Sastra Dana & Motel Gita – The Gift of Spiritual Knowledge
An interview with the Experts: Mayapur Bihari Prabhu and Minakshi Devi Dasi
Q: What does Sastra Dana mean to you and why is it an important part of your temple’s book distribution?
MDD: For us in Toronto, the Sastra Dana program means distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books to venues and individuals that may not otherwise come across these books. And those that might be in a vulnerable situation. So that’s what it means to us, and it is really part and parcel of the sankirtana program and is one one part of that. Yeah, Sastra Dana means to me, spreading Srila Prabhupada’s works and philosophies. Especially early on, when we were distributing these books to even other temples, you know, they don’t have access to the philosophy. They might have Deities, a whole bunch of Deities set up on the same level, and the congregation has no access to what is the true philosophy, who is the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
MBP: So, on very similar lines, to be able to provide this wonderful transcendental knowledge beyond those who would be visiting temples. Lord Chaitanya has blessed us that the holy name is spread in every town and every village of the world. How to go beyond where normally our book distributors may not necessarily be able to reach in person? Or, to go to people who probably would never ever visit a temple? And to target that audience, which is actually a huge audience, majority of the audience. So that’s where we’ve seen that giving this spiritual knowledge, “Sastra Dana,” the gift of spiritual knowledge, that’s a goal. And then, inspired by the huge vision and blessing of Vaisesika Prabhu. I have been fortunate enough that it is only his blessings. Having great ideas is one thing, but actually encouraging, and, you know, helping us implement that vision to form Sastra Dana.
Q: Could go into more specific initiatives within sastra dana that you’ve had success with? Any particular type of institutions? Any specific details you could give on what’s working right now for you?
MBP: Talking about Motel Gita. Inspired by whatever has already happened, we found that hotels and motels are a wonderful avenue, especially and even more in USA and North America. Because, you know, I think Krishna had a wonderful plan, just around when Srila Prabhupada came to us a lot of people, especially Gujaratis, people from India, started becoming hotel owners in the 60s and 70s. And so I personally felt that it was a very wonderful and easy platform, especially in the US, where 65% of hotel owners in the mid range segment are people of Indian origin. And it was very easy. I mean, we didn’t have to explain to them what is Bhagavad Gita, they already had been giving Gideon Bibles and even some Buddhist literature. So that was a no-brainer project to start with. And that has got an awesome response, especially from hotel owners of the Patel and Gujarati community, but even otherwise.
The fact that yoga, meditation, vegan food, is now getting prominence and even considered kind of a modern thing today, is definitely helping our cause as well, when we say that “This is a book which provides different ways of yoga,” even to those who are not very religious oriented. So that is helping us. So, yes, hotel is one thing which is forming a bulk of our program recently, with feedback and help from various devotees.
We have also started distributing Bhagavad Gitas to hospitals. In the USA, a lot of this feedback and guidance came from Minakshi Mataji, from what they were doing in Canada. And then this year itself, we may have distributed more than 10,000 books to hospitals, 10,000 Gitas. And maybe a small number, also to airports. But I would say primarily hotels and motels. And this year, at least 20-25% maybe a little less than that, to hospitals.
Q: On the topic of motel Gita, could you walk me through your step by step process of how you actually have achieved that success?
This program, I would divide into three parts. One is, the hotel owners. It’s very important that any program you can do, there should be people who are ready to receive it: here, the hotel owners. So as I mentioned earlier, we reach out to a lot of Asian American Hotel Owners Association members. This group has around 1.3 million rooms and growing. And as I mentioned earlier, 80 to 90% of them are people of Indian origin. So since last 11 years, we have had very good relations with them.
I remember the first time when we bought a booth which was in Washington, DC, that was in 2009, they charged us around $4,000, to even give us a booth. We took that risk, we had no idea how this would go on. But after that, since 12 years now, they have been giving us a free booth at their annual convention, which I mentioned is around $4,000-6,000. And also, they give us free booths for all the regional conventions. There are over 20 regional cities where they have trade shows.
