BY MADHAVA SMULLEN
It may surprise you to learn that with over 464 million copies sold since 1965, Srila Prabhupada’s books have reached more souls than those of bestselling author Stephen King, who began his career at roughly the same time. To date, they’ve even sold more copies than the record-breakingly successful Harry Potter series—an amazing achievement for books on a spiritual philosophy relatively new to the western world. How? This Christmas, remember that the Prabhupada Marathon, held every December, has been a major contributing factor.
On December 22, 1972, devotees in Los Angeles noticed that stores in the area were staying open until midnight, and still attracting fervent Christmas shoppers intent on spending their money. Why not give them spiritual gifts? Devotees began to distribute books and magazines with healthy competition, vying for prizes the leaders had set for them.
At 10 p. m., exhausted after a long day, Ramesvara Dasa felt confident that he’d won. He had stayed out later than anyone had before, and had distributed 650 magazines— a big day before had been twenty-five to forty. But when he got back to the temple at midnight, he was astonished to find it empty. Without consulting each other, everyone had spontaneously stayed out as late as possible to sell more books than ever before. They didn’t realize that they had just begun the first ever Christmas Marathon.
The Marathon lasted only three days, from December 22–24, but devotees sold five to six thousand books each day. Prabhupada was delighted at this news and wrote to Ramesvara: “By this effort alone, all the book distributors are assured to go back home back to Godhead.” The letter and its dramatic statement authorized the Christmas Marathon and sent book distribution to a new high.
The year 1973 saw scores of men and women going out every day to distribute books. Bhagavad-gita As It Is quickly outsold any other edition of the Gita. Krishna, with its foreword by George Harrison, drew many young people, with devotees selling six hundred books in just two hours at one concert. By the end of 1973, over four million books had been sold, and that score was beaten the following year.
Sankirtana heroes such as Tripurari, Pragosha, Lavanga-latika, and Vaisesika soon emerged. Their friendly, personal approach and strong belief in their subject matter made them stunningly effective, despite sales techniques that shouldn’t have worked. Vaisesika, for instance, would repeat Lord Caitanya’s Siksastakam prayers straight out of the book. “Well, how are you doing, sir?” he’d say, approaching someone in the airport. “All glories to the Sri-Krishna sankirtana movement, the prime benediction for humanity at large, which cleanses the heart.” He sold hundreds of books every day.
Prabhupada wasn’t impressed, however, when he learned that some book distributors used deceptive tactics, presenting themselves as something they were not to evoke sympathy. “It is not advisable to make lies just to sell books,” he wrote to ISKCON leaders. “If we simply stick to describing how wonderful Krishna is, that will not be a lie! There is sufficient merit in our books that if you simply describe them sincerely to anyone, they will buy.”
Book distribution continued to grow throughout the 1970s, spreading to other countries and spawning various projects and parties. Two BBT parties were formed: one, headed by Tripurari, comprised of leading book distributors; the other, the BBT library party, visited prestigious universities and sold entire sets of Prabhupada’s books to professors. Prabhupada spurred them on. “Without books and magazines, what authority or what basis have we got for preaching?” he said.
The momentum continued on after Prabhupada had disappeared from this world—at a staggering 15 million books sold, 1978 was book distribution’s most successful year ever. But with the eighties came a sharp decline as the focus shifted from book distribution to selling stickers and paintings. Book sales suffered further over the years, as many inspirational leaders left ISKCON. Some paint a dire picture of the state of book distribution today.
But things in the 21st century are far more positive than naysayers make out. For a start, the GBC has renamed the Christmas Marathon “The Prabhupada Marathon” to bring the focus back to our founder and his most treasured mission. As GBC Sankirtana Minister Vijaya Dasa points out, inspiration is an inherent part of any spiritual movement, but we can learn to take ours from Pra-bhupada himself and from his books.
And while numbers may be down from the early days, public reception is at an all-time high. Vijaya, who’s been training book distributors in quality techniques since 2002, says Hare Krishnas are far more liked and respected than in previous decades. And of course, while 5 million books sold in 2007 is but a third of ISKCON’s most successful annual score ever, it’s certainly no mean feat.
What’s more, many things have changed since the 1970s: ISKCON’s social structure, the way information is distributed, and receptivity to spirituality. What defines “successful book distribution” has also changed over the last thirty years. For instance, in the 1970s book distribution in India was virtually non-existent. But last year, 76% of all books distributed were handed out in India, a phenomenon that Prabhupada foresaw.
Since most of ISKCON’s population now consists of householders with nine-to-five jobs and families—rather than celibate students with nothing but the mission to engage them—leaders are realizing the power of mobilizing the congregation. In San Jose, California, veteran book distributor Vaisesika Dasa leads seventy-five householders out for one weekend of distribution a month— bringing the San Jose temple, which has only two full-time residents, to the number three spot in America.
And no one can underestimate the reach of modern technology. According to a We Media/Zogby Interactive poll in February 2008, nearly half of all Americans say their primary source of news and information is the Internet. This is certainly good news for the online book distribution effort, and here’s more: last year, the BBT’s website krishna. com welcomed 1,320,266 unique visitors from 204 countries across the globe.
Feeling inspired? Why not help to make a difference and reach even more people in 2008, the Prabhupada Marathon’s 36th year? “Just do whatever you can,” Vijaya says. “There are no rules—some temples or communities hold two week marathons, while others run for six weeks leading up to Christmas Day. Even if you just go out on one day—World Enlightenment Day on Saturday, December 13th—or sponsor books for someone else to distribute, you could affect someone’s life and give them the ultimate gift this Christmas. And that’s priceless.”