Writing for Krishna: The Price and the Prize
I received an email from a budding, but discouraged, devotee writer. He had submitted articles to BTG (Back to Godhead, ISKCON’s official global magazine) but had repeatedly received negative reviews from the editors.
“How is it possible to get an article published in BTG?” he asked.
I thought, “Many other devotee writers are likely to have the same question and may not be resubmitting improved versions of their articles. Moreover, to perform a service in a public forum, devotees need to come up to certain standards. Through the challenges faced in the service of writing, they can learn general principles for facing the challenges in their regular services.”
That thought gave birth to this article, which is a slightly modified version of the letter I wrote in reply to the above email.
Thank you for your sincere enquiry.
I will share some of my own experiences about how my first article was published in BTG and how the review process has helped me in my writing.
There Is No Black Hole Here
I wrote dozens of devotional articles before I submitted one to BTG—indeed, before I even came to know that I could submit articles to BTG and that they might be published there. In 2000, I started writing an article every week for my e-zine, The Spiritual Scientist. Since my school days, I used to read the daily spiritual column in a prominent Indian newspaper. So after I had been writing regularly for over a year, in August 2001 I ventured to submit an article about Janmashtami to that paper and was pleasantly surprised, in fact, immensely delighted, to find it published in its national edition on Janmashtami. I continued submitting one article each month. Some of them were published, and many were rejected, usually without any explanation or even a hint. If the article didn’t appear in the paper in the few weeks after submission, I would sadly infer that it had entered into a black hole, never to see the light of publication. After a year or so, the black hole started swallowing all my articles. Later I came to know that the newspaper had adopted the policy of focusing on publishing popular gurus’ writings to maximize readership.
I felt honored that five senior devotees—all of them deeply learned in the philosophy, as was evident from their comments—had used their valuable time to so carefully read an article written by an unknown somebody in some part of India.
Soon after this disappointment, I was informed about the possibility and the process of submitting an article to the international edition of BTG, published in the USA. While emailing an article to the editor, I half-expected that my submission would disappear forever into a black hole. So when I got a response email from Nagaraja Dasa within a fortnight, my first reaction was relief: There was no black hole here! On reading the email, my reaction changed to a sense of awe: Five editors had gone through the article scrupulously, appreciated some points in it, and given several suggestions for improvement. I felt honored that five senior devotees—all of them deeply learned in the philosophy, as was evident from their comments—had used their valuable time to so carefully read an article written by an unknown somebody in some part of India. Not only that, they had even clearly pointed out what needed improvement and how to improve it. What a delightful difference from my earlier experience!
As I got down to work implementing their suggestions and saw my article becoming more persuasive and penetrating, I felt grateful for their guidance. After the article was approved for publication, the chief editor, Nagaraja Dasa, sent me a meticulously edited draft of my article, pointing out several small instances of inconsistent reasoning, non-standard English usage, and unclear writing. All these were minute matters, but his attention to these was precisely what impressed me. I was inspired to see that he had put in so much painstaking effort to improve my article—and all the more so to know that he similarly refined each article published in BTG. Thereafter, I started reading each BTG article with much greater attention, even respect.
Subsequently, the article “Does Religion Cause War?” was published in the Nov/Dec 2002 issue of BTG. I was delighted to see that my service to Krishna had borne fruit. And when I found in the next issue a reader’s letter expressing how my article had provided a clear understanding of the nonsectarian nature of Krishna consciousness, the resulting fulfillment sealed my fate; henceforth I would be hooked lifelong to write for BTG.
Since then, many of my articles have been published in BTG, but only after they passed successfully through the same rigorous examination by all the reviewers. In 2009, Nagaraja Dasa invited me to join the panel of editors, and I started reviewing the articles submitted to BTG.
Most aspiring devotee writers are surprised to know that, although I am a BTG editor, still my submissions go through the same review process as theirs. They feel that the review process is a price they have to pay for the prize of getting their article published, and assume that as I am an editor, I wouldn’t have to pay that price. When I inform them that I would not bypass the review process even if I were given that option, they are intrigued.
