It is an understood principle in the Vedic tradition that the words of the spiritual master should not be changed in any way. The guru is not an ordinary man subjected to the four defects of human frailty therefore whatever he writes is perfect. Being in direct connection with Krsna, his words are dictated by the Lord Himself.
Srila Prabhupada in his manifested lila engaged some of his early disciples in the service of editing his manuscripts and transcripts of his dictation tapes. They were to correct the technicalities of the language for clarity and never change any of the intended meanings in his books. Being initiated and therefore somehow already familiar with the philosophy of Krsna consciousness by following Srila Prabhupada, they would try to understand the meaning from his rough manuscripts or dictations and then present the same meaning in a polished and grammatically correct English. That’s all. Since these early editors could understand Srila Prabhupada’s words in order to do their editing, in no way should Srila Prabhupada’s original words be considered incomplete or incomprehensible. As the early editors could understand, certainly new devotees can also understand, especially now when the full body of Srila Prabhupada’s vani is freely available with lectures, conversations, other books can be also consulted.
On various occassions Srila Prabhupada pointed out that the early editors unnecessarily changed many of his books and on the 22nd of June 1977 ordered corrections of these changes to be put “back to the original way.” Thus his direct original manuscripts and transcripts of his dictation tapes remain the top most authoritative versions of his books. Although it might be true that the early editors might have received certain personal instructions in regards to the editing from Srila Prabhupada directly, it is questionable to what extent this was so and to what extent they themselves doctored the books with unnecessary changes. We should therefore accept Srila Prabhupada’s preserved dictation tapes, transcripts and manuscripts as the top most authority, not the editions that already contain many changes as noted by Srila Prabhupada himself. In this way we can better avoid a situation where we accept something Srila Prabhupada never wrote as the words of the absolute authority. Srila Prabhupada gives a practical solution on such situation where controversy over which set of instructions is to be followed arises:
I never said there should be no more marriage. By all means legally you can get married. How can I object? They misunderstand me. Unless it is there from me in writing, there are so many things that “Prabhupada said.”
Letter to: Omkara — Vrindaban 2 September, 1975
It is always preferable to follow what Srila Prabhupada left in writing rather than depend on hearsay of conditioned souls.
In these series we will show various changes found in the 1972 edition of the Bhagavad-gita As It Is and how they change the meaning of Srila Prabhupada’s words. It is understood that while editing, sometimes words are changed for clarity. Therefore, in these series of articles, we try to avoid spending too much time focusing on changes that alter the words with the purpose of giving the intended meaning in the original writing more force. With each change discussed we present the original spoken dictation as recorded by Srila Prabhupada on February the 19-20th 1966, the same passage in the 1972 Macmillan edition and finally our humble commentary.
If we want to take a particular medicine, then we have to follow the particular direction mentioned on the label of the medicine. We cannot take the particular medicine according to our own direction or by the direction of a friend, but we have to take the medicine under the direction given on the label of the bottle and as directed by the physician. Similarly, the Bhagavad-gita also should be taken or accepted as it is directed by the speaker Himself.
Bhagavad-gita Introduction — February 19-20, 1966, New York
…if we want to take a particular medicine, then we have to follow the directions written on the label. We cannot take the medicine according to our own whim or the direction of a friend. It must be taken according to the directions on the label OR the directions given by a physician. Similarly, Bhagavad-gita should be taken or accepted as it is directed by the speaker himself.
There is a significant change we can see here. The word “and” has been changed to “or” in the third sentence and this changes the meaning intended by the author. Srila Prabhupada writes that one must take a medicine according to the directions written on the label and as directed by the physician. This is an analogy to the Bhagavad-gita (medicine) and the spiritual master (physician). Whereas in the original dictation, the message is that we should accept a bona fide spiritual master and hear the ” medicine” of the Bhagavad-gita from him, the 1972 edition leaves the spiritual master out. You can either accept the directions of the physician (guru) or you can take the medicine (understand the Bhagavad-gita) directly. You have a choice. So this is certainly a change of the meaning. The following is an excerpt from a class where Srila Prabhupada directly speaks about this particular passage in his book and what his intended meaning is:
Just like we have explained this in the introduction, that when you take a bottle of medicine, there is some direction that “Two tablets, twice in a day after meals.” So you have to follow the instruction. Then you get benefit. You cannot take any instruction about taking that medicine from a friend or from an expert educationist. No. You have to take direction only from the physician.
Bhagavad-gita 4.1-6 — Los Angeles, January 3, 1969
You have to take direction only from the physician. There is no other choice. In order to understand the Bhagavad-gita, we have to approach the spiritual master. It is not possible to understand the directions of the Bhagavad-gita directly. This is the meaning.
The secret of understanding Bhagavad-gita is here, and if you follow these principles… Just like when you purchase one bottle of medicine from the, I mean to say, drug shop, there is dose. Read, “This medicine is to be taken by this dose.” If you follow the direction of the bottle label then you get benefit. Similarly, here is the direction: evam parampara-praptam [Bg. 4.2]. You have to understand Bhagavad-gita from the disciplic succession, and that means one who is devotee, a devotee. Devotee. This disciplic succession devotee. Otherwise there is no possibility.
Bhagavad-gita 4.1 — Montreal, August 24, 1968
CONCLUSION: On the basis of the above mentioned, we humbly suggest that this change in the 1972 edition is diverting from the original meaning of the passage as dictated by Srila Prabhupada.