BBT Book Changes: Who Needs Authentic Books?


Devotees who are against allowing any editorial changes in Bhaktivedanta Swami’s books often invoke what they call the “shastric principle of arsha-prayoga.” Literally the word means “rishi usage.” Early Puranic commentators would occasionally point out that a word used by Vyasadeva did not conform to the rules of grammar, or that a verse of his did not comply with the strictures of Sanskrit prosody. In such cases a commentator would say “iti arsha,” “It’s Rishis’ language.”

And nobody would ever dare to ‘correct’ Vyasa’s writings. There is, however, no principle of arsha-prayoga that protects scribal errors. In other words, if a rishi was known to have said one thing, and a scribe or copyist wrote down another thing, that faulty version was fully subject to corrections.

There can be no doubt that A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami saw his own writings as divine revelations. In his experience God was the actual author of his work. And like the ancient rishis, whose poetry conveyed the thoughts of God, Bhaktivedanta Swami repeatedly stressed the divine origin of his writings: “Not my books, Krishna’s books (” “That is not my explanation, that is Krishna’s explanation. I cannot explain now. That moment I could explain. That means Krishna’s… […] Although it is my writing, but I know it is not my writing. It is Krishna’s writing (760904rc.vrn).” On another occasion Bhaktivedanta Swami seems to compare himself to the law giver Manu, when he tells his disciples that his books will be the law books for the next ten thousand years. The late Tamal Krishna Goswami writes: “Prabhupada’s statement, ‘My books will be the law books for human society for the next ten thousand years,’ was made in my and Ramesvara prabhu’s presence in 1975. I was seated in the back seat of a car with Prabhupada (Ramesvara in the front next to the driver) and we had just arrived back at the LA temple from a morning walk. I am not certain if the phrase ‘for human society’ was included. You may cite me as a source if you wish.” (Personal communication, TKG to Ekkehard Lorenz, 02-NOV-00).

Editorial concerns are justified

What if the authenticity of Bhaktivedanta Swami’s books is being undermined by continuous ongoing posthumous editing since 1978? The concern is justified. What if the original message, that which was dictated by Krishna Himself, gets lost in the editing process? How much of Bhaktivedanta Swami’s writing in the present printed BBT editions is still authentic? Is it really so that a text published in 1972 is more authentic, and therefore more ‘spiritually potent’ than a later version? Regarding Bhagavad-gita As It Is, it may be a good policy to revert to the 1972 edition. The argument that Bhaktivedanta Swami repeatedly lectured on practically each and every verse of that book, and that the 1972 recension should therefore be considered as fully approved by the author, is well-taken. But what about the other books? In the case of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, for example, “authorization through repeated lectures by the author” does not apply. Bhaktivedanta Swami lectured on less than 8% of the 8,923 Bhagavatam verses that he translated. Moreover, in most of his lectures he did not read the purports. More than 90% of his Srimad-Bhagavatam cannot be seen as authorized through lectures. The same holds for Caitanya-Caritamrita and Krishna Book.

The Krishna Book published during Bhaktivedanta Swami’s presence contained a description of Mathura city encircled by cannons – an obvious anachronism! On the tape Bhaktivedanta Swami says Mathura was “encircled by canals.” This reading is corroborated by the relevant Bhagavatam verse. But the author did not protest against “cannons” while he was present, nor did he authorize the post-1977 change to “canals.” Was it right to change it, then?

Another passage in the pre-1978 Krishna Book tells about “the province of Kashi within the barricade of Varanasi.” On the tape one can hear “…in the province of Kashi, in brackets ‘Varanasi’…” In these two cases, the decision is easy. Unfortunately, tapes with original dictations are rare, and for the major part of the books only the so-called original transcripts (OTs) exist. For only 12% of the total content in all the books published by Bhaktivedanta Swami there exist authentic originals in the form of tapes or manuscripts produced by the author himself. For 4% there is no source material whatsoever: no manuscripts, no tapes, no transcripts. The remaining 84% are based on OTs. These OTs are undated and reflect various stages of editing. Some OTs aren’t “original” at all; they have been retyped after the editors already made some changes. Many OTs show different levels of editing on the same sheet: various proposals in different handwritings, notes on the margins, strikethroughs etc. In many cases the transcribers could not understand what Bhaktivedanta Swami said on the tape. Thus the most exotic speculations found their way into the books, and may even be celebrated as divine revelations.

