The Early Days
by Govinda dasi
Posted February 23, 2002


ABSTRACT: As servant and secretary to Srila Prabhupada, Govinda dasi worked closely with him in illustrating ISKCON publications. English professor Hayagriva das, she writes, was "comprehension and style editor" for the Bhagavad-gita As It Is, but Macmillan Publishing abridged it because they thought the purports repetitive. She contends that necessary book corrections should be footnoted and that Jayadvaita Maharaja's editing has altered Prabhupada's mood, style and meaning.


Macmillan (not Hayagriva) abridged the Gita

In January, I attended three Istagosthi meetings on the editing of books of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada, held at his Memorial Tirtha, the Honolulu ISKCON temple, where Srila Prabhupada lived, worked and translated. The sessions were inspiring, through grueling at times, and transcriptions will be made available at http://www.adi-vani.org.

I believe Jayadvaita Maharaja, who attended the first two meetings,is taking too personally the objections of some devotees regarding post-disappearance book changes. I am not challenging his abilities; he can write and edit any number of books that will be useful and beneficial to the world. Nevertheless, for him to change what Srila Prabhupada has already published and spoken from is, I think, inappropriate. It is a spiritual issue, not a mundane one; Srila Prabhupada's books are his heart, his gift to the world; they should not be criticized, undervalued or changed to suit scholars or revisionists. To consider doing so betrays the dangerous consciousness of, "I am on the same level as my guru; I can improve his work."

Srila Prabhupada chose Hayagriva to edit the Bhagavad-gita, a poetic work, the "Song of God". Hayagriva was a college professor of literature specializing in transcendental poets like Thoreau, Emerson and Yeats. Hayagriva worked with Srila Prabhupada on "Bhagavad-gita As It Is" in New York in 1966, then came to San Francisco to continue their work; he was there when I first met Srila Prabhupada in early 1967.

By early 1968, my husband and I were living in Los Angeles with Srila Prabhupada. His Gita was soon to be published by Macmillan. I worked on the cover picture, a detailed drawing of the universal form of the Lord, with Arjuna kneeling beside Him; this is what Srila Prabhupada wanted. In spring 1968, we flew to New York with Srila Prabhupada. We met with Macmillan publishers and editors to discuss cover art, which is a late step in the production of a book.

Macmillan suggested the purports were too repetitive. As publisher, Macmillan had the final say. Srila Prabhupada was not happy, but hoped to get the complete book in print later. Macmillan, not Hayagriva, was responsible for abridging the 1968 Gita and for having the cover art changed to a solitary four-armed form of Visnu. The unabridged book -- later published in 1972 -- was already complete by 1968. Had Macmillan agreed to publish it then, the unabridged edition would have gone to press in 1968. Brisk sales for the abridged edition demonstrated a viable market and, in 1972, Macmillan printed Srila Prabhupada's full, unabridged edition.

In the early days of the movement, we were like a close family. We discussed everything with our spiritual master. Srila Prabhupada worked closely with editors and artists, overseeing every detail of his books. I was Srila Prabhupada's secretary and servant from late 1967 to early 1969; I did the cover drawing for the first Macmillan Gita, the small blue-violet edition. We were living with Srila Prabhupada in a large Hayworth Street apartment in Los Angeles; he would come shuffling down the hall in his house slippers and into my art room, look over my shoulder at the work in progress, and offer suggestions. He oversaw my drawings for Teachings of Lord Caitanya, describing, for example, the interior of Jagannath Puri temple, how the priest was receiving garlands to offer to the Lord, the lighting inside the temple room, etc. Srila Prabhupada conceived of each work, and we carried them out according to his instructions.

In late 1968, I was transcribing Nectar of Devotion and Caitanya caritamrta. Hayagriva came to visit us and discussed editorial work with Srila Prabhupada. I have many notebooks of my daily letter writing and editing sessions with Srila Prabhupada. Likely, Hayagriva also filled notebooks during his editing sessions, and later incorporated these notes in editing Srila Prabhupada's books. Jayadvaita Maharaja cannot possibly know the extent of Srila Prabhupada's and Hayagriva's collaboration on the Bhagavad-gita As It Is because all the editorial decisions must have been made by early 1968 -- several months before Jayadvaita Maharaj joined ISKCON.

There was then no worldwide movement, no BBT, no sannyasis, no GBC, no money and no politics. Srila Prabhupada taught us that love is the basis, not ambition, achievement and accomplishment. He was directly involved with supervising every aspect of book production, both externally and internally. There is an esoteric spiritual side of this -- he was working through us willing disciples, empowering us with his "Midas touch". His bhakti infused everything he touched, and we willing servants were vehicles for his mercy to shine through. Our only qualification was our sincerity, and our desire to serve: not to become great ourselves, but to put forth the greatness of our guru.

