In Jainism, nothwithstanding the rather stringent rules of conduct, there is room for unconventional innovators, male and female.
This liberal outlook enhanced by the trust in the potential resourcefulness of human nature can be traced back to Mahavira who was one of the great innovators of his time. He was the first, it seems, who granted women the right to form their own ascetic orders.
In 1925, in the city of Sholapur in Maharashtra, a then teenage Jaina woman by the name of Sumatibai Shah chose for herself, inspired by Gandhi and Acharya Shantisagar, the life of a brahmacharini, that is to voluntarily live like a nun without actually being one.
To have opted for nunhood would have restricted her in making her own resolutions and putting them into practice.
With the financial help of an aunt and other members of her pious family. Sumatibai Shah set herself to work, namely – in her own words to convert every Indian woman into a warrior, to fight against injustice done to her, to stand on her own legs, to offer her heart to the needy and to make her an ideal citizen of India.”
At that time, educating the female population in a land like India was no subject for public concern and discussion, but this was what she intended to do.
In due course the first classrooms of a girls school were erected on a piece of land that used to be a cremation ground.
And from that time onward she never stopped scheeming for new educational and charitable additions to her Jaina Women’s Ashram, such as a hostel for girls who had lost their parents or whose families lived away in the country; a health centre, a printing press run exclusively by women; classes for bookkeeping, typing and tailoring: a library, and a meditation hall. She even had a Mahavira shrine built to her own plans.
The strength needed to hold all these many activities together and to plan still further ones, that strength which has never failed her during these many decades, she draws from her beloved religion, the faith as it was taught by Mahavira and which continues to be embodied in saints such as the late Acharya Shantisagar (1873-1955) of whom she was a devotee.
The benefits resulting from her tireless endeavours are there for all those who participate in or take advantage of her work. regardless of their respective religion or caste.
Visitors to this exemplary institution of charity, envisaged and given shape by a frail lady, are offered lodging and board. For those who travel from Karnataka to Ellora or vice versa, Sholapur (also spelled Solapur) is a commendable stopover place.
An old Digambara Adinatha temple, located within walking distance from the Padmashri Sumatibai Shravika Ashram, is worth a visit; and Kunthalgiri, that sacred temple-hill where Acharya Shantisagar ended his life by the rite of sallekhana in September 1955, lies about eighty kilometres north of Sholapur.
Classes for the girls of Padmashri’s school begin with a spiritual prayer.
The principal of the school. He, 100, is responsible to Padmashri Sumatibai.
Padmashri at her daily morning puja.