What it all boils down to is: for the major part of Bhaktivedanta Swami’s books one cannot know with certainty whether they are factually his words. This may sound worse than it really is. In reality, the mood and the content of the purports match so well with his lectures and conversations, that there is no reason to suspect any terrible deviations from the original message.

There is little evidence that Bhaktivedanta Swami’s pre-1978 books are more authentic (or closer to the version that Krishna revealed to him) than later editions based on tapes, manuscripts or transcripts. Experience suggests that Bhaktivedanta Swami would rarely ever point out mistakes in passages from which he lectured. He did not object when, during a lecture, Pradyumna read, “Lord Rishabhadeva’s hands, feet and chest were very long.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 5.5.31–Vrindavan, November 18, 1976) This version is still found in the present printed BBT editions. In the OT version Lord Rishabha’s chest is delicate and His arms are very long! Elsewhere the readers are told that humans evolved from vegetables and that Suta Gosvami was a descendant of Sukadeva Gosvami! None of this is supported by the original transcripts.

How to preserve Bhaktividanta Swami’s legacy

If there is an interest to preserve the authentic work of Bhaktivedanta Swami, one will not do the author any justice by declaring all editing endeavors to be unauthorized deviations. There clearly is a need for such editing. This said, it may turn out to be the safest thing, after all, to put a preliminary freeze on all so-called book changes. ISKCON, the BBT, and the Bhaktivedanta Archives will have to establish a credible and fully accountable procedure before any further editing can take place. Many devotees doubt whether there exist competent individuals who could be entrusted with such editing work. Devotees need to be informed about how exactly the books were made. What do the transcripts look like? How much editing has taken place between the original dictation and the so-called original book edition (like the 1972 Gita)? What information is there, in the BBT and in the Archives, and in the memories of those who are still present and who worked on the books? How much can be accomplished if a diligent effort is made to establish a canonical version of Bhaktivedanta Swami’s work?

What is required is to first establish a catalogue of the original materials still existing. Next, the printed versions have to be compared against the original handwritten or typed manuscripts, tapes and transcripts. In those places where the transcripts are inconclusive (because the transcribers were unable to properly spell out what they heard on the tape), one needs to consult the original source texts that Bhaktivedanta Swami had used in his work.

Take for example the Bhaktivedanta Purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.26.21. In the second paragraph of the present BBT version we read “…one can understand the Supreme Personality of Godhead, or the objective which is described in the Bhagavad-gita as adbhuta.” The original transcript, however, is worded as follows: “…and the status in which one can understand the S of G or the objective which is described in the BG as Adibuta (?) that is also another feature of the Mahat Tatta.” This is exactly and verbatim what the OT says. We do not know whether the author said exactly this, but it is at least what the transcriber heard; it is the version before conscious editing was applied.

If one looks at Sridhara’s (14th century) commentary, it becomes easy to decide: the word used by him was ‘adhibhuta.’ It is clear that on the tape, following Sridhara’s commentary, Bhaktivedanta Swami said ‘adhibhuta.’ The transcriber rendered it as ‘Adibuta.’ The editor, who did not know Sanskrit and did not read the commentaries, decided that it should be ‘adbhuta,’ an altogether different word.

Countless details will have to be examined before an edition can be presented that deserves to be called ‘authentic.’ In order to ascertain what exactly Bhaktivedanta Swami had said in a particular passage where manuscripts, tapes, or OTs remain inconclusive, it is not enough to carefully read and re-read that passage. One has to read the English, Hindi, and Bengali verse translations that he used when working with the text. (Bhaktivedanta Swami’s translations in the Third Canto, for example, are based on the Gita Press English edition, and he copied many of its English verse translations verbatim). One has to consult the original Sanskrit and Bengali commentaries that Bhaktivedanta Swami used when he worked with the text. And one needs to study the original transcripts of the tapes from which the BBT edition was produced. Even lectures, letters, and conversations contain material that must be taken into consideration:

Tamala Krsna (reading): “Farming, cattle raising and business are the qualities…”
Prabhupada: They are not cattle raising, that was…
Tamala Krsna: Cow protection.
Prabhupada: Cow protection. It has to be corrected. It is go-raksya, go. They take it cattle-raising. I think Hayagriva has translated like this.

