“The Most Ecstatic SKP Newsletter Of All Time! Should Be Read Aloud To All Of The Assembled Devotees!”
By Uttamasloka Dasa
I took over as Temple President of ISKCON Chicago in August 1975, replacing Sri Govinda prabhu. There were a few months of transition for the devotees to get to know me and vice versa. There are some interesting anecdotes from that period, but I’ll save them for another story.
Soon, November was upon us with its signature Thanksgiving Day event. The day before Thanksgiving Day is the most travelled day in the US, even more than at Christmas, so it represented a great opportunity to distribute books, especially at O’Hare Airport, the busiest airport in the US, it being the central airpot hub. Almost a quarter of a million people flowed through there that day.
Unexpectedly, in early November I received a call from Ramesvara prabhu. He casually asked how many books I thought we’d be able to distribute this year. The year before, the Chicago devotees had set a world record by distributing around 800 books that day (if memory serves me correctly). Very impressive at that time, and a world record. I honestly didn’t know and hadn’t even thought about it much, so I said we’d probably do several hundred more at least – maybe 1,200.
Ramesvara then boldly issued his challenge: “The devotees here in LA believe we can distribute more books than the devotees in Chicago and we hereby challenge you to a book distribution contest on the day before Thanksgiving!” The winner would get the original painting of Cota Haridasa in his ghostly form hovering above Lord Caitanya. The Atlanta Temple was also included in the contest, since it had a big airport too and some good book distributors.
I immediately accepted his challenge, even though there were over 300 devotees in LA versus about 40-50 in Chicago, including the resident BBT book party with Tripurari swami and his team. Nonetheless, I wasn’t worried because O’Hare airport was a big factor in our favor – like shooting fish in a barrel, pardon the analogy.
I announced the contest challenge to the devotees that day, but we made no additional preparations other than those we had planned for that day. The day arrived and after a powerful Mangala Aratika kirtan, our plans went into motion, like a well oiled machine. It was an incredible day and a most transcendentally astonishing experience for all of us. I couldn’t believe how the events unfolded throughout the day. I knew I would have to document it.
On Thanksgiving Day around mid morning, I got a phone call from Ramesvara. “So, how did you do?” he asked with eager anticipation. I could tell he was convinced they had beat us. The big upset. “It was amazing,” I said, “I can’t believe how many books we did. How many books did you do?” Ramesvara paused, and then with great pride, gleefully announced that they had done around 1,800+ books (I can’t remember the number exactly).
“Wow! Your kidding me?” I said with shocked amazement, pretending to be discouraged. He got more excited believing the dejection in my voice, and I could hear the devotees in the room behind him getting excited. “I had no idea you could do that many.” I said with a defeated demeanor. “So how many did you do?” Ramesvara urgently insisted, gloating with premature confidence.
“Well, the devotees tried so hard to do the best they could,” I said with a feigned meek voice of accepted defeat, “and we only distributed (I said it slowly, milking it for all it was worth) 2,042 books!!!!!”
“NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!” came the painful scream over the phone. Ramesvara was in shock and disbelief. The devotees in the room were confused and completely dejected when Ramesvara repeated the total to them. Although no one likes to see a Godbrother suffer, for obvious reasons, I derived inestimable pleasure from it, as did the few devotees in the room with me!
Ramesvara was totally blown away and accepted defeat gracefully, congratulating us on behalf of all the LA devotees. In the next few days, I typed the details in a letter on my super iBM Selectric typewriter and sent it to Ramesvara to read to the LA devotees. Not only did he read it to them, he put it in the next BBT Newsletter that went to every temple all over the ISKCON world and to Srila Prabhupada.
He hand wrote these words on the top of the newsletter as well: “THE MOST ECSTATIC SKP NEWSLETTER OF ALL TIME! SHOULD BE READ ALOUD TO ALL OF THE ASSEMBLED DEVOTEES!” In addition, every annual LA Thanksgiving Day Marathon, he religiously read my letter to the devotees during the morning prasadam feast in the temple room, to get them fired up.
From that point on, the flow of book distribution stories to the BBT from all over the world increased. I have the complete letter but I haven’t scanned it yet. Hari Sauri prabhu included most of it in his memoirs. He was there in the room when Hansadutta read it to Srila Prabhupada. Prabhupada immediately wrote me a letter. Here is that excerpt from Hari Sauri’s book, along with Srila Prabhupada’s letter.
A Transcendental Diary by Hari Sauri dasa
December 9th, 1975
Back in Prabhupada’s room after breakfast, Hansadutta read out some particularly ecstatic letters from America describing book distribution. Prabhupada’s enthusiastic response to them was clear evidence that, as he said in class, he is fanning, fanning, fanning to bring back the fire of spiritual consciousness in the hearts of the conditioned souls. He has declared the entire world an open house for the introduction of Krishna consciousness. The letters show how seriously his disciples are applying to the task.
…Then Hansadutta prabhu read out an ecstatic report by Uttamasloka, the president of the Chicago temple, although it was not directly addressed to Srila Prabhupada. It described the efforts of the devotees in the recent, record-breaking, Thanksgiving-day book-distribution competition. Out of 5000 books sold by the three temples, Chicago, assisted by nine Radha-Damodara traveling sankirtana party brahmacaris, sold over 2000.
