This essay is part of the #IndianWomenInHistory campaign for Women’s History Month to remember the untold legacies of women who shaped India, especially India’s various feminist movements. Each day one Indian woman is profiled for the whole of March 2017.
There have been many prominent social reformers in Maharashtra who have played a significant role in making the country more progressive and egalitarian. One such prominent and pivotal woman is Pandita Ramabai, a woman whose remarkable critique of society has been erased from the mainstream history of India, as has been the case with so many other prominent women leaders of their times.
As feminists, what we must remember is that Ramabai’s erasure from history is not a case of history left out or forgotten, it is a deliberate attempt to actively suppress the accounts of women who have raised their voice against Brahmanical patriarchy and caste dominance.
This makes the cause of remembering her work and life even more significant.
Pandita Ramabai was born on 23rd April in the forest of Ganamal in Maharashtra to Lakshmibai and a High caste Hindu Brahmin named Anant Shastri, who was a social reformer and was interested in educating girls. He was very learned in Sanskrit and he would read the Puranas in temples for livelihood. He was abandoned from the society for teaching his wife Sanskrit. The village Brahmans shunned him and he decided to leave the village and built a home in the forest. Soon Ramabai was born. She was the youngest of the three surviving children. While she was still young the family started moving from forest to forest and town to town.
Wherever he could her father would give lectures on the need for female education. Born at the forest home, she grew up in a family that embarked on several continuous journeys to holy places across India, managing to survive by reciting sacred stories and practising severities that the Hindu religion commands, in order to gain religious merit and thus a living. Ramabai’s parents passed away in the year 1877 due to famine. Her sister too died during the same time.
With only a brother left, she continued travelling all over India with him and reached Calcutta in 1878. Ramabai had impeccable command over the Sanskrit vernacular by then. Her exceptional knowledge of Sanskrit texts astonished the scholars and she was awarded with the highest titles of Pandita and Sarasvati, which means ‘A wise person’ and ‘goddess of learning/wisdom’ respectively. Ramabai’s brother passed away after they moved to Calcutta, following which she got married to Bipen Behan Das Medhavi who was a Shudra by caste, a lawyer and a teacher by profession. Both of them studied the western philosophy and ideas together. They had a daughter out of their wedlock. Unfortunately her husband died the following year, after which she returned to Pune.
Life and Work
Ramabai was drawn into the world of social reform early in life. She travelled widely in Calcutta and Bengal Presidency, addressing women for getting educated and empowered. She worked rigorously for women’s emancipation. She was already known as an educationist even before she turned 20. She and her brother had toured the country to spread awareness about female education and social reform.
When she came to Pune after her husband’s demise, she founded the Arya Mahila Samaj, which showed how inclusive her idea of education was and how committed she was for the cause of social reform. She believed in the idea of ‘self-reliance’ for real progress of society. Ramabai also got involved in Missionary activity later in life, though her deep religiosity towards Christianity that she believed in strongly came much later after her initial connections to the Hindu traditions due to her upbringing and family values.
In the year 1882, the government of India had appointed a commission (The Hunter Education Commission) that was to look into education in India and Ramabai gave evidence before the commission suggesting that the teachers should be trained for their jobs and more women should be appointed by schools. She also demanded that there should be more women in the medical field for some treatments for women required the presence of other women. Such was the impact of her evidences that it reached Queen Victoria.
What also needs to be mentioned is her speech on two resolutions of gender reform, wherein she at first choose to remain silent until there was pin drop silence in her audience and then went on to say, “It is not strange, my countrymen, that my voice is small, for you have never given a woman the chance to make her voice strong!” Not only were the resolutions passed with massive majority, but she literally captivated the attention of everyone sitting there. Her speeches were usually met with applause and standing ovations everywhere.
By the time Ramabai left for England in 1883 with her companion Anandibai Bhagat and settled in Wantage, she had declared that she was unwilling to convert to Christianity. A few months later, her companion Anandibai committed suicide. This incident shocked Ramabai. She was only twenty-five years of age and had already watched her parents, her brother, her husband, and her closest friend die tragic deaths.
While her future was a little uncertain, during the same time she was invited to America, in 1886 to attend her cousin Anandibai Joshi’s graduation ceremony, India’s very first woman doctor. A year later in December 1887, the American Ramabai Association was formed in Boston by her admirers, and she was able to gather financial support for residential schools for Hindu widows.
