On a hot July weekend in 1848, sixty-eight women and forty-two men?all of them American or European? convened in Seneca Falls, New York, as delegates to the first ever women's rights convention. Perhaps it is because of this watershed event paired with lingering colonialism that many Westerners consider women's liberation to be a uniquely Western initiative.
But when these early ripples from Seneca Falls were just beginning to make waves in the West, a beautiful baby girl named Ramabai was born over ten thousand miles away just outside Karkal, India. Equipped with courage, intelligence, and an unshakable Christian faith, Ramabai would eventually become known as Pandita, or "wise person," and the preeminent pioneer of women's rights in India.
This remarkable woman, whose feminist commitment was rivaled only by her ardent conviction for Christ upon her conversion at age 25, changed the lives of countless girls and women. The Mukti Mission she founded reached India's neglected and abused child- widows.
Pandita Ramabai was born Ramabai Dongre on 23 April 1858, to an intellectual Brahmin family. Her father was a prominent Sanskrit scholar who directed an ashram, a residential religious community and school for boys. Defying social custom, he firmly believed that women, like men, should also be allowed an education?and accordingly took it upon himself to teach Ramabai and her mother. He was probably ostracized by his colleagues for his radical views on women's education and soon after lost the ashram due to financial reasons.
The entire family?Ramabai, her father, mother, and two siblings ?then took off on foot and traveled all over India. Her parents eked out a modest living as Puranikas, wanderers who recited and commented on the Vedas and other sacred Hindu texts. True to their dedication to education, Ramabai's parents spent long hours teaching her during their travels. She proved to be quite a precocious student. Soon, she had learned 18,000 verses of the Bhagavata Purana in their original Sanskrit by heart, in addition to excelling in astronomy, botany, and physiology.
Ramabai's first-class education was incredibly rare. She notes in her book, The High-Caste Hindu Woman, that less than one- quarter of one percent of Indian women at the time were able to read or write. Of these privileged few, many were required to cease their studies at a young age?often at nine- or ten-years-old?when they were married. Early marriage was the norm for young Brahmin girls, and it was often considered dishonorable for a woman to continue her education once wed. Baffling and angering Hindu traditionalists, Ramabai's father further went against the grain by refusing to arrange her marriage.
Tragically, Ramabai's mother, father, and sister died from starvation during the great famine of 1874?76, leaving Ramabai and her older brother hungry and without help. The pair continued to wander India until reaching Calcutta in 1878. After stunning scholars with her extraordinary knowledge of Sanskrit and ancient texts, the 20-year-old Ramabai became an instant celebrity in the city. She was honored with the title Pandita, meaning "wise person," and heralded as a Saraswati, or "goddess of learning." She soon joined the ranks of Calcutta intelligentsia.
In 1880, shortly after her brother's death, Ramabai transgressed social norms yet again by marrying a man of a lower caste. Before long, she gave birth to a daughter named Manorama. Her new baby gave her much joy, if only ephemerally, for her husband died of cholera before their second anniversary. Now a widow, Ramabai was left to raise Manorama on her own.
During this period of severe turmoil in her personal life that her public life really began to thrive. Troubled by the immensity of suffering she had witnessed during her travels and galvanized by the western Indian social reform movement, Ramabai soon established herself as a champion of the oppressed?especially women. She published, lectured, and founded Arya Mahila Sabha in 1881, the very first Indian feminist organization. The group fervently crusaded for female education and a higher marriage age for girls. Ramabai was called to speak before India's Education Commission in 1883, where she made an impassioned case that "it is evident that women, being one half of the people of this country, are oppressed and cruelly treated by the other half."
Stemming from an interest in women's public health, Ramabai left India with daughter Manorama in 1883 to study medicine in England. She was supported by the Anglican Community of St. Mary the Virgin in Wantage. The Sisters gave her a home and allowed her to improve her English and teach Sanskrit in return. Many of her mostly Hindu followers were understandably suspicious of such an arrangement. They didn't trust Christian missionaries; in India, the cross often represented colonialism, not liberation. Before Ramabai left for England, she assured this Hindu faction that "Nothing would induce me to embrace Christianity."
However, when her hosts encouraged Ramabai to read the New Testament, she was deeply touched by the gospel stories of Jesus ministering to the oppressed. The way he treated people like the Samaritan woman made a strong impression on her. Her feminism was freely reconciled with this new faith; she started to realize that Christ could truly "transform and uplift the downtrodden women of India." She wrote later,
One can feel that the teaching of our Lord Jesus comes from the All-Father, who loves not one nation, not one class, or one caste, but bears in His heart every creature of His hand; it would be a blessed day ;for India, if her sons and daughters could see that He is the revelation of the Father.
