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 19th century and early 20th 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 it’s end, to give light to others, Karve, lived for others, spread light in their lives and wore himself out slowly.
Dhondo Keshav Karve, was born on April 18,1858 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 employment as a clerk near a landlord, in the small town of Koregaon, in Satara district. Dhondo grew up reading religious works like Gurucharitre and Shiva Leelamrita in his strictly religious household. Though growing 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, whether 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 seaside village in Ratnagiri district, from where he hailed, and it was there he met Vinayak Lakshman Soman, his teacher and also his mentor. Soman, guided Dhondo in his studies, and he also was a nationalist too. Soman felt that the village people should know what is going on in the rest of the country, and every evening he would make Dhondo read out the newspapers at the local temple. Dhondo also set up a small shop with a capital of 800 Rs that he collected, however due to his lack of experience in maintaining accounts, the shop had to be closed down. It was a lesson he learnt, and in future ensured that whatever organization he worked with, the accounts would be managed carefully.
Dhondu later wanted to appear for the examination that would enable him to be a teacher, and he had two choices, either Mumbai or Satara. Unable to travel all the way by sea to Mumbai, he choose to trek the long route to Satara, that took 4 days, and involved crossing the Sahayadris. When he finally reached Satara, he was not allowed to write the exam, as he was not 17 years old still. He however wrote it the next year at Kolhapur and passed the exam. He was already married at this time to Radhabhai. Wishing to have a better education, Karve, continued at Mumbai , and fortunately managed to get a scholarship, as he had come 5th in the entrance test. With his father passing away, Dhondo’s brother Bhikaji, used to help him out. He himself took up tuitions to earn on his own. Finally after years of struggle, Dhondo Karve graduated from Elphinstone College in Mumbai in 1884.
At Mumbai he made friends with Narhari Pant, who also helped him to overcome his shyness in talking to other people. When Karve started wrking, he ensured at least a part of his income was set aside for charity. This was out of his own struggles with poverty, he knew first hand how it was. Karve created a small fund which he used for development of Murud village, setting up roads there, as well as an English High School. Karve worked for sometime at Elphinstone High School in Mumbai, but not liking 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, and Karve ensured that boys from his hometown were not deprived of education. Many boys came from Murud, one of them was Raghunath Paranjpe, who later served as Indian ambassador to Australia. Radhabhai looked after those boys like her own sons, fed them well and took care of them. Unfortunately ill health took a toll on Radhabhai and she passed away on Nagpanchami Day. It was a major blow to Karve, who could not sleep that night.
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, and living 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, it 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 any one to have any interaction with him. Karve could not even speak with 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 for taking care of widows and he set up the Widow Marriage Association. It’s main aim was to give 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 Hingne, 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, he had to personally walk to Pune from Hinge every day over 4 miles of slushy road, in cold, rain or hot sun. Carrying the articles needed for the Ashram on his back, he walked the entire route, every day for close to 2 years, at times often neglecting his own wife and children. He was the “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 3 year leave without pay from his post as Maths Professor at Fergusson, and dedicate his life for that. It was at a terrible personal cost for him, 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, what was worse even many so called reformers did not give him the necessary support. The blamed him for setting up the Ashram due to which lesser 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 Vidyalalaya in Pune, to spread learning among women. He set up two funds Bramacharya and Education, to ensure girls did not marry before 20 and that they attended school. Around that time, Karve observed that many missionaries, came in the guise of 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 would 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 3 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 as citizens in 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, the Mahilashram was the campus. Karve again went all over the country, raising funds and managed to raise 2 lakh rupees. The medium of instruction was in Marathi, as Karve, felt students could learn faster and easier that way. Sri Vithaldas Thackersey, was a wealthy philanthropist of Mumbai, and impressed by Karve’s work, he donated a huge sum of 15 lakh rupees. The university was now renamed to Smt.Nathibhai Damodardas Thackersey Women’s University, in honor of Vithaldas mother. By now Karve’s greatness had been recognized 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, he met Einstein in Berlin where he exchanged views. 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 also fought against casteism, believed that all humans are equal, and founded the Society For Promotion of Equality when he was around 86 years. Benares Hindu University conferred a honorary Doctorate on him, he was given the Padma Vibushan in 1955. On his 100th birthday in 1958, the Government awarded the Bharat Ratna to him. On 9th 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.