Friends of the BBT Newslettter – January 2009
No Relaxation in the Revolution: Congregational Preaching in the UK
by Madhava Smullen
At first, it wasn’t book distribution that spread Krishna consciousness in England. Instead, devotees met with George Harrison and the Beatles, went to parties, and rubbed shoulders with the poets, artists and singers of the day.
But when Krishna was released, Prabhupada laid a new emphasis on book distribution, writing to English devotees, “I am always thinking of the boys in the vans.”
Yet there was a larger preaching plan. When Tribhuvanath Dasa, who had been staging festivals up till then, asked, “Should I stop and just do book distribution?”
Prabhupada replied, “No. Do everything side by side.” He elaborated, in a 1973 letter to Pra-bhavishnu Swami, “Go and do these six things: Distribute books, chant in public, give out prasadam, give out flyers, answer people’s questions, and hold a program in someone’s home.”
It was the blueprint for the future of congregational preaching in England.
A year later, in 1974, Bhaktivedanta Manor’s Congregational Director-to-be met devotees at a pop festival. Kripamoya Dasa decided to check out the temple for three days, and hadn’t even joined ISKCON yet when he went out to distribute books for the first time.
“Reading and giving out the books every day made me decide to join, so my experience of coming to Krishna consciousness was slightly different from most devotees,” he says. “Rather than joining because of receiving books, I joined because of giving them.”
And for the next six years he continued to do so, travelling across the UK.
His foundation built, Kripamoya joined England’s first congregational program. Friends of Lord Krishna (FOLK) visited people who didn’t live near a temple and encouraged them to take up chanting, offer their food, read Prabhupada’s books, and try to follow the regulative principles as much as they could.
By 1983, FOLK was receiving four to five letters of inquiry about Prabhupada’s books per day. In an age before email, it was a huge success.
In 1984 book distributors began to ask customers for their names and addresses. They would then offer these customers a three-month trial subscription to the then monthly Back to Godhead magazine.
Ten percent accepted. When the three months were up, devotees asked the trial subscribers if they wanted to pay for an annual subscription, and once again 10% did. These became congregational devotees, and eventually formed 50% of Bhaktivedanta Manor’s book distribution team.
After FOLK came Namahatta, and then ISKCON Groups. Today, there are about forty ISKCON groups in England – twenty inside London, and twenty outside London, with ten to fifteen people in each.
Speakers commit to a schedule convenient for them, and all groups are centrally coordinated from Bhaktivedanta Manor. It’s a success, but Kripamoya says we need to add icing on the cake if we are to beat the stiff competition from more widespread spiritual organizations.
“People often get books from us and go to others for more information,” he explains. “So we must make a greater impression by following up and developing personal relationships with our customers. Without follow-up, the results of book distribution are lost.”
He adds, “Some argue that just touching a book or reading one word brings spiritual benefit. But Prabhupada wanted people to read his books from beginning to end and say, ‘This has changed my life. Now what do I do?’ So the goal shouldn’t be book distribution—it should be bringing people to Krishna consciousness.
This may sound controversial for some, but we must remember that book distribution is just a means to a greater end.”
According to Kripamoya, creativity is also essential to the dream of spreading Krishna consciousness to “every town and village.”
Although we constantly came up with fresh ideas while Prabhupada was present and for several years after, internal difficulties made us stop and keep retreading early methods in an effort to make sure we were following Prabhupada’s desires.
But Prabhupada himself had famously said, “Use your American and European brains to figure out how this can be done.”
“Yes, Prabhupada’s book distribution is a non-negotiable component of Krishna conscious outreach,” Kripamoya says. “But we still need to keep thinking of fresh and creative methods.
The benefits are obvious—twenty-five years ago we received more letters for Science of Self-Realization than for any other book. Why? Because it was undiluted Prabhupada, but it was compiled creatively, with easy to read three-page segments and a handy size that fit perfectly into a woman’s handbag or man’s briefcase.”
Another tip Kripamoya gives for effective congregational preaching is to introduce group members to book distribution as early as possible.
“Book distribution puts you in direct contact with Krishna, because Krishna becomes pleased when he sees your pure efforts to introduce his words to the world,” he says.
“It also makes you feel that you’re connecting with people and testing your knowledge, and that the movement is expanding. It’s an inspirational experience, and a sure way to keep your congregational group way ahead of the competition.”
Kripamoya himself organizes a monthly sankirtana festival from Bhaktivedanta Manor with twenty-five young book distributors.
“Congregational preaching has become part of the culture of ISKCON England,” he says. ‘But you can’t relax once you’ve created your congregational group—the group itself has to distribute books.
These books are meant to bring about a revolution in the impious lives of misguided civilizations. And there’s no relaxation in the revolution.
So the more we get our congregational members to distribute books, the more Krishna consciousness will really spread in a grass-roots way.”
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