Ramabai and her daughter Manorama were baptized by the Sisters.
As an Indian woman, Ramabai's new faith met some unique challenges. Despite accepting the religion of Britain, she remained a die-hard Indian patriot and considered herself a cultural Hindu. This dual identity prevented her from completely fitting in with either Hindus or Christians. Ramabai was constantly living on the boundaries?she was accused by Hindus for deserting them, while simultaneously bearing the brunt of colonial British racism and condescension. She was further alienated by refusing to indiscriminately accept all church dogma and doctrine espoused by Anglicans, emphasizing the importance of the Bible above all. She explained,
In this new Faith, there are some things which I cannot take in, and I shall not feel myself bound to do so, until I know them, as far as my poor understanding will carry me. But, I must ever continue to search Scriptures and never stop until I find the lost piece of silver?either in this world or the next.
In 1886, the dean of the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania invited Ramabai to America for the graduation ceremony of one of her distant cousins, Anandibai Joshee, who was the first Indian woman to receive a degree in medicine. Like her rise to success in Calcutta a decade earlier, the 28-year-old became a sensation in Philadelphia. Through invitations to speak at several American women's organizations, Ramabai developed partnerships with feminist leaders like Frances Willard, Susan B. Anthony, and Harriet Tubman. With the help of Willard and her Women's Christian Temperance Union, Ramabai published her second full-length book in 1887, The High-Caste Hindu Woman, the first Indian feminist manifesto.
The High-Caste Hindu Woman also reflects Ramabai's emerging commitment to minister to India's high-caste child widows. The book delivers a heart-rending?yet culturally sensitive?feminist critique of the plight of these women andgirls. While it is more complex than can adequately be addressed here, Ramabai presents the issue, at its base level, as such: when Brahmin women are married off as children, they usually live with their husband's family. If the husband dies young, the child widow is often blamed for the death and despised by the family, as prescribed by a particular interpretation of Hindu scriptures. In her book, Ramabai documents the widow's plight in detail.
The widow must wear a single coarse garment, white, red, or brown. She must eat only one meal during the twenty-four hours of a day. She must never take part in family feasts and jubilees, with others. She must not show herself to people on auspicious occasions. A man or woman thinks it unlucky to behold a widow's face before seeing any other object in the morning. A man will postpone his journey if his path happens to be crossed by a widow...
Ramabai returned to India in 1889 with a renewed sense of vision and generous financial support from the newly-formed American Ramabai Association. She soon opened the Sharada Sadan, a secular residential school for high-caste child widows. Ramabai made a point to make both Hindu and Christian texts freely available, although she conducted Bible study for those interested. The school operated for several years, until the bubonic plague epidemic of the late 1890s forced Ramabai and her students to flee to the rural village of Kedgaon.
It was in Kedgaon?in an unusual place with unusual circumstances?that Ramabai's Christian feminist vision became fully actualized in the Mukti (Salvation) Mission. Unlike the secular Sharada Sadan, Mukti was overtly Christian and ministered to all in need of help, eventually growing to house and educate over 2,000 girls and women. In addition to high-caste child widows, Mukti opened its doors and provided services for those who suffered from sexual abuse, famine, and disability?of every caste. While presiding over the flourishing Mission until her death in 1922, she continued to write and lecture. Among other achievements, she translated the entire Bible from its original Hebrew and Greek into her native Marathi, and was awarded the government's Kaiser-e-Hind gold medal in 1919.
Pandita Ramabai was a strong leader with a clear vision. Her lifelong refusal to conform to patriarchal norms and resolute commitment to equality and justice are truly inspirational. She clearly deserves a prominent place as one of the movement's heroes.
Her voice rings just as truely today as it did a century ago. While the situation for child widows in India has greatly improved, injustice, inequality, and the mistreatment of women still abound all over the world. Like Jesus, Ramabai still presents a challenge for contemporary women and men. She entreats us to respond to her urgent clarion call for justice, expressed so well in The High-Caste Hindu Woman,
In the name of humanity, in the name of your sacred responsibilities as workers in the cause of humanity, and, above all, in the most holy name of God, I summon you...to bestow your help quickly, regardless of nation, caste, or creed.
Sonia Hazard is an undergraduate student at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., USA, where she is majoring in Religious Studies.
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* This article first appeared in the Autumn 2006 issue of Mutuality Magazine of the Christians for Biblical Equality.