We remember with respect and admiration the men and women who have dedicated their lives to the cause and ideals of the Brahmo Samaj and its counterparts across India. We are presenting short life sketches of those who were born or had died between the months of December to May.
Sri Kandukuri Veerasalingam Pantulu
Born April 16, 1848; – Died May 27, 1919
By Keshab Chandra Challa
Bengal Renaissance, the huge socio-cultural and religious reform movement during the nineteenth and early twentieth century had great impact on the reform movements in other parts of India. Brahmo leaders like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Debendranath Tagore and Keshav Chandra Sen’s mission was carried further in a revolutionary manner by learned scholars and versatile intellectuals like Kandukuri Veeresalingam.
In a way, Kandukuri Veeresalingam was the ‘Raja Ram Mohan Roy’ of Andhra Pradesh. He was a social reformer, activist, writer, “the quintessential Renaissance man”. “For all the efforts made in bringing our social reformism, he was popularly known as “Gadya Tikkana” by his well-wishers and followers.” He had many firsts to his credit.
- The first person to conduct a widow remarriage in Andhra Pradesh,
- The first to start a co-educational school here.
- And as a writer, the first Telugu novelist, the first autobiography in Telugu, the first to write a history on Telugu poets and the first Telugu writer to translate scientific books”.
Early life of Kandukuri: Veeresalingam: This legendary scholar was born on April 16, 1848 in an orthodox Brahmin family in Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh. Unfortunately, his father, Subbarayudu passed away when he was just four years old; therefore he was brought up by his paternal uncle, Venkataratnam. In spite of poverty and many hardships, Veeresalingam’s mother managed to send him to a government district school where his exceptional aptitude and gentle behaviour were first noticed. He was awarded the title of the best student in the school.
“At the age of 5 he joined a local school, where he soon learnt the Bala Ramayana, Sumathi Satakam, Krishna Satakam in due course of time. A brilliant student, he joined the Government High School in Rajahmundry, in English medium, when he was 12, and that is where he studied English literature, as well as the works of Keshav Chandra Sen, that influenced him tremendously.”
Belonging to a traditional family, he was married at a very young age. At the time of marriage, his wife Bapamma Rajyalakshmi was only 8 and he 13. Though, they got married in childhood, they loved each other and their marriage was peaceful and happy one. In other words, they were the perfect match. In the later part of his life Rajyalakshmi supported her husband’s renaissance movement in Andhra.
Social Activism: Veeresalingam Pantulu was deeply influenced by reformists like Keshav Chandra Sen. He had enormous respect for the ideas and activities of ‘Brahma Samaj’. Veeresalingam soon opened a girl’s school at Dhavaleswaram as he genuinely felt the need for encouraging women’s education. Next was a widow’s home. He started the first theist high school, the Hithakarini School at Rajahmundry in 1908. In the same he donated his wealth and property to Rajahmundry Widow’s home and school. Since Pantulu’s main focus was social reform so after quitting his job in 1876 he started a monthly magazine in Telegu called Vivekavardhini.
As soon as it gained popularity, Kandukuri Veeresalingam established a printing press at Rajahmundry itself. Through the publication, Veeresalingam raised voice against bribery, superstitious beliefs and child marriage which were prevalent in society then. The magazine also included several articles on empowering women. Apart from women related issues, he fearlessly exposed rampant corruption amongst government officials.
Campaign for widow remarriage and girl’s education: In 1878, the ‘Rajahmundry Social Reform Association’ was founded that emphasized on widow remarriage. People opposing widow remarriage failed to prove their point and resorted to physical violence against Veeresalingam. But, he did not relent. In fact he asked his followers to visit different parts of the Andhra Pradesh and find young men who were willing to tie the knot with widows. After tremendous efforts Veeresalingam was successful in arranging the first widow remarriage in 1881. During his lifetime he got forty widows remarried.
In his seminars, he used verses (shlokas) from ancient scriptures to convince people that re-marriage of widows was not forbidden by Hindu dharma. “Veeresalingam, spoke of the importance accorded to women’s education in Ancient and Medieval India, citing the examples of Raja Bhoja and Sri Krishna Deva Raya, whose courts had many prominent women poets and scholars. He claimed that India declined only when it began to treat the women like slaves, and did not educate them.”
Veeresalingam’s reformist activities were appreciated far and wide. The British government recognised his achievements by conferring the title of “Rao Bahadur” in 1893.
Veeresalingam’s role in eradicating social injustice against women: In 19th century, women had hardly any position in the society due to the eroding social values; therefore Veeresalingam Pantulu created awareness about the importance of women’s education. He created a sensation throughout Andhra by advocating remarriage of young widows through his writings and speeches. He spoke against child marriage, evils of caste and devdasi system.
He inspired people to think rationally and freely, to love equality and freedom. Moreover, he understood the problems faced by the underprivileged women and felt the need to serve them.
Being a very courageous social reformer, Veeresalingam Pantulu never succumbed to the pressures from society. He gave a further push to the movement against the prevailing social evils through his writings and speeches. He worked persistently towards uplifting the status of the women.
Veeresalingam Pantulu lived his whole life with determination to eradicate social injustice against women; he truly made an ever-lasting impact on Telugu society. In a sense, Veeresalingam laid the foundation of modern Andhra society with the remarkable reforms he brought in the late 18th and early19th century India.
On May 27, 1919 Kandukuri Veerasalingam left the world, physically, but his legacy would live on forever. The tribute by Arudra, the famous Telegu writer reads,
“For a man who was physically weak, Pantulu garu had an iron will and determination who strengthened the nation as well as Telugu language. No title is appropriate for such a luminous personality, he is the Brahma of Modern Andhra- Arudra, famous writer.”
Maharshi Vitthal Ramji Shinde
A Great Brahmo, Missionary of Prarthana Samaj and Sadharan Brahmo Samaj
23 April 1873 – 2 January 1944
By Dr. Sushama Joag
Maharshi Vitthal Ramji Shinde is known for his pioneering work for the downtrodden in India. He founded the Depressed Class Mission in Mumbai in 1906 and spread this work nationwide by establishing the branches of the Mission in places such as Pune, Kolhapur, Akola, Amaravati, Hubli, Mangalore, Chennai, Indore, Bhavnagar and many more. He worked ceaselessly for empowerment of the downtrodden by staying with them along with his family. It was V. R. Shinde who persuaded Mahatma Gandhi to take the problem of Untouchables on the Agenda of National Congress. Maharshi Shinde predicted Dr. Ambedkar as a leader coming from the same community and eventually handed over the Mission to him.
Missionary of Prarthana Samaj and Sadharan Brahmo Samaj: As a boy born in a simple family with very limited income in a small town of Jamkhandi, Shinde imbibed a humanitarian outlook beyond discrimination from his parents. Impressed by the lecture on liberal religion by Rev. J. T. Sunderland of American Unitarian Church in Pune in 1895, Shinde got attracted to Prarthana Samaj while he was studying in Fergusson College for his graduation. With the inspiration derived from the veterans, Justice Ranade and Dr. Bhandarkar, he became a member of Pune Prarthana Samaj in 1898. At the suggestion of Rev. Sunderland the Unitarian Church had started a scholarship for young members of Brahmo/Prarthana Samaj for comparative study of world religions in England and Shinde was selected for the same in 1901. He could join the scholarship only because of financial help from the Maharaja Sayajirao Gaikwad of Vadodara. During the tenure of the scholarship (1901-1903) Shinde studied in depth and presented essays on Hinduism, Mohammedanism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and the religions of China.
After returning to India Shinde sacrificed the lucrative job in Vadodara State and chose voluntarily to fulfill the stringent condition of the scholarship to work as full time Missionary of Monotheistic religion, Prarthana/Brahmo Samaj on whatever emolument the Samaj could afford to pay him. He worked as Missionary of Prarthana Samaj until 1910, and later as Missionary of Sadharan Brahmo Samaj. As the Missionary of Prarthana/Brahmo Samaj Shinde put in enormous efforts to propagate the principles of Prarthana/Brahmo Samaj across the country. He used his organizational skills to start and set right the functioning of the Samajes at many places in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka. He reconstituted the All India Theistic Conference and successfully organised its sessions across the country at places like Banaras, Kolkata, Surat, Lahore, Karachi during 1904 – 1913.
In 1912 Maharshi Shinde completed his compilation work on Brahmo and Prarthana Samajes all over India and published it in the form of a 375 page book of Theistic Directory.
He started ‘Family Prayer Circle’ in Pune in 1925 wherein weekly Upasanas were conducted in families when the non-Brahmo neighbours would also participate.
Centenary celebrations of Brahmo Samaj were organised at Kolkata from 19 – 25 August 1928. Upasana on 21st and lecture on 25th were two of the many contributions of Maharshi Shinde in this programme.
True Brahmo : The recognition and happiness that I get in being a Missionary of Brahmo Samaj can render even royal honours insignificant for me”. These were the inspired words Maharshi Shinde
uttered in Dubri Brahmo Samaj on the bank of river Brahmaputra.
There are many more fields in which Maharshi Vitthal Ramji Shinde did pioneering work and contributed substantially. In every walk of life he was guided by his true devotion towards the Virtueful and Formless Brahma. He was a very noble saintly personality who incessantly put in enormous work for the upliftment and furtherance of people. He was at the same time a Maharshi and a Karmavir!
Birth : 7th May 1896, Dera Ismail Khan ( now in West Pakistan )
Death: 14th April 1970, Bombay.
By Smt. Rekha Shahani
As I remember him on his 50th death anniversary:
He was a divine soul endowed with unusually high qualities of head and heart. Away from the limelight of publicity, he led a simple and saintly life, completely dedicated to the service of humanity. His constant endeavour to reduce human suffering wherever he found it, was in the forefront. He loved children and often played funny pranks with them. It was this mingling of gaiety and saintliness in him which made him Chachaji (uncle) to hundreds and thousands of men and women, young and old, poor and rich.
