My superiors in Los Angeles assigned most of the other new devotees and me to sankirtan duties. For the next few years, my life revolved around selling magazines and books and spreading Krishna consciousness. "Krishna's Army" of sankirtan devotees had declared war on Maya, according to Prabhupada.
Some devotees took readily to sankirtan, but the rest of us needed to force ourselves to go out. We all, however, understood the importance of duty in Krishna consciousness. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna instructed Arjuna, a warrior and a devotee, to kill the enemy, even though his own family was among them. We took this to mean that a devotee should do whatever Krishna and the spiritual master wanted, no matter how difficult.
The dozen or so regular book distributors took breakfast prasadam with Ramesvara in the sankirtan room, which was in the basement. We received more and better foodstuffs than did the other devotees, who took upstairs in the ashram. Our breakfast consisted of curd or yogurt, cereal, dried fruits, and as much fresh fruit as we wanted.
These mornings with Ramesvara, the top sankirtan administrator, provided me with much of my education on the importance of book distribution to the spreading of Krishna Consciousness. Every month he read aloud the recent monetary rankings of the top-scoring devotees, temples, and regions in the world. Australians, Europeans, and North Americans usually scored best.
Devotees went on sankirtan — and everywhere else — in groups. We called this "keeping the association of devotees." My first assignment was in Watts, a large black ghetto, now called South Central. Hasyapriya, the sankirtan captain, selected a brahmachari named Bhubanesvara as my partner for the day. Short and hunched, he often averted his bugged eyes while talking to me. Ramesvara once sarcastically called him "charming."
Before we left, Bhubanesvara asked me if I had ever worked with black people before. I told him that, no, I had never even been on sankirtan book distribution before. He showed me a black brotherhood handshake and advised me that blacks liked our incense.
Dressed in temple garb, we arrived at the drugstore that would be our site for the day. Pointing out the car window at some karmi shoppers, Bhubanesvara said, "Remember, they're all suffering out there." They looked like normal shoppers to me, but I remembered a story a devotee told about a conversation he once had while flying in an airplane. He was chanting quietly on his beads when the karmi businessman seated next to him asked, "Must you do that?" The devotee replied, "Yes, because of you, I must do this."
The outside world was filled with people engaged in activities that implicated them in karma, the cosmic force that binds the soul to a materialistic, earthly existence. So long as there were any fallen souls left in the world, we devotees had more work to do.
We spent most of the day passing out sticks of strawberry incense and selling copies of Back to Godhead (known internally as the BTG) for a donation of fifty cents to a dollar each. Devotees in New York wrote and edited the magazine, which closely followed Prabhupada's teachings. Since the early days of the Movement, the BTG had been an important way of delivering the message of Krishna consciousness to the public. It is in some ways more important for public relations purposes than are Prabhupada's more scholarly writings.
We told them we were collecting money for charity. Our thinking was that, because we were doing so much good for so many people, whatever we said about the Movement would be true. Bhubanesvara insisted that I not spend more than one minute with any one karmi. This left little time to discuss religion, even if it interested them, which it most often did not.
In an attempt to distract us from God's work, some karmis tried to engage us in theological discussions. In short, recruitment and religious education were not the duties of the lowly magazine salesman. I later learned that trained recruiters stood by at the temple, ready to come and talk to a prospective devotee.
Around noon, we took a break for lunch prasadam, which consisted of two or three chapatis, a piece of fresh fruit, and a vegetable preparation that we had put into half-gallon milk cartons with sawed-off tops.
I sold seventeen magazines that first day for a total of eight dollars and change. This score was paltry compared with those of the more experienced devotees who regularly sold hundreds of books and magazines every day.
For example, a devotee named Tripurari had become legendary around the Movement for his success at sankirtan. I heard, probably with some exaggeration, that some karmis even took out their wallets and gave him Lakshmi before he even said anything. I also heard, again with exaggeration, that the police had arrested him in nearly every parking lot in Southern California. His notoriety had compelled him to adopt multiple disguises. Our lawyers argued that any attempt to hinder book sales was an infringement of free speech and free religious expression. They always succeeded in having him released from jail and having any charges dropped.
For my first few weeks on sankirtan, I worked at various locations in Watts. Novice devotees like me usually worked the inner-city neighborhoods, which contrasted sharply with the idyllic and harmonious suburban temple compound. While on sankirtan, we were far from the safety of the temple, and a typical parking lot offered few reminders of Krishna.
Before we left for the day, Hasyapriya sometimes gave us duties at the temple, such as packing books, incense, and candy into the cars and vans, or straightening up the always messy sankirtan room. With Prabhupada's books, a miserable karmi could live a life of eternal bliss and knowledge, but without them, the material nature would condemn him to eons of suffering.
No matter how much our feet hurt after a day of sankirtan, or how much we were "in anxiety," we still knew that we were infinitely better off than any karmi. Spreading Krishna consciousness was the most important activity on earth, and the best way to do so was to engage in book distribution.
On one occasion, as I was packing the book boxes, I asked Hasyapriya for permission to go to the stool room. He replied, "Finish what you're doing first." Later I asked him again and received the same answer. One quickly learned to demand, not simply ask for, whatever one needed.
In the car or van, we chanted and read from the books. Occasionally, a senior devotee spoke to the group about the glories of the worldwide Sankirtan Movement. We avoided daydreaming or looking out the window, both of which were Maya. If men and women needed to ride in the same van, the women sat in the back, where the men did not need to see them. Later, the women drove their own cars so that they did not need to see us, either.