(Room Conversation with the Mayor of Evanston–July 4, 1975, Chicago)

The present BBT edition of the Bhagavad-gita As It Is reads “cow protection” (BG 18.44). The 1972 edition had “cattle raising.” Back to ’72 ?

  • Priyavrata Das

    Thanks. While I agree that there are obviously such errors in the books, these are my main concerns:

    1) Respecting the integrity of the author. That goes for any literary work. If I write a book, no matter how many editors are involved, I am the one giving the final authorisation for publication. At that point the book is finalised, with all its errors and everything. Only I as author have the right to allow changes in later editions.

    In the case of Bhaktivedanta Swamis books, I am not sure he gave sanctions to his students to make changes in his books as they see fit. In fact, on the contrary he seems to have strongly disapproved of such changes. I am not sure what was the case, but the latter seems most credible to me, considering the neophyte level of his students and the rather subtle philosophical content.

    2) Where does one draw the line? If one establishes a policy that sanctions such changes in the books of an author one effectively opens those books for future changes, probably indefinitely. While we may fully trust the current BBT staff to strictly stay within certain limits, how to ensure that the BBT staff five or ten generations from now will do the same? Today there are still those in this staff that are direct disciples of Bhaktivedanta Swami, but a few generations ahead things will look rather different. Where are the limits? What changes are one allowed and not allowed to do? If that is not clearly defined (and followed) such future decisions will become arbitrary.

    I am not sure if it was a forgery or not, but I read a text where a BBT editor describes the justification for slightly changing the wordings in some translation or purport. The motivation was that the current wording might be misinterpreted to support the version of the “jiva falldown” theory that is not officially sanctioned by the GBC. So to remove any reasons for misunderstanding, a slight change was made to the wordings. Now, whether this actually happened or not, it serves as an example of how subtly, and with all good intentions, changes can gradually start to erode the original text. Maybe it does not happen now, but who can stop it from happening in the future?

    3) By opening Bhaktivedanta Swamis books to changes one risks to lose the trust of his followers. We now simply have to take it on faith that whatever changes are being made are “ok”. For most readers it is not possible to review all the changes and verify them as acceptable. One has to simply trust the BBT. This means, in effect, that “faith in Prabhupada” is to some extent replaced with “faith in the BBT editors”. But is there such faith? And should one demand that there is? If not, this policy of allowing changes, whether the changes are justified or not, may further weaken and undermine a movement that is already suffering from problems.

    I agree with you that if these changes should at all be allowed, they would have to be done after careful consideration, not by one or two editors at their own discretion, but by a board of several independent and very respected persons, and presented openly and accessibly to the vaishnava community for approval before carried out.

    At the same time, I think it is important to, as you nicely point out and give examples of, correct evident errors that obscure the meaning of the shastra and Bhaktivedanta Swamis original teachings. That there are errors in his books is something that he himself acknowledges, for instance in the foreword of each canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam. So I don’t agree with the fundamentalist arguments. My point is rather that Bhaktivedanta Swamis books should be treated, in this sense, as historical documents. Then of course, some hundred years from now the language in the books as they look now will be outdated and hard to understand for people. So how to preserve and renew at the same time?

    I suggest, for the above reasons, “freezing” the original versions of his books, as he approved them for printing. These should be continuously produced by the BBT, as their first and foremost mission (that is why the BBT was created in the first place). Then one could make “critical editions” where one will have full freedom to attempt at conforming to the original manuscripts and the original shastra. In this case it will be easy: Just make sure that the original versions are always in print (and existing as ebooks), then let the versions edited by the BBT be clearly marked as “revised edition” or something. (That also goes for the images, btw, since Bhaktivedanta Swami was also very specific about what illustrations and covers should be used, and the current editions have sometimes changed that too.)

    Of course, to keep two versions of all those books constantly in print in all languages may at first seem highly impractical. But if the BBT wants to only print one version, why not give some other publishing company the rights to the other version? I am sure there are already those interested in that.

    Another option may be to use the original versions and include the changes as footnotes.