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Friends of the BBT: Interview with Pancharatna Dasa

By: on Dec. 6, 2008

What role have the books of ISKCON’s founder Srila Prabhupada played in your life?


They brought me to accept Srila Prabhupada as my guru. When I first came across his writing in 1970, I was convinced that he was a person who knew God. And throughout my life as a devotee, they have always been there to give me shelter and to take me further.



Why is the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, publisher of Prabhupada’s books, important?


Prabhupada created the BBT to provide ISKCON devotees with high-quality, low-cost editions of his work that they could distribute to spread Krishna consciousness. He described these books – ancient spiritual texts written by great saints, and in the case of Bhagavad-gita, Krishna himself – as the Brihad Mridanga, or big drum. If we stand on a street corner and speak, our voice will only go so far. But by using the printing press, and today the Internet, our voice can be heard all over the world. Prabhupada knew this. So he invested his personal energy in publishing and distributing the transcendental message of Krishna.



And why is it important to distribute the message of Krishna? Because Krishna is God – he has the answers to all of our problems. All we have to do is receive them.



What was your first service with the BBT?


In 1976, I took over the development of the BBT in Bengal. Only one of Prabhupada’s books had been published in Bengali at the time – Gitar Gan. So he asked us to publish three large articles he had originally written for the Gaudiya magazine. These turned into small books of about fifty pages each: Bhakti Katha, Bhagavanair Katha, and Jnana Katha. They were eventually published altogether as Vairagya Vidya, which was translated into English as Knowledge in Renunciation. Bhakti Charu Swami began working with me, and together we started Bhagavad Darshan magazine, the Bengali version of Back to Godhead. For two years, I ran the whole operation.



What was this early experience of working with the BBT like?


Well, I’d been around the BBT and ISKCON Press before, in New York in 1972. So I knew a little about the mechanics of printing. But it was a whole different ball game in Bengal. When we first started, there was no such a thing as electronic typesetting – we used handset metal type, printed on ancient machines. I remember devotees carrying the paper around town on their heads, through these dingy, dusky alley ways. It was all very crudely done. But when we did eventually succeed in printing the books, Prabhupada was happy. And it was all worth it.



What work have you done with the BBT since?


When Prabhupada passed away in 1977, I left the BBT to work on his Samadhi (tomb). I worked on various projects for the next 28 years, probably 25 of which were devoted to development of ISKCON’s temple and community in Mayapur. It wasn’t until 2006 that I began working with the BBT again, this time through Friends of the BBT.


When and why was Friends of the BBT founded?


The BBT has always flourished with support from well-wishers and donors. In the early days, Prabhupada himself would bring funds to the publishing effort from his disciples and others. But in his absence, the BBT focused primarily on its business model of producing and selling.



This provided adequate funds for the expansion of the BBT when book distribution was booming. But with the changing scenario of book distribution in the world today, the BBT’s needs are not being entirely met through wholesale sales to ISKCON. So BBT trustees, directors and well-wishers led by Gopal Bhatta Dasa formed Friends of the BBT in 2005 to engage themselves and others in funding future developments, and expanding the BBT’s capacity to publish new translations and other products in larger quantities.



For example, the BBT recently printed a Korean Bhagavad-gita. But because of a lack of adequate capital, they could only print for the immediate market of 1,000 copies, making the price very high. If they had adequate capital to print 20,000 copies, however, then the price would be lowered, more would be distributed, and the overall capitalization would be greater.



So Friends of the BBT fulfills the need for support to expand the BBT’s mission.


Who is Gopal Bhatta, and what did he contribute to starting FOBBT?


Gopal Bhatta was one of the early distributors of Prabhupada’s books, leading teams of devotees in Chicago. He was also the president of ISKCON Los Angeles during the height of book distribution there. Although he relinquished that position to puruse a very successful business career, he has always maintained a deep concern about the future of ISKCON and book publishing in particular. He felt that he needed to do something, so he founded FOBBT along with Pranada Dasi, who has also served the BBT for many years.



What is your role in FOBBT?


As the executive director, I maintain and expand FOBBT’s operations. I serve a board of seven directors, including co-chairs Gopal Bhatta and Pranada, US book distribution strategist Vaisesika, Adhya, a businessman from Laguna Beach who is also a long time supporter of the BBT, and three BBT trustees.


In 2006, Gopal Bhatta invited me to expand the scope of FOBBT to involve more devotees around the world. We started putting together a website, a newsletter and a membership program, which were launched in 2007. Now a little over a year in, we have several hundred members, and devotees are contributing in various ways to support the BBT. And we’re looking forward to expanding more and more.


What is Friends of the BBT’s mission?


We have three core activities. By sending out newsletters etc, we try to help the BBT communicate its work and develop stronger relationships with the greater ISKCON society. We also involve devotees in service to the BBT, primarly through contributions but also through other services. For example, we enlisted original BBT artists Dhriti and Rama Dasa to develop the BBT’s connection with the art world, and to give a seminar to train future artists. Finally, we assist the BBT in various projects that we fund and provide input on.