I hated sankirtan at first, but later learned to adjust to it. I usually tried to obtain a quick donation and then move immediately to the next karmi, forgetting about those who had rejected me. Krishna always provided another one to "hit up" and it was my duty to reach as many as possible. For my first few weeks, they gave change but no dollar bills. Later, I learned how to solicit bills, too, and my scores improved to thirty magazines a day, then fifty.
A few weeks later, I started to sell the Krishna Book for one to two dollars per volume. We also passed out a pamphlet entitled Krishna Consciousness Is Authorized, which contained statements from well-known scholars and politicians attesting to the authenticity of our religion.
If the weather were good, most karmis were in a communicative mood. If, however, the weather in Southern California were foul, as it sometimes is in the winter, we had to work hard to persuade them to give anything. We sometimes competed in the parking lots with karmi groups who were collecting money for research on sickle cell anemia or for other charitable causes.
The Christmas season was the most lucrative time for sankirtan. Nearly all the devotees went out during the holiday season. Most of the year, devotees needed to work hard for their donations, but at Christmas, many gave generously and without hesitation. Almost any devotee could achieve a big score, and if he were expert at sankirtan, the sky was the limit. One devotee called December "harvest time" for ISKCON.
On an ordinary Saturday, the busiest day for sankirtan, about twenty men and an equal number of women went out. In the fortnight preceding Christmas, however, about seventy-five of each sex — that is, virtually all the full-time devotees in the temple — went out every day. Devotees of both sexes dressed in Santa Claus costumes and passed out candy canes for donations at the malls and toy stores. Sometimes devotees mispronounced the words "Hare Krishna" to make them sound more like "Merry Christmas."
On one occasion, another devotee and I were passing out candy canes and selling magazines outside a K-Mart, when we noticed some Christians who were also proselytizing there. One of them was announcing to the karmi shoppers, "Those candy canes have hooks in them!" At first, we ignored the Christians. Then one of them told a woman I had sold a magazine to, "You don't want that — that's just some Buddhist thing." He took the magazine out of her hand. It seemed that, in the cosmic struggle for souls, we had lost one. Outraged, I grabbed the demon by the neck. He turned pale, but offered no resistance. He must have been a pacifist Christian, which to us was even more contemptible than an ordinary Christian. We believed that if a person believed strongly in something, he should be willing to fight for it. My god-brother pulled me away from him, however. After a phone call to the temple for instructions, we drove to a new location.
I heard that late one night, a few nights before Christmas, a devotee named Vamana had fallen asleep while driving a van filled with devotees. The van had veered off the road and flipped over. It was a miracle that no one was seriously hurt. I also heard that Krishna had not been as merciful to some women devotees in San Diego. They had recently suffered broken bones and other serious injuries a similar accident.
The mellowest time of the year in the parking lots was late on Christmas Eve at the toy stores. On Christmas Day, some devotees went door-to-door with Prabhupada's books.
After the New Year, 1974, I continued to distribute magazines in the store parking lots in the black and Hispanic neighborhoods, of which there were many in Los Angeles. The sankirtan there was steady but unexciting. I even became acquainted with the shopping-cart boys at the Ralph's and Von's supermarkets where we worked.
Devotees said privately that Hispanic Americans, most of whom were Catholics, gave readily in charity because they were pious in the material sense. Some devotees even insisted that the wealthier the neighborhood, the less likely they were to give what they had.
The bad neighborhoods had their challenges as well. Late one afternoon, as I worked the out door of a drug store, a couple of young, demonic neighborhood toughs sneaked up on me from behind, knocked me down, and ran off with my book bag. It contained all the Lakshmi I had collected that day. Shaken but unhurt, I learned not to keep Lakshmi in my book bag.
Distributing in Watts gave me a lesson in the economics of poverty. The supermarkets in the ghetto were less spacious, less clean, and less attractive than those in the suburbs. Nevertheless, the prices in the ghetto were the same as or higher than those in the suburbs.
In March, Hasyapriya began sending me to middle-class neighborhoods, but I first needed a proper outfit. Bhubanesvara took me to buy a cheap fifteen-dollar wig, and I scrounged some street clothes from a communal barrel of clothes in the ashram. If a devotee who had no karmi clothes of his own failed to arrive early at the barrel, he would often need to settle for torn clothes or unmatched socks. If he did not look presentable, he would have a hard time collecting Lakshmi.
A profitable location for sankirtan had steady foot traffic. Prime sites included grocery stores, drug stores, department stores, record stores, and banks on a Friday. On arrival at a site, I usually stashed my boxes of magazines and books in the bushes. (Sometimes a box or two would mysteriously disappear.) A typical day began slowly, with few karmis giving Lakshmi. As I watched and intermingled with them, I cast about for a line or an approach to use. I tried to focus on what was unique about the particular day, the location, or the group of people. Meanwhile, I chanted and prayed to the spiritual master for the strength and intelligence to continue distributing and to meet my quota. If no one were giving Lakshmi, I felt fallen — that is, sinful and unworthy.
If, however, I continued to ask everyone in sight, then they would begin to give Lakshmi. By trial and error, I would discover a line that clicked, that elicited a response. I usually stayed with that approach as long as it worked. If the line became stale, if I became stale, or if the situation changed, then I would try to find a new approach. Krishna, we often said, saw our sincerity and desire, and sent us people to give donations and take books. After we had given of ourselves, mind and body, for several hours, the karmis often began to respond to the tone of genuine sincerity and commitment in our voices, if nothing else.
Another technique was simply to approach everyone in sight without discrimination. A devotee in a prime location could approach up to 1,000 karmis a day. Even if only a third or a fourth of these gave Lakshmi, he could still achieve a big score.
