Om Mandli – Neville Hodgkinson (Global Retreat Centre, UK)
A document written during an intense controversy that arose at the time of the establishment of the Brahma Kumaris more than 70 years ago was published recently, amidst claims that it proved a lack of morality in Dada Lekhraj, the organisation’s founder.
Called “Om Mandli”, it was prepared in 1940 by a group of men from the Bhaibund business community in Hyderabad, Sind, after some of their wives and daughters became deeply attracted to the spiritual ideas and ways of life being taught, including celibacy.
At first the men, who were often away on business for two or three years, were happy for their womenfolk to attend “Om Mandli” (sacred circle), the name given at that time to the spiritual gathering. Gradually however the founder’s vision of a woman-led movement for social and spiritual reform grew in strength and influence.
In furtherance of these ideals, young women began to refuse to marry, and wives refused to have sex with their husbands when they returned from their long trips abroad. A school run on religious principles was started, and some women and children went to live with Lekhraj and his family after he gave his wealth in trust to an all-woman administrative committee in support of the new movement.
In 1930s India, where religious and social structures kept most women deeply subservient, these events proved highly challenging. The local Punchayat, an assembly of elders, demanded that Lekhraj change the teachings, especially in regard to celibacy.
He refused, and a campaign to ban the Om Mandli began. Eventually it took the form of violent picketing, with windows, fences and walls broken, and on one occasion an attempt to set fire to the group’s main building.
The women asked the Hyderabad district magistrate for protection. Instead the magistrate, a relative of the leader of the Bhaibund committee, issued an order imposing a ban, arguing that the Om Mandli, through its subversive teachings, was responsible for the scenes of disorder.
Two British judges quashed this order. After a High Court hearing in Karachi in November 1938, they commented: “If we were to accept the position taken by the district magistrate, a few persons of conservative minds and not averse to violence could successfully obstruct any social movement of reforms by obstructing and wrongfully restraining the social reformers.”
The judges added that the criminal law under which the order had been made was “being turned to a purpose for which it was not intended, and that is to say, to prevent, not acts which are wrongful in the eyes of the Law, but acts which are wrongful in the eyes of the district magistrate…We are dealing here with religious meetings in two private houses.”
Following this defeat, the “Anti Om Mandli Committee” stepped up their accusations and activities. Girls who refused to stay away from the gathering were locked up, beaten, paraded through the streets, and forced to eat pig’s meat in attempts to break the hold Lekhraj was assumed to have on them.
The committee started to claim that Lekhraj, previously held in high regard, was a cult leader who had hypnotised their women, and was behaving immorally with them. The statements of four girls “tutored” to this effect were leaked to newspapers.
Other parties became involved and the row spread throughout the region, eventually reaching the Sind Parliament, where an order imposing a fresh ban was passed after Hindu members threatened to bring the government down if their demands were not met.
A flavour of what happened is provided by this extract from a speech in the Sind Legislative Assembly on 24 March 1939 by the Minister for Law and Order, Sir Ghulam Hussain Hidayatullah, of the Muslim League (after the partition of India in 1947 Sir Ghulam became the first Governor of Sind). He stated:
I heard the last speaker, and I must say that he and some of his friends want that the Government should be led by the nose, obey their dictates and do justice to no one. Some of the speakers propounded a theory that we should not prevent civil liberty of the people and that we should be guided by the opinion of the majority. Well, Sir, I ask those gentlemen who propounded that theory, “Because those poor women are only a handful, should we take the law into our hands and prevent their liberty?” You see the iniquity, Sir…
I might give instance of some of the Prophets to show that when they started any religion how few they were. Take the case of our Holy Prophet Mahomed. How many people had he? Hardly five or ten. If we accept and follow the definition of civil liberties of the Hon. Member [—–], he ought to have been stopped from propagating Islam.
Sir, we should give liberty to all castes and communities, irrespective of the opinion of the majority. We cannot be guided with pistol in hand by some of the honourable members and asked to do injustice to others.
Despite a similar appeal by K.B. Allah Baksh, the Chief Minister, the Government acceded to the pressure and a directive was issued declaring Om Mandli to be an unlawful association.
Some newspapers, which had played a big part in whipping up ill-feeling towards the Mandli, welcomed the ban. Others were shocked by the injustice. Leading articles in The Daily Gazette declared that the Sind Government was trampling on the civil liberties to which Indian people were entitled under British rule. The British system of justice was contrasted with that of former days, when “the power of deciding what is a wrongful act and what is not was summarily vested in the local Punchayat, and there was no appeal”.
Following the ban, a report called “Is This Justice?” was written by Om Radhe, a young unmarried woman in charge of the Mandli. It was published in August 1939 from Karachi, where the fledgling movement had moved after being driven out of Hyderabad. It contained many testimonies to the reforming power and purity of the teachings. The Bhaibund Committee document that has recently come to light was an angry response to this report.
Ultimately, justice did prevail. With behind-the-scenes support from senior government figures, the Mandli survived in Karachi. For the next 13 years, several hundred women and a handful of men quietly continued their work of attaining self-realisation through the teachings and practices. In 1950 they moved to Mount Abu, Rajasthan, from where the founding sisters, now using the name Brahma Kumaris (daughters of Brahma, the Hindu deity representative of creation), carried the flame of higher consciousness across India and out into the world.
In 1994, the Government of India issued a one rupee stamp in honour of the movement’s founder, marking the 25 years since his death in 1969. It was launched by the President of India at the Presidential House in Delhi. The advisory board that recommended the issue said it was in recognition of the services the Brahma Kumaris had given, and in particular its strong affiliation and contribution to the United Nations, where it has held general consultative status for many years.
There have been countless other achievements since, bringing benefit to millions in India and across the world.