The BBT deserves applause for its recent rejection of a proposal to change the standard of capitalizing personal pronouns that represent Lord Krsna. Admittedly, the stir over personal pronouns hardly rates as a footnote to the more significant and fractious debate about posthumous changes to Srila Prabhuapada’s books. Nevertheless, it demonstrates that the BBT is not an entrenched autocratic institution oblivious of the lament of ordinary devotees. As well, the results of a poll conducted by the Sampradya Sun showed that an overwhelming majority of its readers is keenly protective of Srila Prabhupada’s literary legacy. These are hopeful signs that the debate over posthumous editing may have a resolution.
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati once expressed gratitude as follows: “Lord Gauransundara has appeared as teacher to the world. He conveyed His teachings in eight stanzas. The Mahanta-Guru and the Vaisnavas who are submissively attached to the Mahanta-Guru instruct me in every way in those teachings of Sri Gaurasundara. The Vaisnavas who are submissively attached to the Mahanta-Guru save me from all dangers. All who instruct me in Krsna consciousness are the reflected forms of my spiritual master in different receptacles.”
Changing the books: The Premises of a Debate
Arguments in favor of posthumous editing include: the revision of editions extant during Srila Prabhupada presence by a return to the original manuscripts; the accreditation and competence of the editors; considerations regarding the evolution of language, readability and acceptance by the scholarly class of men.
Jayadvaita Svami defends a return to the original manuscripts as a basis for making changes in a recent article entitled Try to Discredit the Manuscripts.
The competence and authorization of Jayadvaita Svami and Dravida Prabhu as editors is addressed in Dravida das’ “Editing: Whom Did Srila Prabhupada Trust? ” In the article, Dravida Prabhu argues that Srila Prabhupada put his trust in Jayadvaita Svami and, by proxy therefore, he himself has quality.
A proponent of the ‘scholarly’ and readability line of argument has summarized it as follows: “Presentation is very important, which includes proper syntax, grammar, and vocabulary. Srila Prabhupada's writing style, with the assistance of editors, is a vast departure from Srila Bhaktisiddhanta's style, and reflects a later 20th-century American English. Similarly, the last twenty years have seen tremendous changes in the English language, largely due to cultural, political and technological influences. Graduates today are accustomed to the modern rules of grammar. Students who ignore recent amendments will find corrections on their writing submissions, as I have experienced firsthand. Writers who use outdated vocabulary and grammar may not be taken seriously, and their publications will be considered badly written.”
The other side of the debate is represented by those who question the validity of specific changes to the books and others who reject the idea of posthumous change as such-in the context, the Webster Dictionary defines ‘posthumous’ as, “published after the death of its author.” The concentration on the merits of specific changes, it may be argued, serves only to perpetuate the debate since it is largely based on subjective opinion and perception. A strong case can be made, however, for considering posthumous change-apart from the odd grammatical or orthographical correction-as an unacceptable and unnecessary policy.
Jayadvaita Svami and Dravida Prabhu are skilled editors and over the years have demonstrated exemplary dedication in the service of Srila Prabhupada’s BBT and ISKCON mission. It should also be kept in mind that editorial change does not de facto, as some have suggested, entail loss of spiritual integrity. Srila Prabhupada says as much: “After all, it [Krsna consciousness] is a technical science of spiritual values, and thus we are concerned with the techniques and not with the language. If the techniques of this great literature are understood by the people of the world, there will be success.”(SB. 1.5.11, purport). The revised editions of Bhagavad-gita as it is and Sri Caitanya-caritamrta are not irrevocably impaired preaching tools; but they are changed, and that is where the shoe pinches.
The BBT and the GBC have not come forward in defense of their decision to allow posthumous change. Except for a small group of supporters, the editors have had to defend the policy on their own. Their efforts have focused mostly on explaining the reasoning in support of certain changes. The devotees at large are expected to assume that were he present, His Divine Grace would approve of the policy of change, as well as consider the changes as more representative of his original intention. That there seems to be no sastric evidence or Vaisnava precedent to support posthumous change has not raised flags of caution in the minds of the BBT trustees or the GBC members. Nor has it dampened the editors’ enthusiasm for their work of adjusting Srila Prabhupada’s books.
