Women have no minds. They are lower than pigs." In her short autobiography, Ramabai remembered these as the Hindu attitudes that she faced as a young woman around 1880. She became India's first female pundit and refuted such claims. Ramabai was blessed with good parents. Her father, Anant Dongre, a wealthy Hindu guru, believed women have good minds. He had been astonished to overhear an Indian princess recite verses in the Sanskrit language. He made up his mind that when he married, he would teach his wife to read the ancient Hindu scriptures.
Desperate Enough to Run Away
Like many Hindu men of the day, Anant married a young girl. He took his child-wife home to his mother and began to teach her. But his mother said no. Under Hindu custom, she was within her rights. So Anant fled with his wife into the Gungamul forest of Southern India, built a hut and taught her Sanskrit. Under the forest leaves, Ramabai was born in 1858.
When Ramabai was eight years old, her mother began teaching her Sanskrit. The girl applied herself diligently. By the time she was twenty, she could recite 18,000 verses of the Puranas, a Hindu holy book. She learned many of the languages of India: Marathi, Bengali, Hindustani, Kanarese, and English, clearly demonstrating that women are fully capable of learning.
"We Had No Common Sense."
Anant was regarded as wise and holy. Even in the forest, students sought him out. Yet he was unhappy. Seeking peace, he led his family on pilgrimages.
"We bad no common sense, " wrote Ramabai, "and foolishly spent all the money we had in hand in giving alms .. to please the gods... We went to several sacred places and temples, to worship different gods and to bathe in sacred rivers and tanks to free ourselves from sin and curse, which brought poverty on us. We prostrated ourselves before the stone and metal images of the gods and prayed before them day and night... But nothing came of all this futile effort to please the gods--the stone images remained as hard as ever and never answered our prayers.
Dying Daddy, Pitiless Priests
Anant's money ran out. Famine came. His family would not beg and bring disgrace on their caste, so they went days without food. The priests, who had been all smiles, now turned them away with empty bellies.
Dying of starvation, Anant drew Ramabai to him. "Though his blind eyes could see me no longer, be held me tightly in his arms, and stroking my head and cheeks, told me, in a few words broken by, emotion, to remember how he loved me, how he had taught me to do right, and never to depart from the way of righteousness.
"His last loving command to me was to lead an honorable life .. and to serve God all my life. He did not know the only true God, but served the--to him--unknown God with all his heart and strength; and he was desirous that his children should serve Him to the last. 'Remember, my child' he said, 'you are my youngest and most beloved child. I have given you into the hand of our God; you are His, and to Him alone you must belong, and serve Him all your life. "'
Ceaseless Search for Salvation
Anant died and soon was followed to the grave by Ramabai's mother and sister. Ramabai and her brother wandered 4,000 miles more, hoping to find favor with the gods. In their quest for truth they suffered cold, hunger, and thirst, even burying themselves in sand to keep warm, but their search proved futile. Finally, the two gave up their quest for salvation and settled in Calcutta.
Pandita Ramabai's immense knowledge impressed Calcutta's Hindu scholars. They called her "Pandita," which means "learned." She was the first woman ever awarded this tide. Leaders asked her to lecture their wives on the duties of highborn Hindu women. Studying Hindu scriptures that had formerly been denied to her, Ramabai found that the books disagreed on almost everything--except that women are worse than demons. She could not believe this because her father had taught her otherwise.
Salvation a Free Gift
In Calcutta Ramabai first heard about Christ. She discovered that salvation is a free gift from God, not a reward earned by pilgrimages and payments. But Ramabai thought a Christian had to adopt European customs. Since she did not like European food or clothes, she joined a cult that mixed Christian and Hindu ideas. She escaped this only after a missionary explained that Christianity allows great freedom. She could eat and dress in the Hindu tradition. Meanwhile, her brother died. Ramabai married, but her husband died, too, of cholera. She was left with a baby daughter, whom she named Manoramabai, "Heart's joy."
"Hells on Earth"
If women in India ranked low, widows ranked lower. Some were burned alive on their husbands' funeral pyres. Many who were allowed to live were forced to become slaves. Others were sent to temples as prostitutes to make money for priests. Pandita had seen all of this and was indignant.
There are thousands of priests and men learned in sacred lore... They neglect and oppress the widows, and devour widows' houses ... hire them out to wicked men so long as they can get money; and when the poor, miserable slaves are no longer pleasing to their cruel masters, they turn them out in the street to beg their livelihood, to suffer the horrible consequences of sin, to carry the burden of shame, and finally to die the death worse than that of a starved street dog. The so-called sacred places--those veritable hells on earth--have become the graveyards of countless widows and orphans.
A Talent Turned to Teaching
It is all very well to be called "Pandita," but such honors need to be turned to good purposes. Ramabai pioneered an organization to reform the treatment of women.
