By Vaisesika Dasa
The Written Word’s Sway on Humanity
To be sure, writing is a gift unique to humanity. Animals can scratch and bite, scream or roar, but they can’t write. And humans are singularly equipped not only to write but also to appreciate and glorify each other’s well-executed writing. When people use their wits to compose superb prose, their words bring readers to deeper levels of understanding, and civilized people everywhere applaud such writers’ contributions to the world’s betterment. The inscription above the entrance to the Brooklyn Public Library is a testament to this truth: “Farther than arrow, higher than the wings, fly poet’s song and prophet’s word.”
History also shows that a few well-chosen words printed and distributed can touch people’s hearts, spark them to form movements, and even galvanize them to topple empires. In this regard, the playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton enshrined these immortal words: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
The writer Michael Wagner, in his essay “What Difference Can a Book Make?” gives a practical example of this mightiness:
Certainly many books published these days have no other purpose than entertainment, but serious books can fulfill a much more significant role. Indeed, historically, certain books have had dramatic impacts on the thinking of whole societies. Consider, for example, Charles Darwin’s book, The Origin of Species, published in 1859. The theory of evolution first popularized by this book has dominated the thinking of “educated” people around the world for over a hundred years. Hardly anyone reads that book any more, but the movement it helped to spawn continues unabated. It was like a match that started an inferno that is still raging.
Two other examples of authors who have altered the world through their writings are Adam Smith and the co-authors Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In 1776, Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, which laid the foundation of modern capitalism and economics. Marx’s and Engels’s ideas and writings – especially The Communist Manifesto, which they completed in 1848 – have had a profound impact on world politics and intellectual thought, an influence felt even today.
Even well-written pamphlets have catalyzed uprisings and popular movements. For example, historians give credit to the pamphlet Common Sense, written by the journalist Thomas Paine, for helping spark the 1776 American Revolution. In Common Sense, Paine told the colonists to wake up to the fact that they were being unnecessarily subjugated, and called on them to revolt against the British king. Common Sense acted as a spark of inspiration for the colonies to seek independence from England. The pamphlet was sold to more than half a million readers in America – at that time about one fifth of the population. The statesman Thomas Jefferson wrote to Paine: “Go on doing with your pen what in other times was done with the sword.”
Here is yet another example of the written word’s capacity to incite social and political revolution. In Cuba, in 1953, the young and ambitious Fidel Castro – imprisoned after attempting to incite a rebellion – made his own magic using his pen. Behind bars, Castro wrote his speech “History Will Absolve Me,” in which he called for the people of Cuba to overthrow the Batista government and bring in democratic elections.
To conceal his writings, he used an ingenious type of ink, lime juice, which on paper is invisible until exposed to the sun. Castro’s wife and co-conspirator, Mirta, who regularly visited her imprisoned spouse, smuggled out a few pages of the speech with each trip. Eventually twenty thousand copies were printed and distributed clandestinely to the Cuban public. That tiny book had a profound impact on Cuba’s populace, and the people later helped Castro rise to power.
In addition to political and social influence, books have also laid the foundations for the spread of religious movements. Books preserve the authenticity of religious movements by providing a record of and a focal point for their teachings. And they also give adherents a hands-on way to spread those teachings.
An Authentic Record
All major religious and spiritual movements rely on written documents to define and guide their practices. Faithful Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists, for example, are those who obey the Bible, Koran, or who follow the teachings of the Buddhist Sūtras, respectively, and faithful Hindus keep and read the Bhagavad-gītā.
In our line of devotion following Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī writes, “Devotional service of the Lord that ignores the authorized Vedic literatures like the Upaniṣads, Purāṇas, and Nārada Pañcarātra is simply an unnecessary disturbance in society.” And in the Bhagavad-gītā (16.24), Kṛṣṇa Himself says, “One should therefore understand what is duty and what is not duty by the regulations of the scriptures. Knowing such rules and regulations, one should act so that he may gradually be elevated.”
