Our childhood was suffused with the glow emanating from the world of Gita Press. We felt intimately acquainted with the gods and demons locked in eternal struggle with each other and portrayed so vividly by the press; we loved the drama of their existence. We took over but also invented stories about them when we impersonated them in play. The moral universe we inhabited carried an unambiguous message: what we as Hindus stood for was far superior to all else and with our conduct, our beliefs, our future actions, we could successfully ward off the evils that threatened all of us: Pakistan, the West, the Western woman.
We left this world behind when we sent to school, we were sent there later than most children. The gods and demons became hazy with the years. With time, our equations with the world changed. We sensed that our childhood world was not innocent, that it was part of an ideological edifice that needed engagement and articulation in all its complexity. What a pleasant surprise to find precisely this done so well in Akshaya Mukul’s Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India (2015).
Prehistory of modern bias
The book is an wide-ranging account not only of the press, and the two Marwari men who created it – the elder Jaydayal Goyandka (1885-1965), mentor and sage for the younger Hanuman Prasad Poddar (1892-1971) – but also of the 20th century Hindu world that they helped generate and hold together. A meticulously researched work, nuanced and non-polemical, it is based on extensive labour in the archive, chief among them the one in Gorakhpur, containing the personal papers of Poddar and of course the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library with the papers of Jamnalal Bajaj, G.D. Birla, Seth Govind Das, K.M. Munshi and Madan Mohan Malaviya, all closely associated with the press.
Goyandka and Poddar were not particularly successful in their careers as businessmen but both had a strong spiritual streak, both could hold oral discourse, both wrote well and both could rely on the vast, tightly knit web of Marwari enterprise to support their venture. The Gita Press started as a tiny unit in 1923, growing out of satsang, an assemblage of Marwaris, eager to hear the spiritual discourse of Goyandka on his favourite text, the Bhagavadgita. Poddar joined a little later. Together, the two men built the largest religious publishing house in India. The journal Kalyan, still on its feet and running, appeared first in August 1926, and has 200,000 subscribers; the English Kalyan-Kalpataru, started in 1934, has 100,000. Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas, the Bhagavadgita, and the Mahabharata, in various formats, have sold in millions.
Offering clear, error-free type on good paper, the enterprise eventually gained the reputation of being the most reliable and accessible source for major Sanskrit and Hindi religious texts, not to speak of Hindi school texts. Their annual Kalyan issue, the compendious varshikank, between 500-900 pages, on a special theme chosen by the directors, was produced with much care and often came in time to make a major intervention in contemporary social and political debate. The bhakta annual came out in 1928, yoga in 1935, the Ramcharitmanas ank in 1938, the nari or women’s ank in 1948, the controversial Hindu Sanskriti or culture ank in 1950 and the balak, or male child ank in 1953. They are all still in print. Amongst its other activities, the press further instituted exams in the Bhagavadgita as much as in Tulsidas’s works. Clearly, it stood for something more than publishing. What was this something?
Chiefly, the proposition that Hindu dharma stood under multiple threats – from “colonial rule, the competing interests of Muslims, and the rising culture of materialism.” The contributors had to acquiesce in this belief; they could then be of any provenance. Though sadhus, mendicants, and Sanskrit scholars were favoured, such as Prabhudatt Brahmachari and Karpatri Maharaj, the writers, thinkers, teachers, and politicians who also wrote for Kalyan, could belong to the Arya Samaj, Hindu Mahasabha, the RSS, later the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, but also the Congress, excerpts from already published works of big names always being welcome.
Goyandka and Poddar were natural conservatives; they believed in the preservation of the caste system. They were against both Gandhi and Ambedkar in their efforts to ameliorate the lot of the dalits. When the Mahatma undertook his 1932 fast to counter the British effort to create a separate electorate for dalits, Poddar addressed Gandhi directly in a letter: “Even those in favour of dining with dalits agree (though I do not equate dining with them as a mark of equality) that they cannot be considered pure until they have a pure bath, wear fresh clothes, give up alcohol and meat, or at least stop feasting on dead cattle. Only then co-dining makes sense … Have you thought of the repercussions of this unbridled disrespect to our body and soul?”
No room for dalits, women
The question of dalit temple entry excited an equally vehement response: “It would destroy our temple system … If they want, why not build separate temples for them?” Poddar considered Gandhi “ a western sadhu in Indian dress.” Believed to be a Muslim partisan, his assassination found no mention in the Kalyan issues of February and March 1948. The years leading up to and then during the Partition had seen much hate speech in the publications of the press.
Just as dalits, women also occupied a lowly status in Goyandka and Poddar’s scheme of things. The Hindu Code Bill, on the table since 1944 in the Legislative Assembly, could not be regarded as other than an existential calamity for the Hindu social order. The Gita Press campaigned vociferously against it. As Goyandka wrote in 1946, “independence is not promised to women in the Hindu social structure. A woman has to live with her father till marriage, with her husband as a married woman and after his demise she has to live with her son or some other relative. She cannot be independent at any cost.”
When reintroduced in independent India, with Ambedkar as the Law Minister, the bill excited the same violent response. Once again Ambedkar faced the brunt of Poddar’s ire. When had equality brought happiness? Inter-caste marriage, the restriction placed on polygamy, the relatively liberal laws of inheritance, adoption, would all play havoc with the system. Hindu men could marry a low caste girl, or a Christian or a Muslim. Hindu women would be theoretically free to even marry Muslim men. “In one corner of the house Bhagwan would be worshipped and in the other end there would recitation of Quran and beef would be cooked. Which Hindu is going to tolerate such a law?” Congress’s landslide win in the first general elections left such arguments behind, as the Hindu Code Bill was finally passed in the form of four separate bills, much watered down, but none the less promising men and women much greater flexibility than before.
So where does this leave us in an era where so many issues that seemed burning then continue to issue forth flames? Cow protection is still a battle cry; women are still regarded as having only themselves to blame if they violate the patriarchal code, Dalits still suffer violence and the Hindu majority still continues to be depicted as aggrieved. Has so much changed? Akshaya Mukul’s sensitive and learned account is as topical as it is historical.
Vasudha Dalmia is a Professor Emerita of Hindi and Modern South Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley