamental for the growth of the group and of the preaching effort. Yatras where the devotees are organized tend to flourish, while yatras where things are disorganized tend to wither over time. HG Vaisesika Prabhu gives a lot of practical organizational tips in the 17th chapter of his book “Our Family Business”.  

Kirtanas and spiritual practice

"So this benediction is offered by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, who has very kindly come here as Nitai-Gauranga. So you take advantage of His mercy. You are very fortunate that Nitai Gaura is here. If you simply chant “Nitai Gaura” and dance, then you'll become happy. There is no difficulty. There is no difficulty. You are chanting "Jaya Sacinandana". This simple chanting, "Jaya Sacinandana", "Hare Krsna", this chanting and dancing, yajnair sankirtanair prayair yajanti hi sumedhasah. This is not I am manufacturing. It is the injunction of the sastra. In this age, simply by chanting and dancing, yajnair sankirtanair prayair, you get complete spiritual service. So I am very glad you are taking care of Nitai Gaura so nicely, They are so nicely dressed. So continue these activities, and even if you cannot do anything, simply chant Hare Krsna and dance and "Jaya Sacinandana". That will make your life perfect." (Srila Prabhupada, Lecture, CC Madhya 20.102, July 1976)

We must never forget that we are part of the sankirtana movement. Therefore, the most basic and fundamental part of our spiritual practice are kirtanas: to simply chant together for the glorification of the Lord. Different cultural and presentational aspects may change over time, but the congregational chanting of the holy names must be always present. If we somehow come to a point where we are not attracted to congregational chanting of the holy names, or if we start to forget about how to do it properly, it means that we are in some kind of terminal state in our spiritual lives. As Srila Prabhupada wrote to Palika dasi in 1975: “Kirtana is our first duty”.

"During Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s time, one party was composed of twenty-one men: four people playing mrdangas, one leading the chanting, and sixteen others striking karatalas, responding to the leading chanter." (CC Adi-lila 17.135, purport)

When Lord Caitanya introduced the sankirtana movement, he was doing kirtanas in a very uncomplicated way, using only mrdanga and karatalas. He’s God Himself, therefore He could have done it in any way He wanted, but He purposefully chose this particular style. There is a reason for that.

Any music is composed of rhythm and melody. When we chant, the voice creates a beautiful melody that carries the maha-mantra. The mind is automatically drawn to music, therefore it quickly starts to follow the melody, and therefore hears the mantra. The melody works as a vehicle that delivers the mantra to the heart. Both mrdanga and karatalas are rhythmical instruments that support the melody by adding rhythm that make us dance. The dance, in turn, unlocks our natural devotion to Krsna and makes us ecstatic. To chant Hare Krsna and dance is the easiest way to awaken our dormant Krsna consciousness.

"People should be encouraged to chant Hare Krsna maha-mantra and try to bring the ecstasy and dance. Even if there is no ecstasy, dance, it will bring ecstasy. Dancing is so nice." (Srila Prabhupada, Conversation, July 16, 1973, London)

When the kirtana is led by a devotee whose only desire is to satisfy guru and Krsna, sung in a nice way, with an appropriate melody, devotion and reverence, the effect is really powerful. It can easily capture the minds of all present and bring them to Krsna. The purity is the differential that makes kirtanas sung by pure devotees so ecstatic and purifying, a very distinctive experience than if the same kirtana would be sung by a professional musician.

“There are many professional chanters who can perform congregational chanting with various musical instruments in an artistic and musical way, but their chanting cannot be as attractive as the congregational chanting of pure devotees. If a devotee sticks strictly to the principles governing Vaishnava behavior, his bodily luster will naturally be attractive, and his singing and chanting of the holy names of the Lord will be effective. People will appreciate such kirtana without hesitation. Even dramas about the pastimes of Lord Caitanya or Sri Krsna should be played by devotees. Such dramas will immediately interest an audience and be full of potency. The students of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness should note these two points and try to apply these principles in their spreading of the Lord’s glories. (CC, Madhya 11.95, purport)

Most of the melodies that we use in kirtanas have a low part and a high part, and many have a third part that is even higher (like in the melody for the Mangala Artik). The secret is to keep chanting the same melody for a long time, chanting the low part a few times, going to the high part for a few repetitions, going back to the low part, going up again, going to the third part, going back to the first one and so on. As the melody is repeated, the tempo tends to naturally increase and, as the kirtana becomes faster, devotees start to naturally become ecstatic and dance. At some point, the karatalas start to play on double beat and so on. That’s how ecstasy comes.

On most melodies, we can also double the tempo, chanting each mantra in half of the time, which, if used at the right moment, increases the energy of the kirtana by a lot. The main point is to develop the kirtana in a way that it starts slowly, very devotional, reverential and melodic, and gradually become faster, reaching to a crescendo closer towards the end. In this way devotees can go through all the different stages of the kirtana and it can ripen. If the kirtana accelerates too fast, or if it already starts at a high tempo, it tends to become rajasic, devotees get tired and the kirtana doesn’t develop very well.

HH Indradyumna Swami: Kirtana with a steady rhythm allows for graceful dancing. The sankirtana should start slow and then build up speed. The top speed should be just fast enough so that everyone can respond melodiously and dance gracefully. When the kirtana gets too fast, the dancing gets frenetic and disorganized, the melody gets harder to follow, and the kirtana continually stops and starts because devotees get tired. But kirtana played with a steady rhythm allows for graceful dancing and melodious chanting, and can continue for hours without stopping. Such kirtana is much more attractive to the public. (Harinama Eva Kevalam, a manual for performing public harinama-sankirtana)

HG Revatinandana Prabhu: He [Srila Prabhupada] said a good kirtana lasts half an hour to forty minutes and the first half an hour is all slow and then it speeds up to a crescendo the last ten minutes. He liked the kirtana that was slow. Also in public programs whenever there were guests he almost always sang [sings standard Hare Krsna tune] or some similarly very simple melodies slowly and just gradually building to a crescendo. (Memories of Srila Prabhupada)

To dance in kirtanas is an essential part of our devotional service. Without dancing, we can’t really experience the kirtana. Srila Bhakti Tirtha Maharaja used to say that if you are not sweaty at the end of the kirtana, it’s because you never joined it.

