Published in BTG #37-04, 2003
Thanks to the efforts of many dedicated souls, the teachings of the founder of the Hare Krsna movement are being protected from the ravages of time.
By Parama-rupa dasa
THE AUDIO TAPE BOXES STOOD thirty high and ten stacks deep, leaving just enough room to squeeze though the labyrinth to sit at my small desk, my arms forced against my body. I had accomplished phase one of the mission, which started with an unannounced raid on the front room of the Golden Avatar Studio in Culver City, Los Angeles. Stored there, relatively open to the public and the environment, were hundreds of reel-to-reel tapes of Srila Prabhupada. Some were originals recorded during Srila Prabhupada's travels around the world, and some were Golden Avatar master tapes. The lack of security for these tapes had always bothered me, and now I had successfully moved them to a safer place near New Dwaraka, the Los Angeles ISKCON temple.
To complete the operation, I now needed the help of Radha-vallabha Dasa, production manager of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (BBT). He controlled the apartment where I hoped the tapes could be safely housed.
My small studio, now waist high in audio tapes, was a converted kitchen in the apartment that housed some of the brahmacaris (celibate students) working with the BBT. The kitchen space was clearly too small to house the tapes and the tape-mastering operation for the Bhaktivedanta Tape Ministry. I phoned Radha-vallabha, and on the pretext that a noisy water heater interfered with the mastering of the tapes, I invited him to come and look and listen for himself.
Radha-vallabha stood in the kitchen doorway and talked to me over the sea of boxes. While we discussed the malfunctioning heater, his face showed confusion and concern when he saw the huge stacks of tapes and heard my sheepish expressions of dismay at how difficult it would be to continue the work under these conditions. In his true take-charge fashion, he declared that the brahmacaris living in the apartment would have to "leave and go live in the Hilton Hotel," as the temple's brahmacari ashram building was affectionately named, so that the tapes could be housed in the bedroom of the apartment.
Thus, the first incarnation of the Archives was born in the kitchen of apartment #5, 9701 Venice Boulevard, Los Angeles, in May of 1977. The next year, in January of 1978, after the departure of Srila Prabhupada, an official archive was set up to collect and preserve all the recorded instructions, history, images, correspondence, and paraphernalia of His Divine Grace.
A Vision for the Future
Srila Prabhupada himself created the audio core of the Bhaktivedanta Archives. On February 2, 1966, before he had made any Western disciples, before he had founded his ISKCON, Srila Prabhupada bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder for $54.02. On February 19 and 20, he recorded his "Introduction to Geetopanisad." This is the earliest recording in the Bhaktivedanta Archives. When I listen to it, aware of his struggle to endure in a foreign land, I envision a solitary figure facing the microphone, seated in an almost bare office on New York's West 72nd Street. The reels turn slowly, moving a thin magnetic tape impregnated with the words of the pure devotee, words born from the collective past acaryas, indeed from Krsna Himself. These very words embrace us now and will enfold future generations in the world of Vaisnava history and tradition. Although those words were uttered to the four walls of a cold and sparse room, they have galvanized another solid link in the chain of the parampara, the line of disciplic succession that goes back to Krsna Himself. While Srila Prabhupada spent pennies on his bodily sustenance, he spent dollars on that tape recorder to carry his mission to those he was yet to meet. I marvel and feel invigorated to preserve those moments for all to share now and into the future.
Interacting with the Original
A working archive is dynamic and vibrant, far removed from a stuffy place of dust-covered boxes shoved away in a dark corner. The Bhaktivedanta Archives takes dusty boxes from dark corners around the world, and through conservation and preservation work injects them with new life and permanence, transforming them into offerings to the Vaisnava community. The Bhaktivedanta VedaBase, our most complete text-based digital presentation, offers a glimpse into the irreplaceable original items we work with. The visual, tactile, emotional, and intellectual experience of interacting with an original allows one to make a more solid connection with its provenance, the essence that gives a document, letter, or recording its life and authority.
I remember when I first saw The Prayers of King Kulasekhara, written on the back of a Soviet propaganda leaflet glorifying the orbit of Sputnik, the first space satellite. The paper quality, while not of a high standard, was heavy and had stood up well to the rigors of being shuffled around.
At first I thought, "What a shame that such a wonderful document had to be spoiled by this communist twaddle." As time went on, however, I realized that from an archival perspective this element was an archivist's dream. For the most part, Srila Prabhupada's handwritings are not dated, and for archival cataloguing would fall into the broad category of "circa." But the Soviet propaganda gives this handwritten piece by Prabhupada a definite date: it covers issues instantly recognizable from the late 1950s and early 1960s. These documents give not only dates but a timeline of what His Divine Grace was thinking and writing in contrast to what the world was thinking and fighting about, albeit through the bizarre view of Soviet propaganda. We discover also the contrast of material communism and man- or state-centered propaganda on one side, and the spiritual communism of God-centered propaganda on the other. All this from a single piece of paper!
And there's more to be gleaned: Srila Prabhupada wrote on the back of the Soviet propaganda handouts because he had very little money to buy writing paper. He got this paper for free from a local printer, left over from print runs paid for by the Soviet government to propagandize to the Indian population. This enabled Prabhupada to keep writing in preparation for the ultimate mission to come, namely to follow his guru's order and preach in the English language to the Western World.
From Behind the Transcendental Curtain
During my travels around the world to collect items for the Archives, I've had many adventures and made many new friends. And my appreciation for the mercy of Srila Prabhupada has grown greatly. In early 1979, I was in Australia procuring items for the Archives. I was looking for someone, whom I will call Mr. X, who had moved away from the devotee community. He was reported to have many original photos and slides of Srila Prabhupada. At first I failed to meet up with him, so I enlisted the help of Amogha Dasa, who was living in Sydney, to help track him down.
