Ramabai, Pandita (1858–1922)

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Ramabai, Pandita (1858–1922)

Indian scholar and reformer who drew international attention to the plight of Hindu widows and whose school offered shelter and education to thousands of these young women. Name variations: Ramabai Medhavi; Saraswati or Sarasvati. Born Ramabai Dongre on April 23, 1858, in Mysore State, India; died at her school for Hindu widows, the Mukti Sadan, in Kedgaon, Bombay Presidency, India, on April 5, 1922; daughter of Anant Sastri Dongre and Lakshmibai (both Sanskrit scholars); educated by parents in Sanskrit and Hindu sacred texts; attended Cheltenham Ladies College in England, 1884–86; married Bipin Beharidas Medhavi (a lawyer), in 1880 (died 1882); children: Manoramabai (b. 1881).

When six months old, family adopted a peripatetic lifestyle, traveling to Hindu holy places and earning money by reciting sacred Sanskrit texts; after deaths of father, mother and sister, Ramabai and her brother continued their travels, arriving in Calcutta (1878), where her remarkable learning brought fame and entrée to educated Calcutta society; brother died and Ramabai married one of his friends, a low-caste but educated lawyer (1880); widowed (1882) and, with young daughter, moved to Poona; founded Arya Mahila Samaj (Indian Ladies' Organization), a reform organization working for the improvement of women's condition; traveled to England (1883); baptized a Christian (September 29, 1883); attended Cheltenham Ladies College (1884–86); lectured andstudied in the U.S. (1886–89); published The High-Caste Hindu Woman (1887), which led to the founding of the Ramabai Association to fund education for high-caste child-widows; returned to Bombay (1889) and opened Sarada Sadan, an institution for the education of widows; school moved to Poona (1890); during famine in Central India, saved hundreds of starving girls and young women (1896); after outbreak of plague in Poona, moved school to Kedgaon on the outskirts of the city; her institution, now called the Mukti Mission, expanded to include a "rescue home" for "fallen women" and an orphanage, in addition to the school; during famine (1900), took in more starving girls, including those of lower castes; awarded Kaiser-i-Hind Medal (1919).

In 1882, two young widows met in Poona, India. The elder of these, herself only 24, was Pandita Ramabai, already well known in educated Indian circles for her scholarly achievements in the recitation and study of Sanskrit and Hindu sacred texts. The younger, although she had been a widow for seven years, was still only 12 years of age. Married at the age of five, as was the custom among certain high-caste Hindus, she had been widowed shortly thereafter. Her husband's family blamed her for the boy's death and turned her out onto the streets, where she scavenged for food. Ramabai took the child-widow into her own home and, realizing that many other young girls, widowed before they had truly become wives, suffered a similar fate, resolved to publicize their plight and to ameliorate the situation.

Ramabai's devotion to improving the status of women in Indian society was, perhaps, rooted in her family history. Her father Anant Sastri Dongre was a noted Sanskrit scholar. At the age of 44, he had married Ramabai's mother Lakshmibai (Dongre ), who was then a mere girl of nine. At the time of their marriage, Lakshmibai, like most Indian women, was illiterate and untutored. Anant Sastri was determined, however, that his young wife should be educated in Sanskrit writing, despite Hinduism's prohibition against education of women and lower castes in Sanskrit and certain sacred texts. Facing the censure of the religious elders in their village, Anant Sastri and his wife sought refuge in the Sangamula Forest where, far from curious onlookers, they engaged in their studies and their religious devotions. Although Lakshmibai proved an apt pupil, she was obliged to study late at night or early in the morning since, in addition to her scholarly and religious duties, she was responsible for all the normal housewifely tasks. However, Lakshmibai found time to instruct her youngest child, Ramabai, in Sanskrit and the sacred texts. The goal of her education, Ramabai later recalled, was not simply the memorization of thousands of verses of Hindu scripture nor the explication of difficult Sanskrit grammatical rules. Rather, Ramabai was taught so that, "I might be able to carry on my own education with very little aid from others."