Some devotees used lines about programs for the needy. For example, mentioning disaster relief worked well if the TV news had recently shown pictures of a disaster. If a karmi were black, we might emphasize our missions in Africa; if she were a mother, we might mention our programs for children; with young karmis, we might mention the mass starvation in Bangladesh, a cause George Harrison and others had brought to the attention of the press and the public. We later received word, however, that we were no longer to use the term "Bangladesh" on sankirtan, apparently because of legal problems.
Other devotees preferred to use a vague, generic approach. For example, "We're helping people all over the state [or country, or world] to lead a more productive [or peaceful] life" or "We're helping people right here in Los Angeles to solve their problems [or be happy]." An older devotee once counseled me always to make my pitch sound bubbly and inoffensive, like a Seven-Up commercial.
We knew that a karmi who had been solicited before entering the store was likely to complain to the manager. The malls were privately owned, and if a devotee were careless, the security officers would kick him off the property. In addition, it was hard to speak with most karmis once they had entered the safety of their cars. Therefore, we usually approached them after they left the store but before they entered their cars. It was Maya to solicit store or mall workers, because they were often unreceptive to our repeated requests for Lakshmi.
Sometimes Hasyapriya sent us to downtown Los Angeles or Long Beach, where it was legal to solicit on the street corners. To our chagrin, we were in competition with several noisy, demonic preachers, some of them with bullhorns. Most cities, however, required solicitation permits. Although the sect had secured permits from some of the cities, we went out whether or not we had them with us.
Working the streets or parking lots gave me a ferocious appetite. After taking too much lunch prasadam, however, I usually became sluggish and had a poor result that afternoon. Therefore, I usually set myself a quota to meet before my noon meal.
All devotees had their moments of glory on sankirtan. When fully absorbed in sankirtan, we often stopped the karmis dead in their tracks when we spoke to them. At such times, we were electric, like a "hot" basketball player who was sinking all of his shots. Krishna moved our arms, legs, and tongues, and we discovered to our delight that virtually everyone — even children — carried cash. It seemed that few left home without it, even in the age of credit cards.
While riding back to the temple, we usually chanted or read a book. On one occasion, a devotee asked the others, "What were you collecting for today?" The answers were a camp for boys, a missionary project, and disaster relief. Then everyone laughed derisively at how gullible and stupid the karmis were. A devotee once bragged that he had taken five dollars from a child. This was okay, we believed, because all money belonged to Krishna.
After an especially long or hot day, we sometimes bought juice or fresh fruit on the way back to the temple, and offered them to Prabhupada and Krishna, even though the rules discouraged this.
On weekdays, we usually returned to the temple for the evening program. On Friday and Saturday, however, we often stayed out until 10 or 11 p.m. Saturdays were lucrative all day at the malls, shopping centers, and downtown shopping districts. I hated to go out on Sunday after a long week of sankirtan, but we usually distributed for a few hours on Sundays before returning to the temple for the feast. Hasyapriya gave us a "day off" — meaning a day of temple duties — on Monday or Tuesday, the slowest shopping days of the week.
After returning to the temple, our first stop was the sankirtan room, where we counted our Lakshmi, put it into plastic bags, and put the bags through a narrow slot above a padlocked closet door. A brahmachari turned over to the sect every cent he collected. Hasyapriya chastised any devotee who turned in a check, because all karmis were dishonest and their checks were likely bad.
We then wrote our tallies of books distributed on a large blackboard in the sankirtan room. It was a thrill to post a high score and an embarrassment to post a low one. A sankirtan devotee's reputation depended on how much Lakshmi he collected and how consistently he collected it. On one occasion, a devotee who noticed that a certain team had done exceptionally well was felt moved to ask, "I wonder what they were telling them?"
If we returned to the temple in time, we would usually attend the evening program already in progress. After a big day, we danced and chanted "like madmen." The contrast between the impersonal, chaotic, outside world and the harmonious atmosphere of the temple repeatedly struck me. Although we were outwardly dirty, we felt inwardly clean — a feeling we called being "beyond your body." Those who took book distribution seriously advanced rapidly in their Krishna consciousness.
On one occasion, after a long day of book distribution, we drove to a department store parking lot to pick up a brahmachari named Urjasvat. He was distributing up a storm that night. Far from feeling relieved that his day was over, however, he ran to the van and begged us for another bag of lollipops so he could continue distributing.
I heard that the sankirtan devotees in New York were hitting up the vast subway system there. A devotee would dramatically enter at the front of the car, make a loud pitch at all the startled karmi riders, and then put the collection bucket in front of each of them. If one person gave Lakshmi, then, like sheep, the others would follow the leader and give.
When a devotee was fixed up and fully involved in sankirtan, he was able to ignore the demands of his body, but when he was burned out, or when he simply forgot Krishna, his bodily aches and pains returned. At such times, life as a sankirtan devotee was challenging.
On a good day, when I was "fired up" and eager to confront the demons, I was able to distribute upwards of 100 pieces — a respectable, but not at all record-setting, score. It helped to think about the spiritual master, about how many souls we were saving, and about how lucky I was to be able to serve him, even in such a humble way. On such occasions, I sometimes choked up and had trouble delivering my lines. I then needed to pray to Krishna to let me finish my pitch so that I could accept the donations.
One morning in the book room, Ramesvara leaned over a city street map as he prepared so send his parties on sankirtan. He looked up at me and said, "Let's see where we should send you, Pujana ..." I said, "I'll go anywhere." He did a mock double take, smiled, turned to Hasyapriya, and said, "What a great attitude!"
