Chakra Discussions

Books Controversy Considered Harmful

by Ananda das

Posted March 6, 2006

Mahesh Raja has sent Chakra the texts of the 1975 first edition and the 1996 corrected edition of Sri Caitanya-caritamrta. Because he offered no explanation, some people may draw the wrong conclusion that the 1996 corrections are in some way an interpolation or innovation. Nothing could be further from the truth.

With a keen sense of mortality after his several heart attacks, Srila Prabhupada impressed early devotees with his urgency for publication. During one remarkable period of publication, Prabhupada pushed his disciples, an enthusiastic team of amateur typists, editors and typesetters to rush the 17-volume Caitanya-caritamrta to publication in only 2 months. With such a challenge before them, it is not at all surprising that the books were riddled with numerous errors. It is remarkable that the books produced under such incredible time pressure were as good as they turned out to be. Everyone working on the project was aware of how the impossible schedule would result in the certain need to revise the book in later editions.

Srila Prabhupada dictated his books into a tape recorder, and eager devotees did their best to make out what he said and to type it out as best they could. The typists, however, knew no Sanskrit and made guesses as to what they heard, and the Sanskrit editor, Pradyumna prabhu, was so busy doing the transliterations and word-for-word dictionary translations that a LOT of stuff fell through the cracks.

A charismatic movement generally goes through a great deal of travail on the inevitable departure of its founding teacher, and ISKCON, despite its solid parampara philosophical underpinning, was no different in that respect. Although Srila Prabhupada had stressed the importance of working together in cooperation, some ill-motivated persons were greedy for power and control over others. They confused their management position on the GBC board of directors with an imaginary claim to spiritual authority. Several of them were neither spiritual exemplars nor effective managers.

Had there not been a small coterie of motivated persons prematurely aspiring for outward trappings of guruship before becoming qualified, and had there not been another coterie of devotees sufficiently disgusted with this system to embrace a schismatic movement, the argument about book editing would never have arisen.

People rightfully suspicious about a concocted zonal acharya system (arbitrarily corresponding to a longstanding zonal administrative system) and invented by usurping pretenders to Prabhupada's legacy soon magnified their suspicions beyond all reason. Thirsty for any spiritual justification for rejecting ISKCON, they heedessly endorsed the heretic Krishna Kant Desai's bizarre, madcap notion that a single letter drafted by a disciple and sent out over Srila Prabhupada's signature -- containing words interpreted in a special way without reliance on common sense or a dictionary -- could somehow trump, cancel and override hundreds of lectures, darsans, morning walks, other letters and published books, while flouting the instructions of dozens of acharyas in the disciplic succession, as well as the declared instruction of Sri Chaitanya Himself.

People who embraced the word-jugglery of the ritvik breakaway group were all too ready to believe the worst of sincere, thoughtful and scholarly devotees like Dravida das and Jayadwaita Swami. Working carefully from the original tapes that Prabhupada dictated, Dravida and Jayadwaita compared the typewritten manuscripts with the published first edition to uncover and correct the numerous errors that had crept into those first books.

Fortunately, the once-active propaganda campaign against correcting Srila Prabhupada's first editions is winding down. Most people are now aware that the first editions were rife with errors introduced by his first English typists and editors who knew no Sanskrit.

Despite this fact, Mahesh Raja prabhu has sent his two texts to Chakra. We can reasonably infer that he is unaware that the edits made subsequent to the first edition are justifiable improvements.

Here is the history of the verse under discussion (Madhya 19.157, purport).

Original transcript (What Prabhupada dictated):

If one thinks in the Society there are many so-called devotees or there are so many nondevotees, still one should stick to the Society, and if one thinks the Society members are not pure devotees, he can directly keep company or in touch with the spiritual master. If there is any doubt he should consult the spiritual master.

In the first published 1975 edition, the changed word order clarified that the concern was with the sincerity and commitment of people who might join the Society, rather than with what sorts of thinking a reader might do. Possible ambiguity as to which society Prabhupada was talking about was removed by specifying the Krsna Consciousness Society.