But she felt that God was nudging her to go to England. Although she had no money, she set out, taking her daughter with her. At St. Mary's Home in Wantage, England, Church of England sisters took her in, taught her about Christ, and baptized her. Later she said God had led her into a strange land just as he led Abraham. From England, Ramabai traveled to the United States, where she studied education and spoke to assemblies about India's needs. She published an influential book, The High Caste Hindu Woman. Interested Americans formed an organization to support her.
The Refuge Called "Mukti"
Ramabai began by opening a school for a few pupils. She promised not to pressure Hindu girls to become Christians. However, she offered the Bible to them. Through reading the Bible and observing Ramabai's godly life, several girls converted to Christianity. Hindus complained that Ramabai was betraying her own culture. Eventually Ramabai saw that she could not walk between two faiths. She declared that her school would be completely Christian.
Other projects followed. Many women came to her--girl brides so abused they were terrified of a touch; older women, snarling like animals from years of cruelty. On farmland inherited from her family and land bought from a liquor dealer, she created a refuge called Mukti, which means "salvation" in many Indian languages. There she developed orchards and taught arts that would support women.
But many widows refused to come to Mukti. Their minds were filled with dread of Christians. ". . They think that some day after they are well fattened they will be hung head downward, and a great fire will be built underneath, and oil will be extracted from them to be sold at a fabulously large price for medical purposes. Others think that they will be put into mills and their bones ground.... They cannot understand that anyone would be kind to them without some selfish purpose."
In the history of the church, there are times when the Holy Spirit moves with extraordinary power among God's people. They awaken to their true spiritual condition. Pandita and 550 women prayed for such a movement to come to Mukti. On June 29, 1905, a large group felt the Spirit's presence. Weeping, they confessed their sins. Women testified to a holy burning that was almost unbearable.
Not Lower than Pigs After All
Pandita died in 1922, having done much to raise the status of her Hindu sisters. If ever a life demonstrated that women are not lower than pigs, that life was Ramabai's.
Was Ramabai the Greatest Indian Woman in the Past 1,000 Years?
Vishal Mangalwadi thinks so. He is an internationally renowned scholar and the author of India: The Grand Experiment, Beyond the New Age, The World of Gurus, and many more. He comments, "There are good reasons to nominate Mrs. Indira Gandhi as the Indian Woman of the 20th Century. However, had she been born a century earlier, she would have been married off to a Brahmin as an illiterate girl before she was 12 years old. And had she refused to be burnt alive on her husband's funeral pyre, she would have had to spend her widowhood in seclusion as an inauspicious woman. The woman who began reforming India's attitude towards women was Pandita Ramabai Sarswati--a builder of modem India. Pandita Ramabai is the Indian woman of the Millennium."
Ramabai in her Own Words
Some years ago I was brought to the conviction that mine was only an intellectual belief--a belief in which them was no life. It looked for salvation in the future after death; and consequently my soul had not "Passed from death unto life." God showed me how very dangerous my position was, and what a wretched and lost sinner I was, and how necessary it was to obtain salvation in the present, and not in some future time. I repented long; I became very restless and almost ill and passed many sleepless nights. The Holy Spirit so got hold of me that I could not rest until I found salvation then and there. So I prayed earnestly to God to pardon my sins for the sake of Jesus Christ and let me realize that I had really got salvation through him. I believed God's promise and took Him at His word, and when I had done this, my burden rolled away, and I realized that I was forgiven and freed from the power of sin.
Anatomy of a Hoax
Ramabai and her brother came to a lake in which seven sages supposedly took the form of seven "mountains." For a purified person, the mountains swam forward, but for the evil stood still. The mountains stayed put for Ramabai and her brother. Despite warnings from the priests that crocodiles lived in the water, the brother swam to the islands at night. He found that they were built on rafts which a priest pushed forward at a signal from shore after a pilgrim proved his virtue with a coin.
A Merciful Reprieve
Ramabai's learning was not in vain. In the last 15 years of her life, she mastered Greek and Hebrew to translate the Bible into Marathi. As death neared, she prayed for ten days to finish the proofs and God granted her exactly ten.
Christ's Work Continues at Ramabai Mukti Mission
It plants churches and advances her noble ideals of justice and mercy for the oppressed by providing orphanages, rescue homes for destitute women and unwed mothers, schools, vocational training, village evangelism, and a large hospital. The work at Mukti today remains devoted to Christ and the Scriptures, as Ramabai arranged that the work would be overseen in the future by committed Christians.
- Dyer, Helen S. Pandita Ramabai: the story of her life. London: Morgan and Scott, 1900.
- MacNicol, Nicol and Vishal Mangalwadi. What Liberates a Woman? The story of Pandita Ramabai, a builder of modern India. Good Books, 1996.