The Gita Press of Gorakhpur brought piety to the Hindu masses. Governance Now visits the press in the times of muscular Hindutva
Ishita Mishra | November 2, 2017 | Gorakhpur
The Gita Press is synonymous with Hindu religious texts: its cheap editions of the Bhagwad Gita, and equally its Hanuman Chalisa, have reinforced the piety of devout Hindus. Many use them in daily prayers or to seek religious wisdom. The press also publishes Kalyan, a magazine on spiritual matters. Through such means, the Gita Press, based in Gorakhpur and founded in 1923, has influenced the minds of Hindus of a certain bent – orthodox, believing in the varna system, and with strong notions of ideas such as Hindu purity and Hindu pride.
Gorakhpur is also the stronghold of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, who is the mahant of the Gorakhnath math and temple of the Nath sect, and a proponent of a hardline Hindutva. The math and the press have influenced, to an extent, the outlook of the Hindu majority that shaped the BJP’s peculiar form of Hindutva and brought the party to power at the centre and in UP. It is in this light that we take another look at the Gita Press.
The signs of the regime change – and a rising majoritarian sentiment – are already in evidence on the streets of Gorakhpur. When I ask a cycle-rickshawala to take me to the Miyaan Bazaar area, where the Gita Press is located, he won’t go. Another rickshawala, who’s wearing a skullcap, shouts out to me that I should ask the fellow to take me to Maya Bazaar instead. Miyaan Bazaar; Maya Bazaar. One place; two names. Miyaan Bazaar was what it has been known as for decades; Maya Bazaar is what people say Yogi Adityanath has decreed it should be known as. Five times the Yogi has been elected MP from Gorakhpur. Everyone knows of his darbars at the math, at which he settles disputes, gets government work done for petitioners by putting in a word or sending a personal request – and, it seems, even decides unofficially what people should call places in the town.
At the press
“We call it Maya Bazaar, they call it Miyaan Bazaar. The place is the same...hardly matters,” says Devidayal Agarwal, a trustee of the Gita Press, glossing over the matter. His father, Baijnath Agarwal, too is a trustee of the press, a unit of the Gobind Bhawan Karyalaya. Since inception, the press gained popularity through its Hindi translation of the Bhagwad Gita, sold cheap as gutka (or pocket) editions. Translations in English and 15 other languages came later. Besides the Gita, the most popular publications from the press are the Hanuman Chalisa and Tulsidas’s Ramcharita Manas. Sales over the years have crossed more than 650 million books.
The Gita Press building looks more like a painted temple, with vimanas, kalashes, and paired shikhars. Though made of brick and cement, it looks as if it were made of wood lacquered thick in deep maroon, white, ochre and some blue. There are images of Hindu gods and goddesses. Around the building are small shops selling material used for puja. There is a shopping complex adjacent to the building, where there are some bookstores and shops selling khadi. The press itself has a big shop selling its publications. Security at the press is high. There were almost half a dozen uniformed and un-uniformed guards at the entrance who ensure that no one enters without clearance. Vehicles are thoroughly checked too. CCTV cameras have been installed and manager LM Tiwari keeps an eye on the monitors in his office. For years, Ramdhun has been played all day at the building. Earlier, a group of singers would sit on the terrace and the sound would waft throughout the building. These days, though, the sound is from an audio system.
“It cleanses the soul. It’s a universal truth that if you hear Ramnaam continuously, it opens the doors of heaven to you,” says Devidayal Agarwal, who has an air-conditioned cabin on the premises. Rest of the rooms make do with fans, some even without that.
The big idea
The Gita Press was founded by Hanuman Prasad Poddar, Jaya Dayal Goyandka and Ghanshyam Das Jalan for promoting the principles of Sanatana Dharma. The aim of the nonprofit organisation was to make available Hindu holy texts on a large scale, in India and abroad, and at prices the man on the street could afford. The translations are simple; some would say simplistic. But that is probably the reason they have been lapped up in the millions.
The trustees are transparent about the aims, now as well as during the foundation days. “The need of a right way for spiritual salvation, which is a prerequisite for social reform, was the inspiration for the Gita Press. The books we publish show the right path to reaching salvation, and we combine this with social guidance on all aspects and forms of human life,” says Baijnath Agarwal, now 84, who has been associated with the press since his twenties. He is convinced that the phenomenal sales are proof that their books are “really good”. He says, “Our books continue to provide spiritual advice with moral guidelines to people throughout the world. We were never in loss and never faced any other hurdle. It’s obvious we are doing good and this is why we are widely accepted.”
Trustees show the same confidence in Yogi Adityanath as chief minister: they feel his spiritual background, his Gorakhpur connection, and ascetic lifestyle will help inculcate moral and cultural values among youth. “It is lamentable that the current generation lacks insight about our ancient culture and religion,” says Baijnath Agarwal. A keen eye on business, he says, the yogi’s influence would also translate into more demand for books such as those published by the Gita Press.
In 2015, the Gita Press was in the news because of a month-long strike. Workers complained of poor wages, poor work conditions and misbehaviour by the managment. The strike began when 12 staffers were suspended and the contracts of some workers were suspended for alleged indiscipline and assaulting a supervisor. “The workers demanded revocation of the suspensions and terminations,” says Manoj Kumar, a senior journalist and social activist, among the first to report on the strike.
When meetings between the staff and management failed to resolve the issue, there was mud-slinging from both sides. The management claimed that some anti-national, anti-Hindu forces were out to destroy the legacy of the press and had provoked the workers. The workers, on the other hand, said they were subjected to extreme humiliation. There was bad press, and Yogi Adityanath is said to have intervened to settle matters between the authorities and the workers.
“Now there are no labour issues, and the 400-odd employees, including 200 permanent staffers, are working in harmony,” says Radheshyam Khemka, editor of Kalyan and one of the trustees of the press. “Some people had issues related to permanency of their jobs and wages but all that has been resolved.” He says the workers are all back, happy to work.
He explains that the organisation is unable to hire workers on a permanent basis because it is run on the lines of a voluntary group. “Our products are sold at extremely low rates,” he says. “An NGO works with volunteers, not permanent staff. The workers were always aware they will not get the perks of the private sector, and they agreed to work.”
That may be true. But former employees have a different story to tell. Says Arvind Kumar Gupta, who quit after working at the press for a decade, “I left because life was pathetic with the wages I got. The work atmosphere was bad and the management use to make us sit home six-seven days a month. We have schoolgoing kids, we have medical bills, we need to eat. Is it possible to manage all that in the Rs 300-400 I earn per day when they let me work for only 20-24 days a month?” Gupta now runs a small fast-food business from his home in old Gorakhpur.
Gopal Shukla, who lost his job after the strike, had worked at the press for 11 years. He now survives on income from his farm. “The owners used to say we are doing the work of God. Then why does God only make it profitable for the owners? Why doesn’t Lord Krishna improve the lot of the poor workers?”
Even at the labour office, their opinion seems to be in favour of the press. Siaram Sharma, assistant labour commissioner for Gorakhpur, says a departmental report on the Gita Press case has been sent to the labour court, where the case is pending. “Gita Press is a reputed organisation,” he says. “All this was done to defame it. If workers have problems, they weren’t tied, they could have switched jobs. There are a few bad elements, otherwise workers are happy.”
For a publishing house, the designations here are rather strange. “Though the organisation deals with content generation and publishes books, those who work here are deemed mere factory workers,” says Manoj Kumar. “Even an editor is a labourer and so is the one who binds books. All this is just to save money. Because, if they improve the designation, they will have to raise the pay.”
KP Pandey, who was proof-reading a copy of Hanuman Chalisa, says he’s happy to work at the press. But he says he wouldn’t want his children to work there. “I struggled all my life. I want a better life for my son and daughter.”
An elderly worker who was mixing colours for the latest edition of Kalyan says, “I’ve worked for God for almost 40 years, but by the tenth of every month, I am living hand to mouth.” He’s officially a book-binder, and is classified as a semi-skilled worker despite the years he has put in. No, he wouldn’t want his children to join the press. The trustees’ children, however, readily join the press. As trustees, or in senior positions.
As a senior employee remarked, “According to God, you should be spiritual from within and worldly outside, but here people are spiritual from the outside and worldly from within.”
Dreams of gods
One of the biggest draws to the Gita Press is the Leela Chitra Mandir, a museum of some 2,300 handmade paintings depicting mainly the life of Lord Ram and Lord Krishna. It was inaugurated by Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first president of India.
The paintings, all made using natural colours, are apparently the vision of Hanuman Prasad Poddar, known as ‘Bhaiji’. It is said that Poddar, who used to write in Kalyan under the pen-name Shiv, would meet gods in his dreams. The press had three artists during his time, and he would describe his vision in detail to them. They would prepare sketches based on what he said, and the one he thought most resembled his dream would be turned into a final painting. “All the faces of the gods and goddesses you see in the books of the Gita Press are the vision of Bhaiji,” says LM Tiwari, who works at the museum.
The paintings are displayed on the pillars holding up the mammoth roof of the museum. Some are displayed in columns, some in rows, some on tables, and some in frames. One of the unusual paintings is called ‘Vriksha Latadi Mein Vanvaasi Shriram’. At first sight, there’s a tree covered with vines; after searching a bit, one might find a hidden image of Lord Ram. “It takes five-six seconds to find the image, but most people fail the test,” says the man who is taking me around.
Many of the paintings have a story to tell or evoke some humour. For instance, ‘Prem Unmad’ shows Yashoda tying a cow for milking. But she’s so transfixed by the sight of a baby Krishna that she’s actually tethering a bull instead of a cow. Other paintings are meant evoke piety or inspire. Recently, the paintings have been digitised. Another sign of modernisation at the press is that it has obtained an imported printing and binding machine costing Rs 11 crore. “We have to upgrade ourselves with technology,” says Tiwari.
Many people, including those in Gorakhpur, are of the belief that the mindset hasn’t really changed. An undercurrent of the casteism that marks out orthodox Hinduism runs through the Gita Press too. “The same was the ideology of Jaya Dayal Goyandka and Hanuman Prasad Poddar,” says Manoj Kumar. “They were against Gandhi and Ambedkar’s efforts to uplift dalits. They were against the upper castes dining with dalits and letting dalits enter Hindu temples.” At the press, however, a letter from Mahatma Gandhi praising its efforts is proudly displayed to visitors.
No Muslim or dalit works at the press. Similar attitudes to women prevail. Says trustee Baijnath Agarwal, “Women and girls need to be protected. They are so soft and innocent that they can get hurt easily. So it is advisable that they should be at home, do household chores and manage home. To earn is the job of a man. What is wrong?”
Asked if he is for the education of women, Baijnath Agarwal says he doesn’t support the present education system – whether for boys or for girls. “Education today is only geared towards making people capable of earning. But it lacks moral and spiritual values,” he says. So what does he prescribe?
Of course he does. “Hindus must all make their children read the publications of the Gita Press.”
(The story appears in the November 15, 2017 issue)
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