Stories that Teach – I

INTRODUCTION

All of us have been raised on stories from the Panchatantra. We know them as children’s stories where talking monkeys and wise jackals preach human values. Imagine my surprise then, when a few years ago, I happened to read the entire translated collection. I was surprised to find these stories, far from being children’s stories, actually deal with complex and nuanced human emotions and the dilemmas arising from them. These stories show …. well, let me stop here. In ‘Stories that Teach – I’, read this story from the Panchatantra that teaches any value that the reader may want to learn. In ‘Stories that Teach – II’. we will see why this is such a great teaching story.

THE WEAVER WHO LOVED A PRINCESS

In the Molasses belt of Middle India there is a city called Madhurnagar. In it lived two friends; Mehnata, a skilled weaver and Anokha, a skilled carpenter. They were masters in their own respective crafts and had earned money and a good reputation in the city. They worked nine hours a day. At the end of each day, they dressed up in their expensive, soft, and brightly colored garments; adorned themselves diffused odors of camphor, aloes and musk. Dressed and adorned, they met others from the village for recreation in places like the public squares or temples.

One day there was a great festival in the city. It was an occasion for the entire population to wear their finest ornaments and move around the temples of gods and the other public places. Mehnata  and Anokha were there as well, dressed in their finest. They wandered in the festive streets of the village with joy and abandon enjoying every moment. Just then, while walking the brightly decorated streets, Mehnata  caught a glimpse of a princess seated at the window of the palace. She was more beautiful than words could describe or the mind could imagine.

The weaver was enthralled by her beauty and could not stop thinking about her. He walked back home in a wondrous stagger. He could not sleep a wink that night. His friend Anokha came over the next morning and found Mehnata lying there with tears in his eyes. Anokha was skilled in detecting problems of the heart. He checked his friend and concluded that his condition was not the result of fever, but that of a man who is in love. He persuaded Mehnata to confide in him who his lady love was. When Mehnata finally told his friend who his love was, Anokha was shocked and sad at the same time. No King would give his daughter to a lowly weaver. Anokha warned Mehnata that his attempt to woo the Princess would only entail the king’s wrath.

Mehnata insisted that he loved the princess and that love did not bear the logic of the mind. Anokha could not bear to see the plight of his friend and decided to help him out. He decided to build something for Mehnata which would enable him to visit his love without losing out on time. Mehnata’s hopes risen, he now resumed his daily work.

After a few days, Anokha came with a huge mechanical bird made of wood. It was painted with beautiful colors and he called it ‘Garuda’, the bird of Vishnu. This bird had plugs placed in an intelligent fashion. Anokha informed Mehnata that with the insertion of one plug the bird would take him wherever he wanted. The removal of this plug would stop the flight of this mechanical vehicle. He asked Mehnata to mount the bird, dress in Lord Vishnu’s garbs and meet his lovely princess.

Soon, Mehnata was all set to meet his princess. He put on garlands, and garments rich in fragrance. He wore exquisite jewelry and when night came he followed the instructions of the carpenter. The princess saw Mehnata and thought he was Lord Vishnu. She, honored by the Lord’s visit asked him what she could do for him. Mehnata said to her that he had descended from the heavens to take her as his wife. She was his actual bride who had accidentally fallen to earth because of a curse. He told her that he would now marry her by the ceremony used in heaven.

So they were married and with each day their love only grew stronger. Mehnata and the princess continued to meet every day, but on one such day he was seen by the palace guards. The palace guards approached the king with this piece of information. The king shocked by what he had heard went and shared his hurt and shame with the queen:

You are worried when you hear that she is born;

Picking husbands makes you anxious and forlorn;

When she marries, will her husband be a churl?

It is tough to be the father of a girl.

The queen went up to the princess’s room and questioned her about her paramour. The princess confessed the entire story to her mother. That evening the Queen and the King hid in the balcony to see if it was really Lord Vishnu who came to meet the princess every night. The sight of Mehnata on the huge bird pleased them and they were now sure of their great fortune. The King felt blessed and told the Queen that he was fortunate to have Vishnu as is son-in-law.

