Maharshi Karve lived for a hundred and four years. After he completed his education he pledged his life to the service to others. He chose poverty and walked the path strewn with criticism and opposition; he wiped others, tears, he brought education, equality, honor, and joy into the lives of many people.
There was a rich man in a town, He had two sons. The man was very wealthy. He called his sons and gave a rupee.
‘Fill the Room!
“Spend this rupee, just this one rupee -and fill your room with something. Whoever passes this test gets my fortune,”
said the rich man.
The rich man returned home in the evening.
When he entered the room of the First Son, the room was pitch dark. Somehow he groped in the dark. What did he find? Mere hay! The rich man’s first son had tried to fill the room with hay.
The rich man entered the second son’s room.
With the rupee, the second son had brought a mud lamp, some oil, and a wick and had lit the lamp. In a corner of the room, he had lighted a few scented sticks. The room was full of light.
And it was full of the sweet smell. The second son passed the test.
An Ideal Life
God, the Creator, gives every one of us some talent and ability and sends us to the earth. The man who uses the God-given talent and ability and lights up his surroundings and spreads fragrance passes the test of life. His life is successful; it is an ideal life. A man who led such an exemplary life was Maharshi Dhondo Keshav Karve.
Dhondo Keshav Karve was born and grew up in abject poverty, but throughout a fruitful life of a hundred and four years he kept the lamp of knowledge burning, to remove the darkness of ignorance; like a piece of sandalwood he wore himself out to spread fragrance. He saw people who were leading a miserable life of blind customs; he showed them how to enrich their lives.
Like a father, he brought solace to broken hearts.
An Aristocratic Family
Dhondo Keshav Karve was born on 18th April 1858 in Sheraoli, a village of Ratnagiri District. His father was Keso Pant or Keshava. The mother was Lakshmi Bai. Karve’s family was aristocratic. The members of the family had been rich enough to lend six and a half lakh rupees to Damoji Gaikwad, the ruler of Gujarat. But all this fortune and this aristocracy were things of the past; they related to three or four generations before Dhondo Karve. When Dhondo Pant was born the Karve family had only debts to repay.
Although Dhondo Pant was born in Sheraoli, he looked upon Murud as his hometown. When Dhondo Pant was born the family was steeped in poverty. Keso Pant realized that if he spent his life idling in Murud the family would starve. So he took up employment as a clerk with a landlord named Barve in Koregaon.
Keso Pant had three children – Dhondo Pant, his elder brother Bhikaji and younger sister Ambatayi. Dhondo Pant’s parents were religious by nature. Every day there was worship and singing in the house. Even as a boy Dhondo Pant practiced reading religious works like ‘Shivaleelamrita’ and ‘Gurucharitre.’
A Self Respecting Mother
Even in abject poverty, the Karve family did not sacrifice its self-respect. On one occasion the Maharaja of Baroda gave cows as gifts to Brahmins in several villages. Every Brahmin was given also a gift of ten rupees. Shikaji asked his mother:
“Mother, the Maharaja of Baroda is making a gift of ten rupees to every Brahmin. Shall I also go and get the money?”
Said Lakshmi Bai: “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. This Maharaja of Baroda is a descendant of persons who owed money to your ancestors. Even now they owed lakhs of rupees to our family. Do not even dream of accepting gifts from such persons.”This was the lesson of self-respect taught by Dhondo Pant’s mother to her children.
Dhondo’s education began in the Shenvi Pantoji’s school in the village of Murud. Dhondo was not a very clever student. In those days the fourth standard examination was considered quite important. If a candidate was successful in that examination, he could get the lower posts in the government. Dhondo failed in the examination held in 1869.
By about 1870 an enthusiastic teacher by name Vinayak Lakshman Soman joined the Murud School. Within a few days, Dhondo became the favorite student of Soman. Under his guidance, Dhondo passed the fourth standard examination.
Soman was very enthusiastic to serve the country and the people. He wished that his pupil also should serve the country and the people. In those days many people were illiterate, that is, they could not read and write. Few newspapers were received in the village. Soman thought that the people should know what was going on in the world outside, and made a plan. It was the custom of the people to visit the Durgadevi temple in the evenings. Dhondo would collect a few newspapers received in the village, sit on the pial of the temple and read them aloud. People who came to visit the temple could hear the news, without any effort on their part. Dhondo used to render this public service gladly, as his teacher had desired. Thus, under the influence of his teacher Soman, even from his boyhood Dhondo developed the desire to serve the people.
