An ISKCON center full of new, young American devotees, completely self-sustained through book distribution, in 2018?
To some, this may sound like a pipe dream. But Philadelphia’s Mantra Lounge is proving that Srila Prabhupada’s model for ISKCON’s family business still works today – and it works very, very well.
Devamrita Swami disciple Mangal Aarti Dasi, 31, moved to Philly from her home in Toronto in early 2016 to start the project on her own. She began distributing books at Temple University, and established a student club there.
Next, she managed to rent a room at a downtown Yoga studio where she held weekly Bhagavad-gita classes. The first year, relying on Krishna and book distribution only, was tough and scary. But she held onto her faith that the Lord would provide.
Eventually a few other devotees came to help, and by July 2016, they were renting their own center, the Mantra Lounge – based on Devamrita Swami’s model combining outreach and book distribution.
Today, five women and four men live in Titiksava Karunika Ashram, near the Mantra Lounge. They rise early every day, have a full morning program, and then distribute books all day from 11am to 5pm, six days a week. Most of them are new devotees who joined at the Mantra Lounge.
What attracted them?
It’s pretty simple. Book distribution, done right.
The first key is Devamrita Swami’s insistence that all the devotees read Prabhupada’s books themselves every day and chant their rounds seriously before going out. For further inspiration, they also read sankirtan strategist Vaisesika Dasa’s book Our Family Business and watch his instructional videos.
The devotees apply Vaisesika’s model of tracking team scores rather than individual scores to keep everyone motivated. They make goals every day, because “when you make a goal, you always smash it.” They leave everyone they meet with a good impression. And rather than focusing on selling no matter the method, they distribute the books on their own merit. They show people the pictures, summarize the philosophy, and explain who Srila Prabhupada is.
“Once someone appreciates the book, we give it to them,” Mangal Aarti says.
Another key precept is Srila Prabhupada’s instruction to Giriraj Swami that his movement would go on with “intelligence and organization.”
The Mantra Lounge team is impeccably organized. They know the best book distribution spots in town and the best days and hours to be there. They use Google Street View to scope out malls in the suburbs and plan their best strategy. They plan every day months in advance on a whiteboard. They mark down every single festival and convention in town on their calendar.
At events like the recent Tattoo Arts Convention, South Street Festival, and Comic Con, vendor prices are very expensive. So devotees use their intelligence and negotiate a cheap table by offering free prasadam snacks, kirtan or yoga classes.
Then the books go flying out. “People are looking for something of value,” Mangal Aarti says. “You can do 300 to 500 books in a day at a festival, easy.”
The devotees also distribute books outside universities like Temple, Drexel, the University of Pennsylvania, Westchester, and Villanova. They use digital tools like Venmo and Cash App to make purchases quick and convenient.
This past Christmas marathon, the team aimed for a goal of 4,000 books. They thought it was overambitious.
They did 6,000.
And throughout his year, they aim to distribute 30,000 books.
These numbers mean they meet a lot of people. Devotees invite everyone who takes a book to programs at the Mantra Lounge, which happen five nights a week. The ambience and language used at the Lounge, Devamrita Swami’s vision, are geared towards a Western audience.
“We take people’s coats as they enter to mellow kirtan and the smell of incense,” says Mangal Aarti. “Inside there’s nice lighting, decorative pieces and low Japanese tables with cushioned seating. It’s all made for people to feel comfortable and at home.”
The Mantra Lounge’s programs include “indirect nights,” featuring kirtan, yoga and Ayurvedic cooking, which draw people in. When they are ready, newcomers move on to “direct nights” like Bhagavad-gita workshops and Soul Feasts, which present the philosophy of Krishna consciousness fully.
“After people have been coming two or three times a week for a couple of months, we start teaching them how to chant,” says Mangal Aarti. “When they are chanting a few rounds regularly, we invite them to join us for our morning programs. We also read the Bhagavad-gita with them and help them understand it. We give a lot of individual attention and care to those who are ripe fruits and keep coming back.”
Since the Mantra Lounge was started, about six young men and women, all Americans in their twenties, have taken to Krishna consciousness fully. Fifteen to twenty others attend regular programs.
The new devotees include a PhD in physics, a PhD in psychology, a pre-med student, a navy sailor, a nurse, and a woman in the National Guard. Most are now full-time book distributors, having left their studies to become devotees. Most have also read the entire Bhagavad-gita, Srimad-Bhagavatam, and Chaitanya Charitamrita, and are now on their second round.
New devotees may also move to Gita Nagari, Pennsylvania’s ISKCON’s farm, to do service there. One young man, an IT graduate from Temple University, is now living on the farm and taking care of cows, learning from temple president Dhruva Das and his wife Parijata Dasi.
“The Mantra Lounge works closely with Gita Nagari to establish a city-farm connection,” Mangal Aarti says. “Students and yoga practioners love to hear that you’re teaching meditation and yoga in the city, and are part of a bigger farm community where they can see sustainability in action.”
The arrangement is perfect, she explains: “A farm without a city connection doesn’t work, because they need a flow of people. And a city preaching center without the farm connection is hard also, because devotees are distributing books all day, and need a place to rejuvenate.”
Once new devotees are situated, a lot of energy goes into caring for them with training and education, monthly recreational outings, community kirtans, and more.
These well-cared-for devotees then continue to distribute Srila Prabhupada’s books full-time, completely financially supporting the Mantra Lounge. And with each new wave of people they meet out on the street, more regulars attend, eventually boiling down to more new devotees.
“It was a struggle at the beginning,” Mangal Aarti says. “We were starting from scratch in a new city. We didn’t know where we were going to live. We had no credit, and no money in the bank. It was so difficult. But we kept distributing books. And then we started to form connections. We met people, and they started to want to become devotees. And things began to manifest.”
The Mantra Lounge’s story is proof that Prabhupada’s family business works – all we need is faith that Krishna will be there for us.
“Even during the hardest times, we never felt like there was a moment when we didn’t have our needs taken care of,” says Mangal Aarti. “We went on books, and we always got what we needed to live comfortably. We were never lacking. Srila Prabhupada tells us that we should distribute books, and Krishna will provide everything.”
She beams. “And we got to see that in action.”[ book ] [ lounge ] [ mantra ] [ philadelphia ]