What projects are you currently funding or working on?


Well we’ve been helping to fund, manage, and develop the Srimad-Bhagavat Vidyapitham, a Sanskrit language school based in Vrindavana, India. It’s run by ISKCON Sanskrit scholar Gopiparanadhana Dasa, and it’s aim is to train translators, editors and scholars to serve the BBT’s future publication needs. Up till now the school has been based in rented accommodation. But due to a major contribution from our Friends of the BBT chair, Gopal Bhatta, we have recently been able to acquire a nice secluded piece of land with a view of the sacred Govardhana Hill. Next year, we hope to begin construction of a custom-built campus for the Sanskrit School there.


We also started Distributebooks.com with Vaisesika Dasa, a veteran book distributor and strategist, to communicate with and serve the distribution community. We’re helping him develop various tools to increase book distribution: One is the Smart Box, self-serve book racks which are placed in public spots. Another is Monthly Sankirtan Festivals, which mobilize an entire community to go out on book distribution one weekend a month.



We help fund new publications in various languages around the world, particularly Africa, Southeast Asia and South America. Right now we’re helping the Spanish BBT to fund larger print runs.



Finally, we’re developing a number of special projects to make the BBT more accessible through the Internet. One is making Vedabase, the digital collection of Prabhupada’s entire works, available online in a searchable, dynamic, very comprehensive way. Another is supporting Krishna.com’s major expansion plans.


Why should people become a member of Friends of the BBT and support the BBT?


The first reason, of course, is that the BBT needs support to reach its full potential. But being a member of Friends of the BBT also gives us an opportunity to connect directly with Prabhupada’s core mission. It’s often said that he considered the work of the BBT to be his heart. And from “This is My Request,” a small book of quotes that’s available for free through our website to anyone in North America, it’s very obvious that he considered book distribution to be our most effective preaching. For many devotees, though, it’s not easy to be directly involved. So Friends of the BBT serves these devotees by giving them the opportunity to directly support various BBT projects.



During the month of December book distributors all over the world are engaged in a marathon effort. So for those of us who are not able to go out personally, this is a particularly good time to become a member of FOBBT and do our part in the marathon.



People are often concerned, when they give money to an organization, that it will just disappear and they won’t see the results from it. How can people be sure that their money will go to support exactly the project that they are enthusiastic about?


Well firstly, 100% of all contributions to FOBBT go into BBT projects. All of our overheads are covered by contributions from our board, so whether it’s general membership fees or donations towards a specific project, 100% of our members’ contributions go towards the projects that we’re involved in and support.



Secondly, FOBBT has full control of where its money goes. Some of our members decide they want to make a donation today but aren’t yet sure where they want it to go; in that case, we can keep those funds in a designated account and spend it only on their direction. We also publish all our accounts – our 2008 financial report will be out in March. We’re an open book. We are simply meant to serve the needs of our members.



What are the different types of members? How does one become one?


We want to make membership open and accessible to almost everyone. So we’ve set our initial membership contribution at just $36 a year -- that’s a dime a day. We then have a variety of successive levels of membership to choose from. For each one, we give some little gifts to show our appreciation. There’s also a monthly contribution option, starting at $5 a month. It’s all very easy -- just visit our website friendsofthebbt.org, and click on “Become A Member.”



You can also find a specific project that you want to support. Even if you have your own idea for a project you want to support that’s not on our list, we can serve you in that way. For example, one of our members wants to build a special library for Prabhupada’s books in Mayapur. So we’ve set up an account for the project in FOBBT, and he has put some money in it and is raising more from friends of his etc. We hope to start the project in the next year or so. So in this way we are open to every possible avenue for people who want to support the BBT, to work with us and use our vehicle for their service to Srila Prabhupada.


What is your vision for the long-term future of Friends of the BBT and for the BBT itself?


We’d like to see every member of ISKCON also be a member of FOBBT. We’d like to grow our membership globally and have thousands of members contributing regularly to the work of the BBT. We’d like to be able to connect our members with new, exciting projects that they conceive of and would like to take part in. And we’d like to see the BBT develop more and more services for their customers.



We also want to to ensure that the BBT’s offering of Gaudiya Vaishnava literature goes on developing to meet the needs of an expanding society of devotees. Srila Prabhupada set a standard for the translation and presentation of Vaishnava literature that is unmatched in the world today. To maintain that standard, and to expand the availability of such quality Vaishnava literature, requires a lot of effort.



So we need to expand our capacity to do this by developing training systems, and supporting brahminical devotees who are involved in doing this type of work. That’s one of the purposes of our new Govardhana Sanskrit School campus. So we ask all those with some means to take advantage of this opportunity to connect with Prabhupada’s mission and support this worthy effort.


For more news and information, visit friendsofthebbt.org. To join, click on "Become A Member" on the home page, or click here.


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