The following is an excerpt from a long interview of Ramesvara prabhu made for Srila Prabhupada lilamrta. If you read the whole interview, you will find it full of nectar pastimes of Srila Prabhupada, but the interview, unfortunately, never made it to the lilamrta. Could it be because, there are passages like the ones underneath, that conflict with the interests of some influential people in ISKCON?
The interview was made in 1979 and was carefully hidden in the Bhaktivedanta archives until it was leaked by a devotee in 2013.
Please bear in mind, as you read the following, that in 1979 when the interview was made, there were no bookchange conflict, consequently there could have been no hidden motives in Ramesvara prabhu’s statements.
The paintings sell the books
See, what Prabhupada did was so ingenious, it has to be appreciated from a historical point of view. No one in modern history has ever made philosophy books popular for the mass market. So what Prabhupada did was a stroke of genius and he should be described as...this should be understood to be part of Prabhupada’s genius in knowing how to popularize Krsna consciousness. That he combined the world’s deepest philosophy with paintings. And the paintings added to this philosophy made the books popular, made very deep high-level philosophy books popular to the masses. The average print run and distribution of a major philosophical work is miniscule in this world. In any language it’s miniscule compared to the popular novels and the popular nonfiction works. Philosophy books just are not big sellers. So this was Prabhupada’s genius. It cannot be in any way overstated, because it is an act of genius that he figured out how to have mass popularization of very high philosophy books. Prabhupada actually wanted 50 paintings in every volume. That was Prabhupada’s vision. Genius! No philosopher ever thought of such a thing. And therefore their books never sell. These art paintings were the basis of all the book distribution.
Of course, it was our sincerity and our drive and our desire to please Prabhupada. But the technique was showing people the paintings, attracting their senses, getting them curious and interested and attracted by the art. The more beautiful the art the more you could tell people that this describes the most beautiful, peaceful way of life, the most beautiful spiritual thing, you have to find out these people have. You’d show the paintings and you’d say things like, “This explains how to experience the highest happiness. Just look at this painting. Wouldn’t you like to be there?” The paintings were the basis for the book selling. And Prabhupada is the genius who thought that up.
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So Prabhupada took a lot of care in developing his art department. This is another facet of Prabhupada’s personality. His genius for transcendental marketing of Krsna consciousness in a massive way. This is what sets Prabhupada off from all of his dull headed Godbrothers who have no brains or ideas about how to spread this movement all over the world. They would never have thought of this idea. So the letters that Prabhupada wrote to the artists are full of the most amazing nectarean instructions. And they’re worth reading I think and describing in the Lilamrta. They’re so astonishing
“Let’s update the Krsna Book paintings...”
So anyway, by 1974, Radhaballabha and I and the artists were talking about reprinting the Krsna Book, let’s update the paintings. These paintings were done in 1969, 1968. The artists have gotten much better. Their expertise was much better. So the decision was made by myself and Radhaballabha, we were going to upgrade all the paintings. The artists would get together with Radhaballabha and pick out which ones they wanted and then we would work it out together which ones to take out and which ones to put in.
“They’re ruining my books! They have no brain! They are hippies!” Prabhupada screamed
So Prabhupada and Bali came to Los Angeles and I had a meeting with Prabhupada upstairs in his room and I started showing him all of the paintings that were corning out, page by page, and all the paintings that were going in. This was one of the most astonishing meetings I ever had with Prabhupada in my life. Just before we
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started going over the Krsna Book paintings, we went over these drawings that Pariksit had done for the Teachings of Lord Caitanya. He had worked for one year on about 24 or so black and white drawings which would be going on the title page for each chapter of the Teachings of Lord Caitanya. This was his first major work at the BBT art department.
And they had sent them to me so I could show them to Prabhupada because we were getting ready to print the TLC in Dai Nippon. So we went through drawing after drawing after drawing and Prabhu- pada was becoming angrier and angrier and more and more livid, and it was becoming a frightening experience. He was condemning them, he was throwing them out, he was rejecting them, he was blasting them, he was describing how they were going to ruin his book, they’re off, they’re misrepresentative, they’re not clear, they’re bogus, and “If you put anything bogus in my book, this is my greatest fear that you will ruin my book and the whole book will be ruined because of you!” And on and on, it was devastating! And I wrote a letter to the artists with the description of Prabhupada’s comments like a blow-by blow because it was so impressed in my mind. As soon as I got out of the room I ran downstairs and typed out this letter, remembering all of the things Prabhupada said.
