“When the lockdown started, nobody thought we could distribute books, and everybody was worried about what would happen,” says Shyama Mohini Dasi, co-sankirtan leader at ISKCON Toronto, Canada. “But Vaisesika Prabhu encouraged us to think differently, and innovate.”
Every year since 2007, devotees at Toronto, ISKCON Silicon Valley, and other temples – inspired by Global Duty Officer for book distribution Vaisesika Das – have held a Bhaktivinode Thakur Marathon for the six weeks between Nrsimha Chaturdasi and Bhaktivinode Thakur’s appearance day.
This year, from May 6th to June 20th, ISV devotees actually doubled the number of books distributed, despite being unable to physically approach people due to the pandemic lockdown.
With a poster and video from Vaisesika encouraging devotees to “distribute from home – all you need is a phone,” teams across North America as well as in London, England also posted incredible numbers of Srila Prabhupada’s books.
Team ISV distributed 13,861 books and 253 sets; Team Harinama Ashrama NYC 5,570 books and 136 sets; Team London, UK 1,235 books and 4 sets; Team Laguna Beach 1,000 books and 40 sets; and Team Toronto 875 books and 31 sets.
Teams in Seattle, Philadelphia, Houston, Delware, Chicago and Round Rock, Texas rounded out the effort for a total of 26,4747 books and 519 sets.
To take the edge off and make the sankirtan fun, devotee organized virtual “calling parties” on Zoom, which provided moral support and gave the feeling of distributing all together. Around 30 devotees at a time would call people from their own homes and distribute books over the phone, while simultaneously consulting each other for help on Zoom and reporting successes.
“We would start by calling contacts we had made before, on sankirtan or at temple festivals, dating back to 2014,” says Malini Dasi, co-sankirtan leader at ISKCON Silicon Valley. “We would introduce ourselves, and make a connection. Then we would present the books. If they accepted them, we would ask for a donation, and tell them about contactless shipping – we either ship directly through USPS or deliver the books and leave them outside people’s doors. We also offer e-books if they are not comfortable with paper books.”
Devotees also reached out on social media such as WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram, messaging people they already had a connection with through mutual friends.
“A lot of people sent us pictures of themselves with the books they had received,” Vaisesika says. “And those pictures actually inspired new people to buy books also.”
In addition, Brajananda Das of the Krishna House in Tallahassee, Florida developed an innovation that saw devotees in Tallahassee, Toronto, and ISV sending out ‘care packages’ for donations. Depending on the temple, these included books, prasadam, beads, and/or gift coupons for the local Govinda’s restaurant. In London, UK, meanwhile, devotees sent out free care packages to essential workers. Some of the recipients of such care packages were so delighted to receive them that they contacted devotees asking for more books, including full Srimad-Bhagavatam sets.
Among the thousands of books distributed during the lockdown marathon were 750 e-books and 53 e-book sets by ISV and Toronto, a historical achievement as it was the first time e-books had been distributed in a major way. E-books are in particular demand during the pandemic, and Vaisesika says that all efforts are being made to make e-books available in more languages so that they can be distributed globally.
E-books are also being bundled with other services such as a free month’s subscription to the Bhakti Community Online (https://bhakti.community/), where recipients can access courses and podcasts that help them learn more about the timeless texts of Bhakti Yoga and how to implement devotional practices into their daily life.
The next innovation will be audiobooks, a $3.5 billion market in the secular world. “Keshava Bharati Goswami, who is leading the charge, is dedicating upwards of six to eight hours a day to narrate all of Srila Prabhupada’s books, and just recently finished the whole Sri Chaitanya Charitmarita,” Vaisesika says. “We’re hoping that some audiobooks will be available by the end of this year.”
Devotees are mailing out care packages that include books, prasadam and beads
Meanwhile book distribution has not slowed down since the Bhaktivinode Thakur marathon ended on June 20th. The very next day, in fact, temples around North America and the world restarted the Bhadra Campaign, an effort to distribute at least 10,000 sets of Srimad-Bhagavatam that started on Gaura Purnima in March this year and will culminate on Bhadra Purnima on September 2nd.
The campaign will also serve to unite the world in book distribution, with teams from India, North America, Europe, Africa, and Australia all using remote strategies to distribute Srimad-Bhagavatam sets during the pandemic.
Among the devotees serving on the campaign are children, including one-and-a-half-year-old Kunjari, the daughter of ISV devotees. The precocious Kunjari, who heard the entire Srimad-Bhagavatam in the womb before she was even born, stars in an impossibly cute video presenting the sacred text that has gone viral and inspired many to purchase the Bhagavatam.
“One devotee was trying to distribute a Bhagavatam set, but the person they were talking to was hesitant and said no,” Malini recalls. “After the devotee shared Kunjari’s video with them, however, they immediately responded back saying that they wanted the full set.”
Devotees’ efforts at contactless book distribution, through all these methods, have been transforming lives during a very difficult time for humanity.
“The books have changed the trajectory of my life under quarantine and shall for here after,” wrote gym teacher and author Jeff Winkowski from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “What is fascinating is that my study of Srimad Bhagavatam and all of Prabhupada’s writings have helped me become a better father, a better friend, and a better son. I am so thankful for NYC Harinam and the association of the devotees whom Krishna has brought into my life after these auspicious books entered my home.”
Another recipient, Morgan Heche, wrote, “I am really grateful that I was offered the opportunity to get some of Srila Prabhupada’s books delivered to my home. While we have been experiencing so many changes over the last few months, including the temple being closed, it has been so important to have this wisdom to turn to while navigating our day to day lives. Care and attention was given for keeping things clean and safe during the delivery. Thank you for this compassionate service!”
“We felt triumphant when we presented our scores to Srila Prabhupada and Bhaktivinode Thakur last weekend,” Vaisesika says. “Because it was a sweet victory to be faced with amid such uncertainty. We are continuing to depend on Lord Chaitanya and the mercy of the Acharyas, and are again moving forward with confidence that we’re not doing this – they are.”
For info on how to distribute e-books and other strategies, please visit http://distributebooks.com/