Yogmaya Neupane: The Unknown Rhetorician and the Known Rebel
Author(s): Asmita Ghimire
Asmita Ghimire is a PhD student in Rhetoric, Technical and Scientific Communication in the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Her research areas are Technical and Professional Communication, Transnational and Translingual Rhetoric and Writing, Transnational Feminist Rhetoric and Writing, and Global Policy Rhetoric. She is originally from Nepal where she taught in the Kathmandu University after finishing her master in English Literature and Writing. She has published in Academic Labor: Research and Artistry and other scholarly Journals.
Abstract: Yogmaya Neupane is a female rhetorician of Nepal who contributed to the eradication of the Sati system from the country in 1920. However, current studies of Yogmaya limit her as a feminist, rebel and literary figure, failing to recognize her rhetorical skills. This paper resurrects, and thereby calls for further studies of Yogmaya as a rhetorician. While doing this, this paper appropriates the western feminist methodologies of community listening, strategic contemplation, and critical questioning, ultimately showcasing how these methodologies blend and intersect in the project of reconsidering a transnational feminist as a rhetorician.community listening, critical questioning, feminist historiography, Nepal, Sati, strategic contemplation, transnational feminisms, transnational rhetorics, Yogmaya Neupane
Yogmaya Neupane (1860-1941) was a feminist, activist, rebel, and political and social thinker in Nepal. As a thinker and an activist, she organized people and initiated awareness against stereotypes, superstitious religious practices, the caste system, child marriage, discriminatory treatments of women, corruption, and unequal distribution of wealth, among other issues. During the early 1900s, Nepal was ruled by Ranas, whose regimes are considered to be the dark period in the history of Nepal; their rigid adherence to Hindu systemic discrimination had perpetuated superstitious religious practices such as Sati— the practice of immolating the wife into the pyre of the husband after the husband dies. Yogmaya established Nari Samiti, the first women’s coalition in Nepal, around 1906 to fight against the injustices and discriminations against women, such as the practice of Sati (Aziz, Hutt, Yadav). Nari Samiti became a viable medium to officially pressure the governmental system which was exerting autocratic power. Through political activism and social awareness approaches, she forced the then government to eradicate the system of Sati from the country.
But a system of Sati was not the only trial of Nepalese women during that period. Women and girls in Nepal during the 1900s were considered second-class citizens: they were secluded from political and legal rights and subject to polygamous marriage and widow discriminations. In addition, child marriages were prevalent practices, which were legally and morally sanctioned under the Hindu legal system (Muluki Ain 1854). Yogmaya fought for “alms for righteous governance”—a system of government based on justice and truth, in her words (Aziz 59). After spending more than thirty decades on activism and revolution, when she discovered that Ranas’ systems of autocracy were adamant about secluding women and other marginalized castes, she decided to sacrifice her life to threaten the government. Because murdering a Brahmin or forcing a Brahmin to take her life was considered a sin in Hindu philosophy and was also punishable by the Nepali civil code (Muluki Ain 1854), she used the threat of ending her life as a resistance technique to shake the government. Being from a so-called pious Brahmin family, whose harm was considered as harm to God, she used her embodiment to threaten the government and political system. She arranged self-immolation by fire in 1938 along with 204 followers, but she was instead arrested and put in prison. After spending more than three months in prison, she again marched for self-immolation, this time in the water. On July 5, 1941, she threw herself into the river Arun, where she died. Sixty-seven of her followers also followed her path and jumped into the Arun.
Before dying, Yogmaya had composed Sarvartha Yogbani, which includes her teachings and philosophies. Even after her death, most of her living followers regarded her book as their fundamental tenet. In the Yogbani, she denounced the caste system, subordination of women, economic disenfranchisement of working-class people and appeals for establishing justice. It is an enriching resource for social activists, philosophers, and writers. However, the book was banned in Nepal until 2000. Not only were her activities considered blasphemous by misogynist patriarchal values, but she was also vilified as a prostitute, wayward, mad, and crazy by the patriarchal norms. As a result, official Nepalese history did not account for the name of Yogmaya even after half of the century of her death. After the death of Yogmaya, Nepal went through great political reformations and enjoyed a vibrant period of democracy that was largely critical of the Rana regime, the legacy of the eradication of the Sati system from Nepal remained credited to Rana rulers, and the erasure of Yogmaya was perpetuated. This is to say, regardless of the political system that was in power, females have continued to be politically marginalized while Yogmaya’s contributions have failed to be realized in official history. While there were records of Yogmaya’s existence, nonetheless, the records of her contributions were “burned for fuel on some chilly winter nights” (Aziz 68).