During the summer of 1974, we sold books and magazines at the Ontario Speedway, an auto racetrack, and on college campuses like Pomona and UCLA, besides the usual parking lots. I had one of my best Saturdays at a Zody's discount department store about an hour from the temple. In ten hours, I did about 175 Hare Krishna newspapers in English and Spanish at a quarter each. This made me an instant celebrity back at the temple as the most improved devotee of the week.
On another occasion, I had been working hard in a parking lot for several hours when I approached a middle-aged karmi man sitting in a parked car. While making my well-rehearsed speech, the pitch of my voice rising and falling with precision, I searched his eyes and those of his female companion for a spark of interest that might indicate a willingness to give a donation. He interrupted me in mid-sentence and said, "You're good. How would you like to work for me?" I quickly declined the offer and looked for the next karmi to hit up.
Sometimes when I was having some success, I wanted to stay out on sankirtan for the rest of my life. At such times, the parking lot felt like my real home and the temple merely a place to take rest, take prasadam, and recharge spiritually before coming out again the next day. I was confident that Krishna would protect me from the demons and the police.
We often floated on air as we drove to the temple after a successful day, but along with the successes came doubts, feelings of burnout, and the results of confrontations with demons. Sankirtan was often a struggle to stay a step or two ahead of the police and store security guards. More than once I needed to duck behind a building or a dumpster to stay out of sight of the cops.
The police usually let us off with a warning. If, however, we were still there when they returned, they would usually ticket us for peddling without a license. Sometimes the police even arrested a devotee. Most sankirtan captains assumed that if the police ticketed or arrested a devotee, it must have been the devotee's fault. He had been sloppy and inattentive to his duties and had allowed some stupid, meat-eating karmi cops to catch him. The police never caught a devotee who was thinking only of Krishna.
Every major shopping mall and many of the larger stores employed their own security guards to take care of people like us. On one occasion, a demonic department store manager asked us to leave his parking lot. I decided to challenge him, however, and stay, in God's Name. After all, the karmi shoppers deserved the chance to escape the miserable material world, regardless of what the manager or anyone else said. He approached us again, this time with a goon at his side.
I screamed something about Lord Chaitanya's (Krishna's) Mission at them and at whoever else was within earshot. My partner, however, insisted that we leave, which we did. Ordinarily, we stayed if the local rent-a-cop were old or not fearsome.
The doctrine stated that if a demon challenged the supremacy of Krishna or the authority of the spiritual master, then we were to chant loudly. Demons fled at the sound of the Holy Names. If the chanting failed, however, we were to leave the scene.
On one occasion, I was selling in karmi clothes outside a post office when a karmi asked me if I were in the Hare Krishnas. I denied it, but he continued to ask questions in a loud and persistent voice. I became angry and took a swing at him, but missed. I felt that it was about time that God's devotees prevailed against the demons. To my amazement, he backed off even though he was bigger than me. Wanting to avoid further trouble, I drove to another location.
On another occasion, we drove to a golf course that we had heard was especially promising. Before we could even get out of the car, the demonic grounds crew spotted us and told us to leave.
I was often quite sleepy on arrival at my destination. Sometimes, the first thing I did was to look for a place to lie down. I slept under trees, in the bushes, on rooftops — anywhere I could find. It was easiest, however, to nap in the car. We often argued, therefore, over who would keep the car after everyone else had been dropped off. No devotee wanted the others know he was napping. I found that — contrary to doctrine and orders — taking a short nap was often profitable. I did some of my best distributing when I was well rested.
Nevertheless, I was a below-average money-raiser. It seemed that for every good day, I had a bad day when I fell into Maya and did little more than pray for the van to come and take me back to the temple. I felt guilty for looking into the store windows or for buying something to eat in the supermarket. Such activities were Maya.
The karmis made many excuses for not giving us Lakshmi. Believe it or not, some even said, "I gave at the office." Maybe they had, as some devotees distributed our books in office buildings. In the mid-1970s, every sankirtan devotee in the US heard complaints from karmis about higher energy prices and declining real wages as the middle class felt its first serious economic pinch since World War II.
Some karmis told us, "Get a job." My comeback was, "This is my job." I knew that many disagreed with our views, but I also knew that I was working hard to earn my keep.
Devotees sometimes worked Hollywood Boulevard because of its proximity to the Culver City temple and its steady foot traffic. Most of the time, however, Hollywierd, as we called it, was not a profitable place to work. It seemed that every freak, drug addict, prostitute, and bum in Los Angeles lived on Hollywood Boulevard. In addition, the devotees' frequent requests for handouts had long since alienated most of the local merchants.
Young karmi women in short skirts and pretty blouses posed a special challenge to a devotee who had taken a vow of chastity. When I had difficulty keeping my mind on sankirtan, I simply avoided talking to women altogether. Other devotees, both male and female, were, however, able to use their sexuality to their advantage.
Beginning in the fall of 1974, all regular sankirtan devotees attended training sessions every weekday after breakfast. Some mornings we walked through mock encounters where each devotee demonstrated his techniques. The group then evaluated them. Among other pointers, we learned how to answer various objections a karmi might have to buying a book. A brahmachari named Chitraka demonstrated his well-practiced and highly successful technique of placing a couple of sticks of incense under the noses of unsuspecting karmis. The devotees applauded his exemplary combination of forwardness and finesse.
Gopavrindapala (also known as Gopa), who led many of these sessions, emphasized the importance of prayer in achieving a big score. Known for his personal touch with the karmis, he once recommended practicing for sankirtan by sitting with a karmi and making friends without trying to sell anything. Some devotees even used humor as a device. Whatever one's style, the most important consideration was the amount of Lakshmi collected. Before each major karmi holiday such as Christmas, Easter, or the Fourth of July, all the devotees in the temple attended expanded, temple-wide versions of these training sessions.
