Arsha-Prayoga: Part III – The Case Against Changing Prabhupada’s Books
As published November 1, 2004
While planning to print the unabridged version of the Bhagavad-gita, Srila Prabhupada often referred to it as the revised and enlarged edition. When the BBT published its unauthorized, adulterated Gita years later, they would henceforward refer to the 1972 printing as the original edition while calling theirs the revised and enlarged edition. This appears to be a subtle act of deception meant to validate the irreverent practice of changing Srila Prabhupada’s Books.
The remainder of this article will focus mainly on the Bhagavad-gita As It Is, which contains the essence of Vaishnava philosophy. Srila Prabhupada said that the Krishna consciousness movement is genuine, historically authorized, natural and transcendental due to its being based on the Bhagavad-gita As It Is. It was his conviction that the entire human society could embrace one God, Krishna, and live harmoniously by practicing one religion, devotional service to God, by chanting one mantra, the Hare Krishna Maha Mantra, and by following one scripture, the Bhagavad-gita As It Is.
Because the Bhagavad-gita is so vitally important to the spreading of Krishna consciousness, the adverse effect of changing its original wording without the approval of the Acharya can hardly be estimated.
Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita was first published in 1968 by the MacMillan Publishing Company in an abridged format of less than 400 pages. The book sold well in book stores and was well received by the academic community. A very encouraging letter of appreciation was submitted by Dr. Haridasa Chaudhuri, President of the Asiatic Studies Institute of San Francisco, who wrote:
The Bhagavad-gita As It Is is without doubt the best presentation so far to the western public of the teachings of Lord Krishna from the standpoint of Vaishnava tradition and devotional Hindu mysticism.
Srila Prabhupada took these words as a favorable sign, but he was not happy that to make his book more marketable, MacMillan had omitted many of his important purports, especially from the later chapters of the Gita. The book’s popularity warranted two additional printings in 1969 and 1970, but MacMillan was still not ready to print the complete edition. While they procrastinated, Srila Prabhupada grew impatient and decided that his own press would print the unabridged Gita. MacMillan, seeing how the demand for Srila Prabhupada’s complete Bhagavad-gita continued to increase, finally agreed to do the printing.
It is interesting to note that while planning to print the unabridged version of the Bhagavad-gita, Srila Prabhupada often referred to it as the “revised and enlarged” edition. Oddly enough, after the BBT published its unauthorized adulterated Gita years later, they would henceforward refer to the 1972 printing as the “original” edition while calling theirs the “revised and enlarged” edition. This appears to be a subtle act of deception meant to validate the irreverent practice of changing Srila Prabhupada’s books. It is evident from the following references that it is indeed the 1972 MacMillan printing that should be referred to as the revised and enlarged edition of the Bhagavad-gita As It Is:
I am thinking of publishing a revised and enlarged edition of Bhagavad-gita As It Is. (Letter to Rayarama dated March 6, 1969)
Our first printing will be this, what is the name? Nectar of Devotion. And then, if possible, Bhagavad-gita As It Is, revised and enlarged. (Conversation of December 24, 1969)
So your next compositions shall be Bhagavad-gita As It Is, revised and enlarged. Please do it nicely. (Letter to Pradyumna dated February 22, 1970)
As soon as this indexing is finished, I shall publish another revised and enlarged edition of Bhagavad-gita As It Is at my own cost. (Letter to Satsvarupa dated June 27, 1969)
Immediately I want $17,000 for printing Bhagavad-gita As It Is in a new enlarged and revised edition, so try to help in this connection. (Letter to Bali Mardan dated January 6, 1971)
A comparison of the two complete editions reveals several important differences between them, besides changes made in the text. Most significantly, the index of the Bhagavad-gita was reduced from eighty pages in the original to only twenty pages in the current edition, while the number of color plates decreased significantly from forty-eight to sixteen. When the first complete edition came out, it was nearly six hundred pages longer than the abridged edition printed in 1968. But when the BBT published its updated version of the Gita, it had added only a few paragraphs to the text that were accidentally left out of the original. It is obvious, then, that the Bhagavad-gita As It Is published by MacMillan in 1972 was the actual revised and enlarged edition. The Gita that is currently sold by the BBT is the unauthorized, revised and reduced adulteration of Srila Prabhupada’s original Gita.
