By Vaisheshika Dasa
“Our family” refers to Lord Krishna’s devotees, and our business is to inform as many people as possible about Krishna and His teachings.
[Excerpted from Our Family Business: The Great Art of Distributing Srila Prabhupada’s Books. The original material included three footnotes, and we’ve added a few here to aid newer readers.]
The Fords and Disneys of America, and the Tatas and Birlas of India, are successful family dynasties. The businesses owned and operated by these families have been around for generations. When it comes to longevity, however, Japan’s Hoshi family, which runs the Hoshi Hotels, is the oldest. The Hoshis opened for business in 718 AD, making their business the oldest family-run business in the world. They are fifty generations in!
But is their hospitality business really the oldest? According to Vedic histories, Lord Krishna started His family business at the beginning of creation when He poured Vedic wisdom into the heart of Brahma and empowered him with the knowledge to create a universe, where jivas could rectify their consciousness and return to Him. This was, of course, trillions of years before the Hoshi Hotel opened its doors. Brahma expanded his family and taught and empowered each of its members to learn what he had been taught and then to pass that Vedic knowledge on, intact, to subsequent generations. Brahma’s son, Narada, for example, became the mentor of Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa, who compiled, edited, and expanded the Vedas through his son and many disciples.
Vyasadeva, eager to broadcast to the people of Kali-yuga the knowledge that would alleviate their miseries, engaged a scribe to write the Vedas down. He understood through his mystic vision and scriptural knowledge that the people of Kali-yuga would suffer from a variety of hardships caused by the maleficent influence of Kali, including diminished memory. He knew that in Kali-yuga, in order to remember and follow the Veda’s sacred teachings, humankind would need them in written form.
The Veda was originally a single book, the Atharva Veda. To make it easier to teach and learn, Vyasadeva divided it into four parts – the Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva. He then gave different disciples different parts of the Veda to teach. Some of them divided their parts further to facilitate their students’ learning and teaching.
Later, Vyasa wrote the Vedanta-sutras “with a view to presenting just the cream of Vedic knowledge.”1 He also compiled the Puranas, Vedic histories that explain the Vedas. And he composed a “bridge book” to the Vedas, the Mahabharata, which caters to Kali-yuga’s less philosophically inclined populace but also contains the Bhagavad-gita, a digestible and succinct summary of Vedic philosophy. The Gita, after taking the reader through a step-by-step process of self-realization, finally reveals the goal of Vedic knowledge, bhakti-yoga, or Krishna consciousness, pure love of God.
So from Krishna to Brahma to Narada to Vyasadeva to Srila Rupa Goswami sitting at Ter Kadamba2 and writing his books to Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura with his Vaishnava Depository to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura and his own use of the brihad-mridanga3to our Srila Prabhupada writing his Bhaktivedanta purports – all are in the same family business. Visit any BBT4 office around the world and you will find devotees who share in Vyasadeva’s mood and work ethic, and in Srila Prabhupada’s desire that Krishna consciousness be made accessible to everyone in every walk of life. In fact, the BBT is translating the Srimad-Bhagavatam into so many languages that almost anyone in the world can read it – a feat Srila Vyasadeva would praise, because it fulfills the purpose of his work.
In telling of Vyasadeva’s despondency after his having written down the Vedas, the Srimad-Bhagavatam describes Vyasadeva’s purpose. When his guru, Narada Muni, appeared on the scene, Vyasadeva asked about the reason for his despair. Narada told him, “You have not actually broadcast the sublime and spotless glories of the Personality of Godhead. That philosophy which does not satisfy the transcendental senses of the Lord is considered worthless. Please, therefore, describe the transcendental pastimes of the Supreme Personality of Godhead Sri Krishna more vividly.”
Vyasa accepted his guru’s advice at once. After attaining the perfection of meditation (samadhi) and directly seeing Krishna, His potencies, and His pastimes, Srila Vyasadeva produced the Srimad-Bhagavatam, or Bhagavata Purana. This text is his own commentary on the Vedanta-sutra and is thus the distilled essence of everything he had written before. In it he purely described the Absolute Truth, Sri Krishna, and His activities in vivid detail.
Vyasadeva taught Srimad-Bhagavatam to his liberated son, Shukadeva, and Shukadeva in turn spoke it publicly to Maharaja Parikshit, who was sitting on the bank of the Ganges after having been cursed to die by a brahmana boy. Suta Goswami, who was present while Shukadeva spoke, later repeated the Bhagavatam to an assembly of learned brahmanas and sages in the Naimisharanya forest. While introducing Srimad-Bhagavatam to those sages, Suta said: “Let me offer my respectful obeisances unto him [Suka], the spiritual master of all sages, the son of Vyasadeva, who, out of his great compassion for those gross materialists who struggle to cross over the darkest regions of material existence, spoke this most confidential supplement to the cream of Vedic knowledge, after having personally assimilated it by experience.”5
Today’s distributors of Srila Prabhupada’s books, in that same mood of compassion, venture door to door or onto the street, to fairs, rock concerts, and shopping centers – anywhere they can find people in need of spiritual enlightenment – to join in the family business of presenting Srimad-Bhagavatam to society. When they do so, they are serving an ancient line of succession of great souls that comes down from Sri Krishna through Brahma, Narada, Vyasadeva, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and His spiritual descendants, down through His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and his disciples and their descendants.
