Gita Press is the intellectual and cultural base on which conservative Hindu values, mainly Brahmanical values, are promoted, and it provides the base for Hindu nationalist politics by promoting and propagating a narrow, exclusive version of Hinduism. Gandhi’s Hinduism was, on the other hand, humane and inclusive and he evolved with time to live the humanistic aspects of religion.
India's Ministry of Culture awarded the Gandhi Peace Prize 2021 to Gita Press, which has been known for publishing Hindu religious scriptures for over a century. Gandhi Prize is a prestigious award carrying with it a prize money one crore rupees (10 million) and has been awarded in the past to those standing for anti colonial struggles like Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), Nelson Mandela (South Africa), Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Bangladesh) and committed social workers like Baba Amte among others.
This is the centenary year of the press. It had been formed with the declared goal of promoting spiritual and cultural heritage of the nation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi lauded the Press for its work of spreading cultural awareness and promoting peace, but it was Congress spokesperson Jairam Ramesh hit the nail on the head when he tweeted “…There is a very fine biography from 2015 of this organization by Akshaya Mukul in which he unearths the stormy relations it had with the Mahatma and the running battles it carried on with him on his political, religious & social agenda. The decision is really a travesty and is like awarding Savarkar and Godse,”
The Press was founded at a time when conservative sections of Hindus were upset due to Dalits striving for equality and freedom, and women were getting education and were coming up in the social space. Its foundation was preceded by formation of the Hindu nationalist Hindu Mahasabha and followed by formation of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, better known as RSS, a couple of years later. The Press and its magazine Kalyan initially were not against Gandhi and also published some of his writings. The matters changed after the Poona Pact (1932) after which Gandhi decided to devote himself to eradication of untouchability, temple entry for Dalits and co-dining with them.
Gandhi's fast (pre Poona Pact) shook the country and the vast section of Hindu society started thinking deeply about the horrid practice of untouchability and the discriminatory caste system. Its impact on the country is well reflected by Akshay Mukul, the writer-journalist who has written one of the best books on Gita Press (Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India). He points out, “While Padmaja Naidu called it a 'catharsis' that would cleanse Hinduism of the 'accumulated corruption of centuries', Rabindranath Tagore, who had rushed to see Gandhi after the news of his fast unto death, called it a 'wonder'".
Critical of Gandhi's movement
It was here that the agenda of Gita Press and its founders, Hanuman Prasad Poddar and Jayadayal Goyandka, became clear. They criticized Gandhi’s movement for temple entry and inter-dining with Dalits. In issue after issue Kalyan carried out diatribes against Gandhi’s efforts against caste-varna values. It criticized in no uncertain terms the temple entry by Dalits and the promotion of dining together among different castes. They maintained that Hindu 'shastras' (religious texts) were supreme and the movements launched by Gandhi were in total opposition to that.
Its publications, books apart from the Gita, Ramayan Bhagwat, Vedas, Vishnu Puran were made accessible to broad sections of society at a very cheap cost. It also aimed at non-resident Indians. Its books started coming out in many Indian languages including English.
Its focus was also on opposing women’s equality. Gita Press has come out with many books on the subject. Some of them are: Nari Shiksha (Education of Women) by Hanuman Prasad Poddar, Grahsth Mein Kaise Rahen [How to Lead a Household Life] by Swami Ramsukhdas, Striyon ke Liye Kartawya Shiksha (Education of Duties for Women) and Nari Dharm (Religion of Woman) by Jai Dayal Goyandka apart from a special issue of magazine Kalyan on women. These books have been sold in millions. In a nutshell the teachings in these books are socially regressive and against the values of the Indian Constitution.
The book by Swami Ramsukhdas supports wife-beating as overcoming the sins of the past life. Interestingly Swami advices a rape victim and her husband. “As far as possible, it is better for woman (rape victim) to keep mum. If her husband also comes to know of it, he too should keep mum. It is profitable for both of them to keep quiet.”
Against widow remarriage
There is advice against remarriage as well. “When once a girl is given away in marriage as charity by her parents, she does not remain virgin any more. So how can she be offered as charity to anyone else? It is beastly to remarry her.”
In June 1948 Kalyan stated “The abundance of unmarried women, innumerable abortions, rising divorce rate, women working in hotels and shops in complete disregard to their honor and purity are telling us loudly that Western civilization is a curse on women,” it argued. “The system created by the sages and saints for Indian women at home and in society was endowed with their knowledge.”
As the Hindu Code Bill started being drafted Gita Press publications and founders stood to fiercely oppose the provisions being discussed by saying that these are against scriptures and Indian culture. BR Ambedkar, who was then India's law minister, was the primary target of the criticism. Kalyan had been harsh on him in the past for demanding equality for untouchables, and this time, too, the article made highly disparaging, casteist remarks about him.
“Until now, the Hindu public was taking his words seriously, but now it is confirmed that the Hindu Code Bill, introduced by Ambedkar, is the most important part of his conspiracy to destroy Hindu dharma. It would be a matter of great humiliation, shame for the Hindus and a blot on Hindu dharma if a man like him remains their law minister.”
Promoted Brahmanical values
The questionable role of the founders of Gita Press in Gandhi's murder in 1948 led to their arrest. At that time industrialist Ghanshyam Das Birla, who was very close to Mahatma Gandhi, said famoulsy that while Gandhi has been practicing "Sanatan Hindu Dharma", the Gita Press founders are promoting "Satanic Hindu dharma"!
This organization was also part of the plot of installing Ram Lalla idols in the Babri Mosque, cow protection movements, Ram Temple movement and asking its readers to vote for the BJP in elections.
Gita Press is the intellectual and cultural base on which conservative Hindu values, mainly Brahminical values, are promoted, and it provides the base for Hindu nationalist politics by promoting and propagating a narrow, exclusive version of Hinduism. Gandhi’s Hinduism was, on the other hand, humane and inclusive and he evolved with time to live the humanistic aspects of religion. Gita Press, through its magazine Kalyan and innumerable books, opposed Gandhi’s Hinduism, Gandhian values of communal harmony and Gandhi’s politics. We are living in times where Gandhi’s moral principles and values are being turned upside down under the cloak of his own name. There is a dire need for us to bring back national culture and values of amity, caste and gender equality.
(The writer, a former IIT Bombay professor, is Chairman, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai. Views are personal.)