The early years of ISKCON were times of intense activity under the guidance of ISKCON’s founder, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Srila Prabhupada actively embraced twentieth-century technology to broadcast his message, ensuring an enormous legacy of photographs, writings, sound and video recordings, and other materials. Within the whirlwind that was ISKCON in its early days, there was a danger that some of this valuable material would be lost. The Bhaktivedanta Archives, which this year marks its 25th anniversary, is charged with the task of collecting, restoring, and maintaining material from this time. In this article, Ranjit Dasa outlines the history of the Bhaktivedanta Archives, examines the challenges facing the Archives, and the strategies adopted to meet these challenges.
A history of the Bhaktivedanta Archives
In the beginning
Before he had any followers, before he founded ISKCON, Srila Prabhupada purchased a tape recorder to record his lectures and some of his writings. Introduction to the Bhagavad-gita As It Is, recorded on 19 and 20 February 1966, is the earliest of these recordings in the Bhaktivedanta Archives. The purchase of this tape recorder may seem a trifle to us today, but for him it was a big expense at $54 (at that time a month’s rent for his room was $70). This tape recorder was stolen shortly afterwards, but his followers provided him with another, and the work of taping his lectures continued.
These tape recordings continued in a more or less organised way for some years. Early disciples of Srila Prabhupada such as Hayagriva Dasa, Hamsaduta Dasa, and Govinda Dasi kept collections of tapes.
In these early days, the photo collection was also begun. One can see that there are very few photos of Srila Prabhupada from 1966. The only photos that exist from this time are from newspaper articles or culled from amateur films like George Witty’s Happiness on 2nd Avenue. An account from Gargamuni Dasa, one of the early disciples, tells that when Srila Prabhupada was leaving New York for San Francisco in January of 1967, he was asked how the devotees should remember him. His reply was that they should place his picture on his seat in the storefront temple. On returning to the temple, the devotees discovered that they had no pictures of Srila Prabhupada! So Gargamuni purchased a camera and went to San Francisco to take pictures and sent them back to the temple. In San Francisco, Gurudasa became the photographer, and thousands of the black and white photos that we have of Srila Prabhupada and early ISKCON activities were taken by him.
Around this time, many of the photos were used in Back to Godhead magazine, especially photos of the early harinama (public chanting) parties and events such as Srila Prabhupada’s arrival in New York and various preaching engagements.
With the formal establishment of ISKCON’s publishing arm, the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (BBT), in 1972, devotees began maintaining the audio and photo departments more systematically. They purchased 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, and photographers were provided with cameras and slide film to take pictures. Visakha Devi Dasi, Muralivadana Dasa, and Bhargava Dasa became the official photographers for the BBT. Also in 1972, Krsna-Kanti Dasa founded the Golden Avatar studio and started producing three audiocassettes per week for distribution to devotees all over the world. Many of us remember responding to the ads in Back to Godhead magazine to subscribe.
The Bhaktivedanta Tape Ministry
In early 1977 it was decided to create the Bhaktivedanta Tape Ministry, under the supervision of Parama-rupa Dasa, and to separate it from the Golden Avatar operation. Parama-Rupa went to the Golden Avatar studios in Culver City, where the tapes had been sitting in a room open to the public and largely unsupervised, and brought the reel-to-reel tapes to the BBT building on the corner of Venice Boulevard and Watseka Avenue. The tapes filled the entire kitchen of apartment 5. This was the basis from which the archives were to begin.
Most of the tapes were in boxes, many unmarked. Many bore no indication of when or where they were recorded. Some were production run-masters, some were originals, and it was impossible to tell which were which without listening to the tapes.
In 1978 Ekanatha Dasa arrived in Los Angeles and was given the service of helping catalogue the tapes. He began the arduous task of separating originals from duplication run-masters and changing the cataloguing to the current system based on the date and place of the original recording. Over the following fifteen years, through the 1980s, the Tape Ministry was gradually increased until there were 711 tapes.
