“Even if transcendental literature is written in faulty language, it is acceptable if it is written by a devotee, whereas so-called transcendental literature written by a mundane scholar, even if it is a very highly polished literary presentation, cannot be accepted. The secret in a devotee’s writing is that when he writes about the pastimes of the Lord, the Lord helps him; he does not write himself.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Adi 8.39 Purport)
It’s pretty amazing to think that one person can take to writing a single book and have it become immensely popular. While the bookstores are filled with bestsellers covering a wide range of topics, the greatest selling and most popular books of all time have been of the spiritual variety. In the Vedic tradition, the humble sages, the devotees of Shri Krishna and His non-different expansions, have managed to write the most famous and widely read books in the history of human civilization. Yet ironically enough, they never actively sought out such achievements, nor were they expert grammarians or writers. Rather, they simply had a sincere desire to offer some humble service to the Lord, who subsequently took care of the rest.
It is natural for writers to want their finished product to be of the highest quality. The intention is to have the finished work presented in a lucid linguistic style, one which is both readable and appreciated by the masses. There are certainly different writing styles tailored for different audiences, but writers are advised to adhere to the generally accepted standards. When these standards are violated, the writer is deemed a neophyte, or one who is not very educated. If an author is deemed uneducated, the content of their work is taken less seriously, thereby causing the initial intended purpose of the writing to be thwarted.
While adherence to style and grammar are important in the writing business, these rules are of secondary importance in the discipline of devotional service. The sum and substance of Vedic philosophy can be described in the famous aphorism, athato-brahma-jijnasa, which means “Now is the time for inquiring about Brahman, or the Absolute Truth.” The human form of life is considered most auspicious due to the potential for intelligence. An animal may have a certain level of intelligence depending on the particular species, but only the human being is wise enough to realize that it is mortal. Moreover, a human being can use this knowledge to inquire about the origin of life and the reasons for birth, death, old age, and disease.
Human life actually doesn’t begin until an inquiry into the Truth is made. As long as one remains ignorant of the presence of the soul and its attributes, their lifestyle is really no different than that of an animal. Obviously an animal knows how to live the animalistic lifestyle much better than a human being does, so if the human being remains ignorant throughout its lifetime, it squanders a golden opportunity. If a human being wants to enjoy eating, sleeping, intoxication, and unrestricted sex life, it must go to great lengths and suffer through many hardships. Relationships with the opposite sex surely aren’t easy and neither is securing enough wealth to meet the demands of food, clothing, and shelter. The animal, on the other hand, gets food, sex, and intoxicants very easily and without much strain. A monkey enjoys sex life to a much higher degree than a human being ever could.
Thus an intelligent human being aims to inquire about the Absolute Truth and then use the acquired knowledge to take the necessary steps to end the cycle of birth and death. A human being does not take its identity from the body, for this is simply an outer covering which constantly changes. At the time of death, the entire covering is discarded, and a new shell is molded based on the individual’s desires and work. The identity of the individual comes from the spirit soul, whose natural home is an imperishable realm where there are no such things as temporary bodies. In order to enter this eternal realm, the soul must be free of ignorance, delusion, and desires for material association. As long as one retains a desire to lord over material nature, they remain closed off from the spiritual world.
Devotional service is a discipline which allows a conditioned living entity to gradually climb to a liberated status, a position achieved through the purification of consciousness, or altering of the thoughts and desires of the mind. If our consciousness is completely purified at the time of death, we’ll immediately return to the spiritual land where the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna, resides.
Taking to devotional service, or bhakti-yoga, is quite simple and completely natural. Divine love is a function of the constitutional makeup of the soul. Since the individual soul, or jivatma, is part and parcel of the Supreme Soul, Krishna, it has qualitative attributes which are similar to the Lord’s. This isn’t to say that the individual souls are equal to God, but rather they are complementary to Him. Krishna’s natural disposition is that of the energetic, the one entity who is ever-deserving of service. This service is provided by the subordinate entities, i.e. us. Since we are to provide the service, we are known as God’s energy. The natural condition of the soul is to be in the company of the energetic, a meeting of the original flame with its fragmental sparks.