After completing his college, his father wanted him to go to Karachi and help his brother in business, but chachaji’s mind was set on Shanti Niketan. After taking his father’s permission, he reached Shanti Niketan in August 1919. It was C. F. Andrews who had fixed his meeting with Rabindra Tagore, the Poet. Chachaji was told that the Poet was weak after a serious illness and would spare only 5 minutes. Mallik entered the room, bowed to the Poet and stood silently. The time was over but the Poet did not say anything. Chacha ji bowed to take leave and the Poet raised his right hand and placed it over the youth’s head and looking into his eyes said “I have known you since ages. There is a place vacant for you in my Ashram and you can occupy it”.
Chacha ji fell at the poet’s feet in respectful obeisance.
In that illuminating moment,chacha ji shared later that he forgot whether he was from the frontier, or a Punjabi or even an Indian. He felt that he belonged to all and all belonged to him. The whole world was his. His Poet became his Gurudev.
Soon after that he joined as a teacher of English in Shanti Niketan. From 1919 to 1946 he was associated with Tagore in Shanti Niketan. After the Poet’s death in 1941, Chachaji felt a sense of loneliness and slowly drifted to other places. Gurdial Mallik also met Gandhiji and had a close relationship with him. He journeyed several times between Shanti Niketan and Sabarmati Ashram and drank deep from those fountainheads of values and ideals of love, humility and service. He was greatly influenced by Tagore, Gandhi, Andrews, the Sufis of Sind and the Bauls of Bengal who played a great role in moulding his life and philosophy. He worked with Dr. Besant and had great connection with Jamshed Mehta of Karachi and Madam Sophia Wadia of United Lodge of Theosophists, with whom his friendship lasted till the very end.
The Brahmo Samaj, specially the Nava Vidhan Movement of Keshun Chander Sen had a special fascination for him. He used to say that the only way to the present day ills of the world and India was the harmony of all religions.
Around 1920, through some mysterious way Chachaji was drawn to Babu Nandlal Sen, the nephew of Shri Keshub. Through him he came in contact with (Premdas) Dr. Reuben, the singing apostle of Karachi, and his whole family. Dr. Reuben used to dance in ecstasy while singing the praises of the Lord and so would Chachaji. After Partition, Chachaji was given a Quit Order by the Pakistan Government for speaking against the creation of Pakistan, as he said that God is all love and harmony and not hate and division. The valuable gift, a gown given by Poet Tagore was left behind which he never got back. After coming to Bombay from Karachi, he came and stayed with his old friend Shri M. C. Setalvad at Juhu.
In some mysterious way, the whole group of Karachi Brahmo Samaj which had spread out in various parts of India, finally settled at Chembur in Bombay. My father-in-law Mr. Hiranand Jagasia was in Bombay before Partition and was the first textile engineer of the country. The then government assigned about 175 plots to the Tathai community in Chembur after partition. Chachaji renewed his old association and visited Chembur and often stayed there.
After the opening of the new Brahma Mandir at Khar, he visited it every Sunday morning and offered prayers and sang hymns. From 1956 to 1968 he regularly visited Simla Samaj during the summer season, ministering to the spiritual needs of the congregation. Here he conducted classes on Keshab’s Jivan Veda, Brahma- Gito Upanishad and Sadhu Samagam. From 1961 to 1968 Bombay Samaj Group also joined him at Simla. Meditation and prayers became the main features in the morning and kirtan in the evening. His prayers at Simla are nothing short of inspiration as if God was speaking through him.
Throughout the 74 years Chachaji’s life was a living application of his belief that love of mankind is the greatest service that man can render to God.
Truly did he live up to the ideals of his two great teachers, the Poet and the Mahatma, for, as he himself said “One taught him the truth of love, the other the love of truth”. Chachaji wrote a great deal, both in English and Hindi. Besides the ‘Hound of Heart’ and ‘Divine Dwellers of the Desert’ (about the Sufis of Sind), he had also translated several of Premchand’s stories into English. His ‘Gurudev and Gandhi’ and ‘Gitanjali: A Study’ are both available in Hindi and Gujrati.
I was still in primary school when he passed on but I still remember his Sunday prayers, sitting with him after his sermons and playing with his white long beard. My elder brother is called Ravindra and when my younger brother was born in 1966, Chachaji immediately told my mother “Ravindra ka bhai Surendra”. We also had one more connection. Our home is called Shanti Niketan.
I have stories and stories to share about him because my husband Ashok was his Sarthak (Charioteer) official driver who would take him from Chembur to Nepean Sea road to his niece & to Juhu to Mr Setalvad’s home. During those drives Chachaji shared his spiritual life with him. Till this day we have bhajans in Chembur everyday & on Sundays a busload of members come from there. We are indeed blessed.