Let me explain why I don’t want the prize without the price.
Substandard Deity Worship?
For me, writing is a way to worship Krishna. When we write, we are decorating with our words the deity of Krishna manifested as His message. When we try to get our first article published in a public magazine like BTG, we are like neophyte priests (pujaris) doing their first deity dressing in a temple. The editors who offer feedback to improve the writing are like expert pujaris who offer feedback to improve the dressing.
Improving our service according to their feedback requires our time, endeavor, and perseverance. So we may sometimes feel reluctant and even resentful. Our eagerness to get our first article published is natural, understandable, and desirable, like the eagerness of the new pujaris to complete their first deity dressing. But let’s think from the audience’s viewpoint: If we were waiting to see the deity, would we like to see Krishna dressed hastily, shoddily, or carelessly? Such a sight would distress our devotional sensibilities. If we devotee writers expect our below-par articles to be published, won’t we be subjecting those who see Krishna in His magazine to similar distress? And, more importantly, would Krishna be pleased by such substandard devotional service—pleased either with the writers who rendered it or with the editors who allowed it?
The devotee editors have no desire to discourage any upcoming writer. But like responsible senior pujaris, they have to maintain the standard of worship. Like responsible junior pujaris, we need to raise the quality of our service to come up to that standard.
This brings me to an important benefit I have accrued from the review process.
Writing: Short-term and Long-term Goals
The review process is not always enjoyable, but it is always beneficial.
Why should I lose a long-term gain for a short-term gain when with a little effort I can gain both?
Like everyone else, I don’t like faults to be pointed out in my articles. But I know that the way to avoid that unpleasant feeling is by writing my articles so carefully that they don’t contain any faults—and not by wishing that there be no one to point out faults. If my articles get published even while they contain faults, then how will my writing ever improve? I may succeed in my short-term goal of getting my article published, but I will fail in my long-term goal of becoming a better writer through the writing and publication of each article.
Over the years, my writing has benefited immensely from the review process and continues to benefit with each review. Why should I lose a long-term gain for a short-term gain when with a little effort I can gain both?
Feel Honored, Not Burdened
Imagine if we were giving a class with five veteran devotee scholars in the audience. We would feel honored by their presence and would feel grateful if after the class they gave us some feedback.
The review process, in addition to the opportunity for self-improvement, also offers us the association of several senior devotees. Writing is like speaking in that both are ways to share our faith with others. But writing is like delivering a class with an opaque partition between the speaker and the audience; the speaker can’t immediately see if and how the audience is reciprocating—or if any audience is even present. But I know that if I write and submit an article for BTG, I have a guaranteed audience of at least five individuals—and five senior devotees at that. Imagine if we were giving a class with five veteran devotee scholars in the audience. We would feel honored by their presence and would feel grateful if after the class they gave us some feedback. The same opportunity beckons all of us each time we submit an article to BTG. Why should we let ourselves feel burdened instead of honored by the reviews?
Assistance, Not Interference
Moreover, the review process helps us in our responsibility. If we were nondevotees writing our own ideas for a nondevotional magazine, it might be ok for our article to be published without thorough scrutiny. But when writing for Krishna in His magazine, we are presenting His message and so are responsible to Him as well as to the disciplic succession that has brought His message into our lives. This is no small responsibility; we need all the help we can get to discharge it diligently and competently. When the review process offers us the very help we need—and offers it free—why should we mistake the assistance to be interference?
I try my best to read, edit, and refine my articles before I submit them to BTG, but very few are the occasions when an article gets approved without needing any improvement. No doubt, over the years the things needing improvement have become fewer, but still I feel it is better to be safe than sorry and so am grateful for the review process.
Inspiration from Srila Prabhupada
Modifying our article according to the review suggestions requires time. Many devotee writers have to struggle to find time to write amidst a busy schedule. Where can we get the inspiration to gently but firmly ward off all the demands that encroach on our writing time?
