Pandita Ramabai (1858–1922) was a social reformer who sought to advance the cause of women's rights in India. Specifically focused on ending the abuse of young girls married as children, Pandita Ramabai was an outspoken supporter of education for women, the abolition of child marriage, and the fair treatment of widows. She traveled widely, drawing support from the United States and Canada for the schools, communities, and churches she founded in India. Late in life, she was honored by the British Empire for her social work.
Pandita Ramabai Saraswati was a child prodigy whose extensive knowledge of the Hindu scriptures so impressed the religious scholars of her day that they named her the first woman “pandit,” or scriptural teacher, as well as the honorific “Saraswati” referencing the Hindu goddess of learning. Pandita Ramabai had suffered terribly under the Hindu fundamentalism of her childhood, and she became a vehement critic of what she considered inhumane social practices. Although India was by now a British colony, widowed girls and women were often blamed for their husbands' deaths and were the victims of overt physical and psychological abuse by their in-laws. Ramabai devoted her life to advancing women's rights and educational opportunities, first as an agnostic and later as a Christian activist. Fluent in four languages, she wrote several influential books and was the first to translate the Bible into Marathi, her native tongue.
Born Ramabai Dongre, Pandita Ramabai was born on April 23, 1858, in the Indian state of Maharashtra, then the Bombay Presidency of British colonial India. She was the third child of Anant Shastri Dongre and Lakshmibai Dongre, having an older brother and sister. Her parents were high-caste Brahmins: the Hindu scriptures divide adherents into four basic castes or classes, of which the Brahmins are the highest and considered the priestly class. Ramabai's father was a scholar of Sanskrit, an ancient language and that in which the oldest Hindu scriptures, as well as poetry, science, and philosophy, were written. Atypically for the time, Anant had taught his young wife, Lakshmi, the Sanskrit language and the proper interpretation of the scriptures. She, in turn, taught her daughters, beginning in earliest childhood. Ramabai Dongre would awake each morning to the sound of her mother reading Sanskrit verses. Sanskrit, along with the Marathi tongue spoken by her parents, was Ramabai's first language.
The Dongre family lived in a forest and their open household was frequently visited by religious pilgrims and students seeking instruction from Anant Dongre. Within this atmosphere, Ramabai was exposed to great learning and by age 12 had memorized all 18,000 lines of a key scripture, the Bhagavat Purana. Through her various lessons, she also gained a sophisticated understanding of astronomy, botany, and physiology. As she would write in her first book, The High-Caste Hindu Woman, fewer than one-quarter of one percent of Indian women at that time were able to read or write. Of those who could, most were expected to end their education at nine or ten years of age because early marriage was typical for Brahmin girls.
In 1874, when Ramabai was 16, a famine struck the region of southern India where the Dongres lived. With no economic reserves, Anant was forced to sell his ancestral plot of land and the family began a peripatetic life as traveling pilgrims and itinerant teachers, reading holy scriptures to illiterate people in exchange for coins.
Years of wandering took their toll on the family as their scant earnings as scripture-readers were spent in donations at temples and to purchase food. Both Anant and Lakshmi died, and Ramabai's older sister followed them in death shortly after. Ramabai and her brother continued to travel, hungry and barefoot and sometimes living on only what they could find growing along the roadside. The siblings were young, smart, and resourceful, however, and through their travails they learned to survive. In fact, by the time they arrived in Calcutta two years after their parents's death, they had mastered several new languages. They had also become eloquent lecturers on the Hindu scriptures as well as outspoken advocates for the education of women. Ramabai and her brother attracted so much attention in the city that they were asked to present themselves before a conclave of high-placed Pandits.
Ramabai, in particular, impressed the Pandits, who questioned her closely on the Hindu sacred books and were impressed by her extensive knowledge. They were also impressed by her fluency in seven of the languages spoken on the Indian subcontinent. After the examination, the conclave granted the young woman the title of Pandit, although because she was the first woman so honored, they used the term “Pandita.” They also gave her the honorific name Saraswati, referencing the goddess of learning. Her new name, Pandita Ramabai Saraswati, would stand her in good stead; at age 20, she was now qualified to teach and promote a cause in which she deeply believed.
Word quickly spread that an accomplished young Brahmin woman was traveling with her brother and openly advocating for the emancipation of women. To Hindus, Pandita Ramabai seemed like an incarnation of the goddess Saraswati, often speaking to crowds assembled on the banks of the sacred river Ganges. With access to previously forbidden scriptures such as the Upanishads and the extremely ancient Vedas, she became disillusioned with Hinduism, however, recalling how her devout parents starved even as they worshipped. Agnosticism, or educated doubt, now became her philosophy and education her purpose.
Although Pandita Ramabai's popularity allowed her and her brother to attain security, the years of privation and religious fasting took such a toll on the young man that he sickened and died. Soon after, Ramabai married Medhavi, a Bengali lawyer, in a civil ceremony. Moving to his home in Bengal, she planned to found a school for child widows, girls who, after being married in childhood, lost their husbands and were rejected by their in-laws. Within a year, Ramabai gave birth to a daughter, Manorama, but within months, Medhavi contracted cholera and died.
