[An excerpt from “The Art of Spiritual Life – Memories of Srila Prabhupada - 1969”, by Syamarani dasi]
Prabhupada’s endeavors in the field of publishing and distributing transcendental literature did not begin when he came to the West. They began over two decades earlier.
British Rule in India
As a result of British policy during World War II, millions of people in East India starved to death. By sinking boatloads of food intended for India’s domestic use, the British hoped to deny the Japanese the benefit of capturing this resource. Naturally, they also hoped that this strategy would lead to increased enlistment in the armed forces. Thus, in the streets of India, children could be seen fighting with dogs over scraps of discarded food. As the price of food spiraled, Srila Prabhupada managed to collect just enough food to feed his own family. He knew that this calamity was the result of mismanagement and greed, and yet he also knew that the situation was caused by a simple lack of Krsna consciousness. To broadcast Lord Caitanya’s message and to give humanity an actual remedy for these social ills, he started his Back to Godhead magazine in 1944. In it, he discussed the world’s crises through the eyes of the scriptures. Despite the paper shortage, he convinced government officials to grant him a large enough supply of paper to continue publishing his magazine.
In 1947 India finally gained her independence, and yet widespread dissatisfaction still remained throughout the country. In the years that followed, India and Pakistan fought several wars, resulting in the death of hundreds and thousands. Prabhupada knew that this dissatisfaction and fighting would continue as long as people wanted to gratify their senses, and he discussed this in his Back to Godhead. Although having very little financial means at his disposal, he persevered in publishing Back to Godhead and, envisaging a spiritual United Nations organization, wrote letters to the country’s leaders.
Back to Godhead
At the age of 56, Prabhupada renounced family life, moved to Delhi and lived as a mendicant, staying from week to week in temples or in the homes of pious persons. His time was spent in producing Back to Godhead and in approaching donors, to whom he also preached Bhagavad-gita and distributed his literature. Prabhupada remained in Delhi for some years, printing and selling Back to Godhead. Later on, he resided in Vrndavana, at the Vamsi-gopalaji temple near to the sacred Yamuna River. From here he would regularly commute to Delhi. In Vrndavana, he translated and printed the first canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam, in three hardback volumes. At the same time, he continued to produce Back to Godhead. Even when he ran out of money, he kept writing.
Now, in 1969, we saw that over the past couple of years, Prabhupada’s desire to increase the distribution of his magazine had never waned. For the last two years, here in Boston, we had maintained the print run of Back to Godhead at two thousand copies per month. Prabhupada now increased this to twenty thousand copies per month. He requested that each of his twelve temples take a quota of magazines for distribution, and Boston’s quota became two thousand per month, or seventy per day. Excited and somewhat nervous, we devotees organized a new system for distribution, where those who were out on harinama would take turns in distributing Back to Godheads. Although at first it was difficult for many of us to approach people on the streets and in the parks, we gradually gave up our fear and began to enthusiastically distribute Back to Godheads to the passers-by.
“The Freedom Trail”
Sometimes the sankirtana party went to Boylston Street or Harvard Square, but Boston Common and Cambridge Common was our main place of sankirtana, especially on Sundays. It was now July, and the magnificent summer weather had arrived. Birds in the Commons were singing gaily and trees were blossoming, imparting a heavy aroma to the atmosphere. The students were on vacation and thousands of tourists from all over the country were visiting the heritage sights called ‘The Freedom Trail.’ This Freedom Trail marked a series of historical landmarks from the days of the American Revolution, when the American colonies revolted against England and became an independent nation. That Freedom Trail, the place where Paul Revere rode and the Boston Tea Party unfolded, had its hub in Boston Common.
At the time of the American Revolution, the Boston Common had been a sorry sight, covered with tents, mess buildings and latrines, and swarming with English soldiers wearing red coats. These days, the Common was a delightful expanse of trees, grass and statuary, unsurpassed, perhaps, by any other urban park in the country. As our harinama party chanted throughout the Common, we passed baseball diamonds, graveyards, underground parking garages, bandstands, flowerbeds, and cow paths. On one end of the Common, the State Capital Building was situated, and at the other, public gardens, ball parks and a lake, where tourists fed the ducks, and paddled around in swan boats. Around the edges of the park were thousands of business offices that released their workers for a lunch break each day.
The Call to The Six Senses
The beautiful, balmy weather called out to one and all, “Come on; enjoy me. This is the time for youthful pleasure. Taste and feel my inviting warmth.” The sky was so bright during that mid-day that it hurt my eyes, but we were all enthused just by performing sankirtana. We felt that Prabhupada was giving us special understanding of how people were thinking. He was giving us insights as to how everyone was plagued by the call to the six senses, as a man who has six wives goes home to one of them and finds all of them at the same house – calling, “Come on; enjoy me.” One wife pulls on one arm, another pulls on another arm, another wife pulls on one leg, another rips at his ear, another at his tongue, another at his skin, and another at his eyeballs. In his insanity, he thinks he is happy.
In His form of Lord Caitanya, Krsna Himself had come to this world to spread love of God by performing harinama sankirtana and teaching transcendental knowledge. As we meditated upon this, we excitedly prayed to Prabhupada, to all the pure devotees in the disciple-succession, to Nityananda Prabhu and Lord Caitanya, and to Srimati Radharani and Lord Krsna. We prayed that they would inspire us so that we could convince others to accept Prabhupada’s books. Because it was Sunday, several rock bands had come to the Common to perform, and thousands of young people were there, listening to the music, dancing, mingling in the crowd, and enjoying picnics together. Sometimes we chanted and danced in a circle, or in a line, and hundreds of young people joined in. We also took turns to wander about and distribute books and Back to Godhead magazines.