Sankirtan served to keep a devotee's mind sharp. Working the parking lots forced us to learn to live by our wits. Senior distributors emphasized that sankirtan was the inside track to Krishna consciousness. We vied with each other for top honors in book distribution. This was known as "transcendental competition." Krishna and the spiritual master most appreciated those who collected the most Lakshmi.
Even though sankirtan was grueling work, most hard-core distributors wanted no part of less challenging duties in the temple, where, in Ramesvara's words, "You get soft in the head." He also used to say, "If you stay back, you'll dry up." By this, he meant that serving in the temple all day offered little of the excitement, or "nectar," of Krishna consciousness.
We sankirtan devotees thought of ourselves as a crack, elite team who had accepted the most difficult, dangerous — and rewarding — of duties. In a way, all other duties, including cooking, Deity worship, administration, book production, and cleaning the stool room, existed to make sankirtan book distribution possible.
Not all of our efforts to get money for Krishna involved the sale of books. In late 1974, Bhakta Joe, a new devotee and a talented, if somewhat erratic, book distributor, persuaded Hasyapriya to give him $500 of Krishna's money to buy some tickets to an upcoming George Harrison concert. Joe's plan was to scalp the tickets at a profit for the Movement. The tour, which was heavy with Indian music and rock music with Hindu themes, bombed at the box office, however, and Joe was unable to resell most of the tickets.
There was a heavy emphasis on book distribution, but it was not the only way to advance in Krishna consciousness. Prabhupada had elevated Jayatirtha, a former head pujari, to the position of temple president. Ramesvara, the most passionate advocate of book distribution in the Movement, other than Prabhupada himself, rarely went on sankirtan himself. Much to his frustration, he had no knack for one-on-one sales.
It seemed that I was always suffering with a cold and sinus problems, as I had before joining the Movement. Nevertheless, the leaders continued to send me on sankirtan, which they said would cure whatever was wrong with me.
One became sick, they said, because of a lack of Krishna consciousness. Therefore, if a devotee were sick, it was his fault. He had almost certainly been careless in his eating or sleeping habits or in following the spiritual master's other rules of internal and external cleanliness. Furthermore, Krishna made him sick to remind him that this life was miserable, he could never be happy in this material world, and only in his next life could he be free of misery. Sickness was, therefore, a blessing, further motivation to become Krishna conscious and go to back to Godhead.
The leaders often cited examples of devotees who went out on sankirtan despite pneumonia and other illnesses. If they could do that, then who was I to complain about a sniffle?
Nevertheless, devotees did use some Hindu remedies to treat minor ailments. For a cold, Prabhupada recommended hot tea made with fresh ginger root, dried red pepper, and honey. For a headache, he recommended smearing the forehead with a paste made from water and ground black pepper. He recommended fasting for most illnesses, though this remedy was unpopular with most active book distributors. He also recommended cow urine for liver problems and cow dung for external infections, though I never knew anyone who used these particular remedies.
The other novice devotees and I spent most of our time working the parking lots. The more experienced devotees worked the high-priced indoor malls and special events like concerts and sporting events. Some sold home-team buttons at football games. At LA Dodger baseball games, devotees shouting, "Programs! Programs!" sold hundreds of BTG's. They simply turned the magazine over so that the front cover, usually a picture of Krishna, was unseen.
The LA International Airport was the most consistently lucrative spot in town, despite the many legal problems over the years. It seemed that some demons were in the habit of complaining about what they considered heavy-handed or deceptive techniques on our part.
Ramesvara decided that only the best trained and most experienced devotees should work the airport. Those who did so were able to collect up to $500 a day. Disneyland, with its tight security, was also off limits to all but a handful of mostly female devotees whom Ramesvara had handpicked for their experience, expertise, and above all, discretion.
On one occasion, I drove with Gopa from the temple to the airport. He was in the habit of selling five or six books at each of his preselected flight arrivals. Some said that he and others were successful because of their performance skills. That is, the karmis were paying for a performance. Mahatma, another talented sankirtan devotee, told them, "I want to sell you a book so badly, I'll even do a dance for you."
Most of the devotees who worked the international wing of the airport had learned enough Japanese to make a little friendly small talk. Playing on the tourists' inexperience, they said that it was customary for visitors to the United States to give some money in charity. Most were happy to oblige. In addition, devotees often took larger-than-intended donations from foreigners who were unfamiliar with US currency and how to make change.
If the sankirtan devotees distributed too aggressively at a mall, it could easily become "burned out." This meant that few karmis would give Lakshmi and that more than the usual number would complain to the authorities about us. The leaders responded by pulling back their teams from these locations for a couple of weeks. They often blamed devotees from other temples for poaching in our territory.
Other than the police, our biggest enemies were proselytizers and fund-raisers from other groups. We were in competition with certain Christian fundamentalist groups and the Moonies. The fund-raising of the latter group was even more aggressive and better organized than our own. The Jehovah's Witnesses, however, posed little or no threat to our activities. They stood on street corners, displaying copies of their magazine Awake. We joked that the Witnesses were asleep.
While my god-brothers and I were struggling with the demon Angelinos and with our own materially obsessed minds, devotees in other temples were taking Krishna consciousness to the rest of the world. For example, an elite traveling party was selling our books to colleges and universities. Ghanashyam, the leader of the party, and a former president of the student government at Princeton University, often visited professors of religion or eastern studies. After some chitchat, he would say, "I hear you're writing a book." All academics were writing something. Flattered, they would talk about their projects. Then Ghanashyam would pitch them a complete set of Prabhupada's books.
