Pandita Ramabai (23 April 1858 – 5 April 1922) was an Indian social reformer, a champion for the emancipation of women, and a pioneer in education. She acquired a reputation as a Sanskrit scholar
Ramabai was born on 23 April 1858 in Canara district of British India (now in Karnataka). Her Family belongs to Mala Kattemane Dongare Family. Her father, Anant Shastri, was an intellectual Brahmin, who from his study of Hindu texts, believed that women should be educated. His second wife, Ramabai’s mother, Lakshmibai, was a child bride nine years of age. Against the prevailing Hindu traditions, he decided to educate her. The village Brahmins responded by ostracizing him, so Shastri left the village to make a home in the forest. The family moved from place to place. Whenever he could her father would lecture on the need for female education. He taught Ramabai to read and write Sanskrit, as well as how to interpret vedic texts. By the age of twelve, Ramabai had memorized 18,000 verses from the Puranas. Besides Sanskrit, Ramabai learned the Marathi, Kanarese, Hindustani, and Bengali languages.
When her parents died in the 1877 famine, Ramabai and her brother decided to continue their father’s work. She and her brother traveled all over India. Ramabai’s fame as a lecturer reached Calcutta, where the pandits invited her to speak. In 1878, Calcutta University, conferred on her the title of Pandita, as well as the highest title of Saraswati in recognition of her interpretations of various Sanskrit works. The theistic reformer Keshab Chandra Sen gave her a copy of the Vedas, the most sacred of all Hindu literature, and encouraged her to read them.
After the death of her brother in 1880, Ramabai married Bengali lawyer, Bipin Behari Medhvi and they had a daughter whom they named Mano. Medhvi was a Sudra, so her marriage was inter-caste, even though it was considered inappropriate for a Hindu to marry into a lower caste. They were married in a civil ceremony on 13 November 1880. Ramabai resolved to spend her life attempting to better the status of women in India. She studied and discussed issues which surround Indian women, especially Hindu traditions. She spoke against the practice of child marriage and the resulting constraints on the lives of child widows. Husband and wife had planned to start a school for child widows, when Medhvi died in 1882.
After Medhvi’s death, Ramabai moved to Pune where she founded Arya Mahila Samaj, which is Sanskrit for “Noble Women’s Society”. The purpose of the society was to promote the cause of women’s education and deliverance from the oppression of child marriage. When in 1882 a commission was appointed by Government of India to look into education, Ramabai gave evidence before it. In an address to Lord Ripon’s Education Commission, she declared with fervor, “In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred the educated men of this country are opposed to female education and the proper position of women. If they observe the slightest fault, they magnify the grain of mustard-seed into a mountain, and try to ruin the character of a woman.” She suggested that teachers be trained and women school inspectors be appointed. Further, she said that as the situation in India was that women’s conditions were such that women could only medically treat them, Indian women should be admitted to medical colleges. Ramabai’s evidence created a great sensation and reached Queen Victoria. It bore fruit later in starting of the Women’s Medical Movement by Lady Dufferin.
In 1883 Ramabai received a scholarship to train as a teacher in England. During her time there she converted to Christianity and joined the Anglican Church. She developed a more clear vision at this time for what would become her future ministry in India. She dreamed of founding schools in India that combined education and industry. She also realized the need for Kindergarten school in India. In 1886 she was invited to America so she intently studied the kindergarten systems in America. When she returned to India, she started homes for the destitute and Christian churches. Ramabai combined her Christian ideals with her Indian culture to promote change in India. She also lectured across America for three years on the plight of women and child widows in India; and when the Ramabai Foundation was formed in America to collect funds for her projects in India, more than $30,000 was collected. More than 10,000 copies of her book, High Caste Hindu Women were sold in America, the profits from which were used give shelter to destitute women in India.
It was there that an association was formed to fund her school for child widows. By April 1889 she had started a home-cum-school in Bombay, which she named as Sharda Sadan. This was the first home for widows in Maharashtra- the only other home was in Bengal, started by a Mr. Sen, As Ramabai was a Christian and the school was funded by missionaries, local citizens viewed it with extreme caution and wariness. She brought in Sharada, a young Indian lady, after whom the Sadan was named while she was pregnant. But as Sharada refused Pandita’s urge to take up Christianity, Ramabai drove her out 11 days after her delivery which was strongly criticised. Sharada fell ill and eventually died. Ramabai moved to Poona, name changed to Mukti Sadan. When they were hit by the 1900 famine, Ramabai and her helpers were able to rescue several hundred women. According to ManMohan Kaur there were as many as 1900 people in the Sadan. A school was organized. 400 children were accommodated in the Kindergarten, A training school for teachers wad also opened and an Industrial School with gardens, fields, oil press, dairy, laundry, ovens, etc. It also taught sewing, weaving, and embroidery.
