SARASWATHI GORA - THE LIGHT OF ATHEIST CENTRE

By Mrs. Sunanda Shet, Coimbatore.

Right from the 1850's women of India have played heroic role in the cause of the country's honour and independence. Women from all parts of India and from all strata of society have helped swell the ranks of satyagrahis. There are a few known names like Kasturba Gandhi, Kamala Nehru, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Sarojini Naidu, Durgabai Deshmukh, Swaroopa Rani, Kamala Das Gupta, Urmila Devi, Basanthi Devi, Prathiba Devi, Renu Sen, Leela Nag, Jothirmayee Ganguli, Indira Gandhi, Hemaprabha Das Gupta etc. But unknown ones are numerous who in their own way have contributed their mite to the independence of our country, political, social and economic. To all of them, however, Independent India should be equally grateful while enjoying the fruits of their sufferings and sacrifices. The country even after four decades of independence needs such courageous women no less. It is indeed worth emulating them.

From the heap of the unknown I would like to pick out one whom I had the privilege to meet and to know closely. She is none other than Saraswathi Gora, a social worker of distinction, freedom fighter and co-founder of the Atheist Centre, Vijayawada.

A woman inbued with extraordinary courage and sagacity, she is the proud recipient of outstanding social worker award from Challagulla Charities, Hyderabad, this year.

EARLY LIFE:

Born in a middle class orthodox family on 28th September 1912 as an eighth child to her parents, Podur Lakshmi Narasimham and Kondamma, Saraswathi was brought up with enormous love and affection. Being the youngest child in the family she was affectionately called "Chitti". Her grandfather (mother's uncle), Cherukupalli Lakshmi Narasimha Rao used to distribute alms to the poor through Chitti's hands. It was he who later named her Saraswathi, (Goddess of education) when she was admitted to school at the age of five. Her childhood was happy and uneventful as her family was economically well off and had no constraints. Her grandfather had several close friends among great social and political workers of the time like Gurajada Appa Rao, Aadibhatla Narayana Dasu, Dwaram Venkatasamy Naidu, Gidugu Ramamurthy Panthalu etc., who used to hold social and philosophic discussions and were engaged in work for social change.

Saraswathi's father worked in the Maharaja's court. Though his earnings were meagre, (only 30 rupees a month), he had good influence with the Maharaja and had earned a good name as a conscientious worker. Due to his influence his sons could get good jobs.

Saraswathi was brought up among very orthodox practices. The family observed extreme cleanliness and purity. They did not allow any servant to cook food for them. The family used to cook and eat only with pure silk or wet clothes on which they called "madi". The family used to worship different deities. Saraswathi's mother used to be busy throughout the day with prayers and poojas. Several festivals were celebrated throughout the year with great enthusiasm, in particular, Dasara festival for nine days. Orthodox Saraswathi was familiar with the practice of untouchability, she was not allowed to enter the house or mix with the rest of the family after touching others at school or outside her house till she took bath and changed her clothes.

MARRIAGE

Early marriage for girls, before attaining puberty, was the custom and tradition in those days among orthodox brahmins. In tune with tradition of the time, Saraswathi was also married at the age of ten. In April 1922 Saraswathi's father accidentally met one of his childhood friends, Goparaju Venkatasubha Rao at Kakinada during his trip to the place in search of bridegroom for Saraswathi. This happy meeting of the two good friends resulted in their becoming relatives through the marriage of Saraswathi with Goparaju Ramachandra Rao, second son of Goparaju Venkatasubha Rao.

Venkata Subha Rao was very religious and was well known as "Mahadeva Sambho" as he was a great disciple of Lord Siva and always wore rudraksha beads around his neck and chanted the name Mahadeva Sambho. Though he was a worshipper of Shiva, he did not differentiate between Shiva and Keshava and showed lot of tolerance towards worshippers of Vishnu. In later days he extended his tolerance to other religions also and composed songs to spread the message that Shiva, Allah, Christ and Yehovah are but different names of the same omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient force behind this universe.

