Kedgaon is an international powerhouse of female reforms

Dr Vishwas M Dhekney
Thursday, 25 April 2019

“Women have the same rights to higher knowledge that men themselves possess” was the motto of Pandita Ramabai and Anantshastri and their mission in life. As human beings, it becomes our duty, therefore, to appreciate their work. Pandita Ramabai Saraswati was, indeed, a great saint, scholar and builder of modern India.

Following withdrawal of support by pro-reformist advisors in 1893 over alleged ‘conversion’ issues, Ramabai was totally isolated, left alone and was obliged to shift Sharada Sadan to the nearby Kedgaon village where she had already been developing Mukti Mission establishment for child widows and destitute women; with focus on their education and skills development opportunities, in 1896. To make her establishment a self-supporting viable institution, Ramabai executed small-scale industrial projects like dairy, laundry, poultry, bakery, vegetable oil presses, brick kilns, weaving units with over 100 looms, craft sections etc; so that women could stand on their own. India’s first Braille for Mukti’s blind women and India’s first printing press exclusively managed by women followed thereafter. 

Female education was Ramabai’s highest priority. She soon started India’s first kindergarten training school for children, founded nursery, primary and secondary schools for her girls, also accommodating those in neighbouring villages. Mukti Mission’s indoor and OPD medical services, too, came to be extended for 24 hours a day for the population in neighbouring villages. Ramabai then built a hospital at nearby Supe village, headed by eminent British, American and Indian missionary doctors and introduced mobile-medical-clinics at the doorsteps of villagers.

Ramabai’s concern and commitment towards the underprivileged let them be Hindus or Christians, radiated her divine influence of humanitarian services and of her love, compassion and larger outlook for those who came in contact with her Mission. ‘To serve a human being is to worship God’ was the principal motto and working philosophy of Kedgaon Mukti Mission. The community around Kedgaon soon realised that Mission’s services were essential if the misery and poverty of those uncared for in the caste-ridden society were to be alleviated.

With Ramabai’s disappearance from Poona, fundamentalist outfits in this controversial city silenced their guns, putting an end to the slur and fury against her. However, little did they realise that Kedgaon Mukti Mission, where Ramabai settled, had now emerged to be a vibrant international powerhouse of India’s social reforms movement for womanhood. By this time, scores of her dedicated followers from America, Canada, England, Scotland, New Zealand etc-inspired by her dedication and leadership, joined her at Kedgaon, as servants of God, in the capacity of educationists, physicians, nurses, engineers evangelists, agri-experts-all dedicating themselves to the upliftment of India’s womanhood, with money and prayers. Most of these eminent-professionals -turned missionaries spent their entire life at Kedgaon and never went back. During the great famines of 1896 and 1900 in Central Provinces and in Gujarat respectively, Ramabai rescued several hundred women and girls, suffering from starvation and exploitation.

By 1918, Ramabai had reached 60th year. The deafness and hardships suffered during 15 years of pilgrimage journey and work-pressure at Mukti Mission, were beginning to take a toll on her health. In 1919, Ramabai was awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind Gold Medal by the British Government in recognition of her exemplary services to India’s social reforms movement for womanhood. Ramabai was an old woman now, too weak to go herself to receive it. Instead, the Gold Medal was sent to her at Kedgaon. Ramabai had covered over 4,000 miles of pilgrimage journey ‘on foot’ and travelled around 40,000 miles, lecturing all over America. Now, however, she was almost confined to her room on account of the ageing process. So much so, she could not walk even a few steps around her bed. Her only daughter Manorama, meanwhile, fell ill and following a long and painful heart ailment, passed away at Mission Hospital, Miraj, on July 24, 1921. Ramabai could not bear this shock. She was alone, now. Within nine months, thereafter, Ramabai fell ill with septic bronchitis and died in deep sleep early morning on April 5, 1922. The next day, her own girls--the child widows she had rescued a few years ago--carried her on their shoulders to her burial place. Thus, the pilgrimage journey that began at Gangamul forest finally came to an end at Kedgaon. But the Ramabai Mukti Mission, today, stands as a living monument to the emancipation of womanhood mission to which she had dedicated her life.

Ramabai had no personal property: father, mother and sister died of starvation, brother, husband and lone daughter Manorama gone, relatives were dead, no bank account and no deposits. All that was left in her trunk were her simple white clothes, a copy of her Holy Bible, her spectacles and her pen.

For child widows, orphans and destitute girls, Ramabai was an ‘angel of mercy’, love and compassion. Others classed her as a revolutionary. And yet a great saint of God who had sacrificed her life in the cause of Indian womanhood and to the ways of Indian renaissance.

“It is, probably, for this reason, that the well-known Oxford Sanskrit scholar Prof Max Muller compared her contribution to the achievements of another Indian social and religious reformer of the last century viz Raja Ram Mohan Roy.

The saints of God like Pandita Ramabai Saraswati and her father Anantpadmanabh Parmeshwar Dongre do not need our recognition. Their life mission and achievements do that job. But the greatness of a nation and of its conscience keepers often depend upon their appreciation of those saintly personalities like Ramabai and Anantshastri who made a courageous beginning in this country by liberating the womanhood from the tyranny and shackles of barbarous and evil social customs and practices in contemporary society.


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