At that time Soman collected five rupees from every villager as share money. With the capital of eight hundred rupees so collected, he set up a shop. Dhondo was to sell goods and maintain accounts.
Dhondo undertook this public service with great enthusiasm. But he had no experience of maintaining the accounts of a shop. Sometimes when Dhondo was away to attend to some other work other people used to sell articles. They did not write up the accounts correctly. So the accounts were incorrect. Within a year or two, this store had to be closed.
Dhondo was disgusted. He felt sorry that his inefficiency and neglect were responsible for what had happened. It was decided that at least the capital collected from the people should be returned. Dhondo’s salary had been fixed at three rupees a month. For six months’ service, he got only six and a quarter rupees! One shareholder had paid twenty-five rupees for five shares. This amount had to be repaid. Dhondo who had earned six and a quarter rupees took over this responsibility; this was the punishment for his carelessness. Later he worked hard and repaid the amount with interest. This way Dhondo punished himself because he thought that the amount collected from the public was misspent on account of his carelessness. In later life Dhondo managed many public services; he always remembered the bitter lessons learned from this experience and constantly kept them in view; he made sure that the amounts collected were not misused. To err is human. But to learn lessons from mistakes and to be careful not to repeat the mistakes – this is the mark of a great man.
The Ordeal of an Examination
When the store was closed the question arose: what next? A candidate successful in the sixth standard examination would be eligible to become a teacher. A person had to be seventeen years of age to sit for that examination.
The examination centers were in Bombay and Satara, far away from Dhondo’s village. Going to Bombay meant a journey on the sea. To go to Satara, the Sahyadri Mountains had to be crossed. So to attend that examination one had to sail on the sea or cross the mountain!
It was the time of the examination. It was the rainy season and so ships did not ply. Dhondo and the other students thought over the problem of their journey. Finally, they decided to go to Satara. There were no cars or buses at that time. The journey had to be made on foot. Four days before the examination they slung their baggage on their shoulders and started on foot.
They had to walk one hundred and fifty miles in the rainy season. On the first day, they covered thirty miles. Eating and resting on the way, they reached a town called Patan. From Patan to Satara it was fifty-four miles. By a short cut, it was eighteen miles. But the journey by the shorter route was very difficult.
The examination was to commence the next day. Therefore the boys chose the shorter route.
They missed the way. Darkness fell. They rested in shepherds’ colony. The next day they ascertained the route and continued their journey. It was five in the afternoon when they reached Satara!
A large number of students were taking the examination that year; so the registration of the names took up the entire day. The examination was therefore postponed by a day. The hopes of Dhondo and his classmates rose again. The Chairman of the Examination Committee noted down the names of the other students. But when he saw the short, lean Dhondo, he said, “you are not yet seventeen years old. You are lying about your age. You cannot take the examination.” The interview was over; for Dhondo, only disappointment was in store. He had walked a hundred and fifty miles – and it was all useless. Although he was seventeen the officer had pushed him aside saying: ‘You are not yet seventeen”.
Dhondo sat for the examination next year from Kolhapur center and was successful. By then Dhondo was also married. When he married Radhabai, he was only fifteen years old! In those days child marriage was common.
Dhondo wished to learn English. He continued his education in Ratnagiri and Bombay. The sufferings of poverty followed him everywhere.
He taught the students of the lower classes and earned some money. He got an exemption from payment of tuition fees. Because he got the fifth rank in the examination, he was given a scholarship of two rupees per month. He spent as little money as possible. His father died. His brother Bhikaji’s help and sacrifice enabled Dhondo to continue his education without interruption.
After Dhondo came to Bombay for education, with great difficulty, the brother used to send him four rupees a month. Dhondo had to earn by teaching students. Dhondo expected to receive two rupees per month by teaching a particular student. He received only one rupee! One person used to go to him on Sundays to read Marathi poems; he paid Dhondo two annas (twelve paise)! In 1884 Dhondo became a graduate from Elphinstone College, Bombay; his favorite subject was mathematics.
Friend Narahari Pant
After Karve came to Bombay he had made friends with Narahari Pant Balakrishna Joshi. His association with Narahari Pant was useful and influenced Karve’s entire life. Karve was a little shy by nature. He hesitated to speak to strangers. But, with Narahari Pant’s help, Karve could overcome this drawback. Karve admired Narahari Pant’s courage and helpful nature.