One of Prabhupada’s Secret Agents
I remained enthusiastic by thinking of myself as one of Prabhupada’s secret agents on this strange planet Earth. I was connecting with others who, like me, ultimately had nothing to do with this bizarre world of birth and death. “Here,” I told them, “You didn’t get one yet. This magazine will tell you about your eternal life of bliss and knowledge.” The moment I offered people Back to Godhead, I felt that they were no longer strangers. They seemed like old friends who, like me, had somehow become covered by peculiar shells called bodies. Sankirtana was the prime benediction for the age of Kali-yuga.
Prabhupada’s Visit to Boston
On December 21, at 3:45 p.m., Prabhupada arrived at Boston’s Logan Airport. A large crowd of a hundred or so devotees from the East Coast temples had assembled to give Prabhupada a rousing welcome. As Prabhupada’s car drew away from the airport, the devotees jumped into their vehicles and followed him back to the temple. Because it was Sunday, I had stayed back to greet the guests who came for our weekly feast and festival. After greeting everyone, I led a kirtana and then gave the Bhagavad-gita class. Halfway through the class, we all began to hear the faint sound of kirtana, coming from somewhere downstairs or outside. As the sound of the kirtana grew louder, our excitement and anticipation increased. By this time, none of us could concentrate on the class. My excitement suddenly spilled over and I yelled out, “Prabhupada is here!” The kirtana party sang its way up the steps and then flowed into the temple room, as it followed Prabhupada. When we saw Srila Prabhupada entering the room, we all offered our obeisances.
“… Your Heart Becomes Cleansed”
Prabhupada appeared beautiful and effulgent as he walked towards the altar, his bearing dignified and elegant as always. The crowd of devotees and guests in the temple room was so dense that barely enough room was left for Prabhupada to pass through. Jahnava cleared the way, and picked up Lilavati’s baby who was crawling in front of Prabhupada. Prabhupada asked her to put the baby back down. After watching the baby crawl for a moment or two, he approached the altar and offered his obeisances to Sri Sri Gaura-Nitai, Sri Sri Radha-Krsna, and Sri Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra. He then sat down on the vyasasana and again looked over at the altar and the Deities. Finally, he said, “If you keep the Deities’ utensils clean, your heart becomes cleansed.” He said that the cooks should now add a 9 p.m. offering of puris and milk, just as the devotees in London were doing where Prabhupada had spent the last three months. After giving a short welcome address, he requested a tour of the building.
Thronged by devotees and guests, Prabhupada conducted his long-awaited tour of the Iskcon Press facility. He first entered the large pressroom, which was located on the ground floor just below the temple room. He stood before the large press machine, looking at it intently. It was an impressive piece of equipment, 30 foot in length, and capable of printing 50,000 Back to Godhead magazines at one time. As we all stood there with Prabhupada, I recalled his first press machine at 26 Second Avenue, an old five-foot long stencil mimeograph that he had bought for $250 at a church sale. Crude as it was, he had gracefully accepted it and then utilized it for beginning Lord Caitanya’s movement in the West. And now, Krsna had given him this wonderful, high-speed model.
As Prabhupada approached the press, he offered his full dandavats before the machine and recited the Jaya dhvani prayers to his spiritual master: “Jaya om visnupada paramahamsa parivrajakacarya astottara-sata Sri Srimad Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Gosvami Maharaja ki jaya.” After he had raised himself to his feet, he smiled and spoke to Advaita, the Press manager, who, as usual, was wearing his green work khakis.
The Press is The Heart of ISKCON
Prabhupada told Advaita, “Keep the press as clean as glass. Then it will last a long time and remain in good condition.” Happy to have the opportunity to say something to his spiritual master, Advaita explained how the four color separation process first printed yellow, then black, red, and lastly blue. Prabhupada said that the blue should come first. Seeing that Patita Uddarana was wearing a dhoti, Prabhupada instructed that dhotis should not be worn near to the machinery – only trousers.
Approximately seventy of us surrounded Prabhupada, like iron filings crowding the edge of a magnet. We watched as he took a step closer to Advaita, and then lightly and affectionately slapped him on the back, telling him, “There is a Bengali saying that ‘this body is so made that anything you practice, it becomes easier.’ So by practice, everything will come out expertly done by the Press workers.” Knowing that Prabhupada had recently named the farm community in West Virginia “New Vrndavana” and the temple in San Francisco “New Jagannatha Puri”, Advaita asked, “Can you give the ISKCON Press a name?” “ISKCON Press,” Prabhupada replied, smiling. “It is already named. The Press is the heart of ISKCON.” “You are the heart of ISKCON, Prabhupada.” Advaita said. “And the Press is my heart,” Prabhupada replied.
Everyone Who Speaks English Should Have an ISKCON Press Publication
Because we considered ourselves to be the servants of ISKCON Press, Prabhupada’s words were deeply encouraging and made us smile even more. We looked on with blissful, wide-eyed expressions, mesmerized by his every word and action. Then, together with Advaita and followed by the rest of us, Prabhupada proceeded downstairs to the large, cold basement. There he looked at the darkroom, the photo department, the typewriters, composing machines, binding machines, flats of paper-stock, and the paper cutter. We crowded around him as he walked from one piece of press equipment to another. We were so eager to get a good view that we left him hardly any room to walk. Still, he walked through our midst as elegantly as a deer or swan. He then turned to Advaita and Uddhava, Advaita’s assistant manager, and said, “In India, everyone who speaks Hindi has a Gita Press publication. Similarly, everyone who speaks English should have an ISKCON Press publication. Since everywhere in the world people speak English, your market is unlimited.”