On a spiritual trail, publishing house builds a storehouse of ancient wisdom

  • Manoj Sharma, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Apr 21, 2016 08:13 IST
RP Jain runs Motilal Banarsidass with his four brothers. His son and nephew, the fifth generation of the family, have joined the business that started in 1903. (Saumya Khandelwal/HT Photo)

RP Jain talks of his family business with a missionary zeal — but then his family firm Motilal Banarsidass (MLBD) has been on a ‘spiritual trail’ for more than 113 years.

It is one of India’s oldest surviving publishing houses and the largest publisher of Indology books. Along with Gorakhpur-based Geeta Press, MLBD is one of the few old publishers that still have their own printing press.

Jain’s office-cum-bookshop on Bungalow Road in north Delhi is a storehouse of treasures from India’s ancient pool of wisdom. A pleasant fragrance from a burning incense stick welcomes you, the walls are adorned with miniature paintings, and the shelves are stacked with books on Sanskrit, philosophy, religion, astrology, ayurveda and yoga. “You can find our books in any reputed institute in the world where Indology is taught,” says Jain.

Interestingly, Jain’s family were jewellers in the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh before they turned to bookselling and publishing in 1903. “Our ancestor Lala Bute Shah was the chief jeweler in the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and tested the Kohinoor diamond when it was in the custody of the Sikh king,” says Jain.

The family’s tryst with publishing began when Motilal Jain, great grandfather of RP Jain, decided to convert his personal library into a bookshop. “It soon became famous for its excellent collection of Sanskrit books, encouraging the family to get into publishing,” says Jain, a director in the family business where his four brothers are partners.

His son and nephew, the fifth generation of the family, too have joined the business. “Our company can be a case study for business schools on how family enterprises can run successfully for generations without divisions,” says Jain.

In 1937, the Lahore-based company opened a branch in Patna. “Though there was no market in Patna for such books, we did so at Dr Rajendra Prasad’s suggestion. He was a family friend, who became the first President of India,” says Jain. In 1948, after Partition, the family moved to Patna after their office in Lahore was burnt during the riots. In 1951, the Jains shifted to Varanasi and set up a bookshop-cum-office.

“We decided to move to Varanasi because it was the centre of Indology, and our business grew fast there. We finally moved to Delhi in 1958 so that we could expand our exports, ” says Jain, whose company has 150 employees. One of them, Sudama Prasad, is 90 and has been with the company since he was 15.

Exports constitute 50% of MLBD’s sales with the maximum demand coming from UK and the US. “Ironically, a lot of our Indology books became popular in India after they did well in the West. 55% of our authors are westerners. I am afraid Indians will soon have to go to western countries to learn Sanskrit.”

Talking of the firm’s best-selling books, Jain says people have had unwavering faith in astrology through generations. In the past few years, books on yoga, ayurveda and vedic mathematics have been bestsellers. “There is a renewed interest in vedic maths. Recently, we partnered with James Glover, a London-based well-known proponent of vedic mathematics who conducted a series of workshops in schools in Delhi and NCR,” says Jain.

So, what exactly is vedic mathematics? “It is a traditional knowledge system that helps one solve complex mathematical problems through simple means. In vedic maths, there are 16 simple sutras (formulae) and 13 sub-sutras. Some schools in England such as St James have been teaching vedic mathematics and Sanskrit for years,” says Jain.

MLBD’s customers include students, research scholars and academicians from both India and abroad. Among MLBD’s well-known publications are 100 volumes of the Mahapuranas, “Sacred books of the East” in 50 parts edited by Max Mueller, the “Ram Charit Manas” with Hindi and English translation, the Manusmriti in 10 volumes and the Sanskrit lexicon.

Books on spiritualism and astrology by US-based David Frawley, also known as Pandit Vamdev Shashtri, are among the best-sellers. “My main field of study is Vedic and Sanskritic traditions, extending from yoga and ayurveda to Vedanta. I believe that MLBD, which published my books on ayurveda, helped promote ayurveda at a time when it was little known in the West and ignored in India,” says Frawley. The publishing house organizes seminars, workshops and lectures on heritage and Indian culture across the country. Most of them are conducted by foreigners.

MLBD has bookshops in Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Vanarasi and Patna. The one in Bangalore does maximum business after Delhi. But why is an IT city is so much interested in Indology books? “Maybe it is because a lot of IT professionals are stressed out these days and are turning to spirituality, yoga, meditation and ayurveda for emotional succor,” says Jain.

Now the publishing house, which has so far been popular with scholars and academicians, is turning its attention to children. “We have, for the first time, published a series of Vedic mathematics and Sanskrit books for children and will soon be publishing new tales for children from our scriptures, especially from Buddhism and Jainism,” says Jain.

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