On December 24, 1969, Srila Prabhupada met in Boston with a group of devotees who were working on his publications at ISKCON Press. During the meeting, he gave his disciples guidelines for writing articles for Back to Godhead magazine and then took the opportunity to discuss his plans for publishing the complete Bhagavad-Gita As It Is. Present at that meeting were Satsvarupa, Pradyumna, Hayagriva, Kirtanananda, Jayadvaita and Brahmananda. An excerpt from the transcript of their discussion shown below reveals how Srila Prabhupada reached the decision to use the same verses exactly as they appeared in the abridged MacMillan Gita to produce the complete, revised and enlarged edition of the Bhagavad-gita As It Is.
When the subject of the Bhagavad-gita is raised in the conversation, Hayagriva first notes that the wording of the verses had been touched up by MacMillan’s own professional editors to improve their readability. Srila Prabhupada then suggests that to prepare the complete edition of the Bhagavad-gita, they should use the verses just as they appeared in the abridged MacMillan Gita. He clearly does not recommend any further editing of the verses. He and his staff seem to be very satisfied with the translation of the verses already in print. Then, whatever purports had been left out of the abridged edition would be added back, and, to make it complete, Pradyumna, his Sanskrit editor, would add the transliteration of the verses and their word meanings. In a nutshell, this was Srila Prabhupada’s plan to assemble and publish the much-awaited complete edition of the Bhagavad-gita As It Is.
Conversation of December 24, 1969 with BTG and Book Production Staff in Boston
HAYAGRIVA: I know the translations themselves, they were somewhat changed in Bhagavad-gita As It Is as it came out in MacMillan (the abridged edition). Did you like those translations?
PRABHUPADA: Whichever is better, you think. That’s all. You can follow this MacMillan.
HAYAGRIVA: They’re good. I think they’re very good.
PRABHUPADA: Yes. You can follow that translation. Simply synonyms he can add, transliterations.
HAYAGRIVA: And we have all the purports. We can include everything. Nothing will be deleted. Everything will be in there.
PRABHUPADA: That’s all right.
Having settled the issue, Srila Prabhupada would thereafter never recommend that the verses of the Bhagavad-gita be changed in any way. In fact, when one of the editors from ISKCON Press subsequently submitted a proposal to change the particular wording of a Bhagavad-gita verse and purport, His Divine Grace rejected the idea, stating that whatever had been printed previously should remain “as it is“:
“I have dictated the missing purports from Chapter Nine and they are sent enclosed herewith. So far changing the wording of verse or purport of 12:12 discussed before, it may remain as it is.” (Letter to Jayadvaita dated March 17, 1971)
This letter clearly documents Srila Prabhupada’s resistance to having changes made in the wording of the verses and purports of his Bhagavad-gita once it had been published. It also shows how the opinion of his editors was often incorrect regarding the changes they thought needed to be made, and how their opinion was often overruled by His Divine Grace. If, in pursuance of the rule of arsha-prayoga, the BBT editors had seen fit to apply the instruction in the above letter (“It may remain as it is”) to the Bhagavad-gita in its entirety, the whole issue of book changes would have been completely resolved long ago.
To guarantee that his writings would always be available to the public, Srila Prabhupada registered the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust as a legal entity separate from ISKCON. When it was discovered that some ISKCON centers were doing their own printing independently, taking the collection and spending it outside of the jurisdiction of the BBT, a memorandum was sent out to the entire society stating that His Divine Grace would not allow the independent printing of his books by third parties because it could cause the financial ruin of the BBT.
Srila Prabhupada formed the BBT to invest in it exclusive rights for the printing of all literature containing his teachings, writings and lectures. In a recent court decision, however, an arrangement was put in place permitting the independent printing and sale of Srila Prabhupada’s books by third parties outside of the BBT’s direct control. This agreement is in total opposition to Srila Prabhupada’s wishes as expressed in the March 14, 1974 memorandum and could one day spell disaster for the BBT. Fortunately, the court ruling did not preclude the BBT from printing Srila Prabhupada’s original books. Therefore, instead of ignoring the growing demand for the original edition, a wise business manager would do his best to make them available for distribution. This more liberal policy would enable the BBT to circumvent the ultimate financial collapse that Srila Prabhupada predicted could occur if third parties were allowed to print his books independently.