So I’ll be able to find that letter and you can refer to it and you’ll see exactly how Prabhupada analyzed the drawings in relation to what they were supposed to be illustrating very carefully and rejected them and just with devastating critique. Prabhupada was so expert. So then after going through that scene, then I took out the Krsna Book and said, “Now, these are the paintings they want to take out and these are the ones they want to put in, Srila Prabhupada.” And we started again going page by page, color plate by color plate. And Prabhupada was becoming more and more livid, and more and more angry. And it was just the most terrifying experience that I have ever gone through. He was screaming, “They’re ruining my books! They have no brain! They are hippies! They are rascals!” Screaming, pounding his fist on the desk. At one point they wanted
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to take out the old Putana, the dead Putana with Krsna sucking the breast of Putana or playing on her lap, whatever it was, and in the background you have the Vrndavana village. And they wanted to put the new one in from the 2. 2 which Prabhupada considered to be an inferior painting because it did not show as much. “An ugly black lump,” he said.
But the worst was when we came to the rasalila. There were different reasons that Prabhupada gave why he didn’t want these paintings taken out and the new ones put in in most cases. He gave the instruction that “If you want to replace a painting it has to be same the exact same pastime, the exact same scene, just done technically better. But just to take a painting out that’s already been approved and stick in a new painting to fill up the number of pages of a different pastime, this is not allowed. You can add but you cannot subtract.” He would say like that. “If you want to take something out you replace it with the exact same lila executed better. Other than that, if you want to add something, just add it. But there’s no question of removing anything.”
So by the time we got to the rasalila, this was one of Prabhupada’s favorite paintings, the original Devahuti painting of the rasalila which we’ve made the poster of, which is now in the Krsna Book and so on. They wanted to take it out and they wanted to put this painting of Krsna dancing with the gopis from the first printing of the Third Canto, Volume 2. Now in the reprinting of the Third Canto, Volume 2 this rasalila has been taken out and the original Krsna Book rasalila has been put in. Because the rasalila that they wanted to put in the Krsna Book was the final straw. Prabhupada just turned white! He looked into his bedroom at the original painting which was hanging on his wall.
From his sitting room in Los Angeles he could look into his bed- room. He turned white. He looked at that painting. Then he looked down at the painting that they were proposing was better. Krsna’s hair was wild and long, Radharani’s head was uncovered, the gopi’s
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hair was uncovered. It was like, Prabhupada said, “hippie dance, sex dance. Hippie seeds, hippie contamination, hippie mentality, hippie, hippie, dirty! Rascals!” On and on. Prabhupada was screaming, banging his fist on the desk. There was nothing you could say, it was just an explosion that “They’re ruining my books.” Hearing the screaming, Sudama, who was acting as Prabhupada’s servant ran into the room opened the door and seeing... just as he came in Prabhupada was banging and releasing a barrage.
And Sudama couldn’t even offer his obeisances. I remember looking at him, he was terrified. He lifted up his hand to his face to shield his eyes. He somehow pushed himself into the back wall and lifted up a foot like he was towering, like he was about to be attacked. And he was just holding himself, cringing. Finally Prabhupada said, “Go get Bali Mardan.” So I ran downstairs. I found Bali. I said, “Bali, Prabhupada is so angry at the artists, Radhaballabha, me and you. You better come upstairs immediately.” So Bali ran upstairs and Prabhupada just explained how everyone’s a rascal for daring to touch anything in his books.
Prabhupada’s greatest anxiety is that we will change his books
The greatest anxiety he has is that after he’s gone we will add things to his books that are bogus, we will take things out that are bona fide, we will make changes in his books and the whole work for 10,000 years, his plan Prabhupada was working on, it will all be spoiled by us because of our tendency to change. And Prabhupada gave an example that the disease to do things differently is so in- herent in the Americans that for the sake of doing things differently we would walk on our hands rather than our feet. He gave different examples like that. He called the artists rascals.