From Srila Prabhupada. He was busier than all of us—thousands of times busier. And his responsibilities were also millions of times heavier than ours. Yet he took time out to write his books.
Obviously, our writing is not as important as his—nowhere near. But that is not the point. The point is that he showed us by his example how to make time for writing.
Moreover, though he knew we were unlikely to be very spiritually advanced or have much capacity to write, he persistently and insistently requested, even instructed, us to write. Here are two of his many quotes to that effect:
“I want all our students to write articles for our transcendental magazine.” (Letter to Satsvarupa Dasa, January 11, 1971)
“Regarding articles for BTG, I have already issued instructions to all centers requesting my disciples to send articles every month, and I am going to repeat it again for the second time.” (Letter to Hayagriva Dasa, July 12, 1969)
Encouragement from like-minded devotees
We may have many others services in our devotional life. Therefore to be able to invest our time in writing, we need, in addition to Srila Prabhupada’s inspiring example and words, encouragement from ISKCON devotees today. Different devotees have different definitions of success in terms of their specific form of devotional service. Some devotees see distributing huge number of books as success; some, building magnificent temples; some, cultivating a vibrant devotee community. All such definitions of success are valid, for they are given by Srila Prabhupada.
If we wish to focus on a particular service, we need to associate with those whose definition of success is wedded to that service. The Chaitanya-charitamrita (Madhya 22.131) points to this when it urges us to seek association that is sajatiyashaye, translated as “endowed with a similar type of affection for the Lord.” The word translates literally as those having the same (sa) category (jatiya) of desires (asha) or, put in contemporary idiom, the same definition of success.
So, if we want to improve our writing, we should seek the association of those devotees whose definition of success is high-quality writing for Krishna. Of course, good writers are few in any cross-section of the population—and so they are few even within the devotee community. That’s why we need to treat each devotee writer’s association as precious.
As writing is a specialized service that not many devotees can do, those devotees who have the inspiration, inclination, and talent to write need to focus on it if Srila Prabhupada’s desire to have devotee writers in his movement generation after generation is to be fulfilled.
I was fortunate that in the initial years of my Krishna consciousness, I got the priceless guidance of Jayadvaita Swami, who is my writing-guru. When I told him I was feeling torn between various services like writing, managing, and counseling, he replied immediately and emphatically, “Let others manage and counsel; you focus on writing.”
For me, his response was life-defining. Its rationale has stayed with me forever: As writing is a specialized service that not many devotees can do, those devotees who have the inspiration, inclination, and talent to write need to focus on it if Srila Prabhupada’s desire to have devotee writers in his movement generation after generation is to be fulfilled.
Playing Our Part in Fulfilling Srila Prabhupada’s Dream
Srila Prabhupada has expressed his fond dream for BTG: “As I have told you several times, I am awaiting for the day when this paper will take the shape of Life magazine or similar other magazines in the matter of its popularity.” (Letter dated June 1968) The popularity of BTG depends on many factors: for example, the reach and appeal of our movement; the magnitude of the efforts to distribute BTG; the format, feel, and cost of the issues. But the most important factor, the factor I can influence, is its core content—the quality of its articles. The only way I can improve the quality of my articles is by improving the quality of my writing. The BTG review process has been a time-tested aid for me in directing my writing-quality graph upward. In fact, this review process—with one dedicated chief editor and several associate editors having broad scriptural learning and wide outreach experience—is, in many ways, already on par with the review process of the world’s best magazines. Now the onus is on me to benefit from it, raise my writing quality, and thereby play my part in fulfilling Srila Prabhupada’s dream.
The price of having to conscientiously improve my writing is well worth the prize of pleasing Krishna and Srila Prabhupada, and becoming a competent instrument for sharing their message with the world through their magazine. In fact, the prize is worth much more than the price—definitely, massively, infinitely more.
Every upcoming writer is precious to Krishna and His mission. You have good potential for writing. I hope and pray that this letter will aid you in tapping your potential and will help you see how the review process that might seem discouraging is actually helping you in tapping that potential.
With best wishes,
Chaitanya Charan das