Minor Case Or Capital Controversy?
Posted March 20, 2006
Srila Prabhupada's books are hailed as scholarly because they capture the essence of the Vedas. He meticulously translated while consulting previous acaryas in order to present a faithful rendition of the original texts. A close examination of word-for-word translations of the slokas highlights the difficulty of translating into another language. Our Sanskrit pandits will agree that some words are translated liberally rather than literally in order to preserve the essential meaning. As such, content is much more important than form.
Recent posts in the Sampradaya Sun illustrate a wide concern that using lower-case pronouns when referring to Radha and Krishna may be a departure from the Vedic tradition, is irreverent, and might mislead readers into an erroneous view of God as devoid of divinity. While mindful of these concerns, I would like to respectfully suggest that the philosophy in our scriptures is so rich and extensive that, in comparison, the capitalization of pronouns does little to insure philosophical accuracy and reverence. The choice of words and abundant qualifiers like "the Supreme Personality of Godhead" are greatly more effective than capitalization.
There are no capital letters in Sanskrit. Many languages do not use them. Our own alphabet, based on the Roman system, can be traced back to the Etruscan, Greek, Phoenician and Egyptian writing systems where throughout antiquity, only capital letters were used. Lower-case letters first appeared in the Roman alphabet in the 8th century under the patronage of Charlemagne. Therefore, ancient scriptures and texts did not differentiate divine pronouns, and capitalization rules today depend on the particular language. For example, in Swahili, capital letters are sometimes found in the middle of words. Srila Prabhupada's books are translated into many languages where there are no capital letters. Are we to ignore their rules of grammar and somehow capitalize divine pronouns in those languages? If not, how can we argue ignoring the "mundane" rules of grammar in English? We need a consistent policy.
Srila Prabhupada's instructions are unequivocal regarding getting our books into the hands of the public so that lives may be transformed. Presentation is very important, which includes proper syntax, grammar, and vocabulary. Srila Prabhupada's writing style, with the assistance of editors, is a vast departure from Srila Bhaktisiddhanta's style, and reflects a later 20th-century American English. Similarly, the last twenty years have seen tremendous changes in the English language, largely due to cultural, political and technological influences. Graduates today are accustomed to the modern rules of grammar. Students who ignore recent amendments will find corrections on their writing submissions, as I have experienced firsthand. Writers who use outdated vocabulary and grammar may not be taken seriously, and their publications will be considered badly written.
It is only fitting that ISKCON editors consult the Chicago Manual of Style in matters of grammar to maintain the scholarly standard that Srila Prabhupada brought to his writings. Published by the University of Chicago, it has been the leading authority on English grammar in the United States for almost a century. It is revised periodically with the collaboration of leading academics and professional writers from various disciplines. It is a definitive guide used by serious writers and publishers.
Few would oppose changing book covers to increase their appeal. Why
would it be wrong to update the grammar (in a conservative and careful
way) in future publications to maximize the respect our literature
deserves? Meanwhile, let's not forget that a battle between capital and
minor-case pronouns is a battle over form rather than content. Both
sides aim at preserving and spreading Krishna consciousness.