Bibliophilia, the endless passion for books, has represented for centuries a fascinating custom. It could be -ism per se—thereby resulting in the obsessive–compulsive disorder of collecting and hoarding books; however when it serves a broader purpose, love for books can inspire the reader and become a catalyst of social change. B. R. Ambedkar and Ramakrishna Gopal Bhandarakar, two book-lovers and famous social reformers of India are a glaring example of this.
Ambedkar (1881-1956) was an Indian jurist, economist, politician, social reformer, father of Indian Constitution and, perhaps unexpectedly, a Dalit. While u ntouchability in India was officially abolished in 1955, when Untouchability Act—enshrined in Article 17 of Constitution of India was passed by the government, the fact that the status of Dalit still exists in Indian society, however, is a horse of a different color. Today Dalits still stand at the bottom of India’s social structure, often marginalized and socially excluded. There are of course, exception. B. R. Ambedkar is one of those.
With a PHD in economics from both Columbia University and the London School of Economics, he gained fame as a scholar and academic researcher; the second part of his life, on the other hand, was marked by commitment to political activities: he became involved in campaigning for human and political rights (like water satyagraha or social freedom for Dalits) and negotiations for India’s independence, starting Janta newspaper in Marathi language, publishing journals and contributing significantly to the establishment of the state of India. In 1956, he converted to Buddhism initiating mass conversions of Dalits. Observing the photographic chronicle in the Ambedkar memorial, the holistic nature of his social reformation appears glaring, encompassing social, political and human rights, battle for farmers’ right to the land, battle for access to clean water and measures for development and inclusive education. Author of 22 books, reader of more than 22 thousands; he considered books first source of inspiration, and primary catalyst of freedom of mind, which according this thirsty bibliophilist,
“Is the real freedom. A person whose mind is not free though he may not be in chains, is s slave, not a free man. One whose mind is not free, though he may not be in prison, is a prisoner and not a free man. One whose mind is not free though alive, is no better than dead. Freedom of mind is the proof one one’s existence.”
An endless bibliophile devoted to an actual, social change is what bonds together B. R. Ambedkar and Ramakrishna Gopal Bhandarakar (1837-1925). Bhandarakar was a scholar, orientalist, and social reformer, known as the foremost pioneer of scientific Orientology in India we learn during our visit at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute. Founded in 1917, not only does the institute boast the largest collection of ancient manuscripts in Asia; it is still cradle of wisdom and engine of knowledge-making, hosting scholars devoted to meticulous philological work. Here, filigree illustrations are preserved, papyrus rotulus conserved; here, Sanskrit—along with other ancient Indian languages like Sharada, the abugida writing system of Kashmir—is studied, translated, interpreted and kept alive through the editorial work on Mahabharata.
Between the dusty bookshelf of thandarkar Oriental Research Institute’s library, ancient knowledge is perpetuated with the purpose of nourishing today’s mind and of inspiring tomorrow’s thinkers; accomplishing “real freedom” is the ultimate goal—that is, emancipation from stereotypes and prejudices, embrace of wisdom, values and respect.