Brihad Mridanga

Who doesn’t know this famous explanation?

My Guru Mahārāja used to say that this press is bṛhad-mṛdaṅga. Bṛhat means bigger, at large, bigger mṛdaṅga, bigger. Just like we are playing mṛdaṅga. This mṛdaṅga can be vibrated in the neighboring quarter, but our mṛdaṅga, Back to Godhead, that will go far, far away. So therefore this press was considered by my Guru Mahārāja as bṛhad-mṛdaṅga.

June 11, 1969, New Virndavan

Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati even had printing press installed in the temple room, though after his departure it was sold. I couldn’t find any pictures of it but the one below supposed to show the press on which Srila Prabhupada’s Delhi Bhagavatams were printed. It doesn’t look like it belongs to a temple room but still – Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati founded printing press before founding any temples. It’s the beating heart of our movement.

“Books are the basis”, Srila Prabhupada also taught us. So publishing books is called Brihad Mridanga and even if ISKCON for some reason ceases to exist a new organization will inevitably rise up based on the same books, which will be the law for the next ten thousand years. What more needs to be said? Quite a lot, actually.

Printed books are on their way out and in a few years or decades there won’t be any actual law books left – everything would go digital. Even paper money is on its way out – I remember reading news from Sweden where some shops refuse to accept cash because it’s such a backward way of payment. Where does it leave us with our “big mridanga”? Should we all go digital as well? Here is where we need to rethink the concept, I believe.

In the quote above only one principle is announced directly: “… our mṛdaṅga, Back to Godhead, that will go far, far away.” Other foundational aspects of it were implied and they should not be forgotten, for they are the same for any form of preaching at any time in history. Let’s see how “Brihad Mridanga” itself worked in those days.

India was ruled by the British who were big on technology and printing was one of their magical inventions. Actually, printing press was invented even before Lord Caitanya but it became “Brihad Mridanga” only when Bhaktivinoda Thakur got to play on it. So here is one foundational principle – it should be used by pure devotees. Srila Prabhupada didn’t need to mention it in that lecture and Back To Godheads devotees were publishing then were considered as fully transcendental literature.

Coming back to the press itself – people were genuinely impressed by the technology and automatically offered any printing material greater value than to talking sadhus. Anybody can talk and talk is cheap, but one who has the ability and power to get himself printed must automatically be considered as being on a higher platform. His words matter, his words have weight, his words have value.

When we combine the two – pure devotees producing books that become automatically revered by ordinary people we have perfect conditions for their words to actually sink in and change people’s hearts. Lord Caitanya took sannyasa for the same reason – so that people started treating Him as an authority rather than a neighborhood boy who went crazy after some gopi girls.

Respect itself isn’t enough – people had to pay for the books and magazines, which means they had to make a sacrifice and give away something very very dear to them – their money. When you pay for what you read or hear you naturally want to extract the most value out of it in return, which means you have to really pay attention and hope that the words actually work and change your life for the better. In the case of Lord Caitanya – sannyasis must have been fed. It was customary to give something to a sadhu as gratitude for his teachings, for reminding people of their dharma.

Srila Prabhupada’s experiences with Back To Godhead provide a valuable lesson here. At first it was great – printed, up to day, interesting topics, but eventually, as Indian society evolved, the value of periodical press, which has to be read once and then discarded, declined. Somebody told this to Srila Prabhupada directly – no one cares for you two paisa papers (I don’t know exact cost), if you want to be taken seriously you should give them a book. And that’s how Srila Prabhupada decided to translate Srimad Bhagavatam.

In other words, printed or not, but the value of what we offer should be sufficiently high for it to be taken seriously, and I mean monetary value here. Transcendental value is not going to be appreciated right away by the general mass of people but it obviously should be there, too – see the first principle I mentioned above.

Let’s look at transitioning to digital now. This can be of two kinds – selling ebooks and preaching on the internet. Both have been tried by our devotees. Ebooks are there and Vaisesika’s people even produced a manual on how to distribute them, but I haven’t heard stories of success with it yet. Possibly because Vaisesika still focuses on distributed actual Bhagavatams, which deserves a separate consideration.

One of his arguments is that once the novelty of ebooks, Kindles, and tablets wears off people return to paper again. He gives statistics which confirm this trend. Ten years ago they proudly announced that they were selling more ebooks but by the end of the decade 80% of sold books were still printed on paper. One reason is that people who were supposed to embrace this digital revolution were not into books at all – their attention span is too short and they can’t read lines longer than “Kaboom” in their “graphic novels”. On the other hand, people who still read books like to hold them in their hands and flip their actual pages instead of pressing buttons.

