One of the biggest book distributors in East Africa, Dwarka Vasini Devi Dasi, along with her teams Vaishnavi Sanga and Krsna Kids Sena, distributes about eighty percent of ISKCON Nairobi’s total during the December Prabhupada marathon every year. Throughout the rest of the year, she and her niece Ambika Gopi Devi Dasi are the main book distributors in the Kenyan capital. With her efforts, ISKCON Nairobi has gone from distributing about 5,000 books during the marathon to 30,000, to most recently (pre-pandemic) 50,000 books.
The seeds of Dwarka Vasini’s calling in life were clear from a very young age. Born and raised in the small town of Isiolo, 285 kilometers north of Nairobi, in the 1970s and ‘80s, she sought answers to questions like “Who is God?” and “What is our purpose?” even as a child.
Brought up in a Gujarati Hindu family, Dwarka Vasini took Christian religious education in school and asked her father what the Hindu equivalent to the Bible was. “The Bhagavad-gita,” he replied. As she could not read his Gujarati copy, her quest for an English edition began.
After searching throughout all the bookshops and several libraries in Nairobi, Dwarka received a copy of Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is from her aunt, whose husband was a life member of ISKCON Nairobi.
“I brought it back to Isiolo and read it from cover to cover,” Dwarka Vasini says now. “It was like I had been given some kind of elixir.”
In the late 1990s, while visiting her sister in Nairobi, Dwarka asked where the Hare Krishna temple was, and visited it for the first time, becoming completely transfixed by the beauty of Sri Sr Radha Banke Bihari. After reading the Bhagavad-gita and chanting 100 names on her fingers every day at home, she moved to Nairobi in 2003 and began attending guru puja at the ISKCON temple daily before going to work.
When it was announced at the Sunday Feast that devotees should distribute Bhagavad-gitas during the month of December, Dwarka Vasini, her sister, and her sister’s husband and daughter all took copies and distributed 30 Gitas by the end of the month. Although this was a big number for Dwarka, when the temple announced that the winning sankirtana team for the year 2003 had distributed approximately 1,000 books and collected over 100,000 Kenyan shillings, she realized just how ambitious book distribution was.
The combination of this realization, with an instruction from the temple president that she had to do service to prepare for initiation, inspired Dwarka to aim as high as she could in the 2004 marathon. Teaming up with Amrita Keli Dasi, one of the devotees on the previous year’s winning sankirtana team, she would distribute books during her lunch hour every day, then return to her office. At 5:30 pm, Amrita Keli would pick her up again and they’d distribute books door to door until 9:00 o’clock at night.
“At times, I would miss my lunch, because, by the time I came back to my desk, lunch hour would be over, and I wouldn’t have time to eat,” Dwarka Vasini recalls. “I don’t remember ever feeling hungry. It was a lot of fun, and I got a lot of experience.”
For many years, Dwarka continued distributing books during the December marathon, as was customary in Nairobi. In 2007, her father and brother sadly passed away – her mother had already passed in 2000 – and Dwarka moved back to Isiolo for two years to run her father’s spare parts and transport business. Yet she continued to participate in the marathon, placing Bhagavad-gitas on her shop’s counter, and collecting donations to send back to her sankirtana team in Nairobi. She also converted her brother’s hotel into a Hare Krishna center and invited devotees from Nairobi to do Harinama every month in Isiolo.
In 2009, Dwarka Vasini’s guru Gopal Krishna Goswami instructed her to go to Mayapur to take the Bhakti Sastri study course, which places much emphasis on all Prabhupada has done for us, and then to come back and preach. When she returned to Nairobi, Dwarka decided she would show her gratitude to Prabhupada by doing book distribution not only during the December marathon but daily; an effort in which Nairobi temple president Umapati Das was a major support.
By this time, Dwarka Vasini had lost her mother, her father, and both her brothers and this loss also contributed to her resolve.
