Hyderabad, Sindh is famed for a number of things, including The Bombay Bakery’s legendary cakes, the city’s windy and cool afternoons, and the beautiful wind catchers that used to be a hallmark of its distinctive architecture.
However, only very few people would know that Hyderabad was once home to an indigenous feminist movement, first called Om Mandli and later renamed Brahma Kumaris.
Brahma Kumaris is a spiritual organisation predominantly led and managed by women, and presently has its headquarters in Mount Abu Rajasthan, India.
Interestingly, this mainly female-based organisation was not founded by a woman but by a man, Lekhraj Khubchand Kriplani (1876-1969), also known as Dada Lekhraj of Hyderabad, in the 1930’s.
In the beginning, it was a gathering, headed by Dada Lekhraj, of a small number of devotees, which gradually grew larger, and eventually transformed into a worldwide organisation with offices in 110 countries.
To explore how this obscure group went on to become a global spiritual organisation, we must go back to pre-Partition Hyderabad.
During the British rule, Hyderabad’s Hindu merchants, Bhaibands, had an international network of firms and were known as Sindworkies (one who works in goods from Sindh).
Many of these men joined the Sindwork firms that were working across the globe and would spend several years in foreign countries, leaving their womenfolk behind.
Lawrence Babb, in his article Indigenous Feminism in a Modern Hindu Sect, writes: “But if the world was wide for Sind Worki men, for their wives and daughters matters were very different. The world of women was the household, within which most of them were secluded.”
Perhaps it was the isolation and sense of being left behind, stranded in a house without men, that prompted women to explore avenues that would enable them to live more purposeful and spiritually meaningful lives.
Dada Lekhraj was a follower of Vallabhcharya Vaishnavism (a Hindu sect) and was a jeweller by profession. As part of his trade, he met many women and observed their far-from-healthy social conditions.
He eventually proclaimed that he was having visions and was receiving instructions from deities. He began organising a small gathering in his home where the attendees would participate in satsang (devotional singing) and would read the Bhagavad Gita.
Most of the attendees were women and children and the gathering especially attracted Bhaiband women whose menfolk were away on business and who found spiritual contentment in religious activities.
Dada’s followers called him Om Baba and the group that he formed was known as Om Mandli. The Om Mandli gradually expanded its activities and its membership also increased.
Because the Om Mandli’s teachings stressed religious devotion, celibacy and chastity, it was perceived as a threat to family life and patriarchy, and soon the Bhaiband community rose in protest.
Resultantly, a committee known as Anti-Om Mandli Committee was formulated by Bhaiband men. The female members of the Om Mandli were abused and threatened in their homes.
In 1938, an angry mob set one of Om Mandli’s buildings on fire. The situation got worse and the organisation was forced to move its headquarters to Karachi.
By then, the reigns of the Om Mandli had been handed over to a young woman, Radhe Pokardas Rajwani (1915-1965), also known as Om Radhe.
In March, 1939 the government appointed a tribunal to inquire into the activities of the Om Mandli. Shortly afterwards, it was declared that the group was an “unlawful organisation.” Yet, the movement continued its activities secretly.
After Partition, the entire organisation moved to Mount Abu in Rajasthan in 1950. It was renamed as the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University and the network started expanding internationally.
From the 1970’s onwards, the Brahma Kumaris set up centres in other countries, the first of which was established in London.
Afterwards, they spread to other European countries and continued teaching Raja Yoga, meditation, and other forms of spiritual knowledge.
In the 1980’s, the Brahma Kumaris got affiliated with UN agencies like UNICEF and Economic and Social Council.
In today’s Hyderabad, there would hardly be anyone who would know that a tiny group of women who formed a religious circle in this very city, have reached such renown.
What is remarkable is that, in pre-Partition Hyderabad, where patriarchal norms and misogyny was at its heights, some of its courageous women powerfully resisted the yoke of men and subjugation.
Though many of them had to face trials and tribulations, they persevered and are now acknowledged across the globe for their spiritual teachings and philanthropic work.
Following Partition, Pakistan’s entire focus shifted towards the majoritarian religious aspects of our history and culture, and consequently our younger generation is completely unaware of a colourful and beautiful heritage of Hindus, Sikhs and other minorities that once lived in what now constitutes the Land of the Pure.
Perhaps rather than projecting a selective historical narrative, we should revisit our history and be proud of its plurality.
This article first appeared on Dawn.