How much should devotee-writers learn English grammar and style to write effectively for Krishna?
Transcription by- Keshav Gopal Das & Ambuj Gupta
Question: How important is it for devotees who wish to do writing as a service to learn English language, its grammar and style effectively?
Answer: It is important but it’s not all important.
Every service requires certain skills and those skills may vary from service to service but if we have to do that service well having the appropriate skill is usually essential. If somebody wants to be a speaker, preacher for Krishna, then at least some level of competence in speaking is essential. Without that one will not be able to be an effective preacher. Off course those who are not good speakers can also speak Krishna’s message. They may want to make speaking as just one of their services not their primary service. Similarly there is singing. There may be devotees who are very good singers and for them singing in like their defining service and there may be others who may also sing but that’s one of the thing which are the part of the devotional culture. That’s not what their primary service or primary focus in devotion is. Same way writing is something which we all do to smaller or greater degrees.
Now with internet messaging and the whole culture of blogs, writing has become somewhat more popular than what it has been earlier. Some social commentator, some historians were even fearing the end of the written word and end of the culture of writing with the increase in spreading of TV and multimedia where image and spoken word was emphasized much more than the written word but there has been surprising resurgence in writing. Off course the quality of the writing in blogs and in messages often use much to be desire. Now certainly devotees need to have a presence in these forums, simply because the significant part of the world is there and we want Krishna’s presence to be there where ever there are potential devotees. Doing blogs and being a part of social networking and things like that is often a helpful way of reaching out to many people who are interested in Krishna or interested in spirituality in general. Now by trying to reach out to such people the important thing to recognize is that competence matters. Srila Prabhupada himself his primary qualification if we would say that for writing his books was his burning desire to share the message which he has received from the parampara. That message, that desire trumped everything else.
So Prabhupada English was first of all Victorian. He learned it in 1910s and 1920s when he was in college and it was in some ways archaic, but then Prabhupada wrote his books. Also often his grammar and his instruction and things like that was not precise. But that did not deter Prabhupada from writing his books. Nor did Prabhupada make pretentions about his competence in English. He wrote in the Bhagavatam purport itself that my attempt to write in a foreign language which is English will certainly fail but still he calls upon people to seek the essential message which he is giving. Prabhupada openly admitted his limitation with respect to using English and he wanted his editors to repair whatever inadequacies were there and he considered editing a very important service. In fact when he was asked about how much a devotee should edit his book. He says that proof-reading should be done in so much thoroughness that even one mistake should not remain, he said one mistake kills the book, even one mistake. “Kills the book” mean kills the credibility of the author in the eyes of the reader. Readers feel that ok, this author doesn’t even know basic grammar then how can I trust that he knows the message, he knows the content, that this content is good enough. If you look at Prabhupada’s example the lack of the knowledge of grammar or lack of expertise in English did not stop him from writing. Now off course we can’t say that Prabhupada was not good in English. He was good relatively speaking and Bhakti Siddhantha Saraswati Thakur recognized and appreciated that and encouraged him to write. Prabhupada had a poetic sense and he wrote poetry in Bengali as well as in English also and Bhakti Siddhantha Thakur was pleased by that. The point we are talking about is technical precision where Prabhupada did not stop writing because he did not have it but at the same time he did not deny that there was some problem and whenever there was a facility to correct that he encouraged actively bringing about that correction.
So from these three points we can say that if devotees have a desire to write just the lack of expertise in English is no reason to not act on the desire for writing. We can still start writing and then we may, as we get into the mood of writing more and more, we also be able to develop our thinking ability. Actually we don’t have to divorce the grammar and style from our devotional activity of writing for Krishna because ultimately grammar and style which are best style, referred to grammatical style as well as literary styles of individual writers, these are basically aids for us to do our thinking. We don’t have to think of grammar as something external which we have to learn just because you have to present in that language. That is true at one level but another level grammar is developed by people to facilitate thought and expression of the thought. Rather than seeing the learning of grammar as a distraction or as an intrusion in our writing we can see it as an additional tool to improve our writing and thinking.
In fact one of the most effective ways of learning grammar is to do it live. That means we start writing something for Krishna and while writing when we have doubts, ok should this be phrased like this, should this be punctuated like this, then at that time we look up. Now a days the internet offers many good sites. There are many good books also for learning grammar and that way we keep our study of grammar and style and English language more centered on devotion and Krishna than be just grammar and language. So if devotees have the time and interest then they can study specific books also for learning English and things like that but otherwise we can write and instead of having rigid time limit on trying to complete a particular writing, we can use the writing exercise as a experiential learning tool for learning English language and grammar also. That way we will be able to integrate our devotional activity with our literary activity and we will find that if we actually learn grammar properly, we don’t have to go into technicalities of grammar but we just learn if from a functional perspective of whatever we need. We find that we will be able to do our function of thinking and writing much better. If we have some friends who can help us, that’s even better if they are good at grammar and they can review our document and suggest something to us for improvement or correction, that is extremely helpful. Even if we don’t have that we can become our own teachers and learn and write accordingly.
Over all to summarize, yes if you want make writing as an important service then definitely we need to learn the skills but we shouldn’t delay indefinitely our writing till we have learned English and grammar. We start writing and by doing the writing we can learn in parallel by just evaluating our phrasings and our word usages and we have the specific interest, certainly it’s not wrong to take specific time out to learn writing by reading some books or doing some courses. Devotees who want to serve Krishna in a specific way often may need to some specialized courses. If a devotee wants to, say do some kind of animation than often sometime you will have to spend exclusively to learn the way of doing animations so that may be some devotional animations can be made. Now writing seem deceptively simple. You can say animation is a specialized skill and a lay person cannot do it. Writing may not seem so specialized because we feel that everybody can do it but it’s not so simple. Yes, writing is something which everybody can do but very few people can actually do it and the reason is there is a fear that I may fail in matters to write, a fear that I may not be able to be as successful as I would I like to be. But any way by putting faith in Krishna we can put aside all such fears and move forward and use that and learn it as a tool to improve our writing and indeed improve our thinking.
There is quote of Prabhupada, which Satsvarupa maharaja quotes in one of his letters, that words are the best way to save us from forgetting Krishna. When we write for Krishna we think about our words very carefully and Prabhupada seems that writing and speaking about Krishna is first class service. If you can’t do that then find something else to do for Krishna. Here Prabhupada normally recommends the service of writing, he also recommends further, rather insist forcefully that we absorb ourselves in finding the right words and thereby absorb ourselves in Krishna. Thank you.