Gandhi Peace Prize a befitting tribute to the legacy of Hanuman Prasad Poddar
Gita Press has published over 150 million copies of various texts.
There is nothing more ubiquitous to a north Indian Hindu home than a tiny diary with a chocolate brown cover that mentions auspicious days and festivals as per the Hindu panchang or calendar. Popularly known after its eponymous publishing house, the Gita Press diary is unique because it is cheap and complete. Along with the Kalyan, a slim, monthly magazine that contains treatises from the Ramayana and various Puranas, the Gita Press has published over 150 million copies of various texts. Conferring it the 2021 Gandhi Peace Prize is fair recognition for its contribution in disseminating spiritual thought. Albeit couched in the idiom of Hindu religious mythology, its works have a universal appeal – a far cry from the accusation that they are communal or divisive, as some scholars would have us believe.
It is in that context that Akshay Mukul’s deeply researched book, “Gita Press and the making of Hindu India” that was published by Harper Collins against a study funded by the New India Foundation, merits cross-examination.
It is admitted by Mukul at the outset that the Gita Press was set up in 1923, not out of any proselytizing mission but out of a desire to extend the knowledge of Gita amongst Hindus itself, beyond satsang groups that were patronized by the more privileged, like the founder businessmen: Jaydayal Goyandka and Hanuman Prasad Poddar. A little later, Mukul writes about the objective for setting up the Gita Press: “At the forefront was religious philanthropy in the name of saving sanatan Hindu dharma—an obscurantist version of it.” He also refers to the founders of the Gita Press as the foot soldiers of “sectarian organizations like the RSS” etc. However, he does not explain why he uses the word obscurantist or how the founders did the bidding of the political outfits. Mukul uses the atmospherics of the day to build his case: “Malaviya (Madan Mohan) had a deep impact on Gita Press, providing it ample fodder during the communally rife period between 1940 and 1947. The birth of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1925 in Nagpur, with which Gita Press would later forge a close alliance, completed the overall scenario in which Kalyan got a firm footing.” Again, no passages are quoted to elucidate how Kalyan or other publications were used to entice Hindus towards communal politics. Nor later, when he states that “But the aspect of Gita Press and Kalyan that has the greatest significance in present times is the platform it has provided for communal organizations like the RSS, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and many others.” In fact, he contradicts his own thesis when he writes that “In just over two decades, Gita Press became an attractive platform for the liberal and orthodox Congress elements as well as those preaching and practising strident Hindu nationalism,” – the latter being Mukul’s endeavour to conflate Hindu culturalism with Hindu nationalism.
He accepts that the Gita Press adhered to “its principle of non-aggression, especially towards sects and religions it considered within the pale of Hinduism.” He gives the example of the proposed special edition of Kalyan on Shakti, for which the SGPC recommended removal of references to Sikh Gurus as being worshippers of Durga. This was duly acceded to.
On one hand Mukul writes of Gita Press as being political and that “Gita Press’s advocacy of militant nationalism in the 1940s through the powerful print medium of Kalyan was not the reflection of a standalone publishing house but the collective voice of Hindu nationalist organizations like the RSS, Hindu Mahasabha and others.” On the other hand, he acknowledges Hanuman Prasad Poddar as having said, ‘Kalyan should not get involved in this. Instead, it should concentrate on propagating humanity, ideal behaviour and devotion to gods … It is not about losing subscribers but principles.’
An attempt has also been made to depict the Gita Press as anti-Gandhi. At the same time, it is also chronicled that it was with Gandhi that Poddar had forged his “most significant long-term relationship,” about how he went out of his way to keep in touch with the jailed Devdas Gandhi and that Gandhi was “extremely fond of Poddar.” Gita Press published several pieces written by Gandhi. Likewise, Gita Press appreciated Sardar Patel’s work because he had “begun the project of protecting Indian culture by announcing the reconstruction of the Somnath Temple in Dwarka, Gujarat.” Similarly, he notes how the Gita Press also eulogized Indira Gandhi and Rajeev Gandhi upon their assassination lauding their sacrifice to the nation.
Misleadingly, the personal statements of Poddar (and various religious ideologues) and of various groupings such as the Gosewak Samaj have been assumed to be the official position of the Gita Press as a publishing house, merely to paint it with a communal brush. To protray Poddar’s public musings as the views of the Gita Press would be as fallacious as to ascribe Mukul’s misconceived inferences as the views of his publisher Harper Collins.
At a personal level, the examples from the Ramayana, Mahabharat and the Puranas that I have gleaned from schooltime readings of the Kalyan and other Gita Press publications have only made me more spiritual. They have never dissuaded me from being respectful of other religions and communities. Some of my best friends today are non-Hindus.
More than Mukul’s book it is Aakar Patel’s review of Mukul’s book that is fallacious to the point of being ludicrous. Published in the August 2015 edition of India Today it carried a picture of a slithering snake behind a trident and a saffron backdrop with the title, ‘Akshaya Mukul's first-rate analysis of the Gita Press reveals how putrid some aspects of Hindu nationalism are,’ and said: “It is frightening and sobering that the Hindu political consciousness should have come out of such criminal nonsense.”
Hanuman Prasad Poddar maintained, to borrow from Mukul, “Whatever is good in Kalyan is due to the grace of god and whatever is wrong could be ascribed to me. Praise makes one arrogant. Criticism should be considered truth.’ There is a belief that President Rajendra Prasad was keen that Poddar should be conferred the Bharat Ratna but that he turned it down because he had made it his own and the Gita Press’s policy not to accept any public awards. Teji Bachchan, mother of the famous Amitabh, had described him as the fountainhead of knowledge and as God incarnate. The Gandhi Peace Prize to the Gita Press is thus a fitting tribute, as much to Poddar as to his dauntless creation.
(The author is a former Secretary Government of India. Views expressed here are solely of the author)