A leader who was erased from the history-Yogmaya Neupane (1867-1941 AD)- Nepal
She was the voice of a voiceless population of an era when the country, Nepal, was under the dictatorship of Rana dynasty (1846–1951 AD); a voice that was raised for socio economic equality, education and human rights in those dark years in the Nepalese history. She was a fearless leader, an insurgent, and a rebel specially advocating for the minorities: women, so called untouchable castes, and deprived/discriminated/exploited population back then. She was married thrice and separated with her third husband on their own mutual understanding/consent; at that time, when a widow’s marriage was unacceptable and an offense, when women were burnt with their husband’s corpse as Satipratha1 and marrying a girl before her first menstruation (Kanyadan2) was considered as a sacred practice. She fearlessly fought her entire life for women, social inclusion rights and good governance (Dharmarajya3). She openly fought, challenged and gave ultimatums several times to the Rana government. In the process, she was jailed for planning the mass immolation- Agni Samadhi4 with her 240 disciples as a protest. Later, on July 14, 1941 along with the 67 disciples, she immolated herself in Jal samadhi5 into the Arun River6 to bring shame to the Rana regime and as a protest against prevailing inequality and social injustice.
Despite her bravery, revolution and huge contribution to the welfare of the country, she, including her entire lifelong battlefield, was completely erased from history, and even in her birth place she was nothing but a faded myth. She was the first Nepali woman political leader, who was jailed for her confrontation against the regime/ruler. For the entire seventy years, since the country’s biggest protest mass suicide against the ruler, Yogmaya Neupane´s contribution has been vanished in obscurity. People feared to remember her, authorities banned the public from talking about her and expunged her campaign from the national historical record.
After more than half a century, her legacy was revived by anthropologist Barbara Nimri Aziz of the University of London’s Department of Anthropology, and Professor Michael Hutt of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.
She was the First Nepali woman social reformer, freedom fighter and woman rights activist, who demanded for equal rights, equal education and life to live (campaign against Satipratha) for girls and women.
She was illiterate, but her progressive and revolutionary poem/verses are still very contextual and awakening. She was only survived in her verses through the folklore Bhajans7. The compilation of her verses Hajurbani 8/ Sarvatha Yogbani9 was published from Assam after her death.
She was a great saint, who forthrightly denied the Prime Minister’s offer of the wealth and demanded Dharmarajya as an alms. On the spot, she persuaded the wife of Prime Minister and her companions freedom is more important for citizens than the materialistic life.
Mayadevi Neupane was her birth name, born in 1867AD in Simle, Bhojpur District of Eastern Nepal, but during her lifespan, she was known by different names, as Yogmaya, Bhaktimaya, Shaktimaya, Thulihajor, Shaktihajur, Bhaktihajur, Bhaktini and Maiaama. She was married at the age of seven. She faced extreme discrimination and exploitation from her in laws family. One day, she escaped from her house without family consent and went to her parent’s house at the age of thirteen. She took an adventurous whole three nights via a big forest, all the way from her husband’s house in Bhulke, Dhodle to her parents’ house in Simle. It was a forbidden step for girls to be out of their home alone without guardian or their consent. Thus she was not accepted in her husband’s family nor was she accepted whole heartedly in her parent’s home. The rejections compelled her to escape again to Aasam, an adjoining country, with a neighbor who was leaving for employment.
It was rumored that she eloped with a boy. Later, she re-married another man in Aasam after her husband’s death. But none of their family members saw her other husbands in her life time. She had a daughter from her third marriage, who was also one of her disciples and one of the strongest participants of her revolution and Jalsamadhi.
At her early forties, she traveled to various holy places for the Satsangs10 of Saints Sadhu11 and Mahatmas12 and practiced meditations in Himalayas. She practiced deep meditations in a temple, cave or flowing river without any food and with very limited piece of cloth. She returned to her home district Majuwabesi, Bhojpur and established Aashram13 and led her further life of an ascetic. She had a huge mass of disciples and followers to attend the Bhajans/Prabachans14 and Satsangs in the Aashram. People from the far and adjoining districts visited her Aashram, seeking information, opinion and guidance and stayed for short periods with their contributions in cash and kind. She always followed a wider perspective, democratic and logical ways and was very compassionate yet realistic, straight forward and liberal in her approach and actions. She abdicated her caste as Brahmin and called herself as “Human Caste” and practiced the free of untouchability in her Aashram at the time when Brahims were considered as superiors in caste; untouchability was deeply rooted; and even the reward and punishments were carried out according to the caste system.