HH Bhakti Vikasa Swami: If devotees do not dance, there is a danger that their taste for Krsna consciousness will dry up, and they will descend to the mental platform of scheming and speculating. Dancing is also a service, so even if, for whatever reason, a devotee does not feel like it, he should still try to dance for Krsna's pleasure. Even if lacking enthusiasm or energy, still devotees should somehow or other start to move their hands and legs. Enthusiasm will follow. There is great taste to be had in kirtana and dancing, even in the neophyte stage. (The kirtan standards book p.33)

The biggest mistake we can do on kirtana is to try to use it as a means to enjoy our senses, enjoying rhythm and melody, or making some kind of artistic performance. Kirtana should be always made for the glorification of the Lord, with love and reverence, to give Him pleasure. When the Lord becomes pleased, automatically we become happy and ecstatic. That’s the basic principle of spiritual life. On the other hand, if we try to enjoy ourselves, then the system is broken and we get stuck in material consciousness. As soon as we try to enjoy the kirtana, we get locked out.

“It is to be understood that when Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu chanted and danced, He did so by the influence of the pleasure potency of the spiritual world. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu never considered the holy name of the Lord to be a material vibration, nor does any pure devotee mistake the chanting of the Hare Krsna mantra to be a material musical manifestation. Lord Caitanya never tried to be the master of the holy name; rather He taught us how to be servants of the holy name. If one chants the holy name of the Lord just to make a show, not knowing the secret of success, he may increase his bile secretion, but he will never attain perfection in chanting the holy name.”
"Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu continued, “I never chanted and danced to make an artificial show. I dance and chant because I firmly believe in the words of My spiritual master." (CC Adi 7.95-96 purport)

Another mistake is to rely too much on the use of melodic instruments. Different from the rhythmic instruments, like karatala and mrdanga, melodic instruments (including the harmonium) have an intrinsic flaw: they create a second melody that competes with the voice. As soon as there is music, the mind tends to follow it, and thus the attention is divided from the mantra. Instead of focusing all our attention on the vocal melody, that is carrying the maha-mantra, our attention tends to go to the melody created by the instruments, that is essentially empty. This point was explained by Srila Prabhupada to Revatinandana Prabhu:

HG Revatinandana Prabhu: Srila Prabhupada gave a Sunday feast lecture about kirtana, and he said things that I never heard him say at other times, particularly not during a lecture. He gave a full lecture, mostly about kirtana, chanting and dancing. He remarked that melodic instruments, including harmoniums are not meant for kirtanas. I heard him saying a couple of other times also, specifically he said that harmoniums are not meant for kirtanas, melodic instruments in general. And he explained that because the ear will naturally follow music. So as soon as there are music streams, the ear will follow them automatically. And when the ear is following the music, the attention is divided from the mantra. He said: “rhythmic instruments are good for kirtana, because they make one more inclined to dance, and dance in turn unlocks devotion”. He liked graceful dancing. Jayathirtha used to be a very graceful dancer. He said: “see how he dances, it is very good. This will help you feel more devotion”. (Memories of Srila Prabhupada)

Generally speaking, the harmonium can be used in bhajans, where a simple melody, assisting the voice, may attract the public to sit and join and thus create a nice atmosphere. However, the melodic nature of the harmonium makes it less suitable for standing kirtanas, that have a more rhythmical nature, where the main purpose is to dance. The risk is that, when played improperly, or in an overly-complicated style, the harmonium will just compete with the voice and weaken the flow, making the public more concentrated on the music than on the mantra. The harmonium also increases our tendency to transform the kirtana in an artistic performance, which defeats the purpose, transforming the kirtana in a sensory or mental experience, instead of a transcendental one. These things can act like a dam, that obstructs the flow of the kirtana. The same applies to other melodic instruments, like flute, saxophone or violin. A further disadvantage of these three instruments is that you can’t chant while you are playing them which, again, defeats the purpose of being in the kirtana.

In one sense, musical talents can be used in Krsna’s service, attracting more people to the chanting of the holy names, but on the other, if the emphasis shifts from devotion to an artistic or technical exhibition, it can destroy the devotional spirit and defeat the whole purpose, as Srila Prabhupada warns us:

“Regarding your question about kirtana, practically we are not concerned with the instruments. They are used sometimes to make it sweeter, but if we divert our attention for using the instruments more, that is not good. Generally kirtana is performed with mrdanga and karatalas, but if somebody is expert instrument player, he can be admitted to join Sankirtana. We can accept everything for Krishna's service, but not taking the risk of diverting attention to any other thing which will hinder our Krishna Consciousness. That should be our motto, or principle” (Srila Prabhupada, letter to Jadurani, 26 May, 1969)

“I am pleased to note that there is interest in having our Sankirtan Party perform in various public engagements. The same thing is going on here, and they have been invited to such places as Amsterdam and Germany. So if you can also do this, it is nice. But do not change our principles. Practicing is already done by kirtan. It is not required for us to become artists. Our main point is service to Krishna, not to please an audience. We shall not divert our attention too much to adjustment of musical sounds. People should not misunderstand that we are a band of musical artists. They must know that we are devotees of Krishna. Our devotional practice and purity should be so strong that wherever we chant there shall be immediately an impression in the audience for devotion to Krishna.” (Srila Prabhupada, letter to Tamala Krishna, 30 October, 1969)

“My opinion is that it is not necessary for us to utilize these different musical talents for spreading Krsna Consciousness. I would rather see people follow strictly the path of Lord Caitanya and His Sankirtana devotees. We are using mrdanga, karatala, that is enough. We are not musicians. We are Krsna bhaktas. Therefore we do not stress so much importance on these different musical talents. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu is God Himself. Had He thought it would have been better to spread Krsna Consciousness by another way He would have done so. But no, simply with mrdanga and karatala, traveling and chanting Hare Krsna, asking everyone to chant Hare Krsna, preaching simply Srimad-Bhagavatam philosophy, this is the process. There is no need for us to try and add anything to this simple method. It will only be a distraction. (Srila Prabhupada, letter to Jagadisa Pandita, 28 December 1974)