All of these personalities are actually spiritual entrepreneurs. Those devotees who today follow Srila Prabhupada’s example and exhaustive instructions to expand book publication and distribution will be successful in their entrepreneurship, because they are backed by all of Krishna’s eternal family members.
Everyone loves a success story, especially a true rags-to-riches tale, in which someone starts with no money and no friends, but has a great idea and the determination to create a thriving enterprise. We come from spiritually humble beginnings, but with our family’s blessings, we can become spiritual entrepreneurs and make ourselves and others spiritually wealthy beyond anything we could imagine.
I live in Silicon Valley, home of legendary successes like Hewlett-Packard’s William Redington Hewlett and David Packard and Apple’s Steve Jobs and Steven Wozniak. Both of these legendary success stories feature a couple of bright young people with a fresh idea and a desire to bring it out into the world. Both pairs of entrepreneurs started in dusty garages, emerging a few years later with a product that not only became a household name but also earned their inventors billions of dollars.
Success stories like these provide impetus for thousands of would-be entrepreneurs who want to change the world and, while doing so, net themselves remarkable wealth and fame. Catering to the public’s taste for such romantic quests, in November 2010, Newsweek ran a story entitled “Amazing Late Bloomers,” chronicling thirteen luminaries who attained startling success after the age of sixty. Among these standout achievers was His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. The article recounts how at the age of sixty-nine “Swami Prabhupada” came alone to the United States on a freighter. He had no money (he had only seven dollars worth of unspendable rupees in his pocket) and no backers. Within twelve short years he circled the globe fourteen times, developed a worldwide spiritual movement, opened 108 temples, and wrote and published seventy books.
Great Vaishnava acharyas like Srila Prabhupada, whether they start their mission at the dawn of their lives or when they are older, are the premier entrepreneurs. Why? Because they bring to market the most valued product of all: the process for awakening love for Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Like conventional entrepreneurs, these acharyas often begin their campaigns in obscurity, sometimes even in isolated garagelike rooms. But instead of designing the gadgets of the future, these compassionate world teachers write books of profound spiritual wisdom; instead of writing complex computer code, they assemble the spiritual formulas found in the Vedas into contextualized sutras – mantras that free people from the miseries of birth, death, old age, and disease and transport them back to the spiritual world.
Five thousand years ago, the venerable sage Vyasadeva sat meditating in a lonely mountain cottage surrounded by berry trees. In his solitude he compiled the epic Srimad-Bhagavatam, the hearing of which purifies the hearts of even its most downtrodden readers and quickly brings them to spiritual perfection.
We have already mentioned Srila Rupa Goswami as carrying on Vyasadeva’s spiritual entrepreneurship, but there are also Srila Sanatana Goswami and the other Vrindavana gosvamis. These acharyas barely slept, and when they did, it was as mendicants under a different tree each night. But they wrote timeless spiritual instructions on palm leaves, divine poetry and prayers, works so practical yet sublime that they are able to touch the hearts of both refined scholars and simple laborers alike.
The famous Vaishnava teacher and reformer Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura also sat alone for nearly ten years in a jungle hut in Mayapur, West Bengal. There he completed a vow to chant one billion names of Krishna. He emerged from this vow to travel and speak throughout India, establishing a network of sixty-four temples and spiritual communities. He also wrote hundreds of texts.
But the most dramatic example of spiritual entrepreneurialism is on Newsweek’s list: Srila Prabhupada. Starting from a small, bare, stone-floored room in the rustic village of Vrindavana, he actualized what he’d been meditating on since meeting his guru: writing and publishing the books that would enlighten the people of the West (and beyond) using Lord Chaitanya’s teachings and then showing them how to practice those teachings – something no one before him had done. Working alone, with barely enough money to clothe himself, he poured out the contents of his devotional heart on a dilapidated typewriter. As mentioned in “Amazing Late Bloomers,” Srila Prabhupada’s legacy is now world famous.
From his early days at 26 Second Avenue to his phenomenal success at growing an international spiritual organization in twelve short years, Srila Prabhupada’s accomplishments are legendary. Establishing the BBT is one of those accomplishments. The BBT helped fund the Matsya Project, which, along with grants from The Smithsonian Institute, saved thousands of translations of Vedic and Gaudiya Vaishnava scriptures from deteriorating and being lost forever. Matsya’s collection of treasured texts was stored on microfilm for future reference in the Vedic Library and Research Center, also funded by the BBT. The thousands of microfilms collected by the Matsya team are now in the care of the Bhaktivedanta Archives. BBT trustees also helped support Yamuna Devi’s writing of her award-winning cookbook, The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking.
Today, decades after Srila Prabhupada’s departure, the BBT remains vibrant and committed to publishing Srila Prabhupada’s books in as many languages and formats as possible. As Nelson Mandela famously said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, he hears with his head; if you talk to him in his language, it goes to his heart.” The BBT strives to give people Srila Prabhupada’s books in their native tongue as often as possible.
The BBT demands state-of-the-art, eco-friendly technologies and materials from its printers. It works to serve the needs of thousands of book distributors worldwide, and as of this writing, publishes in eighty-six languages. Many of these translations are available both in print and as eBooks. In 2015, the BBT completed its translation, editing, and publishing of all of Srila Prabhupada’s books in the Russian language.
Besides printing Srila Prabhupada’s books, the BBT has also brought out a number of editions of important translations of Gaudiya Vaishnava texts, such as the Brihad-bhagavatamrita, the Tattva Sandarbha, Sri Krishna-lila-stava, and the Laghu-bhagavatamrita.
The BBT also funds scientific research projects, has held art seminars and international symposiums on book publishing and distribution, taught courses in book production skills, and especially, through its full-service website, krishna.com, fostered young talent interested in various aspects of publishing and Internet outreach. The BBT is home to the Bhaktivedanta Archives, whose mission it is to “collect, preserve, protect, and allow dissemination of” Srila Prabhupada’s “teachings, images, and life’s work.” The Archives is constantly updating the media on which Srila Prabhupada’s audio is stored and cataloguing and digitizing the literally thousands of photos of Srila Prabhupada and ISKCON’s activities that have been collected since 1965. The Archives also offers both an online and offline version of the VedaBase, updating it regularly as more of Srila Prabhupada’s letters are discovered or his audio digitally enhanced to fill in what was too hard to hear on tape.
The global BBT has contributed substantially each year to help the construction of the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium (TOVP) in Mayapur, one of the largest temple construction projects in the world. In fact, the BBT funded land purchases that have facilitated ISKCON’s growing communities. It has also funded the printing and free distribution of inspirational books, such as This Is My Request.
The BBT has, in the past, given grants for the strategic distribution of Srila Prabhupada’s books in third-world countries – one year the BBT shipped 150,000 books to French-speaking Africa so that distributors there could get them out to the people in the cities and villages.
Spiritual entrepreneurs such as Srila Prabhupada and the other acharyas in our line carry a burden: they can see the degree to which people are suffering. They feel the responsibility and especially the compassion to try to relieve that suffering. Their teachings are authorized and empowered by Krishna; when their writings go to press and hit the streets, people who read them begin to sing Krishna’s names and practice devotional service.
In this passage from a prayer Srila Prabhupada wrote to Krishna aboard the Jaladuta, just before disembarking on American soil, he disclosed to the world that he felt the burden to save people from their suffering:
How will I make them understand this message of Krishna consciousness? I am very unfortunate, unqualified, and the most fallen. Therefore I am seeking Your benediction so that I can convince them, for I am powerless to do so on my own.
As is true of all great spiritual entrepreneurs, Srila Prabhupada had full confidence in the product he was carrying, the transcendental incarnation of the Lord in the form of sound. He confirms this fact as his prayer aboard the Jaladuta continues:
The words of Srimad-Bhagavatam are Your incarnation, and if a sober person repeatedly receives them with submissive aural reception, then he will be able to understand Your message.
One last point about Srila Prabhupada’s “transcendental plot”: the word plot comes from the Old French complot, “secret project.” Srila Prabhupada’s project to distribute his books is a kind of secret project, because his books reveal to the world Lord Krishna’s “most secret of all secrets.” What’s more, Srila Prabhupada’s purports reveal to the world the confidential secrets in his own heart. Srila Rupa Goswami tells us that spiritual disclosure is one of the six loving exchanges between devotees. Srila Prabhupada writes, “If you love somebody, you must give him something, and you must accept something from him. You must disclose your mind to him, and he should disclose his mind to you.”6 So Srila Prabhupada’s “plot” to distribute Krishna consciousness to suffering humanity, his disclosure of the meaning of Krishna’s teachings through his own “ecstasies,” his Bhaktivedanta purports, and his receiving donations of time and money and devotion in exchange, are expressions of his love for the fallen souls, his spiritual master, and ultimately Sri Krishna Himself. In a letter to Satsvarupa Maharaja dated January 5, 1976, Srila Prabhupada discloses his mind to his faithful followers about the family business he left for us to manage:
Our first business is this book distribution. There is no need of any other business. If this book distribution is managed properly, pushed on with great enthusiasm and determination and at the same time if our men keep spiritually strong, then the whole world will become Krishna conscious.
1 Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.2.3, purport.
2 A small forest in Vrindavan, near the village of Nandagram.
3 Literally “great drum.” Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura coined this term to refer to the printing press. The sound of a drum accompanying public chanting of the holy names reverberates a short distance, but the “sound” of books can spread around the world and gain the attention of millions of people.
4 The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.
5 Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.2.3
6 Civilization and Transcendence, chapter 12, “How to Love God.”