Back to Godhead is not the world's most popular magazine. And yet its founder, Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, hoped that it might become extremely popular: "I am waiting for the day when this paper will take the shape of Life magazine or similar other magazines in the matter of its popularity." Although Srila Prabhupada urged his followers to widely distribute Back to Godhead, he admitted that he didn't expect many people to take to Krsna consciousness. As Lord Krsna states in Bhagavad-gita, out of many thousands of human beings, hardly anyone will be interested in perfection, and even out of those interested in perfection, hardly one will know Krsna in truth.
Back to Godhead, however, does have its long-time, faithful followers, as well as a steady flow of new readers. I would like to explain with the aim of informing our new readers and reassuring our old ones whyBack to Godhead is the way it is.
Srila Prabhupada founded the magazine in 1944 on the order of his spiritual master. In the beginning, Srila Prabhupada wrote almost all the articles, setting the standard for the magazine by presenting the teachings of the Vedic scriptures in straightforward, philosophical prose. Yet by putting the Vedic scriptural truths into a magazine format relevant to the times (late- and post- World War II), he also became a journalist of Krsna consciousness, writing articles like "Mr. Churchill's 'Humane World,' " "Mr. Bernard Shaw's Wishful Desire," and "Gandhi-Jinnah Talks."
When Srila Prabhupada came to America and began the Krsna consciousness movement, he handed over the task of producing Back to Godhead to his disciples. He still saw every issue until his passing away in 1977, and he always gave pertinent guidelines. Therefore, Back to Godhead, to be true to its purpose of bringing "revolution to human society about understanding spiritual life," will always be the work of followers of Srila Prabhupada, who are carrying out his will. The editors have produced the Back to Godhead Handbook, which gives many statements by Srila Prabhupada as to editorial policy, style, qualifications for authors, frequency, circulation, and so on.
The editorial policy of Back to Godhead is to present the philosophy of Krsna consciousness. As Lord Krsna teaches in Bhagavad-gita, all of us living entities are eternal spirit souls, full of bliss and knowledge. In the material world, because of misidentification with our bodies, we suffer from miseries on all sides, and finally we die. But by revival of our original, spiritual nature and our original, loving relationship with the supreme soul, Lord Krsna, we conditioned souls can rise to perfection even while in the human life, and we can transfer at death back to the spiritual world. Since Lord Krsna recommends that His teachings be spread, Back to Godhead doesn't merely discuss theological principles; it advocates them and confronts the opposite ways of life, such as atheism and hedonism.
Back to Godhead has evolved into a "slick" magazine, employing modern graphics, photography, and journalistic prose, yet its staff members, as well as its regular readers, expect Back to Godhead to always be in line with the philosophy of Krsna consciousness. Anyone who knows and likes Back to Godhead would never want to see it become altered in its essence. Back to Godhead is meant to be something you can depend on in a precarious world, like the morning sun or the existence of the Absolute Truth.
As for the magazine's becoming increasingly popular, that is a challenge given by Srila Prabhupada, and one we haven't fully met. Back to Godhead has always been distributed by members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, so the number of magazines they distribute monthly is some indication of the health of the Hare Krsna movement. Sometimes devotees have distributed 800,000 a month, and sometimes as few 20,000. Although we at Back to Godhead hope to see an increase in single copy sales by preachers, the real future of the magazine may lie in steadily increasing the number of subscribers.
Back to Godhead should always have something fresh and new in it, because that's the nature of spiritual life. Lord Krsna is never dull or static, and neither should we be. The test is whether in the name of change or while trying to gain readers, Back to Godhead can keep its defined direction. On this point, Srila Prabhupada made it clear that Back to Godhead should never "sell out" to ordinary taste, or it will have lost its soul. As he once wrote:
Actually, people are seeking transcendental reading matter more and more, so if we stick to our standard, as I have given you, then there's no doubt they will come to read our magazine in greater numbers. You make it very attractive, with our Krsna consciousness subject matter as you have outlined, and our BTG will be very much in demand, without further changes. I have seen one religious newspaper which is trying to attract readers by resort to fashionable phrases and materialistic themes with mass public interest simply because they have not got any real substance for attracting, they offer what they think the public might like, such as sex, crimes, amusements, like that. That is not our method. We have got such a stock of real substance that alone it is sufficient to capture the readers, without such ordinary tricks and commercial formulas.
As a matter of fact, the editors of BTG, about ten years ago, did start to drift away from the essential principles, but other devotees and faithful readers protested. The editors had an idea that it would be better to phase paintings of Lord Krsna out of Back to Godhead, fearing that because His form wasn't a popular image He would be seen as a sectarian, Indian god. They began to make the magazine more of a New Age statement, bringing in authors who didn't share the philosophical conclusions of Krsna consciousness.
But the readers didn't go for it. They wrote, "Where are the beautiful pictures of Krsna?" and "You should be ashamed of yourselves!" And Srila Prabhupada stated, "What is the use of instituting many changes? Of something worth while people are not so stupid that they will prefer the package or label to the contents inside. Where is the end of change if we simply rely on public taste? It is the philosophy which must attract people to Back to Godhead magazine."
At that time, one of the editors presented the argument to Srila Prabhupada that they wanted to distribute Back to Godhead widely, "to many ordinary people who go shopping in stores housewives, and so on." To which Srila Prabhupada replied, "Still we cannot make it a shopkeepers' magazine." And regarding the idea that Krsna was perhaps too strange to many, Srila Prabhupada replied, "Even if it is esoteric, still Krsna must be there."
Aware of Srila Prabhupada's desires, and those of Back to Godhead's readers, we intend to keep up the right direction as we try to improve in order to realize Prabhupada's "great dream" of seeing Back to Godhead become an influential journal in the modern world. There is no room for complacency. And while there is no room for whimsy in printing such an authorized and important work, Back to Godhead allows for the full potential of artists, writers, and thinkers. To help us achieve the goals Srila Prabhupada set for us, we hope to regularly hear from our readers, and we hope you will enjoy and profit spiritually by participating in the monthly adventure of Back to Godhead.- Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami