Thursday 21 September 2023

Prabuddha Bharata: 125 Years Young!

WAY BACK IN THE closing decade of the 19th century, India lay prone for a millennium, trampled upon by for- eign hordes, and had come almost to the brink of losing its past, its message of universal harmony, and its united endeavour to step towards the noons of the future. There were lone voices speaking helplessly of the past dawns, and these memories were becoming dim with the intro- duction of Macaulay's Minute. But that was the darkest period before dawn when a few hero- warriors of the spirit appeared as deliverers, defying all the calculations of the foreign oppressors who wished to wipe out India's priceless heritage based on Sanatana Dharma. The flag of Mother India was hoisted by the brave youth of the land. Foremost among them was Swami Vivekananda.

Swamiji's achievements in this sphere defy a complete enumeration. There was nothing big or small that did not shine brilliantly with his golden touch-even a Journal to be published in the English language, a language that was still a stranger to most of the population. But he never entertained any doubt regarding this aspect. When a few enthusiastic, educated young men in Chennai who were drawn to him, wrote to him to show the way to help India return to her ancient glory, prompt was his reply: "Start an English journal!" Yes, this would re-educate the English educated Indians about their heritage. and they would carry the message all over India that the nation was now awake, and would never allow its past to die. The future of the world was dependent upon Sanatana Dharma, the Eternal Religion, which has been saying from time im- memorial in its sacred scriptures: "Sarve janäh sukhino bhavantu". may all be happy. India will awake from its present stupor, and recognise the true treasures of the nation: not gold mines and precious stones but its priceless heritage of a unique culture, one that defies time and the forces of darkness, a chiranjeevi samskṛti, the eternal culture.

Chennai proved to be the seedbed where events moved swiftly. At a time when commu- nication between India and the West was not easy, planning for the journal was taken up, and the Swami's steady lessons of self-confidence found ready listeners. A Prospectus was sent to like-minded people. Welcome letters were re- ceived. The President of the Mahabodhi Society, H Dharmapala, even sent the first year's sub- scription of one pound with a blessing: 'May its mellifluous fragrance purify the materialistic at- mosphere of the fallen India! Your efforts will be crowned with success and "Prabudhdha Bharata" will surely awaken the lethargic sons of Bharata Varsha.' The journal came out in July 1896. The editor was the young writer, B R Rajam Aiyar.

There is a popular saying in Indian tradition: "Sreyamsi bahu vighnani" there will be many obs- tacles while doing good. This especially turned out to be true for Prabuddha Bharata. Even as the journal was being received with widespread excitement, and was publishing enthusing infor- mation about Swami Vivekananda's victorious march, making Vedanta a household word in the West, the brilliant editor who had taken up the responsibility of giving a shape to the journal as advised by Swamiji, and was filling up the pages with significant articles as also coaxing others to take up their pens for this holy pilgrimage, Rajam Aiyar passed away at the very young age of twenty-six on 13 May 1898. The June issue car- ried the unhappy news and published articles in his memory. The July 1898 issue did not appear.

But Swamiji was an intrepid warrior in the battlefield of life. By now he had returned from America. As Sister Nivedita said, he had a special love for this journal that he had named, and was very happy at the way it was planned and being published. Immediately, he went to work. He asked his disciple, Captain J H Sevier to take up the task of publishing the magazine with Swami Swarupananda as the editor. Prabuddha Bharata, relocated thus at Almora where Captain Sevier lived, came out with the August 1898 issue, flagged off by Swami Vivekananda's poem, "To the Awakened India':

Once more awake!
For it was sleep, not death to bring thee life,
And rest to lotus-eyes, for visions
Daring yet. The world in need awaits, O Truth,
No death for thee!'

This blessings of the Swami that the journal be a 'chiranjeevi; immortal' has borne fruit, and Prabuddha Bharata has been serving the world of serious and purposive Indian journalism in a very big way.

