Vanity thought #314. What makes a book

Our Vedic scriptures are called apaurusheya, meaning they originated from the breath of Narayana Himself so we treat them as such, as absolutely perfect and free from all mistakes. Still, one has to keep in mind that there IS a difference between shruti and smriti, and there’s a difference between shruti, smriti, and the works of our acharyas.

We consider books written by Srila Prabhupada as being above all. Not that they possess a higher status than what comes from Narayana’s breath, we mean that we don’t have the capacity or permission to understand shruti or smriti independently, we must approach them through the medium of Prabhupada and if we see any contradiction we must refer to Prabhupada’s opinion over our own imperfect understanding of shastra.

The question is – what makes a book a book? At what point does a book appear and takes the status of a canon? When we hold a book in our hands these questions don’t normally arise but there are way too many controversies in the history of the opposition to our movement to completely ignore them.

At first there was nothing. Then Prabhupada picked up a Dictaphone and dictated translations and purports to several verses, be it from Gita or Bhagavatam. Then some devotee transcribed what he heard on the tape and typed it up. Then Prabhupada looked through the printed text and made some edits here and there. Then he picked up a Dictaphone, inserted the old tape, and recorded new translations and purports over the old ones.

In the end we have a book in our hands. Lots of things have happened in between and no one knows at which point the text became sacred, what should be considered the standard, canonical edition.

Is it Prabhupada’s original dictation? That version is lost forever. Prabhupada’s edits on transcribed pages are probably closer to the standard but even after that he personally ordered his disciples to proofread the text and make any necessary edits. Then there was the version that went to the printers. I don’t think Prabhupada re-read each and every sentence at that point once again.

Then, in some cases, there are edits discovered after books were already published, also carrying Prabhupada’s stamp of approval, and sometimes they are quite different from what appears in the books that devotees were already distributing to the people.

We should also acknowledge that Prabhupada himself didn’t have one final version in his head, carried it with him at all times, and could easily check if the printed books deviated or not. The edits on transcribed pages show that he, like any other human being, had second thoughts, too, and had no problem whatsoever with changing his ideas, sentences or passages.

Creating a book is a process, the actual book is only a snapshot of that process at a certain stage. More often than not there’s no such thing as one standard version that would be totally faithful to the intention of the author because even author’s intentions are changing, too.

The ultimate intention of the author, Srila Prabhupada, is that we faithfully follow the gist of his instructions and that means we should respect the process by which BBT books are published. Unless instructed to do so it is not our job to find discrepancies in the editions and the alleged presence of such discrepancies does not mean that we put our spiritual lives in danger – we rely on Krishna for protection, not on our meager mental capacities.

We should also remember that it’s better to be wrong trying to follow our gurus than to be right trying to prove our intellectual superiority. The world will not end if we commit mistakes here and there, what will end is our devotional service, it will end the moment we decide to go it alone, outside the remit of our guru and other spiritual authorities.

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