The Multilevel Marketplace of the Holy Name
By Akruranatha Dasa
The devotees of ISKCON of Silicon Valley (ISV) in San Jose are still glowing after recently completing the annual Bhaktivinoda Thakur Monthly Sankirtan Festival. They set for themselves the daunting goal of mobilizing 300 book distributors, but when the dust settled a record 556 people had gone out, with a net result of over 10,000 books distributed and over $18,000 collected in donations!
On July 17th I interviewed His Grace Vaisesika Das Adhikari, the architect and mastermind of this innovative approach of facilitating broad, congregational participation in book distribution by holding various Monthly Sankirtan Festivals (MSFs) throughout the year.
Q: How did you come up with the goal of deploying 300 book distributors?
Vaisesika: The number 300 came from Praveena, who coordinates our festivals. We had surpassed other goals in Monthly Sankirtan Festivals recently, but one record we had not broken in a long time was number of distributors, and she had her eye on 300.
Q: Was the previous record for number of distributors also a Bhaktivinoda Thakur Festival?
Vaisesika: Yes, it was.
Q: What is the connection with the festival commemorating Bhaktyivinoda Thakur’s Disappearance Day and the goal for getting many devotees out on book distribution?
Vaisesika: It happened spontaneously five years ago when we were organizing the Bhaktivinoda festival and somehow it just caught fire. We weren’t planning for it but it turned out to be an extremely large festival with big results beyond our expectations, and we took it as a sign that Bhaktivinoda Thakur was inspiring us, so we latched on to it. It is also in the summertime, which is a good time for a marathon.
H.H. Kesava Bharati Das Goswami: I remember one Bhaktivinoda Festival I told Vaisesika how many devotees Sivarama Swami had going out in Hungary and Vaisesika said, “We’ve gotta do more than that.”
Vaisesika: I remember that year. I said we had a goal to have 100 devotees go out, and Maharaja said, “That’s nothing. Sivarama Swami has 144 going out.” So I said, “That’s it. We’re going to do 160!” [Laughter] And we ended up doing over 180 that year.
Q: How did the idea come up of setting goals for the number of devotees going out?
Vaisesika: Its based on our philosophy of “A lot of devotees each doing a little bit.” That’s one of the core principles of this kind of sankirtan and the MSF is that a lot of people each doing a little bit is the most stable kind of model because everyone feels naturally inclined to do a little bit, and no pressure from it, and when you get the masses going you get big numbers.
I remember when I had my first realization about this in Manhattan in 1976 at the 340 W. 55th Street temple, and we used to have once a month a festival where we had everyone in the temple going out, even mothers with babies in carriages and everyone. And I remember at the time I was a brahmacari and I was thinking, “What will they do? We experts know how to distribute books, but what is a baby going to be able to do?” I remember seeing at the end of the day, after so many people came back from sankirtan, that the scores were huge, and that impressed it in my mind that, if you can get everyone out, and everyone is allowed to just do whatever they do naturally, then you’ll have a huge amount. And it stuck in my mind. So when I came here to ISV we applied the same principle: “A lot of devotees each doing a little bit.”
Q: How is it possible to get 556 people out on book distribution at a temple that has no resident devotees except two pujaris, and gets less than 100 guests at a typical Sunday Feast?
Vaisesika: This is based on our other principle, “Decentralization.” Because people already own their own assets, they have their own homes, they own their own cars, so why centralize everything in one place? People are naturally already performing their sadhana and bhakti in ways that are outside the reach of the temple, but they can also participate in the sankirtan.
So in these Monthly Sankirtan Festivals we provide facility for everyone, wherever they live, to go out and do book distribution. They live all over the Bay Area, and we give them facility to distribute books, giving them training, giving them books, and giving them guidance and support while they’re distributing.
Families are natural networks, which can expand into the hundreds. If you introduce the books to someone who takes them into their family and gets aunts, uncles, mother, father, brothers, sisters, and gets everyone to talk to their friends and relatives and connections, just in one little network of people – that’s a natural network that already exists – and if you inspire them and give them facility, you can get about a hundred people just from just one family to go out on book distribution, in their own way.
Q. So someone goes home and tells their uncle, their relatives, “I want you to go out because we’re having a marathon”?
A. Yes. And if they show up with philosophy about the importance of book distribution, how it pleases Krishna and how its worthwhile and that the world needs spiritual knowledge and information, and they give them the books to distribute and show them how to do it, those relatives and friends often times will go out. And there’s a long lasting effect, because those people often times then continue doing it, and create their own little networks, so in this way we’re using network marketing.
Actually I got these ideas when I had a business that employed this network marketing, so I am using a lot of the same principles that I learned in network marketing of a few people each telling a few, each telling a few, and you use the power of multiplication. So it’s the multilevel marketing of the holy name.
Q. Did the results exceed your expectations?
A. They sure did. In fact, when we first looked at 300, we thought it was daunting. Because during the summertime a lot of devotees go out of town, because their kids get off from school, and we heard about dozens of devotees including many of our biggest distributors leaving town, and we thought, “How are we going to do this?” But when the numbers started coming in we realized actually it was a benefit that they were leaving town, because they were going to other places where they found other networks of people who could distribute.
And also, we’ve employed this principle of the Monthly Sankirtan Festival because people like a goal that captures their imagination, and when people are always rising to the occasion then they’re always advancing. It’s like, when NASA builds a rocket, the benefit of the rocket is not the destination — wherever it lands or wherever it goes — but it’s the process of actually working to build technologies and infrastructure to build the rocket that actually has the most far-reaching effects. So when we create these big goals it captures the imaginations of people all over the world and they want to be part of it.
After all, everyone joined ISKCON because they want to be part of a movement, and movement means somebody’s got to move. And when you’re moving, and you’re actually moving towards something, people are attracted.
* * *
Radha Dasi, who has been involved since ISKCON first came to her native Trinidad (a very long time ago), and who spent many years in New York going to school and teaching and working on Wall Street, went out on book distribution for her first time during the Bhaktivinoda Thakur “MSF 300”. She had this to say:
Q: Was this the first time you went on book distribution?
Radha Dasi: Yes, it was my first time, but somehow it was the right time and place, such a beautiful place is Santa Cruz, I felt so much at home and the people on the street, everything, just felt like it was predestined. The experience was really beautiful, because introducing people to Prabhupada and to Krishna is very significant at this point in human history.
Q: When you were in Trinidad and New York, did no one ever ask you to go book distribution?
Radha Dasi: Its not that no one asked. Generally the temples do ask people, but I never thought of doing book distribution before.
Q: So what inspired you this time?
Radha Dasi: Well, because now I am here at Vaisesika’s center. And this is the hot spot for book distribution. Everybody here does book distribution, and you know, it like that’s the wave here. You just get carried away by it.