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Nearly fifty years into ISKCON’s mission of spreading Krishna consciousness throughout the world, it’s rare that we truly break new ground. So it’s heartwarming to see a group of eight devotees brave sub-zero temperatures to bring Srila Prabhupada’s books into small towns and cities in the Canadian Maritimes, where few have ever heard of Krishna.
The origins of the group go back to ISKCON guru and GBC Bhakti Marg Swami, who would often visit the Maritimes on his well-known cross-Canada walks. Although there were no temples there, the Swami had a soft spot for this region of Eastern Canada that comprises of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, and would keep returning and building connections there.
In the summer of 2007, he inspired Nitai Rama Dasa, a brahmachari (celibate monk) living at the Vancouver ISKCON temple, and several others to spread Krishna consciousness in Halifax, the biggest city in Nova Scotia. After three years there, during which several people joined their rented ashram, they took a year’s break in Montreal. Then, last summer, they began traveling all over the Canadian Maritimes, distributing books.
“This month, we’ve just moved into a house in Nova Scotia donated by a supporter, which will serve as our base,” says Nitai Rama. “We wanted to try something different this time, so our new ashram, rather than being in the busy city of Halifax, is an old farmhouse in a rural area near the small town of New Glasgow. It’s a quiet place, but it’s at the center of the Maritimes, so it gives us good access to all the surrounding towns and cities.”
Five members of the group—Nitai Rama, Karuna Sindhu Dasa, Bhakta Matt, Bhakta Nick, and Bhakta Hans—manage the base and distribute books often in local areas and occasionally in neighboring cities. Although the effort is just beginning, once it gets underway they also plan to train new people they meet on book distribution in Krishna consciousness.
The other three devotees—Tirtha Pavana Dasa, Bhakta Matt, and book distribution leader Bhakta Jeff—are at the core of the traveling sankirtan party. They travel for a week or two at a time, taking a couple of days in between to rejuvenate at the house before heading out again.
The average day out on the road starts early. To keep themselves inspired in Krishna consciousness, the group gets up at 4am every morning and has a full morning program—with japa, kirtan and Bhagavatam class—before catching a little downtime and then hitting the street.
Distributing books in the Maritimes has its own flavor. Less economically developed and with a smaller population than the rest of Canada, the pace of life there is a little slower.
“People are friendly, more relaxed and less mentally agitated than city people,” Jeff says. “When you stop them, they have some time for you. Krishna consciousness is entirely new for most of them, and because there’s not often much going on in their town, they’re interested to see something different.”
Most of the towns the group goes to have colleges or universities, a sizeable student population, and a small downtown consisting of no more than one or two eight-block long streets. Many have farmers’ markets on Saturday mornings, which draw a nice crowd with a “mode of goodness mindset,” amongst which the three book distributors can distribute around 150 books in four hours.
The group averages around 400 books a week, and has travelled over 10,000 kilometers since last summer, visiting a regular roster of ten cities. In summertime, they travel from town to town in a 21-seater minibus converted into an “old-fashioned sankirtan van” with five seats and a raised floor which they sleep on and store books and luggage beneath.
Winter, however, doesn’t bring such freedom. Because the minibus is not equipped with sufficient heating, the devotees must travel in a small Toyota Echo car, depending on people they’ve made connections with to take them in.
“We must rely on Krishna,” Jeff says. “It’s quite amazing how He always arranges for us to be able to stay somewhere, so that we can continue performing our service.”
He describes how, while distributing books in the small city of Moncton—population 70,000—the devotees where concerned about how they did not have a place to stay. At the last minute, an elderly Indian gentleman pulled up in his car, wound down the window, and asked what they were doing. When they explained that they were monks traveling around Canada and showing people spiritual books, he recognized them as ISKCON devotees and handed them his card.
“If you’re looking for a place to stay, just call me,” he said. “I own several apartment buildings here.”
Besides accommodation, winter in the Maritimes brings another challenge: the severe cold make creative approaches to distributing books essential. Snow falls continuously. And average temperatures are between minus five and minus ten degrees Celsius, sometimes dropping down to as low as minus twenty.
“You can’t stay outside for too long,” Jeff says. “It really wears on the body.”
When downtown, parking lots, and bus stops become too cold the group gets warm by frequenting malls and apartment buildings. This often yields interesting adventures.
Once, while distributing books in an apartment building in Halifax, the team split up and did alternating floors, starting from the top and working their way down.
The very last door they knocked on happened to be that of the building’s superintendent. Sternly, he told them they shouldn’t be soliciting there and should leave. Without any argument, they did.