So we promised Prabhupada that we wouldn’t change the art. And then I wrote the letter to the artists explaining to them everything.
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I remember Bali Mardan went downstairs to call them up and I remember watching the phone call. He called up the Press and asked for Radhaballabha, (imitating Bali’s voice) Radhaballabha, guess what just happened? Prabhupada called you and all the artists rascals. He said you’re all rascals” Dead silence on the other end. And Bali, he was enjoying this humiliation of the devotees that worked under him. So I saw that and it was the beginning of my suspecting that something’s off with Bali Mardan.
“You’re never allowed to change anything in Prabhupada’s books”
So that was a big event, the first of many with the Isopanisad cover and these paintings. The first of many experiences I’ve had with Prabhupada literally drilling me, pounding it into my head that you’re never allowed to change anything in his books. He trained me so intensely on this point. Even when the changes make sense he wouldn’t let me change. Just to train me. One time in early 1975 was it? When Prabhupada came to L. A.?
Baladeva Vidyabhusana: Yes, January, end of January. Change the size of Krsna Book? NO
Ramesvara: I presented to Prabhupada that we could no longer afford to print the hardbound Krsna Book in two volumes. We already published the paperback Krsna Book in three volumes. So I had the task, the service of trying to beg Prabhupada to let us print his hardbound Krsna Book in three volumes. The discussion went on for an hour in his room. Prabhupada was just telling me how he had planned out the Krsna Book in two volumes from the very beginning. He had planned it like that and I’m ruining the plan. And that the whole feeling was that it’s not just Prabhupada’s plan, it’s
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Krsna’s plan and He spoke it to Prabhupada and then Prabhupada just did it like that.
So it was so heavy and I was presenting all the arguments about the economics of it and so on. Because the oil embargo had killed the printing industry. The price had gone up 50% on everything. And I told Prabhupada if we don’t make this change to three volumes the book will be out of print,’we can’t afford it. We’re already contracted with Dai Nippon to reprint the Krsna Books, they’ve already bought the paper, we have to go ahead but they’ve raised their price and there’s nothing they can do. They won’t honor the original contracts. So finally after about an hour, Prabhupada was so unhappy, so depressed about it, he finally consented to make it three volumes like the paperbacks. Then I mentioned to Prabhupada that Dai Nippon had proposed that this book would be so much cheaper if we just print it in the same size as the Srimad- Bhagavatam instead of the bigger size.
When I said that there was another one of those famous tran- scendental explosions! He banged his fist on his desk, he told me that he had planned it in that size and nothing will change it and he threw me out of his room. He just threw me out. So in this way he was training me to understand how meticulous every detail of Prabhupada’s books, his translations, his purports especially are designed. The concept, the market, the cover pictures, everything Prabhupada would...whenever he was involved he was just meditating so deeply on his books and how to present them to the world.
Prabhupada’s “transcendental phobia”: Don’t change my books!
Before we talk about Prabhupada’s travels in ’76 I want to mention another important theme which was Prabhupada actually instruct- ing about the production on his books. I’ve already mentioned the conversation that took place in ’74 about the art paintings. I think that you should get a copy of the letter that I wrote to the
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art department because practically word for word Prabhupada’s instructions were there and you can get a first hand understanding of how intense Prabhupada was and how concerned he was that in the future no one ever be allowed to make changes in his books. This was more than just a preoccupation with Prabhupada.
This was a, you could call this a transcendental phobia, that the entire movement would without any shadow of a doubt be com- pletely wasted and all the work and effort of all the devotees that Prabhupada was directly as well as his own efforts would all be ultimately lost if his books were changed. That was his attitude. He expressed that attitude very clearly in 1974 in that conversation and in that letter you’ll see the statements Prabhupada made about how everything will be ruined if his books are changed. Then prior to that I mentioned the incident about the Isopanisad cover where Prabhupada was revealing how much thought went into planning out his books when he was involved. He got very furious when we wanted to put Krsna on the cover instead of Visnu.