The letter was written to Ramesvara prabhu and sent on. Hansaduta read it out loud as Prabhupada listened, eyes sometimes wide with amazement and appreciation at the incredible effort and risk his disciples are taking to distribute his books throughout this world of darkness.
“We took the challenge seriously—not that we were puffed up and over confident of victory—for we knew that anything could happen by Lord Caitanya’s mercy. Then the first crew left—16 men and women—they were distributing by about 6:30 a.m. Later a small party went out by about 10:00 a.m. with more books and prasadam, and later on in the day several others came out. Altogether there were about 25 devotees at the airport throughout the day.
Sripati and I sort of floated about helping in different ways, like you did. There were the 17 regular distributors plus Tripurari Swami and a couple of weekend regulars and a few more newcomers.
“In the first hour and half most of the distributors had done 15 to 25 books, so by the time we got out (about 11:00 a.m.) they had already done about 300-400 books! The mornings are always good. Things were quiet; not too many announcements and no break up or hassles.
We all met together for lunch at 1:00 p.m. and took a preliminary count: over 750 books—we were close to breaking the world’s record half way through the day. By 1:00 p.m. Manusuta dasa had already done 100!!!!!! Praghosa dasa 80!!!!, and Tripurari Swami 70!!!! Our hairs began to stand on end a little as we speculated about the potential results and everyone was back distributing by 1:30 p.m.
“Basically we distribute in two terminals…there is a corridor about 25ft. wide that the people funnel through after coming from the ‘fingers’ …All the passengers come through there on their way to the baggage claim and also on their way to a flight. We found out from the paper next morning that over 220,000 people came through the airport that day!!!!
“At about 4:00 p.m. a demon worker of the airlines came up to one devotee and punched him in the face; the men were stunned. Then he went to another devotee and punched him in the face! The men and karmis began to congregate. Tripurari Swami came running to see what was happening; the demon punched him in the face!!! All of the devotees immediately jumped on the demon and began beating the stool out of him!!!!!!!
There was a huge crowd all around and the devotees were shouting for the police to stop this man. There was blood on his face and on the ground. Praghosa’s punch had drawn blood and there were drops of blood on Praghosa’s clothes and drops of perspiration on his face: he was feeling very blissful!!”
Prabhupada’ eyes opened wide at the description of the fight. “Accha! ” he said in surprise, shaking his head in wonder at the risks his men were taking on his and Krishna’s behalf. Hansaduta was laughing and shaking his head in awe, and he read on.
“Half the crowd was in our favor and the other half against. The police came in and the demon said that we had given him a book and then taken it back and started a fight. The police arrested the devotees! This is typical of all the incidents—they attack us and we get arrested! Anyway somehow or another, by Krishna’s grace, the devotees were released and back distributing in 20 minutes.
“Around 6 p.m. I took a preliminary count… I sat in the phone booth and added the score. As I added, my eyebrows began to raise higher and higher! My eyes began to bulge from their sockets!! My mouth dropped open! I was speechless! Tears actually began to flow from my eyes!
We had broken 1,400 books! I couldn’t believe it. I was stunned and took another count to be sure, and sure enough, it was right. I began to shout in ecstasy ‘Hari Bol, Hari Bol, Hari Bol!’ All the karmis were looking at me through the phone booth with screwed up faces of bewilderment.
“When I got back there had been another incident…. A couple of plain clothers (cops) had tried to set up one of the women for an arrest and she tried to get one of the men to help her. One of the men tried to intervene and they arrested him and took him downstairs. Another mother went down to find the girl whom they tried to arrest and when the cops saw her they said “Where’s is the other girl?” “I don’t know,” she said.
“OK, then we’ll arrest you instead!” “Hey, let me go! I didn’t do anything!” Two small scuffles broke out with the two devotees and the police. Another devotee came in to stop it, and the police turned on him and the three of them mercilessly beat him up on the floor in front of many bystanders!
One of the policemen’s guns fell out during the scuffle and books were scattered everywhere. The devotees were then taken to the jail downtown (the two men devotees). Of course this knocked at least 100 books off our score.”
Prabhupada was listening with rapt attention to the whole description, occasionally raising his eyebrows in surprise and shaking his head and smiling in appreciation. He was aglow with obvious pride at the determination of his disciples to sell his books despite all obstacles, and he listened to the entire report, blow by blow.
“While we listened to this incident and took prasadam, a demon who had found three books ripped them up and threw them in our midst. Unaffected, a little tired, but undaunted in their determination, the devotees went back to distribute.
Meanwhile a huge blizzard began and traffic started jamming both on the roads and in the air…. At 10:30 p.m. I got a report from Sripati: over 1700 books—we might break 2000!!!! This is incredible!! Who can imagine the mercy of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu?
All but four of the men were coming back at 11:30 p.m.—Manusuta w/ 191; Praghosa w/ 153; Tripurari Swami w/ 135, and Ranganatha w/ 120. The first crew returned in the blizzard by 2:00 a.m. Everyone struggled to get up for mangala arati (the four latecomers didn’t even go to sleep) and after and ecstatic kirtana I ran around to get the final scores.