Saraswathi's marriage was a grand five days function with elaborate brahmin rituals as both families were orthodox and believed in such rituals to ensure the happy married life for the couple. On the third day of the function the bride and the bridegroom were to get a glimpse of star "Arundhati" to shower blessings on them. But Gora was unable to even stand up due to weakness and later fainted. This fainting was due to exhaustion, fasting for a full day and also due to severe summer. But without knowing the reason, all the relatives and friends who were gathered there started weeping as they thought that it was an ill omen. Saraswathi also wept bitterly when people started discussing that this was a sign of unhappy married life that the bride and the bride groom would face in the days to come. Saraswathi took a vow that she would perform Satyanarayana Pooja if everything went on well. But she did not have the occasion to perform the same as she did not join her husband till 1926 and by that time she came to know that Gora did not believe in such religious performances and in course of time she forgot about it completely.

Goparaju Ramachandra Rao soon recovered and nothing untoward happened immediately or later in their married life. Relatives who feared that something bad was sure to befall them, now heaved a sigh of relief and said "like Savithri gave a life to Satyavan, pleading with Yama, god of death, Saraswathi brought back Ramachandra Rao from the jaws of death. They compared Saraswathi to Savithri as she played the role of Savithri in her school drama sometime earlier to her marriage.

After marriage Saraswathi left her school studies and engaged herself in improving her knowledge by reading several books, mostly religious. She was good at Sanskrit slokas and hymns. She continued all her traditional religious practices like worshiping Goddess Lakshmi every friday, performing various rituals and observing fast on certain important days etc.

STEPPING INTO A WIDER WORLD:

The nationalist movement in the country was gaining momentum under the able leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. The All India Congress Committee meeting was held at Kakinada in 1923 and Gora along with his elder brother served as volunteer organising the meeting. Saraswathi too had an opportunity to attend the meeting where she was thrilled to have a glimpse of the great national leaders who attended the meeting and to listen to their inspiring speeches. Though she could not understand the significance of their visit or the importance of the meeting, she was overwhelmed with joy to see the enthusiasm exhibited by the young and the old, men and women, including Ramachandra Rao and his brother. It was at this time that Saraswathi came to know that her father in law was suspended from his job as he volunteered to give two bags of paddy to the Congress volunteers. This was the first time, as a young girl, Saraswathi was exposed to the national freedom and social unity. But she was too young to take it to heart and to form definite ideas of her own on such matters.

Saraswathi joined Gora when he was working as a research assistant at Agricultural college, Coimbatore and they established their sweet home for the first time in 1926. Gora did not believe in any orthodox practice like cooking and eating with "madi" or observing other formalities as he believed that it was enough if one was clean. He asked Saraswathi to give up meaningless practices. But it was difficult for Saraswathi to shun them, as she had grown with them from her childhood. For a few days she could not eat properly and at the same time she could not oppose Gora and argue with him. Moreover she believed that it was her duty to obey her husband because she was taught so. While obeying Gora, Saraswathi got used to his ways in course of time.

Gora resigned his job at Coimbatore as he was not happy with it due to several reasons. He returned to Kakinada with Saraswathi. On their way back to Kakinada both of them visited Ooty, Mysore, Bangalore, Tirupathi and Madras. Tirupathi is a famous holy place for the Hindus especially for the Hindus in Andhra. It is quite interesting to note that Gora and Saraswathi did not worship at the temple, instead they enjoyed the beautiful scenery from the hill top and returned. For, by that time, both of them had lost faith in god. This shows the great influence of Gora on Saraswathi within a few months of their stay together.

Soon Gora secured a job of a lecturer at Ananda College, Colombo in July 1927 and Saraswathi joined him two months later. At Colombo, Saraswathi had more social contacts with friends belonging to different religions like Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Buddhism. She became familiar with their customs religions, rituals and superstitions. Discussions with Gora in various aspects of social life and religious faith brought Saraswathi out of her traditional bondage and religious ties. Saraswathi was very receptive to new ideas and she had no difficulty in adapting herself to new ways of life along with Gora.

Saraswathi was expecting her first baby. During the third month of her pregnancy there was a solar eclipse. Hindus believe that during an eclipse pregnant woman should not expose herself to the day light and also should not indulge in any act like cutting, stitching, cleaning etc. If the would-be-mother did not observe such taboos the unborn child would be maimed or deformed. Saraswathi observed that only Hindus were thinking in these terms while women of other religious faith were free from such fears. Gora instigated Saraswathi to defy and break the taboos as an experiment. Saraswathi boldly came out of the house to view the solar eclipse and did all the work that was prohibited. People were very much surprised and were anxious to know what would happen to the child in her womb. But to their great relief, after a full term of pregnancy a normal and healthy child was born without any deformity. This was Saraswathi's first experiment against superstition and her success further closed her mind to superstitious and blind belief with experiments and verifications.