In any case, even if printed book market shrinks it doesn’t really concern us – we sell only about half a million books a year and this number has little to do with popularity of books. Maybe example of Vivaldi browser can demonstrate it better. People behind Vivaldi counted their numbers and discovered that they only need two million or so of daily users to create the browser they think is the best. They don’t care about market share, they only wanted to make the browser they like for people who would appreciate it, and two million, and maybe only one million in the beginning, was all they needed.

This should make us look at book distribution from a different perspective, too – we have the books that we think are the best and we need to find people who share our opinion, and, historically, this number hovers around half a million books a year.

So Vaisesika’s answer to digital challenge is, basically, that we still have enough people who buy paper and are limited only by our abilities, so why worry?

This is for selling ebooks, now let’s look at “preaching on the internet”, which now includes all kinds of media, social networks, podcasting etc. The variety is great, but it’s still “internet” as far as people of my generation are concerned. One important feature of it is that it’s free, and another is that you can’t trust anything on the internet. This is directly opposite of the two foundational principles I discussed above – our “products” should be seen as valuable and trustworthy.

Moreover, the abundance of free content on the internet has grown into the realization that it’s us, the consumers, who are the product. We read/watch/listen to some stuff and the records of our consumption are sold to Google, Facebook, and others. In this way the value shifts from the product offered to us, to the act of our agreeing to look at it. We have the power. We can tweet about it, we can give it high or low rating, we can start social campaigns, we can bring down brands and entire companies. We are the power!

You absolutely can’t preach to people like that. It should not be even tried when they are in this mood, and it would be offensive to he Holy Name.

The subject of trust is also tricky – people have become so partisan and opinionated that they do not trust anything from certain sources and they make their minds about it rather fast. If your articles have been published by NYTimes or The Guardian there will be millions of people who won’t listen to a word you say, and it works the same for the opposing camp, too. What’s your standing on vaccination? Half the public won’t accept it whatever it is. Okay, maybe you can avoid talking about Covid, but then there are so many other triggers that can cause a full meltdown so you can’t possibly account for them all.

Devotees were attacked and killed in Bangladesh recently, less than two weeks ago, and we already have “protect Hindu minorities” and “we are not Hindus” camps in our society. Let me repeat that – two camps in our own society, what to speak of the rest of the world. Whatever we say on whatever topic, chances are somebody will get triggered by it.

How to navigate these systemic problems of “internet preaching”? No one knows, but it’s definitely not about platforms and choice of medium – we need people to act according to the above mentioned principles first – respect, trust, and value. Value also includes commitment – it should be high enough for people to invest sufficient time and energy for the message to take hold.

This was about the method of communication, but we should not forget that the message should come from pure devotees, which is not a concern when selling Prabhupada’s books but becomes important for “internet preaching”, and that the recipients should be ready, too. After all, Srila Prabhupada spent decades trying to preach to Indians and they just wouldn’t listen. I suspect even to this day Indians support ISKCON for reasons other than pure devotion.

What does it all say for the prospects of our Brihad Mridanga? Well, I can repeat what I said earlier – printing press was invented even before Lord Caitanya and it tool several hundred years before all the other components fell into place – pure devotees, intelligent and perceptive audience, relationships of respect, creation of trust, and creation of value, and these all should be on the mass scale. It’s not a question of technology or connectivity at all. It’s not that we can just replace that printing press in the picture by the latest model and all will be alright again. We have to address the underlying principles first.

Vanity thought #969. As it never was

My yesterday’s post arguing for accepting words of our guru as Absolute Truth rather than as translation might make people think that I was also arguing against changes to original Prabhupāda’s books. Far from it. I think the whole campaign for “Bhagavad Gītā As It Is” is totally misguided.

There are two ways to explain my position. First is the common one – Prabhupāda tasked BBT with editing his books, they are just carrying out the order, nothing else. If someone chooses to see BBT editing books for their own benefit he must also explain what benefit is there, they got nothing but trouble for doing this service.

This is the main point, though – people are serving their spiritual master, no devotee should even criticize them for that. There are no imperfections in service even though sometimes quality might appear to be lacking. In this case I don’t see even that. So far all the allegations about book changes I’ve seen have been petty and insignificant. Sometimes they find examples of BBT changing the meaning of the sentences but on close examination BBT’s explanation has always been convincing for me.

I do not discount the possibility that some of the changes might have been made in error but I bet it makes absolutely no difference in practical terms – when books are distributed and when people learn philosophy from them. You just can’t learn Prabhupāda wrong from his books, edited or not.

