The Unknown History of Big Book Distribution
By Mahatma Das
(The following is an excerpt from an unfinished book about my life in Krsna consciousness. It details the history of how big book distribution began in Iskcon, a history which has not been chronicled in any Iskcon publications. The scene takes place in Vancouver, Canada, November of 1971.)
At this time in Iskcon (1971) big book distribution had not yet begun. We only distributed Back to Godhead magazines (BTG’s) on the street. We usually got donation of 25cents per magazine. If we were lucky, we might occasionally get a really big donation of 50 cents. We thought it was difficult to get that much money from most people so we didn’t usually ask for it.
I have never been one to be happy with the status quo (sometimes that gets me into trouble) and I began thinking that we should try to distribute Krsna Books which had just recently been published. That was such a big way of thinking at the time that it was hard for any of us to take it seriously, myself included, since the Krsna Books sold for $8 and we were cautious about asking for mere 50 cents. Yet on one Canadian holiday in which everyone stayed home, we decided to go door to door. The idea was that we would all bring one Krsna Book with us along with our magazines. We thought it would be fun and exciting to show people the book and the pictures and that alone would be our reward for our boldness. We knew there might be a remote possibility of selling the book but we didn’t have much faith that it would happen. Still we showed everyone Krsna Book.
So there we were, knocking on doors as we usually did, and we were really having a good time showing those Krsna Books. Then all of a sudden we had a major unforeseen accident that day. We all returned to the van one hour after we were dropped off and upon returning of the devotee says, “I just sold a Krsna Book!” Our whole world was turned upside down forever. We were in a state of shock. When the shock wore off we started going crazy celebrating, banging the walls of the van, congratulating the devotee who sold the book, laughing, screaming. We were in major party mode celebrating this momentous victory. We actually couldn’t believe what happened.
Here we were, a band of six very young devotees thousands of miles from the big temples in Iskcon, and we were making history in the pioneering of big book distribution.
From that time one on whenever we went out door to door, we would bring Krsna Books. And every once and a while we would sell one. Every time it happened we went crazy. It was still as unbelievable as it was the time we sold the first book. The first time I sold a Krsna Book I got so excited – actually intoxicated – I couldn’t find my way back to the van. I was running wildly down the street in ecstasy and I couldn’t wait to get back to the van to tell the other devotees what happened. But I got lost for a few minutes – and the van was only two blocks away! Later I read that Prabhupada said, “This book distribution is the real intoxication.” I think those of us who were first to distribute big books got the most potent brew ever of this intoxicating drug called big book distribution.
Krsna wanted these books distributed in larger quantities but we didn’t know how to do it. The problem we faced is that we didn’t have any technique to sell the books. Our sales were just a matter of luck, a numbers game of finally running into someone interested enough in buying the book. We now realized that distributing big books was possible and sensed we were on to something big. The problem was we couldn’t figure out how to take advantage of this potential so we could all consistently sell books. In other words, we didn’t have a technique to sell the books.
Krsna had a plan to help us. In steps Thakura Haridas Prabhu on the scene to save the day. Thakura Haridas, a tall, enthusiastic, boisterous, in your face kind of guy from the San Francisco temple, shows up one day in Vancouver. Thakur Haridas was all enthusiasm and was always making huge plans to spread Krsna consciousness. In fact, before he came to Vancouver he was in Portland teaching a professional basketball team to chant japa! Thakura Haridas was looking for big challenges in Krsna’s service and when he heard about our big book distribution and enthusiasm to expand it, he bought into the idea like a hungry brahmacari at a feast. He immediately became ten times more enthusiastic about the idea than we were. It was like he found his calling in life. He was ready to take on the world with Krsna Books.
At this time we were informed that Srila Prabhupada said if someone will go anywhere to spread Krsna consciousness, not considering how he will eat or where he will sleep, he would take the dust from their feet and put it on his head. We practically fainted when we heard this. That statement became the catalyst for a preaching revolution in our hearts. On the spot we decided to load all the books we had into our van and head east from Vancouver on traveling sankirtana. So with $5 in our pocket and a full tank of gas, we headed east into the Canadian winter on the first ever big book distribution traveling sankirtana party. We didn’t know how we would eat, where we would sleep, or if we would make enough money to live. And that’s exactly the way we wanted it. We wanted the mercy and we knew we’d get it if we’d be willing go out on a limb for Krsna. It was exciting. It was an adventure. We were setting off to visit cities in which people had never seen nor heard of Hare Krsna. (And, by the way, it was really cold for a kid like me who grew up in Southern California).
