With ISKCON book distributors off the streets and staying at home due to the Coronavirus pandemic, you might think their service has completely ground to a halt. Instead, however, they’ve put all their energy into innovations such as mailing, contactless delivery, and e-books to distribute thousands of Prabhupada’s books at a time when people need them more than ever.
In North America, one of the teams most affected was New York City’s Yuga Dharma Ashram led by Rama Raya Das, who relied on donations collected from book distribution and Harinama to pay their rent. Before the lockdown in March, all the brahmacharis on the team moved from New York City to rural Prabhupada Village, North Carolina, where they immediately began to call the hundreds of contacts they had amassed over the years on book distribution.
After checking in with people as to how they and their loved ones were doing during the pandemic, devotees shared that their ashram was doing a special lockdown book drive to mail out copies of ancient spiritual wisdom texts during this difficult time. With many people becoming introspective and asking questions like, “What is the purpose of life?” and “What happens if I die?” the response was extremely positive.
Jamuna distributes books via the care packages of food she sends out to customers
One of the first people the team called was a medical laboratory technician who is now working on testing and diagnosing for Coronavirus. The man, whom Gopal Champu Das had met in the New York subway last year, said he had been reading the books he received then. When Gopal Champu told him that there were bigger sets of books that contained more knowledge, he became interested in the Chaitanya Charitamrita and bought the entire nine-volume set via PayPal.
Using shipping company Uline, who created custom boxes for them, Yuga Dharma Ashram devotees are also mailing out pre-assembled sets of books with names like “The Saptarishi,” which contains seven “maha big” books including the Bhagavad-gita, first canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam, and Krishna Book.
Carting off a tractor-trailer load of packages to the post office every week, Yuga Dharma Ashram has mailed an amazing 2,456 indvidual books and eighty-six sets to people in the last three weeks.
Meanwhile at ISKCON Silicon Valley in California, a “book distribution laboratory” that tests innovations and then shares them with leaders in North America and around the world, devotees – mostly “weekend warrior” householders with jobs and children – have distributed 1,632 books and 61 sets.
(left) Carly receives a Saptarishi set that was shipped to her home in Maryland (right) Anna in New York receives a Russian Srimad-Bhagavatam set
What’s interesting is that some of these have been distributed by children themselves, video-calling people online. Others have been through contactless delivery, with devotees dropping off packages of books outside people’s doors in the local area. And a considerable amount have been e-book versions of Prabhupada’s books, which had already existed, but had been marketed very little until the Coronavirus pandemic spurred on a major push.
Now ISKCON Silicon Valley has shared information on how to get and distribute e-books with devotes all over North America (Details are here: http://distributebooks.com/presentations/).
“You get the same number of points for distributing a set of e-Bhagavatams as you would for a print set, and the scores go into the Sankirtan Newsletter,” says Global Duty Officer for book distribution Vaisesika Das, who is also temple president at ISKCON Silicon Valley.
Devotees are often bundling e-books along with offers such as a free print copy of the same book, three months free subscription to the Bhakti Community Online (register at www.bhakti.community), or two months free Bhagavat-Seva classes for children aged 4-18.
Mahotsaha Das brings Prabhupada’s books to the post office to ship out all over the USA
Through the Bhakti Community, people get exclusive acess to the Beginning Bhakti course on how to implement practices of devotional yoga into their daily life; the Bhakti On! podcast, which helps newcomers explore the timeless texts of Bhakti Yoga; and the Sadhana On! podcast, which takes listeners further into the art and practice of Bhakti. Soon the website will also add courses on the Bhagavad-gita and Bhagavatam, as well as an app where people can grow their practice along with others, and a devotional music playlist called Bhakti-beats.
Bhagavata Seva, meanwhile, is a program wherein multiple children at once can learn the Srimad-Bhagavatam from a teacher through online Zoom classes.
Now that e-book distribution has been established, audiobooks are next in the pipeline.
“This pandemic has given more impetus to develop audiobooks in earnest,” says Vaisesika, explaining that Keshava Bharati Goswami is exclusively focusing on recording all of Prabhupada’s books, and has just finished the entire Chaitanya Charitamrita with purports.
“There’s a full team working on official BBT audiobooks, and we intend to have them ready as soon as possible,” Vaisesika says. “We think that audiobooks may be the biggest of all.”
Canada Post picks up a shipment of Srimad-Bhagavatam Sets for delivery in Toronto
There are many other innovations, too. In Toronto, Canada, devotees have sent out 1,200 care packages to temple patrons including a letter from the temple with prayers for their wellbeing, a small book, a Govinda’s restaurant gift coupon (for when it reopens), and an invitation to learn more about the Srimad-Bhagavatam by purchasing a set.
In Monterey, California, Jamuna and her husband Todd, who own a successful café and cannery called Happy Girl Kitchen, have had to close their eatery but are instead selling care packages which each contain fresh bread, a variety of freshly canned organic vegetables, and a book. In this way, they have sent out hundreds of Prabhupada’s books to people.
In Los Angeles, the sankirtan team has distributed 326 books and 18 sets of Bhagavatams and Chaitanya Charitamritas via mailing and contactless delivery.
Meanwhile the Motel Gita program is sending Prabhupada’s books to hospitals with much appreciation from healthcare workers.
“We have observed that hospitals are more open and receptive about the books; they actually appreciate that we are giving these books at this time,” says Motel Gita director Mayapur Bihari Das. “One Veterans Administration Hospital said, ‘We received your books and shared them with our veterans. They were all gone in two days. I know that our veterans are on their way to a healthier and fuller life.’”
Another major effort is the international push to distribute 10,000 sets of Srimad-Bhagavatams by Bhadra Purnima on September 2nd.
“In the 12th Canto it says that if you give away a set of Srimad-Bhagavatams on this sacred occasion, you get the gift of going back to Godhead yourself,” Vaisesika says. “So we’re working with GBCs all over the world and getting coordinators everywhere so that each region of the world can set a quota and we can reach our goal.”
According to Vaisesika, the lockdown has forced devotees to put a lot of focus and energy into areas that they previously did not. “The crisis has opened windows that we never saw before,” he says.
The innovative book distribution may also help ISKCON temples stay afloat during a time when other kinds of financial support have decreased.
“If we do what we’re good at – distributing books and prasadam – with a mood of giving, people will be happy to reciprocate and support our temples,” Vaisesika says.
There could be a silver lining to the future, too. “When we come out of the imminent danger that we’re in right now from the virus, the innovative work we’ve been doing will have opened up new channels that will increase our capacity for distributing Prabhupada’s books tenfold,” he concludes.
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For more information on how to distribute books during COVID-19 using the techniques described in this article, visit http://distributebooks.com/presentations/
Or contact the BBT Marketing, Communications and Innovations Department at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Facebook at BBT.International.