Is There A Bright Side to the Editorial Revision Controversy?
by Akruranatha Dasa
Posted March 1, 2003


The ongoing debate over editorial changes to Srila Prabhupada's books is just one of the many issues that seem to be causing divisions between devotees these days (it's not called the "Age of Quarrel" for nothing). It is evident that thoughtful, sincere devotees with the best of intentions have very strong feelings on both sides of the issue, and the rhetoric understandably gets heated, sometimes unfortunately to the point of personal attacks and insults.

Can we find some benefit in this debate? A few years ago Srutakirti Prabhu weighed in on a public internet bulletin board discussion about "rtvik" initiation, by remarking that he saw the debate as evidence of Srila Prabhupada's amazing ability to keep us intensely interested in topics related to Krishna consciousness. I was awestruck by Srutakirti's transcendental vision, where I had only been able to see an unpleasant public argument.

Taking inspiration from that occasion, I feel it is worthwhile to look for some benefits from this editing debate. I expect other devotees will be able to find more potential benefits and elaborate on them more fully than I can.

Before addressing potential positive benefits arising from the controversy, it makes sense to consider how neither side's position is as negative as its opponents might think. This is important, because even if we are intensely concerned about this issue, we should try to avoid harboring animosity toward devotees of good will who disagree with us. It seems undeniable that both the "pro-editing" and "anti-editing" devotees are genuinely motivated (more or less, if not exclusively) by the desire to serve Srila Prabhupada and to most closely express his true intentions. But we cannot expect to please Srila Prabhupada if we cross the line of at least tolerance and civility with our godbrothers and godsisters.

First, both versions of the books remain available. If I am not mistaken the BBT has published a "classic" reprint. At least one scholarly devotee (namely, Rasaraja dasa) told me that he had been impressed by a subtle philosophical point in an earlier edition of the Bhagavad Gita, only to find that the point had been obscured in the edited version. Given the possibility that this may actually have happened in one or more instances of mistaken editing, it is comforting to know that a "classic" version is available so that devotee-scholars can closely examine any such claims.

Second, both versions of the books have proven their potency in changing people's lives and creating devotees of Krishna. The advocates of one or the other version can engage in "transcendental competition" by distributing and studying their favorite version. Of course, it becomes less "transcendental" if we do not appreciate the success of our competitors (and much less so if we insult, berate, or even try to sabotage them).

Third, it seems the debate is really only about the English versions of Srila Prabhupada's books. English is of course one of the most influential, widely spoken languages in the world today, and it is also the original language Srila Prabhupada wrote the books in, but he was also eager that they be translated into other languages and distributed all over the world. Probably the number of books distributed in English continues to exceed those distributed in any other language, but remembering that the debate is pertinent primarily to those who read the English versions puts it in some context.

One might argue that, because the original books were the English books, any corruption of the English text might give rise to mistakes in future translations. However, the kinds of differences between the edited and non-edited English versions of the books are not very significant compared with the other challenges faced by a translator. Proponents of editing point out that some passages of the unedited versions make little or no sense, and that a translator would be puzzled trying to render a phrase such as "working with the fruitive being situated in the fixed conception of the real self." Most opponents of editing concede that such egregious mistakes or obvious typos should somehow be rectified, but contend that such corrections should be done only in the most drastic circumstances, without altering the overall style of the original English prose. The sense I have from reading some of the articles on this subject is that the anti-editing argument centers on one of "style" or "voice," as opposed to articulable differences in meaning. If this is so, it would seem to confirm that it is really only the English versions that are at issue.

A related point is that, at least with respect to the English verse translations, serious students of Srila Prabhupada's books will want to memorize the Sanskrt text and the word-for-word meanings. Srila Prabhupada encouraged us to do so, and insisted on giving word-for-word translations and transliterations in most of his books. The slokas themselves are powerful mantras, and expert devotee preachers are expected to be able to recite slokas and explain the meaning of the words. Srila Prabhupada did not always translate the same verse in the same way. In classes, and in his purports, he would often elaborate on the meaning of certain words, or would reveal more about the meaning of a certain verse when citing it in a particular context. Think of how differently Srila Prabhupada translates the verses from the Second Chapter of the Gita in his "Easy Journey to Other Planets."

And that brings us to at least one great potential benefit of the debate over editing. It may provide an additional impetus for devotees to dive deeply into the study of Srila Prabhupada's books. His Holiness Jayadvaita Swami has posted on the internet explanations of numerous editorial changes, and some very persuasive reasons for making them. Anti-editing advocates, or any devotee who thinks that the earlier version better expresses what Srila Prabhupada intended, should point out particular instances and provide explanations. Srila Prabhupada wanted us to study his books closely, from all angles. If the debate about editing inspires us to closely study Srila Prabhupada's books with a view to properly understanding his intentions in specific instances, that will be a very positive contribution.

Akruranatha dasa