The Vaisnava creed is that a pure devotee’s creation, no matter how it may appear to conditioned eyes, is a production that emanates from the spiritual realm, beyond the manifestation of the three modes of nature and its four defects. To posthumously change such a creation is to imply that it is tainted. The suggestion that the founder-acarya of ISKCON was prone to error when he authorized the publication of his books is too controversial to entertain and offends a majority of his followers.
As respected as the BBT editors are, as ‘authorized’ as they may feel, they face a battle of Sisyphean proportion if they wish to convince the ISKCON community that posthumous change constitutes an acceptable practice. Neither the BBT nor the GBC has ex cathedra authority to sanction such practice. The idea of posthumous change has no sastric support. Relying on good intention only, the practice is gratuitous.
The works of an acarya are what Srila Prabhupada called his “emotional ecstasies”; they are accepted by self-realized souls as timeless and eternal. Would any Gaudiya Vaisnava, regardless of erudition or intention, pretend to have quality to adjust the Sanskrit of the Srimad-Bhagavatam or the Bengali of Sri Caitanya-caritamrta? Yet those languages have also evolved and scholars can be found who question the language and presentation of these classics of the Madhva-Gaudiya Vaisnava sampradaya.
Srimad-Bhagawatam states unequivocally: “On the other hand, that literature which is full of descriptions of the transcendental glories, forms, pastimes, etc., of the unlimited Supreme Lord is a different creation, full of transcendental words directed toward bringing a revolution in the impious lives of this world’s misdirected civilization. Such literatures, even though imperfectly composed, are heard, sung, and accepted by purified men who are thoroughly honest.” (SB., 1.5.11)
In the introduction to the BBT publication of Sri Brahma-samhita one reads the following: “As per Srila Prabhupada’s instructions regarding the publication of this volume, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati’s somewhat technical and sometimes difficult prose has been left intact and virtually untouched. Fearing that any editorial (grammatical and stylistic) tampering with Bhaktisiddhanta’s text might result in inadvertent changes in meaning, Prabhupada asked that it be left as is, and the editors of this volume have complied with his wishes.”
It would augur well for the followers of His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada to show him the same deference he offered his own spiritual master.
The use of language is an inscrutable affair, as is the method of preaching of an acarya. All sorts of mundane arguments can be offered as to why some changes to Srila Prabhupada’s books might improve them. There is no way to prove or disprove that His Divine Grace might be pleased or displeased with any such change. But it is generally recognized that, absent the input of an author, editorial change is a speculative science, subjective by nature.
To say that one has gone back to the original manuscripts to effectuate an editorial change is not helpful; it implies disregard for an author’s approval of a previous change. The claim that one who was an authorized representative of the acarya during his physical presence remains so after his disappearance is philosophically unsound and in contradiction of statements found in Sri Caitanya-caritamrta as well as the historical record of the Sankirtana movement that both show that ‘authorized’ agents have repeatedly strayed from the path soon after the disappearance of an acarya.
No reputable Academic institution endorses posthumous change. Colleges and universities require students to read the classics in the original. Students of the English language are asked to struggle with The Canterbury Tales as is, deal with the idiosyncrasies of Shakespearean English, and generally familiarize themselves with the dialects of any number of other classics. Language evolves as a function of the culture it represents, but literary works are fixed in time, as it should be.
The literary tradition of Lord Caitanya’s movement is by no means frozen in time. Devotees all over the world are and will continue to elaborate on the Vaisnava philosophy. If someone feels that changing trends and the evolution of language requires an improved presentation of Srila Prabhupada’s books, let him present his ideas in separate annotated editions under his own recognizance, as scholars are wont to do in other fields of studies. Such editions however should not be presented as “intended originals”. Nor should the bulk of BBT resources be employed to print and propagate the resultant works to the detriment of the originals.