How has Prabuddha Bharata been a beacon for a century and more in a land where usually English journals do flash as meteors but are not able to sustain themselves for long? Even before Prabuddha Bharata, there were journals like Indu Prakash, Haris Chandra's Magazine, Mook- erjee's Magazine, and The Madras Review. Ideal- ists all over India, who had mastered the English language because of the British thrust in English- oriented education, turned to publishing peri- odicals, hoping to educate their countrymen in gathering the new breeze from abroad, and also. to strengthen themselves to face the foreigner. A millennium earlier, Sanskrit had been a com- mon language for all India. Now the regional languages had made big advances. Presently, it appeared as though English could take the place of knitting the country together.

Already, the First War of Indian Independence referred to as the Sepoy Mutiny by the British rulers had sowed the seeds of patriotism in the Indians who had so far remained divided into: various minor kingdoms and principalities. The public recognised a powerful weapon in the English language journals for spreading ideas quickly all over India at the same time. Mere rail traffic was enough for them to get these journals (most of them monthlies) to all parts of the country where they were read by educated Indians who translated the important features into the regional languages for publication. Most of these journals. were brought out by idealists who could eke out some funds for them with great difficulty. Occasionally, there were intelligent patrons. Hence, no page was wasted in unnecessary news-talk.

The Mahratta founded by Bal Gangadhar Tilak in 1881 was a political journal. It has survived to this day, but it is no more just a political quarterly, but an academic, peer-reviewed journal that deals with a variety of topics tuned to changing times like Ayurveda, Sanskrit, Mass Communications, and Hotel Management. For the rest, politically inspired journals like Bande Mataram (1906-10) and Young India (1919-31) could not go on because of British repression or lack of financial support. And yet these English journals had not been published in vain. Ast Rahul Sagar who has worked tirelessly in preparing a new database of pre-Independence

Indian periodicals from 1857-1947 rightly says :
The great purpose of these periodicals was to foster a national conversation about what kind of country and society India was and should become. Because they were published in the English language they could, and were, read throughout the country. Thus, they had an im- pact and a reach that could not be matched by vernacular periodicals.(2)

Politics apart, there were also English journals that chose certain areas of life for their major thrust: these included philosophy, literature, and India's religious heritage. Such journals have had a slightly better chance for survival thanks to the help of an institution or the Princely States. Of the journals completely devoted to philosophy, two readily come to mind: Prabuddha Bharata inspired by Swami Vivekananda and Arya (1914- 21) edited by Sri Aurobindo. Their style of reaching out to the reader was quite different. Their major subjects were the Vedas, Vedanta, and the Bhagavadgita. Nevertheless, they have become reference-points for the common reader and re- searcher to this day. Both of them have drawn copiously from the lifegiving waters of Sanatana Dharma. Both have influenced generations of readers. Prabuddha Bharata continues to be published till today. As for Arya, almost all the essays published in it as serials have become classics such as 'The Life Divine, "The Synthesis of Yoga, "The Foundations of Indian Culture' and 'Essays on the Gita.

Hence, today, in the publishing history of English journals in India, Prabuddha Bharata remains unique. Swamiji, when he gave the name, assured us that we were in awakened India already. A nation that was awakened will not go to sleep again. Some regular education in their peerless past was all that was : needed for Indians: their philosophy, literature, culture, and religious amity. Since their heart was in the right place when this much-needed, well-planned education was given in the manner it should be, the particles of rust present in the minds of Indians would be dusted away.

Swamiji was clear that this educational syl- labus, though very serious in intent, would have to mix the elements properly in a journal that would please all age-groups. His advice was clearly listened to by the highly-educated young admirers in Madras: P Aiyasami, G G Narasim- hacharya, B V Kamesvara Iyer, and B R Rajam Aiyar. Vedanta would be the central pole: human unity and religious tolerance would be an abid- ing oxygen; the spiritual heritage of India as hymnology, Shastras, Itihasas, Puranas, and folk- lore will be presented shorn of all hypocrisy and ambiguity. And, politics would have no entry into its sacred portals guarding the life-enno- bling presence of Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi and Sri Ramakrishna. In essentials, no editor has placed any drastic change in this policy until today. There lies the secret of Prabuddha Bharata's endurance and the maternal way in which the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission have backed this journal.