Outside the English-speaking nations, the devotees' attempts at proselytization produced mixed results. For example, in the early 1970s, a swami took a crack team of American sankirtan devotees to Japan. This swami, who was a former US Marine, had earned a reputation for his unorthodox disciplinary methods, such as punching out devotees who failed to make their quotas. His team succeeded in out-hustling most of the Japanese karmi subway solicitors. The sole exception was a group representing the survivors of the atomic blasts. Their motivation even exceeded ours. In any case, the humble Japanese readily gave money in charity. By all reports, the sankirtan in Japan was excellent.
There were, however, some problems. The sound of the kirtans, even subdued ones, bothered the neighbors, because the walls between apartments were thin paper. Wanting to establish a self-sustaining center, the devotees published a Japanese language version of the BTG, and tried to recruit Japanese members. Despite their best efforts, the devotees failed to attract a single Japanese recruit.
Most of the Lakshmi collected in Japan in the early 1970s went to help build Prabhupada's temple in Vrindavan. In the mid-1970s, the Japanese government expelled the devotees for alleged charity fraud. I heard that for a couple of years thereafter, the Japanese authorities denied entry to anyone wearing a Hare Krishna robe.
The situation in Germany was similar. In the early 1970s, the temple there was highly profitable. By mid-decade, however, some demonic prosecutors alleging charity fraud raided the German temple, arrested the leaders, and confiscated the Lakshmi in Krishna's bank accounts.
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The practice of sankirtan, also known as the "Sacrifice of the Age," was in many ways the most important sacrament in our religion. I heard from various sources within the Movement that, as a young man, Prabhupada, while not himself a communist, had admired the propaganda techniques employed by the Indian Communist Party. It had enjoyed considerable success by airdropping to the villages below thousands of pamphlets printed in the local languages.
Prabhupada met and followed the elderly Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, who was a Vaishnava, or member of the cult of Lord Chaitanya. The latter was a Sixteenth-Century incarnation of Krishna, the apostle of the public chanting of Hare Krishna, and the founder of the modern Sankirtan Movement.
Bhaktisiddhanta encouraged Prabhupada to preach Lord Chaitanya's message in the West. Prabhupada tried to combine in ISKCON the mass propaganda techniques of the Communists with the messianic, proselytizing message of the Vaishnava sect. He wrote that, with the help of American money and Indian theology, his Sankirtan Movement would ultimately "control the masses" and take over the world.
We ISKCON devotees chanted Hare Krishna in public, but even more important to us was the saturation of the world with "recorded kirtans" as Krishna-conscious literature. Book distribution offered karmis their first contact with the pure devotee, the most auspicious moment in their otherwise miserable lives.
Prabhupada's program of sankirtan book distribution accomplished several objectives. First, it gave the conditioned souls an opportunity to meet the devotees of Krishna and begin their journey back to Godhead. A karmi who failed to give a donation or read one of our books endured many forms of torture after his death. The "Angels of Death" ripped his soul from his body and forced him to march in intense heat as dogs and vultures attacked him. In addition, Krishna was sure to condemn him to millions of additional miserable births and deaths.
Second, the performance of sankirtan guaranteed that rain would fall in quantities sufficient for agriculture. A moderate amount of rain would fall each night, when it would do the crops the most good. Without sankirtan, however, there would be no rain and, hence, no harvest. In ancient times, a yogi curried the favor of the demigods by performing severe austerities and by the performance of elaborate, opulent temple worship. Sankirtan book distribution was the modern equivalent of such ancient sacrifices.
Third, street donations and receipts from book and magazine sales provided Lakshmi for the day-to-day operations of the Movement, for the establishment of new centers, for special events including feasts and festivals, and for opulent food and clothing for the Deities and the spiritual master. Prabhupada once declared, "The money is the honey," and the biggest source of honey for the Movement was sankirtan.
Trying in vain to enjoy themselves, the karmis had stolen Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune, away from Krishna. Therefore, a devotee who collected Lakshmi from a karmi and gave it to Krishna were returning the Goddess of Fortune to Krishna, her eternal consort. Prabhupada compared a devotee who took money from a karmi to a parent who took a $100 bill from a child by offering it a piece of candy in exchange. The amount of Lakshmi we collected represented how much we loved the guru and God. Moreover, the more a karmi gave, the more he benefited spiritually. Therefore, it was our duty to encourage them to give the Movement as much Lakshmi as possible.
Like Anala in Vancouver, many of us had spiritual realizations while on sankirtan. Sometimes after hours of hard work and intense concentration, it seemed as if we had at once perceived the entire philosophy of Krishna consciousness. At such times, the teachings came alive all around us: the sun, the moon, and water were Krishna, as the Bhagavad Gita said. Indeed, everything was a part of Him. We realized that Krishna consciousness was the natural, original consciousness of the living entity, even though the "modes of material nature" currently covered its soul. Our duty was to serve God by humbly distributing His message to the faithless.
Tripurari, the expert book distributor, insisted that a devotee should feel different from the karmis to whom he was talking. He should never think of himself as one of them. Some of those who gave us Lakshmi on the street may have been pious in the superficial, materialistic sense. All were, however, demons who were presently incapable of understanding our philosophy. Maya was forcing them to have filthy personal habits, to eat sinfully, to speak nonsense, and to engage in a perpetual but fruitless pursuit of what we called "sense gratification."
The term "sense gratification" referred to the degrading and ultimately futile attempt to satisfy the never-ending demands of the senses and to find real and lasting pleasure here in the material world. All karmis engaged in illicit sex and took intoxicating substances. If they also ate meat, then they were murderers as well. Incapable of love, which we defined as love of God, they were going to hell.