Prabhupada made all the book production/publishing decisions
In 1975, I think I also mentioned this, that we had a very big problem with the printing of the hardbound Krsna Books. We wanted to change it from two volumes to three volumes. And there was literally like a fight. Not even a fight, Prabhupada was just furious. And he went on for about 1 hour talking about the Krsna Book and how he had planned it out to be in two volumes.
And it became very clear to me that Prabhupada was training me to understand that these books are transcendental manifestations of Prabhupada’s devotion, Prabhupada’s realization of God which I consider to be perfect absolute God realization coming from Krsna Himself. And that no one is allowed to change anything. The size, the shape, the number of pages, everything. Actually
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Prabhupada did make the decisions. If you read through the letters that Prabhupada wrote to me and to Radhaballabha you’ll see.
“Aim for 400 pages per book”
I got a letter from Prabhupada wherein he instructed that each book should be 400 pages. We asked Prabhupada where to draw the line, where to cut off one volume and start the next. How many pages do you want in your books? And Prabhupada said, “Aim for 400 pages per book.” It could be a little less, a little more, but that should be the average. So Prabhupada was planning that out. Obviously Prabhupada planned out the first three Bhagavatams when he was in India.
And his meditation was that this is the way I want the books for the West, especially for the American market. But basically speaking for the western English market I want them to have cover jackets, ultimately I want them to have color plates, ultimately I want them to have a nice binding, nice cloth, nice paper, this is the size. When you consider Prabhupada’s external poverty while he was in India, then there is no excuse for the book being that size, it could have been a lot smaller, it would have been a lot cheaper for Prabhupada.
“You cannot change, you cannot make any changes”
So obviously Prabhupada was not considering economics. Other- wise he would have made the books smaller like sometimes we see our European books are smaller physically. This was the size. Prabhupada had to strain economically to get the book that size, to pay that much more to get the book that size. That means that’s the size he wanted. And then he would pound it into our heads that you cannot change, you cannot make any changes.
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When we suggested reducing the large Krsna Book he threw us out of the room
So in 1975 we went through that. But Prabhupada finally agreed to extend the Krsna Books to three volumes like the paperback, it had already come out as three volumes. But when we suggested moving the size down from the large Krsna Book size to the Bhagavatam size, he became so furious that he literally threw us out of his room. He threw me out of his room. He wouldn’t hear of it.
He didn’t want the books to look like Bibles
We talked to Prabhupada about whether the books should be with gold edges and gold guilding and he emphasized in letters and in personal conversations he didn’t want the books to look like Bibles and he didn’t want them to be distributed the way people distribute Bibles. And that can also be found in letters. Many other statements about the nature of Prabhupada’s books, how he wanted them to be can be found in these letters.
We did not have any authority with the American editions of Prabhupada’s books, he was making the decisions
I remember one incident in 1976, I think I already mentioned about the color board. I think I should go over this one more time just in this context. We had been preparing to reprint all the old Bhagavatams for the standing order program was really picking up. It started in ’74. In ’75 it was rolling. By the end of ’75, early ’76 they were finishing up America, Ganasam was getting
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13 orders at Harvard, 135 orders in one month in New England, it was rolling. And we needed to reprint the old volumes. We wanted to standardize the lettering, the format and so on. Every single standardization had to be approved by Prabhupada. We did not have any authority with the American editions of Prabhupada’s books to be innovative. He was making the decisions. This was his BBT, these were his books.
The foreign editions were given more freedom
Now when his books were translated into foreign languages he gave far more latitude to his men. They could decide on how to design the book and try to make improvements obviously was the motive. But in terms of the size, the lettering and so on, they could chose. But with the American books, they were Prabhupada’s books. So Harikesa Maharaja and Bhagavan Maharaja and even Hrdayananda Maharaja are going to have a much different experience. Although originally Prabhupada said that all the foreign languages should just follow the American format, they should use the same cover art that the American books use, originally Prabhupada wanted it standardized all over the world.
That’s in a letter to Karandhar. But gradually Prabhupada said that the foreign editions they can, because of different conditions in their countries, cultural things related to design, economic factors, they were given much more freedom. Hansaduta Maharaja, all the foreign publishers had a lot more freedom. But with the American books, they were Prabhupada’s. That was like one of Prabhupada’s personal projects. Just like his sankirtana party, so this was his personal publishing.
