The bookworm monks

How the print culture of nineteenth century Bengal provided a base for Srila Prabhupada – an excerpt from a biography of the ISKCON founder-acharya

GN Bureau | June 13, 2022

#Srila Prabhupada   #ISKCON   #religion   #biography   #history   #Bengal   #Hindol Sengupta  
Srila Prabhupada inspecting the Srimad Bhagavatam. (Courtesy: Bhakrivedanta Book Trust)
Srila Prabhupada inspecting the Srimad Bhagavatam. (Courtesy: Bhakrivedanta Book Trust)

Sing, Dance and Pray: The Inspirational Story of Srila Prabhupada Founder-Acharya of ISKCON
By Hindol Sengupta
Penguin Ananda, 368 Pages. Rs 599

When A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada entered the port of New York City on September 17, 1965, few Americans took notice—but he was not merely another immigrant. He was on a mission to introduce ancient teachings of Vedic India to mainstream America. Before Srila Prabhupada passed away at the age of eighty-one on November 14, 1977, his mission was successful. He had founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), colloquially known as the ‘Hare Krishna Movement,’ and saw it grow into a worldwide confederation of more than 100 temples, ashrams, and cultural centers.

‘Sing, Dance, and Pray: The Inspirational Story of Srila Prabhupada’ is the authorized biography of the founder-acharya of ISKCON by Hindol Sengupta. Here is the inspirational story of Srila Prabhupada, the founder of Hare Krishna movement, who emerged as a major figure of Western counterculture, introducing ancient teachings of Vedic India to mainstream America in the mid 20th century attracting everyone from Allen Ginsberg to George Harrison, and millions of followers in more than 100 countries. Prabhupada changed America, and India, and initiated many towards self-realization.
Here is an excerpt from the book:

The Bookworm Monks

It is impossible to tell the story of Srila Prabhupada without talking about books. But the affinity for publishing millions of books, which his order continues even today, does not begin with him.

To understand this story better, we have to jump two generations and come upon a great personality called Bhaktivinoda Thakur.

Bhaktivinoda Thakur (1838–1914), born Kedarnath Datta, was one of the most prominent Gaudiya Vaishnava reformers and spiritual leaders of his time. Educated at Hindu College (also known as Presidency College, which we have encountered earlier in our story as a hub of revolutionary activity), Datta was a close associate with a veritable who’s-who list of literary luminaries of his time—Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and the prolific newspaper man Sisir Kumar Ghosh of Amrita Bazar Patrika. They were the leading lights of the Bengal Renaissance, a period of great cultural progress, which had, as its base, a technological intervention—printing.

To understand what Bhaktivinoda Thakur, and later his son Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur, was trying to achieve is key to comprehending the impulses of Srila Prabhupada, for he built on the pivotal base that was created, first, by Bhaktivinoda Thakur. One of the key features of the Bengal Renaissance was efforts made by its intellectual elite to formulate a new way of talking about the Hindu faith. It developed simultaneously with the arrival of the printing press in Bengal.

‘Printing came to Bengal in 1777 when two presses were set up almost simultaneously, one in Calcutta by James Augustus Hicky (famous for later printing India’s first newspaper, ‘Hicky’s Bengal Gazette’) and another in the small town of Hooghly by Nathaniel Brassey Halhed and Charles Wilkins (famous for printing ‘A Grammar of the Bengal Language’). It is unclear which press was established first.’* []

But what was distinctly clear is that printing transformed many things—literature in the Bengali language, for instance, written and printed, starting with Bankim, and politics, as the age of pamphleteering dawned and, more importantly, religion. Some of the first books printed in these presses were translations in vernacular languages of the Bible, eagerly produced by missionaries. The religious reformists among the Hindus, most of them highly educated, embraced the art of printing with what can only be described as Godspeed.

