Post Disappearance Book Changes Discouraged
by Gupta das
Posted January 28, 2003


While an author might, during his or her lifetime, re-edit and then re-print a previously published book, we would be hard pressed to find anyone, anywhere, who would entertain the idea that, once published, an author's work may later be edited posthumously and then presented anew in a 'revised and enlarged edition' as if it were the author's original work!

For those with sensitivity or knowledge of spiritual etiquette regarding the proper post-disappearance handling of an acarya's sacred adi-vani, or original spiritual instructions, such a disturbing editorial scenario is wholly unacceptable.

In the Western tradition, the posthumous bastardization process is referred to as "bowdlerizing" a work (named after an English editor, Thomas Bowdler, famously involved in an editorial scandal involving an expurgated edition of Shakespeare). In the Eastern tradition the principle of not changing an acarya's work post-disappearance is enshrined in the sastric principle referred to as arsa-prayoga.

Post-disappearance editorial revisions by conditioned jivas to the sacred, memorialized realizations of an exalted acarya is crude, insulting and offensive. Yet, this has taken place for two decades and continues to be done by those who, ironically, have a special spiritual duty to preserve Srila Prabhupada's literary legacy.

A threshold argument made is that continuing changes are authorized merely because certain editors were permitted, during Srila Prabhupada's manifest presence, to make editorial adjustments to punctuation, spelling and grammar, and because, at that time, Srila Prabhupada expressed a certain degree of confidence in their editorial ability.

That pre-1978 service engagement was not a blank cheque, however, to continue the editorial process unabated for all time. Just as you never ask a barber if you need a haircut, you cannot reasonably expect an editor to make an objective decision whether or not to continue editing a book! There is no written authority that Srila Prabhupada expected or wanted the editorial process to continue post-disappearance on books that he already approved and that were already published. In fact, the unequivocal evidence is inapposite -- Srila Prabhupada did not want his books continuously changed and edited after they were published.

It is one thing for an understudy (an apprentice) to contribute to a master's work, be it artistic or literary, during that master's lifetime and under the master's supervision and approval. However, once a master approves the work as finished, it is unheard of in either the Western or the Eastern tradition that the apprentice would then take the liberty sua sponte to change the painting or book and publish it posthumously as if that painting or book had been approved by the master during his or her lifetime. Using such logic, a one percent change per year to Da Vinci's enigmatic Mona Lisa could wind up being, in a short one hundred years, a picture of Madd Magazine's demented Alfred E. Newman.

Moreover, Srila Prabhupada personally lectured on most every verse in the 1972 Bhagavad-Gita As It Is, other than perhaps the first chapter, and he only asked that three words be changed. If those pre-1978 books were good enough for the author and Founder/Acarya, they should certainly be good enough for us! If those books were considered transcendental by the author and by the entire movement then, why should we not continue using those books now?

If Srila Prabhupada had authorized continuing editorial changes, as is being intimated, then why was permission from the GBC sought in the early 1980's for the 'revised' edition? The reason is that such post-disappearance changes were never authorized by Srila Prabhupada and therefore institutional approval was sought by the editors. The GBC agreed by only one vote to allow the changed book -- not exactly a landslide.

The core argument being asserted for changing the books is as deceptive as it is subtle. The argument is that changes made to the 1983 edition of the Bhagavad-Gita As It Is brings the book closer to the manuscript (or galley proofs) than was the original 1972 edition. However, this argument completely fails to take into account the absolute prohibition, in both the Western and Eastern tradition, against posthumous and post disappearance changes, respectively.

The issue is not whether the first or second edition (or perhaps, in fifty years, the tenth edition) is closer to the manuscript. If that were the issue we could then expect who knows how many more editors making who knows how many more changes to Srila Prabhupada's books under the guise that their editorial changes were, in fact, closer to what Srila Prabhupada really meant or really said. A misguided publishing policy which approves post-disappearance changes to Srila Prabhupada's works will only guarantee an unending series of changed books for many more years to come.

The actual issue is that once an author has personally approved his work and it is published, it cannot be changed posthumously or post-disappearance by a non-author and then presented as if it were the actual author's originally approved work. As discussed, doing so runs directly afoul of both Western and Eastern literary traditions.

Srila Prabhupada's literary legacy must be frozen in time so to speak, to preserve its integrity and meaning. Continuing changes over the upcoming decades and even centuries will only serve incrementally to denigrate the potency of his gift. The world wants and needs to hear Srila Prabhupada's transcendental voice as it is -- not the prissy sterility of an editorial cottage industry run amok. Certainly, if the authorized and approved pre-1978 books were good enough for Srila Prabhupada during his manifest presence, they should be good enough for everyone right now!

The only way out of this editorial and publishing morass is firmly to re-establish the 1972 edition of the Bhagavad-Gita As It Is as the movement's literary standard, and then to publish the original manuscript so that scholars and spiritually-minded persons can study and comment as they see fit. A separate appendix can also be printed which catalogues suggested corrections. And, the editors are free, of course, to print their own books and to make a record as they want -- but not under the guise that the original author approved their particular post disappearance word craft.

To continue along the "I know better what Srila Prabhupada really meant" route, however, by allowing post-disappearance editorial changes to authorized and approved pre-1978 editions can only be seen for what it is -- an ongoing, blatant violation of the sastric principle of arsa-prayoga.

At bottom, it is Srila Prabhupada's transcendental vision the world wants and needs -- not the conditioned viewpoint of some editor's temporal sense of grammar or correctness.

________________________ Srila Prabhupada: "Why do they think? If I have written one book, my words are my meaning. Why you should give meaning? I shall kick on your face. What right you have got? You write another book. Why should you take my book and give your meaning? What is this?"

-- Morning walk May 10,1975 Perth
________________________ Srila Prabhupada: "As soon as you interpret or change the Scripture, the Scripture loses its authority. Then another man will come and interpret things in his own way. Another will come and then another, and in this way the original purport of the Scripture is lost."

-- NQS: TQE6 Discussion on western philosophy and science
________________________

"So unless one is self-realized, there is practically no use writing about Krsna. This transcendental writing does not depend on material education. It depends on the spiritual realization. You'll find, therefore, in the comments of Bhagavatam by different acaryas, even there are some discrepancies, they are accepted as asat-patha. It should remain as it is."

--Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.5.23-24 March 31, 1976 Vrindaban