Arsha Prayoga: Part I – Resistance to Change
As published on VNN, May 23, 2000 (VNN5957)
Let me first offer my prostrated obeisances unto the lotus feet of that supreme swan-like devotee of the Lord, our spiritual master, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, by whose mercy the fallen souls of Kali Yuga may taste the sweetness of the narrations of the pastimes of the Lord and His pure devotees. As the bonafide representative of Sri Vyasadeva, he composed a mountain of transcendental literature to enlighten the entire human society, explaining even the most confidential truths regarding Vaishnava philosophy.
His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada displayed all of the symptoms of an empowered jiva soul, working tirelessly to distribute the transcendental message of love of Godhead throughout the world. It is therefore the duty of his followers to preserve the legacy and protect the honor of such a great spiritual personality whose every moment was dedicated to the spreading of Krishna consciousness.
To guarantee that his teachings would not be forgotten in the oblivion of time, Srila Prabhupada created the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust and, assisted by his disciples, he astounded the academic community with his literary output. What follows is a brief account of Srila Prabhupada’s struggle with the BBT staff to keep the final version of his books intact by resisting what he called the “American disease” of always wanting to change things. As will be seen from the letters and conversations cited in this article, Srila Prabhupada would finally insist on an “absolutely no change” policy based on the principle of “arsha-prayoga“.
That unwanted changes were being made to his books came to his attention as early as 1975, and it quickly became a pressing matter. In a letter to the production manager of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, Srila Prabhupada expressed his alarm that changes he had not approved were appearing in print.
I will have to see personally what are the mistakes in the synonyms and also how you intend to correct them. I was not satisfied with the corrections that were made before. I saw some changes which I did not approve. Nitai may correct whatever mistakes are there, but the corrected material must be sent to me for final approval. (Letter to Radha-vallabha dasa dated 1-5-76)
Srila Prabhupada never gave anyone carte blanche to make revisions in his books. This letter confirms that any changes to his books would require his personal approval before being printed.
A few months later, the issue of change was raised again by Radha-vallabha dasa regarding the text of several volumes of the Srimad Bhagavatam which were soon to be reprinted. Srila Prabhupada advised him, “There is no need for corrections for the First and Second Cantos. Whatever is there is all right.” (Letter of May 4, 1976) Seeing how persistent his BBT managers were to implement change in the text and presentation of his books, His Divine Grace wrote again to Radha-vallabha dasa in August, 1976, this time more firmly: “Do not try to change anything without my permission.”
Srila Prabhupada consistently stated that he did not want anything to be changed unnecessarily. Any changes they thought would be an improvement in the text would require his written authorization.
The most serious violation of this instruction actually came years later, after Srila Prabhupada’s disappearance, when BBT personnel decided to print a new version of the Bhagavad-gita. It is a well known fact that His Divine Grace never authorized anyone to re-edit the Bhagavad-gita As It Is. If Srila Prabhupada ever intended to make changes in the Gita, the ideal opportunity for him to say so came in a room conversation that took place on February 24, 1977 in Mayapur. On that occasion, Radha-vallabha dasa was describing how the upcoming printing of the Bhagavad-gita was going to require so much paper that it would take seventy-six train cars to transport it (1.5 million copies). Srila Prabhupada absolutely did not suggest making any corrections before this largest printing ever of the Bhagavad-gita As It Is. In fact, and to the contrary, in a discussion that took place three days later, he established a definitive “no change” policy that he wanted applied henceforward to all of his books. The tendency to want to make corrections was now a very serious problem, and Srila Prabhupada dealt with it.
The transcribed conversation of February 27, 1977 presented below clearly indicates that Srila Prabhupada would never have approved of anyone changing the final edited version of his writings, even after his disappearance. In this exchange, His Divine Grace states that for a disciple to see mistakes in his production-ready finished manuscripts was a bad habit that had to be given up. Even though the one correction his disciple Jagannatha dasa wanted to propose would not have changed the wording of the verse, Srila Prabhupada warned that to make any change whatsoever was “strictly forbidden”. As a servant of his spiritual master, Radha-vallabha dasa was obliged to accept Srila Prabhupada’s instruction that the text should be left exactly as is and that making corrections should never be contemplated.
To further enlighten his disciple, Srila Prabhupada explained the rule of “arsha-prayoga“, that whatever the Acharya has given, it should be accepted. The tendency to think oneself sufficiently qualified to correct one’s authority is not only a breach of Vaishnava etiquette, but is an offense in the service of the spiritual master.
If one continues to see mistakes that he thinks need to be corrected, Srila Prabhupada says, “He is the mistake.” Due to his incomplete understanding, Radha-vallabha dasa reasoned, “So if we think there is some mistake, we should just forget about it.” Srila Prabhupada corrects him again, saying that one should not even think his authority has made a mistake. His opinion was that since Jagannatha dasa tended to see mistakes in the writings of the Acharya, he was an irresponsible man who could not be relied upon. Srila Prabhupada then made his final point, that our true purpose is not served by becoming so-called scholars able to find errors in the books of the spiritual master, but by becoming advanced in devotion to Krishna. Radha-vallabha dasa finally got the point, that Srila Prabhupada was establishing the rule of “no corrections anywhere” once a book was submitted to his department for publication.
Room Conversation of 2-27-77, Mayapura
RADHA-VALLABHA DAS: Now Jagannatha had some questions on corrections in the book. In verse twenty-eight it says, “Then he worshiped Sri Krishna, the essence of all Vedas, with this hymn.”
