Pandita Ramabai

views updated


PANDITA RAMABAI (1858–1922), social activist, proponent of women's rights in India. Pandita Ramabai was born in Mangalore District in 1858. Her father was a Chitpavan Brahman scholar, who taught her Sanskrit and refused to arrange her marriage. The family traveled from one pilgrimage site to another; her father supporting them by giving recitations of the Purāṇas. The famine of 1874 reduced the family to starvation. In the forest near Tirupathi, her father, mother, and elder sister died. She and her brother wandered all over India, mostly on foot, for the next six years, in an effort to attain to the forgiveness of sins. What they found was "insincerity and fraud" (Macnicol, p. 16). But Ramabai and her brother were not deceived. "We knew we were sinners," she confessed, "though we did not acknowledge it." Still it was in those years that Ramabai became profoundly aware of the sufferings of women. In Calcutta, her intellect and charisma while expounding the scriptures captivated the Sanskrit scholars of Bengal, who bestowed on her the title Pandita (mistress of learning). However, Ramabai eventually became disillusioned with Hinduism.

Pandita Ramabai became a champion of the oppressed, particularly women. In 1880 she married a Bengali lawyer; he died within two years, leaving her with a baby daughter, Monorama. Ramabai began an aggressive crusade in favor of female education and a higher marriage age for girls, rousing the opposition of orthodox Hindus.

In 1882 Ramabai published her first book in Marathi, Shree Dharma Neety (Morals for women), which drew attention to the plight of child widows and married and unmarried women. Pandita Ramabai spoke out on women's rights long before Mahatma Gandhi did. In 1883 she was called before the Education Commission, chaired by Sir William Hunter. "The educated men of this country are opposed to female education and the proper position of women," she told them. "It is evident that women, being one half of the people of this country, are oppressed and cruelly treated by the other half." She also appealed to the government to open medical schools to women.

In Britain, in September 1883, Ramabai and her daughter were baptized. Before returning to Poona in 1889, she wrote The High Caste Hindu Woman, 1887. It was the first book ever published in English by an Indian woman. A few months later she became the first woman to address the Indian National Congress.

The famines of 1896 and 1897 were a watershed in Ramabai's life. She saw people dying, especially girls, and knew she must save some. She acquired a 500-acre property in Kedgaon, near Poona. It was dedicated in September 1898 and came to be known as the Mukti (Salvation) Mission. The residents were abandoned and abused women and girls. All were taught skills to earn their own living. Before the end of her life, the community had grown to two thousand residents. She was awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind gold medal in 1919 for her social contributions. She died peacefully on 5 April 1922.

Graham Houghton


Batley, Dorothea S. Devotees of Christ. London: Church of England Zenana Missionary Society, 1937.

Kosambi, Meera, ed. Pandita Ramabai through Her Own Words. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Macnicol, Nicol. Pandita Ramabai. Kolkata: Associated Press, 1930.