The other musical instrument, if he plays his attention will be diverted in musical instrument, not to chanting. "We have to see melody, whether it is going on nicely." But that is not good. Our concentration should be hearing Hare Krsna. That is... That is bhakti. Caitanya Mahaprabhu, simply this karatala, khola, that's all. In those days... Of course, there was no harmonium, but many stringed instruments were there. Sitar, esaraja, but these things were not used. Sometimes we do use to attract, but it is not required. (Srila Prabhupada, Room Conversation, 26 December 1976)

HH Satsvarupa dasa Goswami: At one of the ISKCON international festivals in Vrindavana, Srila Prabhupada rejected the singing of one of his disciples. The devotee had previously been a singer in a band, and his kirtanas were much appreciated by some devotees, especially those from his home temple. But when, with showy professionalism, he began leading the guru-puja in Prabhupada’s presence, making the tune sound like a rock and roll ballad, Prabhupada didn’t like it. He shook his head and indicated that someone else lead. The “great” kirtana singer was devastated by the rejection, another form of Prabhupada’s mercy. (Prabhupada Nectar)

Srila Prabhupada was cautious about the use of harmonium in kirtanas. On some occasions he authorized it and on others he prohibited, and he personally (autough an expert player) never used it on public kirtanas. From this, we can get the idea that the harmonium should be used with caution. When properly used, it can contribute to the chanting and help to attract the public, but when misused it can considerably weaken it, putting a dam in the devotional flow. A lot of times it’s better to simply chant an easy melody, followed by mrdanga and karatalas.

It’s also important to understand that the maha-mantra is complete in itself, and therefore it’s not necessary to add other mantras to the kirtana. Srila Prabhupada established a simple standard, where we chant the prescribed song for each ceremony (Sri Gurvastakam, Guru Vandana, Gaura Arotik, etc.), followed by Jaya Sri Krsna Caitanya and then the maha-mantra for the remaining time. The rule of the thumb is that the chanting of the maha-mantra should comprise at least half of the total time of the kirtana.

"As preachers of the Krsna consciousness movement, we first offer our obeisances to Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu by chanting this Panca-tattva mantra; then we say Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare...Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu is known as maha-vadanyavatara, the most magnanimous incarnation, for He does not consider the offenses of the fallen souls. Thus to derive the full benefit of the chanting of the maha-mantra, we must first take shelter of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, learn the Panca-tattva maha-mantra, and then chant the Hare Krsna maha-mantra. That will be very effective." (CC Adi 7.4 purport)

"In our temple, strictly Hare Krishna chanting should be given more importance. There is no harm in this mantra you have heard, but it is not very important. There are many such common songs composed by common devotees out of sentiment. But our principle is to stick to the authorities, and always remember that Hare Krishna is the prime authorized mantra." (Srila Prabhupada, letter to Malati dasi, 28 January 1969)

One important reason to make the kirtanas simple, or at least to keep some of the kirtanas in a very simple style is to teach new devotees, to empower them. When the kirtanas follow a simple style, everyone can easily learn how to sing a few simple melodies, clap their hands and play simple beats on the karatalas and mrdanga. More than that, devotees can learn how to appreciate the chanting of the mantra and, quickly learn how to do kirtanas and easily lead kirtanas themselves at their home programs or amongst their friends. If the kirtanas are always very elaborate, the entrance barrier is much higher: devotees get intimidated, thinking that only expert musicians can lead kirtanas or play instruments, and sometimes they never learn how to appreciate the chanting of the holy names in a simple setup. They hear kirtanas in the temple and recordings, but they tend to never learn how to sing kirtanas themselves. It’s important that devotees get the taste and learn that kirtanas can be also very simple, so they can be encouraged to do it themselves. As Srila Prabhupada explains, kirtana can be done even without instruments, just by clapping our hands.

“Anyone can chant Hare Krsna. There is no need for instruments, although Caitanya Mahaprabhu introduced the mrdanga (drum) and karatalas (cymbals). Otherwise, clapping in itself is sufficient. Anyone can sit down with his family, clap hands and chant: Hare Krsna Hare Krsna Krsna Krsna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare. This sankirtana is very easy to perform.” (Teachings of Lord Kapila, v. 42 purport)

“You lament that you are not qualified to present Krsna Consciousness properly, but this is the qualification: hold kirtanas with your friends, read passages from my books, distribute prasadam and try to get more people to read the books.” (Srila Prabhupada, letter to Vidyapati, 27 January, 1977)

Finally, we should be careful to not speculate, creating new mantras, changing the existing ones, adding new words and so on, especially on the maha-mantra. That is a point on which Srila Prabhupada was especially strict about:

HG Hari-sauri Prabhu: There was kirtana throughout the morning, as the devotees prepared for the installation. Srila Prabhupada was sitting quietly in his room, waiting to be called when he rang the bell and asked for Harikesa. When he arrived Prabhupada told him, “Listen! What is that?” indicating the kirtana downstairs. “He is adding something before the Hare Krsna mantra. Go and stop it and bring him here.”

Harikesa wasn’t sure exactly what Prabhupada was referring to, but he went straight down and pushed his way through the packed temple room. Prthu-putra Swami was pounding a drum, leading a loud and fervent rendition of the maha-mantra. A group of sweat-soaked brahmacaris were gathered round him, clashing karatalas, stamping their feet, waving their hands and leaning into an intense exchange of the holy names with Prthu-putra. First he chanted, then them. Every time he took the lead he prefaced the maha-mantra with the word “bhaja,”–“Chant!”. Harikesa butted in and brought the singing to an abrupt stop. He informed Prthu-putra that Prabhupada wanted to see him. Prthu-putra entered Prabhupada’s room apprehensively, wondering what was going on.