As a young girl growing up in Nepal, I heard about the system of Sati before I “heard” about Yogmaya, who had forced the government to ban it. I first learned about the system of Sati in the Nepali Literature class around seventh grade. When my Nepali literature teacher, a bold and vocal woman, talked about the custom of burning women in the pyre of their husbands. Goosebumps came all over my body. For the first time in my childhood years, I became afraid of being female. I became afraid of being female before I realized I am a female. Even scarier was to think about my grandmother, my mother’s sister, and other women whom I had seen without husbands throughout my life. How did they escape that fate after their husbands died? That day after school, I went straight to my mother’s sister’s home, who used to live a couple of houses away from my parent’s home. I asked my mother’s sister, who was born in the early 1900s, was married at the age of seven and became a widow at the age of nine, “हजुर चै सति किन नजानुभको ?” translated in English as “why did you not go Sati?” Her response was, “They did not ask me to”. Who did not “ask” her? Who would have had the power to force her to Sati and, in contrast, who emancipated her? Did she know
Like Yogmaya, my mother’s sister was married at the age of seven to a boy who was nine. She was allowed to live in her parents’ home until she reached the age when she could do errands herself. But when she was nine, her husband, along with most of his family members, died due to the cholera epidemic. She became a widow at the age of nine for a husband she barely knew. Although my mother’s sister did not have to go Sati, she sacrificed her whole life for the husband who died when she was only nine. She never wore colorful clothes, never went to public places without accompanying the male family members and lived a secluded life. The reply that I got from her, “They did not ask me to”, becomes meaningful only now as I am strategically contemplating the life she lived alongside the life and contributions of Yogmaya. I realize that my mother’s sister was not forced to go to Sati only because of Yogmaya’s contributions. Did she know that she and many like her were fortunately absolved from duty of Sati because of Yogmaya? Most probably not!
My mother’s sister wanted to believe, like my schoolteacher, that she was absolved from her duty of Sati by Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher Rana (1901-1929), on 8th July 1920. Her generation was raised to doubt that an average Nepali woman like herself could be courageous enough to challenge the patriarchal structure. And it was hard to imagine the ramifications of doing so. Since repressive erasure of Yogmaya’s contributions past almost three generations and the oral history about her was limited to women in the Arun River Valley only, it was discomforting for the women of my mother’s generation to challenge official narrations (Connerton; Hamilton,and Shopes). It took my entire school years and even prior years at the university to convince myself that what my schoolteacher told me was only a version of official history.
Context for Feminist Rhetorical Recovery
Others have tried to research Yogmaya before me. Yogmaya Neupane has been extensively studied from anthropological, sociological, literary and historical perspectives. In anthropological and sociological study, Yogmaya and her works are considered rebellious and revolutionary, aiming to bring social change (Aziz; Hutt). First among them is an ethnographic account produced by Barbara Nimri Aziz, whose work is iconic in studying and recovering the story of Yogmaya as a rebel. Aziz’s work is revolutionary also because she compiled the collections of her poems in her book Heir to silent Song Two Rebel Women of Nepal, which would otherwise be banned by the government. Yogmaya is also portrayed alongside the Hindu mythic figures and her works have largely been analyzed from a Hindu Vedic perspective (Neupane, Bhandari, Shrestha). In addition, feminist and historians like to date her social movement practices as some of the first feminist movements in Nepal representing her as a first feminist (Yadav, Lama, Karki, Shrestha). Similarly, in most of the literary references to her, such as in works by home-grown writers such as Uttam Prasad Panta and Lekhnath Bhandari, she is highlighted as a literary figure and her poems as radical. As Michael Hutt opines in his critical analysis of the “forcible forgetting” of the history of Yogmaya in “nationalist and teleological history” (Hutt 383) and the recent narrativist revival of her in ahistorical accounts and studies, literary studies of Yogmaya were a prominent factor for her recent revival in Nepal. Referring to Uttam Prasad Panta’s article on the literary contributions of Yogmaya, at one point, he recognizes that literary identification of her was the safest way of seeking public recognition —”an initiative that enriched the literary pedigree of the national language and identified new icons to enhance the kingdom’s Hindu identity that? would not be frowned upon” (Hutt 349). However, even critical research such as this represents her as a female ascetic, political revolutionary, feminist, and literary artist only. Although historical, sociological, anthropological, feminist and literary methodology have immensely contributed in establishing and recovering her works and contributions, which would have been erased, lost, forgotten and repressed. But looking at the past and reconstructing it in a crude academic fashion may not be enough for recuperating feminist rhetorical practices, let alone rewriting the feminist contributions in the history. In the case of Yogmaya, her recovery efforts have largely been concentrated in recovering her rather than recovering her practices—consequently, erasing the revolutionary practices of her along with a large number of her followers whose contributions were equally important. In addition, recuperating efforts may require us to theorize her practices; in another words, redesigning her practices as what decolonial feminists want to call “praxis” (hooks)
A Transnational Feminist Rhetorical Practice for Recovering Yogmaya
I want to add one more historiographical account along this line: Yogmaya is the first female rhetorician of Nepal. Reading anthropological and historical research on Yogmaya, while providing greater possibilities, was still generally reductive, reading more like a fairytale for women of the democratic era to believe that a woman could jump into the river for a greater good, let alone burning into the pyre of a husband following the traditions. Based on the description of her in the first half of the essay, I want to reiterate 1) the initiative that she took for female liberation, 2) her teachings and philosophies in Sarvartha Yogbani, and, finally 3) her embodied resistance through the practice of Jal Samadhi (mass immolation in water) expounds her rhetorical skills and strategies. For me, these feminist principles rest on how I envision my locality through the feminist rhetorical perspective, for instance, imagining critically into questions such as what forced Yogmaya to jump into the river? Or what saved my mother’s sister from being Sati? In this case, imagining critically means to rhetorically envision local feminist efforts of Yogmaya by examining the history lived by her and women like her, further pondering rhetorically into the reason she chose her rhetorical practices or the reason she chose a particular rhetorical practice. However, this is a complex endeavor given that it invites more questions than answering one. For example, the question that made me numb was what am I to write about a woman who flowed herself into the thundering Arun River, never to return, for a cause which was then called fanatical? What am I to say, about a woman whose history was never talked about and even forbidden in my culture? Legacy is not a word that was made to suit her in history; she was ostracized, defamed, and vilified. Further, the history writers cleansed, dumped, forbade, and erased her. Opening her story is like excavating a memory that has now become a myth. Ashes were rare things, and an archive is impossible for her archaeology. In fact, the effort to recover the feminist rhetor in the culture where rhetoric is yet to be defined in western academic terminology is an innovative process for the reason that it helps in designing a new methodology or employ the foreign methodology in a new way.