When Ramabai was about six months old, her father lost all his money and the secluded life in the forest came to an abrupt end. Ramabai, her parents, and her older sister and brother started out on a pilgrimage to Hindu holy places that was to last 16 years. The family supported themselves as Puranikas (readers of the Puranas, the Hindu scriptures) and received donations from pilgrims at the sacred sites. Ramabai herself knew over 18,000 verses of the Puranas by heart. Eventually, however, the aging Anant Sastri's eyesight failed, and he was no longer able to direct his wife and children in the reading of the Puranas. As Pandita Ramabai later recalled, neither she nor any of her relatives was suited to any secular employment since their training had been exclusively religious. The family determined to rely on the gods for their support, but their prayers went unanswered and their savings were slowly eaten away.

In 1876, the family's financial problems were compounded by a devastating famine that swept through South India where they were then living. Ramabai's father, mother, and sister died of starvation within a few weeks of each other. Ramabai and her older brother continued their peregrinations to various holy sites, keeping caste rules and studying sacred literature but "our faith in our religion had grown cold." After traveling over 4,000 miles on foot, the siblings arrived in Calcutta in 1878. The pair soon came to the attention of learned Brahmins within the city. It was here that Ramabai acquired the honorific pandita (learned one) and also received the title of Saraswati (the divine embodiment of language, literary expression and learning) from an assembly of Hindu pandits. Ramabai was an instant sensation, notable not just for her vast learning but also because of the fact that she was 20 years old and still unmarried. Among Brahmins, the caste to which Ramabai and her family belonged, it was common for girls to marry at a very young age. Ramabai's father, however, had refused to betroth his daughter, focusing instead on her education and religious training.

Despite the acclaim for her great knowledge of sacred texts, Ramabai's Hindu faith was quickly eroding. As she read more widely, including texts traditionally forbidden to women, Ramabai was struck by many inherent inconsistencies in Hindu religious teaching. She also became more aware of the subordinate position of women in the Hindu hierarchy: "I was waking up to my own hopeless condition as a woman, and it was becoming clearer and clearer to me that I had no place anywhere, as far as religious consolation was concerned."

In 1880, shortly after her brother's death, Ramabai made a clear break with Hinduism through her marriage to Bipin Beharidas Medhavi. Although her husband had been a close friend of her brother and was, in addition, a well-educated lawyer, he was not a Brahmin. By marrying out of her caste, Ramabai cut herself off from orthodox Hinduism. Ramabai and her husband wedded in a civil ceremony, she later recalled, for "neither of us believed in Hinduism or Christianity." After less than two years of marriage, however, her husband died of cholera, and Ramabai was left a widow with a young daughter, Manoramabai .

Although Ramabai spoke several vernacular Indian languages in addition to classical Sanskrit, she had not yet learned English which was, because of the British imperial presence in India, the lingua franca of the educated classes. After being widowed, Ramabai resided briefly in Madras but soon departed for Poona to pursue her English studies, where she found that her fame had preceded her. She was a highly controversial figure. In India, although many people still considered themselves orthodox Hindus, others were agitating for reform in their religion, including more education and greater freedoms for women. Orthodox Hindus often censured Ramabai for her iconoclastic behavior and refused to socialize with her. However, Ramabai was hailed by the reformers. They supported her in founding the Arya Mahila Samaj, or Indian Ladies Organization, whose aims were, according to one of Ramabai's friends, to "work for the deliverance of women from the evil practices," such as child marriage and lack of education, and "to work for the removal of the present deplorable condition of women in respect of religion, morality, etc., and for their uplift."

It was in Poona, too, that Ramabai met the child-widow whose plight inspired her to take up her life's work. She later wrote, "As I looked on that little figure my vague thoughts about doing something for my sisters in similar conditions began to take shape [and] I began to place a plan for starting a Home for Hindu widows before my countrymen and to ask for their help." Despite Ramabai's eloquence and celebrity, however, she could not muster sufficient support among the Hindu reformers of Poona to institute her plan. She determined that she could best rectify the situation of Indian widows if she secured medical training for herself. In 1883, therefore, Ramabai, accompanied by her young daughter, departed for England.

In Poona, Ramabai had studied not only English, but also the tenets of Christianity. Through her instructor, she had been introduced to a member of the Sisters of St. Mary the Virgin, an Anglican order of nuns and, upon her arrival in England, stayed at their convent in Wantage. After several months at Wantage, however, during which time she received secular and spiritual instruction, Ramabai felt compelled to leave. Believing that she could never become a Christian, Ramabai refused to impose on the sisters' hospitality only to disappoint their hopes for her conversion. However, in September 1883, Ramabai returned to Wantage, her doubts

about Christianity apparently dispelled through her correspondence with another Indian convert, and was baptized on September 29. In 1884, Ramabai left Wantage to continue her studies at Cheltenham Ladies College, under the principal and founder, Dorothea Beale . Ramabai had financed her voyage to England through the publication of a book in Marathi, Morals for Women, and she supported herself at Cheltenham by tutoring in Sanskrit.