So anyways, my point, summarizing it: a wonderful network with hotel owners, which helps us reach out to them. And because in the initial state, there are a lot of questions: Is this okay to keep? Will our business be impacted? Will the franchises agree to that? Will my clientele will be impacted? What if some Christian body notices, doesn’t agree with it? And so on. But going through this has certainly helped. So if anyone wants to start, we can we can team up with them, and give them a jumpstart on this.
The second thing is, it’s not possible, especially during COVID, but even otherwise, to reach all the hotel owners. So we have a small team in India, couple of devotees who actually call hotel owners every day on the phone and do a lot of logistics work. Like confirming that they have received the books, or the books are in the room, confirming the orders and so on. I think, from an operational perspective, this has worked awesomely well. Executing operation is very important and this has really helped.
The third thing for anyone to start is, of course, the blessing and support of the local congregation. Personally, of course, we are so fortunate, blessed by His Grase Vaisesika Maharaja himself, which helps us garner all the support that is required. When I say support it is, of course, a lot of Lakshmi. I’ll be very honest in saying that hotel owners have a habit, they’ve been getting Gideon Bibles free for 108 years now. And I’ve heard they get Buddhist literature and they they advertise in the same way. We will not even ask for donation, that’s their motto, their advertisement, and so on. So yes, a lot of Lakshmi and support is required. And then that’s where you know, the local congregation and we can talk more about that as well.
I just like to add one more thing. A big thing required here is an infrastructure and that’s where the BBT comes in, and I understand Veda Vit Prabhu is on this call. So we have a centralized team of dispatch, that department is handled by Veda Vit Prabhu. I mean, I personally realized how much vision and amazing amount of work Srila Prabhupada has put in. You know, for example, we did 80,000 Bhagavad Gita last year. It’s very easy for us because all we do is send a list of dispatch to LA team for Motel Gita, it’s headed by Veda Vit Prabhu, and they do amazing work. So to summarize, you need a robust infrastructure, BBT has provided us; you need Lakshmi, where we can get temple congregation and sponsorships available; and you need networking with hotel owners, which is available through AAHOA, and the team members and affiliates.
MDD: Yes, I absolutely agree with Mayapur Bihari Prabhu, it’s somewhat similar in Canada. We also have, really a team effort of everybody getting together in the whole Sankirtana team headed by Radha Mohana Prabhu and Shyama Mohini Mataji where it’s not just the calls, or the visits, but you need the back-end support, the fulfillment, getting the books from the BBT, doing all the calculations, order fulfillment, and raising funds from the congregation and favorable individuals. So, the entire Sankirtana team is working towards that goal to get those sponsorships in order for us to fulfill them.
And then, as far as the Motel Gita program, in Toronto, we have it where we start by letting the congregation know, periodically, what we’re doing, where the books are going, using testimonials, that type of thing. And I would say any motel or hotel is a candidate, definitely using referrals. So if you’ve placed them in the same town or city, or the same branded hotel, a Days Inn for example, or Howard Johnson’s, or whatnot, you can say, “Howard Johnson’s at such and such already has these Bhagavad Gitas, so you should also join the program.” So sort of name dropping, I would say. Definitely explaining the program about the stress relief, about it being no charge. And then the other thing that we do is, as soon as we ensure there’s acceptance, we try to get the book shipped out fairly quickly, so that they remember the conversation, and that they had actually accepted them.
Q: Where else have you found success with this program? You mentioned hospitals, schools, other institutions? Are there any specific points you can make about approaching those as well?
MDD: Well, beyond the motels and hotels, we’ve also had great success in hospitals. It’s a wonderful program where the books are not only given for the patients and their families, but they’re kept in the chapels and resource centers. And the chaplains are very much on board to have these books available and even mention them. We’ve had some hospitals where the population of their patients might be older and have asked for large-print Gitas or even audio CDs, like Durida Prabhu’s CD, we’ve complemented the books with those as well. So that’s been a really wonderful program and a lot of testimonials from that.
We have recently done courts. So courthouses are really, really appreciative of this. In fact, I just got a phone call a couple of days ago from a courthouse here in Toronto, really being appreciative. It was just unbelievable when he opened the box and saw the Gitas. And he says, “I’m going to be your advocate, I’m going to call other courthouses as well.” And I didn’t tell him that, “Well, they already have it too…” like, let him go “Rah, rah rah!”” So courthouses have been really wonderful as well. We’ve also been doing hospices, prisons, inmates within the prisons, libraries, temple programs, so their schools, their senior programs, airports as well, the chapels in the airport. So it is beyond just hotels and motels.
