The Brazilian BBT harks back as far as 1975, when Srila Prabhupada held the first Portuguese Bhagavad-gita in his hands. Director Ishvara Swami ran the organization impressively, translating all of Prabhupada’s books and turning out huge print runs of between 100,000 and 400,000, with an unprecedented one million copies of Perfect Questions, Perfect Answers flying off the presses. Brazil was a major sankirtana powerhouse, climbing to the top of the book distribution charts for a whole year.
But things changed. The eighties and nineties saw people become less interested in monastic lifestyles, and more interested in materialism. Eastern spirituality wasn’t new anymore. And ISKCON changed too, becoming based more on congregation than on celibate students.
The army of book distributors was radically reduced worldwide, and shrank almost to nil in Brazil. BBT directors were caught off guard and struggled to adjust to the new reality.
In 2001, the Brazilian BBT had hit a new low. Their stock was practically non-existent— there was no full Bhagavad-gita, no Krishna book, no Nectar of Instruction, and only a few volumes of Caitanya-caritamrita. Sales were so low that they didn’t even have enough money to get through the month.
Hridayananda Maharaja, the then overseer of ISKCON Brazil, knew it was time to act. He asked Giridhari Dasa, a fresh new face who had joined ISKCON only five years prior, to be the new BBT director. The son of a Brazilian diplomat, Giridhari had been a businessman until striking up a friendship with Prabhupada disciple Mahavira Dasa. Giridhari was introduced to Krishna consciousness gradually, until reading the Bhagavad-gita As It Is sealed the deal for him.
Giridhari sprang into action. To stop the BBT having to close its doors that very month, he first borrowed $5,000 from his guru Hridayananda Maharaja. Next, he downsized the inflated operation of six full-time employees and a huge two-story office-building to one employee and a much smaller office, drastically reducing costs.
But it was the Bhagavad-gita and old friend Mahavira Dasa who’d once again save Giridhari’s day. “Mahavira put me in touch with Devi-Deva Prabhu, who gave an amazing donation of $25,000 to print our first deluxe Bhagavad-gita,” Giridhari says.
“The resulting edition was called ‘The most beautiful Gita I’ve ever seen’ by our dear departed Sridhara Swami. And it was exactly the injection of money and hope we needed—with the profits from its sales, we could print new books, and get back on our feet.”
Giridhari thanks Devi-Deva Dasa endlessly, and with feeling. “Everything that we have now is due to his donation,” he says. “If not for him, the Brazilian BBT might not exist today.”
The Brazil BBT may have survived, but it still must meet challenges. It currently has only two full-time employees—warehouse manager Haridasa at the office in Brasilia, and Trivikrama Dasa, a layout artist and editor who works from the Nova Gokula farm near São Paulo.
Financial director Sadhusanga Dasa, Giridhari, and others work from their homes for free, receiving not a penny for their services. And street book distribution sales remain low—unlike many other countries, ISKCON Brazil hasn’t yet managed to revitalize and increase street book distribution since the slump of the nineties.
So the Brazilian BBT has turned to the internet instead. A pioneer of online preaching, Giridhari has been involved in the BBT’s website Krishna.com since its inception, and translated its Portuguese version, pt.krishna.com. He’s a firm believer that in this age of the Internet and Google, online sales will only keep growing for the BBT. “They establish a direct connection between us and the customer, and yield a better profit margin,” he says.
BBT Brazil’s current online store, www.bbt.org.br, leads the way with some unique features. As well as catering to the public, they’re making sankirtana more accessible by offering special prices to temples and independent book distributors.
“Now that any householder can just go online and get the same price as temples, we hope that congregational members will be stimulated to buy and distribute books more,” Giridhari says. “They can even use a credit card, and split the price over six months.”
The way of the future, he believes, lies in congregational sankirtana. “With ISKCON shifted from a movement of celibate students in temples to one of householders living outside, there is a huge untapped potential in congregational book distribution,” he says. For an example, he cites Amigos de Krishna, an online newsletter the Brazil BBT started in 1996. “7,500 people have signed up voluntarily so far, and more are signing up every day. If each one of them would distribute just ten books a month, that would be huge—practically a whole year’s worth of distribution for us.”
For now, BBT Brazil is focusing on reprinting small distribution books as part of a regional GBC effort to revitalize Brazilian Sankirtana. They’re also reprinting Srila Prabhupada-lilamrita. But their big news is a brand new hardcover deluxe version of the book that brought them back to life—Bhagavad-gita As It Is.
With all mistakes found in previous versions removed, corrections from the 1989 English Gita added for the first time ever in Brazil, and a beautiful new cover, they expect it to be just as successful as the first.
“There’s something completely magical about working for the BBT,” Giridhari concludes. “It really is Prabhupada’s heart. With every new edition that we print, and every year that goes by that we keep things running nicely, I can feel in my own heart that Prabhupada is happy with us.”