“Don’t add anything. Don’t subtract anything. Don’t change anything.” This was the instruction ISKCON’s founder-acharya, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, many times gave to his disciples. Yet some disciples he engaged to edit his words for publication–that is (by definition) to add, subtract, and change. Here I present a brief history of that editorial work.
Before Srila Prabhupada came to the West, his writing, publishing, and distribution were a “one-man show.” He himself did it all. The only editing done on his writing was whatever editing he did himself.
He put substance ahead of language. As stated in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.5.11): “Literature that is full of descriptions of the glories of the unlimited Supreme Lord is a different creation, full of transcendental words directed toward bringing about a revolution in the impious lives of this world’s misdirected civilization.” Even if imperfectly composed, the Bhagavatam says, such literature is “heard, sung, and accepted by purified men who are thoroughly honest.”
Srila Prabhupada was aware of the shortcomings of his English. As he himself wrote in his unedited commentary on this verse:
We know that in our honest attempt for presenting this great literature conveying the transcendental message for reviving God-consciousness of the people in general, as a matter of re-spiritualisation of the world atmosphere,-is fret with many difficulties. Regard being had to the facts that our capacity of presenting the matter in adequate language, specially a foreign language, will certainly fail and there may be so many literary discrepancies inspite of our honest attempt to present it in the proper way.
Still, he had hope:
But we are sure that with our all faults in this connection the seriousness of the subject matter will be taken into consideration and the leaders of the society will still accept this on account of its being an honest attempt for glorifying the Almighty Great so much now badly needed.
He offered an example:
When there is fire in the house, the inmates of the house go out for help from the neighbors who may be foreigners to such inmates and yet without any adequate language the victims of the fire express themselves and the neighbors understand the need even though not expressed in adequate language.
The same spirit of co-operation is needed in the matter of broadcasting this transcendental message of the Srimad Bhagwatam throughout the whole poluted atmosphere of the present day world situation. After all it is a technical science of spiritual values and as such we are concerned with the techniques and not with the language. If the techniques of this great literature are understood by the people of the world, there is the success.
Yet once Srila Prabhupada came to the West, he wanted his writings edited: “I wish that all copies, before finally going to the press, must be thoroughly revised and edited so that there may not be any mistakes especially of spelling and grammar or of the Sanskrit names.” 1