CELEBRITY SANKIRTAN. Radha Damodar dasa: Srila Prabhupada asked…
Radha Damodar dasa: Srila Prabhupada asked that his disciples go out and distribute his books. In the early days the main engagement of the devotees was to go to the busiest part of the city and blissfully sing the Hare Krishna mantra accompanied at first by guitars and kartals (cymbals) and later by mrdunga drums and kartals. So, we started to also ask the passing people to buy a book or maagazine and even went door to door to sell books but the result wasn’t satisfying. People weren’t interested and only gave us a little change to get rid of us. About 1975, mostly due to the ideas of Tripurari dasa, we developed a new technique called “undercover Samkirtan” or “karmi clothes Samkirtan”. Samkirtan means to publicly glorify the Lord. We would put on Western style clothes such as shirts and trousers or even suits and the men would wear wigs or hats. We wore Identification Badges or carried some kind of license or certificate and went to every crowded place. Our main method was “the numbers game” which was to keep on asking for a donation from as many people as you could. The number of donations, quarters, dollars, etc. added up and any man could collect a hundred dollars or more in a day. The money went mostly to the BBT press to pay for the printing of Srila Prabhupada’s books.
So we would go to malls, shopping center parking lots, sports events, State Fairs. The best place to go was to the airport terminal because it was always crowded, you rarely met the same people twice and you were inside, protected from the elements of weather. Airport officials did not like us but the courts had to uphold our right to preach in a public place as long as we did not sell but merely “accepted donations”. We would hand out a small gift such as a stick of incense or a lollipop to get the people to stop. Then we would give them a brief statement of our need for donations for a good cause and if they gave a donation we would give them a large or small book and then run to the next prospect. In this way, many thousands of enthusiastic young men and women blitzed every store, every home in every town and village in the U.S., Europe, India, and everywhere else in the world between 1975 and 1985. More about this in my next essay “The Good Old Days” but now my personal recollections of distributing or preaching to celebrities:
One day in 1974, I was distributing at the door of a Target Department Store in Denver, Colorado. I was dressed in an orange dhoti and was handing out incense and magazines. At noon I called the temple and the president told me that “Bob Dylan was just here looking like he stepped off an album cover with faded jeans and tussled hair. He just went into the temple room and chanted on his beads for a couple of hours while the devotee couple that he’s travelling with collected all the prasadam (remnants of the Lord’s foodstuff) they could and bought books and posters.”
A few minutes later Puspa dasa came up and introduced himself and said, “Bob wants to see you in the van.” I picked up my box and went out to the van and there he was, strumming his guitar on the floor of the van. “Please come in,” he said.“Please have some prasadam.” Puspa and his wife gave me a big tray of all kinds of prasad such as sweets, halavah, vegetables and rice with milk to drink. I looked about - all around the top of the van walls were colourful pictures torn from Back to Godhead magazine and on his guitar was a picture of Lord Krishna on the body and the logo of Srila Prabhupada on the neck. I praised his involvement in IsKcon but Bob appeared very shy. Puspa suggested that Bob sing the song about Krsna that he’d just wrote so he sang “Come to Krsna, Hari Bol” and they sang along with enthusiasm. I then thanked them and left, going back to my Samkirtan.
At the Denver airport I met Timothy Leary, who is famous for synthesizing the hallucinogenic drug LSD. He was familiar with our philosophy, so we were chatting. I had a gulab jamon (a juicy sweetball) and I had just persuaded him to put the whole stick sweetball in his mouth when a female devotee from the temple said, “How nice, now you won’t have to be a ghost,” and he spat it out into an ash tray saying, “ I want to be a ghost, ” and he walked away.
I distributed at the Denver airport about 40 hours a week for many years. Usually I would pin a carnation on the lapel of a traveller and ask for a donation, then give them some literature. One day, the other devotees called me over to try to get a donation from Rock guitarist Gregg Allman. He was on his way to Vail for a ski vacation with his wife, singer Cher and her daughter Chastity. I showed him the book Bhagavad Gita and they all listened nicely to me for half an hour, then he gave me $5, a good donation in those days and I gave him the Gita.
One day, I saw actor-singer-dancer Sammy Davis Jr. coming through the airport. I gave him a flower and asked for a donation. His companion said, “Look, we get this all the time. We just can’t…” but Mr. Davis snapped, “Listen, give me a couple of bucks for me!” His friend gave me a dollar very reluctantly but didn’t want a magazine. A few minutes later I gave Mr. Davis a Bhagavad Gita and he put it under his arm and said, “thank you, I promise to read this.”
The Beach Boys were running with their luggage to catch a plane but Mike Love came over to me and said,“oh, wow I could really use a Bhagavad Gita where I’m going, would $5 be allright, I never carry much money when I travel.”
I often met the Turtles. They had read our books before and were not interested but they were friendly and would joke and play around with me.
I met John Denver in the baggage claim and he said he liked out literature and he gave $4 for a couple of magazines.
I recognized Clint Eastwood in the baggage claim, old and tired looking in a dark suit but when I approached him I was driven away by a young lady who gave me a good tongue lashing, poking my chest with her finger nail. Mr. Eastwood looked apologetic.
When I saw Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California and Presidential candidate coming up the hall, surrounded by reporters and photographers, I went right up and pinned a flower on his lapel and asked for a donation. He just said, “thank you, this is very lovely indeed.” He shook my hand hard and asked me to vote for him.
A few of us met the rock group called the Mothers of Invention at the Denver airport, they were very amusing. Frank Zappa was wearing a T-shirt with his own picture on it and he gave us his baggage claim stub, saying “you ought to be able to get $5 for this,” and he gave us his comb, saying “ you ought to be able to get $20 for this!”
I met comedian Jerry Lewis several times, although he was willing to discuss, he wasn’t interested in Krishna Consciousness and never took a book. One day I saw him walking up the concourse with elegant young ladies on each arm and when he got to the limo pick up area he was yelling “Where’s my bags? I brought 20 bags and I want to see them all right here!”
At the Las Vegas airport I distributed literature to many celebrities including golf pro Jack Armstrong, comedian Red Foxx, Elvis impersonator Big El and the actor who starred in the TV show “Palladin.”
I met comedian Danny Thomas at the Las Vegas airport and offerred him a small Krsna Book. He said, “ No thank you son, I have that book at home. I’ve read it.” He gave $5.
I had a long talk one day with singer Rod Stewart. He said he didn’t like devotees, our philosophy or the pushy way we distribute books but a couple of weeks later I saw sitting with book distributor Bopadev dasa talking quite warmly.
One day, in Las Vegas I saw Leader of the Opposition Tip O'Neil coming down the concourse, very drunk. I pinned a flower on him and asked for a donation. He said, “Son, I’m a U.S. congressman,” he gave me his card,“I don’t give to the people, I steal from them! HA HA HA.”
I met the Zoo Director of the Denver Zoo while distributing there. He drove up and told me how much he disliked the prescence of preachers, such as myself, at his facility. I asked him what his philosophy was and he said, “ I believe man is a carnivore, and my greatest happiness in life is to eat every species!” He then told me of his travels in the four directions’ such as “I’ve been to the North and eaten walrus and bear.” And then he said, “I realize that some animals are going extinct, therefore I want to eat them first! I don’t want to miss anything.” Actually there’s a club in America that has large charity funding dinners where members pay thousands of dollars to dine on dinners of rare Endangered Species prepared by hotel chefs.
There were others, but that’s all I remember right now.