Vrindavan, 2016.01.10 ( DJ): Five hundred years ago, before there was any printing technology, books were produced by professional or amateur copyists who wrote with pen and ink on various different surfaces —- hand made paper, palm leaves or birch bark, materials which were often hard to come by. So it is not surprising that most traditional libraries did not have proper catalogues.
But new discoveries at the Vrindavan Research Institute shows that such catalogues were being made and the information they contain might shed further light on many aspects of Vaishnava scholarship and the availability of texts.
Whenever we go to a library to look for a particular book, it is necessary to consult the catalogue, which lets you know whether such a book is in the collection and where to find it. Nowadays this is perfectly common, but five hundred years ago, even when paper was hard to come by, keepers of Vrindavan’s ashram libraries also made lists of titles held in their possession.
The Vrindavan scene was one of great literary productivity, especially in Braj Bhasha, but the foundations of Vaishnava doctrine are based primarily on Sanskrit texts like the Bhagavata Purana. Sadhakas would make new copies of books from the library or would borrow them for their own study.
The importance of ancient catalogues
Lists of library holdings are very important for researchers who study manuscripts, since they are a key to knowing what books were available where and to whom. Even so, they are not easy to find. In the literary world, the list compiled by Kavindracharya from the Shah Jahan period is particularly well known. But it is thought that the lists compiled by the devotees of the Gaudiya Vaishnava school in Vrindavan are more valuable, since they date from the earlier Akbar period.
Scholar of Braj culture Pragati Sharma has been making a cultural study of the rare lists that have been found in Vrindavan’s manuscript libraries. According to her, such lists which are found here and there from this period often give valuable insights and information about many things.
The Puranas came from Benaras
One manuscript called “Vaishnava Das’s commentary” (Vaiṣṇavadāsa kau ṭippaṇī) to Bhakta-kalpa-druma tells a story that Jiva Goswami once approached the Patshah Akbar to ask for favors, namely paper and ink for the Radha Damodar library. Along with this, however, it is said that he also asked for manuscripts of several Puranas to be sent from Benares. And indeed the request bore fruit because a list of these Puranas dated 1654 (Vikram, i.e., 1598 CE) has been found in the papers of the Radha Damodar library, which was one of the main contributors to the VRI collection.
Research Institute to publish them
The collecting and cataloguing of the hand-written manuscripts held in the libraries and collections of old temples and monasteries is something that the Vrindavan Research Institute has been doing since its founding in 1968. It is part of the Indian National Mission for Manuscripts.
On the occasion of this year in which Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s historical visit to Vrindavan is being commemorated, the VRI is working on publishing many of the rare manuscripts held in its collection.
Vrindavan Research Institute director Dr. Mahesh Narayan Sharma says that the VRI has planned various activities for the next year to commemorate Mahaprabhu’s visit to Braj. One of the items on the program is the publication of manuscripts held in the Institute’s collection. Research scholar Pragati Sharma has been collection the lists and they will also be published.