MBP: The US team started hospitals this year. And I was pleasantly surprised by the response. I mean, consider this year is very different. In fact, we just started, and you know, because of COVID and all. We were not sure, people may not like to keep books or external things in there. You know, we were skeptical whether they’d accept it. But maybe, because of these things that are happening, the pandemic… We received so many thank you letters from the hospitals. In fact, we’ve been receiving more thank you letters from hospitals, that this is a great stress reliever, especially in such times. So yes, that’s one of our major avenues besides the hotels. As I mentioned, I think they have already completed around 15,000 books this year in hospitals. And again, I feel we are also trying to target more libraries. We have some discussions going on with the BBT about if they can give us some assorted books, rather than just Bhagavad Gita to cater to different types of audience, but that will be a next target. Right now, yes, hospitals and hotels.
Q: What would be the first couple of steps that you would recommend someone take to launch this program, if they’re just getting started?
MDD: I would say, first of all, get buy-in from the temple. Because the temple, the management, they have to sort of be on board to what you’re doing. And then of course, have the Sankirtana team discuss and commit to the program and say, “Yes, we’re going to do this as part of our overall Sankirtana Book Distribution Program.” And I think the next step would be to get the congregation on board, and do that through presentations and say, “What are we going to do? And why are we doing this? What does Sastra Dana mean, gift of knowledge? And where are we going to put these books?” So you get their buy-in as well, because they’re the ones who are going to really help with the Laksmi side of things, and if we don’t have the Laksmi, we can’t afford to place the books. So I would say that would be the next.
And then it’s really the team effort of the congregation, of course, and then the Sankirtana team. And I think the next step would be, “Go for it!” Start small, don’t worry, you might mess up the first couple of calls or whatnot, it doesn’t matter. It is a learning experience, there might be some rejections, but we learn by starting those calls and going and visiting. And if you’re visiting, take the books with you. And just knock knock on the hotel door, motel door, hospital door, whatever. And present the books, and just start out.
And I think that follow up is important, because you want to make sure how it’s working for them. And replenishment is a really wonderful thing too. So if you see guests taking them out of the hotel rooms, then we’re here to replenish. You know, hospitals, they run out of them by giving them to patients, we’re here to replenish. That type of thing. So yeah, my thing would be just go for it. And do it as a temple, as a team.
MBP: The only other thing I would like to add is we, meaning Minakshi Mataji, myself and two other devotees, we are here. Sometimes a jumpstart would be tremendously good, rather than reinventing the wheel. For example, there have been a few devotees where we have calls on what to say, what not to say, when you are on call with, let’s say, a hospital chapel father, or some hotel owner.
We have, as I mentioned earlier, some local trade shows, at least in the USA, where we cannot reach out to 30 different cities, you know, to attend all the trade shows, but if local devotees want to attend, we can have them attend there. We can even jumpstart them with some contacts. We have some contacts who are favorable in that certain location and we can even help with that.
I completely agree with Mataji that this is possible once they have the buy-in from the temple. Yep. One very important thing also I’d like to say is that if we can somehow team up as one ISKCON family… what does that mean? One of the major blocker for some of the temples to participate in this, and I’ll be honest about it, is the Lakshmi part, the financial aspects. Because, you know, most of these institution, they don’t pay, many of the temples like the idea, but they cannot afford it, or you know, they cannot participate in it right now. Having said that, there are some other temples who reach out to us, especially during such December Marathon goals where they have excess Lakshmi commitments from devotees. I know there are some senior Srila Prabhupada disciples who want to give only for book distribution, because Prabhupada loved book distribution so much.
So my point is, we are ready to sync up and handshake. In other words, if certain temples can get some orders, but don’t have the Lakshmi to fulfill it, whereas there are other temples who have the Lakshmi and they don’t mind extra orders, we oftentimes do that handshake, especially during this December Marathon times. So please reach out to us in any ways you can help us. As Mataji mentioned earlier, there are a lot of back office works also, this is Sankirtana which you can do just on your phone. Even if there are people who are shy of meeting, you know, or going out. Even after pandemic, we have enough services that can be done on phone, like logistics, accounting, and so on.