Once the complete edition of the Bhagavad-gita As It Is was published, favorable reviews from well-known scholars began to pour in. Below we present the words of a Professor of Sanskrit, a Professor of Religion and a Professor of Linguistics in praise of Srila Prabhupada’s books. After hearing their comments, why would anyone think that the Bhagavad-gita needed to be re-edited?
I am impressed with A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s scholarly and authoritative edition of Bhagavad-gita. It is a most valuable work for the scholar as well as for the layman and is of great utility as a reference book as well as a textbook. I promptly recommend this edition to my students. It is a beautifully done book. — Dr. Samuel D. Atkins, Professor of Sanskrit, Princeton University
I have had the opportunity of examining several volumes published by the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust and have found them to be of great value for use in college classes on Indian religions. This is particularly true of the BBT edition and translation of the Bhagavad-gita. — Dr. Frederick B. Underwood, Professor of Religion, Columbia University
It is a deeply felt, powerfully conceived and beautifully explained work. I don’t know whether to praise more this translation of the Bhagavad-gita, its daring method of explanation, or the endless fertility of its ideas. I have never seen any other work on the Gita with such an important voice and style…. It will occupy a significant place in the intellectual and ethical life of modern man for a long time to come. — Dr. Shaligram Shukla, Professor of Linguistics, Georgetown University
Sometime after Srila Prabhupada’s physical departure from this world, the BBT editors decided to change the original text of the Bhagavad-gita As It Is. They proceeded to send out a list of proposed revisions to more than one hundred ISKCON leaders, seeking their approval. Surprisingly, the mailing did not elicit a single response, either to approve or to object to the changes. The editors then erroneously concluded from this non-response that their plan to change the Bhagavad-gita had been accepted. Their assumption that they were being given carte blanche to publish the re-edited Bhagavad-gita was based on the principle of “maunam samyati raksanam“. According to this principle, if there is an argument and you remain silent without objecting, then indirectly you have accepted the argument. To conclude that the devotees were supporting their decision to change the Bhagavad-gita simply because they did not reply to this letter was a gross miscalculation on the part of the editors. This error in judgment led to their second mistake which was to ignore Srila Prabhupada’s instruction to follow the principle of arsha-prayoga, a rule that strictly forbids changing the words of the Acharya. To preserve the purity and potency of his message and to safeguard the permanence of his legacy, no changes at all should have been made to his books after his disappearance, what to speak of totally re-editing them without his permission.
One noted author and scholar, Dr. Neil Postman, who is the Chairman of the Department of Media Communications at New York University, shared with us his perspective on the issue. He confirmed that if the original trust agreement between Srila Prabhupada and the BBT did not specifically prohibit the BBT from making changes in his books without his formal consent, the trustees may have the legal right to do so at their discretion. However, theologically, it appears that they do not have that right because it violates Srila Prabhupada’s oral instruction to his disciples to follow the age-old tradition of Vaisnava etiquette that prohibits making such changes. Dr. Postman further advised that when dealing with sacred texts, an addendum or errata list would be considered more appropriate for making corrections (even of spelling mistakes) or to add explanatory notes than to directly change the body of the text. Because the faith of the followers is directly linked to the wording of their scriptures, he insisted that the utmost care must be taken when contemplating making even the slightest revision. He proposed that the BBT editors study how scriptural writings have been amended in other established religions before making another haphazard attempt to improve the books compiled by their spiritual master.
It would be impractical for us to list here the many significant revisions made in the Bhagavad-gita, but to give the reader an idea of the kind of unwarranted changes that were introduced, we will consider one of the verses most often quoted in preaching the philosophy of Krishna consciousness: Chapter 2, Verse 13.
In the original, the Sanskrit word “dhirah” is translated in the verse as “the self-realized soul” but was changed to “a sober person” in the revised edition. In the purport, Srila Prabhupada describes one who is “dhirah” as “any man who has perfect knowledge of the constitution of the individual soul, the Supersoul, and nature—both material and spiritual.” Is this not also a definition of a self-realized soul? Using the phrase “self-realized soul” adds clarity and force to the verse, which Srila Prabhupada said was the actual purpose of editing. Although the editors say the word “dhirah” can only be correctly translated as “a sober person”, in the Third Canto of the Srimad Bhagavatam, Chapter 11, Verse 17 the word meaning given for the word “dhirah” is “those who are self-realized”. Srila Prabhupada heard this verse read aloud many times and never mentioned that it should be changed to “a sober person”. There was therefore no justification for changing this verse. Even if it appeared in Srila Prabhupada’s original dictation, it was the final edit and not the first dictation that Srila Prabhupada wanted published.