In 1886, Ramabai traveled to America at the instigation of a relative, Anandibai Joshi , who was about to graduate from the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania. (Joshi was the first Indian woman to receive a doctor of medicine degree, but she died shortly after her return to India from America.) Ramabai's sojourn in the United States extended far beyond the intended few weeks' visit. She lectured throughout the country on the condition of Indian women and also studied educational methods. In 1887, she published The High-Caste Hindu Woman, a book describing the hardships suffered by child-widows in India. It was an immediate success in the United States. The book and Ramabai's lectures inspired the creation of the "Ramabai Association," whose members pledged to support for ten years a school to be founded by Ramabai for the education of high-caste widows.

Thousands upon thousands of young widows and innocent children are suffering untold misery and dying helpless every year throughout this land, but not a philosopher nor a Mahatma has come out boldly to champion their cause and to help them.

—Pandita Ramabai

In 1889, therefore, Ramabai returned to India and established the Sharada Sadan (House of Learning) in Bombay. The school moved to Poona in 1890. Although Ramabai was now a professed Christian, she and her school received support from Hindu reformers in Bombay and Poona. Indeed, Ramabai had promised her American supporters who were funding the school that no proselytizing would occur. Nonetheless, Ramabai welcomed her young pupils to sit in on her private Christian devotions. In 1894, however, when one of Ramabai's Hindu widows asked to be baptized a Christian, the religious practices at the Sharada Sadan came under attack. Guardians of many of the students withdrew their wards from the institution. Several members of the advisory committee, in tendering their resignations to the Ramabai Association in the United States, wrote that the Pandita's "active missionary tendencies" represented "a departure from the original understanding [which] cannot fail, in our opinion, to shake the stability of the Institution and alienate public sympathy from this work." Although reduced in size, Ramabai's school survived this crisis and, abandoning its earlier policy of religious neutrality, adopted an openly Christian stance.

Ramabai's shift away from a policy of religious non-interference at her school undoubtedly resulted from the growth of her own religious feelings. Although she had been baptized in 1883, she was still not fully committed to Christianity. In the U.S., with its many Christian sects, Ramabai had been troubled by the apparent lack of unity among the Christian community. However, in 1891, she underwent an emotional religious conversion. She later wrote that after much reading of the Bible and of a book by an evangelical Anglican cleric, and through attendance at Christian evangelical "camp meetings," she realized that her religious feelings were too intellectual. Then came her spiritual awakening: "[M]y mental eyes were opened, and I who was sitting in darkness saw Great Light, and I felt sure that to me, who but a few moments ago sat in the region and shadow of death, Light had sprung up." Thus, Ramabai came to believe that it was her duty as a Christian to spread her religion among her pupils, with the result that, over the years, many of her charges converted to Christianity.

In 1896, a terrible famine swept through central India, killing hundreds of thousands and reducing many others to starvation. Perhaps remembering her own family's sufferings in an earlier famine, or perhaps, as some of her critics charged, taking advantage of a disaster to attract new students for her school after the crisis of earlier years, Ramabai visited the famine-stricken region. "Groups of famished people were sitting around," she wrote, in describing a government-run relief site, "and some were lying in heaps, or sitting or lying on ashes on the bare ground. Some had rags to cover their bodies, and some had none. Many were ill, too weak to move about." In her two visits to the famine area, Ramabai brought back 600 starving girls, of whom 300 stayed in her institution and 300 were sent to other relief organizations. It proved impossible to house the new residents in the facilities in Poona. In addition, plague was sweeping through the city and such a large concentration of people would only exacerbate the spread of the disease. Ramabai decided that it was time to seek a new location for her institution.

