Beginning in the spring of 2017, I was asked to examine and evaluate the quality and validity of the editing of Prabhupada’s books, beginning with and especially the editing of Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gītā As It Is. The question can be put simply as follows: Is the BBT’s 1983 “Second Edition” of Prabhupāda’s Bhagavad-gītā As It Is (“BBT83”) a fully acceptable publication of Prabhupāda’s original Macmillan published Bhagavad-gītā As It Is (“MAC72”) from devotional, ethical, scholarly, and theological viewpoints? The larger question is as follows: What exactly are the criteria for doing any editing of Prabhupāda’s books posthumously? And is such editing being executed according to the clear instructions that Prabhupāda gave us?
My recent involvement was not initiated by myself, but arose as a response to the many sincere and concerned devotees who had requested me to apply my academic background, publishing experience and expertise to this matter. Many persons have expressed to me that they felt that I would be best able to understand and evaluate this divisive issue. Despite my heavy load of obligations in my university teaching at two different institutions, scholarly publishing, and lecturing, I have devoted some time to this issue along with the help of very supportive devotional colleagues. My hope is that I could bring forth some genuine conclusion and thoughtful resolution to the minds and hearts of devotees who have agonized over both sides of this issue for more than three decades.
What I’m Finding
After entering into discussions with Dravida Dasaji and Jayadvaita Swamiji (“the editing team”), both persons whom I have known for decades, and both whom I hold in high esteem (I especially feel a close friendship with and affection for the Swami), I am nevertheless compelled to look at this highly contentious issue as professionally and theologically as I can. And, while I consider both of these two BBT editors as well-meaning in their efforts to contribute to the positive presentation of Prabhupāda’s books, and, while I acknowledge the many positive contributions that they surely have made, I have felt that their methodologies be carefully reviewed, questioned, and, quite possibly, reconsidered. The Movement has resources and a level of maturity now, like never before, that can be brought forward for such an examination.
My Current Thinking
After numerous discussions with thoughtful and astute devotees, and after considerable engagement with Dravida Dasaji and Jayadvaita Swamiji on this important issue, my current thinking is as follows: the BBT83, while appropriately correcting some of the MAC72’s mistakes and omissions, displays editorial revision well beyond the minimal editing that Prabhupāda himself requested, and thereby raises serious, unresolved ethical and theological issues.
As I understand it, the central rationale for the BBT83 rests on the following presumption: When Prabhupāda was producing the Bhagavad-gītā As It Is, he relied on young disciples (such as Jayadvaita Brahmacari!) who were largely incompetent, untrained editors. It was an unavoidable situation, yet it resulted in the flawed MAC72 that was not entirely true to Prabhupāda’s words and voice—giving rise to Jayadvaita Swami’s slogan, “closer to Prabhupāda” (found on the BBT website “Responsible Publishing”). It was this presumption that justified the Swami incorporating Prabhupāda’s earlier prepublication drafts and transcriptions into the BBT83. It is critical to point out that all this material was composed prior to the final edited manuscript that Macmillan accepted for publication as the MAC72. It is this line of thinking that I am calling into question, namely, that these early drafts should serve as source material for allowing the editorial team to produce an edition “closer” to Prabhupāda’s wording and voice.
Here Are the Problems
The issue before us is as follows: “How valid is the justification for the BBT83?” Or, put another way, “Is there any necessity for a second edition?” However, before addressing that question, I cannot imagine that there exists any doubt in anyone’s mind, even in the minds of the editing team, that Prabhupāda approved what was finally published as the MAC72. Prabhupāda not only joyously accepted the MAC72, but also read from the MAC72 for the five years he remained on earth, utilizing it for at least 250 classes on the Bhagavad Gītā. We also know he was very proud of the numerous academic endorsements he received for the MAC72. Furthermore, there is a clear record that Prabhupāda was most pleased that Macmillan, a prestigious publishing house, had accepted his manuscript for publication.
It bears mentioning here that this manuscript was certainly reviewed by Macmillan’s own copy editor. Furthermore, it was this manuscript that Prabhupāda himself considered final, and suitable for large-scale printing. (Having much personal involvement with academic publishing, I can attest that this is the normal publishing process). Finally, who could deny the influence and success of the MAC72 during the years in which the Movement blossomed with its dramatically expanding membership.
We can also all agree that Prabhupāda never gave any instruction to Jayadvaita Swami, nor to anyone else, that he wanted an improved and revised edition. On the contrary, Prabhupāda repeatedly warned devotees about what he called “the changing disease.” It is incontrovertible that Prabhupāda rejected the notion of “changing” what he had written. He only approved minimal editing for mistakes and omissions; nothing more. He never requested anyone to go back to earlier drafts and transcriptions for “improving” what he had already personally approved. In my experience in the field of academic writing and publishing, I am certain that if the MAC72 were still a Macmillan publication, the posthumous BBT83 changes would never be accepted, nor even entertained by Macmillan unless it came directly from the author.
Also, dear readers, please allow me to share a personal, and, admittedly, uncomfortable, thought regarding the problematic nature of this presumption on the part of the editorial team. I cannot but see the replacement of the MAC72 with the BBT83 as inescapably calling into question Prabhupāda’s awareness and knowledge of how his writings were published. By direct implication, the placing of previously unpublished words “into Prabhupāda’s mouth” via BBT83 can be seen as an indictment on Prabhupāda’s judgment and an assertion of the BBT’s superior judgment over his. It matters not if they were drawn from unfinalized drafts, for in the absence of the author’s direct approval, such efforts to get us “closer to Prabhupāda” may well produce the converse result, namely, the BBT83 that is “further away from Prabhupāda.” As I understand it, it is precisely this concern that distresses so many devotees.
Perhaps a Solution
We have formed a small group, called “As It Was,” a name indicating our intention to unreservedly respect Prabhupāda’s MAC72. Our project revisits the MAC72 only to “check” it (herein referred to as the “MAC72”) for the necessary corrections of grammatical errors and omissions. Since these minimal corrections only “tidy up” the MAC72 that Prabhupāda personally authorized and utilized, we hope to demonstrate how the substantial changes presented in the BBT83 are entirely unnecessary. By preserving Prabhupāda’s words as they originally were, without putting any words into Prabhupāda’s mouth, it is our hope that the BBT will duly consider the wisdom of this approach.