Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India
The Gita Press was an institution with unmatched cultural and social influence. The two pillars of its publication programme included making texts like the Bhagwad Gita and its flagship journal Kalyan cheaply available. Both powerfully redefined cultural and political sensibilities in north India. The press has, to date, sold in excess of 70 million copies of the Gita and Ramayana; Kalyan has a circulation of 200,000; its special editions were collectors’ items. Kalyan’s list of contributors includes the who’s who of modern Indian intellectual history: almost all political leaders from MK Gandhi to Rabindranath Tagore, academics from Gopinath Kaviraj to Radhakamal Mukherjee had good relations with Hanuman Prasad Poddar. But Kalyan was a platform that not just absorbed several currents of Hinduism. Through its pages, the driving force behind the press, Poddar, arguably one of the most influential Indians, also redefined Hinduism in more ways than one. It was Hinduism centred on a kind of Puranic bhakti that had, on the one hand, the power to assimilate and absorb almost any strain within “Indic” religions, representing them as currents of the same family. On the other hand, this consolidation demarcated a clear distinction from Abrahamic religions, and hostility towards them.
The moral mission of Kalyan was centred on the recovery of the discourse of virtue; its intellectual mission was, despite its range of contributors, anti-intellectual, self-consciously sidelining not just the Vedic tradition, but also philosophical disputation. This was reflected in the choice of texts it promoted. Its social mission was conservative: defending hierarchical and patriarchal values. It professed a critique of untouchability, even as it defended varnashrama dharma; it was agreeable to women’s education, even as it defended domesticity. The only modern intellectual, besides Madan Mohan Malaviya, the press promoted was Karpatri, whose Marxism aur RamRajya, was a heady combination of metaphysical insight with unacceptably reactionary views on most social issues. Its politics, as reflected in Poddar’s editorials, added fuel to communal fire, portraying a world in which Hindus were uniquely under attack. Poddar was close to Gandhi. Yet, as the author points out, the journal propagated hostility towards Gandhi, particularly after Noakhali, and maintained a rather telling and long silence on his assassination.
The press then became a foot soldier for the VHP and Sangh Parivar.
Akshaya Mukul tells a textured story of these heady ideological cross currents. The book brilliantly situates the press at the intersection of several far-reaching social and political currents, and uses it as a window to illuminate notable social transformations in north India. It tells an absolutely riveting story of the Marwari community. The early brief biography of Poddar is a marvel of encapsulation. The chapter is worth its weight in gold, for painstakingly tracing connections across Marwari families and extensive philanthropic organisations. It uses the Poddar papers to shed new light on the ideological, factional, institutional and even sexual politics among Marwaris: the conflicts between the “Gandhians” like Birla and Jamnalal Bajaj on the one hand, and the conservatives on the other. It will also revise the received portrait of Marwaris, who emerge in this account not just as capitalists, but also the glue that knit together a vast institutional and cultural complex from Bengal to Maharashtra, throwing in crucial support for politics and ideas. Kalyan, while in some ways a journal of the Hindi heartland, drew in artistic sensibilities and styles of representation from across India. The imprint of Bengal was very clear on the Calcutta Marwaris: in some ways, Kalyan was a culmination of the right wing of the Bengali Renaissance.
The book is full of incidental insights across a range of subjects: the Hindi public sphere, the economics of publishing, labour relations within the press, new art forms. It is churlish to ask more from a book this rich. But it is worth thinking what made this Gita Press complex such a success in redirecting Hinduism. The entrepreneurial zeal and personal qualities of many of the protagonists and the moments of crisis in Hindu-Muslims relations all played their part. But could it be also that it became a success by default? The traditional centres of Hindu learning were too abstruse to adapt to modern conditions, while the new forms of modern publishing had a certain kind of discomfort with the question of tradition. So by default, a certain Puranic idiom ended up with the Gita Press. Its function as a platform allowed it to draw in a vast range of contributors, but Poddar could also guide these undercurrents into a conservative direction. But Kalyan was fascinating because the Puranic material in it often was far more superior and multifarious than the narrow ideological uses to which it was put to by Poddar. It is a pity that reactionary and nationalist doctrine in the end overcame the promise of abundance with which the Puranas teemed.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta is president, Centre for Policy Research and contributing editor to The Indian Express