For, every one of the issues is a lesson in selfcontrol and endurance during each terrible trial. The journal was just five years old when there came the crucial test: the unexpected passing away of Swamiji. Yes, he had been ill but seemed to be recovering. On the morning of 4 July 1902, he had meditated for three hours and later in the after- noon had taken a class of three hours on Panini's grammar for the monastic students. He went out for a long walk in the evening. Then he meditated for some time and laid down on his bed before giving up his body. So young for our eyes and experience, but a Sanatana, eternal like Bhishma, he had withdrawn from the physical as though hearkening to the murmur of Mother Ganges flowing near the Belur Math.

The July 1902 issue comes to the eager readers. And this news! The eyes of each reader of the journal, who may have known by now about the Swami's withdrawal, would have been moist as they began reading the 'In Memoriam' with a dignified statement: 'By the death of Swami Vivekananda, we have lost a dear friend, and suf- fered an irreparable loss. 'Dear friend!' How very true! There are leading articles on the Swami from other well-known journals like The Indian Nation, Calcutta, The Advocate, Lucknow, and The Tribune, Lahore. In keeping with the ideals of Swami Vivekananda, karma yoga has no stopping. No time for tears but remembrance and moving forward! 'The Hymn of Creation' from Rig Veda is published in this issue: "That vibrated motionless, one with its own glory.' Going through the issues down the century, one recognises this firm commitment to the Swami's hopes for a vibrant India that is already awake! After the deeply sad announcement in two brief paragraphs that 'the Holy Mother, the divine consort of Sri Ramakrishna, after her life- long good services to the world, left the mortal regions in Mahasamadhi, the issue (August 1920). however, gives detailed information regarding the work done by the Sri Ramakrishna Sevashrama in Allahabad, Puri famine relief work, explanation of Vivekachudamani verses (serial), and other topics on Vedanta and Indian culture.

This is a great lesson gained from the jour- nal by awakened India, and the reason why the journal has been a meaningful part of our life. Again, though the originating spring is the Ram- akrishna-Vivekananda Movement, Prabuddha Bharata has not closed its doors for other areas. of experience in philosophy, life, and literature. From the very first issue, it was made clear that Vedanta was the main portal. This was empha- sised in the opening paragraph of the Prospectus issued some months before the publication of the first issue in July 1896, to assure the edu- cated elite of India that the time had come to recognise the renaissance in Vedantic studies and one should firm up this interest as a permanent spring for the future generations:

In the wonderful disposition of Providence, it has been designed that truths revealed, perhaps for the first time to the sages of our coun- try, and treasured up by them in a monumental form should cross oceans and mountains and spread among Nations utterly foreign to us both in their past and their present lives. The Kantian revolution in the Western philosophy, the outpourings of the Upanishads-intoxicated Schopenhauer, the abstruse metaphysics of the post-Kantians, the revival of Sanskrit study, the Theosophic Movement, the conversion and ac- tivity of Mrs. Besant, the remarkable lectures of Max Muller, the great Parliament of Religions and the timely appearance of Swami Viveka- nanda have all been unswervingly tending to the dissemination of those great truths, Kripananda, Abhayananda, Yogananda, and a whole host of converts to Vedantism are springing up everywhere. Science itself has become a will- ing tool in the hands of our ancient phil- osophy. The word Vedanta is as familiar on the shores of Lake Michigan as on the banks of the Ganges.

The tightly worded Prospectus gained im- mediate listeners and Prabuddha Bharata was born. True to these words, the journal has untiringly kept the flag of Vedanta flying. And Vedanta has so many mansions! Hence, the journal has given space to other philosophical thoughts from the West as well. All this, recorded by innumerable students of Vedanta and scholars from all over the world, carefully checked by a 'panapana' (tradition) of sannyasin-scholars (except for Rajam Aiyar) belonging to the Ramakrishna Order, has given a steady course for the journal.

The Prospectus itself is a study in humility. The journal would be a sort of supplement to the Brahmavadin' which was, of course, all Ved- anta. Brahmavadin had been inspired by Swami Vivekananda and amid financial difficulties, had seen publication till 1914. However, the
Brahmavadin turned out to be an inspiration to start the Vedanta Kesari which has now successfully com- pleted 107 years of publication. Thus the idealism of Swami Vivekananda's admirers and disciples has been a steady glow in Indian journalism.

