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By Aisvarya dasa
Dear Vaisnavas, Vaisnavis, Friends, Brajabasis, Countymen,
Please accept my most respectful obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada!
One could have a field day describing the finer subtleties of Santa Cruz. Not that it’s that subtle. When I ask tourists what their first impressions of this Northern Californian town is, they normally take a few seconds to think about it and then look at me with a puzzled look. To keep things short, I normally help them along with the suggestion that it’s Hippieville. They nod profusely.
Not that everyone is a hippie there. Apart from the grunged-out followers of Gerry, who loiter on the streets all day, there are a few yogis, mystics, new-agers, and for some reason, many tourists. Many of these same tourists also walked the streets of San Francisco and couldn’t have been stopped by a police roadblock there, but for some reason, in Santa Cruz they stop without a second thought. It must be the "spiritually surcharged atmosphere."
Many devotees and ex-devotees live in the hills that surround Santa Cruz due to its beauty and proximity to a major urban area. The town is situated about 50 miles south of San Francisco and about 25 miles southwest of San Jose (affectionately known as Silicon Valley— the land of highly personalized telephone-answering systems). There is a nice temple in San Jose run by a few very sincere devotees, and even though times are tough they still inspire many to take to and keep up the path of devotional service to Sri Sri Radha Gopala, the presiding Deities.
My tendency is to be lighthearted when writing about book distribution. It’s a reflection of how I distribute books because that is the only way I can continue performing this service. If I were to get serious about it, I wouldn’t last five minutes out there— whimsical lazy that I am.
But sometimes, once in a blue moon, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu gives me a glimpse into what is actually happening when a book is distributed. If anyone knows Vaisesika Prabhu he or she will know a devotee who has been reading and distributing Srila Prabhupada’s books from time immemorial. He is one of my greatest inspirations in Krsna Consciousness. His mood encapsulates Srila Prabhupada’s desire to see the Holy Name spread to every town and villiage. His enthusiasm for book distribution is ever fresh. It is as if he had just begun distributing books yesterday. (Ok Vaish Prabhu, I’ll stop now. I just wanted to get things in perspective).
From his enthusiasm for devotional service I can see that distributing books is not a way to make money, gain prestige, or lord it over material nature. It’s a way to keep Sri Caitanya’s movement alive and kicking. Just like the homeless guy in Santa Cruz (possibly was a devotee) who bought a Science of Self Realization and told me, "You don’t realize the importance of what you’re doing here with this seemingly simple act." Srila Prabhupada is guiding so many.
Even though I daily battle with the mind and senses, this is a secondary consideration, for as I stepped out onto the streets of Santa Cruz for the first time this year, I thought about how uncanny it is that Krsna always reciprocates during the times when we put the most effort into trying to serve him. Getting out of bed before midday is my daily Armaggedon— without even mentioning going out and pleading with people to take Srila Prabhupada’s books home with them, giving a donation on top.
Therefore, as a man named Michael prepared to cross a road nearby, my motivation to be at that spot at that particular moment in time didn’t solely come from profit or pride. It came from an almost unconscious decision I had made an hour earlier to ignore my lethargy and just do something spiritually positive. So all my dizzying thoughts culminated in one microsecond as I caught Michael and myself off guard by shaking his hand and regurgitating my highly original ice-breaking line: "I’m from London. Where are you from?"
Michael shocked me out of my haze by immediately explaining that he’d been learning about religion and eastern philosophy at the University of California Santa Cruz and that he and his friends would be very interested in the books I had handed him. He wanted to know more, so I gave him my e-mail address along with a couple of books on Krsna. Later on he turned out to be one of the few who actually wrote to me. But that doesn’t matter so much because many books have been distributed to many folk who still have them as constant reminders of Krsna.
There’s been a long-time feud between the French and the British, and luckily for me, the French tourists that I often meet in the Cruz don’t harbor that grudge too seriously. Being an English type myself is an excuse to have some fun with them. Some even recognize the inherent arrogance that has plagued the French even up to this day of minority-religion bashing. Of course there are wonderful Vaisnavas in France so I should be careful not to generalize too much. But after many a tête-à-tête par excellence, la crème de la crème show esprit de corps and make it a coup de grâce by taking a book cum laude.
Sometimes when the traffic on the road to Santa Cruz is insane, we go to a town called Palo Alto that lies between San Francisco and San Jose. Not only is this the town that hosts the world famous Stanford University (yes, the one that Bill Clinton’s famous daughter attends) but its real saving grace is that it is the holy tirtha wherefrom His Holiness Indradyumna Swami appeared. Following in his footsteps, the devotees from San Jose and San Francisco congregate there every so often to perform Harinama in the streets. During one such Harinama, one reporter from the local Palo Alto Weekly newspaper turned up to take photos after she had received books from me the week before.
Caru Candra Prabhu had an interesting, brief but poignant, discussion with one of the locals in Palo Alto after showing him a Science of Self Realization. It went as follows:
Local (completely uninterested): "Whatever that is I don’t need it! "
Caru: "I know you don’t need it. You deserve it ‘cause you look a little stressed out."
Local (completely interested): "What is it?"
Our local friend took that Science of Self Realization.
Ed is a gentleman in his late forties who looks professional but has a glint in his eye. I must admit that as I insignificantly stand on a street corner, my countenance doesn’t really attract many businessmen storming from highly critical business meetings to extremely important lunch engagements and back to their exceedingly proficient and productive offices, but in this case Ed stopped. Turns out that Ed had sold his DotCom company to Disney just before the bottom fell out of the cyber industry, and so he made enough money off "the rat" to live a peaceful life in early retirement.
And so we found ourselves so close to that bastion of Western thought— Stanford University— conversing on Vedic philosophy and lifestyle and how it makes so much more sense than this merry-go-round of a Western society we live in. After buying a book he asked me what kind of monk I am, and to his horror, he found out that he had been talking to a Hare Krishna all this time. As we had become friends, he couldn’t just be rude and storm off, so he reflected instead. As we parted, he thanked me and told me how he was glad to have had a conversation with a Hare Krishna monk and that he was looking forward to living life with the new paradigm he had just shifted into.
Back in Santa Cruz, young Fred, who’s 50 going on 21, was on his way to visit the Pacific Ocean for the first time in his life. His excitement built up to a fever pitch as he found out from me that he was only half a mile away from that vast expanse of water. He had driven across the country in his 18-wheeler truck and decided that now was the right time to go on pilgrimage. It’s always interesting to observe how Krsna creates the right environment for someone to receive His mercy. Fred was so excited that he also took a book from me. All glories to the Pacific Ocean!
Another older couple stopped by, and when I showed them books they said in unison, "We’re atheists."
All I had to say was, "Thank God for that. I thought you were Christians," and off they walked with big smiles and books.
Duane is an old biker. He wandered past me toward the ocean carrying his helmet, and when I asked him what year his Harley is, he answered "1980." But he didn’t stop. On the way back he stopped and took a couple of books from the man who had made friends with his bike.
As a reminder that it’s not all sanity in the material world, I keep meeting my friend Gabe who I only exchange niceties with after our first brief discussion from the Twilight Zone. In that original dialogue, he had kept on insisting that the tree I was standing under was more real than religion. His theory had its foundation in the fact that the tree was there, it existed, you could perceive it’s reality, but that you couldn’t perceive religion with the same amount of reality.
I offered him that his tree analogy made some sense on a material level but that at some point in time that tree will not exist any more and therefore where will its ultimate reality be then? He kept insisting that the tree was real and that religion wasn’t. I quickly excused myself from this enlightening causerie and as a parting gesture of friendship he told me that he likes discussing religion. As a celebration of our original interlocution, every time I see him now I mention to him that the tree is still there. He’s happy with that. My motto here is not to cause distress.
On a more positive note, there is one lady who always talks to us when she wanders by. Her claim to fame is that she is the proud grandmother of the child painted on the cover of "Coming Back."
