Maharshi V R Shinde
A great social reformist who strived all his life to eradicate untouchability
Vitthal Ramji Shinde was born on 23rd April, 1873 in the village Jamkhandi in Karnataka State. He was influenced by the Warkari environment in the house. He knew Marathi and Kannada languages well. Later, he also learnt other languages like Sanskrit, Pali and English. He received a scholarship from the Deccan Maratha Education Association while studying in Pune’s Fergusson College. He got his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1898 and completed the first year of Law. He received a monthly scholarship of Rs.25 from Maharaja SayajiRao Gaikwad (a progressive and reformist in his own rights) of the Baroda Princely State, on a promise that after completing his education, he would work for the Baroda Princely State.
The same year, Vitthalrao was drawn towards Prarthana Samaj and became its missionary. Here, he was further inspired and influenced by G. B. Kotkar, Shivrampant Gokhale, Justice Ranade, R. G. Bhandarkar and K. B. Marathe. In 1901 he was sent by the Samaj to the Manchester College, Oxford, England, where he studied comparative religion, Pali language and Buddhist religion for two years. Maharaja SayajiRao provided financial assistance for his travel abroad.
He returned to Mumbai in October 1903. In 1905 he started a night school for the untouchables in Meethganjapeth. VitthalRao considered Mahatma Phule as his Guru. On 18th October 1906 he established the Indian Depressed Class Mission in Mumbai. The objectives of the mission were the following:
- Propagate education among the untouchables;
- Garner jobs for them;
- Resolve their social issues;
- Propagate exemplary values in individuals like good disposition, secularism, civic sense etc.
Many schools and hostels were founded by this mission. He worked for two years for the free dispensary run by the mission.
On 14th March 1907, he established the Somvanshiya Mitra Samaj with the aim of religious and social reforms, especially for the untouchables. He attempted to abolish the Devdasi system (a practice where young girls are offered to temples and they spend their entire life in the temple, dancing at the whim and fancy of the men and being exploited) among the Mahar and Mang women and practices of animal sacrifice, eating beef and drinking.
In 1910, he ended his association with the Prarthana Samaj.
By 1912, the Depressed Classes Mission had 23 schools, 55 teachers, 1100 students, 5 hostels, 12 branches, and 5 canvassing volunteers across 14 locations, in seven States and four different languages. In 1917 he established the Akhil Bhartiya Nirashrit Asprushyata Nivarak Sangha. He also convened an all-India convention in Mumbai to eradicate untouchability. He attempted social reform through convening many such conferences for eradicating untouchability. He succeeded in getting the Indian National Congress to pass a resolution condemning the practice of untouchability. In 1922, he completed the construction of the AhilyaAshram.
From 1925 to 1926 he visited Burma to study the social ethos there and Buddhist religion as practiced there.
Maharshi Shinde also attempted social reform through his writings. He wrote articles for the magazine Upasana and for the weekly SubodhChandrika. He tried to awaken the society towards the issue of untouchability through his Bahishkrut Bharat (ostracised India) and Bharatiya Asprushyatecha Prasna (the problem of India’s untouchability), published in 1933. His thoughts and examination of the Hindu religion and social culture were similar to Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Dayananda Saraswati. In his writings, he rejects the caste system, idol worship and discrimination against woman and the depressed classes. He rejected meaningless rituals, the dominance of hereditary priesthood and the requirement for a priest to mediate between God and his devotees. His essay Hindustanatil Udar Dharma (the munificent region of India) presented in the religious convention in Holland became famous. He also wrote an autobiography titled Aathavani ani Anubhav. He was the president of the Marathi Literary convention held in Baroda in 1934.
In 1930 he participated in the Civil Disobedience movement of Mahatma Gandhi and was imprisoned for six months of hard labour in the Yerawada prison near Pune. He also undertook social and political work through organisations like Rashtriya Maratha Sangh, Samata Sainik Dal and Bahujan Samaj Paksha. He did outstanding work in issues related to the entry of untouchables in temples, animal sacrifice during Holi festival, the Murali tradition (children are offered to God, and eventually end up getting exploited), etc. He studied the farmers problems and tried to organize them.
He strongly believed that along with the upliftment of the untouchables and giving them confidence, it was equally important to work with the upper castes to remove their biases against the untouchables.
Maharshi Vitthal Ramji Shinde, the stalwart who worked against untouchability all his life, expired on January 2, 1944.