The Literary Outspread of Ideas
Books are vessels that carry ideas. The word idea is defined as “a thought or suggestion as to a possible course of action.”
When a person reads a book, the ideas between the covers spill out into his or her mind, just as the seeds broadcast by a gardener find a home in the rich soil where they are strewn. These idea-seeds sprout and soon bear fruit within the reader. The American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who studied the Gītā, writes, “Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.”
Through the same progression, Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books yield the fruit of faith in devotional service, faith that inspires readers to search out the company of devotees who can answer life’s questions and teach them how to apply the book’s wisdom in their lives.
I would like to tell you about Andrew, a typical example of a sincere soul coming in contact with one of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books and taking to devotional service. I will let Andrew tell his own story:
I never thought of buying a book. I used to see devotees distributing books near Culver City, but I would avoid them. But one day I saw a devotee girl distributing books, and she came over to talk to me. She asked me, “Do you believe in God?” I answered, “Yes.” She smiled and continued, “So, if someone told you that they had a book written by God, would you be interested?” “Yes,” I replied again. Then she handed me the Gītā. But I said, “Well, I’m not really into religion.” She said, “But you said you believe in God. Why wouldn’t you want to read this book?” She made me promise that I’d keep it and that I’d read it. Then I asked if I should give a donation, and she said, “Yes, ten dollars.” That was a lot, and I thought of giving the book back, but instead I gave her the ten dollars. I took that book everywhere because I had paid good money for it.
Later, when my life was in transition, I left that book in storage at my father’s house. When I came back to see my father a year later, it was at a time when I felt hopeless about my life, so I had gone to speak to him. I was amazed to see that the book I had left in storage with him a year earlier was now on his bookshelf, so I pulled it down, thinking I might find solace in it. When I read how Arjuna had thrown down his bow in despair, I was expecting Kṛṣṇa to take the Christian approach and to tell him to turn the other cheek. I was surprised, however, when Kṛṣṇa instead told Arjuna to fight. When I came to Kṛṣṇa’s words to Arjuna, “Get up and fight!” I felt as if He was speaking directly to me.
Those few minutes of reading totally turned my mind to Kṛṣṇa’s teachings: “Don’t worry about winning or losing or how you appear to others. Your sole duty in life is to perform your duty to God.” I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, I should now join the Hare Kṛṣṇas.” I just went on with my life, but with new insight. For some reason, I had previously shunned the Hare Kṛṣṇas, but now my mind was completely open.
Andrew’s story (and there are thousands more like it) justifies the great endeavor it takes to produce transcendental books and distribute them to the masses. Publishing even one transcendental book requires an enormous amount of time and energy on the part of dozens of people, not to mention the needed material resources. However, those who know the power and importance of transcendental books take on this work as a burden of love. A book finally released by the devotees’ hard work has a lasting effect on the world.
The Gosvāmīs had a harder time publishing and distributing their books than we do publishing and distributing Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books today. Although Johannes Gutenberg invented mechanical book printing around 1440, the technology didn’t reach India until just ten years before Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī’s disappearance. Gutenberg’s first major endeavor of printing 180 Bibles started a revolution in publishing. Up to that point, like in India, books had been printed using hand-carved wooden blocks or been laboriously hand-copied by scribes on any number of surfaces, including leaves, wood, shells, or papers created from plant matter or animal skins. Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press helped printing make a huge leap forward. Its value wasn’t lost on the people of his time. Catholic reformer Martin Luther used the Gutenberg press to print his Ninety-five Theses, and in only six weeks, copies of his Theses could be found throughout Europe, effectively launching his Protestant movement. We know that as the printing press became available in India, our ācāryas also used it to standardize and disseminate the teachings of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism.
With each generation, technological developments have revolutionized the book publishing industry. Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura, for one, used these developments to establish a Vaiṣṇava Depository at his home – a library and printing press for publishing canonical devotional texts, such as those by the Six Gosvāmīs of Vṛndāvana and their followers, and his own original writings. This endeavor helped restore the purity of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava practice in India, but it also made it possible to standardize the presentation of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava theology and thought.
