Book Review

Marketing dharma

Print edition : April 15, 2016

A stamp honouring Hanuman Prasad Poddar was released on September 19, 1992. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, the founder of the RSS. Photo: By Special Arrangement

M.S. Golwalkar, RSS ideologue and leader. The founders of Gita Press had close ties with the RSS.

The book skilfully chronicles the role played by Gita Press in popularising the idea of a Hindu India by propagating the virtues of “sanatana dharma”.

THE role of literature and the power of the printed word was understood by the satraps of Nazi Germany better than anyone else. The National Socialist German Workers’ Party knew well that it did not take much for a bigoted idea to take root, create a permanent scare of “the other” and strike fear among people, commanding their complete obeisance in the process. As Joseph Goebbels thundered “no to decadence and moral corruption”, thousands of books penned by intellectuals, many of them Jewish, pacifist, socialist and communist sympathisers, were consigned to the flames. Among them were the works of Brecht, Engels, Einstein, Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Heine and Freud.

An insurrection in the realm of ideas was taking place around the same time in pre-Independence India. Though it did not involve book burning, it was more or less predicated on creating a grand idea of a nation, the Hindu nation, through the printed word and constructing around it myriad ideas of nationality, patriotism, and mores governing life and relations between people. Central to that project was propagation of the virtues of the “sanatana dharma” (the idea of the eternal form of Hindu religion that has existed and survived over centuries).

The context was ripe: Indian nationalism, though in its nascent stages, was slowly gaining ground and all that was needed was a grand idea. The story of Gita Press, a publishing house set up in 1922 in Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, and its role in promoting the idea of a Hindu India is ably told by Akshaya Mukul, a journalist with almost two decades of writing experience, especially in the area of education.

The book delves into the origins of the Gita Press. It all began with discussions and a translation of the Bhagavad Gita by an “itinerant Marwari businessman”, as described by the author, whose commitment was essentially spurred by “a debate among the reformists and the conservatives in the larger Hindu world”.

The book chronicles the peculiar friendship that this businessman forged with a person of the same ideological orientation, who was committed to philanthropy and the revival of traditional Hindu values.

Their association led to a Hindi journal titled Kalyan, which espoused very much the Hindu way of life rather than take up political issues that have come to resemble the ideas dear to the Sangh Parivar as a whole today.

While the influence of the material published by Gita Press might not have matched the scale it was expected to achieve, what is significant is the persistence of those ideas, thanks to the evolution of an organised political structure that gave them the much-needed legitimacy in parliamentary democracy and politics.

The context was perfect. Disillusionment with the Congress, the shackles of the British Raj, the games of linguistic one-upmanship (Hindi versus Urdu and Persian) and competing communalisms gave way to this heady brew of Hindu nationalist thought.

The birth of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) in 1925, “with which Gita Press would later forge a close alliance, completed the overall scenario in which Kalyan got a firm footing and became a success story unlike any other journal of the 1920s”.

The success was not just in monetary terms, which was not much in the first place; it had more to do with leaders of the freedom movement associating themselves with the journal in some form or the other by writing in it or by engaging with the proprietors on the ideas it espoused. The journal and its ideas gradually acquired respectability and legitimacy, which perhaps in today’s context might appear a little incongruous but not implausible. Competitive communalism is still a reality and so is the campaign on cow protection, which has re-emerged with renewed vigour just as religious and caste identities have sharpened, undeterred by the explosion of technology, advances in science or the advent of the digital age. The book has six chapters, with disparate themes imaginatively brought together by the author in a narrative that is engrossing.

The world of the Marwari businessman, torn between the need to do business and the urge to find a meaningful place in the freedom struggle, and the use of philanthropy for a distinct politico-religious purpose are the running themes in the book.

Therefore, the interactions and the ideological congruity between the two protagonists of this story—one a businessman and the other a businessman-cum-disenchanted ideologue with a brief interlude of revolutionary activity (the Rodda Arms Conspiracy)—provide the background for much of the book. The book tells us how Jaydayal Goyandka and Hanuman Poddar shaped a thought process that continues to this day in varying and problematic dimensions. It puts together various pieces of a jigsaw puzzle spanning the world of the colonised, the literary, the religious and the political. Apart from primary research and archival material, the author relies on unpublished theses and dissertations on the subject.

Mukul writes: “What contributed to Kalyan/Gita Press’ distinguishing presence and immediate success was the fact that its promoters and editor did not remain impervious to the larger political changes taking place in the colonial period. The propagation of sanatan [a] dharma with all its emphasis on texts, rituals, social practice and institutions was mixed with the ideals of nationalism.”

Gita Press was, as described by the scholar Paul Arney and quoted in the book, “the leading purveyor of print Hinduism in the twentieth century”. Kalyan became the first journal to be devoted exclusively to the Hindu religion, and the communalisation of Indian politics in the 1920s contributed to the identity crisis in a big way, according to the author. It may or may not have been the appropriate response to the crisis at that period of history, but what is amply clear is that the growth of the Right has always coincided with periods characterised by either economic or political crisis.

It is the contemporariness of the very issues that prevailed almost a century ago that strikes the reader in the context of deep economic disparity and discontent, not spawned by colonial rule but a different kind of a political and economic dispensation.

