The pages of history are littered with tales of bold knights, inspiring kings, and pretty princesses. We’ve become so accustomed to these larger-than-life figures that we often forget the role of common people in history. After all, history is built upon the backs of ordinary people who achieve extraordinary feats. But the stories of these heroes without headlines are often lost to the sands of time or worse, censorship. Take for instance, the shocking story of Yogmaya who led a mass suicide in protest of injustice and autocratic government.
Right around the time when women first claimed their right to vote in US, a small spark of feminist movement started flaring in Nepal. Fanning this tiny spark in around 1917, was an ascetic religious leader, Yogmaya Neupane. Writing and reciting poems against patriarchy, caste discrimination and later, the autocratic Rana regime, Yogmaya sought to educate and liberate the oppressed through means of art. As her poems started travelling far and wide, citizens from around the country, as far as Darjeeling and Kathmandu came to visit her ashram in Bhojpur.
Much of the themes explored in her poems reflects the injustices she witnessed and went through in her pre-ascetic life. Born in 1867 when no one would bat an eye against child marriage, Yogmaya was married off at the juvenile age of 7. The marriage was short-lived, however, as her husband is believed to have died at the age of 10. Back then, Nepal was (perhaps, still is) a hostile place for a widow. And so, Yogmaya was subjected to a lengthy period of domestic abuse before finally fleeing her in-laws as a mid-teen. Optimistic and relieved, she returned home to the safety of her parents. But hopes soon turned to ashes as her parents insisted that she returned back to her abusive in-laws.
Perhaps that’s when hate started brewing in her heart against the mindless social traditions that seek to suppress women. In an act of defiance against the repressive norm, she got married two more times, both of which ended promptly. Finally, around 1903, Yogmaya decided she’d had enough of the worldly ways and resorted to a life of spirituality through asceticism.
But the path to enlightenment isn’t all that easy. And so, she started practicing rigorous meditation — meditating dangerously close to fire during the summers, sitting in a cold cave with thinly covered clothes in winter, and fasting for weeks by surviving only on water. Her stories of arduous meditations and her philosophy started travelling across the nation, catapulting her to a state of divinity. Her words against discrimination and oppression of minorities resonated with the repressed public under the autocratic Rana regime.
Then, in 1936, she made her way to Kathmandu herself where she was met face-to-face with the PM. Threatening that the end was nigh, Yogmaya made an unapologetic demand for “truth, dharma, and alms.” The Rana regime was quick to respond positively to Yogmaya’s disciple and petitions, offering spoken assurances to her demands. The words, however, never materialized into concrete actions.
Failing to witness any affirmative action from the government, Yogmaya’s patience started running short. So, in 1938, she made a plan of epic proportions to sacrifice herself alongside 200 of her willful loyal subjects — by sitting on a giant pyre and burning together to death.
The Rana regime could not allow this to happen, though. They knew the public opinion was hugely in the favor of Yogmaya’s group, and allowing her to die like that would certainly fetch an unwanted uprising. So, the PM deployed about 500 personnel to disrupt the self-immolation event. Yogmaya, along with most of her female followers and 11 male followers were arrested.
Three years after the botched first attempt, Yogmaya decided she would not be fazed by the minor setback and would carry on with her plan to self-sacrifice. This time, she shared the plans only with her most loyal followers. And on the night of July 4, 1941, Nepal’s OG feminist and revolutionary led the ritualistic Jal Samadhi by jumping into the roaring Arun River. A total of 67 subjects followed her into the deep blue. And as they dived into the river, the group is believed to have bellowed, “May the unjust Rana government be destroyed! May dharma be established!”
The Rana regime tried their best to contain the news of this mass suicide by censoring the news. Surprisingly, even after the abolishment of the Rana rule and the introduction of democracy, discussion about Yogmaya were generally discouraged. Despite the suppression, key historical events eventually manage to slip through the cracks of censorship and find its way to future generations, as the story of Yogmaya has found its way to you.