When ISKCON’s Governing Body Comissioner for Canada, Bhakti Marg Swami, invited Vaisesika Dasa to help revive the culture of distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books at the Society’s Toronto temple, he knew it would have an impact on the community.
He just couldn’t have guessed how big an impact it would have.
“Toronto has always had a very active congregational group,” says Ateet Agarwal, who moved from his native India to Canada with his wife Shyama-Mohini Dasi in 2004. “And several senior devotees were going out on sankirtana—distributing Prabhupada’s books—regularly. But it was not the main focus.”
Ateet, who is aspiring for initiation by ISKCON guru Devamrita Swami, works in the financial sector, while his wife is currently finishing her Ph.D at the University of Toronto. Although he was enthusiastic about sharing Krishna consciousness with guests visiting the temple on Sundays, he notes with self-effacing humor that he never could have imagined he would go out on street book distribution “in this lifetime.”
“But,”—he grins, and his whole face lights up, “—Vaisesika Prabhu changed all that.”
An Ambassador of Goodwill
Filing into Vaisesika Dasa’s May 2009 “Sankirtana Orientation Seminar” in Toronto, Ateet, Shyama-Mohini, and the other members of ISKCON Toronto’s congregation were curious. Vaisesika was known as a leading book distributor and innovator with over 35 years of experience, and had brought national recognition to the efforts of his local temple of ISKCON Silicon Valley in San Jose, California—so they were feeling positive. But they still didn’t quite know what to expect.
Vaisesika began his Friday evening talk by establishing the mood and meaning of sankirtana. “ISKCON’s founder Srila Prabhupada came to the West as an Ambassador of Goodwill, to share Krishna consciousness,” he said. “And, like him, we should also go as ambassadors of goodwill, sharing kindness and compassion with all the people out there who are all going through their own difficulties.”
His audience were already enthralled. There was something about Vaisesika’s energy and his approach that showed he really understood people, and wanted to help them.
“The primary goal of book distribution,” he explained, “Is to leave everyone with a good impression and a gift—whether it’s a book, a cookie, a mantra card, or even just a smile.”
Again, this was something different. Wasn’t the goal of book distribution to sell as many books as possible?
On the next day, the practical application segment of the seminar, participants were met with another surprise—the day was to begin at 4:30am. Vaisesika had everyone attend the mangala arati ceremony, chant Hare Krishna on their japa beads together, sing guru-puja to Srila Prabhupada, and listen to a class on the ancient scripture Srimad-Bhagavatam, before tucking into breakfast together.
“When you distribute books,” he explained, “You are sharing the overflow of your own sadhana—your personal spiritual practice.”
After breakfast, Vaisesika shared practical tips and techniques from his many years of experience in a two-hour training session. Then, it was time to put knowledge into practice—with Vaisesika guiding them, the seminar participants all spent five hours distributing books in downtown Toronto.
When it was time for Vaisesika to leave, he had one last meeting with those of the group who were inspired to continue following the model he had taught them. Giving more detailed instructions for establishing Monthly Sankirtana Festivals—a simple, one-day-a-month program for distributing books—he told them, “If you want me to come back, I need commitment—you have to keep the program going.”
Individual, Spontaneous, And Voluntary
Four devotees—Ateet, Shyama-Mohini, Vrindavana Dasa and Vrindavana Vinodani Dasi—were determined to hold Vaisesika to his word. Forming an organizational team, they dubbed the last Saturday of every month “Sankirtana Saturday,” and set to work planning the first ever official Toronto Monthly Sankirtana Festival (MSF).
The group that set out on the last Saturday of June 2009—the four organizers plus twenty more devotees—were green, to say the least. Most were not temple residents but congregation that worked and studied full-time, and many had never distributed books before.
“But we were following Vaisesika Prabhu’s instructions to work as a team,” Ateet says. “And in a team, a lot of the pressure that one might feel going out on one’s own is relieved. As Vaisesika says, ‘A lot of people each doing a little bit.’”
With teamwork, those that felt hesitant to talk with people and sell books could give out the free cookies that devotees had packaged in their thousands. Those that found even that difficult could participate in the kirtan group, binding everyone together. And when they did feel inspired to try selling some books, they could always come back and rotate tasks with someone else when they got tired.
What’s more, with Vaisesika’s model, there was no pressure to sell books to everyone. “We are here to share the kindness we have received from Srila Prabhupada,” he had told them. “We are friendly with everyone, leaving them with a smile or a cookie, and if they are not ready to receive this spiritual knowledge yet, that’s okay. From our attitude, even they don’t take a book, people will sense that we have something special—and we have planted the seed.”
