What has kept the International Society for Krishna consciousness going for 54 years now, “systematically propagating spiritual knowledge to society at large” as Srila Prabhupada wrote when incorporating the movement in 1966?
Much has been down to the steady efforts of quietly dedicated devotees, doing their services day in and day out for decades – the pujaris, the teachers, the mothers, the cooks, the cleaners, the maintenance workers, the accountants, the book editors, the congregational preachers. It’s important to celebrate and appreciate these devotees who have given so much of their lives to Srila Prabhupada’s mission.
One of these dedicated soldiers of Prabhupada’s is Jagadisananda Das, who has facilitated the service of book distributors and worked in the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust’s (BBT) mail order department at ISKCON Los Angeles for an incredible forty-five years now.
Born in 1952 and growing up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Jagadisananda lost his father, a World War II veteran, to cancer at two years old. With his mother suffering from mental illness and alcoholism, he was brought up by his grandparents.
“They were both born around the turn of the 20th century,” he recalls. “So it was like I wasn’t really growing up in the ‘60s – I didn’t take part in any of the counterculture stuff that was going on. I was a conservative and studious kind of person; I played in the band and did really well in school.”
Although he had high grades and was accepted into the University of Minnesota engineering school, the transition from a small school in the suburbs to one with 40,000 students proved too much for Jagadisananda, and he dropped out after a year.
Soon after, in December 1972, at the age of twenty, he found himself drafted into the US Army. One of the last draftees of the Vietnam War era, he missed the war by a hair. Still, the experience – he served as an MP, guarding the stockade – wasn’t easy for the sensitive young man.
“It was bad enough having those drill sargeants cursing you day in and day out,” he says. “I thought I was in hell.”
But a ray of light appeared when a friend in the army who was part of the counterculture movement told him about the Bhagavad-gita. “I’m reading this far out book,” he said. “You gotta check it out!”
It was the beginning of his journey. While visiting home during breaks in his term of military service, Jagadisananda met ISKCON devotees at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (Which Srila Prabhupada once said should be renamed O’Hare Krishna airport) and received several Back to Godhead magazines.
At first he simply left the BTGs on his bookshelf without reading them. But even that, he is convinced, had an effect.
“I’m proof positive that if you get Prabhupada’s books and just keep them on your shelf – you don’t toss them – then you gradually become pious, so you can understand what Prabhupada is saying,” he explains.
A few months after leaving the army, Jagadisananda picked up an issue of Back to Godhead and began reading. As soon as he did, things began to happen fast. He found the early purple abridged edition of Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is in his local library, began corresponding with Swarup Das in the BBT mail order department in Los Angeles, read the entire Krsna book, and started cooking vegetarian meals and chanting.
Jagadisananda didn’t consider himself a religious person, but was attracted to Prabhupada’s presentation of Krishna consciousness as a science. “I thought religion was just some social club, and I wasn’t interested,” he says. “But Prabhupada gave us the essence of Dharma – that the inseparable quality of a living entity is to serve – and a framework in which to do that.”
About six weeks after starting to read, Jagadisananda got into his car one night without telling anyone, and drove across the country to Los Angeles to join the ISKCON temple on Watseka Avenue.
Arriving right in the middle of the 1975 Christmas book distribution marathon, being placed in the ashram and waking up at 3:30 in the morning was an intense experience for Jagadisananda.
“I was like, “Wait a minute, I thought I just got out of the army!’” he laughs.
Initiated by Srila Prabhupada in 1976, Jagadisananda didn’t find it in his nature to do street book distribution. “I’m an analyst and mathematician,” he says, joking, “I don’t want to be at the forefront of anything.” But from the very beginning, he felt comfortable supporting and facilitating the service, explaining, “If I wasn’t in the middle of book distribution, I wouldn’t feel right.”
For nearly twenty years after joining ISKCON, Jagadisananda was “the sankirtana servant” at the Los Angeles temple. He learned how to fix cars and maintained the book distributors’ vehicles. He worked in the book room, ordered books from the BBT, and loaded the sankirtana devotees’ cars with books. He also organized a team who stocked lockers one could rent at the airport terminals with books, so that they were ready for the book distributors when they went out every morning.
On the day in 1977 when it was announced that Srila Prabhupada had left this world and the devotees were plunged into grief, it was in the book room that Jagadisananda found solace.
“I felt the most connection with Prabhupada being with his books,” he says.
Jagadisananda even married a book distributor, Karuna Dharini Dasi, whom he met in 1985, and who is now a regular contributor to Back to Godhead magazine. The couple have one daughter, Gaura Sundari. Jagadisa continues to be impressed by his wife’s ability to distribute books on the street.
“I find it terrifying to go out and meet people, whereas she’s completely in her element. Sometimes I go with her, and I’m just like, ‘Oh my God, who is this person?” he chuckles, agreeing that opposites attract and complement each other.
Jagadisananda sees maintaining a good, lasting marriage as one of his services to Prabhupada. From 1994 to this day, for the past twenty-six years, he has also managed the LA BBT mail order department. That has included processing both wholesale and small orders of Srila Prabhupada’s books, arranging for shipping, and organizing the devotees doing the warehouse work and answering phones.
In the early days of his BBT service in the mid 1990s, Jagadisananda also used his computer savvy to install a network in the BBT offices and get everything computerized and everyone online. He played a major role in establishing the first ISKCON page on the Internet, harekrishna.com, in 1995, at a time when he says people would respond to talk of the World Wide Web with “the worldwide what?” He also helped establish the LA temple audio broadcast in 2002.
Today, Jagadisananda continues to be part of the backbone of the Los Angeles Bhaktivedanta Book Trust branch along with trustee Svavasa Das, accountant Sura Das and production manager Arcita Das.
Despite the pandemic, he still feels very enlivened in his service and explains that book distribution has only increased.
“There’s a lot happening here,” he says. “You would think that with Covid things would have slowed down, but the past year was 12 per cent bigger than the year prior. The sankirtana devotees are so incredible how they can adjust to any situation. And what they’ve done in 2020 is nothing short of amazing.”
For his part, Jagadisananda says he simply tries to be a servant and facilitator of the devotees. He overcomes challenges in his service by “trying to be expert at what I’m doing” and using “intelligence and organization,” as Srila Prabhupada advised Giriraja Swami when asked how the movement would continue after he had gone.
He stays inspired by listening to Srila Prabhupada’s classes and reading his books, chanting the Sri Narasimha Pranama Mantra every night before going to sleep, and associating with devotees. He also tries to stay in the present moment, and not be depressed about the past or worried about the future.
“If you can do that, and add the Hare Krishna mantra, you can can actually be relatively peaceful, even in the midst of the big chaos that we’re in right now,” he says. “It’s an art.”
Feeling extremely fortunate to be doing the service he’s doing, Jagadisananda says it’s a miracle he’s still here after forty-four years.
Despite his fascinating life and considerable contributions and achievements, he’s humbly self-deprecating.
“I’m not a very interesting person,” he says. “My life is pretty mundane. I like it though. I like being part of Srila Prabhupada’s sankirtana army. I don’t care that I’m just a cog. A cog is good.”
Aug 06, 2022
Brahmatirtha das Director, Bhaktivedanta Institute for Higher Studies