In South Kolkata a team of archivists has created a valuable library inspired by Srila Prabhupada’s vision.
By Satyaraja Dasa
The seeds of this important project lie in Srila Prabhupada’s request that his disciples preserve the works of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura.
My journey to India two years ago was punctuated by unexpected discoveries. Usually when I make the pilgrimage I focus on the holiest of holies: I visit Vrindavan, the land of Lord Krishna, in Uttar Pradesh, and Mayapur, the birthplace of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, in West Bengal. I often underestimate or even neglect the cities that get me there – Delhi and Kolkata, respectively. This time, however, Krishna had a different plan. In Delhi I visited Gopala Krishna Maharaja’s many ISKCON temples, opened since Prabhupada’s time with us and inspired by a request Srila Prabhupada himself had made many years ago. In the Chippiwada area of Delhi, I visited the temple where Prabhupada stayed in the early 1960s while publishing his first translations of Srimad-Bhagavatam before leaving for America. In Kolkata I visited Prabhupada’s birthplace in a suburb known as Tollygunge, and the Bhaktivedanta Research Centre (BRC), a deeply inspiring ISKCON project that has the potential to make Gaudiya Vaishnavism’s literary tradition appreciated worldwide. This facility, in fact, became the highlight of my trip.
The unassuming South Kolkata building, donated in 2000 by two ISKCON well-wishers, Madanchand Shamsukha and Geeta Mukherjee Shamsukha, was specifically earmarked to create an extensive Vaishnava library and academic research center. The project was initiated relatively quickly, and with the hard work of BRC’s founders, Hari Sauri Dasa and Pranava Dasa, along with the help of others, including Acyuta Dasa, then head librarian, it soon morphed into a major book- and manuscript-preservation facility as well.
On December 31, 2008, the BRC was officially approved as an ISKCON-Mayapur-affiliated project, and the required space was allocated in the Kolkata building for library and research purposes. Further, on June 30, 2009, ISKCON leaders Jayapataka Swami and Bhakti Caru Swami spearheaded a formal inauguration of the BRC – an elaborate celebration recognizing its potential and blessing its vision as integral to ISKCON’s future.
The seeds of the project can be traced to 1972, when Srila Prabhupada instructed his followers to preserve – with microfiche and other then state-of-the-art equipment – the work of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, which could then be found at the Thakura’s birthplace in Ula Birnagar, Nadia District, West Bengal. Prabhupada sent his disciple Yadubara Dasa, a photographer, to preserve the holdings of the Birnagar library, underlining its importance in a letter to one of his leading devotees in India:
I have asked Yadubara to come there to Birnagar from Bombay for photographing all of the manuscripts in the possession of Lalita Prashad Thakura page by page very completely before it is too late. The pages are in very decrepit condition, so best thing is to request Lalita Prashad if we may take care of them by treating them against insects and storing them in a tight, dry storage place where they may be preserved for future generations of Vaishnavas to see the actual handwriting and words of such great saintly persons. Treat this matter very seriously and thoroughly, and take all precautions to protect this wonderful boon of literatures forever. Yadubara may photograph every page, never mind Bengali or English or any other language, and later we shall see where to send the copies to different places. You also write to Yadubara at Bombay in this connection and request him to join you in Birnagar immediately. I have also written him. These items are very, very priceless and are a great treasure house of Vaishnava lore, so be very careful in the matter and take all precautions to guard them. (Letter to Acyutananda Swami, June 12, 1972)
Thus Prabhupada expressed a strong desire to preserve these and other ancient manuscripts and texts written by previous acharyas, describing these works as a “treasure house of Vaishnava lore.” In fact, he allocated money from his book trust (the BBT) for this purpose, indicating how important it was to him – for rarely would he divert money that could go back into printing his books. Several scholarly disciples began to travel the subcontinent to unearth and photograph ancient manuscripts of the Vaishnava tradition.