PRABHUPADA: Where it is? Brahma-samhita?
PRABHUPADA: What is that?
RVD: So it says, “Then he worshiped Sri Krishna, the essence of all Vedas, with this hymn.”
PRABHUPADA: Where it is?
RVD: It’s verse twenty-eight, “Then he worshiped Sri Krishna.” So Jagannatha said it should be, “Then he worshiped…”
PRABHUPADA: No, no. Jagannatha cannot correct. That bad habit he must give up.
RVD: So we should just leave it exactly.
PRABHUPADA: Oh yes. You should not be more educated.
RVD: He wasn’t changing any of the words. He was just…
PRABHUPADA: Nothing of the…. This should be strictly forbidden.
RVD: So no corrections. That makes it simple.
PRABHUPADA: They can divide the synonyms. That’s all.
RVD: Synonyms. So even…
PRABHUPADA: That is his tendency, to correct. That’s very bad. He should not do that.
RVD: So I’ll just forget this, then.
PRABHUPADA: The system is: whatever authority has done, even there is mistake,
it should be accepted.
PRABHUPADA: Arsha-prayoga. That is ha… He should not become more learned than the authority. That is very bad habit.
RVD: He was always wondering how he should think. So I’ll tell him that. He thinks, “If I think I see a mistake, what should I think?” I’ll tell him what you just said.
PRABHUPADA: He cannot see mistake. He is mistake [laughter]. That
is being done by this rascal. I don’t want. And the Hayagriva has…, the Easy Journey, he has changed so many things. That… He is now bad character. You should not maintain him.
Later, in the same conversation…
PRABHUPADA: So Jagannatha should be strictly advised not to become very learned to correct authorities. No.
RVD: I think that the instruction you gave will help him very much about even if he thinks there is some mistake, just forget about it.
PRABHUPADA: He is mistake. He should not think his authority mistake.
RVD: He didn’t know what he should do. He didn’t know…
PRABHUPADA: So why he should be given this business. He’s such irresponsible man.
He should not be given any responsible work. Our first business should see how he is advanced in devotion. We don’t want so-called scholars.
RVD: Jagannatha was somewhat affected by Nitai, but he’s…
PRABHUPADA: I know that.
RVD: I think he understands what the problem was. I think he understands what his problem was, and that’s why he won’t do anything without asking you.
PRABHUPADA: Don’t allow him to do anything.
RVD: Well, now that this system of no corrections anywhere, that makes it very simple. Then he can’t do anything. I don’t think he wants to either. It makes it more simple for him. It makes him very uncomfortable.
PRABHUPADA: No corrections.
Six weeks later, Srila Prabhupada was listening to the notes and resolutions of a meeting held by the BBT trustees. He was generally pleased with the decisions that had been made, but at one point he interrupted the reading to make a recommendation of his own. He wanted them to include in their list the following admonition:
“And every time Radha-vallabha changes something, that should be stopped. He is very much inclined to change something. This practice should be stopped.”
Srila Prabhupada was assigning to the BBT trustees the duty of safeguarding his books from being changed in the slightest by anyone who had not been specifically ordered to do so.
The principle of “arsha prayoga” was again referred to on June 22, 1977 when Srila Prabhupada was in Vrindavana, India. In the middle of a reading of the Srimad Bhagavatam, Srila Prabhupada objected when he heard the synonym that was given for the word “sadhu“. The word-for-word translation said, “it is relevant,” but Srila Prabhupada said, “No. ‘Sadhu‘ means ‘devotee’.” The editors had changed his translation, and he found this unacceptable. He spoke as though he had been betrayed by a dangerous element within his movement. His authority was being minimized by his own disciples to whom he had entrusted his most lasting contribution: his books. A number of devotees present voiced their objection to the production staff’s practice of deleting entire sections from certain books, and they mentioned discrepancies they had found in the Sanskrit to English translations. Literally hundreds of changes had already been made in the text of Srila Prabhupada’s books from one printing to the next and the devotees testified that the potency was not the same.
Srila Prabhupada asked for suggestions from his senior men to resolve this dilemma and they offered their advice. After hearing various proposals, Srila Prabhupada’s conclusion was that, “The next printing should be again to the original way.” He then ordered his secretary to contact the GBC man he wanted to entrust this matter to in Los Angeles where the press was located. “So you bring this to Satsvarupa. They cannot change anything.”
Drawing from these letters and conversations, we can gain some insight into Srila Prabhupada’s struggle to keep his books as they were. One should rightly conclude that he would never have approved of the wholesale changes that were made by the BBT editors after his disappearance. He would have expected the BBT trustees to resist on his behalf. The unnecessary and unauthorized changes in the Bhagavad-gita alone number more than seven hundred, so where is Srila Prabhupada’s signed approval for such changes to be made? And where are the rave reviews of the revised edition from scholars and professors praising the editors for having improved the original version of the Gita published by their spiritual master? We do not expect to see any testimonials from these mundane personalities glorifying the “revised and enlarged” edition of the Gita. After all, which scholar would approve of having his own writings altered after his physical demise?
The adulteration of Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is was the first major milestone in the BBT’s refusal to follow the rule of arsha prayoga (the unholy practice of dishonoring the Acharya), a program which reached its zenith when they declared in court that Srila Prabhupada was simply a writer hired by ISKCON to compile the Vedic classics. We do not know what kind of apology can be made by the BBT’s editors and trustees at this point, but it is our humble opinion that the best way to make amends for past transgressions would be to accept Srila Prabhupada’s instruction that “the next printing should be again to the original way.”