Mike is from Russia. He had bought the Russian translation of the Bhagavad Gita some time ago but had not had any contact with devotees since then. He had read the Gita several times, and it had helped him become a vegetarian. He looked at the back of the books I had handed him and asked if his pronunciation of "Srila Prabhupada" was correct as he had read it many times but never heard it spoken. His pronunciation was a little esoteric but nonetheless sincere and heartfelt. He has my e-mail address now in case he wants to find a temple or something like that in the future.
Daniel casually walked past while showing me his picture of Pancatattva as I was engaging some other people. A few days later, he came up to me and asked if I had any new books. He liked Light of the Bhagavat and took it. After seeing the kavaca I have on my arm he began reciting the Nrsimha Kavaca. He wants to rename himself Danvantari.
Daniel is one of a few rare souls who have had contact with Sri Caitanya’s movement and regardless of being unable to take up the process fully at this time, are still trying in their own way to stay with Srila Prabhupada. Pusta Krsna Prabhu’s wife, Daru Brahman, and daughter visited us one day. She told me that there are hundreds of devotees living in and around Santa Cruz. They became so enlivened to see books being distributed that they sold a Bhagavad Gita to a friend who happened by just as I was talking with them.
Gerasimos is from the Greek Island of Kefalonia. It just happens to be the same island that my mother was born on. Even though I used to speak Greek when I was a kid, I have forgotten the vast majority of it, but as Krsna is both remembrance and forgetfulness, He helped me remember enough to convince Gerasimos to take a couple of books home with him.
Three young Gothic folk wearing black were walking toward me. Krsna sends people who are ready to receive books— of this I’m certain— as at that time I had a very strong feeling in my heart that I should show them a Bhagavad Gita. If there are Gitas in the San Jose book room, I always bring one out with me. It’s amazing how it always distributes itself without me even putting any effort into it.
So I placed the Gita I had brought out into one of these kid’s hands and watched their reaction. They were so excited about it that I can honestly say the book glowed. I opened it up, and it happened to open to the pictures of Visvarupa and the austere yogi who’s leaving his body for the moon. This increased their excitement. When I showed them the Sanskrit, word for word, etc, it was going to be a matter of formality that they were going to take it. The Gita glowed even more.
The moment became so auspicious, and you could almost hear brahmanas chanting Vedic hymns and demigods showering flowers from celestial airplanes. Because of all this enthusiasm, the Bhagavad Gita looked so beautiful as we all respectfully handled it like the precious scripture that it is. This single incident had such a profuse impact on me that I can honestly say it increased these heathens’ faith in Bhagavad Gita.
Talking about the value of Bhagavad Gita, just after I parted ways with another nice couple, Shane came up to me and asked if I was distributing the books I was holding. He told me that he had received one of Prabhupada’s books before and that he had read half of it before losing it somewhere. So now he asked me with all sincerity, "Do these books tell me what is the goal of life?"
If someone comes up and asks that question it can mean one of three things: he is either playing a trick, is crazy, or is one of the very, very few souls who have realized the futility of this material tabernacle and are actually searching for some meaning from it all. Shane was one of the latter. I explained as best I could according to my time, place, and circumstances and offered that he take a Science of Self Realization home with him.
But while speaking I had mentioned the Gita and even briefly shown it to him before putting it back into my bag, so Shane asked me, "Can I take the Bhagavad Gita?" Who am I to say that I am convincing someone to take a book? I wrote my e-mail address in the back of Shane’s Gita and asked him to e-mail me any questions he may have. He told me that he has plenty of questions.
I showed Steve a Gita and briefly explained it to him. He was interested but told me that he had to go to an ATM to get money out for the day. Most times, when someone says that, it is a polite excuse for not taking a book, but to my surprise, when I arrived back from moving the car from one three-hour parking spot to another, Steve was standing by my bag reading the Bhagavad Gita. He had asked Caru to explain it to him, but Caru saw that we had already started a discussion earlier and so asked him to take the Gita out and read it while he waited for me. After a nice conversation he walked off with it.