In 1975 Prabhupada revisited this subject with several of his early disciples, particularly Ravindra Svarupa Dasa (Dr. William Deadwyler). In that meeting they discussed the possibility of opening a “Vedic University” in Mayapur, which would of necessity, Prabhupada said, include a “first-class library.” In August 1976 Srila Prabhupada similarly told his Bombay Juhu managers to create a Vedic library for the temple there. He said it should contain all his own books, those of all the acharyas, including those of other Vaishnava lineages, as well as the Upanishads, Puranas, and other bona fide spiritual texts. Srila Prabhupada also mentioned an extensive library and research facility in the context of his proposed Temple of the Vedic Planetarium (TOVP) project, now fully underway. Clearly, the library/research center was close to his heart, and he repeatedly spoke about it when addressing the potential of his major projects. It would finally see the light of day in Kolkata.
The BRC Today
“The systematic study of Vaishnava history, philosophy, and cultural heritage has been neglected in India in the past two centuries,” says Pranava Dasa, “and there is a great need to revive and recover some of the great achievements of this ancient tradition. The study of religion in India is now being introduced in colleges and universities on a greater scale than ever before, and there is now scope for emphasizing the study of Vaishnavism.”
This is where the BRC comes in. International scholars and devotees alike are eager to better understand the movement of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, and the BRC works to provide key resources toward that end. Gaudiya Vaishnavism has a strong literary heritage in Sanskrit, but also in Bengali – especially in Bengali, since Bengal is the land of Sri Chaitanya. Placing the BRC in Kolkata was thus a strategic move to fully benefit from centuries of scholarship in the Bengal region, scholarship that has been minutely preserved in rare manuscripts and books still largely available in eastern India and nearby states.
By frequenting book fairs, libraries, and antiquarian collections, the library staff at the BRC has been gathering hard-to-find books and journals for posterity. A recent focus has been traditional commentaries on the Bhagavad-gita in various Indic languages, especially those written by authors in the Vaishnava lineage. Additionally, early translations and editions by Western scholars, such as Charles Wilkins’s first English version (The Bhagavat Geeta – Dialogues between Kreeshna and Arjoon), originally published in 1785, are preserved at the facility. The BRC is also a repository of more recent Gaudiya Vaishnava literature, such as Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad Gita as It Is in fifty-three languages from around the world.
The BRC deems ancient manuscripts as most important, however, and their “manuscript mission” is consequently a prime objective. BRC representatives travel all over eastern India, Vrindavan, and other areas central to Vaishnava practice to digitize and preserve rare Vaishnava manuscripts. Over a thousand manuscripts have been digitized thus far, with over three thousand more carefully catalogued by Bharati Roy, head of the BRC’s manuscript division. She is assisted by associate librarian Ashis Chakraborty, and together they are relentless in preserving these priceless literary gems for the BRC. They are particularly fond of ancient tomes on tree bark (balkal), pulp of cotton (tulat), and both palm and taal leaf.
There is a step-by-step process for preserving these older materials: fumigating (applicable to both books and manuscripts); cleaning by a sophisticated process using acid-free paper; wrapping in cardboard; covering in red cloth (which keeps worms away); using napthalene and other preservation chemicals; and, finally, applying peep oil to the wooden shelf on which the manuscripts are kept.
The core holdings of the library constitute over 17,000 books and 3,000 journals thus far. One example: Through a signed agreement with Sripada B. B. Bodhayana Maharaja, current acharya the Gopinatha Gaudiya Matha, the BRC secured permanent custody of over 3,500 items from the private early–twentieth-century library of Sundarananda Vidyavinoda, one of the main secretaries of Prabhupada’s guru, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura. Pranava Dasa had located and pursued this library for several years during his doctoral research on Sarasvati Thakura, specifically to acquire it for the BRC. This collection alone includes many rare and valuable books, such as the complete original works of Bhaktivinoda Thakura and Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati.