It’s a model that works. “Often people are not interested in the books, but do take cookies,” Ateet says. “They read the maha-mantra and the temple’s address included inside, and two or three weeks later, they show up at the Sunday Feast. One woman that Vaisesika Prabhu spoke to on the street while he was here—a single mother of Muslim background name Haleh—even kept in touch and ended up joining us on a later MSF! Today, she’s a regular devotee who chants, attends Bhagavad-gita classes, and distributes books with us.”
Although the group sold very few books on their first MSF, their spirit was not in the least deterred. “It’s not about numbers,” Ateet says. “Sankirtana should be individual, spontaneous, and voluntary—and it was. We had a great time, and the devotees wanted to come back again and again.”
The Four Ironclad Laws of Book Distribution
Sure enough, they did. July’s MSF landed on Toronto’s annual Rathayatra festival, and the team decided to try new things. Printing out a person-sized cover of Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is, they pasted it on a large box, cut out holes for hands and feet, and had a devotee wear it. With endorsements from Mahatma Gandhi and other famous personalities on his back, this “Walking Bhagavad-gita” was a huge success, drawing attention and starting conversations that led to sales of the sacred book.
As they planned more MSFs, The Toronto Sankirtana team strengthened the foundation of their book distribution efforts by carefully following Vaisesika’s Four Ironclad Laws of Book Distribution: 1) Have Strong Sadhana, 2) Get Books, 3) The More You Show, The More You Sell, and 4) Be Organized.
Being organized meant planning every MSF immaculately—making sure that things started and ended on time, that everyone had enough prasadam to eat, and that everyone felt taken care of and didn’t get stressed out, hungry or late. Getting books meant developing a reliable fulfillment department, so that all books were always in stock. To show more and thereby sell more, the team created attractive displays, set up book racks and tables, utilized the Walking Bhagavad-gita, and introduced the “Book of the Month,” an increased focus on a different one of Srila Prabhupada’s books every month.
For the most important law of book distribution, strong sadhana, the Toronto devotees supplemented their MSFs with a weekly Wednesday Sankirtana Sanga. “Our small yet growing group of eight to ten devotees meet at 6:30pm for kirtan,” Ateet says. “Then we chant one round of japa together, read one chapter of the Bhagavad-gita together, and spend the last twenty-five minutes sharing realizations or discussing plans for the next MSF. This is extremely important, because unless we truly understand the value of the Hare Krishna mantra and of Srila Prabhupada’s books, how can we effectively present them to others?”
The Prabhupada Marathon
The Toronto Sankirtana Team would need the inspiration that their sadhana gave them, for they were about to embark on two of their most ambitious efforts yet.
The November Sankirtana Saturday was held on Gita Jayanti, the day when Sri Krishna spoke the Bhagavad-gita to Arjuna 5,000 years ago, and inspired, the devotees decided to form 18 teams to match the Gita’s 18 chapters. “The largest number of teams we’d had before was four,”Ateet says. “And although we fell short of our goal, we reached 15 teams, and sold 200 books—a wonderful achievement for everyone!”
Coming off the back of Gita Jayanti, the team found themselves launched straight into the December 2009 Prabhupada Marathon, during which ISKCON devotees around the world attempt to sell as many of Srila Prabhupada’s books as they can. Again, Toronto set an ambitious goal. “When I looked at previous year’s scores, I saw that ISKCON Toronto had done a marathon average of about 600 books,” Ateet says. “We decided to do 2010 books to welcome in the new year—over three times as many!”
Setting their effort off to a good start, Vaisesika Dasa returned on the first weekend of December as he had promised, to reinforce skills and inspire. The energy grew. Devotees set personal targets, with some braving the Toronto winter to go out every single day of the month. They used every cue for inspiration, selling hundreds of books at every Sunday Feast and dressing up as Santa Claus and his elves for a “Krishna Christmas” special. They drew a large tilak—the Vaishnava forehead marking—on cardboard and created a “tilak meter,” to show how many books they had sold. A feeling of excitement and togetherness spread. By Christmas, the team had reached their goal of 2,010 books.
But it wasn’t over yet.
“We still hadn’t held our Monthly Sankirtana Festival,” Ateet says. “We chose the day after Christmas—Boxing Day, or Black Friday in the US—because of the amount of people the shopping craze drew. Then we went out in three shifts, covering the whole day from 6am to 6pm.
In the end, we finished the marathon with 3,200 books—over five times the amount of previous years.”
Ateet, however, is keen to point out that numbers aren’t everything. “Our biggest achievement,” he adds, “Was just to see devotees have a good experience and bond together.”
The Month of Loving Exchanges
January 2010 brought with it yet another innovation. With so much focus on numbers during the marathon, devotees were exhausted and needed a refresher.