Foundation of the Bhaktivedanta Archives
In early 1978, only two months after Srila Prabhupada’s passing away, Parama-rupa Dasa arranged with Radha-vallabha Dasa, the BBT production manager, to officially create an archive as a separate section of the BBT production department. Devotees were approached to donate their letters, original photographs, tapes, and other memorabilia of Srila Prabhupada. This created an outpouring of historical materials. From time to time, the archive (now known as the Bhaktivedanta Archives) has sent out requests to devotees all over the world to try to find tapes, photos, etc. The last major collection of tapes to be found was in 1989, when Ksirodakasayi Dasa’s collection of about twenty-five audiocassettes was revealed to the Archives devotees after they visited him in Vrndavana.
In June 2001 a collection of original letters, black and white negatives, and some other items were donated to the Bhaktivedanta Archives by Yamuna Devi Dasi and Dina-tarine Devi Dasi. Also in 2001 a collection of seven photos of Srila Prabhupada in Los Angeles was sent in by Nrsimhananda Dasa.
Before the passing of Srila Prabhupada, devotees had begun transcribing his recorded lectures and conversations on a small scale. After the Mayapur festival in 1978, Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami began compiling materials for and writing a comprehensive biography of Srila Prabhupada, Srila Prabhupada Lilamrta. It was then decided that the BBT would fund the transcribing and proofreading of all Srila Prabhupada’s tapes. This would meet two needs: providing material for the Lilamrta and creating an archival record. It was then further proposed to create a microfiche of these transcripts, a project named Operation Vani. A massive typing and proofreading process took place over more than four years, during which devotees typed 40,000 pages of transcripts and finally photographed them onto microfiche.
Operation Vani ended in 1984. Transcription of Srila Prabhupada’s tapes continued, however, at a slower pace. In 1987 five volumes of Srila Prabhupada’s letters were published, and in late 1988 the Bhaktivedanta Archives published the first volume of Conversations with Srila Prabhupada. This was followed by various volumes of lectures, such as Collected Lectures on Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Collected Lectures on Srimad-Bhagavatam, and Collected Teachings. Then came the publication of the Back To Godhead: 1944–1960 The Pioneer Years, the Jaladuta Diary (Prabhupada’s diary from his original journey to the USA), and The Beginning (Prabhupada’s 1966 New York diaries). The Bhaktivedanta Archives also helped with the development of mass distribution of BBT books, such as Civilization and Transcendence and The Laws of Nature, which are in whole or part edited from tape transcripts, and Message of Godhead, an original hand-written manuscript.
DAT and the ‘New’ Bhaktivedanta Tape Ministry
Around 1989 DAT (digital audio tape) became the new standard for professionals in the audio industry. The wonderful thing about the digital format is that there is no loss of quality when a tape or image is copied. A proposal was submitted to the BBT trustees to fund the transfer of all the original reel-to-reel and cassette tapes to DAT. This was begun around 1991 and continues to the present day. In 1996, with the improvement and affordability of digital workstations, it was decided to create the New Tape Ministry from tapes that had not been released due to poor quality or recent acquisition. The new technology made mastering the tapes much easier. The New Tape Ministry has 320 tapes, bringing the Bhaktivedanta Tape Ministry total to over 1,000.
The CD Ministry
As soon as CDs came out and it became affordable to print short runs, a donation from Balabhadra Dasa from Scotland made possible the production of the first three music CDs of Srila Prabhupada’s bhajanas and kirtanas (devotional music). This would soon be increased to fourteen ‘gold standard’ music CDs. In 1998, with a donation from Ambarisa Dasa, the first nine Vintage Series music CDs were produced, and in 2000 the final eight CDs of the Vintage Series were produced. In 1995 the CD lecture ministry was begun, and to date 102 CDs have been produced.
With the advent of MP3 digital audio files, the tape ministry was converted to this standard and distributed in a collection of 19 CDs in 2002.