On Thursday we fasted from breakfasted and chanted and slept till noon arati when we had a big arati, kirtana and after a nice feast!!!!
“Thank you for inspiring us to compete for the mercy or the Spiritual Master. If it weren’t for you we wouldn’t know what to do. All glories to Srila Prabhupada! Your servant, Uttamasloka dasa.”
Another page carried the totals for each distributor. Two men did over four hundred between them: Manusuta set a new individual world’s record with 210 books, Praghosa was just behind with 200. Another seven, Tripurari Swami, Ranganatha, Romapada, Buddhimanta and Prekara prabhus, including two women, Sadbhuja and Jagaddhatri dasis, broke the one-hundred-book mark.
The grand total was 2042 hardbound books!
At the bottom of the list Uttamasloka added a note to Ramesvara: “My humble suggestion and request is that you read this letter and all of its contents to the assembled devotes of New Dvaraka Dhama. Even though it is irregularly composed and full of mistakes and errors, it is still very transcendentally pleasing and will be relished by all.”
At the top of the letter Ramesvara had written in large, clear capital letters: “THE MOST ECSTATIC SKP NEWSLETTER OF ALL TIME! SHOULD BE READ ALOUD TO ALL OF THE ASSEMBLED DEVOTEES!”
When Hansaduta finished, Srila Prabhupada had a huge smile on his face, clearly pleased and obviously enjoying transcendental ecstasy.
He dictated his reply, not to Ramesvara, but to Uttamasloka.
Please accept my blessings. I read your sankirtana newsletter with great relish. Europe and America are in great danger, this Hare Krishna movement is enveloping them. The sankirtana devotees are very, very dear to Krishna.
Because they are doing the field work of book distribution, Krishna has immediately recognized them as true servants. Just like during war time, a farm boy or ordinary clerk who goes out to fight for his country on the front, immediately becomes a national hero for his sincere effort.
So Krishna immediately recognizes a preacher of Krishna consciousness who takes all risks to deliver his message.
It is called dhira bratta—determination. These boys and girls are mahatmas.
mahatmanas tu mam partha, daivim prakrtim asritah, bhajanty ananya manaso, jñatva bhutadim avyayam:
‘O son of Prtha, those who are not deluded, the great souls, are under the protection of the divine nature. They are fully engaged in devotional service because they know Me as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, original and inexhaustible.’
This verse is applicable here. If these boys were under the material nature they would not take so much risk. They are mahatma, they are real mahatma, not the long beard and saffon cloth mahatma.
They are unswerving in their determination, dhira bratta. All glories to the American devotees!
I hope this letter finds you and all the sankirtana devotees well,
Your ever well-wisher,
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami.”
I received this letter in early December. I got home late at night after being out on book distribution in downtown Chicago. I was completely caught off guard when I saw the familiar Aerogramme envelope on my desk that only meant one thing – a letter from Srila Prabhupada! But I hadn’t written him recently. Why would he have written a letter to me?
I looked, and sure enough, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami! I opened it and while reading it, tears began to flow and I had to be careful not to smudge the letter. I still have that original letter.
The next day I called Ramesvara and read the letter to him on the phone. He was blown away. I sent him a copy of the letter and he sent it out in the next BBT Newsletter to all the devotees around the world. It wrapped up a once in a lifetime, glorious episode in book distribution history.
At the 1976 Mayapura Festival a few months later, about 500 devotees were all assembled around the steps of the original Lotus building to greet Srila Prabhupada for his first darshan in our midst, and to mark the official beginning of the festival. A big kirtan accompanied his grand descent. I was standing next to Amarendra prabhu, down the walkway on the outside, almost near the end of the building.
Srila Prabhupada slowly descended the stairs, looking from left to right and glancing upon the assembled devotees, showering everyone with his look of gratitude and happiness at the glorious success this display of individuals represented. He turned and continued down the second set of stairs, then down the walkway in my general direction.
If Prabhupada smiled at you directly and connected for even a second, it became an indelible samskara that would stay with you for life. Everyone hankered for those gems and collected them as precious gifts. Prabhupada continued to look from side to side to acknowledge everyone, and then when he was about 15 feet from me, he bestowed one of those jewels on me. I smiled gratefully and fixed my gaze on him.
Only this time, Srila Prabhupada didn’t look to the other side – he just kept looking at me and smiling! He walked right up to me and the kirtan subsided momentarily. Prabhupada stopped, and very engagingly said, “So, how are things in Chicago?” I was stunned and ecstatic! “Everything is wonderful, Srila Prabhupada.” “Very good.” he said.
Then, mistaking Amarendra for Govardhana, he asked, “How are things in Detroit?”. Amarendra said, “I’m Amarerdra Srila Prabhupada, president of Miami.” Prahupada acknowleded his mistake and heard that things were well in Miami. The procession carried on, but the samskara will last forever.
I was sure he blessed me this way because of the letter I wrote about the contest. I’m glad I had a chance to share it again with this esteemed assembly.
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