We left in the late afternoon with a van full of books and a bag of rice and dhal. We didn’t even have pots. Actually we didn’t have anything we could eat. And the $5 was quickly gulped up at the gas station. We were truly living on the edge, and we loved it. We arrived in a small town in the evening about 8pm. We were used to going out on harinama (chanting) wherever we’d go so that’s what we did. The problem was that this was a small town and it was in the middle of the winter, so no one was on the street at 8pm. Well, actually there was one person on the street: the local town drunk. So there we were, three of us chanting and Haridas with his book bag full of Krsna Books waiting and hoping that someone might hear the kirtan and come over to see what was going on. Nobody came so the only person he had to talk to was the drunk. So that’s what he did. There he is showing a drunk a Krsna Book and we are looking at him thinking this is ridiculous. And he’s talking and talking and talking and we are thinking Thakura Haridas is nuts, he is wasting his time, the drunk isn’t going to buy a book. Get real Thakura. And then we watch in amazement as the drunk takes out $8 and gives it to Haridas. No one had ever distributed big books on the street and here Haridas sells a Krsna Book to the only person on the street – and a drunk to top it off. This event set the scene and mood for the rest of the trip; you can distribute Krsna Books to anyone, anywhere. You just have a strong desire, believe you can do it, and just try.
So we’re on the street, it’s 8:30 at night and the ecstasy is starting to get overtaken by the realization that, “It’s dam cold out here, there’s no one on the street and we don’t have a place to stay. Maybe we should do something.” What a good idea. So we drive around town and by Krsna’s grace we find a hostile. We knock on the door and we are welcomed in, given our own room and fed the next morning with all the fruit and nuts four hungry monks could ever want. We knew Krsna would provide and the whole trip turned out to be a series of similar scenarios in which Krsna supplied whatever we needed.
After breakfast the next morning we decided to go door to door and beg for cooking pots since we didn’t have any. We also begged for vegetables; “Here take a magazine and can you throw in a few carrots as a donation? How about a couple tomatoes? Here, I’ll give you another magazine for you friends if you can throw in a pat of butter. And by the way, do you have an extra pot you don’t use?” By Krsna’s arrangement we met a relative of a devotee and she donated all the pots and utensils we needed. We collected some veggies and also a few dollars. So we were set. We then drove off to Calgary, the next closest major town on our tour, raring to do harinama sankirtana and distribute Krsna Books and magazines that afternoon.
The more we depended on Krsna, the more He provided for us. Actually, we had no doubt that He would provide whatever we needed. After all, we had seen Him maintain the Vancouver temple month after month despite the fact that we never knew where the money would come from. So we never worried about how we would live. On the very first day we arrive in Calgary we meet some hippies who have we have a head shop and they tell us there is an extra room in the back where we can stay. So right there without even knowing us, they give us the keys to their store. Not that we would have, but we could have stole everything and run out of town (what were those guys smoking?).
Were we excited when this happened? Not really. We just expected that we would meet people who would put us up. Our faith was so high that I think Krsna made things happen according to that faith.
Everyday Thakura Haridas would manage to distribute big books. The rest of us were still trying to figure out how to do it and we would sell one every few days. Thakura Haridas had become so enlivened by distributing Krsna Books that he couldn’t contain himself. It was common that after breakfast, while we were getting ready to go out on sankirtana, he would run out for fifteen minutes to go door to door in the neighborhood. And when we were getting ready for bed, he would do the same thing. He had become addicted to distributing Krsna Books. We really couldn’t believe that anyone could distribute big books everyday like he was doing. He was simply distributing books with one technique: his raw enthusiasm.
One evening after returning from sankirtana while we were taking hot milk and preparing to take rest, Thakura Haridas again amazed us and went out door to door. He returned about 20 minutes later so he to go to bed when we did. “Thakura, where did you go?” He was beaming. He told us that he had just sold a Krsna Book to an atheist. Totally blown away, I ask, “What did you tell them?” Boiling over with enthusiasm he replied, “I told them ‘I am in ecstasy. You should take this book.’ And they took the book!” We couldn’t believe it. This guy was amazing.
