A letter was drafted and signed by Tamala Krishna Goswami, the G.B.C., and Prabhupada signed also, on a line marked “approved.” The letter stated that all traveling and temple sankirtana parties should always wear tilaka, dhotis, neck beads, and sikha, and depend on Krishna rather than disguises to help distribute books. At the bottom of the letter, however, was a P.S.: “Srila Prabhupada, upon checking the above added, ‘If they like, they may wear coat and pants….But tilaka, sikha, beads—these things should be there.’”
Srila Prabhupada had previously addressed this subject in various letters. When Jagadisa from Canada had asked the same question, Prabhupada had replied that there was no objection to wearing Western clothes, including a wig or hat. “We have to take whatever is a favorable position for executing Krishna Consciousness,” Prabhupada had written. “Sometimes we may adopt such means in order to help distribute books.” But in February 1973 he had written to Rupanuga that he did not want devotees dressing up as hippies.
… This should be stopped, we should not give anyone cause to call us hippies, but the devotees may dress up in respectable clothes like ladies and gentlemen in order to distribute my literatures under special circumstances….
Wherever there are individuals there are bound to be differences of opinion.
Srila Prabhupada wanted to be spared such details. He wanted his GBC men to consult among themselves and then present their conclusion to him only for a final decision. “In this way,” Prabhupada had written Rupanuga, “I will be free to concentrate on my translation of Srimad-Bhagavatam.” But because there was individuality and because some of the particular details were very crucial, Prabhupada was again and again called on to make fine judgments.
When the letter from India reached Karandhara in Los Angeles, Karandhara made an elaborate counter-report to Srila Prabhupada about the benefits of this kind of sankirtana. Before sending out the word that all sankirtana in Western clothes must be stopped, Karandhara wanted Prabhupada to hear his side of the story. He concluded that the main thing Prabhupada objected to was a disreputable appearance, and having heard that the devotees were looking like hippies, he had objected. Karandhara wrote to Prabhupada that distributors were always clean, well-groomed, and presentable. He said that if the devotees were restricted to going out with shaved head and dhoti, to distribute books, then the distribution would decline about two-thirds. “If extremes and misapplications have occurred,” he wrote, “they should be worked out rather than giving up the whole program.”
This time Srila Prabhupada replied definitely in favor of the Western dress sankirtana.
Yes, you can go on with your book distribution as you were doing before, there is not any harm. I thought that our men were becoming like hippies, but now I understand from you that this is not the case. So I have no objection. Our main business is to distribute books, and from the reports I am receiving from all over the world, the progress is very encouraging.
Not all controversies were private, however. A disagreement arose about techniques used in distributing books. A few people had written the BBT complaints that they had been misled or pressured into buying a book.
Devotees responded to this complaint in different ways. The book distributors were protective of Prabhupada’s order for as many books to be distributed as possible. Just because a few people had complained, they argued, was no reason to cool down book distribution. They even quoted Srila Prabhupada’s statements that opposition to sankirtana indicates its purity and genuineness. Srila Prabhupada had explained this point in his books in discussing the historical incident when Lord Caitanya’s sankirtana parties were stopped by the Muslim government. “We must remember,” Prabhupada had written, “that such incidents took place in the past, five hundred years ago, and the fact that they are still going on indicates that our sankirtana movement is really authorized, for if sankirtana were an insignificant material affair, demons would not object to it.” People in America had also objected to the chanting parties, the devotees’ dress, the philosophy and the food. Whatever you did, someone would oppose it. The main thing, the book distributors said, was that they should save the conditioned souls, who were heading for a hellish next life. If a person got a book and read just one page, his life could be changed.
Other devotees, however, including temple presidents, were disturbed by the complaints. Someone recalled that Prabhupada had already addressed this point in a letter in 1970. “Do all activities with great enthusiasm,” he had written to one devotee. “All our activities must be open so that no one may criticize our mission, so all dealing must be to the standard of Vaisuavism. As everything is undertaken forthrightly in Krishna Consciousness, in a Krishna Conscious way, then Lord Krishna will be pleased to provide all facilities for aiding such sincere service.” Srila Prabhupada wanted the book distributors to execute his order, but he was not giving them a license to do anything and everything and claim it was for Krishna. Preaching required expertise, not only in getting people to take a book but in giving them the right impression.
The book distributors were doing the best they could, they maintained, and would try to improve. If any devotee thought he could do better, then he should go out and demonstrate how to distribute books without disturbing anyone. Techniques for selling books could not be simply theoretical. The books had to go out, and the number of books sold shouldn’t decrease in the name of improving public relations. Distributing books all day, day after day, was hard. People were already agitated by their minds and senses and harassed by their occupations, governments, and personal relationships. No wonder even an innocent devotee also sometimes disturbed them.
The tactics in question were mostly the book distributors’ spoken lines. They would say they were students, that they were helping young people off drugs, or that the books were about how to solve modern-day crises. None of these things were untrue, but sometimes the emphasis was excessive.
A mature devotee could speak more directly. Tripurari would tell how the books describe an ancient civilization in which people knew how life should be lived. He would represent himself as a member of an organization that had communities all over the world where people could benefit from the example of an alternative lifestyle. Tripurari and others were able to be both personal and, in a casual way, philosophical, as they spoke about spiritual life. They made quick friends with strangers and convinced them to take books. But more and more devotees were going out, and some were crude. Obviously, more training was needed.
