Historically, ISKCON Brooklyn, New York, was perhaps the greatest center of book distribution in the world. In the 1970s, ISKCON Press printed Prabhupada’s books at 32 Tiffany Place near the Henry Street temple. The huge amounts of books distributed from Brooklyn, meanwhile, contributed much of the funds to build flagship ISKCON centers such as the Juhu temple in Mumbai, and Mayapur Chandrodaya Mandir.
For the past twenty years, however, book distribution came to a complete standstill in Brooklyn. Then, under the new leadership of Brooklyn veteran Hansarupa Das, and with training and inspiration by GBC, BBT Trustee and Sankirtan Strategist Vaisesika Das, the first Monthly Sankirtan Festival took place in September 2018.
Book distribution has been ramping up ever since, and this Prabhupada marathon – which runs from Thanskgiving (Nov 28th) to Christmas Day – Brooklyn devotees are set to distribute 1,008 maha and big books, and 1,508 medium and small books, bringing their total for the year up to 10,000 books.
Vaisesika Prabhu disciple Divyangi Dasi, who originally hails from Russia and distributed books full-time for three years with the Yuga Dharma Ashram in Manhattan, is currently the ISKCON Brooklyn Sankirtan Party Coordinator.
Divyangi (left) and Kalindi distribute books to a New York police officer
Divyangi remains the only full-time distributor in Brooklyn, distributing books alone six days a week throughout the year. During this year’s Prabhupada marathon, however, she and visiting book distributor Kalindi Dasi from Germany have been going out for six to nine hours every day, sometimes working all the way from 9am to 6pm.
A team of four enthusiastic regulars, headed by Bhakta Govind, also go out daily from 6pm to 7:30pm. Meanwhile on weekends, Divyangi organizes Sankirtan Sundays, during which seven or eight congregation members and temple residents distribute for up to three hours.
“We have a WhatsApp group where I post where I’ll be, and whoever wants to join, comes along,” she says.
Finally, a Monthly Sankirtan Festival (MSF) is held on the second Saturday of every month, with about twenty-five residents and congregation usually participating. The most recent one, on December 14th during the marathon, bumped numbers up and drew an impressive forty devotees, including the local Bengali Namahatta group and Russian sanga.
With temperatures dropping below zero in New York, most book distribution is done in the subways, such as Atlantic Avenue–Barclays Center, the busiest subway station in Brooklyn.
Divyangi Dasi distributes an Arabic Christmas set (Includng Arabic Gita, Beyond Birth and Death, Perfection of Yoga and Perfect Questions, perfect answers)
When distributing on her own, Divyangi simply carries a book bag. On Sankirtan Sundays and Monthly Sankirtan Festivals, devotees set up a book table decorated with Christmas lights and a sign reading “Wisdom and Meditation Books.” Along with the books, the table is stocked with prasadam lollipops and invitation cards to the temple. Sometimes, especially on Sankirtan Sundays, devotees also sit next to the table and perform Harinama Sankirtan. Distributors then take books from the rack and approach people in the vicinity.
For the Monthly Sankirtan Festival this December 14th, the event began at 9am with breakfast, followed by an inspirational lecture from Vaisesika Das.
“His Grace Vaisesika Prabhu spoke about how these books are like little seeds,” says Divyangi. “Sometimes we can get upset if we’re not distributing so much. But even one small book can change a person’s life, and that makes your effort worth it.”
After a short training session, devotees went out to “touch the pavement.” This tradition of Vaisesika’s, in which everyone stands in a circle with one foot forward, helps devotees get over their fear.
“He says that we’re not going out to distribute books, just to touch the pavement – and when you’ve done that, your work is done,” Divyangi explains. “But once devotees are there, they get inspired to try.”
One of the teams at this December’s Monthly Sankirtan Festival distribute books in the subway
Splitting up into four teams each with a table, books, and sign, everyone then made their way to four different subway stations and distributed books from 12pm till 3pm. Throughout, Vaisesika would spend time with each team to assist and keep them inspired. Finally, all the devotees returned to the temple to eat prasadam together and share their realizations and stories from the day.
Divyangi says there is a lot of genuine interest in spirituality in New York, with one out of ten people stopping, and many taking books and saying things like “Thank you so much, you’ve changed my life.”
Recently, she remembers, she called out to one affluent-looking woman, “You look so spiritual, are you a spiritual person?” – a common attention-grabbing line. The woman stopped and turned, staring at Divyangi silently.
“I didn’t understand her reaction – I didn’t know if she was suspicious of me, or what – but I had to say something, so I started telling her about yoga and meditation,” Divyangi says. “How New York is crazy, and it’s important to have some connection to your soul to keep balance despite what’s going on on the outside. Then I handed her a Science of Self Realization.”
At last, the woman managed to say, “How did you know I was looking for that? I’ve been praying to God all morning to reveal Himself to me. I didn’t know how, but I really needed His help. And now you’re stopping me and giving me this book.” She promised to read it and then went on her way, still looking shocked.
Kalindi Dasi with another happy recipient of Srila Prabhupada’s books
On another occasion, a woman stopped and said to Divyangi, “Oh, is this the Bhagavad-gita? That book changed my life a couple of years ago.” And she began talking in-depth about Karma Yoga, and about how one must do one’s duty without being attached to the results. She then took seven more books on the spot, as well as an invitation to the Sunday Feast.
“That weekend, she actually did come to the temple,” Divyangi says. “She was very nice, and very open, and asked many questions, inquiring about the different personalities in the paintings such as Lord Nrsimhadeva, and responding very positively to each one.”
Seeing these kind of responses to Srila Prabhupada’s books is very inspiring to devotees in Brooklyn, as they work hard to regain a foothold in the one-time book distribution capital of the world. And of course, Christmas is the ideal time for such an effort.
“People are all looking for gifts for their family and friends,” Divyangi says. “So I tell them, ‘What can we give to those we love? If we give money, or clothes, or cosmetics, they’ll use them for a couple of weeks or months – then they’ll forget about them. So why give those gifts, when you can give spiritual knowledge, which is eternal?”
She grins. “People really like that.”
Aug 06, 2022
Brahmatirtha das Director, Bhaktivedanta Institute for Higher Studies