Friends of the BBT Newsletter - Feb 2009
Posted February 15, 2009
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Spiritual Vision: Bringing Prabhupada's Books to Braille
Luca Pistolese didn't have an easy start to life. Born premature, he was placed in an incubator to care for his frail body. But a malfunction caused too much oxygen to be released into the chamber, burning his eyes. Luca would be blind for life.
The darkness was complete, enveloping him both physically and spiritually. As a young man, he tried to dispel it by studying different books on spirituality, but they only left him unsatisfied and confused.
Everything changed when one day, Luca met an ISKCON devotee who presented him with a copy of Bhagavad-gita As It Is. At last, light shone into his life. His mission had been to find answers by combining wisdom from every religion, but as his friend read him the Bhagavad-gita, he realized that it was all he needed-everything was right there, in its pages. And so in 1996, Luca joined the ISKCON temple in Rome.
Standing in front of its Radha-Krishna deities, however, Luca felt miserable. He wanted so much to see them, but he couldn't. And there was nothing he could do about it. Noticing this, BBT Trustee for Italy Madhusevita Dasa approached him. "More important than seeing Krishna," he said, "Is acting in such a way that Krishna sees you."
It was a turning point for Luca. True sight, he understood, was devotional service. It was then that he began to consider Madhusevita Dasa his guru. Later, he would become initiated and receive the name Lila-suka Dasa.
Lila-suka's great love continued to be Prabhupada's books, and he became determined that he would not be alone in receiving their benefits. He wanted the darkness enveloping every other blind person in the world to be dispelled by their glories. "Oh infallible Govinda," he prayed, alone at the temple one day. "Please allow me to give others the nectar I taste when I hear the stories of your pastimes, that they might also be as happy as me."
As the Brahma-samhita, another of Lilasuka's favorite books, states, Lord Govinda fulfills all the desires of his devotees. It wasn't long after beginning to meditate on his goal that Lilasuka met Renata Arlini, a disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda. When he gave her a full set of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, she loved it so much that she read every volume, and when she had finished, devoured the Caitanya Caritamrita and Bhagavad-gita as well.
Seeing that she had the same hunger for Prabhupada's books as he did, Lila-suka asked her to help him realize his dream of making all Prabhupada's books available for the blind. She agreed, and with the funds she donated, Lila-suka was able to hire professionals to translate Prabhupada's books into the Braille alphabet. Sadly, Renata would pass away only a few years later, in 2001. "She was shy and wanted no credit for the project," Lila-suka recalls. "She considered herself but a servant of Srila Prabhupada and the devotees."
Madhusevita authorized the project, and by 1998, all of Prabhupada's books, in Italian, were in JAWS for MS DOS, the only format available for Braille at the time. Fondazione Ezio Galiano (www.galiano.it), a secular online library for the blind, hosted them with some success. But Lila-suka wasn't satisfied. "Distribution was very limited, because the people who downloaded them usually came across them by accident-few visitors came exclusively to see Prabhupada's books," he says. "And of course they were in Italian only, limiting the audience further. I decided I had to set up an exclusively Vaishnava site for the books, where they would be available in both English and Italian."
But it was no easy task. In 1999, the Internet was almost inaccessible to the blind. The connections were slow and uncertain, and Braille-compatible programs were often disappointing. Lila-suka realized he would have to wait for technology to catch up.
It was going to be a long wait. But Lila-suka didn't lose faith. He continued to pray for his dream to come true some day, and busied himself by translating Back to Godhead magazine into Braille for Fondazione Ezio Galiano.
Finally, in 2005, the solution arrived. The new version of the screen-reader JAWS (Job Access With Speech), until now available only in MS DOS, was compatible with Microsoft Windows. Blind people used a "Braille bar" on their keyboard to read the computer display, with the option of listening to a synthesized voice read the text along with them.
"That wasn't the end to our challenges, though," Lila-suka says. "Sanskrit posed a major problem, because JAWS doesn't include Sanskrit diacritics or the correct voice drivers. We ended up having to remove the diacritics and have the voice synthesizer pronounce the Sanskrit somewhat incorrectly. But we do have future plans to put up audio of the Sanskrit read by devotees."
The next problem was finding a webmaster to maintain the site for free-there were no more funds to pay anyone. Once again, Lila-suka's endeavor seemed blessed. A good friend of his who was favorable to Krishna consciousness volunteered for the job, and soon Lilasuka's website, www.sathyaananda.it, found its way online.
In operation since January 6, 2009, the site includes all of Srila Prabhupada's books in Italian and English. They are available to the blind in Braille, synthesized audio, and even a special version for hand-held PCs.
It's only the beginning, but Lila-suka is positive about the future. A peak of 140 people downloaded books from the site on launch day, and search engine advertising will soon draw more traffic. What's more, plans are underway to translate the Braille books into as many languages as possible, beginning with Spanish.
"This service has given meaning to my life," Lila-suka says. "It's not easy being blind. For a person who can see, it's hard to understand how difficult things are for us that are easy for them. For example, if English is not your first language, you can just go to a library and take a course. For us it is not the same; everything must be appropriate and compatible with our condition."
"But thanks to Madhusevita Prabhu and all the devotees and others who have helped in this project, we have been able to help blind people see," he concludes. "I really hope that this will please Srila Prabhupada and Lord Govinda-He who is the only authentic vision of reality, who is the happiness that never vanishes, and who destroys the darkness of blindness."
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