Maharshi Karve – The Man Behind Maharashtra’s Many Mighty Reforms
Remembering ‘Maharshi’ Karve or ‘Annasaheb’ as he was fondly called, on his birth anniversary.
In my previous article, I had written about Kandukuri Veeresalingam, who pioneered widow remarriage in Andhra Pradesh and also championed women’s education. The late nineteenth century and early twentieth century had seen many reform movements in India, first starting from Bengal, which then began to spread to other states. The Bharat Ratna now has become a bit of a joke, with the considerations being more political, than anything else. But there was a time, when the Bharat Ratna did go to the truly deserving. One among them was Dhondo Keshav Karve, also known affectionately as Annasaheb.
“It is better to light a lamp in the darkness, than curse it” and that is what Karve did. For the 100 odd years of his life on earth, he lit the lamps in the lives of many a child widow, and women, fought for their emancipation. Like a lamp that keeps glowing till the end, giving light to others, Karve lived for others, spread light in their lives and wore himself out slowly.
Dhondo Keshav Karve was born on 18 April 1858 to Keshava Pant and Laxmibai in Ratnagiri district, located in the Konkan. Though an aristocratic, well-off family in the past, they had fallen on hard times, when he was born and were only saddled with debts to pay. Keshava Pant took up a job where he worked for a landlord as a clerk in the small town of Koregaon, in Satara district. Dhondo grew up reading religious works like the Gurucharitre and Shiva Leelamrita in his strictly religious household. Though he grew up amidst poverty and struggle, Dhondo’s mother taught him never to compromise on self-respect. Once, when the Maharaja of Baroda was gifting away cows, along with 10 Rs to every Brahmin, he asked his mother if he could also go and accept. To which his mother replied.
You are not born in a family which seeks gifts! Among your forefathers, there were many learned men, but they never accepted a gift from anybody.
Dhondo began his studies in Murud, a small coastal village in Ratnagiri district, from where he hailed, and it was here that he met his teacher and mentor Vinayak Lakshman Soman. Soman, who was also a nationalist, guided Dhondo in his studies. Soman felt that the villagers should be informed of the happenings in the country and so would make Dhondo read the newspapers aloud at the local temple every evening.
Dhondu wanted to appear for the examination that would enable him to be a teacher. He had two choices, either Mumbai or Satara. Unable to travel all the way by sea to Mumbai, he chose to trek the long route to Satara, that took four days and involved crossing the Sahayadris. When he finally reached Satara, he was not allowed to write the exam, as he was not yet 17 years old. He then wrote it the next year at Kolhapur and passed the exam, by when he was already married to Radhabhai. He then managed to secure a scholarship and continued his education in Mumbai. After his father’s demise, his brother helped him fund his studies. He also gave tuitions to earn some money and after years of struggle, finally, graduated from Elphinstone College in Mumbai in 1884.
When Karve started working, he ensured at least a part of his income was set aside for charity. Karve created a small fund which he used for the development of Murud village, setting up roads there, as well as an English High School. He worked for some time at the Elphinstone High School in Mumbai, but did not like the atmosphere there. He later joined St.Peter’s School, and he would walk to it daily. His wife Radhabai was a great source of support. Karve ensured that boys from his hometown were not deprived of education. One of the many boys who came from Murud, Raghunath Paranjpe, later served as an Indian ambassador to Australia. Radhabhai looked after those boys like her own sons, fed them well and took care of them. Unfortunately, she fell ill and her untimely death dealt a major blow to Karve. On the request of Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Karve went to Fergusson College, Pune, where he joined as a Professor of Mathematics.
Karve was aghast by the treatment meted out to widows those days. Often small girls, hardly 10-12 years old, were married off to 60-70 year old men, and when they died, they were condemned to a life of misery, with their heads shaved, doomed to live alone in a dark room. These unfortunate women were blamed for their fate, as having accumulated the sins of a previous birth. When people asked Karve to marry again, he said “I am a widower, if I marry another time, it shall be a widow only”. To which his friend’s father Balakrishna Joshi replied, “If you have decided to marry a widow only, why not it be my daughter Godubai herself?”. Godubai happened to be the sister of Karve’s closest friend Narhari Pant, and he gladly accepted the suggestion. Godubai was married to Karve, and he changed her name to Anandibai after marriage. However Karve’s act of marrying a widow was not liked by the more orthodox sections, and was the hot topic of discussion in many newspapers. When Karve, along with his wife Anandibai, visited Murud the villagers boycotted him and passed a resolution forbidding everyone from interacting with him. Karve could not even speak to his mother, brother or sister, and Bhikaji was emotionally affected by this. Karve’s mother and brother did not visit his home, even when they came to town, nor was he informed when his mother was seriously ill. The courageous act of marrying a widow came at a terrible personal cost for Karve.
