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Editorial: A Short History of the Bhaktivedanta Tape Ministry (Preserving Srila Prabhupada’s Audio Tape Legacy Began in 1971)

By Pratyatosa Dasa (ACBSP), July 3, 2001


In November, 1969, I came into contact with the devotees in Washington DC. They had started ISKCON’s first temple in the nation’s capitol the previous August. Dinesh, the official ISKCON “tapesvara” was there, and when he found out that I had two high quality reel-to-reel tape recorders, he immediately began to engage me in helping him to duplicate Srila Prabhupada’s bhajan, kirtan and lecture tapes for all of the other ISKCON temples.

He would sometimes complain that some of the temples would not pay him anything for his service, even though they were supposed to, but this did not detour him from sending them the tapes anyway. He would often state that the devotees were very dependent upon these tapes in order to remain spiritually strong and enlivened. One thing that Dinesh Prabhu told me was that Prabhupada said that his songs should never be distributed without the purports, because Prabhupada wanted his disciples to learn the meanings of the songs.

On December 25, 1969, I drove the DC devotees to Boston in my bright red Ford Mustang convertible to see Srila Prabhupada, who was just returning from India via London. I know for sure that it was December 25th because we almost ran out of gas. (Naturally, hardly any gas stations were open on Christmas day.)

Early the next morning, I helped Dinesh purchase the equipment for, and to set up, a good PA (public address) system for Srila Prabhupada. Dinesh told me that Srila Prabhupada wanted the PA systems that he used to always be first-class.

Before I even laid eyes upon His Divine Grace for the first time, I had my 35mm SLR cameras ready, and I had my professional quality Tandberg reel-to-reel tape recorder recording his every word. As I quietly stepped out from behind the curtain at the back of the temple room where I had been setting up my equipment, Srila Prabhupada surprised me by looking right into my eyes, and saying “Hare Krsna.” I was very embarrassed, not only for having interrupted his initiation lecture, but also because it seemed like Srila Prabhupada was looking right into my heart and soul—right through me, so to speak, so I almost felt like I was standing there naked. I was expecting some of the devotees to turn around and look at me, but as far as I can remember, none of them did.

I’m the only one who made a tape of this lecture. It’s the one wherein Srila Prabhupada said, “[Krsna consciousness] is simple for the simple, but very hard for the crooked.” I’ve listened to that tape over and over again, and nowhere could I find a place where Srila Prabhupada interrupted his lecture, and said, “Hare Krsna!” It seems like it was something which only I (and Srila Prabhupada?) experienced.

For years, I’d been afraid to tell this story to practically anyone, lest they think I was crazy. It was such an incredible experience that I was surprised that Satswarupa Dasa Gosvami hadn’t included it in his Lilamrita, even though I told him about it twice via his “disciple’s” recording my remembrances of Srila Prabhupada for the stated purpose of writing the Lilamrita! I was thinking, “I guess he thinks I’m crazy.,” but a few years ago while watching some of ITV’s “Remembering Srila Prabhupada” videos, I discovered that other devotees had had similar experiences, and their experiences weren’t included in the Lilamrita either! Why not? Is it because an attempt was made to make Srila Prabhupada seem like an ordinary man, so the ISKCON gurus wouldn’t have as much difficulty trying to pretend to be a “guru like Srila Prabhupada?”

On May 22nd, 1970 I, as “Bhakta Howard,” moved into the ISKCON temple in Detroit, and in December, 1970, I was sent to ISKCON Boston to help with the ISKCON Press photography department. Since ISKCON Press was planning to move to New York anyway, in January, 1971, I moved to ISKCON New York’s temple on Henry Street in Brooklyn in order to try and find a job as a computer programmer.

Upon my arrival in Brooklyn, I was appalled to find out that the original reel-to-reel recordings of Srila Prabhupada’s precious 1966 lectures were being played by the devotees over and over again! They were all mixed up: tapes left on the take-up reels, tapes in the wrong boxes, etc. I immediately locked them up in a room that only I had the key to. If anyone requested to hear a particular tape, I would make them a copy, but I would not let anyone touch the original recordings under any circumstances.

Later on in 1971, soon after I was initiated by Srila Prabhupada*, I started “Hare Krishna Studios” in the Brooklyn temple sub-basement. As part of this project, I started ISKCON’s first (audio) cassette subscription service.

Simultaneously, in Los Angeles, Krsnakanti started “Golden Avatara Productions.” As part of his project, he started ISKCON’s first radio show, “The Krishna Show,” which was aired on radio stations throughout the US.

