The riview processis just a small price one has to payto be able to write for krishna.
Recently a budding devotee-writer who had submitted articles to BTG (Back to Godhead, ISKCON’s official global magazine) but had become discouraged due to repeated negative reviews from the editors wrote an email to me: “How is it possible to get an article published in the BTG?
On reading his email, I thought, “Many other devotee-writers are likely to have the same question and may not be getting a proper answer. And in fact, all of us devotees, whatever our service, often face the challenge of meeting the standards necessary for doing that service in a responsible public forum like, say, giving classes in an outreach program.”
That thought gave birth to this article, which is a slightly modified version of the letter I wrote in reply to the above email.
Dear … Prabhu,
Thank you for your sincere enquiry.
Different articles need to be improved in different ways to become ready for publication. So, I cannot give a clear, specific answer that will apply for all articles. But the universal principle is this: if we intelligently use the review suggestions to improve our article, we will soon get published. Additionally, we will get a bigger return: we will become better writers. Let me share my own experiences of how the review process has offered me these two benefits.
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 my articles to BTG and that they might be published there. From 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. Thereafter, I continued submitting one article each month. Some of them were published, but many were rejected, usually without explanation. If the article didn’t appear in the paper in the few weeks after submission, I would sadly infer that it had fallen 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 from third-party sources that the newspaper had begun publishing articles from popular gurus so as to maximize readership.
Soon after this disappointment, I was informed about the possibility and the process for submitting an article to BTG International. While emailing an article to the editor, I half-expected that my submission would disappear forever into a similar black hole. So when I got a response from Nagaraja Prabhu 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 separate editors had gone through the article scrupulously, had appreciated some points in it, and had given several suggestions for improving it. I felt honored that five senior devotees – all of them deeply learned in the philosophy, as was evident from their comments – had taken 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 it could be improved. 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 Prabhu, 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 their minuteness 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 non-sectarian 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 Prabhu invited me to join the panel of editors and I started reviewing the articles of upcoming devotee-writers to help improve their writing by offering my review of their submissions.
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 do their submissions. They feel that the review process is a price they have to pay to get the prize of getting their article published, and assume that as I am an editor, I don’t have to pay that price. When I inform them that I would not bypass the review process even if I were given the option, they are intrigued.
Let me explain why I don’t want the prize without the price.
Substandard Deity Worship?
When we write, we are decorating with our words a Deity of Krishna in the form of His message. When we try to get our first article published in a public magazine like BTG, we are like neophyte priests (pujaris) dressing the temple Deity for the first time. The editors who offer feedback for improving our writing are like expert pujaris offering feedback to improve the dressing.
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 that our below-par articles 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 sub-standard 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 that I have accrued from the review process.
Writing: The Short-term and Long-term Goals
The review process is not always relishable, but it is always beneficial.
I, like everyone else, 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 whatever faults there may be. If my articles get published with faults intact, then how will my writing ever improve? I may succeed in my short-term goal of getting published, but I will fail in my long-term goal of becoming a better writer.
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 have both?
Assistance, Not Interference
Moreover, the review process helps us in our responsibility. If we had been non-devotees writing our own ideas for a non-devotional magazine, it might have been all right for our article to be published without thorough scrutiny. But when we are 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 that we need – and offers it for free – why should we mistake the assistance to be an 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 decreased, but still I personally feel it is better to be safe than sorry and so am grateful for the review process.
No Time for Srila Prabhupada?
Modifying our article according to the review suggestions requires time. All devotee-writers have to struggle to find time to write amidst a busy schedule. From 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 our own. Yet he took time out to write his books.
Obviously, what we write is not as important – nowhere near as important – as the literary legacy he left for us. 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 that we were unlikely to be very spiritually advanced or have much capacity for writing, 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; 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; July 12, 1969)
If we don’t have time to fulfill Srila Prabhupada’s instruction, then what is our devotional life meant for?
What is Our Definition of Success?
Of course, we may have many other services to do in our devotional life. To be able to invest our time in writing, we need, in addition to Srila Prabhupada’s inspiring example and words, encouragement from living devotees. Different devotees have different definitions of success in terms of their specific form of devotional service. Some devotees see distributing a 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 all 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 Caitanya-caritamrta (Madhya-lila 22.131) points to this when it urges us to seek association that is sajatiyasaye, “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, to put it another way, 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 also within the devotee community. That’s why we need to treat each devotee-writer’s association as precious.
I was fortunate that in the initial years of my Krishna consciousness, I got the priceless guidance of Jayadvaita Maharaja, who is my writing-guru. When I told him that 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 for BTG distribution; the format, feel, and cost of the issues. But the most important factor, the factor that 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 instrumental in helping me to achieve that end. 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 for 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, which might seem discouraging, is actually helping you in tapping that potential.
With best wishes,
Caitanya Carana Dasa
Caitanya Carana Dasa is the associate-editor of Back to Godhead (US and Indian editions). To subscribe for his daily Bhagavad-gita reflections, please subscribe for Gitadaily on his website, thespiritualscientist.com.