Dhondo Keshav Karve, (born April 18, 1858, Sheravali, India—died November 9, 1962, Poona [Pune]), Indian social reformer and educator, noted for supporting the education of women and for organizing associations for the remarriage of Hindu widows.
While an instructor in mathematics (1891–1914) at Fergusson College, Poona, Karve became concerned with breaking down orthodox Hindu opposition to widow remarriage, and he established the Widow Marriage Association in 1893. In the same year, he shocked public opinion by himself marrying a widow; his first wife had died in 1891. Karve also founded (1896) an educational institution, Hindu Widows Home, in Poona, to help widows support themselves if they could not remarry.
Karve became increasingly concerned with illiteracy among women, and on his retirement from Fergusson College he started Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey Women’s University in 1916. He later widened his social reform efforts to include the establishment of societies for village primary education and the abolition of caste. Karve’s autobiography was entitled Atmavritta (1915). On his 100th birthday he was awarded India’s highest honour, the Bharat Ratna (“Gem of India”).
Visionary social reformer (1858-1962)
Maharshi Dhondo Keshav Karve was a preeminent Indian social reformer, especially in the field of welfare of women. Apart from the appellation, ‘Maharshi’, meaning ‘a great sage’, he was also affectionately called Anna Karve (‘father’ or an ‘elder brother’ in Marathi). Queen’s Road in Mumbai (Bombay) was renamed as Maharshi Karve Road.
Born in a lower middle-class Chitpavan Brahmin family at Khed Taluka of Ratnagiri district in Maharashtra on 18 April 1858, he received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the Elphinstone College in Bombay.
Hindu social mores in those days discouraged education of girls; daughters often before puberty, were routinely married off to young boys or at times even to grown-up widowers. Since widow remarriages were frowned upon, they faced a bleak future, as lacking education, they ended up serving their late husband’s relatives for life.
With extraordinary fortitude and perseverance he fought the harsh social mores against women and promoted the education of women and freedom for widows to remarry. His inspiration was the works of Pandita Ramabai, Pandit Vishnushāstri Chiplunkar, Pandit Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar and Herbert Spencer, and he continued the pioneering work of Mahatma Phule and Savitribai Phule.
Karve’s parents had arranged his marriage when he was 14, to an 8-year-old girl named Radhabai. She however, died in 1891 during childbirth at age 27. With extraordinary courage, he implemented his own reformatory thoughts and two years later chose as his second wife, a widow – a 23 year old named Godubai, widowed at eight years even before she knew what it was to be a wife, rather than an unmarried girl.
In 1893, Karve founded ‘Vidhawa-Vivahottejak Mandali’, which, besides encouraging widow marriages, also helped their needy children. Initially, he had to start it in a remote village because of the ostracisation for his reformatory activities by the dominant orthodox Brahmin community in the city. With his meagre resources, for many years Karve would walk several miles from Hingane to the city of Pune to teach mathematics at Fergusson College (1891-1914) and also collect in his spare time paltry donations from a few progressive donors, even as others openly hurled insulting epithets at him.
Karve’s visit to Japan in 1916 inspired him to establish in 1916 in Pune the first University for women in India, with just five students. During 1917–1918, he established a Training College for Primary School Teachers and another school for girls, named ‘Kanya Shala’.
In 1920, an industrialist and philanthropist from Mumbai, Sir Vithaldas Thackersey, donated 1.5 million Indian rupees and the University was then renamed as Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey Indian Women’s University or SNDT Women’s University, which in 1936, moved its headquarters to Mumbai.
In March 1929, Karve left for a tour in England and subsequently toured America and many countries in Africa. The then-British colony of Kenya, on his 80th birthday, issued a postage stamp in his honour. In 1958, the Government of India issued stamps commemorating his birth centenary, the first time a “living person” was featured on stamps, after India’s Independence. The Government of India even awarded him its highest civilian award, Bharat Ratna in 1958 (the year he completed 100 years of life).
All his four sons, Raghunath (from his first marriage), and Shankar, Dinkar, and Bhaskar, from his second, rose to eminence in their own fields of work.
Karve wrote two autobiographical works: Ātmavrutta (1928) in Marathi, and Looking Back (1936) in English. He chose poverty and walked the path strewn with criticism and opposition; he wiped others tears and he brought education, equality, honour and joy into the lives of many people.
– A. Radhakrishnan is a freelance journalist based in Pune.