Saraswathi was a leading spirit behind Gora's atheist movement as she was actually the woman behind his success. But for her co-operation, it would have been very difficult for Gora to carry forward his mission. Her co-operation helped him to face boldly the challenges of life as an atheist. In 1928 Gora had to face excommunication for refusing to wear the sacred thread and with his wife and child he was sent out of the house. During this period it was Saraswathi's boldness to face social ostracism and the challenges of life along with Gora and her preparedness to suffer indignities with a smile that gave all the required strength to Gora. Her fight against superstition started taking definite shape.

Mahatma Gandhi's salt Satyagraha movement was catching up with the people. Thousands of Satyagrahis were arrested and interned. Gora started wearing khadi and encouraged volunteers to collect donations. He actively participated in the national movement. Saraswathi was in her parents house for her second delivery. Gora used to write to her all about his involvement. This infused lot of inspiration into Saraswathi. Soon she gave birth to a boy whom they named after salt Satyagraha as "Lavanam". Four months after delivery Saraswathi joined Gora at Kakinada. Since then Saraswathi showed interest in all discussions on several subjects that Gora held with some of his students and colleagues who used to meet him at his house.

Gora encouraged several backward class and harijan boys from tribal communities like gipsies to take to education. As there was no reservation for them in educational institutions or fee concession in those days, Gora not only used to encourage them to take up studies but also provided them financial help and even with food. He used to conduct special coaching classes for needy students.

He started an adult education school in an untouchable locality at Achutapuram in Kakinada where Saraswathi was a frequent visitor. She met untouchable women to understand their problems. Saraswathi used to accompany botany students during their specimen collection tour to keep company with the girl students during their stay away from home. Her marriage with Gora was indeed a turning point in her life as it exposed her to a world of social, economic and political inequalities, opened up her mind to various problems that India was facing. Her metamorphosis into an equal partner with revolutionary Gora was undoubtedly remarkable.

Saraswathi was inspired by the national spirit right from her childhood but her political aspirations and her eagerness for political freedom of the country started taking shape only after her coming into contact with Durgabai Deshmukh, the young revolutionary social and political worker of the time. She was a lady with tremendous potentialities who could pose a threat to the British rule. As a Gandhian social reformer, she exhibited immesurable courage to forge ahead in all her fields of activities. She was arrested on several occasions. The contact of the Gora family with Durgabai was a major influence that brought Gora and Saraswathi to the fore in the political field. It was she who introduced Gora to several Congress leaders of the time and it was at her instigation that Gora worked as a personal volunteer of Mahatma Gandhi when the latter visited Kakinada in 1933. Durgabai was a source of inspiration for Saraswathi. She was fascinated by her courage and leadership qualities, Durgabai initiated several intercaste marriages in those days. Gora too believed that intercaste and inter religious marriages alone could bring about social mix up and communal harmony, and also uplift women. Saraswathi showed great enthusiasm in such programmes. The example set by Durgabai was a living example of courage which made Saraswathi play a greater role in the freedom movement and social reforms. Her otherwise sympathetic heart started bleeding as she came face to face with the oppression meted out to the socially and economically downthrodden. It developed in her an urge to selfless sacrifices and she trained herself to accept a life of poverty, social work and dedication to national cause. While accepting such a life she had to balance between orthodox parents-in-law, a heretic husband and a superstitious society.

Saraswathi developed a spirit of enquiry which she came to apply to every aspect of her belief and her analytical mind could accept Gora's thoughts and actions as her chosen path too. She stood by him through thick and thin and followed him wherever to political campaigns or to prison, whether to address meetings or to untouchable quarters. It was her partnership that made Gora to shoulder the heavy burden of life and share its joys with her.

Her first major challenge came up when Gora was dismissed from service from P.R. College, Kakinada in 1933 with three small children and no other means of livelihood, facing the challenge was not an easy one. But Saraswathi stood by Gora in facing the situation boldly. Soon Gora started an Andhra Tutorial College which gave them some relief. Meanwhile Gora's appeal to Sri S. Radhakrishnan, the then Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University had its effect and he was appointed as a lecturer at Hindu College, Masulipatnam.

