In all towns and villages: Cooperation is the key
The word “sankirtana” means, literally, “kirtana together”. Our whole process is based on cooperation and association, much different from the process followed by impersonalists and mystic yogis, that is based on solitary meditation and self-advancement. We, devotees, are the best example of the saying “united we stand, divided we fall”.
“I am the only gardener. How many places can I go? How many fruits can I pick and distribute? (Cc. Adi 9.34)
Purport: Here Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu indicates that the distribution of the Hare Krsna maha-mantra should be performed by combined forces. Although He is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, He laments, “How can I act alone? How can I alone pick the fruit and distribute it all over the world?” This indicates that all classes of devotees should combine to distribute the Hare Krsna maha-mantra without consideration of the time, place or situation.
In 1973, Srila Prabhupada wrote in a letter:
"We must be very careful to maintain unity in diversity, and remember the story in Aesop's Fables of the father of many children with the bundle of sticks. When the father asked his children to break the bundle of sticks wrapped in a bag, none of them could do it. But, when they removed the sticks from the bag, and tried one by one, the sticks were easily broken. So this is the strength in unity." (Letter to Kirtanananda, October 18, 1973)
Srila Prabhupada was able to start ISKCON alone, with just a few books and almost no money, because he is the combination of all vaishnava qualities. He had all the knowledge and all the necessary qualities and talents to spread the sankirtana movement in the west, but none of us can make such a claim. At best, each of us may manifest some small percentage of one or a few qualities of Srila Prabhupada, therefore the only chance we have of maintaining and spreading this movement is to work together. As HG Pita Prabhu recollects in his remembrances of the final days of Srila Prabhupada:
“At one point, all the devotees were with Srila Prabhupada in his room. Bhavananda, Giriraj, Jayapataka Maharaj, Satsvarupa Maharaj, Jayadvaita, Panca Dravida, they were all there. Prabhupada said, "Of my disciples, I see no one who has my qualities. But if I look at this or that disciple, I see some qualities. And if I look at a group of them, some percentage of my qualities is certainly there. So I have some hope that this movement can continue. The test of your love for me will be shown in how well you work together."
When we distribute books, the idea is especially to distribute knowledge, to teach people about spiritual life, to help them become devotees. We try to create an opening, a situation where one can receive transcendental knowledge, so this knowledge can create some change in his life. Still, not so many people become devotees just because they read one of our books. Usually, after reading a book one becomes a little interested or somewhat convinced and then looks for more. After that, he meets another devotee who explains the philosophy to him, attends a program, takes prasadam and so on, until he comes to the point where he wants to join.
A lot of times, before coming to this point of taking a book and reading it, a person has many preliminary encounters: he hears the maha-mantra here and there, sees devotees chanting in the street, takes prasadam at the Govinda’s restaurant, etc. Such experiences purify him to some extent and elevate him to the point where he takes a book and wants to read it. He gets then a little stunned: “nobody told me this before!” He comes to the temple or to a bhakti-vriksa, hears more preaching, and finally, he becomes convinced to start practicing. By studying more deeply, he matures, straightening his resolve, up to the point of becoming a pure devotee and going back to Godhead.
We can see that Srila Prabhupada's books are involved in the most important steps of this natural evolution. Without his books, it's difficult to convince new people to adopt spiritual life seriously, and without his books, it's very difficult for one to advance to the higher stages of spiritual life. Without Srila Prabhupada’s books, we may make members, but it will be very difficult to make serious devotees who will want to dedicate their lives to serve Krsna.
Yet, there are more things to be done so everything can work. There is space for everybody because there is much to do. We have to put a combined effort to really bring people in mass to Krsna consciousness. Just like in a war: it's not only the air force, not only the navy, not only the army; it's the three forces combined that win the war. Similarly, when we combine harinamas, book distribution, prasadam distribution, festivals, etc. the result is amplified and it becomes easy to make devotees. In a broader sense, it doesn’t matter so much which of these activities we are doing: we just need to be a part of the combined effort and share the merits. Someone goes out to distribute books, another one stays to cook, others clean the temple, someone else cultivates the contacts brought by the book distributors, someone visits interested people, others organize harinamas, prasadam distribution, restaurants, nama-hattas, bhakti-vriksas, programs in schools, prisons, etc. When we do all of this in a combined way, then we can really start making new devotees on an industrial scale, creating a kind of back-to-godhead-machine.
More than just making new devotees, this joint effort creates a very nice spiritual atmosphere within the community, that makes everyone feel happy and spiritually nourished. It creates a Vaikuntha atmosphere, where even the ones that are not so spiritually strong can go with the flow and also start following strictly and performing amazing deeds, just by association.
New devotees who come to such an environment will also become attracted very easily, because they will see the practical application of the philosophy that they are reading about in the books. If we offer a dull and tamasic atmosphere in the temple, full of rancor and politics, people who read the books will think that we have a pipe-dream philosophy that looks good on paper but doesn't work in reality. And they will just go away, to look somewhere else.
In some cases, a person may even decide to try to follow spiritual life, taking instructions from Srila Prabhupada’s books, but to not associate with us. One example that I can give in this regard is that one time my wife distributed a Bhagavad-Gita to a very educated and intelligent man. He read the whole book in just a few days and came back to ask questions and get more books, and this continued for some time. He became a vegetarian, started to chant, etc. and was always very cordial and respectful. At some point, I invited him to start visiting a temple and get more involved. He visited the local temple and apparently traveled to visit another one. When I talked to him again he said: “I don’t want to offend you. I’m studying these books from Swami Prabhupada, I have the utmost appreciation for him and I’m convinced that these books contain the truth, therefore I’m trying to follow to my best capacity. But after visiting, I came to the conclusion that your institution is not reflecting the ideals exposed in these books, therefore I’m not interested in joining.” This is a sad story, but it illustrates this point that we may attract some sentimental people by some hodge-podge preaching, but if we don’t work together to keep high standards, this is actually the impression that intelligent people may have of us.
To distribute books and cooperate with other devotees may not be easy, but that’s the way for us to advance in spiritual life. We can’t expect to be very comfortable in this world, doing whatever we want and at the same time progress in spiritual life. In Bg. 4.34, Krsna orders us to find a spiritual master and learn the spiritual science from him. To be a disciple means to be under discipline. Without discipline, there is no question of being a disciple.
Srila Prabhupada once said that for one who desires a comfortable life in Krsna consciousness, advancement is very slow. In his purport to SB 2.9.24 he explains this point in detail:
"In executing penance, one must be determined to return home, back to Godhead, and must decide to undergo all types of tribulations for that end. Even for material prosperity and name and fame one has to undergo severe types of penances, otherwise no one can become an important figure in this material world. Why, then, should there not be severe types of penances for the perfection of devotional service? An easygoing life and attainment of perfection in transcendental realization cannot go together. The Lord is more clever than any living entity; therefore He wants to see how painstaking the devotee is in devotional service. The order is received from the Lord, either directly or through the bona fide spiritual master, and to execute that order, however painstaking, is the severe type of penance. One who follows the principle rigidly is sure to achieve success in attaining the Lord’s mercy."
The spiritual master is sacrificing his life to spread Krsna consciousness, therefore when a disciple makes a similar effort to assist him in his mission, he becomes very pleased and showers his mercy upon him. In other eras, yogis would endure severe penances to purify themselves and attain self-realization. Nowadays, the penance is simply to spread Krsna consciousness and to cooperate with other devotees, making some coordinated effort. Not only the process is much easier, but the benefit is much greater. If we can just sacrifice this short life to please Lord Caitanya and spread His message, we can obtain the most valuable gift.