Q: What did you gain by going on sankirtan, joining Srila Prabhupada´s book distribution?
A: As an introduction to this wonderful question, here is how I joined Srila Prabhupada’s sankirtan movement in spring of 1972, in the city of Heidelberg, Germany.
I grew up as a son of Czech immigrants who escaped from Czechoslovakia during the invasion of armies of Warsaw Pact in August 1968.
Probably I was the first Slavic, for sure the first Czech bhakta joining in West Europe. I grew up as an entirely silent single child, never had a friend, always disliked the school with its smells and aggressive boys running around, kicking each other. Mocking the teachers who were a truly odd assortment of highly mentally deranged individuals. I was very shy, trained by my parents never to take anything from strangers and if desiring something asking with a gentle “please”. When receiving it a “thank you” was absolutely expected from me, otherwise my father enforced it by a gentle slap on the back of my head. (Until today I am very grateful for this slap :-)
Silence, that’s what I remember from my childhood, an all-pervading silence where I looked at the world around me as if looking through a glass of a huge terrarium with all kinds of creatures crawling in it. I listened to the sound of the butterflies´ flapping. I thought grass about to be nothing else as miniature forest, exciting to watch, filled with unexpected living entities. Hours and hours I could lay in grass with my head to the ground, watching and... thinking. All my thinking I tried to put into my diaries, my paintings, and later on music. I didn’t really missed anybody, there was so much to see and so much to think about. Girls were for me like beings from another universe, boys simply barbarian roughfians, always running and screaming.
The gloom of the communistic Prague with its grey buildings, grey walls, grey faces and dusty trucks driving materials around which looked also old, men with dirty working outfits, smelling of beer, cheap cigarettes and urine. Nothing of this was appealing to me, I rather remained locked up in my own world of imagination.
Even not taking any drugs, I gradually realized that the mind in itself is most intoxicating mechanism and I started to get worried about my constant companion, the mind, my only friend.
Due to my father being musician I came into contact with artists who were engaged in far more colorful imaginary exploits, and as my mind silenced me even more, I walked around seeing other humans as remote control gizmos, wondering who is “at the control button”, moving it all around. Exile to Germany only enhanced my isolation and I grew into a full-fledged melancholic cynic.
Then, studying art in the art academy of Karlsruhe, a city of “dry office faces” as we used to call it. City where everybody seemed to work in the office of some kind. One day I was startled by the view of a young man standing opposite to me in the large room, once again painting “act”, meaning old naked pensioners. It was not his painting which excited me, but the bag he had hanging around his neck while painting. I asked him: “What is this?” In his classical serious German pathos driven voice he said: “This is called a bead bag!” and to my surprise he pulled out of his bag a whole chain of praying beads. He continued to “preach” to me.
He said: “Next Sunday you must come with me to the temple!”
"Temple” I thought “that must be something really big”. I didn’t know that in the nearby city of Heidelberg there is a “temple”.
Well the “temple” was just a small family house crowded by 80 devotees who celebrated a grand Sunday feast with amazing prasadam which I perceived as some sort of intoxicating food.
It was so delicious and so invigorating that I overate instantly, only to be encouraged by the devotees present to eat more and more. Then it was time for me to leave and as I raised myself heading for the door, the chief preacher looked at me and said: “Where are you going?”
I said I have to go “somewhere”.
“Why?” he said.
“Why don’t you just stay here?!”
I was shocked. “Staying here, just like that? Impossible!”
I was more as excited to see the vibrant blissful devotees. I was not at all impressed with the vanity and narcism of other art students, but to drop everything and just join this?
This was too abstract to me. When leaving I heard the voice of the main preacher (Prthu Prabhu, thank you!) announcing to other devotees: “He is going back to mama!” A loud round of laughter followed. I was very upset. Even being only 18 years old, I didn’t live with my parents since one year already and to be labeled in this way was very upsetting.
But next Sunday I was back.
Starting to chant instantly, living in a small flat with a “friend” of mine, who chanted as well, we didn’t know what to do. Going back to the art academy and paint naked pensioners seemed to be useless, joining some obviously hierarchy-based organization was too abstract.
But we kept on chanting, and chanting, and chanting. Until one day I walked out of the door, suddenly relieved, got into the local train, arrived in Heidelberg and walked into the temple.
In two days, after getting my hair cut off and some sort of dhoti, and even more abstract “kurta”, I found myself being dropped on the corner of the street with a pile of magazines I didn’t read yet. The devotee, Ram Mohan das, dropped me off and before leaving I desperately asked what am I supposed to say while attempting to sell these magazines.
He told me while looking out of the window of the old Volkswagen van: “Tell them we are monks, and there are many hungry children in India we feed. Then ask for a donation.”
I said: “But I have never been to India!” He answered sternly: “Shut up, this is a mantra..." and left.
And so I walked from one old lady to another (they seemed to be most harmless :-) saying my “mantra”.
