A Noble Inheritance

At exactly twelve o'clock on the day of the spring equinox, March 21st, in 1923, Nirmala Salve was born in Chhindwara, a town in the geographical center of India. The noble qualities of her ancestors could be seen from an early age in Nirmala's character.


Shri Mataji speaks to ORF Radio in Vienna, Austria

Her grandmother, Sakhubai Salve, displayed the courageous and virtuous qualities that had accompanied the family dynasty through the centuries. In 1883, while in the late stages of pregnancy, Sakhubai lost her husband under tragic circumstances. Threatened by his relatives (who did not tolerate the fact that he and his family were Christian), she took her four children and left late one monsoon-soaked night, with the nearby river in spate. 

Sakhubai had such faith that despite her physical condition, her 9-yard sari, the driving rain and swollen river, she managed to cross with her children, followed by an 8-kilometer walk to the nearest railway station. At dawn, they boarded a train for Ujjain, Sakhubai’s brother's home. Under these difficult circumstances, Prasad Rao Salve, Shri Mataji’s father, was born.

Sakhubai and her children had to adapt from a life of wealth and ease to that of extreme frugality. Her children’s education, however, was essential to Sakhubai, and she instilled in them a spirit of self-sacrifice and commitment.   They pursued their studies under street lamps when there was no more kerosene at home.

Prasad Rao, the youngest, was a particularly brilliant student and received scholarships throughout his academic career. He studied law and joined a well-known firm in the city of Chhindwara. He married soon after, but sadly, was widowed at the age of 37, with five children. Though reluctant, he was eventually persuaded by his relatives to remarry, out of concern for the children’s wellbeing.

There was a young woman from Nagpur named Cornelia Karuna Jadhav, the first woman in India to receive an honours degree in mathematics. She was also a scholar of Sanskrit and very well versed in ancient Indian culture. Because she was so highly educated, it was difficult for her father to find a partner for her of at least equal, if not higher, academic qualifications.  
Through mutual friends, Prasad Rao sent a marriage proposal to Cornelia and her father. It was not a decision easily made, whether to accept this proposal of a widower with five children. However, she was impressed by his intelligence and faith in God and she felt a deep compassion for his children, who were left motherless at a young age. They were married on the 21st of June, 1920.
Prasad Rao - An Ideal FatherPrasad Rao and Cornelia shared a deep love for their country and its great spiritual tradition and values. Their daughter Nirmala was only two years old in 1925 when they met Mahatma Gandhi for the first time, and this meeting had an enormous impact on them. They recognized and shared his vision for a free India achieved through non-violent struggle.

Despite the fact that Prasad Rao had been given a title by the British and that they were Christian (which meant a lot of privileges during the time of British rule), he and his wife did not hesitate to join the movement, making their position clear – even burning their foreign-made clothes in the public square of Nagpur. Because of their involvement in the freedom struggle, they were both jailed several times, and they made it a family rule that no one was to shed tears for them. India’s freedom was the most important thing, and self-sacrifice was the rule, not the exception.  
With her parents often away or in prison, Shri Mataji  took the running of the household upon herself so that her older siblings could continue their studies uninterrupted. She was eight years old at the time.

Some years later Shri Mataji was old enough to join the freedom struggle, encouraging fellow students to do the same. She, too, was imprisoned and even tortured by the British. But her spirit was not weakened by the experience. Throughout her life, she would continue to personify the eternal values of her noble ancestors: courage, self-sacrifice and compassion.

Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi and family

1. ^ H. P. Salve, 'My Memoirs' New Delhi: Life Eternal Trust, 2000