To begin this recovery effort, I contacted Barbara Nimri Aziz, who pioneered Yogmaya among scholarly circles. I scheduled a couple of meetings with her, which she affirmed and appreciated with intellectual wit. In our first phone conversations, she recalled her 1980’s visit to Nepal— where Yogmaya had lived, preached, and performed her resistance and protest in the 1900s. She had visited the place nearly forty years after the death of Yogmaya. In our extensive phone conversation, she shared that it was like finding her own foremothers’ stories. Being a daughter of Arab immigrants, she found her affinities and shared values as soon as she discovered Yogmaya’s contributions. In her book, Heir to Silent Song: Two Rebel Women of Nepal, she writes “I didn’t imagine in Nepal I might find activists similar to Mother Jones and Sojourner Truth… How could a woman raised in America and England, even though she was of Arab origin, imagine she might find her true ancestors in Nepal?” (Aziz 28)
When Barbara visited Nepal, she met Manamaya, the pupil of Yogmaya and a respondent in Barbara’s research who is also, along with a number of other followers, used to reciting the verses from the book Sarvartha Yogbani. This recitation was private, and Barbara writes, “I noted how, when either Manamaya or Bhaktini Aama sang [them] for me, they did so in the privacy of their small dwellings, and at night” (Aziz 39). But those brave followers of Yogmaya wanted the message to be spread and the story to be heard by all the people. So, Manamaya invited Barbara into her small hut one night and handed the book which she had wrapped in a cloth-like “sepia brown booklet” and kept inside the bed mattress (Aziz 39-40). In my research process, when I was searching for the original book of Yogmaya and asked Barbara about it she wrote me, “The entire set of available Yogbani is included as an appendix to my book Heir to Silent Song: Two Women Rebels of Nepal. It represents the only written collection yet available of Yogbani. Such a treasure to be given to me in 1981 to share with all. These conversations between Barbara and me, two feminist researchers distanced by generation and nationality but made closer by rhetorical ethos— the ethos of care and humility— helped me to engage in a compassionate argument, collaborative practice, and negotiation. At one of our conversations, she explicitly advised me that a Nepali woman should study and explore on Yogmaya. Perhaps, while saying this, Aziz listened to Patricia Sutherland who advises that the feminist methodology of primary research is garnered from women’s primary experiences. It encouraged me to commemorate my position as a researcher and to navigate my gendered and transnational experience.
This authentication of Yogmaya as a rhetorician was possible through juxtaposing my narrative, which explored and discloses attachment, about how the history of Yogmaya was deleted from the public narrative. For doing this, I have relied extensively on feminist rhetorical practices to weave my personal experience of Yogmaya and the women’s issues she advocated for with my recovery of her rhetorical work. The gap of nearly a half-century after her death (the anniversary of which elapsed without mentioning her name), wherein the country went from the autocratic system of Rana to democracy, and from a British system of the monarchy to a quasi-Chinese system of federalism, was possible to recuperate through decolonial feminist methodologies that debunk traditional objective methodological practice ( Bizzel’s ‘function of emotion,” Royster’s “storytelling and telling history,” Kirsch and Royster “critical imagination, strategic contemplation, and social circulation,” Sutherland “primacy of gendered experience,” Enoch “local narrative,” Garcia’s “community listening”). Employing these methodologies was challenging because it helped in closely examining the research around her, requiring answers in regard to coherence in translations and interpretations. For example, in Aziz’s works one of her bani (verse) from Sarvatha Yogbani is translated as “Though I am the one who is despised by society, and discarded I have to prove my innocence” (Aziz XV). The original verse was “म भगवन हैन, म समाजले तिरषकार र धृणा गरेको नारी हु ।“ (Aziz 57). The question that one can raise in the translated version is: did she really believe that she needs to “prove” her innocence? As feminist researcher in Nepal, Kumari Lama, notes,
Yogmaya develops immense rebellious feelings towards discriminatory Brahmanic social values since her young age. She executes her dissenting characteristics very gracefully in her life. She challenges Hindu religious authority eloping with a man she loves despite being a child-widow. Undoubtedly, her elopement exhibits her resistance as well as her strong punch against patriarchal authority that incarcerates women’s freedom. (Lama 18)
Reading the above translations (rather mistranslation) of her bani alongside the examination of her feminist practice gives the dual picture of her feminist efforts as someone who wants to “prove” her innocence to the social practices against which she had relentlessly fought. I find the translation problematic, an inaccurate version of how she was, in contrast to how she was interpreted. In fact, if this would have been translated by any Nepali feminist, they would translate it along the lines, “I am the one who is despised and discarded by society, God I am not”. Given that original translations if kept intact would seriously counter all her sacrifice and contributions, it is also important to examine the way an inaccuracy in translation represents another kind of erasure.