By changing "so-called" to "pseudo-", it became possible to simplify the sentence with a compound predicate, without risking the misunderstanding that there could be such a thing as a pseudo-nondevotee. Finally, the sexist term "he" was changed to "one" in two places -- an insightful change for its time, when books intended for a gender-mixed audience sometimes left the accidental impression that women were of no concern to the author.

These four good edits prior to the first 1975 edition were set against the accidental loss of a whole line of Prabhupad's dictation -- the line which is shown in boldface in the original dictated version above. Thus we come to the way the text appeared in the 1975 edition:

If one thinks that there are many pseudo-devotees or nondevotees in the Krsna Consciousness Society, [18 words omitted] one can keep direct company with the spiritual master, and if there is any doubt, one should consult the spiritual master.

Because the ritvik group had broken away from ISKCON, the breakaway group might not be thrilled to read the instruction of the Caitanya-caritamrta purport to "stick to the Society." It is entirely possible, having no access to the original dictation tapes, that they ascribed non-existent motivations to the BBT book editors who produced the 1996 edition, which restored the words by Srila Prabhupada that had been accidentally deleted from the erroneous 1975 edition.

Far from using shastric commentary to fashion a club or shoe with which to beat the ritviks for not "sticking to the Society," Jayadwaita Swami and Dravida das were highly conscientious editors entrusted by Prabhupada with the task of correcting the numerous mistakes resulting from the pell-mell publication schedule of his early books. To discharge that duty, and to bring the new edition into as close a harmony as possible with the dictation tapes, they were honour-bound to restore the hurried, accidental deletions from the first edition.

For completeness, here is the way the text appeared in the 1996 corrected edition:

Even if one thinks that there are many pseudo-devotees or nondevotees in the Krsna Consciousness Society, still one should stick to the Society; if one thinks the Society's members are not pure devotees, one can keep direct company with the spiritual master, and if there is any doubt, one should consult the spiritual master.

The only substantive change here is the addition of "even" at the beginning of the paragraph. The introduction of this word is amply justified. Consider the lovely parallel structure of the sentence, once the two missing clauses have been restored. There are two conditions:

A) One might think that the members of ISKCON are genuine devotees, but not sufficiently pure. Perhaps some ISKCON members are serving Krsna with desire for fame or material profit, or in a way that is mixed with some other impure motive.

B) One might EVEN think that the society is filled with pretenders (so-called devotees who hypocritically pretend outward devotion while covertly, inwardly having no devotion) or outright nondevotees (who overtly engage in prohibited behaviours or actually commit crimes prohibited by the civil state, because they are actually atheists who do not believe that karma can affect them).

While one is vastly more likely to meet with real devotees with remediable intellectual, moral or managerial failings than with outright dacoits, some unfortunate devotees in ISKCON have definitely experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse at the hands of pseudo-devotees or nondevotees. Some nondevotees — such as the former Hansadutta, Gurukripa and Sudama Vipra — were engaged in gunrunning, smuggling and other heinous offences. Other nondevotees — such as the former Kirtanananda — conspired to murder and were convicted of criminal racketeering.

Never mind, says Prabhupad; one who is disturbed by this can associate with his or her guru, and consult with the guru to resolve doubt. Srila Prabhupada's wisdom thus shines out from the text he wrote before the schism. Whether we believe it reflects Prabhupada's ability as a paramahamsa-satguru simultaneously to see past, present and future, or ascribe the comment to the bitter breakup of the Gaudiya Matha after the disappearance of Prabhupada's own guru, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura, the instruction is clear: to stick with the Society. If this is not possible, then walk the road of the Rupanugas: be a good disciple, and become thereby, eventually, a good guru who can help other disciples to walk the road of spiritual growth to maturity, as Srila Prabhupada very much wanted all his spiritual sons and daughters to do.

I wish to thank Mr. Mahesh Raja for kindly drawing these two versions of the Caitanya-caritamrta text to my attention, and for allowing me the opportunity to discourse on their significance.