The perfect cure? The “Month of Loving Exchanges.”
“In Verse 4 of the Nectar of Instruction, Rupa Goswami describes six loving exchanges shared by one devotee and another: Offering gifts in charity, accepting charitable gifts, revealing one’s mind in confidence, inquiring confidentially, accepting prasada and offering prasada,” says Ateet. “And in the purport, Prabhupada clearly states: “The International Society for Krishna Consciousness has been established to facilitate these six kinds of loving exchanges between devotees. So we focused on interactions of love and care for the entire month.”
The centerpiece of this effort was “Devotee Appreciation Day.” Emphasizing personal interaction, Ateet, Shyama-Mohini and Vrindavana Dasa hand-made cards, wrote personal invitations, and personally delivered them to the seventy or eighty devotees who had participated in the MSFs over the preceding months.
On the evening of January 10th, devotees began by watching a video of Toronto’s sankirtan story, then having kirtan together. Next, they read “offerings” before the likeness of Srila Prabhupada, presenting to him the successes of their marathon.
A gourmet prasadam feast, prepared with no expense spared, was then served up, with special lighting and furnishings adding to the experience. As the devotees ate, the sankirtana team organizers handed each devotee a letter personally addressed to them, highlighting how they had helped in the marathon. Each devotee also received a gift bag including the monthly Prabhupada Vani newsletter telling the story of the marathon, a 2010 calendar with all the Sankirtana Saturdays marked and a different Prabhupada quote about book distribution for every month, a poetic recitation of the Bhagavad-gita on CD by the BBT’s Dravida Dasa, and a package of prasadam cookies.
“Devotees just loved it,” Ateet recalls. “They were so happy. It was an amazing experience for all of us.”
Next for the Month of Loving Exchanges, organizers launched a Sankirtana team clean-up of the Toronto Temple, focusing on the kitchen, which needed the most love. Twenty-five devotees cleaned together throughout an afternoon, after which organizers rewarded them with a pizza party and bhajan night.
Finally, the Sankirtana team also recognized the hard work of Toronto temple’s resident devotees, including Bhakti Marg Swami, the temple president, the pujaris (priests), the cleaning crew and more. “One morning, during Bhagavatam class, we gave each devotee personal letters thanking them for their support to the sankirtana team and appreciating their long years of service,” Ateet says. “We also gave them gift bags containing Dravida’s Bhagavad-gita CD, cookies, and some practical, personalized and occasionally humorous gifts: to the pujaris who spent time on the marble altar on cold mornings, we gave warm socks; to some older devotees we gave handcreams or pillowcases; to a devotee who had recently moved, we gave a Toronto map; and to others who liked to keep in touch with their families, we gave calling cards.”
As the Month of Loving Exchanges came to an end, devotees faced January’s Monthly Sankirtana Festival with elation. Despite the minus 25 degrees, 35 devotees participated in January 30th’s Sankirtana Saturday, feeling the warmth in their hearts. And although—or rather, because—the Toronto Sankirtana team had spent the month focusing on devotees rather than on numbers, they finished January as the number seven top book distributors in North America, according to the World Sankirtana Newsletter’s definitive rankings.
As the Toronto devotees plan for the future of their sankirtana efforts, they have just completed another themed Sankirtana Saturday—Gaura Purnima, the appearance day of Gaudiya Vaishnava founder Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
Despite a forecast of non-stop rain and snow over the weekend, 75 devotees participated, distributing 1,200 pieces of prasadam and 216 books, and making the event their biggest MSF to date.
Now, the team’s organizers continue to work on creating fresh challenges and themes for each month. They’ve just introduced Smart Boxes, an honor system in which book racks are placed in stores around the city, allowing people to take the books themselves and leave donations. And they’ve set their biggest goal so far: distributing 20,000 books in the year 2010.
“We’ve realized that these kind of goals bond everybody together,” says Ateet. “So this new goal is the glue we are using to connect everything this year. At the end of all our emails, we sign off “Marching towards 20,000 in 2010.” Each MSF adds towards the goal of 20,000. Specials like our Gaura Purnima effort add towards the goal. And each devotee is voluntarily making their own personal goals.”
In March, Vaisesika will return once again to inspire the devotees and strengthen their techniques. “At the end of the day, it is by the mercy of Krishna and the devotees that we achieve anything,” Ateet says. “All the credit goes to Vaisesika Prabhu, Bhakti Marg Swami, our gurus, and all the wonderful devotees who have been keeping this effort alive.”
So what is the ultimate goal for the Toronto Sankirtana team? Sustainability, says Ateet.
“Our vision,” he concludes, “Is to grow to the point that despite the coming or going of Sankirtana devotees and leaders, the culture continues.”