The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust has already translated ISKCON Founder-Acharya Srila Prabhupada’s books into 87 languages, and is distributing them all over the world. But even now, 52 years after ISKCON’s inception, new frontiers are being reached.
In Cuba, street distribution of Prabhupada’s books is forbidden, and devotees have been searching for legal ways to present them there for many years. This year, at last, saw a breakthrough opportunity: the Havana International Book Fair.
All books had to be inspected and approved by the Cuban government in a long and suspenseful bureaucratic process. Any that even mentioned communism could not be submitted. Thankfully, many titles passed through the process successfully and were sanctioned for presentation at the Book Fair.
This pioneer achievement was a team effort. The Latin American BBT, headed by Hanuman Das, made the arrangements. The Mexican BBT office provided the books at cost. A generous donation from ISKCON Canada covered expenses. And four devotees flew from Mexico to man the BBT booth at the fair.
These devotees were Aravinda Das, director of the BBT office for Mexico and Central America; Nrsimha Kripa Das, sub-director of the same BBT office and director of Colegio Bhaktivedanta; and book distributors Sadhu Cari Das and Bhakta Hector.
All were honored to be a part of the twenty-seventh annual Havana International Book Fair, a true phenomenon. Running from February 2ndto 10th, it took place at the San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress in Regla, built in the 1700s to protect against British colonial attacks.
Attending the Book Fair were 133 publishers from 31 countries as well as more than 100 editors and authors from around the world. The Fair featured poetry readings, children’s activities, art exhibitions and concerts in the evenings.
Out of Havana’s population of 2.1 million, an astonishing 450,000 or so visited the Fair during its week-long run, flooding the walkways within the fortress walls every day.
“The Havana Book Fair is the only time during the year that Cubans get a chance to get books by international publishers,” says Hanuman Das. “It’s an event that many Cuban people wait all year long for. Cubans have free education, health, etc but very little allowance. Yet they still manage to save money to buy books.”
Devotees, dressed in the dark blue uniforms of the Latin American BBT, set up a large, attractive booth at the Fair with colorful cloth drapings and posters of Lord Krishna, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, and Srila Prabhupada.
Book prices ranged from $3 to $20, in line with other international publishers – extremely expensive compared to regular local prices of just 20 to 90 cents. But fair goers still snapped up an amazing 2,230 of Srila Prabhupada’s books. These included Bhagavad-gitas, big books like Teachings of Queen Kunti, medium books like Coming Back, and small books like Perfection of Yoga.
“Our booth was constantly flooded with people, using their precious savings to buy Srila Prabhupada’s books,” says main organizer Nrismha Kripa Das. “Some came three or even four times to get books for themselves and their friends, returning again and again until they had all our titles.”
Devotees found the Cuban people to be avid readers and very cultured, often engaging them in deep discussions about philosophy, history, or psychology. While many had already read a different edition of the Bhagavad-gita printed by their government, they were particularly impressed by the quality and beauty of Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is.
“One couple, teachers of Greek and religion, fell in love with Prabhupada’s Gita as soon as they saw it,” Nrsimha Kripa recalls. “The price was $8, but they only had $3. Seeing their deep desire, I asked them to please take the book anyway. They were deeply moved, and returned the next day with all their savings to spend at the BBT booth. While they were there, they held up Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita to everyone who came by and told them, ‘This is the best book in the whole fair.’ Because of them, many others also bought the Bhagavad-gita.”
Many others were also powerfully moved by Srila Prabhupada’s books, and their gratitude emerged in different ways. “Some people offered us a place to stay, others locations where we could place our books,” says Nrsimha Kripa. “Some bookstores wanted to buy all the stock we had left at the end of the fair.”
During the fair, Aravinda Das and Nrsimha Kripa Das also gave two talks on the Bhagavad-gita, which were so well-received that many people bought books from them on the spot.
Everyone who purchased books received contact cards with a phone number to get in touch with local devotees. The results were enlivening: since the fair, calls have flooded in, with many people joining Krishna conscious home programs.
“People are thirsty for this,” says Hanuman.
The BBT plans to participate in the Havana International Book Fair every year from now on, bringing two to three times as many books as they did this year due to the high demand. They also hope to travel with the Book Fair to several other main cities in Cuba. The remaining money from this year’s sponsorship will go into a fund to support these efforts.
“This has been an exciting breakthrough – Srila Prabhupada officially reaching Cuba for the first time ever,” Hanuman says. “For the Cuban devotees and for the BBT, it’s a dream come true.”
Jan 22, 2023
Bhaktivedanta Institute for Higher Studies