Later on, she traveled extensively to see for herself the plight of many young women and widows condemned to life as temple prostitutes in Northern India. In a lecture given in June 1882, she pronounced, “Men look on us women as chattels: we make every effort to deliver ourselves from this situation. But some will say that this is a rebellion against man, and that to do this is sin. To leave men’s evil acts unrebuked and remain unmoved before them is a great sin.”
She wrote a book about her travels to the United States “Status of Society of United States and a travelogue” and it has been published in English translation as Pandita Ramabai’s American Encounter. The book is a traveler’s account of the people and culture of the United States. It contains a pointed comparison of the status of women in the U.S.A. and India, and suggests that India should follow the path of reform, but is not without criticisms of American society, particularly its race problem. The work was almost immediately acclaimed as one of the greatest books of the time and was soon used as a textbook at the University of Bombay.
In 1889, Ramabai established the Mukti Mission in Pune, as a refuge and a Gospel witness for young widows deserted and abused by their families; she also established Krupa Sadan, a home for “fallen” women, who had been cast out of society. Ramabai also started ‘Sharda Sadan’, which also provided housing, education, vocational training and medical services for many needy groups including widows, orphans and the blind. In Sanskrit and most Indian languages MUKTI means liberation. In her spotless widow’s white, Ramabai most often arose before 4:00 A.M. and worked until half past eight at night.
In 1896, during a severe famine Ramabai toured the villages of Maharashtra with a caravan of bullock carts and rescued thousands of outcast children, child widows, orphans, and other destitute women and brought them to the shelter of Mukti and Sharada Sadan. A learned woman knowing seven languages, she also translated the Bible into her mother tongue – Marathi – from the original Hebrew and Greek.
By 1900 there were 1,500 residents and over a hundred cattle in the Mukti mission and she was also involved in establishing a Church at Mukti. The Pandita Ramabai Mukti Mission is still active today, providing housing, education, vocational training, and medical services, for many needy groups including widows, orphans, and the blind.
Ramabai was also a poet and scholar. In order to learn more about the education of women and receive training for her lifelong battle to help unshackle the women in India, she visited most parts of India, and even went to Britain (1883) and the United States of America (1886–88). During this time she also translated textbooks and gave lectures throughout the United States and Canada. Somehow she also found time to write and get published one of her most important books, The High-Caste Hindu Woman. This was also the first book that she wrote in English. Ramabai dedicated this book to Dr. Anandibai Joshi, the first Indian woman to earn a medical degree through training in Western medicine, who died in February 1887, less than six months after returning to India from America. The High Caste Hindu Woman, which, according to her beliefs, “showed” the darkest aspects of the life of Hindu women, including child brides and child widows, sought to expose the oppression of women in Hindu-dominated British India.
As Pandita Ramabai involved herself in social service, there was little family life for her. Her childhood was full of hardships, she lost her parents early and her husband expired within two years of marriage. She had also to educate her only daughter, Manorama Bai. She did this well: Manorama completed her BA at Bombay University; went to the USA for higher studies; returned to India, and worked as Principal of Sharada Sadan, Mumbai. With her help, Pandita Ramabai established Christian High school at Gulbarga (now in Karnataka), a backward district of south India, during 1912, and her daughter was Principal of the school. In spite of the relentless criticism, Ramabai remained focused on her goal of helping widows. In 1920 Ramabai’s body began to flag and she designated her daughter as the one who would take over the ministry of Mukti Mission. But Manorama’s untimely death was a shock to Ramabai. Nine months later, Ramabai, who had been suffering from septic bronchitis, went to be with her Lord and her daughter. She died on 5 April 1922, a few weeks before her 64th birthday. Her contribution to social reforms, community service and Christianity in India is much appreciated
Swami Vivekananda mentions about Ramabai in his letters.”I am astonished to hear the scandals the Ramabai circles are indulging in about me. Don’t you see, Mrs. Bull, that however a man may conduct himself, there will always be persons who invent the blackest lies about him? At Chicago I had such things every day against me. And these women are invariably the very Christian of Christians! ”
“Pandit” and “Saraswati” at Bengal (before going to Britain), recognizing her skills in Sanskrit. Kaisar-i-Hind medal for community service in 1919, awarded by the British Government. She is honored with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on 5 April.
On 26 October 1989, in recognition of her contribution to the advancement of Indian women, the Government of India issued a commemorative stamp.