The Lamp of Service is lit
A man who is influenced by good people has a foundation of goodness in himself, too.
In Karve, there burnt a strong desire to help as best as he could, to those who were unhappy or had suffered in life. When he began to earn money he made it a rule to set apart one pie from each rupee for charity. He collected money for the ‘Pie Fund’, ‘Murud Fund’ and used it for the all-round development of Murud village. Karve took a leading part in organizing public services in Murud and in providing roads, schools, an English high school, and such other services.
After passing the B.A. examination Karve became a teacher in the Elphinstone High School. He worked for a year but did not like government service, so he gave up the post. He undertook teaching in two or three schools for a few hours. In those days he would start teaching at Saint Peter’s School at 6 a.m. It took Karve an hour to walk to that school. He had to get up at 4.30 in the morning, eat some rice mixed with curds and leave the house at 5, to walk to the school.
Karve found happiness in this way of life. His wife Radhabai managed household affairs very well. Even in his poverty, Karve brought four boys from his hometown and arranged for their Education. One of these boys later attained all India fame; his name – Raghunath Paranjape.
To the boys who came with Karve to Bombay for education, he was like a father and Radhabai a mother.
Radhabai fell ill and returned to Murud. Her condition became very bad. Karve received the news that she died on Nagapanchami Day.
The whole night he could not sleep.
The next morning by six o’clock he was present for work in the school.
The Deccan Education Society was running the Ferguson College in’ Pune. Gopal Krishna Gokhale requested Karve to go to Pune from Bombay. Karve was appointed Professor of Mathematics in Fergusson College. Karve’s relatives and friends began to compel him to marry again.
Sacrifice To Blind Faith
In those days there were instances of old men of sixty or seventy marrying again after the death of their wives. And the girls who had to marry such old men were ten or twelve years old. It was then the custom to marry the girls before they were twelve years old. Naturally, those young girls who married old men would be widowed within a few years. Society thought it was the result of their sins committed in their previous births and punished them. Even these young widows had to have their heads shaved. Thus disfigured they had to pass their lives in a dark room. Somehow this cruel, hateful practice had taken root in our society. Society believed that this practice was laid down in the sacred books of religion and was morally right, and followed it.
The sight of such practices made Karve very unhappy. The sufferings of the young widows melted his heart.
A Heroic Act
Karve boldly told his relations and friends:
“I am a widower. If I want to take a second wife, I will marry a widow.”
When Balakrishna Joshi, the father of Narahari Pant, heard about this decision, he said, “if you have decided to marry only a widow why search for one’? Why not marry my daughter Godubai?”
The widow Godubai was in Sharada Sadan run by Pandita Ramabai. She was the sister of Karve’s bosom friend Narahari Pant. Karve agreed to the suggestion. Karve and Godubai were married in Pune according to religious rites on 11th March 1893. After the marriage, Karve renamed his wife as Anandibai. Widow Godubai became the happily blessed Anandibai.
The Prince of Courage
Karve’s marriage with a widow was a sensation in society. Several people condemned him very strongly. There was hot discussion even in the newspapers in places like Pune, Bombay, Belgaum, and Dharwar. Karve and his friends had formed an association called the ‘Sneha-Vardhak Mandali’. The other members now did not like attending the meetings. Karve left the Association.
In Murud there was bitter opposition to his marriage. When Karve went to Murud with Anandibai after the marriage, they had to be victims of the wrath of the villagers. The villagers assembled and passed a resolution:
‘Karve has committed an immoral act by marrying a widow. No one should sit by his side and no one should attend any meeting at which he is present, and in the future, if he goes to Bhikaji Pant’s house Bhikaji also will be thrown out of the community.’
When Karve and Anandibai visited Murud they could not live in their house; they had to live in a separate house outside the village. It became an offense even if he spoke to his brother, mother or sister. Bhikaji’s position became very difficult.
The opposition of the villagers on one side and his love for his brother on the other – these forces affected his mind and he was like a mad man.
Dhondo Karve was very unhappy.
Just because he married a widow Karve had to suffer for many years in many ways. His brother did not agree to send his son for education to Karve’s house.
When Karve’s mother and brother came to his town they did not visit his house. Even when his mother was very ill she gave strict instructions that Karve should not be informed.
Society baked Karve in the fire of its displeasure, but he did not lose heart. He never spoke a harsh word in protest. If the injustice rooted in society has to be set right such sufferings have to be borne. No purpose will be served by abuse or shouting. When our skin develops an abscess or a boil we treat that part of the body with special care and get rid of the abscess or boil. We don’t grow angry at the abscess and scratch it. It becomes worse if scratched.