Karmi happiness, which Prabhupada compared to the happiness of a dog with a bone, was fleeting and temporary. The smiles on their faces were painted on. They may not have known it, but they desperately needed to read about Krishna consciousness and give us the Lakshmi they would otherwise spend on sinful activities.
Despite the vast differences between them and us, we nevertheless needed to rub shoulders with them every day. This required the utmost discipline on our part. Krishna — and only Krishna — could give us the intelligence to distribute safely and successfully. The saying was that the more advanced we became in our Krishna consciousness, the trickier Maya would become. For example, she might appear as the temptation to become "puffed up," that is, cocky or satisfied with one's service.
The leaders advised us never to think, "I'm an effective preacher of Krishna consciousness, and they are really picking up on this philosophy." We were never to think that we were reaching them. After all, they were cats and dogs. It was enough to entice them to give a donation and take a book.
If they were giving us money, it was because Krishna had sent them to us. If no one were giving money that day, then He was testing our faith. If they cursed us, it was His way of humbling us. (A devotee always thought of himself as "lower than the straw in the street" or "like a worm in stool.") The devotee did nothing; it was Krishna who was doing everything.
Even though we knew we were fundamentally different from the karmis, we tried to appear as ordinary people much like them. We learned to smile at everyone, no matter how much pain we felt. At the same time, we remained aloof enough never to take a rejection personally or let an insult discourage us. On the contrary, our attitude was that whatever they said to us qualified them more for what we were selling.
Sankirtan devotees understood that exalted spiritual personalities sometimes appeared disguised as karmis. We never knew when the pious young woman who gave Lakshmi might be a spiritual master, or when an ornery old man might be Radharani. The pure devotees of the Lord sometimes visited the earth planet to see how the preaching of Krishna consciousness was coming along, and all devotees wanted to look good before them.
The ingredients of success on sankirtan were conviction, confidence, and singlemindedness of purpose. Spirited chanting — at the temple, in the car, and between sales — helped us to achieve the proper mental focus. When we believed absolutely in what we were doing, and when we were 100 percent confident in the ultimate success of the sankirtan effort, then and only then were we likely to convince others of the value of Krishna consciousness. If we appeared distracted or unsure of ourselves, they would lose interest. If we hesitated, even for a second, they would walk by without stopping. Those devotees who were less than fully convinced needed to rely on charm or an ebullient personality for success on sankirtan. Such gimmicks, however, eventually failed.
Getting a karmi to stop walking could be a challenge. The usual strategy was to attract their attention and then physically block their path. Another strategy was to position oneself where the public could not avoid us, such as at a busy escalator or doorway. Less sophisticated devotees tried walking alongside a karmi and striking up a conversation. This method rarely resulted in a donation.
We presented ourselves as authority figures. After all, we were representatives of the Spiritual Master of the Universe and the Absolute Truth. To this end, we were always to remain in control of a conversation. We did let them talk some, but not too much. We were not to give them too much time to think, because if they had the opportunity to think about buying a book, they would usually say no.
We never asked them if they wanted to buy a book or give a donation; rather, we told them, "TAKE one of these!" and "GIVE a donation!" We never said, "please," a word we considered weak and ineffective. Most sankirtan devotees de-emphasized hard information and emphasized strong eye contact, a sincere tone of voice, and a commanding but not overbearing physical presence. We were most successful when our presentation was so airtight that it gave them little opportunity to say no.
Sometimes I felt bad about taking Lakshmi from a poor karmi. Prabhupada, however, criticized such feelings, calling them "mundane" compassion and mere sentiment for a person's material circumstances. A devotee showed real compassion for others by offering them Krishna conscious. Such compassion addressed the soul within the body, not just the body itself. A truly compassionate person tried to save others by encouraging them to give to the Krishna Consciousness Movement. It did not matter whether the karmis understood what they were doing.
In a similar vein, Prabhupada wrote in a purport in the Bhagavad-gita As It Is that feeding the hungry and opening hospitals for the sick were sinful activities. Furthermore, our superiors instructed us never to comfort a crying karmi child, never to help someone change a flat tire, and never to give Lakshmi to someone in need of a meal. Being directed at the temporary material body, such activities neglected the eternal soul within.
Tripurari spoke of putting an imaginary bubble over himself and the karmis to whom he was talking. From within this bubble, he tried to make them see the miseries of the material existence outside the bubble. In short, he tried to take the spiritual world with him on sankirtan. Then he tried to trick them into engaging in a spiritual act, such as giving Lakshmi to the Movement or reading an authorized book about Krishna.
Selling books was a bit like stage performance. Successful sankirtan devotees looked good. We shined our shoes, and made sure our clothes and wigs fit properly. We learned our lines, especially our opening lines. We also learned how to ad lib as the situation required. We invented and memorized a repertoire of lines, come-ons, and responses for various situations.
As in acting or comedy, timing was of critical importance. We worked hard on delivery and inflection. A false move, a slight hesitation, a momentary lapse in concentration, could mean the loss of a sale or donation. As Tripurari once said, "You never blink."
The crucial moment came when we asked for the donation. Sometimes, a karmi had his wallet out, ready to give Lakshmi, only to change his mind if we said something wrong or lost control of the situation.
In short, we exuded confidence that giving money to the Movement was the natural and proper thing to do. A devotee first convinced himself of the philosophy and then tried to convince others. If we expected them to give, then in most cases they would do so. The intensity of a devotee's desire for them to give needed to exceed their desire not to give. In this way, sankirtan was largely a battle of wills, mirroring the universal struggle between godliness and godlessness.