Srila Prabhupada was happy with his books; he read and re-read them. His books were always within reach wherever he stayed. When he received a new book from the press, he would sit and read it for hours; when someone would enter the room, he would lift his eyes from the text, smile broadly and exclaim, "How wonderful these books are!"

A writer usually prepares several working drafts; for example, I made several drafts of this letter, correcting spelling, grammar and style. I am signing this version for publication. If someone took an earlier draft out of my trash bin and published it, I would be annoyed. Similarly, Srila Prabhupada's signature is on the final draft of the complete Bhagavad-gita As It Is (completed in 1968 but not published until 1972), not on other manuscripts Jayadvaita Maharaja may possess.

Books go through several stages of editing before being ready to go to press. Usually, different editors with appropriate backgrounds, qualifications and skill levels perform the editorial work. Manuscripts excerpted on Jayadvaita Maharaja's website have received spelling and grammatical edits, and are ready for the next stage: the style edit. Srila Prabhupada engaged Hayagriva, a trained English writer, poet and editor, as comprehension and style editor to give his book a poetic, flowing, readable style acceptable to the widest audience, including intelligent readers. To assume that Srila Prabhupada was not scrutinizing this process is absurd. His books were most important to him, and he signed the work when completed to his satisfaction. Why would he sign it and gift it to the world, if he intended that future editors would try to change it back to the "original"?

Srila Prabhupada's books were transcendental when he wrote, edited and approved them; they became the foundation of his International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and are transcendental still. He spoke from the 1972 edition of "Bhagavad-gita As It Is" for over half a decade, giving hundreds of classes. In both 1968 and 1972 he chose to print the edited version, not a manuscript. There were many working drafts and manuscripts in various stages of editing; Jayadvaita Maharaja confirmed this in the second Hawaii istagosthi meeting: there is no one "original manuscript." Certainly, typos that slipped through needed correction but, in my opinion, Jayadvaita Maharaja's version also changes his mood, style and, sometimes, his meaning.

Krsna sent Srila Prabhupada an army; perhaps an army of "monkeys and bears", but each sent for a specific purpose. Hayagriva's task from 1966 to 1968 was editing Bhagavad-gita and other books. I was in my fourth year of college when I met Srila Prabhupada; perhaps I was qualified to edit books, but that was not the job he gave me. Srila Prabhupada had already chosen his Bhagavad-gita editor: Hayagriva. I was given other tasks, to illustrate the Gita cover, early Back to Godhead magazines and Teachings of Lord Caitanya. I served Srila Prabhupada by transcribing Nectar of Devotion and Caitanya-caritamrta, and by taking daily dictation for numerous letters as his servant and secretary from late 1967 to early 1969. It was not a question of mundane qualification. We were the army Krsna sent to Srila Prabhupada, and he, our General, used us according to his divine vision.

Jayadvaita Maharaja was later engaged as a BBT editor and Srila Prabhupada much appreciated his editing work, but Srila Prabhupada never gave Jayadvaita Maharaja or anyone else authority to edit his books after his departure. By late 1976, he was acutely aware of the "American disease" of compulsively changing things, so he chose the safest route to protect his books: "no changes." When Jayadvaita Maharaja presents his editing rationale, he quotes a few passages that are obviously confusing. For example, he cites "planet of the trees" [Bg. 1972 edition 10.24 purport] and "cattle raising" [Bg. 1972 edition 18.44 text] as examples to justify what I consider wholesale rewriting. Jayadvaita Maharaja should have noted such changes in footnotes or an addendum, instead of making changes to virtually the entire book. If there are confusing aspects, or, as he puts it, "goofs", these portions can be selected and clarified in a published addendum or footnotes, without changing the meaning.

Although the GBC did approve by a one-vote margin Jayadvaita Maharaja's editing proposal, Srila Prabhupada's disciples as a whole were not consulted. After Srila Prabhupada left in 1977, a decade of confusion ensued. Many mistakes were made and many wrongs committed. History will likely view this era as the "Dark Ages" of ISKCON. Fifty years from now, the players and characters will be forgotten, but Srila Prabhupada's books will remain as a beacon to light the path of human society.

Our duty is to see that his original words, his adi-vani, are not lost to time, as was the Bible. In a few years, someone will want to improve on Jayadvaita Maharaja's edition; once we open the door to post-disappearance changes, there may be no end to the flood. We must close this door now. Our greatest responsibility as disciples of Srila Prabhupada is to protect his original, authorized and approved books and ensure that they will be there to guide humanity in this Kali Age.

If anyone wants to read more stories about Srila Prabhupada, please visit Govinda dasi's website iskcon.net/govinda, "1008 Ways to Remember Srila Prabhupada," where there are now 29 short stories, and will soon be many never-before-released photos of Srila Prabhupada in Hawaii in the early days. Also a video series entitled "Srila Prabhupada, The Early Days" will soon be released. Interested readers may contact Govinda dasi at govinda@adi-vani.org.