Mukul writes: “But the aspect of Gita Press and Kalyan that has the greatest significance in present times is the platform it has provided for communal organisations like the RSS, [the] Vishwa Hindu Parishad and many others.” Further, Arney points out, Gita Press was able to take advantage of a homogenous, popular, bhakti-oriented Brahminical Hinduism that spiritual aspirants of many theological and sectarian persuasions could relate to.

Gita Press, according to Mukul, and Kalyan would grow and prosper as the only indigenous publishing enterprise of colonial India that continues to this day. Other Hindi journals of the period, he says, whether religious, literary or political, survive only in the archives.

Kalyan has a circulation of over 200,000 copies while the English journal, Kalyana Kalpataru, has a circulation of over 100,000. And the Gita Press’ key mission of publishing cheap and well-produced editions of the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata is a stupendous success unheard of in the world of publishing, according to him.

Therefore, the Gita Press’ assiduous defence of the caste system, the cow protection campaign, its staunch and bitter opposition to the Hindu Code Bill and successive reforms in Hindu inheritance, succession and property laws was but a reaffirmation of the idea of what its ideal Hindu way of life was. Its understanding of what women ought to be coincided very much with what the Manusmriti laid down.

In July 1947, Kalyan appealed to its readers to send telegrams to Rajendra Prasad, President of the Constituent Assembly, demanding that the first law in the Indian Union should be that under no circumstance would a single cow be slaughtered. Readers were reminded that cow protection alone could save life and religion, as the cow was the life of the Indian nation.

The chapter “The Moral Universe of Gita Press” outlines a list of prescriptions and proscriptions. For instance, in the same year that Kalyan was born, a 46-page monograph titled Stri Dharma Prashnotri was brought out by Gita Press; it was a catalogue of sorts on women’s duties and dharma.

Priced at Rs.5, and written in the form of a conversation between two women, it is still in print with over a million copies already sold. Poddar, through the writings in Kalyan, made it clear that a woman’s non-compliance with the set rules could affect broader Hindu society.

One of the arguments for placing great premium on the concepts of chastity and purity, argues Mukul, could have stemmed from the trend of the migration of Marwari men leaving the women behind. The dislocation shook the Marwari world.

The pressure and compulsion on women to remain “pure” for the men who had gone away could have been one of the reasons for the creation and imposition of a set of rules for women. But these rules existed and were legitimised in Hindu texts, including the Manusmriti. Poddar and Goyandka were the conscience keepers of the community, having themselves migrated despite being married with families in Rajasthan. Poddar was opposed to Western education and was firmly opposed to inter-caste or inter-religious marriages. In 1938 appeared Nari Dharma, which the author says was “more opinionated, judgemental and unambiguously biased” and even crude on occasion.

The moral universe had women at its core, with the men and children inhabiting the concentric sphere, writes Mukul.

The idea that bound all of this together was that colonial education had led Hindu men astray. Attempts to popularise the ancient system of education through monographs for children failed. It is intriguing that such attempts continue now, albeit with state support.

The glorification of the past occurred then, as is happening now as well, and the villains of the piece remain Western ideas of education and renaissance.

To a large extent the world views of both Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar were anathema to Gita Press, although Gandhi and other leaders had engaged intellectually and otherwise with the publishers as exemplified in the writings in Kalyan.

But Gandhi’s efforts to change Poddar’s views on untouchability failed, writes Mukul. There were other points of disagreement too, but nonetheless there seemed to be some affection between the man who was effectively running Gita Press and Gandhi. Poddar, who had distanced himself from the Congress from 1921 onwards, openly associated himself with the Hindu Mahasabha.

Poddar’s association with the RSS was so strong that after Gandhi’s assassination, his journal, which had an opinion on almost everything significant in that period, avoided writing about it.

Poddar was defending the RSS, which had been banned in 1948. The defence began taking a very cogent shape as the years passed by.

A few decades later, in the aftermath of the two successive wars with China and Pakistan, Poddar advocated reintegration of Pakistan with India and took the position which both Gita Press and the Hindu Mahasabha had taken before Independence—that the task of securing the nation be left to Hindus. The trend of pushing a certain world view continues, with appeals in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections to vote for leaders who were immersed in the service of religion. The heft of Poddar and his networking skills among the business, political and intellectual class might have gone, Mukul writes, and the opinions in Kalyan now resemble occasional outbursts.

What has not changed in this journal that sells 200,000 copies is its avowed commitment to ”sanatana dharma” and its resolve to achieve that goal.

That the publishing house involved itself in projects of Hindu “awakening” post-Independence, including the Babri Masjid demolition, show that its leanings have remained the same.

No other publishing house “marketed” religion so successfully, Mukul writes. Perhaps, looking at it from a historical point of view, it is not far from truth.

What is intriguing is that the absence of any literature on the scale, price and reach in north India to counter the ideas propagated by Gita Press and Kalyan.

The marketing of religion continues in myriad forms, with multimedia and technology contributing to its proliferation. The list of religious seers and gurus professing to cure man of all his miseries is unending.

E.H. Carr defined history as a continuous process of “interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past”.

The current debate over national and anti-national, circumscribed by a very narrow view of what nationalism is, is perhaps a continuum from the past.

The dialogue process seems to be continuing with the historian documenting and interpreting the stridency of the dialogues involved, with the past very much rooted in the present.