Some specific examples: Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s own handwritten song book, containing 26 songs and poems, including his original Gaura arati song, and complete original collections of all Gaudiya Matha periodicals, such as the daily Nadiya Prakasha (over 40,000 pages), the weekly Gaudiya, the Sajjana-toshani, and the Harmonist. The Last Will and Testament of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, witnessed and signed by four disciples sixteen hours before his passing, is also now owned by the BRC, as is Sarasvati Thakura’s diary from the years 1904-1936, the only known copy in existence.
But the Centre’s holdings go back to earlier centuries as well, often to the very beginnings of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition. One special item among many: Gadadhara Pandita’s Srimad-Bhagavatam, allegedly containing Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s original handwritten comments. This singular, precious item is now on display as a metal plate (using zinc as a medium for preservation), though the original is on tree bark. Unfortunately, the dedicated man who created the zinc-plate copy passed away without completing his effort, but the actual handwriting of Sri Gadadhara and Sri Chaitanya are still a treasure for the eye.
You get a real sense of history at the BRC, with its ancient manuscripts, both palm leaf and printed works, and handwritten documents by stalwarts of the tradition. The current BRC staff, led by assistant librarian Sundara Gopala Dasa and library assistant Sushanto Chakraborty, is now engaged in the painstaking process of scanning every page of every book, document, and handwritten item in its extensive library, ensuring an electronic record of everything in its care. For digitalization and preservation, the BRC purchased a specialized library scanner (a Bookeye 4), designed to protect sensitive, tender documents that can easily fall apart.
Due to the hard work of Sooraj Singh, the general administrative manager, the BRC premises now include seven rooms that have been renovated into comfortable guest quarters, where scholars, students, and visitors can stay while researching various subjects related to Vaishnava dharma, taking advantage of the BRC’s many assets.
Recognition and Partnerships
The BRC’s work is now recognized throughout the subcontinent. For example, on March 15, 2017, Bhale Bharath, a nonreligious sociocultural mission based in Bangalore, conferred on the Centre the Bhale Bharath Award of Excellence. The BRC was honored for its outstanding contribution to preserving and disseminating ancient Indian cosmology, Vedic wisdom, and Vaishnavism.
The Centre works with the academic community. Its closest connection at this point is with its sister institute, the Bhaktivedanta Vidyapith Research Centre (BVRC) at the Govardhana Eco Village in Maharashtra, which has recently affiliated with Mumbai University. The institutes share the same purpose and long-term vision. Gauranga Dasa, the chairman of the BVRC, is now administrative director of the BRC as well, working closely with the academic director, BRC cofounder Pranava Dasa. Hari Sauri Dasa, the other cofounder, continues to be on the board of directors, along with ISKCON Kolkata temple president Dayarama Dasa, an active supporter of the project. Other key staff members who recently joined the team include Balarama Lila Dasa, dean of administration, and Venu Gopaladeva Dasa, dean of finance.
Another close partnership is that of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies (OCHS), directed by Saunaka Ṛshi Dasa. The OCHS contributed in the initial stages of the BRC and continues to do so. OCHS has launched a project in which scholars will research Vaishnava periodicals at the BRC, such as the weekly Gaudiya and the daily Nadiya Prakasha. A group of academics from India, Finland, and the UK are working together on this ambitious project.
Pranava Dasa and the BRC’s dean of academics, Sumanta Rudra, in cooperation with more experienced researchers at Calcutta University, have begun another important project – a Vaishnava encyclopedia in English culled from large numbers of sources in Bengali. Additionally, in the winter of 2018 the BRC co-organized (with Calcutta University) a major conference on the context of Chaitanya Vaishnavism in India. Similar projects are planned for the near future.
Funding, of course, is always welcome. There are many opportunities for patrons who have a deep feeling for Vaishnava philosophy and history to serve the BRC, founded on Srila Prabhupada’s inspiration, with both their hearts and their financial contributions.