Two programs are gifting Srila Prabhupada’s books to thousands of people every year and will change lives across North America this Christmas.
In Canada, Sastra Dana – literally, “The Gift of Knowledge” – places mainly Bhagavad-gitas in hospitals, libraries, universities, hotels, motels, prisons, retirement homes, and schools around Ontario and beyond.
Dedicating a huge amount of their time and energy to this service are Toronto-based brother and sister Minakshi Dasi and Indresh Das. Lifelong devotees and children of Subhavilasa Das and Ashalata Dasi, they have met Srila Prabhupada and even hosted him in their home.
“We’re just trying to serve him in a humble way as best we can,” says Minakshi. It’s pretty impressive as far as humble efforts go, with over 70,000 books placed in the past six years, in well over 100 different institutions a year.
Congregation devotees donate towards the program, especially during the December marathon, and the books are then shipped out all over the country at a special discount. Minakshi and Indresh personally deliver books to local spots where they’ve established personal relationships.
Their approach is very professional, and their pitch tailored to each institution. For hospitals, for instance, they’ll say the books help patients and families in their time of need. They’ll also provide audiobooks for patients unable to read. For libraries, they’ll espouse the BBT as the largest publisher of books on Vaishnavism, perfect for completing any religion and philosophy section.
Many readers use the contact details included with the books to follow up, ask for more information or more books, or just to share the profound impact the books have had on them.
“People tell us the books have brought them peace or helped them see other points of view, and hospital administrators have told us of how they have helped their patients,’ Minakshi says.
One woman, Martha, contacted Minakshi when she discovered a Bhagavad-gita in her bedside table at a Howard Johnson hotel. The book helped her find peace during a challenging time. “Thank you SO MUCH,” she wrote. “I just spent an entire day at the hospital with my brother-in-law post stroke, and then visited a nephew who is palliative with cancer. So.....a difficult day to say the least. I admire the work you do, I feel in my heart that any way to faith is important, each one speaking to different people at different times.”
Meanwhile after receiving a box of Bhagavad-gitas, a prison chaplain wrote, “We want to extend our sincere thanks to you for this kind donation and the compassion you show for the inmates at our facility. The books are beautiful and we know they have a very beneficial impact on those who receive them.”
During the Prabhupada Marathon, which is running from November 18th until the end of the year, and particularly on Gita Jayanti day on December 18th, Toronto devotees will be holding a fundraising drive for the Sastra Dana program and trying to place as many books as possible.
“I love this program because we are getting to people who might not otherwise come in contact with Srila Prabhupada’s books,” Minakshi says. “And often we are reaching them at a prime time of need – for instance, people staying in hotels or motels are often depressed, and patients in hospitals are questioning, ‘Why is this happening to me?’”
Over in the United States, devotees in ISKCON Silicon Valley, California, headed by Mayapur Bihari Das and Dilip Patel, are putting all their energy into just one venue – hotels and motels.
Inspired by sankirtan strategist Vaisesika Das, Motel Gita began in 2009 and has since placed nearly half a million Bhagavad-gitas in hotel rooms in every U.S. state and territory, including Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. The program now places seventy to eighty thousand books every single year.
“There are so many people who will probably never come to our temples, and may never meet a book distributor,” says Mayapur Bihari. “So in order to really reach every town and village, we decided to replicate the famous Gideon model.”
Mayapur and Dilip first got financial supported from large U.S. temples like ISKCON Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and Baltimore. They then approached mid-segment hotel owners, sixty per cent of whom are of Indian origin and wholeheartedly agreed to place Bhagavad-gitas in their rooms. They also began regularly attending Choice Hotel, Best Western, and AAHOA conventions. AAHOA, or the Asian American Hotel Owners Assocciation – one of the largest with 1.2 million rooms – got fully behind devotees and offers them free booths at hotel conventions, giving Motel Gita a major platform in the U.S.
With the customers in place, Motel Gita set up a dispatch team. Based in Laguna Beach, Vedavit Krishna Das oversees this operation, shipping Bhagavad-gitas directly to hotel and motel owners. Meanwhile head of PR and marketing Nandini Kishori Dasi trains devotees to attend trade shows and conventions, hand out business cards and brochures, and give professional answers to hotel owners’ questions. And Anand Baladev Das and Mahasundari Madhavi Dasi visit different hotels to get feedback from the owners on how the process can be improved.
“Motel Gita also has one paid employee, Dinesh Tinani Prabhu, who is based at the Radha Gopinath devotee call center in Mumbai, India,” Mayapur Bihari says. “He works six to eight hours a day, calling hotel owners in the USA to get their orders, ensure they have received the books, and offer general customer support.”
The result of all this careful organization has been dramatic and moving. One hotel owner was initially very reluctant to keep Bhagavad-gitas, worrying that guests would react negatively. Devotees convinced him to put the sacred books in just some of his rooms as an experiment.
Soon after, a guest approached the hotel owner. He shared that he had checked into his hotel room in a depressed state of mind, planning to commit suicide. When he found a Bhagavad-gita in his bedside drawer and began to read it, however, the book opened up his mind, showed him a different perspective and gave him a reason to live. “Thank you so much,” the man said. “This book saved my life.”
The owner immediately called devotees and ordered Bhagavad-gitas not only for all the remaning rooms of the hotel, but for all his other hotels as well.
On another occasion a woman, Beryl, had to live in a hotel for several months when there was a fire at her apartment. Reading the Bhagavad-gita during her stay, she was so inspired that she reached out for more information, became a devotee and is now initiated as Bhavani Dasi.
Other hotel guests have stopped drinking and eating meat after reading the Bhagavad-gita, one tracked down a Harinama Sankirtana party to tell them how the Gita brought him peace, and many have asked to take the book home.
This December marathon, including Gita Jayanti on the 18th, Motel Gita volunteers aim to distribute 21,000 Bhagavad-gitas to hotels and motels all over the United States. In 2019, they will cross the half million mark.
Beyond that, they are now trying to replicate the massively successful project around the world. Already several thousand Gitas have been placed in rooms in India and New Zealand. There are also plans to establish the model in Australia, Canada and the UK. Devotees then want to bring the strategy to hospitals, where a large portion of Gideon Bibles are distributed. To achieve all this, they plan to reach out beyond the devotee community for financial support in different ways, such as corporate sponsorship.
“I feel that book distribution is the highest form of compassion,” says Mayapur Bihari. “In this world, people may have a lot of money, and a lot of facility for sense gratification, but there is still emptiness in their lives, and they don’t realize what they are missing. With Motel Gita, I can make some change in the world in my own small way. And of course it makes Srila Prabhupada, my Guru Maharaja and Vaisesika Prabhu very happy.”[ book-distribution ] [ motel gita ] [ sastra-dana ]