If some such changes are spotted BBT will surely admit their mistakes but in the current atmosphere there’s understandably very little good faith towards those who come with suggestions, it’s not the right time, all critics are bundled together with “as it is” zealots.

Ironically, by pushing so hard on all fronts, “as it is” movement makes correcting BBT’s editing mistakes nearly impossible and I think I’ve seen actual examples of this a couple of years ago.

The main thing, however, is the poisonous atmosphere that is spread by “as it is” people. It’s full of all kinds of negative feelings towards sincere devotees of the Lord simply trying to carry out the mission of their guru. There’s nothing spiritual left in it, only unbearable self-righteousness.

The criticism has spread far and wide, sadly, and traces of it can be spotted in unexpected places from otherwise level-headed devotees. False anti-BBT propaganda has been repeated so often that it has become part of “everybody knows”, you don’t have to prove it anymore, you can just mention it as self-evident truth.

Well, yes, these people repeated it to themselves so many times that they can’t unwind their web and go back to checking their own premises, they are too far gone, and those who don’t buy into their agenda immediately offered a torrent of worn out “proofs” and urged to join the club because “everybody knows”.

Repeating something does not make it true, though it does convince people to accept it as truth, this is a fact made well known by Hitler’s chief propagandist Goebbels. Make a lie very big and repeat it often enough, and people will believe, he said. It always works, but it doesn’t make it true.

Anyway, that’s just the first, common objection to “as it is” movement. My second reason is more philosophical. I think that their Bhagavad Gītā As It Is actually never was and their entire approach to the words of a guru is erroneous.

Guru is not God, he is a living entity placed into a material body, and this brings certain constraints. Material bodies have their natural faults – they make mistakes, they live under illusion, they tend to cheat, and their senses are imperfect. No matter who you place in such a body it will live by these material laws and exhibit these material traits.

Pure devotees will have them in tiniest amounts but they will have them nevertheless, only God is free from these faults, and guru is not God.

Therefore, there MUST be mistakes in Prabhupāda’s books and our service is to minimize them for the future generations. It doesn’t mean we minimize his position, too, we are simply aware that he is not God.

When guru gets old his body needs extra help. We can say that as a pure devotee he doesn’t need help and he is only providing us with the opportunity to serve but who are we kidding here? No matter how advanced a devotee is, he will never overcome conditioning of the material body. He will never avoid old age and disease, and when he is sick and powerless he will not magically get up and start cooking and cleaning if there’s no one around.

You can see this attitude – a guru is all powerful, he can do whatever he wants, material nature can’t stop him – in books about Prabhupāda’s last days on this planet. It didn’t work out that way. Guru is not all powerful and his body genuinely needs help. If we don’t do it Kṛṣṇa will engage someone else but the guru will never become young and powerful again – that’s not how bodies work.

Once we reconcile ourselves with this thought, editing books appears as a far less blasphemous idea. I personally noticed that “as it is” proponents also claiming that Prabhupāda was all-knowing and all-powerful. It’s not my place to correct these senior devotees but Prabhupāda was not all-knowing and not all-powerful, he was not God.

Another way to mistake guru as God is to confuse guru’s material form with his spiritual identity. Śrila Prabhupāda was a soul, not his body. As his followers we must accept his body as spiritual but we still can’t equate it with his soul. Only God’s body is non-different from His soul, and guru is not God.

Accepting the difference between guru’s body and guru’s soul would also make BBT editing a perfectly acceptable service, not to mention all the other things devotees helped Prabhupāda with, like operating dictaphones. There are also clear mistakes in Prabhupāda’s own writing or dictating – that’s why he never refused proofreaders and editors.

Even if guru’s body makes mistakes but we should not see these mistakes as any less spiritual. On the material platform we see mistakes in comparison to some ideal standard but spiritually these ideals do not matter, we should not judge guru’s work by them at all. People who see mistakes see them only from a material platform, spiritually they don’t exist. This is another example of inconceivable oneness and difference – how is guru’s body simultaneously spiritual and material.

So, that perfect Bhagavad Gītā As It Is has never existed. “As It Is” here means its fidelity to Kṛṣṇa, it doesn’t cast in stone any particular edition as “as it is” and all others as something else. What we have as “as it is” version is just one of the snapshots of work in progress – from Prabhupāda’s lips into the dictaphone, onto the paper, through the editing work, off to printers and so on. There never was a final, untouchable edition, cast in stone like Moses tablets. Such perfect edition cannot exist in the material world as a matter of principle because nothing here is all perfect and everything can be improved.

Judging Bhagavad Gītā by material standards of perfection is misleading, its perfection lies in absolute devotion to Kṛṣṇa, not in visible quality of the translation and editing work, therefore I dismiss the entire campaign as being misguided.

I hope it doesn’t come across as me accusing some very senior devotees of a māyāvādīc offense of equating guru with God even though I believe this underlying error is there. This is the reason I don’t want to mention any names, this is a message for personal consideration, for cleansing our own hearts, not for pointing faults in others.

I’ve just finished proofreading this post and I wish I could have argued it better, and that was after my own check. If any actual proofreader went through it I might have had to re-write it from scratch, and it would have been a much better edition that the one I leave here now. Which one would be “as it is”? There wouldn’t be any if I had to present it as knowledge coming from Kṛṣṇa, I can agree on this version of the post as being “as it is” only if I sign it as myself, with all my faults and mistakes.

Bhagavad Gītā is the same – in our own rendering it is never perfect and there will always be something to improve.

Vanity thought #824. Book changes

This is a big topic for ISKCON detractors of all kinds and it rears its head every couple of weeks, give or take. Everyone supports it – rittviks, “prabhupadanugas”, “mission drifters”, while on BBT side there’s practically one devotee, Jayadvaita Swami, who tirelessly refutes all these allegations.

Personally, I’m more than satisfied with explanations of the actual changes and the myths surrounding them but that is obviously not enough for devotees like Madhudvisa Prabhu who is extremely active in pursuing this topic. I don’t like this spat at all, Madhudvisa’s is a nice place if not for his anti GBC/BBT agenda. And no, it’s not Madhudvisa who was one of the early Prabhupada’s disciples, it’s a different person.

Why can’t our devotees just get along? Kali yuga, I guess, it drives us towards arguments and makes us look for reasons to argue when we don’t see any. In this age we thrive on confrontation, it makes us feel alive or something. Also the reason we commit offenses and get stuck on our neophyte platform without any hope of progress.

Anyway, I was reminded of this topic when I heard Bhakti Vikasa Swami’s answer to a question about philosophical dangers of book edits. He wisely started by stating that this isn’t even a question, the author already knows the answer and wants maharaj to confirm it.

This has become a big problem in our movement – the partisanship. The person asking that question didn’t even realize that someone might have a legitimate opinion that is so different from his own, he assumed that everyone is with him on this. Why? Because we tend to gravitate to circles that form and then reinforce our opinions, they give us a sense of security and belonging. Eventually they offer us a comprehensive package of everything we might need in our spiritual life but it all revolves around a couple of issues that make sure we’ll make no progress whatsoever.

Take rittviks – they’ve got temples, preaching programs, they even produce hugely popular Krishna conscious animation, but spiritually speaking it’s still a dead end. Similarly, might be a place where anyone can learn lots of valuable lessons but the underlying enmity towards our ISKCON authorities makes it a place to avoid. There are a few more communities like that out there where they replaced genuine spiritual progress and sadhu sanga with accumulation of facts and knowledge and gramya katha.

I don’t think book changes allegations are even worth considering, they don’t deserve to be dignified with a reply, and Bhakti Vikasa Swami nailed it again.

Yes, no word, no comma can be changed in Prabhupada’s books, but who gets to decide where these commas are? Jayadvaita Swami, that’s who. He was given this service of editing the books to better express Prabhupada’s original ideas. When he says this sentence was meant to look like this, we should accept his judgment. It doesn’t mean that he can’t be wrong but it means that we should put our differences aside, accept his authority, and happily get on with our spiritual lives.

It’s impossible to satisfy everyone and it’s impossible to have an edition that is completely beyond criticism, in this day and age problems can be found everywhere, that’s why we should accept that eventually a line must be drawn somewhere and cease and desist from protesting any longer.

If accuracy is really our primary concern then we should also realize that if we create a hostile atmosphere for BBT editors then accuracy will suffer first. We force this war mentality on them and we force then to take partisan sides so that even if critics have some genuine corrections they won’t be accepted simply because they are coming from a wrong side of the debate. Sadly, after creating this situation the critics will most certainly pounce on “partisanship” if their proposal get any traction.

Life is tough in Kali Yuga, both on the receiving end of this madness and on the side that promotes it. Imagine how tough it must be for Lord Chaitanya to sort out our disputes. We all deserve His shelter and His mercy and so He has to accommodate all our conflicting aspirations.

What can He do for devotees who want to fight others, no matter the cost? They are their own worst enemy yet He has to find a way to keep them in service. Why make it so difficult for Him? Why abuse His mercy in such a way?

On the other hand, this should also increase our appreciation for His unlimited compassion. There’s simply nothing that He wouldn’t do for His devotees. And I think this is a nice note to end this post with.