In early 1972, it was decided by the GBC that I should move my recording studio to Los Angeles, and merge with Golden Avatara Productions. I was fearful that the proposed future GBCs of New York would try and prevent me from taking Srila Prabhupada’s precious 1966 recordings with me, so I arranged to have them “smuggled” out of New York in the suitcase of the LA GBC man, Karandhara Prabhu.

I got a “drive away” station wagon, and was able to fit all of my audio equipment in it, including my “cash cow,” an audio cassette duplicator which was capable of producing 7 high quality copies at a time.

I clearly remember that I was laughing all the way to LA because the GBC of New York let me go. I was convinced that the only reason that he let me go was because he was under the illusion that he was going to be the new co-GBC of LA! I’m not sure how, but somehow I knew that this was not to be, so I thought that the whole thing was hilarious. As it turned out, the joke was on me, because I was allergic to the Los Angeles smog, so I was forced to leave LA, minus all of the equipment that I had worked so hard to accumulate. This was Krsna’s mercy upon me, because it taught me a valuable lesson in detachment. It turned out that Lord Sri Krsna had other plans for me.

When I left Los Angeles in 1972, I went to Chicago and helped the ISKCON Chicago temple president, Sri Govinda Prabhu, procure a big temple building in Evanston. A few months later, in late 1972, Kirtanananda Svami visited the Evanston temple. He was my first cassette tape subscriber back in New York in 1971, so he complained to me that he was not receiving any subscription tapes anymore. This conversation inspired me to make arrangements with Krsnakanti in Los Angeles and Sri Govinda for me to return to Los Angeles to help get the tape subscriptions going again.

When I got there, in early 1973, I discovered that Krsnakanti Prabhu was fully absorbed in working on his “The Krishna Show” weekly radio program. A short time later Lord Sri Krsna revealed a new idea to me: Change the content of the tape subscription service to “only lectures and morning walk conversations by Srila Prabhupada,” and call it the “Bhaktivedanta Tape Ministry.” I immediately changed the subscription service over to this format, and I programmed the Spiritual Sky computer (ISKCON’s first computer) to do the accounting and to print the cassette and mailing labels.

One of the things that I liked about this service was the idea that for every tape we were sending out, many more copies were being distributed because of the many “bootleg” copies that were being made. It bothered me, however, that the bootleggers often didn’t take the time to copy the information on the cassette labels, so I was afraid that future generations might be denied the information on when and where the lectures took place. This was the main reason why I began announcing the lectures on the tapes themselves. Another reason for the announcements, besides the obvious one of informing the listener as to the contents of the tape, was to demonstrate that a poor quality lecture was the fault of a poorly recorded original tape, and not a defect in the duplicating process.

One thing that Krsnakanti wanted to do was to include excepts from Srila Prabhupada’s lectures in The Krishna Show. Srila Prabhupada was residing at ISKCON Los Angeles at the time, so Krsnakanti asked Srila Prabhupada in person if this was okay. Srila Prabhupada gave him an emphatic “No!.” Prabhupada said that his lectures should be distributed in their entirety or NOT AT ALL! As a result of this instruction, Krsnakanti never included any portion of any of Srila Prabhupada’s lectures in his Krishna Show broadcasts. This didn’t have any effect on my service, because I had always included all of Srila Prabhupada’s lectures on the tapes that I distributed as part of ISKCON’s first cassette subscription service. The thought of editing Srila Prabhupada’s lectures in any way never even crossed my mind! Since I had to make the lectures fit on a C-60 cassette, I would use the morning walk conversations to fill up the remainder of the tapes.

Later on in 1973, after the “Bhaktivedanta Tape Ministry” was well under way, I again left Los Angeles for ISKCON Chicago (Evanston), mostly because of my smog allergy, but also because I was hoping to marry some yet-to-be-met “shy,” “quiet” midwestern brahmacarini! What an illusion!

Again, Lord Sri Krsna had other plans for me, but it was in the Evanston temple, in 1973, that I married a wonderful devotee woman and subsequently helped her to raise three wonderful devotee children!

Your servant, Pratyatosa Dasa (ACBSP)

* In 1971, I didn’t even know what the “Vaisnava calendar” was, but I had a sentimental desire to be initiated in person by Srila Prabhupada on my “Western calendar” birthday, July 17th. Through an incredible chain of events Lord Sri Krsna arranged for me to get initiated on that very date, in Detroit, with the airfare to and from Detroit paid for by the company that I was working for at the time (The Wall Street, New York City branch of the Control Data Corporation of Minneapolis, Minnesota).

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