Q: Could share a story that proves this program is working, or something you’ve seen happen that has really inspired you?
MDD: One poignant one that is actually very emotional, even for me, is that when we started sending books to prisons, to correctional institutions, which was a big process in itself, there was one prison here in Ontario where one particular inmate – he’s actually in for a very violent crime, I won’t go into the exact details – he came across the Bhagavad Gita. And he started reading it. And he started corresponding with us and asking questions, and then asking for more titles. And we started sending them to him.
And so now where he’s at is: he’s a vegetarian. He offers all his food to Krishna makes it prasadam. He has a little altar, we’ve sent him little pictures and such so he has a little altar. He’s chanting 16 rounds a day. And his whole outlook, and even his psyche has changed. He’s very calm person. When I speak to the chaplain, he’s been telling me his progress. And he’s actually now helping the chaplain in the chaplain Resource Center with other titles of Srila Prabhupada’s books, including the Bhagavad Gita, but other titles as well, including the Srimad-Bhagavatam, and showing them to other inmates. So he’s preaching inside, you know?
And we hope that eventually when he gets out, and I’m told it’s going to be soon, he might be up for initiation, you know, possibly from Bhakti Marga Swami. So let’s see. Yeah. So that’s how things can change with just Srila Prabhupada’s books. He would not, of course, have come across these books without the Sastra Dana program, because he’s inside a correctional institution, locked up.
MBP: This happened, I think, on the East Coast, somewhere near Washington or New York. So there was a hotel owner. When when the devotees personally went to deliver books at his hotels, he was a little reluctant to take the books and place it in his rooms. He didn’t see much merit in it. But the devotees tried to convince him and finally he said, “Okay, fine, I have a few rooms on my first floor. Let me try a few rooms. And if it works out, I’ll order.” If I recall correctly, he had multiple properties. So what happened was, he just put a few sample books in some of his rooms.
And apparently, a man checked in. And he was pretty disturbed. And the next day, he came to the counter with a book, with the Bhagavad Gita in his hand. And he actually told the hotel owner that he was contemplating suicide.And that was one of the reasons he checked in, and he was completely distressed. The only reason he picked up the book was because it was there. Out of curiosity, he started reading that book. And that changed him. In the morning – he apparently read it the whole night – he came and thanked the hotel owner, that this book actually saved his life.
The hotel owner could not believe it, what he was hearing. He immediately called the devotees with whom he was not even ready to keep the first box in his rooms. He actually shared this news with the devotees, what happened. He ordered Gitas, not only for that hotel, but I think he had one or two other properties, and he ordered Bhagavad Gitas for all his hotel rooms. So that was one very nice thing.
And in fact, there was another one that I heard… that there was, you know, a Mataji, some lady whose house was accidentally burned, so she had to stay in a hotel for a few months. And that’s where she came across Bhagavad Gita, and later on she was initiated. I’m not sure if this happened in Canada, Bhawani Mataji is her initiated name. And Prabhu, to Mataji’s thing, I also wanted to add, I know, if I’m not mistaken – and anyone on the call can please correct me – but I understand Vaisesika Maharaja has one initiated disciple, and that initiation actually took place in a jail, in a correctional facility. I understand that the person somehow or the other he came across the books as Mataji has mentioned. And unfortunately, it seems that he may never be released. I don’t know the details. But a couple of years ago, Vaisesika Maharaja himself went and initiated that devotee inside the correctional facility.
We can always email you a couple of more such testimonials and small stories that would help. Once a hotel owner texted me, a nice customer said, “Okay, I picked up this book because I could not sleep. But this is amazing. But now it’s time for me to catch my flight, I have to check out.” So she kept $5 in lieu of that book, and so that she could continue reading it. But it was time for her to check out of the room. So people like these would have never ever come across such wonderful literature, because they would have never visited our temples, or probably not met a devotee.
Q: Is there a script that is being used for motels, prisons, schools, etc? Is there a printed resource somewhere that people could have access to?
MBP: Yes. In fact, I received this request last week from another devotee, in the East Coast. I can share the script, we need to fine-tune it.