“I had seen them work so very hard, and they left everything they had worked hard for behind,” she says. “That’s when I made up my mind, ‘I am not going to slave for anybody. I just want to do seva for Krishna.’”
Dwarka Vasini Devi Dasi at her book table, 2019
Living with her sister Hari Katha Devi Dasi, also a devotee, and earning passive income by renting out her father’s spare parts shop, Dwarka Vasini threw herself into book distribution. From 2010 to 2019, until she was thwarted by the Covid-19 pandemic, she went out on the street six days a week, Monday to Saturday, from 10 am to 1 pm, and during the marathon from 10 am to around 6 pm.
During the year, Dwarka usually distributed books with her main partner, her niece Ambika Gopi, who began joining her while in college and is now a professional psychologist. During the marathon, Dwarka Vasini was part of a group. Throughout, the power of prayer always helped her through the challenges.
“Once, in 2011, we had pledged as a group that we would distribute 1,000 Bhagavad Gitas for the marathon,” she says. “That meant we had to do at least 35 to 40 per day, but we found ourselves unable to do more than three or four. So I went to the temple and prayed to Srila Prabhupada to please show me how to do it. Miraculously, just then a man who had bought some books called me, telling me he loved the Bhagavad-gita “quotation” on the contact card I’d included so much that he had stuck the card to his wall. He asked what book it was from, and I told him, ‘It’s from a book that has 700 such quotations, and each quotation is an instruction for mankind.’ As I was saying this, I realized it was a perfect way to present the Bhagavad-gita to people. I told the team, and and as soon as we started using that phrase, Bhagavad-gitas began going like hotcakes. That gave me faith that Krishna and Prabhupada hear our prayers.”
From 2017 to 2019, Dwarka Vasini was joined every Saturday during Christmas vacation by the Krishna Kids Sena, a group of children aged nine to twelve, who voluntarily spent time on their holiday weekends helping her distribute books.
“I think they really enjoyed the whole experience,” she says. “They felt responsible, and because they had to know what the books were talking about to be able to distribute them, they grew in their spirituality.”
Throughout all her book distribution efforts, Dwarka Vasini projects the happiness that Prabhupada’s books give. “I always have a smile on my face,” she says. “I also use our national language, Kiswahili, which helps break the ice and put people and ease.” In response, she says, people in general are very thankful for Prabhupada’s books, and appreciate the straightforward, yet profound way he presents the philosophy.
The pandemic, with its social distancing and lockdowns, has temporarily slowed down Dwarka Vasini. However, she has spent her time reading Prabhupada’s books instead, which she finds “just as refreshing as distributing.” She hopes to get a permit from the local authorities to go out on book distribution again before too long.
When she does, Dwarka Vasini hopes to launch a major effort to collect donations and give Bhagavad-gita to each and every person first in Nairobi, and then in other towns in Kenya. She has also made contact with a colonel from her hometown, and hopes to place Srila Prabhupada’s books in the Kenyan army’s libraries, eventually aiming to put a Bhagavad-gita in the hands of every soldier.
Whatever her future endeavors, the more Dwarka Vasini distributes Prabhupada’s books, the more her faith in the scriptures increases – and the more she feels like Krishna is watching over her.
“There are times when devotees want to give up, or find book distribution really austere,” she says. “Back in 2010, when I was alone on the street and not so experienced, I felt like that too. On one particular day, the books were not going out at all. I got so overwhelmed that I started pacing and thinking negative thoughts like, ‘They’re not even bothered. Why am I doing this?’ As I did so, I felt a hand on my shoulder, and a voice told me, ‘You’re doing a very good job. Don’t give up.’ When I looked back, there was nobody there. I never found the person who spoke those words. But they have really inspired me through all these years, to continue with book distribution:
“You’re doing a very good job. Don’t give up.”
Jan 23, 2022
Anandini Tikunov (8th-grade student)
Jan 22, 2022
Sunanda Das, tovp.org