The Bhaktivedanta VedaBase
In 1987, with the advent of affordable and practical personal computers, efforts were begun to input all the transcripts from Operation Vani. Adi-purana Dasa, a devotee from New Zealand, performed a great austerity. While living on yoghurt and Breyers ice cream, and residing in a devotee’s garage in Berkeley, Adi-purana would commute into downtown San Francisco every day to a computer bureau, appropriately named Krishna Copy. While he helped the owner, Sanjaya, Adi-purana would make use of Sanjaya’s Kurzweil scanner (then a $50,000 machine). Single-handedly he scanned the 40,000 pages of transcripts, as well as around fifty volumes of Srila Prabhupada’s books.
In late 1990 devotees from the Bhaktivedanta Archives were attending the annual Comdex convention for the computer industry, looking for a computer program that would become the Bhaktivedanta VedaBase, and, in a small booth, they came across the Folio Corporation. Folio was by far the best in the industry at the time, and has remained so even though the company has been bought and sold a few times since then. In 1991, Dulal Candra Dasa applied the necessary programming and the Bhaktivedanta Electronic Library, running under DOS, was published. In 1995, version 3.0 was released (now called the Bhaktivedanta VedaBase and running under Windows and Macintosh) followed by version 4.11 in 1998. A new version is being prepared for release this year. Each release has increased the number of works, as well as ease of use. It has become a key project of the Bhaktivedanta Archives because of its cataloguing and search functions.
The Bhaktivedanta VedaBase in Spanish
In cooperation with the Spanish language division of the BBT, we have almost finished compiling the Bhaktivedanta VedaBase in Spanish. It will contain all the books by Srila Prabhupada that have been translated into Spanish, as well as other Spanish BBT publications, such as cookbooks and songbooks.
The Photo Archives
Until 1991, the Photo Archives was still an active part of the production department of the BBT in LA. It was then turned over to the Bhaktivedanta Archives. When scanning technology developed and became affordable, the scanning of 18,000 slides of Srila Prabhupada was undertaken for cataloguing purposes. Then, in 1996, the North European BBT acquired a high-quality drum scanner, and all the transparencies of the artwork from their books were scanned at high resolution. In 1998, 1,700 of the best slides of Srila Prabhupada were scanned at high resolution, and there are plans to scan more.
In 2000, we began the task of image scanning the documents and letters and plan to make these scans part of a future upgrade of the Bhaktivedanta VedaBase.
The Matsya Project
The sastras of India are fast disappearing. It has recently come to light that a book by Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti µhakura has disappeared; there are references to it, but no known copies exist. It is our hope that we can transfer the sastras into digital format soon. We have a microfiche collection of around 140,000 pages that need to be input. There is another microfiche collection with American University that has about 200,000 pages. Currently, to scan these microfiches to disk will cost around $35,000. Then to set up a typing and proofreading project to get these into the VedaBase will take years, and current estimates of the cost of this are around $350,000. There could scarcely be a more important project to Vaisnavas and to Hindus in general than the preservation of this knowledge.
What’s in the Bhaktivedanta Archives?
When archaeologists investigate an ancient shipwreck, the first thing they look for is the ship’s inventory and cargo manifest. Why? Because they show what to look for. They outline the supplies, the equipment, and the cargo carried. Similarly, Srila Prabhupada’s books have a list of books by the author and a list of ISKCON centres worldwide. It’s not just advertising, it’s also a function of preservation.
The Bhaktivedanta Archives collection
Please note that all the following figures, gathered this year, are approximate due to ongoing acquisitions and updated cataloguing.
Please also note that many items do not fit neatly into categories listed below, such as a notebook that Srila Prabhupada wrote one or two lines in and then discarded, or odd pieces of paper upon which he wrote one note, like the first short list of names he was considering for the GBC. The Bhaktivedanta Archives also maintains contact with devotees who have collections of memorabilia, such as articles of clothing Srila Prabhupada wore. There are also institutions like the Krsna-Balarama temple in Vrndavana and Mayapur Chandrodaya temple, where Srila Prabhupada’s rooms are preserved.