The King’s feeling of gratitude slowly turned to greed. He was the father-in-law of the great Lord Vishnu. What could he possibly not achieve with such great power on his side? Soon he started dreaming of conquering the neigbouring and the foreign lands. He challenged them all to a fierce battle and almost immediately challenged the great monarch of the South to a battle. The King called on his daughter and asked her to speak to her husband, his son-in-law, the great Lord Vishnu to slain his opponents.

That day when the princess spoke to Mehnata he was crushed. He felt sick at the thought of losing his lady love and his life too. His reputation was at stake. Feeing defeated at the card life had handed him, he spent one more sleepless night full of suffering. Once again Anokha, always quick to detect his friend’s problem, came to his aid. He advised his one and only dear friend to face the consequence of his lie like a man of honour. Mehnata decided that he would proceed for battle and lay down his life.

Let resolution guide the great, However desperate his state,

However grim his hostile fate: By resolution lifted high,

With shrewd decision as ally, He grimly sees grim trouble fly.

Now it so happened that far away and up above, deep in the heavens, the real Garuda was watching all this and decided to consult the real Lord Vishnu. He expressed to Lord Vishnu that if this weaver failed to save the city and was executed in the battle, it would only reflect badly onto the Lord, as people considered the weaver to be the real Lord Vishnu. People would stop performing ceremonies with the Lord’s name and the gifts and offerings would cease to come as well. Lord Vishnu felt that Garuda was right about his observation and decided to help the weaver. He decided that on the morning of the battle his spirit would enter the weaver and the spirit of Garuda would enter that of the mechanical bird and he would slay the army. On the morning of the battle he blew the conch and the sight of the Lord on the mighty bird scared the army and the men ran for their life. Lord Vishnu used his discuss to slay the Southern monarch’s head and the army bowed down to him for:

An army leaderless, is slain

All the enemies of the King kneeled down in front of the Lord and he asked them to give control of their land, chariots, men and elephants to the King of Madhurnagar city. At this point, Mehnata came forward and revealed that he was really a simple weaver who had fallen in love with his daughter. The great Lord Vishnu warned the King of unfettered greed and praised Mehnata for not ducking the challenge. The King was glad and accepted the weaver as his son-in-law and his secret stayed safe with the real Lord Vishnu. Hence:

The Gods befriend a man who climbs

Determination’s height…

(Adapted from the translation made from original Sanskrit by Arthur Ryder).

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Second to None: The Role of Women in their Own Education

INTRODUCTION

This is an extract of a paper I wrote in 2015 for my ‘History of Education’ assignment which is a part of my MA in Education course. I found it fascinating that women in India, as early 300 years ago, were so committed to learning to read and write. Not because they sought independence of any kind, or because they could have great careers. Such things did not exist at that time. Learning to read and write, in harsh conditions, against  all odds, simply because they wanted to, because they saw themselves as capable to learn and because they wanted to ‘see’ the world outside through books. This article chronicles the role of women’s own agency in educating themselves against all odds and opposition around early to late 20th century! I hope it leaves you inspired!

SECOND TO NONE

Azizunisa Begum was Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s mother. Born in 1780, she was able to read difficult religious texts in Arabic and Persian through the strict confines of the purdah. (Basu, 2005). Moving up on the timeline, you find Rashundari Devi, born in 1809 in Bengal. She taught herself to read amidst stiff opposition and obstacles. (Basu, 2005). Moving further up the timeline, there was Parvatikunvar, born in 1828 in Gujarat, who was taught to read and write by her mother. (Basu, 2005). And Tarabai Shinde, born in Maharashtra in 1850, learnt to read and write at home from her father. (Sarkar, 1999).

These are but a few images, from the larger picture of women’s education in colonial India. Scattered and disparate as they may seem, these examples have in common the operative agency of women that was unwilling and unbending against the strictures of caste and gender that were dominant at that time. These and several other examples are signposts of a time that was replete with stories of women who defied norms and sought whatever means available to alter their pitiable state of bondage. Education was seen by many – women and men both, as one of the means to break free from oppressive practices and put an end to the ignominious state of affairs.

Whether through their own grit, or assistance from the educated, progressive and reformist gentry, women acquired the means to educate themselves and others in the wake of strong superstition and the imposed subservient positions.

