Please accept my humble obeisances, All glories to Srila Prabhupada!
It appears that the book change debate is heating up again. With your permission, I would like to add my comments and share some new information with you concerning changes made to Srila Prabhupada's books, specifically in regard to the Bhagavad-gita As It Is.
It is well-documented that Srila Prabhupada was not trying to create a literary masterpiece when he was preparing the Bhagavad-gita As It Is for publication. His urgent message calling for surrender to Krishna could be understood even if the wording of his book was sometimes awkward or improperly composed. He felt the purpose of editing was to correct spelling and grammatical errors, not to change the style of his writing. He said, "Our style is 'Hare Krishna,'" and once a book was published, no changes could be made without his written consent. "Do not try to change anything without my permission." (Letter to Radhavallabha 8-26-76)
At the same time, Srila Prabhupada said it was not our philosophy to print mistakes. Can so-called mistakes be corrected after the passing of the spiritual master without his written approval? That is the subject of the debate.
Historically, it is a fact that Srila Prabhupada did not ask anyone to re-edit his books after his disappearance. Srila Prabhupada was personally satisfied with the original printing of his books which had the potency to spread the philosophy of Krishna consciousness throughout the world. The original books attracted thousands to surrender to Krishna and won the praise of hundreds of professors and scholars worldwide. There was nothing lacking in his books and it appeared that nothing needed to be changed.
According to Srila Prabhupada, a disciple should not develop the mentality of seeing mistakes in the writings of his spiritual master. That is a very dangerous frame of mind because it is a step away from thinking of the guru as a conditioned soul or ordinary man. One should therefore be very cautious about even considering whether anything in his books needed to be corrected. Such an idea may set a precedent for new changes to be made with each successive generation of devotees. Instead of encouraging the reader to take the message of the spiritual master "as it is," this editorial policy may induce the reader to look for further errors in the teachings of the spiritual master. This is not how one should approach the transcendental subject matter. Without full faith in the teachings of the spiritual master, no one can make any advancement in spiritual life.
Because one can no longer get written permission from the author to change anything, is it possible to make corrections without showing disrespect to His Divine Grace? I believe the solution may be found in the original contract signed with the MacMillan Company, publishers of the 1972 complete edition of the Bhagavad-gita As It Is.
(Please note that a revision was added to the standard contract. Srila Prabhupada wanted the following words added to the section shown below: "only with the consent of the author")
V. The Author shall revise the first and subsequent editions of the Work at the request of the Publisher and shall supply any new matter necessary from time to time to keep the work up to date. If the Author shall neglect or be unable to revise or supply new matter at a time and in a form satisfactory to the Publisher, then the Publisher may engage some other person or persons to do so. When such revisions are not made by the Author, the Publisher shall cause such fact to be evident in the revised subsequent edition. The Publisher shall have all the rights in connection with all subsequent editions that the Publisher is entitled to in the original Work.
So, consistent with his subsequent dealings with the BBT staff, Srila Prabhupada was insisting that changes be made only with his consent. MacMillan promised that any changes they would make in later editions would be indicated ("The Publisher shall cause such fact to be evident"), anticipating that corrections might be necessary.
The problem with the current BBT Bhagavad-gita is that none of the changes are annotated. There is no indication in what way the original has been changed although the new version is very much different from the original. The style of writing has also changed, but perhaps most important is that there was no direct order from Srila Prabhupada to make any changes in his already published books after he would no longer be with us. The trust document that created the BBT did not give this particular power to the Trustees who were supposed to protect Srila Prabhupada's legacy.
Still, the question remains whether obvious mistakes made by earlier editors can be corrected. The first point is that if any change is ever to be made, it must be annotated showing the original, preferably in an appendix. And it must be a correction that we are certain Srila Prabhupada would have approved. There is no room for making changes for the purpose of political correctness or stylistic improvement. Our style is "Hare Krishna". That's all.
Even awkward wording, as one may also find in Shakespeare's writings, should not be changed. Srila Prabhupada said in this regard that "If one is too big, there is no mistake." So for the editors to change the very first verse of the Bhagavad-gita because "What did my sons and the sons of Pandu do" sounds too much like the childish word for excrement when read aloud, is not justifiable.
In Vrndavana, in 1977, Srila Prabhupada heard the suggestion to have all of the books re-edited, but his response was to do the next printing to the original way. He felt that that would be sufficient to correct whatever damage had been caused by rascal editors. If, however, in his absence, some error is discovered that is crucial to the understanding of the Bhagavad-gita, the BBT trustees may decide to make an annotated correction. If a change in the original is contemplated, it must be ascertained that the rule of arsha prayoga is not going to be violated.
It is unfortunate that the great potency of the original Bhagavad-gita has been compromised, but at least the BBT now makes the original MacMillan Gita available to all. On principle, the "new" Gita should not be reprinted because it does not make evident the changes that were made to Srila Prabhupada's original. In future printings, the corrections we know His Divine Grace approved after 1972 may be entered into the original text without annotation. If it is determined that it is theologically permissible to make any further corrections at all, it must be done with the utmost care because our scriptures are the basis of our faith in Srila Prabhupada and the process of devotional service.
Hoping this finds you all well.