Prabhupada, whose sharp ears had picked out the extra word, demanded to know where he had learned “this bhaja Hare Krsna mantra.” He was angry. “There is no bhaja in Hare Krsna! Where did you get this from?” Shaken by Prabhupada’s sudden, unexpected reproach, Prthu-putra turned red. “I heard it in Vrndavana.” Prabhupada’s wrath intensified, and his face flushed as he thought of his disciples once again becoming polluted by the non-ISKCON elements of Vrndavana. He exploded, “Why you are taking this from the nonsense babajis! Who has told you this!?” A shocked Prthu-putra tried to assure him. “Oh, no, not from the babajis! I heard it from our own men.” Srila Prabhupada still fumed, but he eased a bit when he understood it had not come from an outside source. Still, he strongly warned his disciple, “Never chant this bhaja Hare Krsna again! Hare Krsna mantra is complete in itself and requires no addition!” Promising not to repeat his mistake, Prthu-putra returned to the temple room to resume his chanting--this time without the addition. It is one of Prabhupada’s great fears that ISKCON devotees will become increasingly polluted by outside influences not strictly in line with our sampradaya’s pure devotional principles. Just as he did with the gopi-bhava group in Los Angeles, he acted quickly and firmly at the very first sign of contamination. (Transcendental Diary, August 6, 1976 New Mayapur, France)

Constant chanting

Srila Prabhupada gave us a simple process: to chant 16 rounds and follow the four regulative principles. However, he would frequently emphasize that 16 rounds are not the goal, but just a minimum. When giving the beads to his disciples during initiation, he would always say “chant at least 16 rounds”, and never simply “chant 16 rounds”.

In the Caitanya Bhagavata, there is the pastime where Lord Caitanya is invited to take prasadam in the house of brahmanas. He answered that he would take prasadam in the house of anyone who possesses a lakh (laksesvara). The brahmanas initially understood that He was speaking about one lakh of rupees (which was an astonishing sum at those times), but the Lord quickly dispelled the confusion:

"As the devotees invited the Lord (Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu) to take His meal in their houses, the Lord took the opportunity to teach them all this topic. When invited to take a meal, the Lord smiled and said, “First you should become a laksesvara”.

“I take meals only in the house of a laksesvara.” Hearing this, the brahmanas became worried.

The brahmanas offered prayers to the Lord, “O Gosaani, what to speak of a hundred thousand, none of us possess even a thousand. If You don’t accept meals from us, then let our entire household be burnt to ashes.”

The Lord replied, “Do you know who is a laksesvara? He is someone who daily chants a hundred thousand holy names. I call that person a laksesvara. I take meals in only such a person’s house, not in the houses of others.”

Hearing this merciful statement of the Lord, the brahmanas gave up their anxiety and became joyful. “O Lord, we will chant a hundred thousand names. Please therefore take Your meals in our houses. It is our good fortune that You are teaching us in this way.” (Caitanya Bhagavata, Antya, 9.116-125)

Traditionally, devotees in our sampradaya would chant a minimum of 64 rounds daily. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati introduced the standard of 16 rounds for grhasthas (who would be too busy taking care of their families) and Srila Prabhupada extended this standard to all of us, hoping that in addition to the 16 rounds we would be engaged in different services throughout the day. These 16 rounds are not the perfection, but just the beginning. We should understand the context, and try our best to chant more.

"Now that you have beads," Swamiji says the next morning, "you should chant sixty-four rounds every day." "Sixty-four rounds?" To pronounce every word of the mantra distinctly, we require five minutes to chant a round. Sixty-four rounds would take over five hours. "Impossible!" we say. "We'll never have the time." "All right," Swamiji says. "Thirty-two rounds." "Impossible," we say. "We'll never be able to do it. It's way too much." "All right," Swamiji says. "Sixteen rounds. No less." (The Hare Krishna Explosion, p. 63)

“The Krsna consciousness movement prescribes sixteen rounds daily because people in the Western countries cannot concentrate for long periods while chanting on beads. Therefore the minimum number of rounds is prescribed. However, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura used to say that unless one chants at least sixty-four rounds of japa (one hundred thousand names), he is considered fallen (patita). According to his calculation, practically every one of us is fallen, but because we are trying to serve the Supreme Lord with all seriousness and without duplicity, we can expect the mercy of Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, who is famous as patita-pavana, the deliverer of the fallen.” (Nectar of Instruction, text 5)

“Bhaktih paresanubhavo viraktir anyatra ca. The test is, how you are advancing in Krishna consciousness is the proportionate diminishing of sense enjoyment. That is the test. Just like cure of the disease means diminishing the fever, temperature. This is the test.

Devotee: What if that fever is not being diminished?

Prabhupada: Then he should try to chant Hare Krishna mantra, instead of sixteen rounds, sixty-four rounds. That is the way. Sixteen round is the minimum. Otherwise Haridasa Thakura was 300,000 (names). So you have to increase.

That is the only remedy. If one has got determination, he will make progress without any trouble. That determination is very difficult, that determination, "I must be Krishna conscious fully." That determination.” (Morning Walk, May 14, 1975, Perth)

Naturally, we should find ways to increase our chanting without avoiding other services, disturbing others and much less becoming puffed-up. Actually, our mentality when chanting more rounds should be that we are so fallen and unqualified that we need to chant more to have a chance of progressing. In other words, we should feel that we need to chant more not because we are better than others, but lower than others. The increase in chanting should not give birth to pride, but to humility. To conciliate these different points is actually the main challenge.

“Wherever there is a relationship of love of Godhead, its natural symptom is that the devotee does not think himself a devotee. Instead, he always thinks that he has not even a drop of love for Krsna.” [CC Antya 20.28]

Srila Prabhupada explains that our chanting on the beads should not be too fast (which leads to not properly pronouncing the mantra), nor too slow (which makes difficult to keep focus), he said that the chanting should be “swiftly”. He gave the basic formula of taking from five to eight minutes per round. As we try to chant more rounds, to keep a good pace becomes essential.

One of the key points is the proper pronunciation. In the Sanskrit alphabet, the consonants are divided in five groups, according to the way the sounds are produced in the mouth. There are sounds uttered using the throat, with the tongue in the rear of the palate, at the top of the palate or at the teeth, and with the lips. All the syllables in the maha-mantra are part of the group produced with the tongue at the top of the palate. This means that during the whole mantra the tongue stays in the same position: simple vibrating at the frontal top part of the mouth.

Devotees from different parts of the world tend to have different vices of pronunciation, according to the local languages. Devotees from North America, for example, tend to pronounce “haurê, kreeshina”, “haurê ruama”, while devotees from Asia tend to sometimes pronounce “alê klisna”, “alê lâma”. While Krsna may not mind the mispronunciation, chanting in these ways have a drawback: it makes the tongue go all around the mouth during the chanting, which makes the chanting more tiring and slow, making us prone to drop some of the syllables. By pronouncing all the syllables in the proper way, the tongue just vibrates in the same place, making the chanting more swiftly and “free”. With practice and concentration, it’s possible to properly pronounce the mantra even while chanting each round at six or even five minutes. The main difficulty is to keep focus, since as our attention starts to wander, the chanting becomes slower. To have a goal of chanting a certain number of rounds for a certain amount of time, according to our schedule, is another practice that can help us to chant attentively, since we will know that if we start to become distracted, we will not be able to finish in time.

If one chants each round in 6 minutes, for example, he can finish 16 rounds in 1:36h. At this pace, a lakh or 64 rounds would take 6:24h. Definitely a lot, but still possible for someone especially determined and with a free day ahead. Ekadasi days are especially suitable for these japa marathons. After doing it one day, we can try to do it more frequently. Srila Prabhupada was recommending to some of his disciples to try to do it on every Ekadasi.

Srila Prabhupada: “Why just 25 rounds? You should chant as many as possible. Real Ekadasi means fasting and chanting and no other business. When one observes fasting, the chanting becomes easier. So on Ekadasi other business can be suspended as far as possible unless there is some urgent business.”  (Letter to Jadurani, 9th July 1971)

To chant 64 rounds is surely a challenge for anybody that has a regular job or regular services to perform during the day. Still, if one is determined, it’s possible to organize his life in a way that allows him sufficient time to chant. I know one Prabhu that used to chant 64 rounds while maintaining a regular job. His secret was to wake up early, chant 32 rounds in the morning before breakfast, and chant the other 32 during the day and before going to sleep, always carrying the beads and chanting whenever he had a chance.

When one has a goal of chanting a certain number of rounds during the day, he will automatically reduce the time spent in idle talk, social networks, youtube, etc. and start to make adaptations, like walking or taking public transport (which allows him to use this time to chant) instead of driving his car, for example. Chanting more rounds gives one a deep sense of detachment, which helps to sever many bad habits, which in turn gives us more time for chanting. As a rule, we should try to increase our rounds by reducing our idle or misused time, and not by reducing our service.

When we are young and too much affected by the mode of passion, we may just chant 16 rounds and try to distribute books and do service as much as possible, but as we become older and progress in spiritual life, we should try to increase, up to the point of chanting 64 rounds or more. To chant more also helps us to increase the quality of the chanting (we become naturally more proficient in something we are practicing more, and it’s not different with chanting). After many years of book distribution and service, we may clean our hearts sufficiently to be able to chant 64 rounds in a solid and attentive way.

As Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura explains, to get taste in chanting the names it’s essential to avoid offenses to the name. One of the offenses is to chant inattentively, and another is to keep material attachments even after starting the process of Krsna consciousness. From this, we can understand that we still have a long way ahead.

Unfortunately, that’s the point where many devotees fall down into sahajiyism: they want a cheap process, a shortcut. They want to attain the goal without paying the price. Some very special devotees may be able to attain perfection just by sitting and chanting because they have actually done the rest in previous lives. For most of us, however, the chanting becomes really effective only when combined with service, otherwise, it becomes a chicken-and-egg-problem, where we can’t ascend above the stage of nama-aparadha because our hearts are dirty, and can’t purify our hearts because we can’t avoid offenses while chanting. By doing service, we clean the heart, creating a favorable situation for better chanting, which in turn allows faster cleansing, creating a virtuous circle.

The next stage, then, will be to train to be able to just chant continuously, as Srila Haridasa Thakura was teaching: making the mantra not leave our minds, shaping the mind to become perfectly peaceful and disciplined. Only in this stage we can say that the mind is completely under the control of the self. One who reaches this stage of constant chanting is already liberated, even before leaving his body.

The word asakrt is significant, for it means not just for a few minutes but continuously. That is the instruction given by Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu in His Siksastaka. Kirtaniyah sada harih: “The holy name of the Lord should be chanted twenty-four hours daily.” Therefore in this Krsna consciousness movement we request the devotees to chant at least sixteen rounds on their beads daily. Actually one has to chant twenty-four hours daily, just like Thakura Haridasa, who was chanting the Hare Krsna mantra three hundred thousand times daily. Indeed, he had no other business. Some of the Gosvamis, like Raghunatha dasa Gosvami, were also chanting very rigidly and also offering obeisances very rigidly. As stated in Srinivasacarya’s prayer to the Six Gosvamis (Sad-gosvamy-astaka), sankhya-purvaka-nama-gana-natibhih kalavasani-krtau. The word sankhya-purvaka means “maintaining a numerical strength.” Not only was Raghunatha dasa Gosvami chanting the holy name of the Lord, but he was also offering obeisances in the same prolific numbers. (SB 4.24.70 Purport)

The secret for chanting more is to develop humility. By developing humility we can naturally chant more and by chanting more we naturally develop humility. These two factors are interdependent and inseparable (trnad api sunicena taror iva sahisnuna amanina manadena kirtaniyah sada harih). We can’t be truly humble without chanting, and we can’t truly chant without being humble. In the 8th chapter of Jaiva dharma, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura explains that “One should be free from pride and should offer appropriate respect to others. One should offer Vaisnavas the respect due to a Vaisnava, and to those who are not Vaisnavas he should offer the respect that befits any human being. If one does not offer respect to others, he does not acquire the necessary qualification to chant sri-nama.” This is further emphasized by the Lord Himself in the 11th canto of Srimad Bhagavatam:

"O brilliant Uddhava, one who thus views all living entities with the idea that I am present within each of them, and who by taking shelter of this divine knowledge offers due respect to everyone, is considered actually wise. Such a man sees equally the brahmana and the outcaste, the thief and the charitable promoter of brahminical culture, the sun and the tiny sparks of fire, the gentle and the cruel.

For him who constantly meditates upon My presence within all persons, the bad tendencies of rivalry, envy and abusiveness, along with false ego, are very quickly destroyed.

