The Macmillan Miracle

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The surprising events surrounding the initial publication of Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is.

The Macmillan Miracle
By Sriman Satyaraja Prabhu

The Bhagavad-gita was important to Srila Prabhupada. He saw it as the perfect book to convey Krishna consciousness, as it consists of the Lord’s own words and His interactions with His loving devotee. In 1939, just seven years after Prabhupada was initiated by his spiritual master, he wrote a lengthy introduction to the book in English, presaging his full translation and  commentary, which appeared soon after he began his mission in the West.

When Prabhupada arrived in New York in 1965, he gave priority to his work on the Gita. In India he had already completed a translation, spanning well over a thousand pages, but it was stolen. In March 1966, Prabhupada was adjusting to life in the Western world when he met with another loss: his typewriter, cassette recorder, and several books were taken from him. But he was resilient and determined to complete his work. In 1967 he finished the new manuscript, again over a thousand pages, and resolved to get a major publisher so that his message would be heard throughout the world.

At the time, Allen Ginsberg, famous poet of the Beat Generation, was visiting the New York temple, and he was enjoying a friendly relationship with Srila Prabhupada. Since Ginsberg was an experienced published author, Prabhupada asked him to show the manuscript to his benefactors, which Ginsberg did. But they were unimpressed, claiming the book had little commercial value.

Prabhupada then gave the manuscript to Rayarama Dasa, an early disciple with some experience in the publishing world. Rayarama, too, was unsuccessful in his attempts, his contacts explaining their hesitation in much the same way that Ginsberg’s did.

The Miracle Begins

Enter Brahmananda Dasa (Bruce Scharf), one of Prabhupada’s earliest disciples. He vividly relates the story as if it were yesterday, though it was more than forty years ago.

“I didn’t know anything about publishing,” he admits. “But Prabhupada put the manuscript in my hands, saying, ‘You must get this published.’ So I knew what I had to do.”

What he didn’t know was how to do it. If Ginsberg and Rayarama couldn’t get the book published, how would he?

“I bought a couple of books on publishing, and I was about to take a publishing course at New York University- I just didn’t know what to do. Still, Prabhupada wanted me to get the book published, and that was that.”

Around this time, the devotees had released the “Happening” album, an assortment of devotional songs sung by Prabhupada with musical accompaniment. They had placed an ad for the record in the Village Voice and were receiving orders from various parts of the East Coast.

One such order came from uptown Manhattan, relatively close to the little storefront serving as a temple for Prabhupada and his early disciples. Brahmananda brought the letter to his master.

“Look, Swamiji [as Prabhupada was then called]. It’s an order from Macmillan. They’re one of the biggest publishers in the world.”

Prabhupada gazed knowingly into his disciple’s eyes and gave the following directives: “Do not mail out this order as we do with others. Instead, bring the record to Macmillan’s offices and hand deliver it to the person who sent us the letter.”

Brahmananda nodded, aware that Krishna was using him as an instrument. “When you deliver the album,” Prabhupada continued, “tell them that you are a disciple of a guru from India and that he has translated the Bhagavad-gita. They will publish it. Do not worry.”

Brahmananda was stunned. Prabhupada seemed so confident. There was no doubt the book would get published-and by Macmillan! One couldn’t do much better than that.

Wading in the Ocean of Nectar

The next day, dressed in suit and tie, Brahmananda made his way up to the Macmillan skyscraper at 866 Third Avenue, just off 52nd Street. His expectations as large as the building itself, he was disappointed when he learned that the order for the album had come from a clerk in the mailroom.

“This really had nothing to do with the publishing company it was just a simple worker who had some interest in mantras and meditation.”

So Brahmananda dutifully delivered the album and had pretty much given up hope that his teacher’s Gita would get published. Just then, in the midst of polite small talk with the clerk, a young executive happened to appear, hoping to collect his mail. The clerk introduced him to Brahmananda.

“This is James O’Shea Wade, our senior editor.”

Brahmananda seized the moment.

“I am a disciple of a guru from India,” he said, trying to repeat Prabhupada’s words verbatim. “He has translated the Bhagavad-gita.”

“What?” Wade responded, incredulously. “We’ve just published a full line of spiritual books, and we were looking for a Bhagavad-gita to fill out the set.”

Brahmananda’s mouth dropped open. Though at a loss for words himself, he contemplated the potency of Prabhupada’s: “They will publish it. Do not worry.”

Wade then broke the awkward silence.

“You bring in the manuscript tomorrow,” he offered, “and we’ll publish it, sight unseen.”
Brahmananda raced back down to the storefront and told Prabhupada the news. In his own inimitable way, Prabhupada was nonchalant, as though he knew what would transpire before it happened.

Firsthand Corroboration

Now, are these the memories of an overzealous disciple, an exaggerated footnote in ISKCON’s forty-year history? I decided to find out.

I found James Wade, and he confirmed the events in question. He remembered the incident with tremendous clarity, supporting Brahmananda’s story. And he offered an addendum.

“I vividly remember the stir caused in our rather sedate and boring office the day the Swami came to visit, accompanied by followers in orange robes.”

Apparently, Prabhupada himself brought the manuscript the day after Brahmananda’s brief visit to Macmillan.

Wade shared his thoughts about Prabhupada’s spirituality.

“I remember the Swami as being a very imposing and striking figure, with a powerful spiritual aura. His like had never before been seen in the Macmillan offices. Around that time we also published Alan Watts and John Bleibtreu, who was involved in the spiritual and communal movement called Arica. Macmillan had a tradition of publishing books about spirituality and religion at that time. I think that ended not long after I left to become the editor-in-chief of the now defunct World Publishing Company. But the Swami was special. That was clear.”

I asked Wade to elaborate on that fateful meeting.

“Our office was a rather austere, coolly modern place as far as decor. I remember having some apprehension about how comfortable the Swami would feel in this rather alien setting, but it turned out that he was a man who was at peace and at home in any environment. I remember him as a rather tall man, physically imposing. But of course, he wasn’t, being rather small in stature and not at all daunting. Quiet, modest, and surrounded by a kind of stillness, a peacefulness that was, well, welcoming. I can’t think of a more precise word. He was in the world and, at the same time, not of it. He knew that we live in a world of illusion-something science has also taught us, as we go from sub-atomic particles and quantum mechanics to string theory. I remember that he wanted the Bhagavad-gita As It Is to get the widest possible exposure in the US. As I recall, things like the Hare Krishna movement were in the very early stages. Alternative spirituality-ranging from Zen to Tibetan Buddhism, for example-had not then touched the minds and spirits of people the way such alternatives do today for so many.”

James Wade was senior editor at Macmillan from 1965 to 1969. But in his few years at their offices, he made history by publishing a pure devotee’s edition of the Bhagavad-gita. The abridged version came out first, in 1968, and because of seeds James Wade planted, Macmillan published Prabhupada’s unabridgedBhagavad-gita As It Is in 1972.

A Translation with Spiritual Power

Srila Prabhupada’s translation and commentary are not merely his own; they bring to bear the insights of his predecessors in disciplic succession. And so he titled his edition “As It Is.” The name boldly announces to his readers that this is not yet another interpretation but rather the original message of the book’s initial speaker: Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Accordingly, Prabhupada’s Gita was the first English edition to bring people to Krishna consciousness, to make them devotees of Krishna, which is the book’s intended purpose (see Bhagavad-gita. 18.65).

Prabhupada’s Gita went on to become the most important edition in the modern world, often outselling both popular and scholarly translations. Claiming millions of readers in some fifty-five languages, from Polish to Japanese, German to Azerbaijani, Danish to Croatian, English to numerous Indian languages, Srila Prabhupada’s Gita is a phenomenon. It can be found in homes, bookstores, research libraries, and academic institutions around the world.

The history of Prabhupada’s meeting with Macmillan shows that James Wade, then a senior editor, served as an instrument in the hands of Krishna, who had already signed the contract.

Other Stories About the Macmillan Gita

(1) To fit into the Macmillan series of spiritual classics, Prabhupada’s Gita had to conform to a certain size and style, which meant that it had to be cut down from its thousand-page manuscript to just over three hundred pages. What to do? Would Prabhupada want this? Brahmananda was surprised when his spiritual master said, “Do whatever the publisher wants. But our men must do the editing so the meaning is not changed.” Hayagriva and Rayarama, two of Prabhupada’s more literary disciples, did the editing and gave Macmillan the abridged Gita ahead of the deadline. But Prabhupada made it clear that he would eventually publish his full, unabridged version.

(2) Brahmananda wrote to famous literati, poets, and religious scholars, hoping they would contribute forewords to Prabhupada’s work and thus help secure sales. He approached Thomas Merton, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, and Allan Watts. All but Watts agreed. In his reply to Brahmananda, Watts wrote that Prabhupada’s philosophy of presenting the Gita “as it is,” without interpretation, was itself an interpretation and thus intellectually dishonest. Brahmananda was worried, not because he doubted Prabhupada but because Watts was a popular author who published with Macmillan. Would James Wade reverse his decision to publish Prabhupada’s book when he saw the response of one of his own authors? Not at all. Wade said that while Watts wrote good books, he didn’t understand the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition of the Swami. Prabhupada’s book was in, no matter what.

(3) Prabhupada engaged Govinda Dasi in Hawaii to illustrate the cover of his first Macmillan edition. They discussed the anti-war demonstrations at the time and decided not to put the Gita’s usual battlefield scene on the cover. Instead, Prabhupada told Govinda Dasi to depict the Universal Form, with His many heads, tongues, arms, and so on. The “psychedelic” nature of it, they agreed, would appeal to the hippies. Once the illustration was submitted to the publisher, however, Macmillan had reservations. Considering it too otherworldly for their usual audience, they opted to discard the many arms and heads, leaving only four arms and one head. Govinda Dasi was upset that they had changed her work. “Think nothing of it,” Prabhupada said. “It is now Vishnu, which is more advanced than the Universal Form.”

(4) Prabhupada had always wanted his name to appear at the bottom of his books, underneath the painting of Krishna or of one of His incarnations that might be used on the cover. He never wanted his name at the side of the Lord, in equal position, for that would be improper etiquette. When the Macmillan book came back with Prabhupada’s name right next to the image of the Lord, Prabhupada looked at it long and hard, and then he said, “It’s all right. The energy of the Lord is always at His left side, and the devotee is an expansion of that energy. So it is all right.”

Scholars Praise Bhagavad-gita As It Is

Critical acclaim came quickly after publication, with scholars and literati of the day praising Srila Prabhupada’s work.

“It is a deeply felt, powerfully conceived and beautifully explained work. I don’t know whether to praise more this translation of the Bhagavad-gita, its daring method of explanation, or the endless fertility of its ideas. I have never seen any other work on the Gita with such an important voice and style.… It will occupy a significant place in the intellectual and ethical life of modern man for a long time to come.” — Dr. Shaligram Shukla, Professor of Linguistics Georgetown University

“No work in all Indian literature is more quoted, because none is better loved, in the West, than the Bhagavad-gita. Translation of such a work demands not only knowledge of Sanskrit, but an inward sympathy with the theme and a verbal artistry. For the poem is a symphony in which God is seen in all things.… The Swami does a real service for students by investing the beloved Indian epic with fresh meaning. Whatever our outlook may be, we should all be grateful for the labour that has led to this illuminating work.” — Dr. Geddes MacGregor, Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, University of Southern California.

“I am most impressed with A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s scholarly and authoritative edition of Bhagavad-gita. It is a most valuable work for the scholar as well as the layman and is of great utility as a reference book as well as a textbook. I promptly recommend this edition to my students. It is a beautifully done book.” — Dr. Samuel D. Atkins, Professor of Sanskrit, Princeton University.

“There is little question that this edition is one of the best books available on the Gita and devotion. Prabhupada’s translation is an ideal blend of literal accuracy and religious insight.” — Dr. Thomas J.Hopkins, Professor of Religion, Franklin and Marshall College.
“The Bhagavad-gita, one of the great spiritual texts, is not as yet a common part of our cultural milieu. This is probably less because it is alien per se than because we have lacked just the kind of close interpretative commentary upon it that Swami Bhaktivedanta has here provided, a commentary written from not only a scholar’s but a practitioner’s, a dedicated lifelong devotee’s, point of view.” — Denise Levertov, Poet.

“The increasing numbers of Western readers interested in classical Vedic thought have been done a service by Swami Bhaktivedanta. By bringing us a new and living interpretation of a text already known to many, he has increased our understanding manyfold.” — Dr. Edward C. Dimock, Jr., Department of South Asian, Languages and Civilization, University of Chicago.

“The scholarly world is again indebted to A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Although Bhagavad-gita has been translated many times, Prabhupada adds a translation of singular importance with his commentary.” — Dr. J. Stillson Judah, Professor of the History of Religions and Director of Libraries, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.

“Whether the reader be an adept of Indian spiritualism or not, a reading of the Bhagavad-gita As It Is will be extremely profitable. For many this will be the first contact with the true India, the ancient India, the eternal India.” — Francois Chenique, Professor of Religious Sciences, Institute of Political Studies, Paris, France.

“I am very excited to see the publication of Bhagavadgita As It Is by Sri A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. It will help to stop the terrible cheating of false and unauthorized “gurus” and “yogis” and will give an opportunity to all people to understand the actual meaning of Oriental culture.” — Dr. Kailash Vajpeye, Director of Indian Studies, Center for Oriental Studies, The University of Mexico.

“I can say that in the Bhagavad-gita As It Is I have found explanations and answers to questions I had always posed regarding the interpretations of this sacred work, whose spiritual discipline I greatly admire. If the asceticism and ideal of the apostles which form the message of the Bhagavad-gita As It Is were more widespread and more respected, the world in which we live would be transformed into a better, more fraternal place.” — Dr. Paul Lesourd, Author, Professeur Honoraire, Catholic University of Paris.

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