Brian looked a little dejected. I approached him, thought about showing him the Bhagavad Gita, but showed him some other books instead and asked him if all was ok. He told me that even though he had parted with his girlfriend a few days before, it was difficult for him to accept that she had just woken up in someone else’s bed that morning. When people are in despair it is very easy for them to hear spiritual philosophy.
Most people in California are doing their darndest best to enjoy themselves no matter what, and therefore to get them to take a book means you have to appeal to or become their sense gratification. Caru Candra Prabhu ends his presentation with the line "We’re asking all the passers-by to give a donation. What goes around comes around."
Most people believe in karma, and when they hear that they can improve their sense gratification by giving a donation, they begin scheming in their thoughts and agree. I just joke around like a clown with people and give them a laugh so that they don’t become too mental when it comes to giving something for the books. So even though I shouldn’t be happy when someone is in despair, I must admit that it is a breath of fresh air to be able to speak to someone soberly about the reality of things.
I told Brian that even though as a monk I am trying to develop detachment I still have problems. He immediately related to the whole issue of detachment. After he gave a hearty donation and was about to leave, I remembered the Gita. As soon as I mentioned it to him, he was interested and told me that he had heard the name before and wanted to read it. And there you go.
Sherrill worked in the store on the corner where I distribute. The first time I met her, she took a book, and from then on whenever she saw either Caru or me she would eagerly ask for other titles. Watching us pass our days of acceptance and rejection on the street outside her shop window led to her feeling that there was something special to what we were doing. Otherwise, why would we want to continue doing such a thing?
People who watch devotees distribute books normally become either impressed or envious. It brings real natures to the surface. I was thinking that one of the reasons a day on sankirtan is so refreshing is because we meet people on a real level. There’s not so much pretension, as there’s not so much point in trying to impress a monk. So distributing books can give one a great social life. All we have to do is develop a little detachment and hang out with the people. Even when people are rude or envious, at least we are seeing something real in their character.
So back to Sherrill, who also got a Gita. I was recently inspired by His Holiness Bhaktisiddhanta Swami to take one of "my" Salagramas out with me to help me distribute but I didn’t have anything to carry Him in. Sherrill came to the rescue with a posh little bag that the Lord now happily resides in. Unfortunately she had to move to another part of the Bay Area and so she doesn’t work at that store any more. But she does have a nice collection of BBT books.
Laurel and Lauren were the best. I stopped both these young ladies and presented some books to them. As soon as Laurel saw them she almost screamed in ecstasy. I was a little taken aback by her enthusiasm as she asked me to explain the books to her. "I want to hear it again. Tell me about the books."
The reason for the season was that she had received a book from a devotee in London and was so impressed by his presentation of the Spiritual World that she wanted to hear it all again. To add to her glee, I was also from London, and so I gave her a short Bhagavad Gita class in my best British accent just for her pleasure.
When I mentioned to Hank that I’m from London, he told me that he was from London too— London, Kentucky. More amazing was the fact that even though Hank is an older gentleman from the Bible Belt he is a good ol’ vegetarian. I’ve been to Kentucky a few times, so we drawled a little and he left with some books.
Anyone ever heard of "Eric the Half a Bee"? It’s a Monty Python song. Well, I met Eric the Half a Businessman. He’s half a drummer too. Very nice person. Eric was wearing a suit and tie and was excruciatingly busy when I asked him to stop. I repeated a couple of times (as repetition helps one to understand a subject matter properly) that his tie was slick— very slick. Finally he got it, stopped, and asked what I was selling. To both our surprise he found some time to chill with me, take a couple of books, and give me his business card before moving on to get a license for his pet fish or something like that.
Debby walked past me and announced to the world that she was half way through one of the books she had received from me the day before. She had a big smile on her face so I guess it must be working.
I thus beg your leave with a big smile on my face. Sri Krsna Sankirtan ki jaya!
© CHAKRA 11 April 2002
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