In spite of society’s rejection of Karve, and it’s harsh treatment, he did not develop any bitterness or ill will towards it. He knew that such sufferings had to be borne when one set out to reform the injustice in society. Karve always felt that while society must be reformed, it should be a long, slow, process, instead of trying to push it forcibly. Karve went ahead with his mission of taking care of widows and he set up the Widow Marriage Association. It’s main aim was to provide a platform to those men who wished to marry widows and also to educate public about it. Karve did not believe in just pushing through with reforms. He felt that people also needed to be educated first. He sought to reform society, not destroy it. He wanted to improve it, not bring about further divisions. He also felt that those widows who were casted out, needed to be rehabilitated and in 1896 he set up the Ananta Balikashram Association at Pune. In 1900, this ashram was shifted to Hinge, a small village close to Pune, and many educated ladies like Parvatibhai Athavale, Kashibhai Deodhar volunteered to work there. Many young widows were educated at this ashram, and also given assistance to make them live on their own.
It was not an easy task for Karve as he had to walk to Pune from Hinge every day through over 4 miles of slushy road, come what may. Carrying the articles needed for the ashram on his back, he walked the entire route, every day for around two years, at times even neglecting his own wife and children. He was a “brother” to all the women inmates of the ashram, being there when they were ill or needed encouragement. The heavy work at the Balikashram meant Karve had to take a three-year leave without pay from his post of a Maths Professor at Fergusson. It was at a terrible personal cost for him as his children did not have good clothes, they could not enjoy festivals like others, and even his own wife felt unhappy on this account. Karve himself mentioned in his autobiography:
I always feel sorry that my wife and children suffered hardship because I did not give them sufficient attention. But I had no choice. On a number of days, I walked to the Ashram shedding tears
Orthodox people blamed Karve for destroying the purity of Hinduism. Even worse was the fact that even many so-called reformers did not give him the necessary support. They blamed him for setting up the ashram due to which fewer people came forward for widow remarriage. He was attacked in most newspapers, yet Karve bore all of this with a stoic demeanour.
In 1907, Karve set up the Mahila Vidhyalaya in Pune in order to to spread learning among women. He set up two funds – Brahmacharya and Education – to ensure that the girls did not marry before the age of 20 and that they attended school. Around that time, Karve observed that many missionaries came in the guise of doing social work, and ended up converting people to Christianity. Karve felt that if he created a team of volunteers who would selflessly work for the Balikashram and Vidyalalaya, our society would flourish, and there would be no conversions. Karve’s philosophy was simple – why will people convert to other religions, if we can do the same service to them. And that is when he started the Institution for Selfless Service.
By 1914, Karve left his job at Fergusson and dedicated his entire life to the Institution only. All his earnings would go to the institution, and only that much as was needed for his family would be kept aside. With his wife Anandibai herself looking after the affairs of the Mahilashram, he had all the support needed. In 1915, after reading a pamphlet on a Japanese women’s university, he came up with the idea for an exclusive Women’s University in India. It would have three main ambitions – to educate women and develop their personality, to enable them to play a better role as mothers and wives and to make them active citizens for nation building. Touring Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Karve spoke about his vision for a women’s university and began to raise funds for it. In 1916, the Women’s University was established at Hinge, on the Mahilashram campus. Karve again went all over the country, raising funds and managed to raise 2 lakh rupees. The medium of instruction was Marathi, as Karve felt students could learn faster and easier that way. Sri Vithaldas Thackersey, a wealthy philanthropist of Mumbai, impressed by Karve’s work donated a huge sum of 15 lakh rupees. The university was now renamed to Smt.Nathibhai Damodardas Thackersey Women’s University, in honour of Vithaldas mother. By now Karve’s greatness had been recognised universally, and in April 1928, he was honoured on his 71st birthday, when a road in Pune was named after him.
His selfless work, earned Karve the title of Maharshi, for leading the Indian women from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge and freeing them from the shackles of blind belief. Karve also went on a world tour in 1929, to Europe, America and Japan. He attended the International Education Conference at Elsinore and exchanged views with Einstein in Berlin. During his tours he managed to raise a good amount of money for his institutions.
Even though his University was well established, Karve did not rest on his laurels. At 78, he was still out there, this time spreading primary education in rural Maharashtra, for which he established the Primary Education Society. Karve, who believed that all humans are equal, also fought against casteism and founded the Society For Promotion of Equality when he was around 86 years. Benares Hindu University conferred an honorary Doctorate on him. He was given the Padma Vibushan in 1955. On his hundredth birthday in 1958, he was awarded the Bharat Ratna. On 9 November 1962 Dhondo Keshav Karve passed away, after living a full 100 years. His last words summed up the man:
If Swarajya (or self-government) is to lead to the welfare state, there is one ‘mantra’ (sacred utterance) – a mantra proclaimed in our ancient writings, the mantra of the consideration for the good of all.
A longer version of this article was originally published on History Under Your Feet and has been reproduced here with permission.
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