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“There can never be any more changes” — Prabhupada
So in 1976 at Mayapur we brought the color board. We had been talking about how we wanted to standardize everything for the reprints for the Library Party. Prabhupada at that time approved the new design for the Krsna Book trilogy and then he approved the standardization in terms of lettering and so on for the Bhagavatams and he approved the new color board. That is what the 12 Cantos are going to look like. Prabhupada was very happy to see that we had made a plan. But then he got very grave and said, “Now, this is the final plan, this is the final approved standard, there can never be any more changes.” He was emphatic, he was insistent, and he pounded it into our heads. I was there with Radhaballabha I think Jagannathasuta was there, Prabhupada Kripa Maharaja was there.
Baladeva Vidyabhusana: Where was this?
“This changing business is the disease
that the Americans have”
Ramesvara: This was right on his veranda outside his room in the back part where he was taking massage. Mayapur festival ’76. Prabhupada Krpa remembers this vividly because he just brought it up at the recent BBT trustees meeting. That Prabhupada was absolutely emphatic that this is the way the Bhagavatam’s going to be presented to the western English speaking people. Now there’ll no other way that it will be presented. Later on in that Mayapur festival, I presented to Prabhupada an idea for Beyond Birth and Death reprint.
That was a very popular book at the time and a new...all kinds of new arty and very innovative and creative cover design was going on in the American paperback market. And just going to
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bookstores, especially in airports, I would see that these publishers, karmi publishers are putting a lot into their paperback covers. And one of the things that had just come out was something called dye cuts. A dye cut is where you have a hole in the front coyer and then the inside front pages are actually laminated or glossy paper and you have color printing. So you have color printing that kind of comes through that hole. And it’s like a teaser. And when you see that you’re intrigued and you immediately want to open up the cover and look at the two page spread on the inside front cover and the inside page, that’s called the dye cut. And many books, especially like thriller books, horror books, ghost books, those kind of books use this technique. So I though that Beyond Birth and Death as a title and as a book lent itself to that. So I proposed it to Prabhupada. He completely smashed the idea.
This was inside his room, myself and Radhaballabha. At this time we were showing Prabhupada the...I can’t remember what we were showing him. We were showing him something, maybe color art or something. But anyway, when we presented this idea to him he smashed it and again he gave us a lecture on changes. He used to say, “Change, change, change, for the sake of change. This changing business is the disease that the Americans have. It’s a disease.” And he told this story, I just can’t remember it but I think it’s written in one of the letters too and Tamal Krsna will remember it. That if an American, just to be different, instead of walking on his feet he’ll walk on his hands. Just to be different. Change without real purpose. Now in that letter that I wrote to the artists in 1974, so many specific points are made about changing. When you’re allowed to change and when you’re not.
Baladeva Vidyabhusana: You don’t have a copy of that?
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“You cannot change one comma, not even a punctuation mark, that is the etiquette”
Ramesvara: I can find a copy. It’s a good thing to refer to. Especially he talked about, as I said earlier, “You can add things but you can’t delete. If you want to replace a painting you have to actually make an improvement and do the exact same subject matter. Once it’s approved it’s eternal.” That was his quote. “Once it’s approved it’s eternal.” One of the heaviest incidences came up I think in ’76 or ’77, we wrote to Prabhupada about publishing his spiritual master’s book the Brahma-samhita. Because it had already been introduced to chant in the Gurukulas, we were chanting it all over ISKCON. And although Prabhupada in ’75 said, “You cannot read the Gaudiya Math publications, you cannot approach my spiritual master or Bhaktivinoda directly.
You have to learn their teachings through me, through my books, through my lectures.” This was a big incident in ’75 because the devotees were buying Gaudiya Math publications and reading di- rectly. And Prabhupada completely smashed it. So it was either ’76 or ’77 we wanted to print Brahma-samhita. Prabhupada approved it and he wrote a very heavy letter. to Radhaballabha. Because we were asking Prabhupada about editing changes. I’m not sure if he wrote the letter or if it’s on a tape or maybe it’s both. I think Radhaballabha had a room conversation with Prabhupada and I wasn’t present. Tamal was there. And in addition to that I think there’s a letter. Anyway, between the letter and the room conversation, the instruction was given that “You cannot make any changes in my spiritual master’s book.” “What about the incorrect grammar?” Prabhupada’s reply, “You cannot change one comma, not even a comma, not even a punctuation mark, that is the etiquette.”