To raise funds for the same purpose, she also wrote the book The High Caste Hindu Woman and was able to sell ten thousand copies of it. It’s important to point out here that her book highlighted Brahmanical patriarchy especially in the region of Maharashtra. She travelled throughout the United States and Canada studying educational, philanthropic, and charitable institutions and delivering lectures to various groups. By 1888, she had collected over 30,000 dollars for her association.
Ramabai came back to India in 1889. A month later in March 1889 (11th march) she opened Sharada Sadan (or Home for Learning) in Mumbai. She started this with an aim to empower young widowed women. She taught the women to read, write, learn history and environment, among others. Sharada Sadan was the first institution in India to provide residential school for Brahmin women, mainly widows, but also unmarried girls. It was the first organisation to provide them formal and regular school education and vocational training. It not only assured economic safety for women, but also social acceptance for their livelihoods. She also received complete support from the social reformers in India, who were impressed with her ability to raise finds in a foreign country and even more impressed with her devotion to social reform back in India.
In 1889, famine hit Pune city. Attempting to control it, the government placed restrictions on the movement of people and a limit was placed on the number of people who could reside in Sharada Sadan. Not wanting to waste time, Ramabai went to Khedgaon near Pune, where she had purchased 100 acres of land, and set up Mukti Mission. She provided housing to women and children attending the school. Widows were encouraged not only to be independent, but were taught a variety of skills – from carpentry to running a printing press, the kind of skill sets that women were barred from acquiring and learning then. She also designed a remedial curriculum which included subjects like physiology and botany. It also included learning about one’s own body and physical world around them. Industrial training, printing, carpentry, tailoring, masonry, wood-cutting, weaving and needlework, as well as training in farming and gardening was taught.
Conversion to Christianity
In September 1883 Pandita Ramabai converted to Christianity. This was when she was living in at Wantage as a guest of the Anglican Community of St Mary the Virgin. The conversion created shockwaves throughout India. A Brahmin woman from a highly respected family in India, after her orthodox learning, someone who championed for widow women’s emancipation, had converted to Christianity.
Meera Kosambi has pointed out that her conversion also needs to be seen and critiqued from the context of the imperial, orientalist, patriarchal framework. However, she goes on to say that her conversion comes at a juncture where she had received immense spiritual support and aid from her Christian community and the dominance and patriarchal structures of the Hindu caste society were exposed in front of her. Her conversion also needs to be remembered and celebrated, given her social context and her upbringing in a traditional upper-caste Hindu society. She also had to pay a heavy price for it and was marginalized from the official histories of western India and especially Maharashtra for betraying her caste and community.
Amidst her work, her conversion ensured a backlash from the Hindu community. Her act of upholding the rights of women who were widowed was unacceptable to a considerably large section of the Brahmin community. They fuelled Christian propaganda following Ramabai’s policy of allowing the girls to attend her private prayers.
Yet she continued working. In 1919, she was awarded the Kaiser-e-Hind Gold Medal. Many more activities were introduced elsewhere by Ramabai’s daughter Manorama. However, due to bad health, her daughter passed away at the age of 40 in the year 1921. A year later, Ramabai passed away at 64, soon after copies of the Marathi translation of The Bible started coming out from the Mukti Mission’s press.
Pandita Ramabai was a truly remarkable woman who pioneered women’s education and rebelliously championed for women’s rights and empowerment. She combined ideas she had learned from the sisters and friends of different ethnicity and race at Wantage. Ramabai saw caste as a great flaw in Hindu society. It not only saw physical work and labour as denouncing, but it also led to false ideas of valuing intellect and merit. She also believed that caste associations promoted narrow self-interest and prevented the development of a democratic spirit in the real sense.
Ramabai’s work in the educational sector was commendable and greatly impressed her contemporaries, despite her connection to Christianity that irked many prominent personalities in western India. She was of the opinion that all these men were angry at her because her students were from upper caste communities. Had they been from other lower caste communities, they would not have bothered at all, is what she believed.
There have been many books and scholarly works on the life of Pandita Ramabai by writers and scholars from the east and the west both. Some of the prominent ones being the works of Meera Kosambi and Uma Chakravarti. Feminist scholarship remains in debt to the philosophy and work of Pandita Ramabai. Her vision continues to drive the feminist movement and scholarship even today, as it also continues to impact the lives of many women and young girls. She remains one of the most prominent women leader of Maharashtra and India.
- “Multiple contestations: Pandita Ramabai’s educational and missionary activities in late nineteenth-century India and abroad” by Meera Kosambi
- The Legacy of Pandita Ramabai
- The High Caste Hindu Woman. By Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati
- Pandita Ramabai: Story of Her Life
- Rewriting History: The Life and Times of Pandita Ramabai