The prevailing harmful socio cultural, traditional, religious practices, bribery, corruptions, oppressions, economic exploitations of the local landlords and moneylenders were the main issues of her deliberations and interactions during daily Bhajans/Prabachans/Satsangs. She formed an organization named Nepali Nari Samiti in 1918, which is believed to be first women’s organization in Nepal, that worked effectively for the abolition of Satipratha in 1920 AD and Daaspratha15 in 1925 AD. Her utterances were used as the verses/ poems known as Sarvatha Yogbani/Hajurbani and it was used as a tool to awaken the people and as an advocacy to pressure the government. She sent her representatives several times to submit the petitions to the government but to no avail. Her tireless and rigorous effort of formal appeals went through three Prime-ministers: Bir Shumsher, Chandra Shumsher and Juddha Shumsher, where she demanded alms for Dharmarajya. The petition strongly demanded equality for all. It asserted that people of all castes, including women and girls, must have equal rights to education and access to religious study (Vedas16). It further demanded that widows who want to have a second marriage must be allowed to do so. Prohibition of second marriage by a husband without the consent of the existing first wife was recommended. The petition also called for the prohibition of: (a) Garud Puran17 ; (d) boycotting from the caste system and society; (c) untouchability practices; (d) child marriage, with a call to set a minimum age for marriage; (e) forced marriage, with a call to punish violators; (f) the transaction of (buying/selling) the Rudrakchya18; and (g) discrimination in access to education. It also called for honest governance by demanding the prohibition of corruption and imposition of punishment to those who commit it, including the reform of the legal documentation and its implementation, with announcing the nation as Dharmarajya
Social equity was strongly highlighted, including: (a) distribution/donation of land to poor people; (b) waiving of loans by poor people; (c) allowing payment in crop instead of cash only; (d) proper farming of all available fertile parcels of land; (e) encouraging the weaving of local cloths using local resources; (f) prohibition of high interest rates on loans; and (g) provision of Guthi19 (traditional system to ensure socio economic security);
In 1936, she herself traveled to the capital, Pashupatinath temple, to submit the petition to the then Prime-minister Juddha Shumsher. The authorities wanted to divert her with a donation to Aashram, but she refused and asked only for the “Truth! Dharma! Alms!” She warned the government that the ruler will have to pay heavy cost if the government does not reform the laws and legal provisions according to the needs of the time and the demands of the people. She received firm assurance that the demands would be fulfilled soon.
In the meantime, different unsatisfied people in Kathmandu started to form various small groups against the Rana regime to protest its oppression. Rana Regime became more cruel and oppressive to the people. Despite the continued follow up and assurances to the Yogmaya, the demands were not fulfilled. Yogmaya, along with with 204 of her followers, made plan for mass immolation -Agnisamadi- giant pyre, in order to put stronger pressure to the rulers. Before they could commit immolation, they were arrested and jailed in Dhankuta and Bhojpur districts. Yogmaya and other few followers were released four months later.
After being confirmed that the autocratic ruler is not going to listen to her/them and not going to reform the laws as per their demand, Yogmaya and her 67 followers decided for the second time to sacrifice themselves into a raging Arun River as their final act of rebellion. It happened on July 14, 1941 where they a loud final pray: “May the unjust Rana government be destroyed! May Dharma be established!”
The story of the valiant woman leader andher contributions were intentionally obliterated in the pages of Nepal’s history. After 70 years of the mass sacrifice, Yogmaya´s statue was erected and unveiled in her home district of Bhojpur on March 8, 2011, to celebrate International Women´s Day. The Nepalese feminist movement acknowledged Yogmaya as the first women leader to revolt and advocate for gender equality and social inclusion in the country. In 2016, the Nepal Government issued a postage stamp (shown in the picture below) recognizing her contributions to the nation. Presently, a separate chapter about Yogmaya Neupane is integrated into the curricula of academic institutions.
She was made invisible and unknown for almost a century. She was erased from the national history records, a blatant indication of how powerful a woman she was, that a whole regime, nation and patriarchy feared to acknowledge her, even after her death.
If her voice was heard that time, we, Nepalese women, may now be leading the nation; making plans and policies; driving the progress of our economy; heading big corporations; or maybe, even a part of space missions. Sadly, we are still struggling to enjoy even our most basic human rights. We are still being accused of witchcraft, isolated and even murdered for menstruating (chaupadi20) and violated physically, socially, economically and sexually. Still we are fighting for equal rights for identity, education, mobility and property. May the spirit of Yogmaya remain blazing in the hearts of us all – a reminder that we are a nation of valiant and freedom-loving people, women and men alike, and we will continue to stand for the principles that Yogmaya and her followers died for. Their sacrifices will never be in vain.
Yogmaya Neupane represents to those millions of women across the globe, whose contributions are not acknowledged and deliberately vanished/erased from the History. I stand with all those women and I would like to show my sincere/heartiest tribute to them for being as our HEROS. #IStandWithHer.
Notes on the original words mentioned in italics
- Satipratha : A wife is burnt with husband’s corpse during the last ritual. These practices were very common in Nepal until mid-nineteenth century.
- Kanyadan: Girl donation (literal meaning), Kanyadan is the main function of the marriage
- Dharma Rajya- Holy Religion Country, in the current context it is good governance
- Agni Samadhi-sacrificing oneself in giant pyre
- Jal samadhi- sacrificed/suicide in the water
- Arun River- One of the largest rivers in Nepal
- Bhajans – religious songs/ prayers
- Hajurbani – utterances / verses of Yogmaya Neupane
- Sarvartha Yogbani - Compilation of utterances/verses of Yogmaya Neupane
- Satsangs – Sharing
- Sadhu – Saints
- Mahatmas- Saints
- Aashram- The common place where, people come for Satsang and live for short time for mediation and sharing
- Prabachans- Lectures
- Daaspratha: -Slavery practices, where a sold person/family serves for their master generation to generation
- Vedas- Sacred religious books, these books were considered as guidelines for people’s lives
- Garud Puran- Religious book that describes and as guideline, what to do and what not to do after the death of family members. Generally, it is read within thirteen mourning period while any of the family member dies. This is one of the most debated books that is totally biased, discrimination and exploitations
- Rudrakchya. The holy and sacred beads used for prayer. It was also used for confessing the truth while in investigations of the criminal case.
- Guthi- A traditional system and provision for socio economic security of the community.
- Chaupadi- a traditional practice of far western Nepal, where a menstruating girl/women are compelled to live four days in hut outside of home and every year there are cases of rape, murder, died due to suffocation and wild animal attack.