‘But in 19th century Bengal, more than anything else, the language and its written literature became the object of immense scrutiny, surveillance and debate among the Bengali people and the rulers alike. For the British bureaucracy it was a language that had to be mastered for administrative convenience, and for gaining access to crucial local information. But for the native intelligentsia it became a bearer of Indianness, of cultural identity. In the active intellectual climate that had been stirred up following the encounter with the west, Bengali became the medium of self-expression of a conscious and articulate urban litterati [sic]. With growing, numbers among the literate population, and a prodigious printing and publishing industry, increasingly large reader-writer groups jostled for recognition in the ongoing debates.’* [Anindita Ghosh, ‘Revisiting the ‘Bengal Renaissance’: Literary Bengali and Low-Life Print in Colonial Calcutta’, Economic and Political Weekly, 19–25 October 2002, Vol. 37, No. 42, p 4329]

One of the native intelligentsia participating in this process was Kedarnath Datta, who worked for the British government for most of his life, rising to the level of a district magistrate, but whose lifelong exploration into the life and work of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu would, eventually, lead to a deeper embrace of devotional life and the name Bhaktivinoda Thakur. He had been given this title from the large Vaishnavite community in recognition of his immense scholarly contribution in the scholarly and devotional promotion of Vaishnavite thought. Like others of his intellectual ilk, Bhaktivinoda Thakur chose the path of writing and publishing to spread the word of the divine as he saw it.

He wrote one hundred books including ‘Krishna-samhita (1880), Caitanya-sikshamrita (1886) Jaiva-dharma (1893), Tattva-sutra (1893), Tattva-viveka (1893), and Hari-nama-cintamani (1900). Between 1881 and 1909, Kedarnath also published a monthly journal in Bengali entitled Sajjana-toshani (“The source of pleasure for devotees”)’.† [Ravi M. Gupta (2014), Ravi M. Gupta (ed.), Caitanya Vaiṣṇava Philosophy: Tradition, Reason and Devotion, Burlington, VT: Ashgate]

Bhaktivinoda Thakur understood that in order to revive the movement of Chaitanya and the understanding of the Vaishnavite path would require what could perhaps be called a ‘buy in’ or acceptance, and devotion, from the elite of Bengal, and indeed outside Bengal. He was a pioneer in using what to him was the latest technology— printing and distribution of books—to reach a regional, national and global audience.

He not only wrote and published books on a major scale—certainly unprecedented in the Vaishnavite or perhaps any other Hindu tradition before him—he was also convinced that the message was so powerful that it would speak to people far away from the heartland of Hinduism.

But that is not all. He understood that for him to be taken seriously as a Vaishnavite pioneer, a pathbreaking monk if you will, he needed a source of credibility and the ability to effectively spread the word.

This he achieved through two ways—one, through diligent scouring of the Nabadwip area of Bengal, until he discovered Mayapur as the site of Chaitanya’s birth and proceeding to initiate the building of a temple there, [This temple at Mayapur became in a sense the site of a new Gaudiya Vaishnavite resuscitation, and renaissance.] and through sending out books, not only among the people and intellectuals of Bengal, and other parts of India, but also to Western scholars in England, Canada, Australia and America, to men like philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson and German orientalist Reinhold Rost. His books appeared at Oxford University and McGill in Canada. At Oxford, Sanskrit scholar Sir Monier Monier-Williams, the Joseph Boden Professor of Sanskrit, reviewed a work of Bhaktivinoda Thakur in the journal of the Royal Asiatic Society.[ Ferdinando Sardella (2013), Modern Hindu Personalism: The History, Life, and Thought of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati (reprint ed.), New York, NY: Oxford University Press, pp. 94–96]

Bhaktivinoda Thakur is an important figure to understand because it is he who first defined the ambition of the message of Chaitanya to ring through the streets of the West. Writing in 1882, he noted, ‘When in England, France, Russia, Prussia and America all fortunate persons by taking up kholas [Handheld drums] and karatalas [Cymbals] will take the name of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu again and again in their own countries, and raise the waves of sankirtana (congregational singing of Krishna’s names), when will that day come! Oh! When will the day come when the white-skinned British people will speak the glory of Shachinandana [Another name for Chaitanya] on one side and on the other with his call spread their arms to embrace devotees from other countries in brotherhood, when will that day come!’ [Thomas J. Hopkins; David A. Utz and Peter Gaeffke (eds.), 1984, Identity and Division in Cults and Sects in South Asia: Proceedings of the South Asia Seminar, Philadelphia, PA: Department of South Asia Regional Studies, University of Virginia.]

[Excerpt reproduced with permission of the publishers.]




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