Secondly, examining her rhetorical practices helps in authenticating feminist praxis in Nepal within the larger spectrum of global feminist practice. Until now, answering the question in regard to feminist praxis in Nepal is hard since one has to either rely on western feminism or the feminism in the border. Even growing up outside of the West, I heard of Yogmaya long after I was introduced with Simone De Beauvoir, Helene Cixous, Betty Friedan — however, the feminist movement led by Yogmaya preceded them. In fact, Yogmaya’s contemporaries were suffragists in the United States. With a deep sense of humility, before writing this paper, I contemplated all those dormant periods of my academic life—periods when I used to feel that the feminist revolution is western conduct and periods when I lived in oblivion, with the assumption that the Sati system was eradicated by the Ranas in Nepal— When reading canonical scholarship in feminism and rhetoric, I would think of Beauvoirian ideas from the perspective of my mother’s sister, and sometimes even Spivak and hooks from the perspective of Yogmaya. Meanwhile, Indian feminists, close to home, even the one who decried the western feminist portrayal of “Indian Suttee” (Narayana) are as distant as any other western feminist given that Nepali feminist fought different battles and employed different resistance principles (Mohanty; Spivak). In Yogbani, Yogmaya criticizes the structure of patriarchy and systemic inequality. She diatribes against the caste system, corruption, Brahmin value, and huge economic disparity among people. In one of her bani, she declares her denouncement of caste by saying,
Before I owned a caste
Belonging to the Brahmin clan.
Now look, I have no caste.
Ho, I chucked it there in the hearth (Aziz 60)
In the above lines, Yogmaya declares the renouncement of her Brahmin caste. Symbolically, her practice of renouncing caste, is a denunciation of entire Brahminism which has played a vital role in exerting power politically, socially, and economically. Her rhetorical tool of anti-brahminism bespeaks about her feminist praxis which distinguish her from feminist across culture. Similarly, her relentless appeals to dharmarajya (Alms for righteous government) shows that her resistance praxis are borne locally. Below, she decries government corruption and appeals for restorations of justice. She says,
Kill the corrupt; behead the thief.
Judge with virtue, eliminate lies.
When our charioteer arrives, truth will reign.
And smash kings and courtiers too. (Aziz 68)
Finally, recovering and rewriting the rhetorical practice of feminism in the global south requires deep personal reflections alongside bringing the solidarity amongst the feminist across borders. As a Nepali woman, I grew up listening to the tale of my mother’s sister. When I listened to Barbara and her ethnographic account, it overlaps with listening to my mother’s sister along with my personal reflections to my own contemplative witness of her life that I saw as a kid. The collage of listening and mindful contemplation allowed me to think ‘dialectically and dialogically, to use tension, conflict, balances, and counterbalances as critical opportunities” (Krisch and Royster 652). In another word, listening to Barbara layered and broadened with listening to my mother and her sister, which became more viable when I collaged what Romeo Garcia calls community listening. For me, community listening is listening to my mother’s sister, whose experiences were relational if not akin to the subject in question, made me feel that these women have stories to tell which I can never find in the history books. Through the practice of collaging, merging, and juxtaposing of different methodologies into one, I find that in a uniquely transnational situation like this one, methodological experimentation and conflict necessitates and procures recoveries and reconsideration of feminist rhetoricians. In another word, in the course of this research, I often intersect Garcia’s community listening and Sutherlands’ advice for negotiation and collaboration, and subsequently look to these methods from Kirsch and Royster’s idea of critical imagination and strategic contemplation; examining alone through one of these techniques deeply hinder (and sometimes limits) the possibility of reestablishing Yogmaya, whose rhetorical history lies under the teleological history of Nepal, the false lesson that was “asked” to transfer to me through my school teacher, and perhaps in the anecdote of my mother’s sister.
**Acknowledgement: This paper went through the several phases of thinking, thinking the “thinking,” researching, writing, and revision. This work would not have been possible without the valuable comments and feedback from my mentor, Amy Lueck, associate professor at Santa Clara University, in all these phases of writing.
- In Nepali language, Sati is referred as both noun and verb. While using it as a noun, usually, during the time of Sati system, a woman would become Sati after their husband died. In that case, like widow, women would be referred as Sati. Sati is also used by referring to a practice, a verb. While, in both of these usages, “S” is capitalized.
- I prefer to use the word Nepali (नेपाली) to Nepalese while referring to the people from Nepal. Nepali is directly derived from Nepali language, where it is called. In contrast, Nepalese is a word refer to people from Nepal usually by the British.
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