The Marathon Where Everyone's A Winner
December is the month of goodwill to all, of cosying up around the fire as the snow falls outside, of thinking of others and exchanging gifts with our loved ones.
ISKCON devotees around the world are also putting an extra focus on giving the most wonderful gift they know of to others, only they're doing it outside, on the streets, with their trusty book-bags slung over their shoulders.
December is the month of the Prabhupada Marathon, in which devotees make an increased effort to introduce others to the enlightening spiritual literature—introduced to the Western World by ISKCON's founder A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada—that changed their lives.
Of course, North American Book Distribution Strategist Vaisesika Dasa, a veteran of 35 years, prefers to think of the Marathon as a spontaneous event that is not restricted to a particular timeframe.
“The very first Marathon, in 1972, was completely unplanned,” he says. “Many devotees just happened to feel inspired at a certain time, and all went out to distribute books independently from each other. It was only later that they found out everyone had gone out at the same time, and the Marathon was born. Therefore many devotees continue to perform this service around the end of the year. But some prefer to start earlier, due to the bad weather in December, or the fact that many people are out of town.”
At ISKCON Silicon Valley (ISV), where Vaisesika is based, for instance, devotees began their Marathon in October, and have already reached their Marathon goal of 25,000 books.
“Now, we'll keep going throughout December, and smash our goal,” he says, with his trademark combination of enthusiasm and wry humor.
ISV, which, if you ask Vaisesika, also stands for Individual, Spontaneous, and Voluntary, is the proving ground for the innovative book distribution strategies that he and his team develop.
“We try them out here first, and then if they work, expand them to other ISKCON temples throughout North America,” he says. “The devotees in Toronto, Canada, for example, have greatly increased their book distribution using many of the techniques that we've tried and tested at ISV.”
One way of distributing books that devotees will be using this Christmas will be to include them amongst other gifts to family, friends and co-workers during office parties and family get-togethers over the holiday season. “It's a very personable and genuine way to distribute books, and of course it's a very acceptable thing to do at this time of year, because people are giving and receiving gifts in the dadhati pratigrinati spirit of loving exchanges, as decribed in the Nectar of Instruction,” says Vaisesika.
Door-to-door book distribution is also very popular. “Going door-to-door for political campaigns, to spread a religious message, or to sell things is an age-worn tradition here in America,” Vaisesika says. “So you don't even have to travel anywhere—just go door-to-door in your own neighborhood with some books, some prasadam (sanctified food), and some good cheer. Especially over the holidays, people appreciate that very much.”
Another method of book distribution cooked up in the ISV labs and taking off in Toronto, Boston, Houston, and other cities is the Smart Box. Installed in local shops, restaurants and other businesses, it's an ingenious honor system that allows devotees to distribute books even while they're sleeping—people simply take a book from the display and put their donation in a box.
“Here at ISV, three people became devotees in the last year and a half directly through the Smart Box,” Vaisesika says. “It's an easy, yet extremely effective program.”
Then there's the Motel Gita, a program which sees devotees placing copies of Srila Prabhupada's Bhagavad-gita As It Is in hotel and motel rooms, along with the Gideons' Bible.
“Devotees across the country are getting involved on a local and national level, and are placing tens of thousands of books,” Vaisesika says. “We've had television coverage, attended major hotel conventions, and are establishing relationships with the biggest motel owners in North America. Our ultimate goal is to place 1 million Bhagavad-gitas in motel rooms within the next five years.”
Following a meeting in Vrindavana, India earlier this year with trustees of ISKCON's publishing arm the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, Vaisesika says that plans are afoot for creating a unique edition of the Bhagavad-gita for motel rooms.
“The special edition will have a sturdy cover, so that it will withstand wear and tear through the many many people who will read it over and over again,” he explains. “It will also have an index at the front that people can refer to for answers to specific questions such as how to find peace in this life, how to overcome stress, and why we have to die. In this way, people will be able to see at a glance what's in the book for them.”
Despite all these innovations, Vaisesika is far more concerned with people than with tactics or numbers of books sold. And at the top of the list is giving plenty of attention to the book distributors' personal spirituality.
“Our first and foremost concern is that the devotees are conducting their service in such a way that they become attached to the subject matter of the books,” he says. “Our motto is 'save one person at a time, beginning with myself.' We want to create a sustainable environment for book distribution, which means one wherein devotees are safe from material motivation.”
Another very important thing is to, as Vaisesika puts it, 'encourage the heck out of everybody.'
“One of the secrets to a successful Marathon is to encourage everyone to do a little bit,” he says. “To encourage even the tiniest, most humble effort, and fan the spark, just as Lord Rama did when the small spider tried to help him build his bridge to Lanka by throwing grains of sand into the Indian Ocean.”
With this approach, even though there are very few full-time students at the ISV temple, the Marathon sees up to 400 devotees going out to distribute books—almost all professionals with full-time outside jobs and families, who spread Krishna consciousness in their spare time.
Vaisesika adds, however, that the 1970s model of celibate monks known as brahmacharis piling into a van, traversing the country, and distributing books full-time is still alive and well too.
“Teams such as the Rupanuga Vedic College traveling party, headed by Paramesvara Prabhu, are still doing the lion's share of book distribution in America,” he says. “They're visiting colleges, following concert tours, and distributing tens of thousands of books every year.”
Once the Marathon has been completed, Vaisesika suggests that the mood of encouragement and support of one another continues.
“At ISV, we end the Marathon with something we recommend that other temples across North America also introduce—Devotee Appreciation Day,” he says. “All the devotees get together for a big party, singing bhajans and enjoying delicious prasadam. Then we pass around a microphone, and everyone gets to glorify the service of their fellow devotees. It's so enlivening, and has become a regular event throughout the year.”
Devotees at ISV also meet on January 1st of the following year, after Devotee Appreciation Day, to discuss how they did in book distribution in the past year, and how to improve in the coming year. They set goals, and pre-plan group book distribution days in their calendar, so that their book distribution efforts won't clash with other temple events.
After the intense focus of the Marathon, of course, it's possible that devotees and temple management may put less effort into distributing books and focus elsewhere. Vaisesika offers some tips to keep the energy going:
“We've established some primary book distribution programs, and can help devotees around the country to institute them,” he says. “Monthly Sankirtana Festivals, which we've held here at ISV for years, are an excellent way to organize the community so that everyone can go out at least once a month. A lot of people each doing a little bit makes a big difference. There's also the Motel Gita and the Smart Box, both of which have been successfully established in cities around North America, and which we encourage devotees everywhere to get involved in.”
Vaisesika, for one, is convinced of the power of Srila Prabhupada's books, and their potential to help the lives of all—and it is this which drives him and his team to keep looking for new ways to get them into people's hands.
“These books help us develop gratitude, and inner happiness—remember, we don't see the world the way it is, we see the world the way we are,” he says. “ And, of course, they help us become free from stress, something that most people nowadays are suffering a lot from.”
He quotes the Sri Isopanishad, which says, 'One who sees everything in relation to the Supreme Lord, who sees all living entities as His parts and parcels, and who sees the Supreme Lord within everything never hates anything or any being. One who sees all living entities as spiritual sparks, in quality one with the Lord, becomes a true knower of things. What, then, can be illusion or anxiety for him?'
Vaisesika spreads his hands, insinuating that the quote makes his point for him.
“With gems like this on every page, who wouldn't want to read these books?” he says.