Amogha took up the challenge and became an Archives detective. After a two-year enquiry, Amogha finally arranged a meeting with Mr. X in Melbourne, some four hundred miles away. In true clandestine fashion, on the first appointment the contact failed to show with the goods. A day later, after Amogha's frantic phone calls, Mr. X called late at night to say he was just up the street. He agreed to meet Amogha behind the temple, but he had a request: "Can you bring prasadam?"
Armed with a pile of curd pakoras (batter-dipped, deep-fried milk-curd), Amogha made the exchange. He assured Mr. X he would protect his identity and return the images once the Archives had made copies. Meanwhile, Mr. X devoured the curd cache. The combination of dogged persistence and prasadam yielded three hundred slides and two hundred photographs that could have been lost forever.
Amogha, as it turned out, was also a photographer and had a collection of many slides, photographs, and recordings. It was worth the trip just for his collection. Some of these images later appeared in the 1980 Vyasa-puja book.
Acquiring other collections may not have been quite as dramatic, but the collections were often no less significant, such as the tapes of philosophical discussions recorded by Hayagriva Dasa, and the tape collections of Govinda Dasi and Hamsaduta Dasa, early disciples of Srila Prabhupada. Govinda Dasi also donated her photo collection, and just recently Yamuna Devi and Dinatarine Dasi donated their collection of letters and photos, including black and white negatives of Srila Prabhupada and his disciples with George Harrison, John Lennon, and Yoko Ono. Of special significance are the negatives of the recording sessions for "The Radha-Krishna Temple" album.
And then there is the BBT collection. In 1972 the BBT bought two reel-to-reel Uher tape recorders, one for India and one for the rest of the world, to accompany Srila Prabhupada on his travels. Srila Prabhupada's secretary and servant were given the task of doing the recordings. These efforts ensured the creation of hundreds of hours of classes and conversations.
At the same time, the BBT began to provide photographers with cameras and film to take pictures. Visakha Devi Dasi, Muralivadana Dasa, and Bhargava Dasa became the main photographers for the BBT. They were sent around the world to capture the activities of Srila Prabhupada and his ISKCON society. By their efforts and the efforts of others who filled in from time to time, the collection contains over 100,000 slides.
The Fragility of the Personae
As a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, I am required to help with my guru's mission. My specific duty, and that of the other members of the Bhaktivedanta Archives, is to perpetuate Srila Prabhupada's transcendental words, both written and recorded, as well as his image for all to experience and embrace. We are so fortunate to have such a vast collection. The biographies and teachings of many great spiritual personalities are so fragmentary that their personae have lapsed into legend and mythology. We, on the other hand, have clear recordings of Prabhupada's public and private words, his formal and informal teachings, and movies and photographs. We can confidently say we know how he walked and talked. The Archives collection allows us to realize more fully the person behind the teachings and to preserve the Vedic knowledge and cultural heritage that such a great acarya brought to the Western world.
An archives faces six main causes of deterioration:
1. Climate, fluctuating or extreme temperatures and humidity
2. Abuse, from theft, vandalism, improper handling and storage
3. Biological damage, from molds, fungus, insects, and rodents
4. Light, causing chemical reactions and fading
5. Pollutants, from dust, gases, and particulates
6. Disasters, from fire, flood, and other natural disasters
We at the Bhaktivedanta Archives strive by all means to protect the collection. We continue to buy fireproof cabinets, acid-free containers, and conservation materials. We have built a room with controlled temperature and humidity and with fire detection and limited access. We have strict guidelines in place for security. As an adjunct for long-term storage, we use an underground room in Butler, Pennsylvania -- coincidentally the town where Srila Prabhupada first resided when he came to the United States back in 1965, before moving to New York.
By distributing excerpts from the collection, the Archives helps spread Srila Prabhupada's teachings around the world, ensuring their perpetuation. The distribution has taken many forms, such as audio recordings from the Bhaktivedanta tape and CD ministries, books of transcribed recordings published on acid-free paper, and the Bhaktivedanta VedaBase computer program -- all available to the devotee community, scholars, and interested members of the public, who in turn become custodians for their own libraries of Vedic culture. This individual library program augments book distribution by the BBT.
While all these efforts combine to prevent any complete catastrophic loss, the priority of the Bhaktivedanta Archives is conservation and preservation of originals. The many documents, letters, photographs, and audio recordings all require their own unique conservation discipline and techniques.
Our Thanks to Many
The 25th Silver Jubilee of the Bhaktivedanta Archives is an opportunity to acknowledge the work and sacrifice of all who have helped so far to gather, donate, and bequeath their collections of Srila Prabhupada's paraphernalia over the years. While abundant work still needs to be done to ensure the preservation of the collection, many thanks go to those special souls who tirelessly transcribed, scanned, recorded, cataloged, and performed countless other vital services to build and maintain the Archives. Thanks to all who have bought Archives products, thanks to the brahmacaris forced to vacate their apartment, and thanks to the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust and its trustees, whose continual support throughout the years has helped make possible this wonderful service to Srila Prabhupada.
Parama-rupa Dasa, a recording engineer and archivist, joined ISKCON in 1976 in London. In February 1977, he and his wife, BBT artist Jagat Karana Devi Dasi, moved to Los Angeles, where he started the New Bhaktivedanta Tape Ministry and later the Bhaktivedanta Archives. He now lives in North Carolina near the small community of Prabhupada Village, home of the Archives. He is the director of preservation.