At the age of six, Ranade was sent to a Marathi school in Kolhapur, and in 1851, when he was nine, he was transferred to an English school. Ranade completed his schooling at the Elphinstone Institute, Bombay. His academic performance was so good that within a year he was admitted into the prestigious Elphinstone College, Bombay. Ranade was a scholar. He spent hours reading with utmost concentration, not stopping to relax or socialize.Ranade was among the 21 students who appeared in the Matriculation Examination held in Bombay in 1859. He achieved distinctions in all his degree courses, commencing with B.A. Honors in 1862, M.A. in 1864 and LL.B. and LL.B. Honors in 1864 and 1865 respectively. Almost throughout his academic career he was a scholarship-holder.
He began his days with prayers and hymns of Maratha saints like Tukaram, Ramdas and Namdev. Often the beauty of the hymns made him emotional and tears would fill his eyes. He made a deep study of the Vedas and other texts of the Hindu religion. He studied other religions, particularly Christianity. He came to the conclusion that Hinduism needed to be approached in a more rational manner. He wanted reforms in the beliefs, customs and practices of the Hindus as a whole. His desire was to bring back the piety and spirituality which was basic to Hinduism. When the Prathna Samaj began holding prayer meetings, he attended regularly and even started conducting a weekly service with sermons based on the teachings of saints like Eknath, Tukaram, Namdev, Ramdas and books like the Bhagvad Gita, Upanishads and the Bible. Ranade believed in the existence of one God capable of molding mans destiny like “clay in the hands of a potter.”While in college, Ranade joined the Dnyan Prasarak Sabha, founded in 1848 by students of the Elphinestone College. He wrote articles and gave speeches on social and economic problems of India. In his 1860 article “The Maratha Princes, Jagirdars and Inamdars,” he criticized their extravagant lifestyles and laid stress on their education.
Ranade became a proponent of the Vidhava-vivaha Uttejaka Mandali (Society for the Encouragement of Widow-remarriage) founded in 1845 by English and Sanskrit scholar, Vishnushastri Pandit. Ranade was also actively involved with the Prathna Samaj, which was similar to the Brahmo Samaj movement in Bengal. Ranade gave the Samaj his best in forwarding social reforms like inter-dining and inter- marriage, widow re-marriage, upliftment of women and the depressed classes. Ranade helped found the Indian National Social Conference to function like the social wing of the Indian National Congress. The Conference aimed at educating women, prevent child marriage and oppose the dowry system.
Ranade’s stress on education of women was ill received by the conservatives in the community. Even the ladies in his own house were furious at the prospect of his wife, Ramabai receiving English lessons. A crisis occurred when Ranade prepared Ramabai to deliver an address in English at a public meeting called for starting a high school for girls in Poona. The school was started at Huzur Paga, Poona on some land allotted by a friend William Wedderburn. The orthodox Hindus went into a frenzy at the establishment of the school. Ranade bore the criticism quietly.Ranade decided to join Government service, rather then starting his own law practice, after passing his LL.B. Honors. He started working as a Marathi translator in 1866 in the Education Department of the Government of Bombay. Ranade was appointed the Karbhari for a few months in the Akalkot State, in 1867. In the September of that year, he accepted the position of Judge in Kolhapur State. The next year he joined the Elphinstone College where he remained till 1871, as the professor of English Literature and History.In November 1871 he took up a new assignment in Poona as the acting Subordinate Judge from where he was transferred to Nasik in 1878 because of his links to the “seditious” Sarvajanik Sabha. In 1872, Ranade directed the workers of the Sarvajanik Sabha to hold a survey of the various districts of Maharashtra concentrating on the economic conditions of the people. The information documented was compiled in a report and submitted to the Government. The report conveyed that the revenue policy of the Government was one of the major causes for the existing poverty. In 1875 Ranade drafted a memorandum requesting for a responsible government in India. In 1876, the year when the title of Empress was conferred on Queen Victoria, Ranade requested the representation of Indians in the British Parliament with equal political and social statues as other British citizens, and the right to self-government. This was the first time such a direct approach had been taken in the Indian freedom struggle thus far.
That year a severe famine broke out in Maharashtra. The Sabha leapt into action. Beside providing relief, Ranade directed a group of social workers to go to the famine stricken areas and get first hand information from village officials like the Kulkarni (in charge of maintaining the accounts of all the cultivations), postmaster and others. He pointed out that the famine relief efforts were inadequate and directly blamed the Governor of Bombay for not taking steps to alleviate the effects of the famine.
In 1881 he was given the position of Special Sub-Judge in Poona which gave him the opportunity to come closer to the poor farmers and assist in settling land related disputes.
In 1885, Ranade was appointed Law Member of the Bombay Legislative Council. He was re-assigned to the position in 1890 and 1893. Ranade became an unofficial member of the Congress and supported it through its infancy. He attended every session and suggested that the Congress should embrace the cause of political as well as social reform. He advocated reform via constitutional methods and a gradual move toward freedom unlike the Extremists, like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who wanted immediate liberation from the British. Thus formed two camps in the Congress, the Moderates under the leadership of Ranade and his disciple Gokhale and Extremists, under Tilak and Ghosh.
While in the Legislative Council, Ranade wrote the “Rise and Fall of the Maratha Power” with Chatrapati Shivaji as the key figure. The same year he published an “Introduction to the Satara Rajas” and “The Peshwa Diaries.” Ranade studied the economies of Switzerland, France, Italy and Belgium and made comparisons with the Indian economy. He felt the fragile state of the economy was because of the over-dependence on agriculture -an occupation that suffered from drawbacks like floods, droughts, famines, heavy taxation and inadequate irrigation facilities and relief measures during famines. Ranade noted that “fifty years ago, India clothed herself with her own manufacturers and now she is clothed by her distant masters.”
Ranade stressed on the development of indigenous small industries. He forwarded the idea for the establishment of agricultural banks by the Government, to give loans directly to the peasants.
From 1893 to 1900, Ranade served on the bench of the Bombay High Court where he took several steps to the liberalize the Hindu Law with regard to women’s rights.
Ranade died on January 16, 1901 of now common ailment angina pectoris.