Disregarding the ridicule of one’s companions, one should give up the bodily conception and its accompanying embarrassment. One should offer obeisances before all - even the dogs, outcastes, cows and asses - falling flat upon the ground like a rod." (SB 11.29.13-16)

In the beginning, we may be puffed-up and therefore struggle to chant even 16 rounds, therefore the process is to simply follow the principles, chant the minimum number of rounds and do something practical for Krsna. By distributing books, performing kirtana and doing other services, our hearts become cleansed, which leads to the recognition of our own faults and shortcomings, leading to the development of humility. This, in turn, allows us to chant more, which speeds up the process, furthering our realization and leading to an increased sense of humility, which results in more chanting. This process may continue throughout our lives, up to the point that we become so purified that we can chant the holy names constantly, following the example of our previous acaryas.

“Chanting the holy name is the chief means of attaining love of Godhead. This chanting or devotional service does not depend on any paraphernalia, nor on one’s having taken birth in a good family. By humility and meekness one attracts the attention of Krsna. That is the verdict of all the Vedas. Therefore if one becomes very humble and meek, he can easily attain the lotus feet of Krsna in this Age of Kali.” (CC Antya 4.71 Purport)

As long as we have a puffed-up mentality, our conditioned disease, our enviousness of Krsna, will continue, and we will not be able to chant sincerely. One time, in Mayapur, there was a play of some lilas of Krsna in Vrindavana for children. One small girl (who was only 3 or 4 years old at the time) became so moved that at the end of the play she jumped from her seat, and, oblivious to the protests of her parents, ran towards the boy that was playing Krsna. Holding his leg, she started to supplicate: “Krsna, please take me to Vrindavana, I will serve you, I will cook for you, please take me”. Seeing the girl who was playing Radha, she bowed to her and begged: “Radha, please, I will help you to serve Krsna, I know that you give butter to Krsna, I will remember you the time to give butter to Krsna, please”.

Our sincere chanting starts when we are able to accept a mentality like that of this small girl, understanding our desperate situation in this material world and pitifully begging, without imposing conditions, taking shelter of Krsna, in the form of His Holy Name. Feeling helpless, begging to be able to do any small service to Him.

The eternal present

In his Jaiva Dharma, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura writes about the eternal nature of the soul:

"The nitya-dharma of the jiva is servitorship to Krsna. When he forgets this, he is subjected to the tyranny of maya, and from that very moment he becomes diverted from Krsna" (Jaiva Dharma, ch. 1)

"(The soul) eternal function is divine love, and the nature of that pure prema is service to Krsna. Therefore, the constitutional function of the jiva is service to Krsna, which is the nature of prema. (Jaiva Dharma, ch. 2)

Being conditioned or being liberated is not a matter of geographic location, but a matter of consciousness. When one has the consciousness of selflessly serving Krsna and using everything in His service, he is liberated, and when one has the consciousness of enjoying separately from Krsna, he is conditioned. Our tendency of trying to enjoy separately from Krsna makes us identify with the needs of the body and mind, which causes us suffering in this material world. Our main purpose as devotees is to ascend from this conditioned mentality to a pure mentality of service to the Lord.

In the spiritual world, there is no past or future, there is simply an eternal present, centered around service to Krsna. Everybody in the spiritual world is fully absorbed in his service to Krsna. They don't think about what was happening before or what is going to happen in the future, they are just fully absorbed, moment to moment, in this bliss of serving Krsna. That's why there's no space in their consciousness for any selfish consideration: they are just absorbed in how to satisfy Krsna. Situated in this mentality, they are always perfectly happy.

To glorify Krsna is the main occupation of the residents of the spiritual world. There everyone is constantly glorifying Krsna, all the bees, all the birds, stones, trees, and so on. Everybody is always chanting Krsna's names in his own way. This is exactly the mentality that we should have when we go out on book distribution. By distributing spiritual books we have an unlimited opportunity to glorify Krsna and to spread His glories.

Just like the inhabitants of the spiritual world are continuously absorbed in this eternal present of constantly chanting Krsna's names and always glorifying the Lord, as book distributors we should also have this goal of practicing and developing this mentality of being absorbed in this eternal present, being absorbed in our service of glorifying Krsna by distributing spiritual books and forgetting any kind of selfish consideration. To the extent we can do that, we can enjoy the same spiritual bliss that the inhabitants of the spiritual world relish at every moment.

When we start on book distribution, it may be difficult, because we are concerned about so many needs of the body and mind. If there is some discomfort, we become disturbed. If people are not nice we become disheartened, and so on. As we progress in spiritual life however, we gradually start to identify with our true nature as spirit souls and the material fever diminishes. As spirit souls, our only occupation is to serve Krsna, therefore as soon as we can connect with this ethernal identity, all these needs of the body and mind, and any discomfort that they may cause will start to look very insignificant.

If we become absorbed in our service of book distribution, we have the opportunity of connecting with this eternal present, living our lives in a way that allow us to be just concerned about serving Krsna, absorbed in a loving relationship with the Lord, without consideration of our past or future. We will just think about how to serve Krsna. Every day this can be our meditation: "How can I serve Krsna?" In this way we are not going to see the passage of time.  

Srila Prabhupada used to say that the sun may set, but he can never rob the duration of life of someone who is engaged in serving Krsna. One who is fully absorbed in his service is connected with this eternal present, therefore for him, the time does not pass. He is serving Krsna now, and in the future he is also going to be serving Krsna, in whenever condition he is, be in this material world, or in the spiritual world.

As soon as someone is absorbed on this platform of serving Krsna and being concerned about Krsna's welfare, and not about his personal needs, he is already on the liberated platform. As soon as we can achieve this meditation, it doesn't matter if we are in the material world or in the spiritual world. For someone in such a platform, this actually becomes just a technical detail.

Devotional service is the true nature of the soul, and thus devotional service is the only true shelter, the only eternal platform. Book distribution is a way to practice, to exert this original nature, using our body, mind, and words to glorify the Lord. By distributing books and practicing the other limbs of devotional service, waking up early, chanting our rounds, associating with devotees and serving them, studying the books of Srila Prabhupada and so on, we have the opportunity to connect ourselves with our true eternal nature. By having this meditation, we can be connected with this eternal present, and be fully happy and satisfied in our service to Krsna when distributing books.

