Why do you use the lower case pronoun for God – ‘he’ instead of ‘He’? Isn’t it disrespectful?

by Chaitanya CharanSeptember 13, 2012

Discussion among senior Vaishnavas on this topic

Hare Krishna Prabhus.

My pranams. Jaya Srila Prabhupada!

I haven’t been asked to comment on this topic, so I feel a bit shy. However since you have been adding me as a receiver perhaps I can offer a few thoughts on this topic.

Here at Gopal Jiu Publications our editing standard is to keep such pronouns in lower case. Some of the reasons follow:

First of all, using upper case personal pronouns is not an injunction of sastra nor is it something that Srila Prabhupada or our acaryas instructed we do. What Srila Prabhupada and our acaryas taught is that we should present our language in a modern style that is readily accepted by the readers.

In Devanagari Sanskrit, Bengali and other written Indian languages there is no such thing as upper or lower case.

Writing/publishing is a form of communication. For communication to be successful the message should be presented in language that is a) understandable to the audience and; b) comfortable for them. By “comfortable” we mean that the message is conveyed in a language and style that is accepted and modern in the reader’s culture. Using upper case for personal pronouns is not modern English style.

This system of not capitalizing personal pronouns for the Lord is currently being followed by a number of other devotee publishing houses including: the books of HH Shivaram Swami, Mandala Media books etc.

Below, I have pasted an excerpt from Shivaram Swami’s preface to his latest book, “Krsna-sangati”, wherein he explains why he has adopted this system. You may find it interesting. Following that is an article by HH Jayadvaita Maharaja on the topic. I’m also attaching to this text an article by Mother Dharani Dasi.

A final comment: Language, like dress, is an individual thing. Different devotees may have different feelings on this topic. We are not out to change anyone’s mind. Herein we have merely offered some of the reasons why Gopal Jiu Publications stopped using upper case characters for personal pronouns of the Lord.

I hope that this is some use for the Vaishnavas.

Vaishnava kripa prarthi,
Madhavananda Das

On page 16 of “Krsna-sangati”, HH Shivaram Swami writes:

In previous books, I followed the BBT policy for capitalization of pronouns. That policy was to capitalize personal pronouns, including the possessive form, that refer to Radha, Krishna, Balarama, and Vishnu. In a conversation I had with senior BBT editor,

His Holiness Jayadvaita Swami, he opined that lower case pronouns made for easier reading, was the standard recommended by The Chicago manual of Style, [see Chicago Manual of Style 7.80] and was the standard in the King James Version of the Bible.

But to me the most convincing reason was that Srila Prabhupada seemed to be initially inclined to the standard of lower case pronounce when he spoke with the BTG staff in 1969. [See conversation on 24 December 1969, Boston] Thus, in this book the reader will find lower case personal pronouns for the Deities mentioned above. Having read Prabhupada’s books for over thirty years, I needed time to get used to this new standard. But once I did, I thought it a better read. I hope the reader will agree.


BBT Style: Regarding lower case for “divine pronouns”

Since the beginning, the BBT style for capitalizing pronouns has been this:

The pronoun He is capitalized for Krsnaa and His Visnu-tattva expansions, and She for Srimate Radharani. For two or more of these together, They is capitalized; but when anyone else is included, they becomes lower case. Hence Balarama is He, but Subhadra is she; and Krsna and Arjuna, and the Jagannatha deities, and the Panca-tattva are all they. We, Him, Her, She, and possessives are treated in a similar fashion.

Strong reasons can be advanced, however, for leaving aside our present standard in favor of extending “down style’ to all pronouns.

The editors of Chicago “urge a spare, down style” in the field of religion, as in others. Specifically, they say that pronouns referring to God (or Christ) “are today preferably not capitalized.”

Does the use of lower case signify an impious lack of regard for the Deity? The King James Bible, that great work of awe and reverence, affords God a lower-case he. (For that matter, so does the Book of Mormon.)

In BBT publications, the style of pronouns in the plural can be puzzling. Why are the Jagannatha deities or the Panca-tattva they?

