This is a guest post by Caitanya Chandra Dasa. Read more of his writing at www.gettingthemercy.com.
Sometimes, sankirtana devotees may somehow develop an elitist mentality, that gives others the message that book distribution is the best service, that everybody else is in maya, etc. This is not just offensive, but also counterproductive, since it creates conflicts and tends to alienate devotees who are not book distributors, but could also assist in different capacities if properly cultivated.
There may be also different priorities in different situations. For example, in the early 1970s, when book distribution was starting, there were very few devotees and Srila Prabhupada wanted to spread the movement quickly. At that time there were only a few hundred devotees to preach in the whole world, so if these few devotees would concentrate on just one city, trying to maintain a temple there, what about the rest of the world? In this situation, Srila Prabhupada’s strategy was to make book distribution the topmost priority, to just distribute the biggest possible amount of books, as quickly as possible, even in places where devotees would not go back again. There was a big sense of urgency, to bring the message to the people. This effort gave fruits: so many people started coming because of the books, and ISKCON really started to spread around the world.
“There is no doubt about it, to distribute books is our most important activity. The temple is a place not for eating and sleeping, but as a base from which we send out our soldiers to fight with maya. Fight with maya means to drop thousand and millions of books into the lap of the conditioned souls. Just like during war time the Bombs are raining from the sky like anything”. (Srila Prabhupada, letter to Ramesvara, 03 August 1973)
Of course, nowadays we still have space for this pioneer flavor. There are still so many cities that don’t have temples, don’t have devotees, where nobody ever heard about Krsna consciousness, so there is still a lot of space and need for this very intensive program of book distribution. A small party or even one devotee alone can go to such places for a few days, distribute as many books as possible and then go to the next city. Even one devotee doing this alone can create a lot of change in these places. However, when we come to a point where we already have hundreds of devotees in the city, then the goals change a little bit. Then it’s not just about doing bombing-raids anymore, it’s time to start an invasion.
Book distribution by itself is just like a bombing-raid: we throw a lot of bombs, creating a lot of destruction in the enemy’s territory, but we don’t really take the place, we just bombard, preparing the field. Eventually, we need to actually invade: to fight street by street and finally take the city. When we get to this point, then we can’t just continue only distributing books: we should combine further distribution of books with the cultivation of the persons who are receiving the books. Even in the front lines, we should create some balance between book distribution and cultivation, doing these two things side by side.
From this point, our concern is not just to give books to a person, but to also take his address, know a little bit about him, invite him to some program. We want him to really read the book, and return with questions, so we can keep in touch and cultivate him until he becomes a devotee. The priorities somewhat change.
Outside the front lines, the change is even more dramatic. Since now there will be already a number of devotees, there is the necessity of inspiring and organizing them, creating a cooperative effort to increase the preaching exponentially. The goal changes from simply distributing a large amount of books to also making devotees: to increase from one hundred to one thousand devotees, from one thousand to ten thousand, then to one hundred thousand, and then take the whole city.