Film and video
Challenges the Archives faces
We need to be wary of rosy scenarios that predict ever-increasing progress; there are downturns in history. In our tradition we have a useful example in the decline of Gaudiya Vaisnavism before the appearance of Srila Bhaktivinoda µhakura. In the West, there was a flowering of knowledge during the Greek and Roman periods, but much of this knowledge was later lost in the Dark Ages and rediscovered only during the Renaissance.
The possibility of such declines presents problems for the preservation of knowledge. In the very long term, centuries and millennia ahead, there will be considerable difficulty in preserving the teachings brought to the West by Srila Prabhupada. We need to be aware of the existence of ‘dark-ages’ and thus formulate strategies to prevent the disappearance of knowledge.
We also face the problem of changing language. The language of Chaucer, a mere 600 years old, is mostly unintelligible to English speakers today.
We have to preserve and translate, not just the original sastric languages, Sanskrit and Bengali, but also, as the language evolves, the English commentaries. Not only will future scholars need to learn Sanskrit and Bengali, they will also have to learn the language of the purports — twentieth-century American English — just as Buddhists and Jains learn Pali, the language of the time Buddhism rose to prominence.
The mathematics of mythology
As surprising as it may seem, one of our great challenges is to preserve the understanding that Srila Prabhupada was a flesh-and-blood person; that he really existed.
The ancient stories of the Greek heroes and demigods are considered mythological. Many Christian saints have been ‘struck off the rolls’, also as mythological. There are even controversies about the identity of Christ: some ask if he and John the Baptist were the same person and the exact date of his birth is in doubt. As centuries pass, doubt grows as to the very existence of great personalities. A 17th century mathematician, John Craig, hypothesised in his work Theologiæ Christianæ Principia Mathematica that ‘the suspicions against historical evidence increase with the square of time.’
Because of this danger of the mythologising of Srila Prabhupada, we at the Bhaktivedanta Archives have begun compiling the chronology of his writings and documenting accounts of the book production process. As the first generations of Prabhupada’s students this responsibility is ours.
From the archival point of view, the ability to digitise material and make it available on CD or DVD is an invaluable tool for cataloguing and preservation. However, it can also be dangerous to rely on such technologies because they quickly become obsolete.
There is a very instructive lesson in the experience of NASA. In the early years of the space programme, their system was to record all raw data on nine-track computer tapes. They would then take the data and extract the information they needed and work with this. After some fifteen years they needed to re-examine the original data. They had to search worldwide for the last two nine-track computer tape machines that existed at the time because these machines had become obsolete. If they had not found these, they would have had to remanufacture a nine-track computer tape machine from scratch.
Hard copies must always be kept and old media transferred onto new media. This requires an ongoing effort if we are not to lose valuable material.
Strategies for preservation
Professor Thomas J. Hopkins has pointed out that ISKCON has done well to establish the Bhaktivedanta Archives and publish and preserve the works of Srila Prabhupada in various media. He writes: ‘We probably know more about Prabhupada’s life, works, and teachings than we do about the founder of any other religious movement in history — certainly more than we do about the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, or even Caitanya himself.’ (Hopkins, p. 1)
Archival preservation usually means vaults with controlled temperature and humidity. For example, the Mormons have dug a huge facility into a mountain near Salt Lake City to store their genealogical records.
Butler, Pennsylvania, was the first town in the Western world where Srila Prabhupada lived. Also near Butler is an old limestone mine that has been converted into underground storage vaults. It is here that the original film of Srila Prabhupada, as well as video and DAT audio tapes, are being stored. Many corporations, such as Westinghouse and Universal Studios, keep their original movie footage, corporate records, patents, and other documents here. Only a direct hit from a thermonuclear device can destroy this facility. Duplicates of archival material are also housed by the BBT divisions in Sweden and Australia.