Many hundreds of important changes have been made in the Bhagavad-gita without the author’s permission. This practice has shaken many devotees’ faith in the institution Srila Prabhupada founded. The present leaders of ISKCON are apparently unable to comprehend the profound long-term implications of their ongoing complicity by silence in this serious deviation. They continue to look the other way while the BBT editors and trustees violate the principle of arsha-prayoga by introducing unauthorized changes in Srila Prabhupada’s sacred writings.
The leaders of ISKCON think that the books written by our spiritual master were full of mistakes and they now portray Srila Prabhupada and his publishing staff as carelessly imperfect and unprofessional. They are therefore responsible for propagating a most offensive mentality throughout ISKCON that has diminished the stature of the Founder Acharya and undermined his authority within the institution he himself founded. This flagrant disrespect became a matter of public record when a statement was made in court by legal representatives of the BBTI declaring Srila Prabhupada to be nothing more than a writer hired by ISKCON to translate Vedic literature. Whether the institution will survive the reaction to these serious offenses to the spiritual master is beyond the purview of this article, but it is clear that the contaminated consciousness from which such deviations arose must be driven out for the society to grow and prosper.
One might ask whether the BBT editors and managers are aware that their spiritual lives are in jeopardy due to their having committed the offense of dishonoring the Acharya. Do they not fear the rod of chastisement spoken of in the Bhagavad-gita? The answer to this question may lie in the editing of the Bhagavad-gita itself. In Chapter 10, verse 38, the phrase “rod of chastisement” was actually deleted by the editors from both the verse and Srila Prabhupada’s purport, so perhaps they now believe they have nothing at all to fear. The reader will also be surprised to learn that one of the BBT’s principal editors recently stated that after making all of the so-called improvements to the Bhagavad-gita, he still personally prefers to read Srila Prabhupada’s original 1972 edition.
Srila Prabhupada’s greatest worry may have been that after he was gone, his disciples would fail to preserve his legacy for the benefit of future generations of devotees by whimsically changing what he had given them. His prophetic words should serve as a warning to anyone who has ever occupied a position of authority in the Hare Krishna movement. He wrote:
If every time someone feels something they call for changing everything, then all that I have done will very quickly be lost. (Letter to Hansadutta dated April 2, 1972)
This should be our guideline in all of our Krishna conscious activities, from book production to Deity worship, from our regulative principles to the management of our temples. All of our required programs have already been chalked out. We don’t need to manufacture anything new. Neither the books Srila Prabhupada wrote nor the priorities he set needed to be changed. The tried and true success formula for spreading Krishna consciousness is what we must follow. Then, by expanding the simple but joyful program of chanting, dancing, philosophizing, worshipping the Deities, glorifying the spiritual master and honoring vaisnavas everywhere, the Krishna consciousness movement will successfully spread throughout the entire world. And by making Srila Prabhupada’s original books available for distribution, the expansion of Krishna consciousness will take place that much more quickly.
Key References to the Principle of Arsha Prayoga
- From a letter to Mandali Bhadra written January 20, 1972:
“If one is too big, there is no mistake. ‘Arsha-prayoga‘ means that there may be discrepancies but it is all right. Just like Shakespeare, sometimes there are odd usages of language, but he is accepted as authority. I have explained all these things in my preface to First Canto.”
- Room Conversation in Mayapura, February 27, 1976:
PRABHUPADA: The system is: Whatever authority has done, even there is mistake, it should be accepted.
PRABHUPADA: Arsha-prayoga. That is… He should not become more learned than the authority. That is very bad habit.
Regarding Book Changes, see: “Rascal Editors” Conversation of June 22, 1977
PRABHUPADA: So on the whole, these dangerous things are going on. It is very serious situation. You write one letter that “Why you have made so many changes?” And whom to write? Who will care? All rascals are there. Write to Satsvarupa that “This is the position. They are doing anything and everything at their whim. The next printing should be again to the original way.” So you bring this to Satsvarupa. They cannot change anything.