“The living entities in this conditioned world are My eternal, fragmental parts. Due to conditioned life, they are struggling very hard with the six senses, which include the mind.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 15.7)
Constitutional activities are those which help maintain association with Krishna. Any other activity is thus deemed conditional. By default, we are prone to conditioned activities when we are in an embodied form. Any living entity who takes birth in the material world and accepts a material body is considered embodied, or dehinam. Therefore the aim of human life is to adopt constitutional activities and shun conditioned ones. The quintessential constitutional activity is the chanting of the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Krishna and Rama are names of God, and Hare calls out to His energy. Chanting is the most basic form of bhakti-yoga because it involves direct connection with pure spirit. Moreover, any activity that aims to keep one connected with the Lord can also be considered constitutional and thus part and parcel of bhakti-yoga.
Writing for sense gratification belongs in the conditioned category. This designation speaks to the issue of desire. The conditioned state of mind is very difficult to break out of, so in order to be successful in spiritual life, we must play offense by attacking the seeds of desire. The foremost desire – that hankering which is the most formidable impeding force against self-realization – is to satisfy the senses through fruitive activity. People write for different reasons; they are either looking for fame and wealth, or they may simply want to teach others about a particular discipline. For many, writing itself is a therapeutic activity, a way of releasing thoughts and ideas in an uninhibited manner.
In the realm of fruitive activity, good writing requires a style of grammar that will be appealing to a large audience. The underlying intent is to please both the senses of the writer and those of the audience. A writer is wasting their time if nobody reads their books or if even the writer fails to derive pleasure from the end-product. No one can read the books without buying them, so there is a circular condition created right at the outset. Aside from grammar and style, there is the all-important issue of content. Just as the secret to success in real estate is “location, location, location”, the success of a communicator ties directly to “content, content, content”. The subject matter has to be interesting enough to entice others to spend their hard-earned money on the book. For this reason, the bestselling books are usually the ones authored by famous personalities of the political, sports, financial, and pop culture realms.
“An iron rod put into a fire becomes warmer and warmer, and when it is red hot it is no longer an iron rod but fire. Similarly, when a devotee constantly engages in devotional service and thinks of the Lord in his original Krishna consciousness, he no longer has any material activities, for his body is spiritualized.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.7.36 Purport)
Since acts of devotion are considered constitutional, they have nothing in common with conditioned activities, save for maybe outward appearance. This rule applies to the area of writing as well. When writing is undertaken as an act of devotional service, the writers are acting simply out of pure love for the Supreme Loveable Object, Shri Krishna. This means that the writer has no desire for fame, wealth, prestige, honor, or personal therapy. Rather, they are writing simply to make Krishna or one of His devotees happy. In the spiritual world, oneness is shared between Krishna and His pure devotees. It is similar to how an iron rod will eventually turn into fire when placed under the heat of an immense torch. In the spiritual realm, the complete whole consists of Krishna and the devotees, two complementary entities. As such, the aspiring devotees view their spiritual guides and fellow devotees as equally as worshipable as Krishna Himself. If not for the kind work of exalted devotees of the past, we would never find out who Krishna is, what He looks like, or how to please Him.
Since the devotee writer remains unconcerned about grammar, style, and appealing to the general public, it’s understandable to think that the quality of their writing would suffer. If the devotee was able to actually finish writing a book, then surely it wouldn’t be popular with the general public. The only way to make these books popular would be to edit them and present them in a style which was generally acceptable and appealing to the majority of the people of the time. Those attracted by this line of thinking would be severely mistaken. Two notable historical examples, among countless others, prove that pure devotion is all that is required to make a writer’s work both popular and supremely effective at disseminating the essence of spiritual knowledge.
Around four hundred years ago, a Vaishnava saint from Northern India unintentionally firmly established himself as one of the greatest writers in history. This saint was Goswami Tulsidas, and his Ramacharitamanasa, a lengthy Hindu poem which details the life and pastimes of Lord Rama, a warrior prince incarnation of Godhead who appeared on earth many thousands of years ago, became one of the most popular books in history. Prior to Tulsidas’ advent, Lord Rama’s life story was already told in the famous Ramayana poem written in the Sanskrit language by Maharishi Valmiki. Tulsidas particularly wanted to tell the story in Hindi to please Lord Rama and to give the sincere souls of the time a chance to understand the glorious activities of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
To understand just how remarkable Tulsidas’ work was, we have to consider Lord Rama’s popularity at the time. Lord Vishnu, Krishna, and Rama are non-different forms of the original Lord, so stories relating to their pastimes were well known in India during Tulsidas’ time. In fact, this has always been the case for the inhabitants of India. Yet somehow, through no personal desire or outward intention, Tulsidas managed to write a poem which would go on to become a staple in the homes of every Hindu. Indeed, he even authored a devotional poem praising Lord Hanuman called the Hanuman Chalisa. This is likely the most recited poem/song in the history of human civilization.
So the results of Tulsidas’ writing are visibly known, but what was his motivation? As a sannyasi, he didn’t have any possessions, wealth, or family ties. This means that he didn’t see a dime from the recitation of his great works. He never received any royalties from the singing of the Hanuman Chalisa. He didn’t have any army of distributors, a publishing company, or a printing press mass producing his work. Moreover, he didn’t even write most of his poems in Sanskrit, which is considered the oldest and highest class language. Many non-devotees and dull-headed brahmanas criticized him for allegedly sullying the good name of the Lord by writing about Him in a common language like Hindi.
“O son of Kunti [Arjuna], I am the taste of water, the light of the sun and the moon, the syllable om in the Vedic mantras; I am the sound in ether and ability in man.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 7.8)
In the face of all these opposing forces, how was Tulsidas able to succeed? The answer is pretty simple. He had no desire for fame, prestige, or respect, nor did he want anyone to buy his book en masse. Rather, he simply wanted to think of Rama and please the Lord through his kind efforts. In the realm of devotional service, there is no such thing as superior and inferior service. In Sanskrit, human effort is referred to as paurusham, and from the Bhagavad-gita, we see that the source of paurusham is Krishna. As a result, we really have no abilities of our own. Whatever talents we do possess are on loan from God. Therefore no one person’s service can be considered superior to another’s. Everyone’s abilities come from God.
While there is no quantitative comparison between the humble services offered by different entities, there is a difference in effort. What pleases the Lord is sincerity and dedication to service, rather than the exact nature of the activity. In Tulsidas’ case, Lord Rama was extremely pleased by the level of devotion and dedication shown. Thus he helped Tulsidas in his writing. Tulsidas’ humility, kindness, and love for Shri Rama permeates the sound vibrations that makeup the pages of his transcendental works. This spiritual potency carries over even to versions of his works which are translated into English; such is the power of the message glorifying the Lord. When a devotee writes sincerely and without personal motive, the Lord personally enters the devotee’s mind and helps him choose just the right words to get points across.
This indeed was also the case with His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Shrila Prabhupada is arguably the most prolific author of Vedic philosophy in the English language. What’s ironic is that English certainly wasn’t his first language. Rather, he decided to make a humble effort at translating the great Vedic texts into English at the request of his spiritual master, His Divine Grace Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura. Shrila Prabhupada’s original works were authored, edited, produced, and distributed all in a very short period of time, yet they became immensely popular. Not only are his books popular, but so are his speeches and lectures. Since many of these lectures were recorded, one can listen to them today. One will notice that when Prabhupada spoke extemporaneously, he often used broken English. He would miss words here and there, and he would fail to properly conjugate others. In addition, he had a very thick Indian accent, thus making it all the more difficult to understand him. Yet for devotees who listen to these tapes, the sounds are like pure nectar. There is not one thing faulty about them. The reason for this is that Prabhupada’s words were completely genuine and without any tinge of personal motive. The sounds are transcendental and replete with pure love and devotion for Krishna.
The miraculous nature of transcendental writing is visible in the works of countless devotees, past, present, and future. The writings of Lord Chaitanya’s exalted disciples and their followers, including Krishnadasa Kaviraja Gosvami, exhibit similar traits, as do the writings of Vyasadeva, the literary incarnation of Krishna. This further buttresses the truth that the sincerity of a writer is what matters most. As with any endeavor in devotional service, if the motive is pure, the Lord will take care of the rest. When the writer is connected to the spiritual world, the resulting words can be sourced directly to Krishna Himself.