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The Posthumous Editing of a Great Master's Works: Special Focus on A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

By: for ISKCON News on March 6, 2020
Photo Credits: Maria A. Shaheen

Top left to right: Austin Gordon, PhD (Bhutatma Das); Allan Keislar, PhD (Amoghalila Das); Julius Lipner, PhD; Jonathan Edelmann, PhD (Janakirama Das); David Buchta, PhD; Kenneth Rose, PhD; Bottom left to right: Ramdas Lamb, PhD; Rita D. Sherma, PhD; Michael Gressett, PhD (Mahasaumya Das); Edith Best, PhD (Urmila Dasi); Anna King, PhD; Barbara Holdrege, PhD; Graham M. Schweig, PhD (Garuda Das). Please note: There were two or three scholars who could not be present for the symposium, but who plan to contribute papers for the published volume.

Thirteen scholars from the US and UK came together at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley, California during the weekend of February 21st through the 23rd for a historic symposium focused on preserving the literary legacy of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda. Entitled “The Posthumous Editing of a Great Master’s Works,” the symposium was organized by GTU faculty member Graham M. Schweig, and hosted by the Mira and Ajay Shingal Center for Dharma Studies and its Director, Professor Rita D. Sherma. 

Julius Lipner, Professor Emeritus of Hinduism at the University of Cambridge, delivered the keynote speech. His insightful remarks were followed by a series of academic presentations and responses by Sanskrit specialist David Buchta from Brown University, and leading scholars of religion including, Professor Anna King from the University of Winchester, Professor Barbara Holdrege of the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Professor Jonathan Edelmann of the University of Florida. Scholar-practitioners from within the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) added to the scholarly exploration of the posthumous editing issue, which for decades has stood as a major controversy within ISKCON. 

Please note that a leading member of ISKCON's governing body was invited to observe, but due to schedule conflicts, had to decline. Also, certain leading members of the directorship of the Bhaktivedant Book Trust International, Inc. (BBTI) were invited to observe the presentations, but did not respond to the invitation.

There was little debate on the appropriateness of minimal, mechanical copy-editing of Prabhupāda’s works (e.g., grammar and spelling mistakes, etc.), as Prabhupāda himself had explicitly called for this. However, with reference to editing that went beyond this, there was serious concern that the editing, to quote Professor Lipner, be “judicious” and “sensitive to the author's voice and authenticity.” Central to this was the need for the editors to avoid any attempt “to improve on the guru's work, for to do so would be a breach of trust.” Such powerful language was indicative of scholars’ concerns that as a Vaishnava guru and Founder-Ācārya of ISKCON, Prabhupāda’s writings must be faithfully preserved.

Professor Schweig, himself an initiated disciple of Prabhupāda, as well as a Harvard-trained textual scholar, Sanskritist and theologian, set the stage for the symposium by presenting his analysis of the BBT’s changes to the Bhagavad Gītā As It Is. He pointed out that the BBT editor has made over 2,250 changes to Prabhupāda’s book from the original 1972 Macmillan edition to the 1983 BBT edition. Of these changes, Schweig deemed well under one-quarter of these changes to be necessary, and well over three-quarters of these changes to be unnecessary. He forcefully asserted that Prabhupāda’s own instructions on editing his books could be summed up concisely in the mantra “no changes, no mistakes,” meaning that Prabhupāda desired, most urgently and fundamentally, “no changes” to the content of his books, but he also instructed “no mistakes,” referring to the mechanics of copyediting in the English presentation.

In response to the editorial principle laid out by Schweig, Professor Holdrege raised the rhetorical, exigent question: “If Prabhupāda is revered by his followers as the mahā-guru of ISKCON, as a master of the śāstras, and as a perfected mahā-bhāgavata, what is the rationale for editing posthumously certain of his works that were published during his lifetime and that, prior to his passing, he himself had authorized, approved, and used as a basis for his teachings?” Professor Austin Gordon gave a workshop presentation in which he demonstrated examples of excessive editing.

Professor Edelmann suggested that the commentarial tradition of bhāṣya, well established in the Chaitanya school, offered the best alternative to the BBTI’s extensive editing. Dr. Edith Best (Urmila Devi Dasi) emphasized that the BBTI was in need of guiding principles for editing and that these must be clearly developed based on Prabhupāda’s own statements, Chaitanya Vaishnava precedent and philosophy, and internationally recognized standards of posthumous editing. There was near unanimous agreement that there should be an editorial team of not fewer than 4-5 qualified editors who approved any and all revisions. Turning again to Professor Lipner’s words, only a policy of making the most “carefully considered” changes agreed upon via broadly “shared responsibility” offers any hope of gaining the full support of the community of devotees for this sensitive task.

Because of the great success of this symposium, Professor Schweig plans to publish all the papers presented at the symposium in an edited volume in which each paper will appear as a chapter. Two academic publishers have already come forward with offers to publish the edited volume. Additionally, Schweig is presently planning a second symposium on the same theme in India in order to bring together at least twenty-four of the finest scholars in South Asia to share their areas of expertise on this important topic. Schweig will then publish the proceedings in a second edited volume.

This Symposium was made possible by donations from forty very concerned devotees as well as the generosity of the Mira and Ajay Center for Dharma Studies at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley.

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