Several years earlier, she had purchased a large tract of land in Kedgaon, outside Poona, anticipating the day when her institution must become self-supporting after funding from America ceased. To this site, Ramabai brought her new arrivals. She rechristened her institution "Mukti Sadan" or House of Salvation. The earliest residents built much of the facility themselves, even digging wells to ensure an adequate water supply. Ramabai's new facility offered not only education for girls and young women, but also provided a haven for the orphaned and the friendless. On a more pragmatic level, the residents at Mukti received training in skills such as needlework, printing, carpentry, and masonry. The new institution expanded, eventually providing facilities for over 1,900 residents.

Ramabai was by now almost completely deaf after years of failing hearing. Her responsibilities at Mukti were mainly administrative—although this was no small responsibility in an institution chronically short of cash and reliant on prayer and God's grace to provide for every unforeseen contingency. Volunteers, mostly women from Britain and the United States, carried out most of the day-to-day instruction at Mukti. Some of these women staffed the newly added Kripa Sadan, or Rescue Home, which housed Indian girls who had been working as prostitutes. Ramabai's daughter, Manoramabai, returned from schooling in Britain and America to assist her mother in running the institution and in 1913 herself established a school for high-caste girls about 200 miles from Mukti. Manoramabai was expected to take Ramabai's place as the guiding spirit of Mukti, but she would die unexpectedly in 1921, a short time before her mother's death.

In 1900 another famine racked India, this one centered in the province of Gujarat. Rather than traveling to the famine area herself, Ramabai sent a delegation of 20 of her residents, including a number who had taken refuge at Mukti during the earlier famine. These representatives brought over 1,300 women and children to Mukti. Abandoning her original plan to provide assistance only to girls and women of the higher castes, Ramabai decided to offer succor to female famine victims from all castes and social groups. With this arrival of new residents, the institution expanded to include homes for orphaned boys and girls. Throughout the years, Mukti continued to provide a refuge for famine victims.

Ramabai also continued to work for the spread of Christianity among her charges. Indeed, after the 1900 famine, with the influx of many new residents, Ramabai was concerned that Christian residents, now in the minority, were "in danger of being submerged beneath a tidal wave of grossness and superstition." By December 1901, however, 1,200 of the new inmates at Mukti had converted to Christianity. In 1903, Manoramabai and another instructor at Mukti traveled to Australia to investigate a religious revival in that country. Perhaps inspired by the Australian example, Ramabai formed a "prayer circle" in 1905 that "met together each morning and prayed for the true conversion of all the Indian Christians, including ourselves, and for a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all Christians of every land."

The results of these prayers was a "Great Revival" at Mukti, whose aim and consequence, according to one of Ramabai's early biographers, was "the abandonment of evil practices, and the experience of joy in the divine love and the divine forgiveness." Many of the young women at Mukti experienced a burning sensation, thought to signal the descent of the holy spirit into the heart. There were also instances of spontaneous simultaneous prayer and speaking in tongues. Some of the Mukti residents involved in this revival became "Bible women," actively proselytizing for Christianity among their fellow Indians.

Ramabai had long been concerned that the Bible was not accessible to ordinary Indians, most of whom did not, of course, read English. She believed that the translations of the Bible in Marathi (an Indian language spoken in the vicinity of Poona) were misleading because they used Sanskrit words, thus suggesting some correspondence between Hinduism and Christianity. To remedy this situation, Ramabai undertook her own translation of the Bible, using simple everyday Marathi. She worked at this project for nearly 20 years, finishing the task shortly before her death.

In 1919, Pandita Ramabai received the Kaiser-i-Hind medal from the British government in recognition of her work for the women of India. By this time, she was too weak to travel outside of Mukti to receive her honor. Ramabai died on April 5, 1922, but her assistants continued the work at Mukti after her death.


Dyer, Helen S. Pandita Ramabai. London: Pickering and Inglis, n.d.

Fuller, Mary. The Triumph of an Indian Widow. NY: Christian Alliance, 1928.

Macnicol, Nicol. Pandita Ramabai. Calcutta: Association Press, 1930.

suggested reading:

Forbes, Geraldine. "Women and Modernity: The Issue of Child Marriage in India," in Women's Studies International Quarterly. Vol. 2, 1979, pp. 407–419.

Ramusack, Barbara N. "Women's Organizations and Social Change: The Age-of-Marriage Issue in India," in Women and World Change. Edited by Naomi Black and Ann Baker Cotrell. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1981, pp. 198–216.

Mary A. Procida , Visiting Assistant Professor of History, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania