Western Christians are unfamiliar with the name Pandita Ramabai, although she was one of the key Indian Christian leaders of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Fluent in seven languages, and the first person to translate the Bible into her language, Marathi, Pandita Ramabai was born Rama Dongre in 1858. She was the daughter of a high caste but impoverished Sanskrit visionary scholar who was passionate about social reform and determined to educate his wife and daughters as he would his sons. He lectured on the need for female educatioon and social reform. The entire family travelled to holy places across India as their father spoke on sacred writings. Both her parents and her sister became victims of the famine in 1877, when Ramabai was in her late teens.

Ramabai astounded scholars with her exceptional knowledge of Sanskrit, with the result that she was given the titles of Pandita meaning ‘wise’ and Sarasvati meaning ‘goddess of wisdom’. She married lawyer, teacher and fellow learner, Bipen Behan Das Medhavi, incurring much disapproval as he was of a lower caste than she. They had a daughter, Manorama, but tragically her husband died the year following her birth.

From an early age Ramabai was a social reformer, lecturing on the empowerment of women through education. She worked tirelessly for the cause of women’s emancipation and by age 20 she was a well-known educationalist. She gave evidence at the government-appointed Educations Commission, encouraging women to be appointed and trained as teachers and in the medical field. This was vital because it was difficult for women to get medical treatment, especially when examinations were of a personal nature. In those times, the patient required another woman to accompany her.

Ramabai was a powerful and articulate speaker and oVen received standing ovations when she spoke. At one point, calling for resolutions on gender reform, she didn’t speak until the audience became silent, upon which she said:

“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!”

At 25, Ramabai received a scholarship to study in England and travelled there with a companion, but a few months later, her companion committed suicide. The experience shocked her, coming as it did aVer the deaths in the last nine years of her parent, siblings and husband. She had been living as a guest of an Anglican community in Wantage and thanks to the kindness and support she experienced from them, she converted to Christianity. This was a move that would cost her dearly in terms of support in India, especially among the Brahmins. She was marginalised and deleted from the history books because it was felt she had betrayed her caste and community. During her time in England, she spent two years at Cheltenham Ladies College teaching the Sanskrit language to women who intended to go to India as missionaries.

Upon her return to India, she helped churches develop services in Sanskrit instead of Latin. She also combined her newfound Christian faith with her passion for social reform, bringing significant change to India as a result. As a member of the high caste Brahman, she had a significant influence on society. She founded residential schools for Hindu widows, raising funds by writing. Her book, The High Caste Hindu Woman, sold ten thousand copies. She addressed subjects such as child brides, and also the practice of sati, which incited widows who were sometimes still young girls, to throw themselves on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands and be burned alive. She travelled through the USA and Canada studying charitable and educational organisations, giving lectures and raising funds to support the Hindu widows she was so passionate about.

In 1889 she opened Sharada Sadan, which in English means the Home for Learning, in Mumbai. The aim was to empower young widowed women who learned to read and write, as well as studying history and other subjects. There had never been such an institution for Brahmin widows and single girls. Certainly, no other organisa+on provided formal school educa+on and voca+onal training which provided the possibility of financial security and social acceptance. The Indian social reformers were impressed she had raised funds for these endeavours from overseas.

She also founded the first Indian feminist organisation, Arya Mahila Sabha, in 1881, teaching about the issues faced by women, especially Hindus, citing horrors such as child brides and widows. Her articulate speeches brought clarity to the issues faced by females in that society, highligh+ng the way in which girl babies were not wanted or celebrated.

“In the form of a blessing, the deity is never invoked to grant daughters. Fathers very seldom wish to have daughters, for they are thought to be the property of somebody else.”

Another famine hit in 1889 so Ramabai purchased 100 acres in Khedgaon to set up Mukti Mission, providing refuge for young widows suffering abuse, and giving housing and education to women and children. Mukti in Marathi means liberation. Almost 2000 people lived there during this time, including many European and American helpers. Widows were taught carpentry, tailoring, wood-cutting, printing, weaving, needlework, farming and gardening, alongside subjects such as physiology and botany. Women were also taught about their own bodies, something which was previously a mystery to most women, triggering a backlash from the Hindu community who considered her focus on the rights of women to be unacceptable. The Pandita Ramabai Mukti Mission is still active today, supporting widows, orphans and the blind by providing housing, education, training and medical services.

In 1919 Ramabai was awarded the Kaiser-e-Hind Gold Medal, and she and her daughter Manorama, who was now a doctor, constantly introduced new activities and opportunities for women and girls.

Manorama died in 1921 aged 40 and Pandita Ramabai died a year later age 64. All their lives they had lived as rebels to their caste and their society because of their commitment to championing women’s rights and empowerment. She believed the caste system worked against the good of society, promoting only self-interest and preventing democracy. Much of her early influence came from her father’s teachings, as well as the support of the Christian community she had lived among in England.

Pandita Ramabai’s contribution to social reform, education and support for women, (particularly widows), along with her feminist scholarship, is massive – reaching far beyond India. Her prominence as a national and international leader in a time and place where women rarely had any support, is testament to her tremendous intellect and inspirational leadership capacity. Her passion for social reform and the rights of women, when combined with her love for Jesus Christ, changed the world, especially for Hindu women.

Reflective Leadership Questions

(Can be done individually or in groups)

  1. Think about the way in which society worked for (or against!) women in those days. What would it have taken for Pandita Ramabai to break through the prejudices and bring social reform to the Hindu women of India?
  2. How did her Christianity impact the call that was already on her life?
    Women in most societies have had to deal with a culture or tradidions that do not recognise their rights and yet there are women in all quarters who manage to break through. How does that happen? What does it take?
  3. Where are you being asked to go against the grain in order to make a difference?