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.