Editors, rasa, and the art of writing

Bhakti Abhaya Ashram posted an article on editing the other day,  How to Edit? Swamiji,formerly Babhru Das, has a background and training in English education on the college level, have been leading him to ponder this matter, and clearly the linguistic professionalization of Tripurari Maharaj's sangha is a result of his work.

Since I do a fair bit of editing, I read it with interest. In my editing work, I have traditionally been pretty timid. That probably has something to do with the field I work in. I work very gingerly where scholars like Swami Veda Bharati and Satya Narayan Dasji are concerned. I prefer to take the approach of a student who is trying to understand, and then simply try to improve the English and improve the clarity. Being somewhat slow on the uptake, wider-ranging advice usually comes rather too late to be any good. But this work is in translation and commentary, scholarly and scripturally based writing, which has a bias to the conservative.

It is not rather than the kind of writing that I am trying to personally envision for myself, which is really, when you come right down to it, pretty confused and altogether scattered in terms of coherence.

And that is probably why, where my own writing is concerned, I could really use an editor. But alas I cannot afford to hire one, and so far no one has shown that kind of interest. On the one hand,
the problem may be that I am not ready to submit myself to the kind of in-depth critique that is being eulogized in this article.  But even the opposite -- just a little hand-holding -- would sometimes be welcome.

I think what the writer craves is for someone to really understand the thought processes that are at work and seeking form in the creative act of writing. Since writing is essentially an act communication, the writer cannot completely work out those thought processes without interacting directly with his or her audience. And the editor incarnates that audience. In its purest form, it would be an act of devotion and discipleship. He could even be said to be the samaṣṭi disciple. 

The good editor would be the one who follows finds the writer's thought processes worthwhile (and of course in the professional world, this might not be an option), which depending on the nature of the writing, could be seen as a fascinating level of intimacy in the most ideal world, where communication means communion and is seen as a sacred union of consciousness.

If the book or literary work is to be one of spiritual communication, then the communion of editor and writer is a kind of "first communion." In the "plural", i.e., when the work is mediated to a larger audience (
vyaṣṭi), there is a formation of community. But any breakthrough to community has to begin with the one-on-one communion of the dual.

Of course I am speaking in ideal terms, my job description for an editor. Someone who wants to know what it is you want to say and helps you say it better.

In my own case, I can see that there is a laziness involved also. I want someone else to do the work... I mean, I realize that I have a work ethic problem, but at the same time, the ideal editor would be almost a shadow self who would help break through the blockages and help the current of creativity keep flowing.

It is a rather unrealistic expectation. I imagine that in the commercial world it is rather "what sells" that is the editor's expertise. But that kind of writer will find that kind of editor. 

What is attractive writing?

What is attractive writing and what is the purpose of it? As devotees, is the marshaling of scriptural evidence for one or another point of dogma what really turns us on? Why were Prabhupada's writings effective for us, and why do they not seem to be as effective now? There are hundreds of possibilities or ways of answering this question.

But rather than weighing the merits and demerits of the writing itself, I will just pick one possibility. To be persuasive writing must be personal. There has to be communication, and that communication must be profound. The more personal, the more profound.

The personal means rasa. When you are touched by a piece of writing, that means there has been a transmission of rasa. And rasa means that "meaning" has been communicated in a compact and explosive manner, as in the Sanskrit sphoṭa theory.

Rasa has to be experienced as personal. A particular experience, not my own, becomes my own through the word. And because of the sheer complexity of human personality, one sphoṭa, or explosion of rasa-meaning, communicates vastly more information than the sum total of the actual expressed meanings that are directly deduced from the written words themselves.

This is because our emotions are huge complexes of experience that are assessed each time we venture out into the world of the senses, and which are constantly being shaped and revised as a result of what we experience.

So what is it we want to touch? Can we simply tell people they are not the body? It is a simple statement. We can say, this is the way it is, and tell a Puranic story or two to back it up. But a story that is interesting or cute or even an object of scholarly curiosity gets to the level of bhāva, not rasa.

Can we then tell stories of Radha and Krishna's madhura rasa, just because that is "supposed to be" where the rasa is? And if Rupa Goswami says it,  it must be true? And for many people it is, on the whole a very small group, but if you are a Hare Krishna, then that is where you sort of figure you are supposed to end up if you want rasa.

I won't delve into that one here. My position is that though Krishna says, "I am rasa," the Upanishad says "Rasa is He." There is a world of difference in the two statements. But I am curious to know what good devotee writers have to say about the practical applications of rasa theory with regard to preaching. 

Faith and Rasa

You cannot put faith before the experience of rasa. Rasa is the cause of faith. Now the question is, what rasa leads to what faith? And what faith is it exactly that we want? Can it be divorced from the mythological realm?

Seen from the point of view of rasa, what is the objection to the re-editing of Prabhupada's books, is that in the impressionable minds of those devotees who were disciples of Prabhupada, the language itself conveyed a particular rasa that became imprinted on their minds as the fundamental samskāra of their Krishna consciousness.

When that is changed, someone else's -- the editor's -- rasa has entered the picture. It does not matter if the new language is more accurate, or even if it appeals better to a new person who is a little more philosophically or Sanskritically aware than we were in our innocent days. The problem is that it does not have the same flavor, the same rasa that they felt when they heard those particular words in that particular order, and which then produced faith in them.

And that new voice comes between them and Prabhupada himself. It is the imposition of another personality, whoever it is, and they cannot trust any other voice but Prabhupada's. That the voice was someone else's even then, the editor who did the first reworking and reshaping of Prabhupada's language, it does not matter. For them it was Prabhupada's own voice.

They want that specific rasa of their early Krishna consciousness. The good old days. The same dream they had then, still having it. Progress or not, we will not debate here. But it is worth inquiring into it on the principle that old wine must be put into new bottles.

A writer will create his own rasa. The important thing is that it be authentic and meaningful... to someone, anyone, somewhere. And that only happens if you can touch YOUR universal reality.


Unknown said…
Jagadananda Prabhu, thanks for this link on my post. Very interesting topics. i can't say much about rasa theory, but i can appreciate the idea that someone's energy pervades there writing, and someone's editing may change that energy, or ideally rasa or feeling, which could be good or bad.

In regards to an editor, I like your view of their job. In my book Give to Live, I had 4 editors who all contributed something, making the book much better than it would have been without their help. As a result, I can't image publishing a book without such expert help, and also feedback from trusted readers.

Regarding my free verse poems, well some of them I really like, which they are all OK to me, so I have put them all together for a possible book, and am in the process of editing them, hopefully improving them, and also deciding if I need to cut some--always difficult for attached writers like me, but I think essential. Anyway, I am grateful for your feedback and online association. Nitai Gaura Hari Haribol!
Brij Khandelwal said…
i think it would be too risky for a professional editor to take the challenge, after reading your views, on the kind of editor you need.....obviously there is no place for objectivity...it's all so subjective....as professionals we are trained to simplify and ensure the receiver of the message gets the hang of it......
but the perspective you have provided in this beautifully worded writeup, provides fresh insights into the art of editing. i feel educated. thanks...never before i looked at editing from this angle....

brij khandelwal

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