It was like in a dream. Just few days ago I was sitting in a flat, thinking and chanting, and now I am here on the street doing exactly what I never thought to do, addressing people while trying to sell them something I didn’t read yet. Just to approach somebody was a huge task for me, but after first few magazines being sold for modest donation, I felt something I never felt before. Spontaneous bliss coming from inside, a happiness I never experienced before, a happiness I couldn’t understand or define. Something entirely different, something ...spiritual.
Like in dream I walked around, desperately trying to control my flying dhoti in the wind, feeling like somebody cut of my head and not just my hair. Was all this real? Is this the real me? One thing was certain: I will never return to that empty flat where I used to sit alone with my mind, trying to be of a genius. I had enough of this hopeless state of being, this confusion and this loneliness. At least here I was with people who obviously were totally blissful, convinced and free of any anxiety. What an experience! I never saw any happy people before.
I wanted to be one of them, I wanted to belong to them and the only way to do it was to do what EVERYBODY was doing in ISKCON 1972......sankirtan.
When in the evening car arrived again, Ram Mohan asked: “Where are those magazines?”
With my pockets stuffed with coins, I said with an entirely absent face expression,:“They are all gone.” Devotees pulled me in the car and instantly freed me from all the money I collected.
It was truly as in a dream. Coming back to the temple the temple president, Hamsadutta das, was just running down the narrow stairs when we entered the door. He asked: “How was the new one?”
He was told I distributed 250 magazines in six hours. He got a huge oceanic smile on his face and looking at me said: “Hey, he is a sankirtan devotee!”
And so I became a sankirtan devotee, hardly seeing any temple from inside for fifteen years, except for the Sunday Feast and the time we were loading new books into our vans.
It was the most amazing and most wonderful time of my life.
So what did sankirtan – book distribution for me?
Here is a list of just few gifts I got by simply giving my life to distribution of Srila Prabhupada’s books.
As Srila Prabhupada’s mercy and His gifts are endless, anybody can get the same and even more.
To be a “disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami” means to follow His instructions.
Whoever follows is connected to Srila Prabhupada instantly.
Sankirtan gave me a new life. It freed me from my introverted conditioning and brought out my real nature as the real person, eternal part of the Supreme Person, Krsna. All this was done by serving His most dear servant Srila Prabhupada. Until today I have no knowledge or realization of Krsna besides what was given to me by Srila Prabhupada. Whatever spiritual life I have, and it is MY spiritual life and nobody else´s, is possible only through the authorization of Srila Prabhupada.
He is the one who gave me life, and in his absence I am just a remote-control puppet, driven by powerful forces of material energy, the illusory energy of the Lord.
Even from material point of view the life of sankirtan devotee made me into a self sufficient and self-standing man who has no fear to approach anybody any time while preaching Srila Prabhupada’s words. Realizing more and more the absolute undefeatable nature of the philosophy Srila Prabhupada gave us, all fear vanished from my heart.
Sankirtan revealed to me the ghastly depths of the mental platform I was so deeply situated in.
Raising me above the bodily level gave me at least a glimpse of myself not being this body; I got more of overview what the real priorities of human life are, coming out of the dense darkness while roaming the maze of my mind. What a liberated feeling to take distance from the workings of the mind, and allow oneself occasionally to laugh about the pendulum of the mind, bringing only agitation and pain. What a relieve to be able to focus one’s mind on Srila Prabhupada’s words which never change, always deliver the absolute Truth. What a relieve to be able to anchor one´s boat once forever in the protected harbor while tolerating the ongoing storm out there on the sea, where the ferocious demon creatures reside.
Sankirtan is teaching us to gain at least basic control over the senses and the mind, the primary targets of any yoga process. There is no way to distribute books, if the mind and the senses remain uncontrolled.
Sankirtan is teaching us to develop awareness of the pain of others, consequently approaching them with compassion and the right spiritual medication.
This world is dominated by impersonalism. Sankirtan teaches us to perceive individually and personally the pain of the conditioned soul and
the reason of this pain, along offering the remedies. It is both beneficial, for the distributor and the receiver.
Sankirtan is revealing to us the need of proper sadhana and its purpose, all to achieve the goals mentioned above, gain tranquility and peace of mind, so essential for steady performance in devotional service.
Sankirtan is teaching us tolerance towards infamy, as assuming the position of a doctor. One is trained to become emotionally immune to the patient´s response. One learns to act upon higher purpose and not upon the vox populi public response. Sometimes sankirtan devotees are perceived as being insensitive to the needs of sentimental class of people. But they know that there is finally no material solution for material problems, the solution can come only from a spiritual platform.
Sankirtan is teaching us the need of right association, as naturally one inclines to associate only with those, who share the same preaching spirit and the same challenges coming along with it.
Sankirtan is making us wonderfully dependent on the mercy of Srila Prabhupada and Krsna, as braking through the huge barrier of false ego of the conditioned soul is only possible by the mercy of parampara. Only in sankirtan one can realize how infinitesimally the soul is, and how powerful the external energy of the Lord can be. It is exactly this helpless outcry for mercy of the the Lord and His pure devotee, which makes the sankirtan devotee eligible to gain the mercy of Lord Caitanya.