THE WAY THINGS WERE

Pre-colonial records of eighteenth century paint a bleak picture of women’s education. One may come across a reference of a learned woman in a vast span of time in history; like Gul-Badan Begum, daughter of Emperor Babur or Jehanara Begum, daughter of Shah Jahan, (Acharya, 1978) or Hati Vidyalankar, a child widow of Kulin Brahmana family from Rarh who was proficient in Sanskrit literature, philosophy and law ran a chatuspathi (center of Sanskrit learning) in Banaras. (Chakrabarti & Chakrabarti, 2013). The idea that women’s education was alien and unheard of.

In Bengal, most Brahmin women and those from lower castes were denied all forms of education except that one type which was closely associated with that of domesticity – vratas or bratas. (Acharya, 1978). Often cast as playful, socio-religious rituals, it involved rote learning of epics and ritual text that ‘taught’ women to undergo penance in the form of fasting and praying for the well-being and longevity of their family, specifically their husbands and sons. The bratas were often enjoyably performed by little girls who were thus ready to be betrothed at an early age between five or ten years.

These instances are more exceptional in that they serve to prove the proposition that learning for women was severely restricted and if available it was reserved for women of nobility or elite class like that of rulers or Brahmins, usually at home under strict seclusion.

Women, however, were neither ignorant nor without knowledge. Women, more than men were responsible for the oral transmission of knowledge which usually came in the form of smriti literature, music, ballads and folklore. Women’s learning and their role in generational transmission was more crucial to cultural survival than maintenance of Vedic tradition by men.  (Sen, 2002). In that sense, writes Samita Sen, when colonial education spread across India, the shift was much bigger for women in terms of nature of learning, content and method. (Sen, 2002).

UP AGAINST THE WALL

A review of the reasons for lack of education for women is appalling. It was believed that a woman who can read and write could ‘make secret assignations of illicit nature’. (Sen, 2002). Such a woman, who forgot her domestic place would invite the wrath of gods, which would eventually lead to her being a widow. Even if the gods would spare her husband, her own immorality would lead to her husband’s death. Superstitions like these resulted in educated or literate women being labelled as immoral. (Sen, 2002).

It was in social contexts as harsh as these that women needed to exercise their agency.

CONTENTIONS ON EDUCATIONAL PURPOSE

It was Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who in 1818 questioned some of the norms based on which education was denied to women. He rejected the idea that women were incapable of learning, hence denigrated to their life of domestic chores. He reversed the idea to say that because they were denied education, they were not learned and hence perceived as incapable of any intellectual or useful activities. This idea found affirmation when Mary Wollstonecraft, an advocate of women’s rights, wrote about the reversal of cause and effect with regard to women’s education and empowerment. (Sarkar, 1999).

Even though women’s education was deemed as un-necessary, it was found that it did find its uses acceptably in certain situations. In the case of widowhood, they were expected to manage family properties, know how to read land agreements and books of accounts. Rashundari Devi put her education to practical use by writing a plea in her husband’s absence. The low-caste boshtomis, a devotional sect, were literate and integral to women’s education in that they were assigned as teachers for upper caste households. (Sarkar, 1999)

 STANDING HER GROUND

The subject of women’s education, though largely subsumed under the nationalist discourse, was at the helm of the social enlightenment so desired by reformists. From a life behind the veil to being de rigueur, women’s educational journey marshalled support from various sections within society – mainly Missionaries, empathetic government establishments and national reformists looking at societal transformation. The biggest impetus however came from women their own agency.

Here are a few examples.

Rashundari Devi, born in 1809 in Calcutta, taught herself to read and write by scratching letters of the alphabet onto a corner of a blackened wall in the kitchen. She had the support of her mother-in-law which by itself is commendable given the popular myth of impending widowhood that awaited women who tried to study. She used her literacy to pen her autobiography in Bengali – ‘Amar Jiban’. Credited as the first Indian autobiography, the book chronicled her life of drudgery and monotony in great detail. It was praised immensely during those times for its crisp and beautiful, descriptive prose. Portraying things as they were, her book epitomizes the strength and determination shown by her in view of the times she lived in. (Tharu & Lalita, 1991)