Prabuddha Bharata, from the first issue itself, learnt an important lesson from Swamiji. Tell meaningful stories to catch the readers young! If today, we proudly raise the flag of this magazine, it is mainly due to the story content in the early issues. Literally, a Katha-Sarit-Sagara (Ocean of Stories) explaining philosophy, the yogas of karma, bhakti and knowledge in an easy manner to make people understand the great values of life! There was the never-failing granary of meaningful stories in the Mahabharata, and there was the rich folklore found all over India. As we move to the next issue, as we walk to the next year, as we gallop to the next decade, the art of story-telling keeps the readers bound to their journal which is a favourite of both young and older readers. These stories come as serials too!

The journal sees to it that peace is as much a reality as war. The First World War rages, but here we read quietly the epistles of Swami Vivekananda, Bhartrihari's Vairagya Shatakam, translations from the Tamil saint-poet Tayumanavar (all of them serials) and just a reference to the Franco-German War in the brief section, "By the Way". No more.

A hundred years of Prabuddha Bharata later, we realise that the story-telling sessions have slowly receded to the background. One rea- son is that Indian children had now a variety of this genre available. A publication series like Amar Chitra Katha and monthlies like Chandamama gave a good fight to literature from abroad and educated them in their great past, a work that had been inaugurated by the Pra- buddha Bharata. The success of Indian publishers of children's books is not this place to deal with, but it is enough to say that the time had come to make Prabuddha Bharata deal more with Indian philosophical writing, critical or creative, in a big way.

Let us take the beginning of the centenary ycar, January 1995. It is a special volume. A San- skrit hymn to Sri Ramakrishna is followed by a delightful musical, "The Universal Gospel. Drawing the needed texts from world scriptures, with music by John Schlenck, this beautiful cre- arion tells us the story of Sri Ramakrishna. One could say, the sheer story-telling of the earlier issues that rang in 1896 (from the month of July) now gets to be innovative, a psychological realm of story-telling. Articles from Swami Bhute- shananda ('Spiritual Life for the Modern Age"), Swami Ranganathananda ('Living Vedanta'), Pravrajika Brahmaprana's sumptuous paper ("Vivekananda's Yoga Technology in a multimedia Age") and many more are all meant for adult readers. The traditional story-telling style of the Indian past has given place to the psychological- philosophical-technological age.

Would that mean science and spirituality will always have to be at the two ends of a pole? Not quite, if one goes by 'Labyrinths of Consciousness, an essay drawn from The Telegraph. There are further riches too in this centenary special issue. Rev. Ananda Maitreya, a doyen among scholars of the Theravada School and one who is also close to the Ramakrishna Movement is interviewed by Pravrajika Brahmaprana to understand how the East meets West in the contemporary world. There is a heart-warming tribute to Swami Vivekananda's impact upon the West by his Chicago speech, yet another musical hailing Swami Vivekananda: "A Mission to the World".

So, as we enter 2021, we realise that Prabuddha Bharata has succeeded in its mission of educating a few generations, and now there is no particular need to tell stories from the Mahabharata and the Puranas. Those who come to Prabuddha Bharata now readily understand their heritage, the unique Sanatana Dharma that has been able to illumine the entire world. The focus shifts to wider areas of achievement by the Indians and Vedanta-inspired personalities from the West. This is reflected in the Review Section which has, from the very beginning, been very educative for the reader. Since there is no 'finale' for a Vedantin's life, Prabuddha Bharata, coming from Mayavati, Himalayas, continues to point out new pathways in Vedanta as also in civilisation. Indeed, it stands tallest not only in age and content but also in an optimistic view of life. Awakened India?

1. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcurra: Advaira Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 4.387-9.
2. See < new-database-of-pre-independence-indian- periodicals-from-1857-1947-reflecrs-a-narion- forging-irs-idenriry-7748851.hrml> accessed oz November 2020.

Dr Prema Nandakumar - Dr Prema Nandakumar is an independent re- searcher, publishing critical and biographical works. She is also a creative writer in Tamil and English, and a recipient of several awards.

(Source : Prabuddha Bharata)


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