Although penniless and a single mother, Pandita Ramabai was undaunted. She moved to the ancient city of Poona, where she began organizing a women's society to advance the education of girls and change marriage practices. When the British colonial commission on education visited, they were so impressed with Pandita Ramabai that they had her views translated into English. Recognizing that her cause of educating women required outside help, the young widow approached Anglican missionaries and in 1883, with their help, she traveled to England, bringing with her the young Manorama.
Dorothea Beale, the founder of Cheltenham Ladies' College, interceded when Ramabai refused to adhere to the teaching policy at the nunnery where she was staying. Instead, Beale employed her as a professor of Indian languages, allowing her to teach both women and men. Later in life, she would translate the Bible into her native Marathi. But for now, her goal was to learn more about the West and garner support for her future work in India.
Direction materialized in 1886 when she received a letter from the dean of the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania, inviting Ramabai to attend the graduation of a distant cousin, Anandabai Joshee, who was training to become one of the first woman doctors in India. Although she planned a two-week visit to America, she remained for two years, traveling throughout the United States and Canada and speaking out about the plight of child brides in India as well as the need for girls' schools and special communities for widows. She formed the American Ramabai Association, based in Boston and San Francisco and dedicated to funding a secular residential school for Hindu widows. One of its fundraising offerings was Pandita Ramabai's first and most famous book, The High-Caste Hindu Woman.
In late 1888, after returning to India by way of China and Japan, Pandita Ramabai moved to Bombay and founded Sharada Sadan, or “Home for Learning.” Social reformers applauded both her fundraising acumen and her commitment to positive change for India. They were also reassured that, by becoming a Christian, Ramabai had not rejected her culture and that the new school would be secular. As Meera Kosambi wrote in Women's History Review, Shar-ada Sadan was more than just a shelter and school for Brahmin widows and girls. Here they were taught self-sufficiency, a radical idea for 19th-century Indian women.
When Ramabai moved Sharada Sadan to Poona, the strongly Brahmin community was less than welcoming because orthodox Brahmins believed that the school was a front for Christian missionary activity. To them, Ramabai's practice of allowing girls to join her in Christian prayer violated the school's stated neutrality, tilting the balance toward Christianity. After fights broke out between the school's supporters and the old guard of the city, students were withdrawn and an advisory council composed of local residents resigned. Ultimately, a delegation from the Ramabai Association's Boston branch visited and reviewed the situation. Although they agreed that Ramabai had not violated their agreement, the damage was done and Hindu society boycotted Pandita Ramabai.
In 1899, ten years into her project, Ramabai moved Sharada Sadan to a village near Poona, renaming it the Ramabai Mukti (or “Salvation”) Mission. Now an overtly Christian enterprise, according to Kosambi, it “soon grew into a large community of 2,000 women” and included “the original Hindu Widows' Home, a Home for Christian Women, a ‘Rescue Home’ for sexually victimised women, a separate section for old women and one for blind women.” This self-sufficient community included a government-approved school in which girls and women could receive vocational training: tailoring, printing, and other skills.
Famine was plaguing the region at the time, and Ramabai took hundreds of girls and women into her community. As the ranks swelled, the mostly uneducated rural women accepted mass conversion to Christianity in a revival-like atmosphere. While the Mukti Mission prospered, Ramabai labored over her last and greatest literary effort, translating the English Bible into Marathi. Her daughter Manorama, now grown, traveled to England, North America, and Australia as her mother's representative.
The Mukti Mission continued to prosper and in 1919 the British colonial government awarded Pandita Ramabai Saraswati the prestigious Kaiser-e-Hind Gold Medal for community service. Unfortunately, she was too ill to make the trip to Bombay to accept this honor. Manorama, suffering from overwork and other health issues, died two years later, at age 40, crushing her mother's dreams of continuing the mission. Then age 64, Ramabai succumbed to septic bronchitis within a year after her daughter's death, dying in Bombay, India, on May 5, 1922. At the time of her death, the first copies of her Marathi Bible were being printed by Mukti Mission trainees on the school's presses.
Dyer, Helen S., Pandita Ramabai: The Story of Her Life, Fleming H. Revell, 1900.
Women's History Review, Volume 7, number 2 (1998), Meera Kosambi “Multiple Contestations: Pandita Ramabai's Educational and Missionary Activities in Late-19th-Century India and Abroad,” pp. 193–208.
Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center FOCUS, https://www.hurights.or.jp/archives/focus/section2/2009/06/pandita-ramabai-student-seeker-and-visionary-leader.html (June, 2009), Sonia Hazard “Pandita Ramabai: Student, Seeker, and Visionary Leader.”
Women's History Network, https://womenshistorynetwork.org/womens-history-month-pandita-ramabai/ (March 11, 2011), Isobel Grundy, “Pandita Ramabai.”□