Hanuman Prasad Poddar, a visionary and a devout Hindu, embarked on a remarkable journey that would forever change the landscape of religious literature in India. Born into a prosperous Bengali family in Ratangarh, Rajasthan, Poddar received a traditional education and imbibed the rich cultural heritage of old India. His exposure to wider India, cosmopolitan Kolkata, and the oppressive British Raj led him to a profound realization of India's pitiful state and the urgent need to instill pride in Indians about their culture and value system.
Early Life and Education in Ratangarh, Rajasthan
Hanuman Prasad Poddar was born into a Marwadi Agrawal trading family in Ratangarh, Rajasthan. From a young age, he received a traditional education and was particularly encouraged by his father to learn English, as the family had business interests in Kolkata. Poddar's upbringing in a family with a traditional outlook and rich cultural heritage laid the foundation for his future endeavors.
Trading Ventures and Exposure in Kolkata
As a teenager, Poddar was married and began working in his father's trading business. He traveled extensively across northern India, gaining valuable experience and eventually taking charge of the family's Kolkata office. Kolkata, the capital of the British Raj, exposed Poddar to new ideas and a diverse mix of people from all over India. This exposure, along with his deep knowledge of Indian culture, intensified his awareness of India's plight and the urgent need for change.
Turning Point: Encounter with Bengali Revolutionaries
Poddar's life took a dramatic turn when he came into contact with young Bengali revolutionaries in Kolkata. The hostel where he resided became a safe haven for these revolutionaries, leading to his arrest and imprisonment by the British authorities. Although not directly involved in any violent acts, Poddar's association with the nationalist revolutionaries opened his eyes to the cause of Indian nationalism and the need to fight for India's freedom.
The Birth of Gita Press: A Revolutionary Idea
While in prison, Poddar found solace in studying the Bhagavad Gita. Upon his release, his love for the Gita continued to grow, and he became inspired by the writings of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and other scholars. Poddar was disheartened by the lack of easily accessible and affordable copies of the Gita, especially compared to the widespread distribution of Bibles. This realization led him to establish Gita Press in Gorakhpur in 1923, with the mission to edit, finance, and mass-print thousands of copies of the Bhagavad Gita at a nominal cost.
Overcoming Challenges: Gita Press' Expansion and Impact
The early years of Gita Press were not without challenges. Initial attempts at printing the Gita resulted in numerous errors, leading Poddar to take matters into his own hands. With the support of his cousin, Jaydayal Goenka, they established their own printing press in Gorakhpur. Gita Press expanded its publications to include the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Upanishads, and Puranas, translating them into Hindi and several other languages. The high-quality printing and affordable prices made these sacred texts accessible to Hindus across India.
A Hub of Scholarship and Cultural Exchange
Gita Press became a melting pot of scholars from different regions of India, working on translations and contributing to the publication of religious texts. Poddar's vision extended beyond Hindi, with translations of important works from Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Bengali, Marathi, and Gujarati. The press also showcased religious art from various parts of India, fostering cultural exchange and preserving heritage.
Advocacy for Hinduism and Social Issues
Poddar was not only dedicated to publishing religious texts but also actively engaged in advocating for Hinduism and addressing social issues. He voiced his concerns about the policies of the Indian National Congress and engaged in debates with Mahatma Gandhi on interpretations of the Gita. Gita Press played a significant role in promoting Gauraksha (cow protection) and working towards the eradication of untouchability.
Collaboration with Gorakh Matha and Preservation of Heritage
Gita Press formed a close collaboration with the Gorakh Matha, with the presiding head of the matha also acting as the protector of the press. The press also established an archive to preserve over 6,000 manuscripts of various granthas in multiple languages. Additionally, Gita Press curated a museum that showcased religious artworks from different regions of India, ensuring the preservation of India's rich cultural heritage.
Rise of ‘Kalyan’
Some stories suggest it was the idea of Ghanshyam Das Birla - the thought of publishing a monthly magazine focusing on Hindu matters occurred to the cousins Goenka and Poddar. Under Poddar’s editorship, the first issue of कल्याण was published in 1926.While Gita Press was and is not for profit, thanks to the business acumen that came naturally to the two Marwari cousins, coupled with Dharma at heart, within the first 5 years in operation, Gita Press spread out into a successful large catalogue and a vast distribution network.
Legacy of Hanuman Prasad Poddar
Editor, Author, and Spiritual Guide: Hanuman Prasad Poddar, affectionately known as Bhaijee, left an indelible mark on the literary and spiritual landscape of India. As the editor of the religious magazine "Kalyan," he wrote extensively on spiritual and value-oriented subjects in Hindi and English. His translations of Upanishads, Puranas, and other scriptures struck a balance between linguistic accessibility and philosophical depth. It is said that he had direct divine intervention while seeking answers to his doubts about various deities.
Hanuman Prasad Poddar's unwavering dedication to Indian culture, his profound understanding of the Bhagavad Gita, and his entrepreneurial spirit led to the creation of Gita Press. With its affordable publications and widespread distribution, Gita Press revolutionized the accessibility of religious literature for millions of Hindus. Poddar's legacy continues to inspire generations, emphasizing the importance of preserving cultural heritage, fostering scholarship, and nurturing spiritual values in society.