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.