Pandita Ramabai was a prolific social activist and educator and served as an inspiration for generations of women ahead of her. She was born in 1858 in the state of Karnataka. Her father taught her to read and write Sanskrit and interpret Vedic texts. She became a widow within two years of her marriage. In living up to her late husband’s desire to educate young widows, she founded the Arya Mahila Samaj in Pune. She strived for the cause of women’s education and deliverance from the oppression of child marriage. In the years that followed she went on to establish many institutions like Mukti Sadan, Mukti Mission and wrote and translated several books including the Bible. One of her most important books was ‘The High Caste Hindu Woman’ in which she revealed the darkest aspects of the life of Hindu women.  (“Pandita Ramabai” 2015)

Swarnakumari Debi was born in 1855 and was among the first women writers in Bengal to gain prominence. She taught herself to read and write at home and participated creatively in the literary efforts of the household. She started the first all India Women’s Association that brought into focus women’s issues. (“Swarnakumari Debi” 2015)

Ramabai Ranade was born in Maharashtra, in 1863. Ramabai was a women’s rights activist and an educator. Married to Mahadev Govind Ranade, she soon started learning to read and write. She started the Hindu Ladies Social Club in Mumbai to develop public speaking skills amongst women. Distraught and desolate after her husband’s death she continued her work by establishing Seva Sadans and organizing the Bharat Mahila Parishad to educate and awaken women. (“Ramabai Ranade” 2015)

Lady Abala Bose, born in 1864 in Calcutta, was a social activist and educator known for her work in the betterment of the conditions and the upliftment of widows. She was also a feminist who wrote passionately about the status of women as ‘being a mind first and a physical body after’. She set up the Nari Shiksha Samiti in 1915 through which she established primary schools, prepare suitable textbooks and open child welfare centers. (“Lady Abala Bose” 2015)

Sarala Devi Chaudhrani was born in Calcutta in 1872. She studied at Calcutta University and completed her B.A., receiving a gold medal in English Literature.  She was the founder of the first women’s organization in India, the Bharat Stree Mahamandal in Allahabad. Promoting education among women was its primary goal. This organization went on to open several branches in Northern regions of India. (“Sarla Devi Chaudhrani” 2015)

Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was a remarkable Mulsim educationist. Born in 1880 in Calcutta, she strived for gender equality and other social issues. She set up a school for Muslim girls in 1911 in Calcutta. In addition to writing short novels, Sultana’s Dreams and Padmarag, she also founded Anjuman-e-Khawateen-e-Islam which was an organization that served as a prominent voice in issues related to women and their issues.

In 1893 in Calcutta, Mataji Tapaswini, a Sanskrit scholar, established the Mahakali Pathshala. The school educated young women from conservative families. To satisfy the conservatives, they developed a curricula dominated by home science and religious lore. She also set out to systematize traditional education girls received at home.  Her school flourished until the 1920s. (Sen 2002)

Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy was born in 1886 in Madras. Her life is memorable for that she aspired to be different from other women in her times. She studied till matriculation securing several gold medals. She continued her studies from home after being denied school when she turned older. Much against the wish of her father she went on to become a doctor and is credited today as being the first woman house surgeon in a government hospital. She was also the first woman legislator in India. (“Muthulakshmi Reddy” 2015)

Sister Subbulakshmi was born in 1886 in Madras. As was the practice then, she was married at the age of nine even though she had secured a first rank in the public examination of the Chingleput district in the Madras Presidency. Widowed at a young age she went on to become the first woman graduate in Madras Presidency with first class honors in 1911. She worked toward rehabilitating child widows and educating them. She started the Sarada Vidyalaya and was the principal of Lady Willingdon Training College and Practice School. She established several other associations for women and children. (“Sister Subbulakshmi” 2015)

Vidyagauri Nilakanth was born in Ahmedabad, and worked for women’s welfare. She started tailoring schools for women, edited a magazine on education with her husband. She conducted literacy classes for women and was awarded the MBE (Member of British Empire) and Star of India.

Sister Nivedita’s school in Calcutta was for girls from poor families. Inspired by Vivekananda to attempt the best in Eastern and Western literature, she sought to provide modern education in the context of Indian culture without making it academic.

Worth mentioning here, in addition to the above, are the multitude of associations and organizations founded by women who shared a vision about the common future of their gender. The three major associations that emerged after the end of the First World War are Women’s India Association, the Women’s India Association, the National Council of Women and the All India Women’s Conference.

These are but a few examples that underline the rise of women’s education in colonial India.Of the many who make it possible for us to read and write and learn whatever we want, let us also wave a thank you to them all today.