Who was Dhondo Keshav Karve?
Dhondo Keshav Karve was an eminent Indian social reformer and educator who championed the cause of women education and remarriage of Hindu widows. He was popularly called ‘Maharshi’ which means ‘a great sage’. Thinking way ahead of his time, he understood the primary fault plaguing the orthodox Hindu society, namely the undermined position of Indian women. Hence, to enable their upliftment, he established the Widow Marriage Association in 1893 and set a noble example for others by marrying a widow himself, following the death of his first wife. He also established an educational institution called Hindu Widows Home in Pune to help widows become self-sufficient if they failed to remarry. Literacy of women was one of his primary concerns and hence, he established the Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey Women’s University, the first university for women in India. Later in his life, he also supported additional causes like the establishment of societies for village primary education, and the abolition of caste system and untouchability. On his centenary birthday, he was awarded India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna.
Childhood & Early Life
Dhondo Keshav Karve was born on 18 April 1858, at Sheravali, Maharashtra in a lower middle-class Brahmin family. His father's name was Keshav Bapunna Karve.
He studied at Elphinstone College, Mumbai (then known as Bombay) and received a bachelor's degree in mathematics.
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From 1891–1914, Dhondo Keshav Karve taught mathematics at Fergusson College, Pune in Maharashtra. The work of statesmen like Pandita Ramabai, Vishnushastri Chiplunkar and Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar inspired him to campaign for the cause of women upliftment.
In 1893, he founded ‘Widhawa-Wiwahottejak Mandali’ which encouraged widow remarriage and also took care of their needy children. In 1895, the institution was renamed to ‘Widhawa-Wiwaha-Pratibandh-Niwarak Mandali’ (Society to Remove Obstacles to Marriages of Widows).
In 1896, he established the Hindu Widows' Home Association—a shelter and school for widows in the remote village of Hingane, outside the city of Pune, Maharashtra. He chose the distant location because the prevailing orthodox Brahmin community in Pune had banished him for supporting widow remarriage and education.
He had limited resources and struggled to support his social reformatory efforts. For many years, he walked from Hingane to Pune to teach mathematics at Fergusson College and also to collect small funds. He faced a lot of criticism from the conformists.
In 1907, he established ‘Mahila Vidyalaya’ (School for Women). In 1908, he started ‘Nishkam Karma Math’ (Social Service Society) to train workers for the widows’ home and the Mahila Vidyalaya.
Inspired by the Women's University in Tokyo, Japan he established the first university for women in India in 1916. The university was established in Pune with five students.
During 1917–1918, he established the Training College for Primary School Teachers and another school for girls called ‘Kanya Shala’.
In 1920, Vithaldas Thackersey, a philantrophic industrialist donated 1.5 million Indian rupees to the women’s university. As a tribute, the university was renamed to ‘Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey (S.N.D.T.) Indian Women’s University’.
In March 1929, he visited England and attended the Primary Teachers' Conference at Malvern. He spoke on “Education of Women in India” in a meeting of the East India Association at Caxton Hall, London.
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In December 1930, he left for a yearlong tour of Africa, sharing information about his work for women in India, in countries like Mombasa, Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika, Zanzibar, etc.
In 1931, the S.N.D.T. University established its first college in Mumbai, and eventually shifted its head office there.
In 1936, he started the Maharashtra Village Primary Education Society aiming to establish primary schools in villages that lacked such set ups. He also encouraged the village adults to read more.
In 1944, he founded the ‘Samata Sangh’ (Association for the Promotion of Human Equality). Five years later in 1949, the Government of India recognized S.N.D.T. University as a proper statutory university.
He also supported the abolition of caste system and the practice of untouchability in traditional Hindu society.
Dhondo Keshav Karve championed the cause of women’s education and widow remarriage in the early 20th century India. He also campaigned against the widespread caste system and untouchability practice in the Hindu society.
He wrote two autobiographical books, ‘Atmawrutta’ (1928) in Marathi and ‘Looking Back’ (1936) in English.
Awards & Achievements
In 1955 he was awarded with the Padma Vibhushan—the second highest civilian award of India— by the Government of India. In 1958, he was awarded with the Bharat Ratna—the highest civilian award of India—by the Government of India.
In 1958, the Government of India issued stamps marking his birth centenary. For the first time in independent India, a living person was featured on the stamps.
Personal Life & Legacy
In the early 20th century, child marriages were prevalent in the Indian society. Karve was married off when he was only fourteen years old to an eight year old girl called Radhabai. The marriage was arranged by his parents.
Unfortunately, his wife died during childbirth in 1891. He was left with a young son named Raghunath Karve who grew up to be a far-sighted social reformer like his father. He was a professor of mathematics and initiated sex education and birth control in India.
Two years after his first wife’s death, Dhondo Keshav Karve remarried a 23 year old widow called Godubai, who had been widowed within three months of marriage at the age of eight.
His other sons were Shankar, Dinakar, and Bhaskar. Shankar was an eminent doctor in Mombasa, a former British colony of Kenya. Dinkar was a professor of chemistry and later, Principal of Fergusson College. Bhaskar worked at the Hingane ‘Stree Shikshan Samstha’ in various leading roles.
Dhondo Keshav Karve died on 9 November 1962, in Pune, India, at the age of 104.
Queen's Road in Mumbai has been renamed to Maharshi Karve Road in his honour.