In the 1970s Srila Prabhupada, a pure devotee of Lord Krishna, travelled to the Western world to teach the bhakti spiritual tradition introduced by Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. But in this modern age, who was going to accurately remember and record Srila Prabhupada’s activities and teachings, the way devotees 500 years before had recorded Lord Chaitanya’s? What would become of them, and how would they be preserved and shared amongst the devotees to come?
Krishna, of course, had a plan.
Soon after Srila Prabhupada came to the West, he bought himself a reel-to-reel tape recorder. What happened next is unprecedented in religious history. Thousands of hours of recordings, and thousands of photographs, moving images and documents were created, providing the clearest record ever available of a spiritual figure.
Srila Prabhupada dictated his books and many of his lectures directly onto tape. During his regular truth-dispensing morning walks, his disciples followed him carrying the reel-to-reel to capture every word. Much of his communication with well-wishers and disciples was hand-written or typed. And many of his activities were photographed or filmed.
A worldwide religious movement arose and was documented not hundreds of years later, not even fifty years later, but as it happened. The letters and other documents, the sound, the images and the film are still here with us, calling us home.
Since 1978, the Bhaktivedanta Archives have been preserving this legacy of Srila Prabhupada. Their challenge is to preserve the source so that it can be passed on for generations of spiritual seekers. On their website, the Archives say that their creed is to preserve and perpetuate—and sure enough, they have done a wonderful job of it.
In the past thirty years, with significant developments in the field of technology, our ability to access information has increased rapidly. Recent reports suggest that the Internet population has passed the one billion mark. Ubiquitous access is becoming a reality for many people.
The future of preserving Srila Prabhupada’s legacy includes finding a way to provide access. In the past, providing access required much industry. Even recently, access meant making many copies of books, audio tapes and video tapes for mass distribution. But today’s technology provides the opportunity for enormous mass distribution of the entire record of Prabhupada’s activities, by making them available digitally and online.
An example of this is Vanipedia.org, developed and implemented by Visnu Murti Dasa and his team. Not only an indexed catalogue of the written work of Srila Prabhupada, Vanipedia is also highly accessible. Anyone with Internet access can log on to the site and browse or search through Prabhupada’s works. And if your cellular phone or handheld device can access the Internet, you can search Srila Prabhupada’s works from almost any location at almost any time.
This level of access has been available for some time at another incredible resource, Vedabase.net. Vanipedia’s unique attribute, however, is that its staff are indexing and categorizing by subject the complete texts of Srila Prabhupada’s books. Someone interested in a particular subject within Prabhupada’s teaching or pastimes will be able to find it in the index, and to use hyperlinks to review the relevant sections of text. The Vanipedia project also aims to produce a compendium of articles which will provide the reader with in-depth information describing the subjects they are interested in and the teachings within them. There will also be a dictionary, and many more useful tools.
Both Vanipedia and Vedabase have great value. The real story is not the difference between one website and the other—it is that high-speed, data-rich access via mobile devices is becoming the norm.
Around the world, a variety of devotees are quietly working on their own small projects to provide access to Srila Prabhupada’s work. Some are producing e-books which can be downloaded and read off-line; many others are producing websites containing audio and video.
Some devotees plan to distribute CDs containing text, video, audio, or all three. Others are producing editions of Srila Prabhupada’s books that you can download onto your cell phone and read wherever you are.
The question we need to ask is this: what form must Prabhupada’s legacy take to allow full advantage of the current levels of information access? For people of the not-so-distant future, hard copies are not enough.
Many modern organizations have to deal with the need to provide access to large amounts of data, and the question always arises as to what form it should take. Access is almost always achieved by digitizing the information and storing it in on-line databases, from where it can be retrieved using a variety of tools. A well-constructed database can give access to information from a variety of devices and formats.
Media mergence is already well underway. This is the process where two or more technologies combine to provide greater facility. What was once available on movie film, and seen only through a projector, can now be viewed using Internet technologies on personal computers, televisions, smart phones and a range of other portable devices such as PDAs.
Hare Krishna web forums and email lists have already begun discussing the question of access. This discussion has rarely resulted in accord or resolution so far, but it is being had. It is important to start somewhere.
There are many devotees of Krishna who have wonderful technical abilities, who can make technology sing and dance. There are many Internet sites which bear tribute to this. The Internet can, however, provide an illusion where a small group of devotees can produce what appears to be a large structure which attracts many people. Fully answering the access question, however, requires a large scale effort from many people. This seems to be what is holding us back.
There is also a debate growing around the kind of access discussed in this article. Some think that full access is going too far. Previously, everyone had to rely on personally studying the material or going to some other knowledgeable person. There seems to be a concern that if unlocked for the masses, the legacy of Srila Prabhupada will have some negative impact.
Perhaps this confidential information should not be widely available. It may decrease respect for those gurus and teachers who currently pass it on. It may increase the potential dangers of knowing without understanding. People will be able to search easily through volumes of text looking for points they can criticize.
Recently I spoke to Ekanath Dasa from the Bhaktivedanta Archives, who reports that the Archives are currently devoting their efforts to digitizing the audio and video they have in storage.
Devotees can expect to eventually see more audio and transcriptions being made available. The goal is a complete, searchable archival collection of both the written and spoken word.
A recent Friends of the BBT newsletter made reference to the ongoing work to archive Prabhupada’s legacy “in one digital repository—one digital ‘box’.” The newsletter advised that one purpose is to provide a free, open-source, up-to-date replacement for the Folio VedaBase, both online and for personal computers.
There are many problems to overcome, the most fundamental being the requirement for skilled human resources as well as the significant cost of such an exercise. You can sponsor a variety of projects at the Friends of the BBT website (www.friendsofthebbt.org/sponsor-project) to assist bringing the online future into reality. If you have the skills, you can also assist the BBT by offering assistance.
In hindsight, it appears that Krishna had a plan that is slowly bearing fruit. No one could have predicted the digital revolution which is taking place all around us. Still, Srila Prabhupada left a record that will one day be available digitally to more than a billion people.
And that is just the beginning.