So that was just another one of those super heavy instructions
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that the etiquette in dealing with a great acarya’s books is that whatever he has done it’s eternal and it can never be changed. And I believe that all of this was part of Prabhupada’s training us. He wanted to train people who would be entrusted with his books. And who would in turn train the next generation of BBT men, managers and production managers in this fanatical, literally fanatical transcendental phobia about changes. Prabhupada went out of his way to train us. Some of the instructions were so extreme that one might say they’re exaggerated. But they’re not exaggerated. This is exactly what Prabhupada wanted.
Baladeva Vidyabhusana: Can you give an example of that? No one is willing to change the size,
we’re all so afraid
Ramesvara: Well, just the economics of why we can’t publish the Krsna Book anymore. Because we’re not allowed to change the size. This has been hanging up the BBT trustees for the last five years. The publishing industry has just exploded in terms of inflation. Everything is a 150, 200% more expensive than when Prabhupada was here. We no longer can afford to print the Krsna Book hardbounds in such large volumes. But no one is willing to change the size, we’re all so afraid. But that’s the way Prabhupada trained us. Maybe one day it is changed for economic reasons because ultimately Prabhupada wouldn’t want the book to be out of print. But this training was ultimate to insure that the instructions in his book, the words they weren’t changed and pictures and illustrations were not added which make the book incorrect and therefore would cause a person to just dismiss the whole book. Prabhupada said, “If there’s one mistake then the whole book is useless.”
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“If you put these in my book the whole book is ruined.” — Prabhupada
When he was rejecting Pariksit’s line drawings for the Teachings of Lord Caitanya he said, “These are mistakes, these pictures do not illustrate properly. Actually some of the illustrations here are subject to great mis-interpretation and if you put these in my book the whole book is ruined.” So this was Prabhupada’s training to us about his books.
Prabhupada decided the size, he decided the number of pages
So he was very involved in the designing of the book, the format. We talked to Prabhupada about the number of pages, we talked to Prabhupada about gold stamping, we talked to him about color pictures, ultimately he wanted 50 color pictures in each book. Prabhupada was a very active publisher, not just author. He was a very active publisher. We would discuss with him as we’ve already mentioned about the Macmillan contract, about American printer versus Japanese printer, Prabhupada would give us the go ahead and we would go.
And by the momentum of his order we would become expert in international publishing. We became expert in understanding the publishing industry of different countries, the paper industry of different countries, we became expert in negotiating, but all of this was by Prabhupada’s order. How he moved into Dai Nippon and established a credit, how he authorized us to move away from Dai Nippon. Prabhupada was an active publisher, he was not just someone who just turned it all over and didn’t know what was going on. We were sending him monthly reports. I had to send Prabhupada a monthly report during his life. On the income of the
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BBT, on the expenses of the BBT, on all the loans of the BBT and how current they are, on the production that the BBT is engaged in and the upcoming production, on the quantity of books printed. Prabhupada was getting monthly reports and he was writing me letters indicating he was reading them. It’s not like I was just mailing them and they weren’t read to him. He was reading them and he was writing back comments. What about this? What about that? So Prabhupada was not just an active author, he was an active publisher.
He was involved in designing. He created the marketing strategy which involved as I mentioned this ingenious, ingenious idea of mixing philosophy and gorgeous art work. That’s a marketing strategy which enabled us to sell hundreds of thousands of the Bhagavad-gita, literally millions of copies of one philosophy book. Prabhupada decided the size, Prabhupada decided the number of pages, he always pushed us to improve and increase the quality and so on. He wanted high quality paper in his books. This was something we talked about with Prabhupada and he insisted on high quality paper. And good binding. And in terms of our sales strategy, it was Prabhupada who gave the approval for the airports.
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