The question was whether the devotees should be straightforward and open or rely on sales techniques. Bhakta dasa, the San Diego temple president, wrote to Srila Prabhupada for clarification. Bhakta dasa was himself a book distributor who had traveled around the country with a group of men in a van, which had a license plate that read “KRSNA.” Bhakta dasa’s wife traveled with a women’s party in a separate van with a license plate that read “RADHA.” Bhakta dasa asked Srila Prabhupada the definition of the word “cheating” as applied to sankirtana. Prabhupada replied,
“So far the meaning of the word ‘cheating,’ there are only three things to be known, that Krishna is the Supreme Enjoyer, the Supreme Proprietor of everything, and the Supreme Friend of everyone, and we say that honesty is acting upon the knowledge of these three facts. One who is always acting in this knowledge is truly honest and if one is not acting on this knowledge then he is always cheating or being dishonest. So if you apply this to your techniques for selling literature to persons in the Sankirtan party, then you will understand what is the meaning of the word ‘cheating.’”
Srila Prabhupada’s philosophy was clear, but different interpretations persisted. A sincere devotee trying to sell a book could not be considered a cheater, as he was glorifying Krishna. That much was clear. But did this apply to the devotees’ practices on sankirtana? Prabhupada’s answer had been without any reference to specific techniques; he had simply stressed the purity of book distribution and had encouraged the book distributors to continue without interruption. The main thing was to distribute books. Critics of the sankirtana movement, those who did not accept Krishna as the Supreme and abide by His instructions, were themselves cheaters by not recognizing Krishna as the supreme proprietor, enjoyer, and friend. Srila Prabhupada advised that if one carefully thought over the points of the letter and then applied them, he would become enlightened in all aspects of distributing books.
Devotees continued to press Srila Prabhupada for further clarification. The book distributors were concerned that the urgency of book distribution not be minimized, whereas other responsible ISKCON leaders were concerned that loose practices might hamper the society’s progress. Prabhupada replied to questions by Bali-mardana of New York with a letter that became particularly influential.
You have to sell books, do it by hook or by crook. The real preaching is selling books. You should know the tactic how to sell without irritating. What your lecture will do for three minutes, but if he reads one page his life may be turned.
We don’t want to irritate anyone, however. If he goes away by your aggressive tactics, then you are nonsense and it is your failure. Neither you could sell a book, neither he would remain. But if he buys a book, that is the real successful preaching.
On the one hand, Prabhupada’s phrase, “by hook or by crook,” seemed to give a complete license for the distributors to use any means to sell a book. But if one carefully examined Prabhupada’s letter, he found that Prabhupada repeatedly said devotees should not irritate people on sankirtana. His position was clear: the books should be sold, but nicely. And had there been any doubt, Prabhupada reiterated his main thrust that the book distribution was the best preaching. “The success of your preaching,” he wrote, “will be substantiated by how many books are sold.” It was a test of intelligence and expertise in the service of Krishna. Prabhupada’s pleasure was not so easy to obtain. If they slackened in distributing books out of fear that the public would be irritated, then how could that enliven Srila Prabhupada? But—”if you only irritate and he goes away, that is your less intelligence.” Prabhupada also wrote, “The art is to sell many many books and not to irritate the public, so you may instruct all the others how to do this successfully. That is sannyasa, that is GBC.”
As books continued to go out by the millions, many people expressed their thanks on receiving a book, although occasionally someone complained. The dialogue continued within ISKCON regarding the application of Srila Prabhupada’s statements. Some distributors went on selling the books by any means they could. In the absolute sense, they said, the end justified the means. But others reasoned that even those means had been carefully defined by Srila Prabhupada; the absolute end should not be taken as a license for acting irresponsibly. A devotee was responsible to help the conditioned souls to understand Krishna consciousness. It was hard enough for a materialist to appreciate renunciation; therefore the devotees had adopted Western dress. Such materialists could never accept such a blunt application of “the end justifies the means”; so why should overly aggressive book distributors repel the public from spiritual life?
Some book distributors felt that while discussion of techniques was welcome, too much talk was idle. Better everyone just go out and distribute Prabhupada’s books to the best of their ability. From time to time Prabhupada would issue statements redefining the matter. His instructions in letters were especially aimed at the individuals to whom he was writing. When Sri Govinda, the president of ISKCON Chicago, wrote Prabhupada, Prabhupada encouraged him in his attempt to reform the devotees engaged in excessive practices.
So far this making some false story for collecting money or selling book, of course we may do anything for Krishna, but that is supposed to be reserved for very advanced experts in Krishna Consciousness—they know how to catch the big fish without themselves getting wet. So it is not very much advisable to make lies just to sell book. If we simply stick to describing how wonderful is Krishna, then whatever we may lie or exaggerate, that will not be lie! But other things, lies, they will not help us to train ourselves in truthfulness. Lie to some, not to others, that is not a good philosophy. Rather the brahmins are always truthful, even to their enemies. There is sufficient merit in our books that if you simply describe them sincerely to anyone, they will buy. That art you must develop, not art of lying. Convince them to give by your preaching the Absolute Truth, not by tricking, that is more mature stage of development of Krishna Consciousness.