Key points in this chapter

Mature book distribution:

  1. A common complaint is that book distribution is difficult and therefore it's very difficult to do it regularly. We can observe that most devotees can distribute books for a short period, but can't continue long-term.
  2. My experience is that this is frequently related to a wrong approach to book distribution. If we just try to insist with everyone, pushing and pressing, we are going to have many unpleasant interactions with people, and this is going to make our book distribution tiring and difficult. Not only is this ineffective, but it’s not recommended in the scriptures, which advise that a preacher must be able to distinguish between three types of people: the devotee, the innocent and the envious, and deal with each in a particular way.
  3. Even an uttama adhikari is advised to make this distinction when he decides to preach. By failing to make distinction and trying to impose spiritual knowledge on envious people, we actually do harm to them by giving an opportunity to offend. By learning how to distinguish between different classes of people, we can focus on the ones who are open to spiritual knowledge. Our service then becomes not only more effective but also much easier.
  4. Most people we meet can be divided into eight classes. Stopping people in the street is like picking fruits from a tree. There is a mixture of green fruits, that are bitter, and ripe fruits, that are sweet. The easiest approach in book distribution is to each day pick the ripe fruits. The green fruits are also going to become ripe eventually.
  5. It may look cruel, but the material energy gives difficult experiences to the conditioned souls exactly to slowly turn them towards the path of self-realization. Just like gold is purified by hammering, most people need to go through different situations to start enquiring about spiritual life, and the material energy is gradually providing these hard experiences on a case-by-case basis. Someone who is uninterested, or even hostile today may become interested tomorrow due to different experiences in life.
  6. The ripe fruits are the best, people who, due to previous sukriti or to material piety, have come to the point of being interested in spiritual knowledge.
  7. The suspicious are also part of the innocent class, but they need a little bit of convincing before agreeing to take a book. At the end of the day, this is the class of people that take most of our books, but it happens only if we can do everything right: have a proper presentation of the books, interact with them in the right mood, present good arguments, and so on. Most of the advice from the 3rd chapter is exactly destined to help to successfully distribute books to this group. This is usually the class of people with who we should insist, since they frequently just need a little push to take.  
  8. The drones are too busy because of their busy schedule and mental agitations, therefore is usually better to let them go for now and approach them later, in a more favorable circumstance.
  9. The followers of different beliefs (indoctrinates) can be divided into two distinct classes: the innocent group (that can take books if we are able to present in a conciliatory and skillful way) and the envious fanatics, who we must avoid. Atheism is just another "ism" and its followers are also divided amongst the innocent and the envious fanatics classes. The first may take books, the second should be avoided.
  10. Negative, hostile and harsh people should generally be avoided, but experienced preachers may find ways to distribute books to them in some cases. They are usually also deep in ignorance, but their case is normally not so severe as the envious fanatics.
  11. Pious materialists are frequently nice, educated people, the problem is that they are firmly convinced about materialism. They may take books because of flattery or tricks, but usually only experienced preachers should talk with them at length. Two variations inside this category are the full-cups and the time-killers, who normally should be avoided.
  12. The lost cases are people that are arrogant, antagonistic and envious, and have a propensity to become angry and aggressive. Different from the pious materialists, who have a coat of piety and therefore can sometimes be engaged, this last class have an unconscious aversion to devotees and spiritual knowledge, therefore must be strictly avoided, since they just tend to commit offenses at every opportunity. They can normally be benefited only through indirect means (hearing kirtanas, taking prasadam, etc.)
  13. While sometimes an experienced preacher may be able to distinguish between different classes of people with just a quick glance, most of the time we need to approach people and have some interaction with them to get some idea based on their reactions. The process is that we should approach most people, but then select the promising ones by their reactions, keeping our interactions with the antagonistic or envious polite, but very short. “Pick the ripe fruits”.
  14. We can find ripe fruits and envious people mixed among every group of individuals, therefore discrimination should be employed based on the way people react and the qualities that they show, not on external factors like dress or appearance.
  15. While a good deal of practice and realization is needed to be able to distinguish between these types of people, it's important to make our book distribution more efficient. Otherwise, we will spend so much of our energy in helpless interactions and our book distribution will remain a struggle.
  16. We don’t have the potency of Sri Nityananda Prabhu, Srila Haridasa Thakura or Srila Prabhupada to convince the most fallen, so it's better to stay out of arguments as far as possible, otherwise we may be overcome by passion and ignorance.
  17. While we should avoid certain types of people, our attitude towards them should be always positive and we should desire good for them. Everyone is part and parcel of Krsna. The act of avoiding is just a technical decision based on the circumstances. If a book distributor starts to nourish negative sentiments towards people, this will affect his consciousness and hamper his book distribution.
  18. The highest level of book distribution is when one can love all people, seeing them as parts and parcels of Krsna. By sincerely becoming a well-wisher we can create a spiritual bond with them and start to change their hearts, thus distributing even to envious or demoniac persons. That's the secret of empowered book distributors. However, this is a level that can't be imitated. Someone in a lower stage that tries to imitate will just remain in the inefficient sentimental stage. Until we reach such an exalted stage, it's better to use discrimination.
  19. One of the ten offenses is to instruct a faithless person about the glories of the holy names. While a preacher should take risks to spread Krsna consciousness, we should refrain from trying to convince people when they are openly envious, or it's clear that they don't want to hear. To make people commit offenses is not going to do any good for them or for us.
  20. This point about discrimination can be a controversial point, since, while there is ample sastric evidence to support it (like SB 11.2.46), some verses and purports suggest that we should preach without discrimination (like CC Adi 9.29). It's important to understand these different references and not try to apply them out of context.  
  21. All other spiritual processes in the world are just steps on the staircase of Vaishnava-dharma, or distortions of it. Practitioners who are successful in the practice of other process are going to develop godly qualities and will be favourable (although sometimes a little defensive) when approached by devotees. Being pious, they can easily be promoted to the position of Vaishnavas, be it in this life or in the next. We have the highest philosophy and our books are the most valuable treasure in the whole universe. If we present then in a proper way, pious people are going to be interested.