Prabhupada said that we were to collect Lakshmi "by hook or by crook." One hook was establishing a rapport with the karmis. If, for example, they said they were from Kansas, we would say something like, "I've got a brother back that way." Some experienced devotees tried to create the feeling of an old friendship. If they succeeded, a request for a donation would seem like asking an old friend for a small loan.
Some blissed-out devotees became outwardly friendly with everyone. They were able to have such a backslapping good time that almost everyone would buy a book. Generally, for a devotee to touch a karmi was the kiss of death. Sankirtan, however, was an exception. The spreading of Prabhupada's message took precedence over everything else.
Another hook was to induce them to answer "yes" to a series of innocuous but loaded questions. Then a "yes" to a request for a donation would come more easily. For example, a devotee selling records to a young karmi might begin with, "Do you have a turntable?" Nearly everyone owned a turntable. For another example, sometimes a devotee said, "We're doing a survey." Then he asked a few questions and said, "We have a special deal only for the people we're interviewing today." Sometimes a clipboard-carrying devotee in an airport or bus station firmly addressed the servicemen as "Soldier!" and then ordered them to take a book and give money.
Another successful hook was the come-on to the opposite sex. For example, the women sometimes approached a karmi man, pinned a flower or button on his lapel, told him how big and "dangerous" he was, sometimes even kissed him, and then asked for a donation. Vrindavan Vilasini was a top female sankirtan devotee. Well spoken and convinced of the philosophy, she also had a pretty face and an attractive figure. Mulaprakriti, another top scorer, was less beautiful but was intelligent, strong-willed, hardworking, and highly skilled at sankirtan. The men sometimes accused the women of using their physical attractiveness to their advantage, and the women accurately returned the same charge.
We often said that to sell to a karmi couple, one first needed to persuade the woman. In private, we laughed at karmi men who appeared to be under the control of their wives or girlfriends. In contrast, women devotees knew their place — subordinate and submissive to the men.
Sometimes a householder devotee took a child, not necessarily his own, with him on sankirtan. By all reports, cute children were worth their weight in gold in donations. By about the age of fourteen or fifteen, they were ready to go out and collect Lakshmi on their own.
Besides increasing the amount of money we collected, the cultivation of a tough, unshakeable attitude "dovetailed" well with our philosophy. We had all knowledge; the spiritually covered karmis were incapable of understanding the truth. It was natural, then, to try to entice or trick them into buying into Krishna consciousness.
The "crooks" Prabhupada referred to were techniques ranging from mild deception to full-fledged transcendental trickery. We tried to give the impression that we were a part of what the public was supposed to experience at that particular time and place — especially if it were an illegal location. For example, in store parking lots we sometimes announced, "The manager asked us to come here today."
When a karmi asked, "Is this Krishna?" in a hostile tone, we replied, "No." We answered questions according to how they were asked. For example, if someone asked, "What's this for?" I would give an indirect, vague answer, never mentioning Krishna. If, however, we hit them up hard enough, they would not even ask. They would give Lakshmi or not, and we would move on to the next karmi.
Some devotees collected Lakshmi for Vietnam War-era MIA's (Missing In Action) and POW's (Prisoners Of War). Others said they were collecting for UNICEF (the United Nations Children's Fund) or the Red Cross. Other standard lines included, "I'm from Apple records" (the Beatles' record label) or "I'm George Harrison's secretary." Or, "This book is about chemistry [or sociology, or political science]." A book was about whatever we thought might interest that particular karmi. After all, the Hindu scriptures contained all knowledge on all subjects.
Another line we came up with was, "One dollar feeds one child for one week." Though fabricated, this line worked well with young mothers. Another favorite was, "I painted the pictures in this book." I once heard Jadurani — the devotee who had actually painted many of the pictures in the books — complain that others were using this line. Some more lines: "Everyone is giving ten dollars today," and "The last guy I talked to just gave me fifty dollars!"
Some sankirtan devotees had perfected a technique known to its detractors within the Movement as "shortchanging." Gopa, for example, would tell a karmi, "I've got a bunch of ones I'm trying to get rid of. Do you have a twenty?" He would take the karmi's twenty-dollar bill and slowly give him back one-dollar bills, one at a time. As he did so, he would continue to pitch the book. This technique was effective, because karmis often got tired of waiting for their change and gave up, leaving the devotee with a greater-than-intended donation.
Sometimes, after inducing a karmi to take out his wallet, a devotee pointed to or touched a bill he wanted, say a ten or twenty-dollar bill. I heard that some devotees simply grabbed the money and ran.
Some women devotees dressed up in attractive karmi clothes and sold flowers in bars. If a devotee got roughed up in a bar, it was because of her lack of faith. Devotees always trusted that Krishna would protect them on sankirtan. In addition, the women distributed books on military bases, especially on military payday. The services were then almost entirely male.
Nevertheless, a devotee needed to use subterfuge when dealing with people whose intelligence was at the animal level. Karmis were simply too sinful to understand what we were doing. We accepted no legal, moral, or ethical authority other than our own, because God's law was higher than man's "concocted" laws. The police and the courts were agents of the ruling class of atheists and materialists. Their job was to keep people ignorant of God and keep the present government in power.
When we did obey others' rules and laws, it was with the attitude that for now they were in charge, but that circumstances would be different later. A devotee once told me, "When we take over, we'll demand money at gunpoint." Another devotee named Tarun Krishna called sankirtan a cross between sport and war. Tripurari declared sankirtan a holy war. Prabhupada himself said that book distribution was the equivalent of "dropping bombs on the laps of the conditioned souls."