The sankirtana strategy
ISKCON’s main preaching function, book distribution, dovetails well with preservation strategy. No organisation emphasises book distribution like ISKCON. It is this book production with translation into as many languages as possible, and distribution to as many people as possible, that will be the most potent force for the preservation of Srila Prabhupada’s message.
Libraries are another important element of the preservation strategy. Bear in mind that when the library at Alexandria was burnt by Julius Caesar’s Roman troops around the middle of the 1st century BC and finally demolished by the Christians around 400 AD, a large amount of the Western world’s knowledge was destroyed.
At the Bhaktivedanta Archives we want to prevent something like this happening by making copies of everything we have available to as many people as possible in as many places as possible around the world. For this purpose we began the Bhaktivedanta Library scheme so that the Bhaktivedanta VedaBase, as well as sets of books, tapes, and videos, would be everywhere. Visnu Murti Dasa, director of the Bhaktivedanta Library Services, began this scheme more than ten years ago and has had some success. We hope to increase this further.
At the Bhaktivedanta Archives we view present technology as a window of opportunity. It will give us the opportunity to catalogue and present all the Vaisnava literature and history as we know it and distribute it worldwide within a very short time. We then have to make sure that hard copies exist side by side with the digital so that there is a backup.
Our main goal now is to complete digitisation as soon as possible. We are purchasing computers and scanners, as funds allow, so that we can scan all the documents in the Bhaktivedanta Archives, from handwritten manuscripts to typed transcripts to legal papers and so on. These can then be incorporated into the Bhaktivedanta VedaBase to create a ‘virtual archive’. This is not just material by Srila Prabhupada but also about Srila Prabhupada, such as the Memories of Srila Prabhupada video series that gives eyewitness accounts of the events of his life. When one views the ‘virtual’ Bhaktivedanta Archives of the future, one will be able to search for a particular phrase and access not just the text, but also photos, video, audio recordings, and eye-witness accounts for the particular time and place of that entry. These items will all be referenced to the originals that exist in the Bhaktivedanta Archives.
What is also important for the future record is the history of how these materials have been collected and preserved over the years. In the archival world, this is called provenance and is examined very carefully by academics and collectors. The importance of establishing the provenance of archival materials cannot be overstated; hopefully this article will contribute to that process.
Preserving the originals
There are two functions of any archive. The first is to make sure that original materials are preserved unaltered. The second is to make sure that as many people as possible know just what those originals are and where to find them. The first function requires technology according to the nature of the original; the second requires cataloguing and publication.
Most modern paper contains acids that cause the paper to self-destruct. Most newspapers will not last seventy-five years; regular books may last a little longer before they become brittle and finally crumble to dust. The main preservation method is de-acidification. Individual papers are sprayed with chemicals that neutralise the acids and leave an alkaline buffer. Books are de-acidified by gassing them in a high-pressure chamber. The document or book is then encapsulated in Mylar for safety and handling. These documents and books are then monitored regularly.
There is no method of preserving audio tapes for long-term use, due to the nature of the magnetic medium. Analogue copies of a tape will suffer approximately 5% loss of sound quality per generation. Digital tape is the best copy method, but digital tapes are subject to the same deterioration after twenty or so years. CD transfer results in a longer lifespan: current tests show that archival quality CDs are expected to last at least 100 years in ideal conditions.
One of the greatest losses to posterity is the tapes that Srila Prabhupada used to dictate his translations and purports. Very early in the history of ISKCON, Srila Prabhupada set up a system whereby Satsvarupa, Hayagriva, and others would transcribe the recordings of his translations and purports and then send the tapes back to him to be re-used. There is one notable exception to this. There are 34 ninety-minute transcription tapes of Krsna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead. This is due largely to the efforts of one devotee, Dhrstaketu Dasa, who went through thousands of tapes to find them.
Another loss is that only about 70 tapes survive from 1970. Why? One reason is that the devotees there would listen to the recordings and then re-use the same tape to record the next day’s class. It seems absurd now, but tapes were costly and the movement was not wealthy.