Other topics:

  1. Book distribution is an unlimited opportunity to repeat the philosophy we read in the books and hear from seniors. It's also a very good training process, since it forces us to deal with contrary arguments. It allows us to quickly realize the transcendental knowledge and to learn how to present the philosophy of Krsna consciousness in a practical way.
  2. Sometimes, we may become puffed-up when we get good results or discouraged when the situation is difficult. One important point about book distribution is to realize that Krsna is the doer. Actually, He is the one doing the distribution: our role is just to carry the books around and allow the Lord to execute his pastimes. He is qualified to distribute as many books as He wants in any kind of situation. Our part is just to stay in the field and keep our connection with Him.
  3. To distribute books is to perform kirtana, using our energy to assist Srila Prabhupada and our spiritual master in their preaching mission. Lord Caitanya is God, therefore he could have done everything alone, but he left the preaching unfinished so we would have our chance of participating in His lila and thus advancing.
  4. One of the reasons book distribution is difficult is because it forces us to deal with our anartas and limitations. In other services, it's sometimes possible to hide them, but book distribution is a very intensive cleansing process. While it may be a shocking experience, it's a very good opportunity for us to become more serious and advance quicker.
  5. One of the secrets of being able to do full-time book distribution is to learn how to conserve our energy. Normally we pay attention to a huge variety of things not directly connected with our service. If we can focus our attention only on the person we are talking to, or with who we are going to stop next, the quality of our service improves and we don't waste our energy. Example of Arjuna shooting the bird on the tree.
  6. To be able to focus completely on our service is actually a platform of samadhi, not less advanced than the meditation of the most powerful yogis. If we can completely fix our attention on the service, other things like controlling the senses and the mind come automatically.
  7. While one could think that an advanced devotee is someone who can see Krsna’s pastimes and show ecstatic symptoms, Srila Prabhupada gave practical explanations, emphasizing determination, resilience and preaching effort as indicators of advancement, instead of other more esoteric factors. According to these explanations, a pure devotee is more like a humble, hard-working person, who gives his heart and soul to the preaching mission, than someone who just lives in a solitary place trying to imitate Haridasa Thakura.
  8. To train new book distributors is even more important than to just distribute books oneself. For book distribution to remain alive in ISKCON, it's necessary that the experience and realization of senior book distributors is transmitted to the new generations.
  9. When we think about training, we may get the idea that it's all about techniques and theoretical knowledge. While this is also important, the vital ingredient is a good example on the part of the leader, and his capacity to inspire others to be serious in spiritual life and thus advance. The potency of a book distributor is much more connected with his spiritual strength and conviction than with techniques. The most basic duty of the leader is to help others to advance in spiritual life.
  10. Book distributors can be divided into three categories: devotees in the mantra stage just repeat mantras in a more or less mechanical way. Devotees in the articulate category are able to present the philosophy in a practical way and convince people through arguments, while the spiritual-quality devotees combine the qualities of the articulate devotees with a spiritual quality that really touch people's heart, a potency that can be developed only thorough serious spiritual practice. Everyone starts in the mantra stage, but our goal should be to progress.
  11. It's a serious mistake to send new devotees, without any proper training to distribute books. At the very least, they should get some basic training and have the opportunity to learn and practice a few mantras between themselves. A much better process, however, is to send new devotees to go along with experienced book distributors, so they can first learn by observing.
  12. It's better to first focus on quality than quantity. When devotees learn how to distribute books in a proper way (quality) it's easy to increase the quantity later, but when they get used to distribute by hook or by crook, it's very difficult to change. It's especially important to teach them to distribute based on the merits of the books, otherwise, they may just start begging, which is a dead-end in the progress of a book distributor.
  13. After the first day, is important to have a sankirtana meeting, discussing their difficulties, doubts, insecurities, etc. before going for a second time. New devotees are usually influenced by the mode of passion and therefore have the tendency to exert themselves until they become exhausted and mental. In the beginning, it's better to limit the number of hours they distribute, focussing instead in improving the quality.
  14. A good leader should be able to help devotees find easy and effective ways to distribute books. Book distribution should be "fun and easy”.
  15. Just like on book distribution, our capacity to elevate the public through the performance of kirtana resides more on our consciousness than on technical factors. A kirtana sung by a pure devotee will have a very enlightening effect on the audience, while the same kirtana performed by professional musicians will have a different outcome.
  16. Musical talents can be used in Krsna’s service, attracting people to the chanting, but if the emphasis shifts from devotion to the artistic or technical exhibition it can destroy the devotional spirit and defeat the whole purpose. Melodic instruments especially should be used with caution, since they tend to compete with the voice and weaken the devotional flow.  
  17. Simple kirtanas are important to empower devotees, so they can appreciate the chanting of the mantra, learn a few simple beats and melodies and do their own kirtanas at their home programs or amongst their friends. If the kirtanas are always very elaborate, the entrance barrier is much higher and devotees become intimidated, thinking that it's only for professionals. Less devotees doing kirtana erodes the very core of our society.
  18. Our chanting on beads is the most essential part our spiritual practice. Srila Prabhupada said that “90% of our advancement is dependent on chanting” and that "Your japa beads are your ticket back to Godhead." He established 16 rounds as an absolute minimum, we should strive to increase our chanting, up to the point of chanting 64 rounds (the standard set by Mahaprabhu) or more.
  19. We should find ways to increase our chanting without avoiding other services, disturbing others and, much less, becoming puffed-up. We should feel that we need to chant more not because we are better than others, but lower than others. The increase in chanting should not give birth to pride, but to humility.
  20. For most of us, the chanting becomes more effective when combined with service. By doing service, we clean the heart, creating a favourable situation for better chanting, which in turn allows faster cleansing, creating a virtuous circle.
  21. The perfection is actually to be able to chant constantly, 24 hours per day, this can be attained only after a life of practice: serving and avoiding offenses to the name. One of the offenses is to chant inattentively, another is to consciously keep material attachments even after adopting Krsna consciousness.
  22. Book distribution is a expression of the eternal nature of the soul, that is love and service to Krsna. Being conditioned is not a matter of geographic location, but of consciousness. By being absorbed in serving and glorifying Krsna thorough our book distribution, we can be connected to the same bliss that the inhabitants of the spiritual world relish moment to moment, the eternal present.