“But the hilarious thing was, we had already knocked on every single door in the entire building, and distributed around forty books,” Jeff says. “Krishna had arranged that, seemingly by coincidence, we knocked on his door last, so that we could get away with giving books to everyone else.”
On another occasion, in one apartment building in Moncton, Jeff knocked on a door which was opened by an older man, around fifty or sixty, who appeared delighted to see someone spreading spiritual knowledge. He invited Jeff into his apartment and offered him a seat, and they looked at the books and talked for some time.
While the man said he was into Buddhist philosophy, he was very open in his search for knowledge. He took four medium books—Sri Isopanisad, Nectar of Instruction, Chant and Be Happy, and Beyond Birth and Death—and gave Jeff twenty dollars, although he said he felt bad that he didn’t have more to give.
As Jeff left, he commented, “People like us, that are searching for some truth in life, are rare.”
“In a sense, that’s true,” Jeff replied. “But in our experience, everybody thinks it’s very rare, but there are actually so many people out there looking for something different. It’s just that they don’t come together, so they never know.”
Jeff then visited the other floors of the apartment building, where two other people took books, and returned to the man. “You know the way we were talking about how people searching for spiritual knowledge are rare?” he said. “Well, a girl on the first floor just took one book, and a lady on the second floor took two!” The man was so happy to hear this news that he went back into his apartment and emerged with a fifty dollar bill.
Of course, not every day brings such success. Bhakta Jeff finds that the biggest challenge in book distribution is not the cold, but staying enthusiastic despite varying results. He pushes through, however, because of the gifts it gives him: his surrender to Krishna and his taste for all other Krishna conscious activities increase, while interpersonal differences seem to simply dissolve.
Most of all, he pushes through because he wants to please Srila Prabhupada, to whom he knows book distribution is extremely important.
“Prabhupada’s words are so potent,” he says, “That anyone who comes in contact with them can have so much opportunity to understand spiritual life and make advancement.”
People don’t always even have to read the books to be benefited, Jeff notes, marveling at the power of book distribution. He recalls how during one excursion in an apartment building, a brahmachari on his team was speaking to an Indian man who didn’t want a book, because, he said, he already knew everything. Using one of book distributor Vaisesika Dasa’s lines, the brahmachari responded, “This book is not for you. You can give it to a friend.”
“Eventually the man bought the book for his friend, and went into his apartment to give it to him,” Jeff says. “A few minutes later, as the brahmachari was moving further down the corridor, the man emerged and said, “Okay, I want a book now.” Somehow, the service of giving a book to someone else had its effect on him, and he wanted one for himself!”
Beyond getting books to people, Jeff and his team make sure to follow up. They collect contact details, and after a few visits to the same city, invite the people they have met to a program on the weekend, along with their friends.
“Often, their friends will invite their friends, and it becomes a good crowd,” Jeff says. “At one program, we had thirty to forty new people who hadn’t had any contact with Krishna consciousness before. They joined us enthusiastically in at least three hours of kirtan, interspersed with discussion and prasadam. On another night, we went to visit one guy in his apartment, cooked a prasadam dinner for him, and then discussed Krishna conscious philosophy in depth with him for about two hours.”
Now, there are one or two people in each city the group has visited who are seriously taking up Krishna consciousness. In the future, some will go to stay at the Nova Scotia team’s base near New Glasgow, to get more training in the spiritual lifestyle.
“The farmhouse, set on an acre of land in the country, is the perfect setting for a brahmachari ashram,” says ashram head Nitai Rama Dasa. “We’ll focus on a very strong morning program—waking up early, chanting very good rounds, and a solid study program that introduces newcomers to the philosophy so that they can get grounded in devotional service.”
New brahmacharis will also learn how to cook and offer prasadam, how to play traditional instruments, and how to plant vegetables in the summer. There will be no pressure on newcomers to distribute books if they’re not up for it yet.
“Ultimately, we want to create a space to care for people,” Nitai Rama says. “Our principle is that as long as people feel cared for, they become very happy in Krishna consciousness. So we want to care for them spiritually and materially in a mode of goodness setting.”
Eventually, the group hopes that their program will expand across the country, like Rupanuga Vedic College’s sankirtan team in the U.S.
“In the future, we hope that the devotees we nurture in Krishna consciousness will go on to create several more book distribution parties like ours, which will give out Srila Prabhupada’s books throughout the different regions of Canada,” Jeff concludes.
By Madhava Smullen for ISKCON News on 25 Feb 2012