When I was talking about devotees taking matter into their own hands and moving our mission without waiting for GBC orders I didn’t mention writing books even though that was my initial idea. Then I thought that the article came out nicely even without comments on book writing so I decided to leave it altogether. Then I came across one of such post-Prabhupāda books and now I think that the issue deserves consideration.
We have a dilemma in ISKCON – on one hand when we say “our books” we mean Prabhupāda’s books and we accept them as the law books for the next ten thousand years. They are transcendental and free of all imperfections, and they are more than sufficient to guide one back to Godhead. Everything else that comes later will always pale in comparison, and, frankly, there’s no need.
On the other hand, we have Prabhupāda’s instructions on writing, that it is a legitimate devotional activity. This order actually came from Lord Caitanya himself and Śrīla Prabhupāda told us to continue this mission in ISKCON, that’s what he build Kṛṣṇa-Balarāma temple for – so that serious devotees take advantage of the facilities and take responsibility educating the rest of the world in Kṛṣṇa consciousness (CC Madhya.23.104).
We also have no shortage of devotees ready to write and publish books, it’s something that comes naturally in course of devotional service. So, how do we write something that is going to be intrinsically inferior and unnecessary, and yet we were practically ordered to do so? What for?
I don’t think there’s an easy answer. We can stop publishing non-Prabhupāda books and even excommunicate the offenders – that won’t work, of course. Or we can let people write and publish freely and contaminate Prabhupāda’s pristine teachings with their speculations. That will work but will probably ruin our mission, too. In a way it’s an echo of our guru succession problem.
We need gurus but we also know that none of them lives up to Śrīla Prabhupāda’s standard. There’s a rittvik solution, there’s ISKCON solution, there are people who emigrate to GM or bābājīs, and there’s prabhupādanugas non-solution of criticizing everyone. Needless to say, ISKCON solution is the only viable option, but it still leaves questions about substandard gurus.
Likewise, printing books under supervision of GBC is the only way forward but it still leaves the question of substandard literature slipping through, and there’s a question of distribution, too. If a guru writes a book, can his disciples distribute it? Who will get the money? Temple? Guru? What if temple authorities say that saṅkīrtana time should be spend on distributing Prabhupāda’s books and devotees should use their own time for promoting their own gurus. What if they are temple devotees who don’t have their own time?
Periodically these problems rise up, usually brought by our critics. It would have been easier if our spiritual and managerial lines of authority never diverged, like it was in Vedic times or even in early days of GM. You live in guru’s aśrama and preach and collect on behalf of your guru, you don’t have allegiance to anyone else. In ISKCON, however, we pledge allegiance to Śrīla Prabhupāda, our guru, and our temple authorities. These three will often contradict each other in the eyes of less mature devotees, it’s just a fact of life.
What would be the ideal solution? I think if our devotees wrote books introducing people to Prabhupāda that would be pleasing to everyone. Not necessarily as openly promotional literature for his books but as a natural stepping stone, lifting people up without them even realizing so.
This would address the need to modernize our presentation, too, so we don’t have to rely on outdated scientific information to make our case. Sometimes we genuinely need to soften the edges around Prabhupāda’s presentations, like in the case with women having smaller brains. We can lift this quote straight from Folio/Vanisource but then it would likely to be rejected outright. We can quote the entire context of the conversation but that would be distracting.
I think we should do what devotees around Prabhupāda did all the time – try to explain Prabhupāda’s words to those too far entrenched in their own views. A certain level of preparation is needed to digest even relatively simple spiritual knowledge and it was disciples’ duty to coach Prabhupāda’s visitors in the basics.
Sometimes, and you can see it in conversation records, devotees openly tried to explain Prabhupāda’s words in his presence. On one hand that would imply that they thought they were better preachers than their spiritual master, on the other hand Prabhupāda didn’t object when their explanations helped to move the conversation along. It is the same subtle skill of faithfully representing your guru according to guru’s wishes.
I’m thinking of books like “A Message to the Youth of India”, which I haven’t read but which could be a nice opportunity to address problems facing young Indians under onslaught of Internet and Hollywood, and real opportunities to emigrate to the US. What should be their connection to their spiritual roots? What parts of their culture are important and need to be preserved at all costs? Arranged marriages? Vegetarianism? Regular temple visits? Seeking out association with sādhus? Charity?
These are all practical questions that are not obvious to the first time reader of our Bhagavad Gītā As It Is. We can also have practical queries about science that didn’t exist in Prabhupāda’s days, especially genetics or quantum physics. What happens to the soul of a cloned animal? What is GMO from the spiritual perspective? How does Big Bang fit with Bhāgavatam? Can atoms have minds? Even atheism came up with new questions and challenges that don’t have straight and easy answers in our books. We only can interpret them to satisfy the curious, or we can pull some quotes together, but even then we need to give our own explanation about their meaning and priority.
Take the word svadharma, for example. It appears multiple times in our books and every time the translation is somewhat different. Sometimes following svadharma is prescribed, sometimes Bhāgavatam recommends abandoning it. Sometimes it refers to material occupation, sometimes it refers to our spiritual engagement. On that note, I think we desperately need a book on modern māyāvada. Back in Prabhupāda’s days we didn’t know who those māyāvādīs and impersonalists were but now they are the ones who speak for Hinduism and lots of people are convinced that unity with Brahman is what Hinduism is all about. We have a neo-Advaita movement that didn’t exist in Prabhupāda’s days, we have followers of various rascal “gurus” that got covered fairly well by Prabhupāda in his conversations but none of that criticism made it into the books. We have to adapt this criticism for modern followers, too, because they can say that they are not doing any of those outrageous things Osho got blamed for, for example.
And then we have books written as if to undermine and improve on Śrīla Prabhupāda. There are books on rasa-līlā, for example, or new renditions of the tenth Canto. Sometimes they could be justified, sometimes not. So far we don’t have alternative translations of the entire Śrīmad Bhāgavatam but there’s one easily available online that takes Prabhupāda’s book and sort of abridges it to suit I don’t know who. I thought Bhagavad Gītā was off limits but turns out there was a version published fifteen years ago that follows Prabhupāda’s format very closely. Why would any disciple replicate the writings of his guru? Shouldn’t our writing be at least complimentary and not seen as replacement? One reviewer said that this translation is more sophisticated and scholarly than author’s spiritual master’s – Śrīla Prabhupāda’s.
Any disciple who produces an imitation that elicits superlative comparisons with his guru should immediately burn it, in my view, but it didn’t happen. Oh well, that devotee has left ISKCON and there’s nothing we can do about it, but it’s an example of what we should not do if we want to be responsible followers of Śrīla Prabhupāda.