Pandita Ramabai was born in Karnataka at a time when the treatment of women in India was not very optimistic. However, Pandita Ramabai was fortunate enough to be born into a Brahmin home with a liberal outlook on women. Controversy and standing up to social evils played an integral part of her upbringing. Her father a Sanskrit scholar, taught and invested intellectually in his daughter because he believed that women should also be taught Sanskrit in order to have access to the Vedas, at a time when it was taught only to Brahmin boys. Her father also refused to marry her off when she was a child, which was a prevalent custom then. This background might have also inspired her marriage to a Sudra man, again an unthinkable act in India then. However, in a short span of five years she lost her parents, sister, brother and her husband, but was blessed with a daughter.
Pandita Ramabai’s quest for God came to an end when she met Jesus. After a period of contemplation, and a series of events, she eventually decided to take the plunge and become a Christian. She says, “How good, how indescribably good! What good news for me a woman, a woman born in India, among Brahmans who hold out no hope for me and the like of me! The Bible declares that Christ did not reserve this great salvation for a particular caste or sex.”
In her early twenties she witnessed the death of many people, including her parents, due to the many famines and later the plagues in Maharashtra, all caused by the inefficiency of the British empire. She played a very active role in India’s Freedom Struggle. A letter that she wrote in connection to the plague was read out in the Parliament by Lord George Hamilton.
Challenges the Governor
In 1882 she formed the Arya Mahila Samaj to encourage women towards social awareness. Later that year for the Hunter Commission, Pandita Ramabai explained the sorry state of education and health in India and the need for women to be sufficiently educated and trained in order to become educators and doctors. This desire of hers was challenged in the Native Opinion, an Anglo Marathi Weekly, that the need of the hour was not doctors or educators rather that women remain more or less domesticated in society. However, comments like these did not deter her from her ongoing work, she persisted. During the 1897 plague she challenged the Governor of Bombay about the treatment of women in the plague camps. In 1899 she started the Sharada Sadan, a school for women. Indian reformers were pleased with Ramabai’s initiative and praised her for her devotion to the national cause and the Indian social reform.
She was one of the 10 women delegates to be represented in the Indian National Congress of 1889. There she was one of two women to be selected to give a talk on issues facing women in India. Her work to emancipate women did not go unnoticed by the other Indian Reformers. K. Natarajan, editor of Indian Social Reform, in his speech said, “Ramabai has led the way by putting in effort for education of widows. I cannot stop praising her work that is going on successfully in this city. I have no sympathy for the people who are criticising Ramabai…”
While travelling all across India seeking the favour of the gods and hoping to find a living for her brother and her, she witnessed the sorry state of affairs of widowed children. In her book, The High Caste Hindu Women, she explains the plight of widowed women in India. Pandita explains, “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.” Many of the widowed were children because of the prevalence of child marriage in India then. This inspired her to start Mukti Mission, a home for girls and women.
A final challenge that comes from Pandita Ramabai is when she was offered the possibility of Professorship, the then Anglican Bishop of Bombay, Louis Mylne, protested by saying, “Above all things, pray believe that her influence will be ruined forever in India if she is known to have taught young men. Suffice it to say that it would cause scandal even among the better sort of native men, and that nothing would ever undo the harm it would do her among native women.” Despite the many attempts of a few English Christians to limit her growth and the assumption that ‘natives’ were prone to being vain, Ramabai was quick to see through their concern crouched in deception. The very thing she was relieved from in her previous religious framework had been brought to the fore in her new-found religion, Christianity. Yet she did not swerve for she knew that in Christ there was neither male and female and that we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).
Today as we think about Independence, do we really believe in it? As we see people around us; those who are dependent on us, who look up to us, and to whom we can be the difference, are they really free?