Q: How have you gotten sponsorships for all of these half a million gitas that have gone to motels? Is there any recommendations to help people raise Lakshmi to make it happen in their own town?
MBP: Good question. Very important question. It’s like the chicken or the egg – Do get the order first, or do you get the Lakshmi first? And I know I’m answering this question in a very long, roundabout way. So when we first went to our convention in Washington, DC in 2009, we had $600-700. And suddenly, in two days, we got orders for 21,000 books. And I’m not joking. And the size of ISV temple at that time was around 600 or 700 square feet. We did not know where will the Lakshmi come from, we were brainstorming it. We really had no idea how to go about it. In fact, ISV is still considered a small template, actually.
But, I think what happens is, if you how orders, you attract attention. You attract devotees who are ready to help out. There was one Patel person in our congregation. He just talked to me and the other devotee who initiated this, and out of nothing, he wrote a check for $25,000 and gave it to us.
Now, what I’m trying to say is, it’s not that something will similarly happen here. My point is that if you have projects, you will attract a crowd. Don’t don’t make it the other way around. Don’t keep it that, “Oh, if I have Laksmi, I’ll try to get orders.” I cannot say, “Okay, if you’ll give me $5,000, I’ll get the order,” which is okay, is not wrong to do. But if you have orders, and if you just share it, you may be surprised, positively surprised, people will suddenly come and help, because all the devotees want to help.
And the second thing is, get the blessings from the congregation, especially the temple president and whoever, let’s not bypass anyone. Amazing things can happen, “Okay, if I have 2000 books of orders, but where will I get Laksmi?” Let’s say you only have 200 books worth of Lakshmi, which is okay. Spread the news, there will be other temples who may be ready to help, or reach out to us. Yes, score is a small thing, we can work around that. But I have seen you know, if you make an announcement, especially on Gita Jayanti. “Okay, we have 3000 books of orders, but no Lakshmi.” You don’t know, amazing things may happen. That’s my experience.
Of course, having said that, personally, we have been very lucky because, being in Silicon Valley, we have, the more financial people, and of course, being where Vaisesika Prabhu is there, he attracts a lot of devotees, and that has helped us set up that project. And so with all humility, I can say we have been very lucky. That may not be the case everywhere. But I would just request the devotee sometimes to try the other approach. First get the order, and see how it goes around. And if you still don’t get Lakshmi, rest assured, we are here to execute it. One of the temple presidents has told me “Mayapur, get me 10,000 books of orders, I will execute it, don’t worry.” And that is not ISV, I’m talking about another temple president. And so, rest assured if you get an order, and have a Laksmi issue, we will still execute it. Just let us know.
Q: What keeps you going in this service? What is your big vision, or your end goal?
MDD: I think what keeps me going is being very, very, very grateful for Srila Prabhupada’s mercy. And this service is really just a small droplet in trying to – we can’t repay Srila Prabhupada – but it’s a small droplet in trying our small attempt, like an ant, to do so. I think that’s what keeps me going. And we know that these books, time and time again, story after story, are touching people’s hearts, are making a difference. Srila Prabhupada has said, these are time bombs. And they are, right? And especially now, with COVID as well, you don’t know where they’re going to touch. And also, I think as you distribute books, whether through Sastra Dana, or on the street, when you’re distributing, it actually changes something in your own heart and propels you to do more and more. So I think that’s what drives me. As far as the second part of what’s the end goal, I don’t think there is an end goal. Srila Prabhupada’s books can go on and on and hit as many as we can. There’s no end in sight. And these books are the law books for the next 10,000 years. So, you know, where’s the end?
MBP: Yeah, very similar to what Mataji has said. This book has personally helped me. Out of curiosity, I just picked up a book because it was lying in my home. Not because I was interested, not because I went to purchase it, but someone did it, and it was lying in my home, and as a teenager, I opened it. And it has helped me personally. And I see a lot of merit in doing this, especially because there are a lot of material facilities easily available, but there’s a dirth of this knowledge. And I see that my Google Maharaja, Vaisesika Maharaja, and Srila Prabhupada especially, are very fond, and they are very pleased when the books go out. That’s enough for me to keep it going. Yeah.
Q: If someone wants to reach out for training, should they just write to you?
MDD: That’ll work, we’re here to help.