Soon after coming to Masulipatnam, Gora's aunt who lived with them all these days suddenly passed away. As they were atheists, Gora and Saraswathi, did not call a priest or perform rituals and rites. Her body was carried by different caste people to the cremation ground and Gora did not perform even the "Karmakanda" for her soul. People around who came to know about it started accusing them for it and they feared that something bad would befall the family of Gora soon. Saraswathi boldly faced the situation brushing aside all such fears.

Her second challenge came up when Gora was once again dismissed from Hindu College, Masulipatnam for his atheistic activities. By that time they had six children. A major decision had to be taken whether to join any other job or to take up full time social work and the propagation of atheism. Saraswathi stood like a pillar of support behind Gora during this critical moment. Saraswathi's sympathetic understanding of the problem enabled Gora to give up a paid job once and for all and take up social work and reforms on a full time basis.

SHIFT TO A VILLAGE - MUDUNUR:

Gora and Saraswathi with six children moved to a remote village Mudunur in Krishna District, where they established the first Atheist Centre in 1940. This small village became their ground of action. While sharing a life of simplicity and voluntary poverty, they started an adult education school, initiated programmes for rural upliftment, fight against untouchability, widow remarriages, social mix up and social harmony and promotion of scientific outlook which required strength of mind and personal commitment.

It was at Mudunur that Saraswathi started coming forward vigorously. She had already changed her outlook towards life and her approach. But she was still traditional in her looks with a tilak on her forehead, mangalasutra in her neck and bangles on her hands. Now she got rid of all these symbols of tradition from her body which she considered as a mark of servitude of women to men and customs. She became wholly committed to atheism heading a movement among women as an atheist revolutionary. She took to aggressive propaganda of atheism among women especially in dispelling superstition. In 1940 there was a solar eclipse. In the light of her experience at Colombo, Saraswathi colected eighteen pregnant women and made them defy the taboos.

Inspired by the teachings of Mahatama Gandhi, prompted by local national leaders and encouraged by the example set by her nationalist and revolutionary husband, Saraswathi got actively involved in national movement during the Quit India struggle. The Atheist Centre at Mudunur became a hub of activity. She led a women's batch of twentytwo satyagrahis which included her teenage daughter Manorama and sister-in-law Samrajyam. They were imprisoned for six months. She was also arrested on several occasions when she led pro-independence rallies. Her commitment to the cause of independence was so strong that she braved all odds and did not hesitate to go to jail with her two and a half years old son in arms and with a child in her womb.

INDEPENDENCE AND AFTER:

Independence in 1947 brought her happiness and joy as she thought that self rule was the first step towards solutions that confronted the nation and political independence was a prerequisite for social and economic revolution in the country. As a Gandhian social worker Saraswathi was well trained in Gandhian principles. Her stay at Sevagram Ashram, though for a short period, was an eye opener to the fact that communalism, casteism and untouchability are banes to progress in India. It was a rich experience to her. She believed firmly in the constructive programmes to create an India of equality, peace and prosperity. Political independence to her was only a means to an end. It was both an opportunity and a challenge. She prepared herself to meet the challenges in the post independence days, under the leadership of Gora. In 1953 she was arrested while championing the cause of landless labourers and pressing for land reforms in Kurnool district in the Karivena Eenama Satyagraha. She led a batch of sixty women and was imprisoned for months. In 1968 she was once again imprisoned during an agitation for social change.

Saraswathi realised the importance of political action to bring about socio-economic changes in the country as it was only through legislations that effective and immediate changes could be introduced. Democracy though considered as a better form of government, she felt that it should be partyless to cater to the needs of the people. She worked shoulder to shoulder to press for pompless and partyless democracy. As political parties have failed to fulfil the demands of the people and as they have become partisan and self seeking groups, dancing to the tunes of vested interests, she strongly advocated the abolition of party blocs and whips. She believed in positive efforts for the welfare of the people through collective efforts. In order to build up people's pressure on legislators, she strove hard to educate the citizens to create "Janasakthi". She was with Gora in the Sevagram - Delhi foot march in October 1961 with the slogan "Ministers are servants and people are Masters". She was with Gora during the Kulki agitation in leading a peace march on foot through the districts of Telangana. She took active part in Bhoodan marches organised by the Sarvodaya leaders.