Sankirtan is revealing the level of our material desires stored in our hearts and the need for their gradual purification by dint of devotional service, flooding them with spiritual desires. It is a gradual process, and every day the sankirtan devotee is entering the battlefield, facing his own false ego, the raging senses and the diluting mind. The good and the bad are clashing on each other in a combat, from where only with the assistance of guru, sastra and sadhu one can emerge victorious.
Sankirtan is making out of us strong, self-aware and self-standing individuals. The life of a sankirtan devotee is filled with the constant need to make a decision where he wants to stand and if he wants to surrender to the Supreme Will......or not.
And so the sankirtan warrior gains strength and conviction by opposing his enemies daily, above all his mind and his false ego. That makes him to a strong individual, never to be compromised by social pressure, never to be corrupted by the subjective perception of his senses and his mind, emotional extortion based on sensual perception and false propaganda. The intelligence given to us, surrendered sankirtan devotees, comes directly from Krsna and His most dear servant Srila Prabhupada, via Srila Prabhupada’s books and via the presence of the Lord in the heart.
Sankirtan is teaching us about the worthlessness of our own sense perception. Seeing the world around us through sastra caksu, meaning with the eyes of Srila Prabhupada, delivers to us an amazing experience to see the Truth and abstain from illusion.
Sankirtan is teaching us by dint of realized knowledge, vijnana, to abstain from false leadership, as leadership in Krsna Consciousness is based on example and not accumulation of well chosen words. Therefore Srila Prabhupada said that “every member of this movement must know the art of sankirtan”.
As by-effect of book distribution, while raising from our bodily encagement, we also get the chance to realize what kind of body we are not. Those who believe the realization of not being the body means to negate it altogether in name of “transcendence”, are mayavadis as this is not at all the meaning of being engaged in Krsna Consciousness. One day, sometime in 1984, I walked into the office of my GBC and said with slight sadness: “Fifteen years I am on sankirtan and I realized just what kind of varna I belong to! No sign of Love of Godhead!”
He looked up from his working desk and clasped his hands in a theatrical display of applause. “Bravo!” he said. “Most people don’t understand their varna their whole life.“
How right he was I did realize only later on. And so it is only beneficial to know what kind of body we are not as only then we can be rightly placed and get strength to conduct our devotional service effectively. A hypocrite, somebody who believes he is somebody he is not, cannot be effective in his preaching. As matter of fact Srila Prabhupada defined everybody who is assuming false identity as a madman. Even a very conditioned soul will recognize the words of a hypocrite. After all falsity is its daily bread. It is the basic line of conduct in this world of names only.
Even a very new sankirtan devotee can soon relish a taste of bhakti. As matter of fact, Krsna has His strategy where He delivers to a relatively new sankirtan devotee such a powerful taste of book distribution, that the new bhakta is excited how simple the process is. Only then Krsna “tightens up the screws” and the already sankirtan-addicted sankirtan bhakta will be exposed to more serious types of purification, step after step.
What seemed to be so easy in the beginning may seem to be more difficult on the way.
That’s only Krsna’s mercy so we can become more serious in our approach, and finally earn our permission to enter the spiritual world.
Being daily challenged to realize what kind of body we are not, sankirtan is teaching us true introspectiveness, free of narcism and introverted nature. The first step towards betterment is the awareness and diagnosis of the disease, followed then by eagerness to accept the cure.
Most people in this world don’t even know they are suffering, being habituated to pain all the time.
The sankirtan devotee is rewarded by the Supreme Lord with intelligence coming via guru, sastra and by intelligence given to him daily from within, by the voice of Paramatma.
Book distribution brings to us realization of the Lord being present in the heart.
These are just samples of a flow of endless gifts one receives when going on sankirtan.
Personally I consider myself to be a rich man, even I have no money, no followers and no institutional
fame and name.
To be recognized by Srila Prabhupada compensates all this and it is a privilege anybody can get when engaging in book distribution, a service so dear to Him. How much Srila Prabhupada prioritized book distribution can be illustrated by dint of His repeated urgent statements.
Those who didn’t enjoy this training of book distribution may be more inclined to think and act in material patterns, still being often conditioned by subjective views of their bodies.
Therefore Srila Prabhupada wanted this activity to be the base of His movement as it carries multi-dimensional benefits, both for the receiver and the distributor. He wanted His ISKCON to be known as a book distribution movement, and respected in this way.
Book distribution is the way, the means and the goal as well, both individually and collectively.
I could tell many many stories documenting this fact.
I can only fall while paying my dandavats into the dust of Srila Prabhupada’s lotus feet as He pulled me out of the dungeon of my own mind by placing me with His books on the street, facing the conditioned souls and my own levels of conditioning as well. I am also eternally obliged to all those who supported me in this service of distribution Srila Prabhupada’s books by their example and proper management. All glories to all Srila Prabhupada’s book distributors.
Sankirtan ki jaya!