When child marriage, opposition to widow’s marriage, untouchability and such itches and eruptions spread, they must be Cured by careful treatment and not by unwise actions. This was Karve’s stand. One should be determined to fight blind customs; at the same time, one should take care not to weaken the society. Karve always had this goal before him.
New Lights of Service
Karve knew by personal experience the sufferings of the husband and the wife in society if a man married a widow. He also realized the necessity for widow marriage. Therefore he felt that the crusade for the marriage of widows should not suffer just because of the fear of opposition in society. He established the ‘Widow Marriage Association’. Widow marriage was treated with contempt in society. One object of the Association was to make it easier for men who wished to marry widows to do so. The second object of the Association was to educate public opinion and to put an end to this contempt.
After a few days, Karve changed the name of the Association to ‘The Association for the Removal of Restrictions to the Marriage of Widows’. The phrase ‘Widow Marriage’ suggests provocation. How very appropriate and meaningful that Karve should have changed the name! He wanted to avoid as far as possible, giving offense to society. He wished to bring about improvements smoothly. He did not want to bring about divisions in society in the name of social reformation. He wished to take others with him on the path of reforms.
Karve was not satisfied with this. Several widows never get a chance to marry again.
Karve decided that a suitable Ashram (hostel or home) was needed for them.
He thought of a plan for a home for a few widows. He decided that till the home came into being the widows could stay in the hostel of the Girls High School and continue their education.
But where was the money for this?
The first contribution came from Karve himself – a donation of one thousand rupees.
In 1896 ‘Anath Balikashram Association’ was started. The Ashram was established in Pune.
Karve went from town to town and collected money. In 1900 the Ashram was shifted to Hingne, a village four miles from Pune.
Many young widows were educated there and became self-supporting.
Thorns in the Path of Service
Karve encountered great difficulties in running the Ashram. Every evening he had to walk four miles from Pune to Hingne. It was dark. The road was not at all good. If it rained the road would be slushy.
Wind or cold or rain, the forty-three-year-old Karve walked the distance of four miles every evening on this road, carrying on his back the articles needed for cooking the next day’s food. If Karve’s wife or children were ill he would entrust the treatment to others and go out on his ‘pilgrimage’.
For two years he rendered this service. (About these times Karve has written 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 many days I walked to the Ashram shedding tears.’)
Karve could not find time to attend to his ailing wife or child. But if somebody fell ill in the Ashram the person to console her and give her courage was the ‘brother’-Karve. The Karve family settled in Hinghe. Some girls of the hostel themselves would not touch the water touched by Karve’s wife Anandibai.
When Anandibai was dining she had to sit apart from others-because once a widow, she had married again. She was the wife of the founder of the Ashram, Karve, but yet she could not escape from this insult.
As the work of the Balikashram increased, Karve thought of giving up his post. At the suggestion of the directors of the Deccan Education Society, he went on leave for three years without a pay-A number of people opposed Karve at that time. Orthodox people blamed him for destroying the purity of religion. Reformers objected that Karve had established the Ashram, and so people were less enthusiastic about the remarriage of widows. Stinging letters were published in newspapers. Karve patiently put up with all this.
Karve’s children did not have good clothes.
They had no money for games and entertainment. The children felt unhappy; they would ask their mother, ‘Why is this so?’ and complain to her. She also felt unhappy. In 1907 Karve started a school by the name ‘Mahila Vidyalaya’ in Pune. The main object of the school was to spread knowledge among women. Two funds – the ‘Brahmacharya Fund’ and the ‘Education Fund’ – were started. The object was to ensure that girls did not marry until they were twenty years old and that, till then, they attended schools.
Institution for Selfless Service A band of selfless workers was needed to run the Anath Balikashram and Mahila Vidyalaya. Karve had observed a flock of missionaries coming from other countries to our country; they came in the guise of social workers and converted people to their religions. An idea struck Karve. If only our people volunteer to do social service our society will flourish and the fear of conversion to other religions will vanish. To create a tradition of such social work he founded the ‘Institution for Selfless Service’.
Karve took the oath of the Institution for Selfless Service. He would make over all his earnings to the Institution and take from the Institution only just enough money for a very simple life for himself and his family. Even out of this amount money was given to charities. There were no servants. Anandibai who had been trained as a midwife had to work as a midwife and earn some money!