Harijan uplift was one of the major programmes of Gora in which the role played by Saraswathi was commendable. She visited Harijan Basthis in order to understand their problems. She took food with them, she stayed with them whenever they went to address meetings in villages or towns. Saraswathi was a source of support when Gora started inter dining programmes at the untouchable quarters at Kakinada during early days. She unhesitatingly invited students of Gora belonging to untouchable castes and fed them. She was also instrumental in taking a decision to marry her daughter Manorama to a Harijan boy, Arjun Rao, envisaging a practical, social revolution when a marriage between a brahmin girl and a harijan boy was unthinkable in society. She supported intercaste marriages and encouraged many to put it in to practice in order to build up a casteless society based on social equality. Her son Lavanam's marriage was also an intercaste marriage. Her commitment to social harmony made her enthusiastically participate in the beef and pork functions organised by Gora and also by other rationalist associations.

Championing the cause of women, Saraswathi did not lag behind to do whatever she could to uplift them. Her genuine concern for them made several women with domestic problems, in their social and marital relationships and also problems of unwed motherhood to come to her for guidance and solace which she provided with a motherly touch.

POST GORA PERIOD:

In the post Gora period, after 1975, Saraswathi continued to be in the fore front of social change providing inspiring leadership to the atheist centre. Under her able guidance all the programmes spearheaded by Gora are being continued.

She is the chief patron of Vasavya Mahila Mandali, an organisation for the upliftment of women, at the Atheist Centre where a short stay home for women with problems is being run by the name "Gora Abhay Niwas". Here deserted women, uncared for widows and unwed mothers are being provided shelter, given constant guidance and rehabilitated. Vasavya Mahila Mandal runs a working women's hostel for the benefit of working women. Saraswathi extends her patronage to Arthik Samata Mandal an organisation working for the economic and social upliftment in villages. This organisation is working in 150 villages near Vijayawada for comprehensive rural development covering health education, social change and economic development.

Saraswathi provides constant guidance to the criminal rehabiliation work taken up by "Samskar" another organisation in the Atheist Centre at Vijayawada for reforming and rehabilitating criminals. Recently this organisation has taken up new projects of rehabilitating Jogins and bringing them into the general social stream. Several Jogin marriages have been conducted with the help of this organisation.

After the death of Gora, Atheist Centre continued its contact with several atheists, humanists and rationalists organisations of the world for mutual co-operation in the common cause of spreading rationalistic thinking and cultivating scientific outlook. Under her able guidance the Atheist Centre hosted the 2nd World Atheist Conference at Vijayawada in 1980 and an International Conference on "Atheism and Social Change" was held in July 1985. In February 1990, an International Conference was held on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of the Atheist Centre. Reorganising the humanitarian work done by the Atheist Centre in India, the International Humanist Award for the year 1986 was awarded to the Atheist Centre.

Saraswathi Gora is an incorrigible optimist. Age did not dampen her determination and enthusiam, rather, it seems to have grown with years. Uncompromising in her principles, determined in her approach, steady in her methods, ever growing in her enthusiasm she is the pillar of strength to the Atheist Centre and she is the leading spirit behind the Atheist movement. It may look a paradox of sorts that this orthodox brahmin woman from Vijayanagram in Andhra Pradesh, with meagre formal education should preside over a centre of multifarious social activities with a philosophy of atheism.

What Kasturba was to Mahatama Gandhi, was Saraswathi to Gora. She is a 'motherly figure'. Even at this ripe age of 78, she leads a life full of commitments, and foresight, spreading joy and hope for the younger generation. She derives strength from her commitment to a new social order, her faith in atheism and from the guiding light that Gora's life-long work has provided.

Humble, soft spoken, clear and unambigous in thinking and action, Saraswathi is a great champion of women's rights and individual dignity. She has her nine children and their families with her in her struggle for social change which is forming the nucleus of the Atheist Centre and the movement. She is primarily responsible for instilling courage, and confidence and respect for Atheist ideology in her children.

It is rightly said "Gora is great, but Saraswathi is greater. She is the glory of Gora family."


The University of Regensburg neither approves nor disapproves of the opinions expressed here. They are solely the responsibility of the person named below.

Gerald_Huber@r.maus.de

Last update: 22 July 1998