Change: A Crack in the Foundation
As the ISKCON movement debates the advisability of editorial changes to the works of its founder-acarya, other societies (governments and religious groups) go to great lengths to protect their foundational documents against change of any kind. Their documents are cast on a stable element to prevent erosion. The proofs are then hidden within the caves of mountains, securely locked inside vaults equipped with sophisticated temperature and humidity controls. These entities are determined to forestall any alteration to their documents, be it from human tampering or from cataclysmic events provoked by men or the forces of nature.
Granted, the electronic revolution in communications may render such measures obsolete. In fact, the BBT has been careful to preserve the original editions of Srila Prabhupada’s books. But, unless the originals are regularly printed and distributed to the public, they stand to fall into disuse, and, much like the original books of the Bible, be relegated as the exclusive field of study of determined but obscure scholars.
Without any editing, Srila Prabhupada’s books changed the spiritual landscape of the entire world and powered the greatest spiritual revolution of modern times. Where is the need to tamper with a weapon that has served the Krsna consciousness movement so well against the forces of evil and transformed the hearts of men so effectively? By definition the BBT trustees and ISKCON leadership are the guardians of this most precious asset of the Krsna consciousness movement. There is something irreverent and almost sacrilegious in allowing anyone to change these books, keep them stored in archives while the founder-acarya’s considerable resources in monies and good will are harnessed to print, promote and distribute so-called “improved and enlarged” editions claiming greater authenticity than the originals. It seems only decent to beg of the ISKCON leadership that they either present a strong sastric and philosophical defense of its defense or rescind its support of posthumous changing of the books. We are after all talking about books that, if we are to believe His Divine Grace himself, are destined to be the law books of humanity for thousands of years.
Reasons for change there will always be. The debate over the BBT book changes has been a persistent one and often fraught with much hyperbolic, even hurtful language. Both sides have claimed the high ground of Srila Prabhupada’s interest in the matter, yet no resolution is forthcoming. Valmiki Muni says that Lord Ramacandra, the greatest ruler of all times, was aware that “an unbiased opinion arises from the conflict of opposing views." Having heard all opposing views of a particular affair, the Lord would then pronounce his decision. Debate is not meant to perpetuate itself without conclusion. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura urged: “There are certain individuals who want to refute whatever explanation they hear, without judging its merit and demerit. This absolutely prohibited to the devotees.” Who is there to read into minds and hearts and determine whether the decision to change the books springs from concerned devotion or disingenuous hubris? The matter cannot be settled by a mutual exchange of insults, nor can the truth be ascertained subjectively; the Vaisnava tradition is to understand things on the basis of guru-sastra-sadhu.
In an overview, that which militates most against posthumous change, no matter how apparently innocuous, is the dynamics and incremental nature of change itself. One may watch a tree grow for days on end and see little change, but were he to come back years later he would be amazed by the transformation of that tree. Similarly, an apparently insignificant change to a book can in time morph into a dramatic misrepresentation. Editorial prerogative beyond the demise of an author and its corollary by ‘proxy’ are particularly deleterious in the context since it implies a self-perpetuating authorization for change. .
As founder-acarya of ISKCON Srila Prabhupada has in his books defined the standard for the universal acceptance of Krsna consciousness. In Sanskrit this is called the vicara-dhara of the acarya and, for his followers, it supersedes previous and current expositions of the Vaisnava philosophy. The evidence is strongly in favor of printing Srila Prabhupada’s books as he authorized them. When a foundation shifts ever so slightly, the soundness of a building is compromised. For the sake of cooperation among the devotees and the future of ISKCON, let us pray at the lotus feet of Sri Sri Gaura-Nitai that ISKCON leaders will see fit to reconsider the policy on posthumous change. Accepting that all parties to the discussion are sincere, why let yet another fraternal war fester in the body of the Society? What harm to anyone to let Srila Prabhupada have the final word in the matter: “...we have to see that in our book there is no spelling or grammatical mistake. We do not mind for any good style, our style is Hare Krsna, but still we should not present a shabby thing. Although Krsna literatures are so nice that even if they are presented in broken and irregular ways, such literatures are welcomed, read and respected by bona fide devotees.” (SPL 01.09.70)