By about l914 Karve left the Deccan Education Society and devoted himself entirely to the work of the Mahilashram. Karve had four children in all. Anandibai was looking after the welfare and solved the problems of the family; on account of this, the household affairs did not come in the way of Karve’s activities.
A Women’s University
About the year 1915, he gets by post the book,
‘Japanese Women’s University’? As he was going through that book he drew up an outline for an ‘Indian Women’s University’. The University was to have these objectives:
- to give women education which would develop their personalities
- to equip them to become wives and mothers if they married and to educate them to participate as citizens in nation-building.
He visited Bombay, Ahmedabad, and Madras, Bangalore, Salem, and other places and made speeches explaining the need for a Women’s University, he met people and collected funds. The Indian Women’s University was established in 1916 in the Mahilashram of Hingne.
Again Karve wandered from place to place with a begging bowl. Within four years, the University had a balance of over two lakh rupees, after meeting all expenses.
One special feature of the University was that the mother tongue was the medium of instruction. If a student has to learn through another language and not through his mother tongue, it will be a needless burden. Karve had realized that only the mother tongue is the easiest means of acquiring knowledge.
Large funds are required to run a huge organization like a university. Karve was constantly touring to collect funds. Sir Vithaldas Thackersey of Bombay was a very rich and generous man.
He was always ready to help men of genius in the country. When he visited the women’s university in Japan, he remembered the university established by Karve. When he returned from his world tour he said he would donate fifteen lakh rupees to the Indian Women’s University.
The name of the Indian Women’s University was changed to ‘Shreemati Nathibai Thackersey Indian Women’s University’. (Shreemati Nathibai was Vithaldas’s mother.)
Karve was seventy years old. By then al his dreams had more or less been fulfilled. On Karve’s seventy-first birthday, that is, on 18th April 1928, the Pune Municipality honored him by presenting an address. A prominent road in Pune was named ‘Karve Road’. On this occasion, an eminent poet appropriately described Karve as ‘Maharshi’. He had led Indian women from darkness to light and from ignorance to knowledge, and freed them from the shackles of cruel and blind practices; is not such a man a Maharshi – a Great Sage?
In Three Continents In 1929 Maharshi Karve visited several countries in the continents of Europe, America, and Asia. During this tour, he attended the International Conference on Education at Elsinore. In Berlin, he exchanged views on education with the world-famous scientist Einstein. In Japan, he paid a visit to the ‘Women’s University’. And all the time the work of collecting funds for his institutions went on. On that tour after meeting all expenses of his travel, he had a balance of about fifteen thousand rupees for his institutions.
He toured the countries of the African Continent and collected thirty-four thousand rupees for his institutions.
A New Venture At seventy-eight Within three or four years of Karve’s return from travel abroad, the Thackersey Trust had taken over the management of the Women’s University. Karve had enough leisure. He was then seventy-eight years old an age at which a man seeks rest. But Karve’s enthusiasm for public service had not waned. He turned the attention towards the education of children. In numerous villages of Maharashtra, there were no primary schools. He determined to make an organized effort to start schools in villages. For this purpose, he established the ‘Primary Education Society’.
Karve was running the schools until the government itself took them over in 1948.
There is no difference between man and woman; all are equal. Karve wanted to instill this attitude in all people. So he started the ‘Society for the Promotion of Equality’. He was then, eighty-six years old. Karve toured all over the country to bring home to people the lesson of the equality of all human beings.
The Sacred ‘Mantra’
Karve had devoted his entire life to the service of others. The government and several institutions expressed the gratitude of the people of India in several ways. The Benares Hindu University and the Women’s University honored him by conferring the degree of Doctor of Literature on him. The Government of India decorated him with the title of ‘Padma Vibhushan’ in 1955.
The Maharshi’s 95th birthday fell on 18th April 1953. On that day, in an inaugural address of ten minutes to the Maharashtra Social Conference, the Maharshi said:
“March forward bravely to remove social differences and to establish social equality.”
In 1958 his hundredth birthday was celebrated with great jubilation. A postage stamp was issued with his picture. The same year the highest title, any citizen, of India can receive, the ‘Bharat Ratna’, was awarded by the President of India.
The country showed its gratitude and honored him in every possible way.
Karve passed away on 9th November 1962.
He said on his deathbed:
“If Swarajya (a concept in India even at the time of Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj of 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.”