Because the pigments in colour film decay, the only way of preserving colour film beyond 40 or 50 years is to freeze the film. This freezing process applies mainly to slides, and special containers must be used. Great care has to be taken when thawing out the slides. In addition, the refrigeration units require constant power. Making film copies of film means loss of quality. Digital transfer preserves at least the second-generation quality, and transfer to the CD format should provide a 100-year lifespan.
Black and white film will last over 100 years if properly stored. CD technology provides good backup storage because the quality of the digital scans of black and white images is much better than with colour, which involves far more variables.
Cataloguing the originals
The cataloguing of thousands of pages of manuscripts, around 150,000 slides, negatives, and original prints, thousands of hours of audio tape, and dozens of hours of film and video requires great endeavour. All of these materials need to be catalogued according to time and place; also, records need to be kept of the source of the original (for example, the name of the photographer or transcriber). Inevitably, problems arise when this information is no longer available.
We have comprehensive catalogues of the following:
With the release of the next edition of the Bhaktivedanta VedaBase in 2003, many of the image catalogues will have been completed, and these will be included in this upgrade.
Working towards a living archive for ISKCON
Srila Prabhupada once said that the society that he started, ISKCON, was non-different from his body. Srila Prabhupada urged his followers to at least maintain what he had established while encouraging them to expand. There has been constant activity since the passing of Srila Prabhupada: harinama parties, book distribution, temple worship, the establishment of farm communities, large festivals, etc. ISKCON needs to document these activities and keep a record for future generations.
In his article ‘Why Should ISKCON Study Its Own History,’ Professor Thomas J. Hopkins points out:
Numerous scholars outside ISKCON have studied its history, and some have done excellent work, however, non-devotees have neither the personal understanding nor the factual information to carry out a balanced study of ISKCON’s institutional history. This task awaits devotees who have the historical training and the institutional support to carry out [...] a difficult and time-consuming job of collecting the world-wide data of ISKCON’s expansion and evolution, [and] organising it systematically.... (Hopkins, p. 6)
It is now more than 20 years since Srila Prabhupada’s death, however, and that is nearly two-thirds of ISKCON’s total history to date. ISKCON has survived a very difficult stage in its development and is now healthier than it has been for many years. How has this happened? What went wrong in the past, and what responses were made that restored ISKCON’s health? Without understanding these issues, it will be hard to preserve that healthy condition in the future. (Hopkins, p. 2)
Devotees need to be aware of the importance of keeping records of their activities.
One effort is being made by the Oxford Centre for Vaishnava and Hindu Studies (OCVHS) to create an ISKCON archive. It consists of collections of newspaper clippings and other items that have been assembled over the years. Cataloguing is under way, and it is a significant start to this process. There is also a proposal to create a VedaBase of the Hare Krishna World newspaper and its predecessor, the ISKCON World Review. These publications are very important in keeping a running record of many of the achievements and activities of the Society. All the articles from Back to Godhead magazine to date have been included in the 2003 upgrade of the Bhaktivedanta VedaBase.
The Bhaktivedanta Archives has tried to set a good example in recording the activities of Srila Prabhupada and intends to collaborate fully with devotees in their efforts to create a wider ISKCON archive that will perpetuate Prabhupada’s society and the efforts of his followers. At the same time the Bhaktivedanta Archives has limited its preservation activities to the ‘Prabhupada era’ due to funding constraints and the necessity to keep its focus.
In our quarter-century of existence, the Bhaktivedanta Archives has been blessed with some success due to the support of many devotees throughout the world. We appeal to those interested to support the activities of the Bhaktivedanta Archives and welcome any donations. We pray that we will be blessed to carry on with this preservation effort.
Hopkins, Thomas J. ‘Why Should ISKCON Study its Own History?’ in ISKCON Communications Journal, Vol. 6, No. 2, December 1998.