In a country torn apart by war and suffering a plunging economy, Ukranian devotees are braving sub zero winter temperatures to distribute Srila Prabhupada’s books this December. And they’re being rewarded by a receptive public.
“People are very grateful,” says ISKCON Ukraine Regional Secretary Acyuta Priya Das. “They’re tired of hearing scary news about the war. The whole society is starving for something positive. So when they see harinama or are inpired by book distributors, they feel very indebted. We just got a long letter of appreciation from one member of the public who was so moved to see our winter Harinama on the street.”
With the war rendering people “politically and economically depressed and hopeless,” according to Acyuta Priya, they have become more receptive to spiritual values. When this year’s “Prabhupada Marathon” officially began on November 30th at the Sunday Feast program at ISKCON Kiev, devotees distributed 8,314 big and “maha-big” books in just one hour.
By the time the marathon ends on December 31st, they hope to have distributed 55,000, despite the challenges presented by the economy.
Helping that goal along is the huge number of devotees involved in book distribution in Ukraine – around 700. Many are householders who go out on the street in their spare time, buy books to give as presents to relatives or friends, or donate sets to libraries, hospitals and schools. Others are congregation groups called Namahattas – there are 50 in Kiev alone — who go out to distribute together.
The rest is distributed by the country’s five brahmachari ashrams. Led in Kiev by Antaryami Das and in Dnepropetrovsk by Yasoda Kumara, these dedicated celibate monks brave the cold to distribute books five days a week, staying out from morning till evening.
“During the winter Prabhupada marathon it is freezing outside, with snow and wind,” Acyuta Priya says. “It’s no joke to stay outside the whole day!”
As well as distributing in their local cities, devotees also embark on an intensive two-week tour across the country once a year, with seventy to eighty brahmacharis renting a bus and covering two to three towns a day.
Serendipitous encounters are commonplace during these. “Just today, I heard that one Bhakta Dima was distributing books when he spotted a young man with big headphones on,” says Acyuta Priya. “He tried to stop him, but the boy couldn’t hear because of his headphones. Finally, he got his attention with guestures.”
As he spoke to the young man, a spontaneous thought came into Bhakta Dima’s mind. “You know, you can overcome death!” he said.
The boy was so shocked that he jumped in surprise. “How do you know my thoughts?” he said. “You must have some supernatural abilities. I was just walking and thinking about how to overcome death! Without solving this problem life is meaningless.” He then gratefully took Srila Prabhupada Lilamrta and gave a donation.
As a result of these kinds of encounters, Kiev temple receives thirty-five to fifty newcomers every Sunday. With the attention given to guest and devotee care programs, many join and stay.
Of course, devotees avoid distributing books in Eastern regions of Ukraine where there is active fighting, such as Donetsk and Lugansk. “It is very risky to do book distribution in the war area because official religious laws there are very tough — the only permitted religion is Orthodox Christianity,” Acyuta Priya says. “Some protestant pastors in those areas were executed by shooting. As we did not want to put devotees’ lives at risk, we asked book distributors to leave and move to safer places for more effective preaching.”
Devotees do, however, continue to maintain Food For Life programs in war-affected areas. Some people in these places do not even have any food, what to speak of money,” says Acyuta Priya. “Many hadn’t had hot food for months. Some of them, with tears in their eyes, thanked devotees for saving their lives. They see devotees as their saviours.”
Meanwhile devotees continue to look for ways to increase book distribution in the rest of the country. The brahmachari teams are saving up for a 31-person TATA van so that they can tour the country throughout the year. Currently they are only able to do a two-week tour once a year because they do not have a suitable vehicle.
To help get a van for the dedicated book distributors in Ukraine, please send a check made out to ISKCON to International Book Distribution Minister Vijaya Das at 9701 Venice Blvd #3, Los Angeles, CA 90034.
Alternatively, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org for directions on how to pay by PayPal.