After a week in Calgary we head east to Edmonton. On the first day we meet some favorable hippies. They have a huge house and invite us to stay with them. We slowly turn the house into a temple because several of the hippies living there want to get into Krsna consciousness. We have morning programs and with their help organize three amazing Sunday feasts that are attended by about sixty people. All the people in the house are quickly becoming attached to the devotees, kirtana and prasadam. This trip planted the seed in the hearts of five people who became devotees over the next few months.
Thakur Haridas is becoming more enlivened every day. He is a persuasive person who likes to inspire others. At this time traveling sankirtan was just beginning in San Francisco. We heard they would fill their vans up with BTGs and stay out on the road until all the magazines were distributed. One Sunday morning Haridas decides to call the temple president of San Francisco, Keshava, to let him know that we had broken open big book distribution, something that no one else in the movement even imagined was possible. Thakura says to Keshava with a bit of pride, “So what’s going on down there?” Keshava proudly tells Haridas about their new traveling program. They fill their van full with BTGs and go out on the road and don’t return until every last magazine is distributed. They are distributing many times more magazines than every before. They are on fire. Haridas is not impressed, but he wants to let Keshava toot his own horn so he can smash him to the ground with his news. “That’s nothing. You’re in maya,” Thakura’s intimidating voiced almost screaming bloody murder. “We are selling Krsna Books. This is the real sankirtana. Get out there and sell Krsna Books. Just bring them with you and show them to people. What’s wrong with you.!”
Silence. Did Keshava faint? Did he commit suicide? No Keshava is a warrior and his blood is boiling. He takes up the challenge. San Francisco temple runs with the idea of big book distribution and soon far surpasses all our efforts. Now the big book distribution revolution has really begun. That call was such a momentous occasion that somehow to this day I can still remember exactly where in the house Thakura called, what the room looked like, what he said, his mood, etc. That call ignited a huge fire of big book distribution in Iskcon. Thank you Thakura Haridas. And thank you Keshava for taking the sauce as a true warrior.
Keshava is now so enlivened that he calls his brother Karandhara in Los Angeles and tells him about the big book distribution breakthrough. Soon the fire catches on in LA with even more intensity than in San Francisco. Not only do the LA sankirtana devotees discover that they can sell Krsna Books, but temple devotees take Krsna Books to sell when shopping, doing laundry, getting gas, etc. (“I don’t have money to pay for the gas but I have this book I can give you as payment.”). Devotees are becoming addicted to the intoxication of selling Krsna books. LA then spreads the word about big book distribution everywhere and the whole Iskcon world gradually catches on fire.
The above story about the first big books being distributed in Vancouver, Thakura Haridas taking up the challenge and then inspiring Keshava are important events in the history of book distribution in Iskcon, events which have have not been chronicled anywhere else in Iskcon publications.
(Here in the book I describe other ecstatic events, but to shorten this article and keep it focused on book distribution, I have eliminated those parts. The following paragraph begins by making reference to those stories).
Since so much ecstatic preaching is going on, I write the devotees in Vancouver a blow by blow account of our activities; the TV and radio shows, the Indian program, how the house we are staying in is being transformed into a temple, and the incredible big book distribution we are doing, etc. The devotees are so enlivened by the letter that, unknown to us, they decide to send it to Srila Prabhupada so he can also become enlivened by our preaching as well.
Prabhupada loved the letter. He encouraged me by saying that I get the credit for starting the first traveling sankirtana party (actually Gaura Hari Prabhu, the president of the Victoria temple, had taken out the very first traveling party. But they had not done big books). On that trip we distributed sixty big books. That was the all time Iskcon record for big books distributed by one temple in one month and that was reported to Prabhupada. Prabhupada was no doubt pleased and noted how we had taken advantage of so many situations to spread Krsna consciousness, and especially to distribute Krsna Books. He said that seizing every opportunity to spread Krsna consciousness is the symptom of an advanced devotee.
I feel so blessed to have taken part in that historic event and feel fortunate beyond expression that Krsna sent Haridas Thakura to Vancouver to run with my dream of distributing big books. I don’t feel that I have any qualification to practice devotional service, but perhaps having something to do with the beginnings of book distribution has showered me with so much mercy that I am still able to continue in Krsna consciousness even today.