Handfuls of cowdung were flung at Saraswati Gora, rationalist and humanist,
when she attempted to address a public meeting in Cuddapah district, Andhra
Pradesh, in the 1940s to make people aware of the ills of the devadasi
system. On Tuesday, at the age of 84, the intrepid woman who co-founded with
her husband the Atheist Centre in 1940 to show people how to live along
secular and humanist lines, became the recipient of the Jankidevi Bajaj
puraskar for 1996.
Instituted by the ladies' wing of the Indian Merchants' Chamber of Commerce,
Mumbai, the award is given annually to a person who has pioneered
entrepreneurship among rural women.
Ms Gora could not be present, but two of her sons and a daughter, who also
work at the Centre, were there to receive the award on her behalf. They later
spoke of their parents' commitment to opposing obscurantism.
Ms Gora, who was married off at the age of 10 by her orthodox parents, joined
her husband, an idealistic lecturer in botany, at 16. Here was a man who had
already begun questioning the rationale of religion which kept women so
completely oppressed. When the couple started partaking of meals with members
of other castes and Gora cast off his sacred thread, Saraswati's outraged
parents stopped visiting them. Meanwhile, Gora's atheist writings were too
incendiary for college authorities to handle and he lost two jobs
"We were six children in the family then (1940)," recalls G. Vijayam, who is
fifth among the nine siblings. "We had no private property to our names. My
parents began the Atheist Centre initially in Mudunur village in Krishna
district, a village without electricity, tap water or transport." They moved
to Vijayawada in 1947, continuing to attack problems such as widow remarriage
and marriage of devadasis. Inter-caste marriages on a mass scale became the
norm, though, to set a redoubtable example first, Saraswati Gora got her
eldest daughter married to a Harijan - and It was with the girl's consent,
not merely to prove a point.
Their ideas drew women from all over Andhra - unwed mothers, destitute women,
women on the verge of suicide. "The Centre provides them training in skills
such as printing technology, carpet weaving or hotel management rather than
just home-science-oriented fields, apart, of course, from imparting
counselling," informs Mr Vijayam.
Funds for the work come from Central and state governments, Oxfam, Humanists
in other countries, the Save the Children Fund and individual donors, besides
a large volunteer force that keeps the activities going in full stream.
What, in effect, keeps Saraswati Gora going? "The plight of women moves her
the most - the fact that even a decision that concerns her most, such as
whether or not to have a tubectomy, has to be taken by the husband," says Mr
Vijayam, with passion. "What she strongly believes in is that human beings
are capable of anything if they can get past the barriers laid down by
tradition, and that religion is not necessary to lead a good and ethical
Today, the yogin or devadasi system, that had temple priests and landlords
exploit women in the most Inhuman fashion, "has almost stopped" In Andhra, he
claims. Each yogin has been given an acre of land by the Centre over the last
year or so along with functional literacy, which restores their dignity. The
priests, for their part, came forward, offering to lop off their long hair
and asserting that they would not make any more yogins out of women.
One has to work with the oppressed as well as the oppressor, says Mr Vijayam,
summarising his mother's pragmatic approach. "And she believes that if you do
it openly, change will come."
Comment : Incidence of there type show the story reform movement with
Hinduism. It also shows that reform can take place only at the field level
and not through conference and academic journals. As Arun Shourie said,
"This is one of the fundamental differences between these reformers and, say,
our intellectuals, or, to put it at the highest, between a Gandhi and a
Jawaharlal Nehru: the former are insiders, their critique is born of a deep
commitment to, a deep respect for tradition; while the latter are outsiders -
not just impatient with and exasperated by, but deep down ashamed of that
tradition." ("To reform it, you have to be saturated with our tradition",
The Observer of Business and Politics, Jan 3, 1997.)