More disturbing still is the use of a capitalized pronoun that belies the context in which it appears — as it often does. For example, Nanda Maharaja says to Krsna:

My boy, You must be tired from so much wandering in the forest. Go home with Your elder brother and take Your bath. I will look after the cows. Please don’t delay any longer or Your mother will be unhappy and scold me. Please cooperate and go right now.

Here the pronoun with which Nanda addresses Krsna bears an honorific capital though Nanda’s mood towards Krsna is decidedly ‘lower case.’

Similarly, ,Sisupala hurls at Krsna scurrilous insults, with a piously reverent capital: “I think Krsna to be no better than a crow — how can He be fit to accept the first worship in this great sacrifice?”

And yet again, sometimes the capital not only clashes with a speaker’s mood but even gives away the story line. For example, when an unknown boy brings milk, Madhavendra Puri asks:

Who are You? Where do You reside? And how did You know that I was fasting?

All such anomalies would be remedied by the consistent use of pronouns in lower case. This is the style that Dravida and I both favor.

Though scholars and general readers may find lower case entirely natural, we need to take into account that many ISKCON devotees are likely to see it as a shocking sign that the BBT (probably influenced by demonic scholars) has slid into treating Krsna “like an ordinary human being.”

Some would no doubt point out that ,Srila Prabhupada, in his original Bhagavatam, used upper-case pronouns. And in a talk with his editors on December 4, 1969, he again endorsed upper-case pronouns.

Of course, in that original Bhagavatam ,Srila Prabhupada also sometimes used upper-case Who. And in that 1969 conversation his general attitude was “the fewer capitals the better.”

And so, although we naturally defer to Srila Prabhupada’s example in so many areas, we need to ask ourselves whether typographic conventions should be one of them. And since the 1969 exchange about pronouns was brief, we need to ask ourselves whether to regard it as a definitive instruction or a circumstantial comment.

In proposing lower case, one option open to us is to first try a lower-case policy in BTG, where we can gauge feedback and revert to upper case should we choose.

In any event, we propose the lower-case standard only for new books, not for ,Srila Prabhupada’s already published titles.

Hare Krsna.

Here is the 1969 conversation:

Satsvarapa: Prabhupada, in editing, there are two different policies about using capitals. One is to use as few capitals as possible or to use many capitals, in grammar capitalized, or to use few. So sometimes your Nectar of Devotion has got very few capitals. When Balarama is referred to as “he,” there is no capital. But the other policy is to always put. . . Krsna’s Hands, capital H, Krsna’s Feet, capital F, Krsna Who, capital W. Which is. . .

Prabhupada: No, no, no. Don’t follow that policy. That will not be very. . . Then. . .

Satsvarupa: The less capitals the better?

Prabhupada: Yes. I think. What do you think?

Hayagriva: Well, I think, when referring to Krsna, we should always have a capital H.

Prabhupada: Especially. Yes. Especially for Krsna, you can.

Hayagriva: And if we want to, for Radha, capital S.

Prabhupada: But Balarama is not different from Krsna.

Satsvarupa: So He is capital H.

Hayagriva: So He is capital H. But then, here we go. [laughter]

Prabhupada: No, no. You limit to these three. That will do.

Hayagriva: Limit to those three.

Prabhupada: Or Visn’u. Yes. Visnu.

Hayagriva: What about avataras, in reference to Christ or Buddha?

Prabhupada: Buddha is capital used. Jesus Christ is capital used.

Satsvarupa: Yes. But he. . . Like He. He means Buddha. Who.

Hayagriva: No, He.

Prabhupada: No. That you can use. . .

Satsvarupa: Small.

Prabhupada: Yes.

Satsvarupa: Then words like Krsna’s “pastimes,” “entourage,” His “will.”

Prabhupada: No, small.

Satsvarupa: Small.

Prabhupada: Yes.

Hayagriva: The possessions of Krsna, small.

Prabhupada: Small.

Satsvarupa: His hands and feet, small.

Brahmananda: Lotus feet?

Prabhupada: Yes.

Satsvarupa: Lotus flower?

Prabhupada: Yes. All small. Simply name. Stick to name.

Hayagriva: The pronoun, Krsna, who. The pronoun who, that’s not…

Prabhupada: No, no. Use small.