Printing may seem like a simple task, but it requires skill, even in the modern age. Even choosing the right paper and inks requires knowledge of the printing process. We know that Śrīla Prabhupāda spent a good deal of his time tracking down good paper in his first publishing efforts to produce his Back to Godhead magazine in India. He exhausted much of the money he had saved just to buy that paper, and he also personally transported heavy rolls of it on rickshaws to the printers.
Half a millennium ago, when Rūpa Gosvāmī and Sanātana Gosvāmī wrote their books, they used a metal stylus to etch their words onto green palm leaves. The places where they impressed the stylus upon the leaves would turn from green to white. After putting the imprinted leaves in the sun, the green leaves turned beige and the imprinted areas black, displaying the rows of sentences. Lord Caitanya praised Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī’s handwriting on these palm leaves, saying that his sentences looked like rows of pearls.9 One can still see original Gosvāmī palm-leaf writings at the Vṛndāvana Research Institute near ISKCON’s Krishna-Balaram Mandir.
In Kolkata, India, ISKCON devotees headed by Hari Śauri Dāsa maintain the Bhaktivedanta Research Centre. There they preserve and catalog thousands of important books that were written or used by previous Vaiṣṇava masters. On a recent tour of the Centre, my wife and I were able to see and touch books written or used by these masters and to feel a deep communion with both the masters and their books.
As I type this page on my laptop computer, using software so sophisticated that I will never use all of its features, millions of people around the world are also downloading digital books from the Internet onto handheld electronic devices and smart phones.
All this goes to prove that humans crave ideas and have readily consumed and distributed them throughout the ages; thus, there is good reason to expect that Śrīla Prabhupāda’s campaign to distribute mass quantities of his books will have a far-reaching effect. Here’s more evidence that this was Śrīla Prabhupāda’s intention:
Keep distributing as many [books] as possible in huge quantities. This is my pleasure. We must make a large propaganda program for Kṛṣṇa consciousness by distributing these books everywhere, all over the world. Just like the communists they are very expert in distributing their literature, their propaganda. At the present moment they are distributing their literature here in India in nine different languages and it is quite effective. Therefore we must print hundreds and thousands of books and distribute them at the same speed and thus we will have a great effect on the mass population of Europe and America. If we can get the masses in the Western countries like Europe and America to become Kṛṣṇa conscious, then all the rest of the world will follow. That is a fact. So please, I beg you, continue distributing my books in this way and Kṛṣṇa will pour His blessings upon you all. Please keep me informed from time to time of the book sales statistics.
In a letter written on December 28, 1971, Śrīla Prabhupāda addressed Yogeśvara Dāsa, one of his leaders in Europe, where his movement was then lagging behind the US, and gave him this remedy:
I think now things are not going too well in France and Germany centers. So if somehow or other you can produce profuse books for these places, spend your all time translating, organizing, printing and distributing such books in foreign languages, then I think you will be able to improve the situation there. If there are amply books, everything else will succeed. Practically our Society is built on books.
Śrīla Prabhupāda began his push to bring Vaiṣṇava literature to the world before his arrival in America from India in 1965. And after he arrived, he continued writing. Sitting cross-legged on the floor at a makeshift desk in his simple Bowery apartment, he would tap away on his donated typewriter past midnight until the sun rose. As the people of New York City slept or scrounged for nightlife, he revealed the path back to Godhead through the written word. Typing with two index fingers, he methodically added page after page to the stacks of papers that were his translations and commentaries, manuscripts that would eventually become his celebrated books. Later, he used a dictating machine, speaking his translations and commentaries until his final breath.
In all circumstances, Śrīla Prabhupāda depended on his books to win the day for spreading Kṛṣṇa consciousness and for increasing the internal strength of the devotees who had joined the Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement.