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Appreciating Srila Prabhupada’s Lectures on Tape
Srila Prabhupada and the Vedic Sastras both stress Sravaëam, hearing. By hearing the word “milk,” one can immediately gain all the other qualities of milk which one could normally gain only through the other senses. This is the special potency of hearing. In the same way, Gita Jayanthi An Interview with PUJA one can know Krishna and begin to serve Him.
The Srimad-Bhagavatam states that “as soon as one hears the message of the Bhagavatam, by culture of knowledge, the Supreme Lord is established in his heart.” (SB 1.1.2, purport)
Although hearing includes reading, Vedic knowledge is traditionally received through the faculty of the ear.
Prabhupada often used words like “submissive aural reception,” “ability to hear,” “sound vibration” and “receiving the message through the ear.”
Prabhupada also stated in one purport that hearing is more important than thinking in this age because “one’s thinking may become disturbed by mental agitation, but if one is concentrated on hearing, he will be forced to associate with the sound vibration of Krishna.” (SB 3.24.35)
In America, Srila Prabhupada took great care to tape record himself.
Prabhupada wrote a letter to Tirtha Maharaja describing this:
I may cite herewith one incident which happened yesterday evening. I have prepared some tape record of my personal kirtan. When one of this tape record was played the audience became practically charmed by that, although not a single word of my language was understandable by them. So I am confident of the statement of Srila Haridas Thakur that the transcendental sound of Lord Caitanya’s harinam can do good even to the birds and the beasts. (Letter, 66-2-1)
Prabhupada saw the use of tape recorders as an example of Rupa Gosvami’s yukta-vairagya, using the material energy for the service of the Lord, although sometimes his early visitors doubted him for possessing such a “material” amenity as a tape recorder. (Srila Prabhupada explains this point in Nectar of Devotion, p. 116:
"We are using many machines for the advancement of our present Krishna consciousness movement, machines like typewriters, dictaphones, tape recorders, microphones and airplanes. Sometimes people ask us, 'Why are you utilizing material products if you condemn the advancement of material civilization?' But actually we do not condemn. We simply ask people to do whatever they are doing in Krishna consciousness.")
He often used the analogy of a tape recorder to explain Krishna and His separated material energy. The voice on the tape is simultaneously one with the person and yet different; it is the speaker but removed from him. In this way, we can appreciate that Srila Prabhupada is present in the absolute sense in his recorded speeches and bhajanas.
There are special advantages to hearing Prabhupada on tape. One can imbibe his preaching while engaged in other activities, such as taking prasadam or cooking. One can also become transported to the historical time and place where Prabhupada was speaking, hearing the same universal Krishna conscious philosophy he presents in his books, with the added benefit of hearing him apply it to time and circumstance. On the old tapes, you can hear the street noises of 2nd Avenue in the background; on the Våndavana tapes, the peacocks. You can also hear Prabhupada’s conviction.
Sometimes devotees complain that they cannot understand Prabhupada’s thick Bengali-Scottish-English accent, or they become distracted by the various background noises. But one should really overcome these difficulties and hear Prabhupada preach. He actually speaks quite clearly and one can come to relish his accent and phraseology.
Prabhupada himself stressed the importance of hearing from him. He did not consider it enough that his disciples had his books to read if he was available speaking personally. Even when he was speaking in Hindi, a language few of his disciples understood, he expected them to listen attentively. The sound vibration was purifying. (Prabhupada Nectar, vol. 2, #22)
The Vedas also recommend constant and repeated hearing. The ears will hear something, and if not Krishna-katha, then they will seek out the sound vibration of prajalpa.
The message should be heard attentively, and if spoken by a realized soul, it will act on the dormant heart of the conditioned soul. And by continuously hearing, one can attain the perfect stage of self-realization. (SB 1.13.14 & SB 3.19.38)
Srila Prabhupada did not lecture only for his disciples. He did it as preaching. Anywhere he went in the world, he gave lectures, paëdal programs, or meetings in his room. Although he was present in his books, he made himself personally present to be heard. He also trained his disciples to lecture. Lecturing was one of his main ways to serve Krishna. After finishing one late-night preaching marathon, Prabhupada once remarked, “Keep me talking that is my life. Don’t let me stop talking.”
The task of recording Srila Prabhupada’s speeches lacked central coordination until the BBT organized it in 1972, and even then, with changes of secretaries and equipment (and for the lack of technical expertise), the quality of the recordings varied.
The original tapes are in a precarious condition, and the Bhaktivedanta Archives is converting all of them to a more technologically advanced tape recording system. The Archives estimates that this will take five years and says that donations are needed. Its own fund-raising consists of printing and selling the Conversations With Srila Prabhupada books.
The tape ministry was expanded in 1978 to its present size: 711 tapes of lectures and conversations, and 35 tapes of bhajanas. Many of the poorer quality tapes were never released, but now they are being published in the Conversations With Srila Prabhupada books.
There are five mini-series, including the Krishna book (33 tapes), the 1972 Nectar of Devotion lectures in Våndavana (15 tapes), the Lord Kapila tapes (21 tapes), the Queen Kunti series (14 tapes) and the Yoga system lectures (7 tapes) from 1968.
The different lecture series are significant. If a devotee is able, he should try to get a complete collection of tapes and hear them in sequence. The tapes are chronologically categorized as well as labeled according to the verse being spoken about. Any devotee can thus follow Prabhupada’s preaching adventures as they unfolded.
The tapes are also arranged according to the different types of speaking engagements:
- morning walks
- room conversations
- lectures to the public,
- classes in the temple on the Sastras, etc.
By hearing the tapes, one can get a special intimate glimpse of Srila Prabhupada responding to his surroundings, like the time in 1966 in the storefront when you suddenly hear him say, “There is a bug.” Also, there is a certain intimacy and presence available by hearing live the question and answer sessions that have been recorded. To hear him tell stories and Bengali “jokes” to his disciples to illustrate his Krishna conscious points, to hear him laugh or suddenly become angry or silent or serious, to hear him say with sarcastic matter-of-factness, “It will not work” to Swami Sacitananda’s proposed “Peace Symposium” is very nectarean and it is all preserved on tape.
Let us consider a typical lecture by Srila Prabhupada, since they are the standard for all ISKCON lecturers. He spoke for 35-40 minutes on a particular verse of the Sastra. He structured his lecture around the commentaries of that verse, quoting verses to back up his points. (He also had favorite verses that he lectured on. For example, from the Bhagavad-gita, he lectured the most on 7.1 (51 times). Another favorite was 2.13 (10 times). From the Srimad-Bhagavatam, he liked to lecture on 1.2.6 and 5.5.1 (13 times each). He often went off on tangents, but always brought the lecture, and his audience, back to the point. His main emphasis was to chant Hare Krishna and to surrender to Krishna, and he usually ended his lectures by strongly advocating Krishna consciousness to his listeners.
Prabhupada’s lectures should serve as a standard for all of us to follow. He always spoke in parampara, analyzing and cross-referencing verses. He sticks to the point; even his so-called tangents had relevance. And he was always enthusiastic to reduce everything to basic, simple Krishna consciousness: “Chant Hare Krishna and your life will be sublime.”
Although he has set the standard for ISKCON lecturers, we should be careful not to imitate him in his strong, aggressive preaching style. Some devotees also tend to imitate his Indian English, something which looks a little pretentious or uneducated to others. This is endearing to the devotees and it helps their own remembrance, but it may not always be appreciated by outsiders.
Probably many devotees who hear Prabhupada’s tapes regularly have experienced the phenomena of him suddenly “speaking to you,” as if the devotee had asked a question and he began to personally address that devotee’s problems and concerns. This is a particularly relishable aspect of hearing Prabhupada’s lectures. Devotees who were physically present during his talks often had this feeling; and the medium of the tape recording has preserved that “live” quality with all of Prabhupada’s emphases and intonations. The tapes are a definite and vital way to connect with the active preacher, Srila Prabhupada, embodied in sound.