Hayagriva: Thank you. There’s so many. . . That causes a headache for everyone.

Prabhupada: No. It is better to make everything sound but slow. We want to create this position of Back to Godhead as very authorized representation of the science of God. In future people may refer to it, so we should very cautiously and very nicely do it. It is very important thing, Back to Godhead. If our movement is going to be recognized as scientific, God consciousness movement, then this Back to Godhead will be referred as authorized scripture. So therefore we have to prepare in such a way, nothing non-conclusive can be introduced in this. That should be our policy. And actually it is the position of Back to Godhead.

>>> Ref. VedaBase => Discussion with BTG Staff — December 24, 1969, Boston

In 1970 when I wrote Srila Prabhupada to ask which of the “scheduled incarnations” in the First Canto are Visnu-tattva and which jiva-tattva in order to know how to capitalize their pronouns, he seemed unclear about what I meant: “All incarnations should be proper nouns and therefore capitalized,” he wrote. “It does not matter whether they are Visnutattva or jivatattva, saktyavesa-avatara, or plenary expansion.”


Minor Case or Capital Controversy?

Srila Prabhupada’s books are hailed as scholarly because they capture the essence of the Vedas. He meticulously translated while consulting previous acaryas in order to present a faithful rendition of the original texts. A close examination of word-for-word translations of the slokas highlights the difficulty of translating into another language. Our Sanskrit pandits will agree that some words are translated liberally rather than literally in order to preserve the essential meaning. As such, content is much more important than form.

Recent posts in the Sampradaya Sun illustrate a wide concern that using lower-case pronouns when referring to Radha and Krishna may be a departure from the Vedic tradition, is irreverent, and might mislead readers into an erroneous view of God as devoid of divinity. While mindful of these concerns, I would like to respectfully suggest that the philosophy in our scriptures is so rich and extensive that in comparison, the capitalization of pronouns does little to insure philosophical accuracy and reverence. The choice of words and abundant qualifiers like “the Supreme Personality of Godhead” are greatly more effective than capitalization.

There are no capital letters in Sanskrit. Many languages do not use them. Our own alphabet, based on the Roman system, can be traced back to the Etruscan, Greek, Phoenician and Egyptian writing systems where throughout antiquity, only capital letters were used. Lower-case letters first appeared in the Roman alphabet in the 8th century under the patronage of Charlemagne. Therefore, ancient scriptures and texts did not differentiate divine pronouns, and capitalization rules today depend on the particular language. For example, in Swahili, capital letters are sometimes found in the middle of words. Srila Prabhupada’s books are translated into many languages where there are no capital letters. Are we to ignore their rules of grammar and somehow capitalize divine pronouns in those languages? If not, how can we argue ignoring the “mundane” rules of grammar in English? We need a consistent policy.

Srila Prabhupada’s instructions are unequivocal regarding getting our books into the hands of the public so that lives may be transformed. Presentation is very important, which includes proper syntax, grammar, and vocabulary. Srila Prabhupada’s writing style, with the assistance of editors, is a vast departure from Srila Bhaktisiddhanta’s style, and reflects a later 20th century American English. Similarly, the last twenty years have seen tremendous changes in the English language, largely due to cultural, political and technological influences. Graduates today are accustomed to the modern rules of grammar. Students who ignore recent amendments will find corrections on their writing submissions, as I have experienced first-hand. Writers who use outdated vocabulary and grammar may not be taken seriously and their publications will be considered badly written.

For almost a century, the leading authority on English grammar in the United States has been the “Chicago Manual of Style”, published by the University of Chicago. It is revised periodically with the collaboration of leading academics and professional writers from various disciplines. It is a definitive guide used by serious writers and publishers. It is only fitting that ISKCON editors consult the manual in matters of grammar to maintain the scholarly standard that Srila Prabhupada brought to his writings. Few would oppose changing the book covers to increase their appeal. Why would it be wrong to update the grammar (in a conservative and careful way) in future publications to maximize the respect our literature deserves? Meanwhile, let’s not forget that a battle between capital and minor-case pronouns is a battle over form rather than content. Both sides aim at preserving and spreading Krishna Consciousness.

About The Author
Chaitanya Charan