Women in Christianity: Pandita Ramabai
Born in 1858 to a devout, high-caste Hindu family in India, Pandita Ramabai spent her life defying cultural norms and working to better the lives of women in India. Ramabai’s father, going against tradition, believed that women ought to be fully educated; despite falling into poverty when Ramabai was young, he gave her a strong intellectual foundation and a thorough grounding in Hindu theology.
Ramabai’s parents died when she was only sixteen, but she continued her education and, at the age of twenty, she was invited to speak at Calcutta University. Impressed by her knowledge, the faculty gave her the title “Pandita” in recognition of her scholarship; she was the first woman to earn this title.
Continuing her defiance of social norms, in 1880 Pandita Ramabai married a man from a lower caste and a different region of India. Because of these social differences, such marriages had been illegal just a decade earlier. Ramabai and her husband seem to have been happy and they had a baby girl, but less than two years after their marriage her husband died, leaving her a widow.
In Indian society at the time, widows — and especially high-caste widows like Ramabai — were expected to seclude themselves, retreating from interactions beyond their families. However, marriage hadn’t made Ramabai any more likely to follow social norms; after her husband’s death, she spent some time continuing the social activism that the couple had become involved in, then in 1883 she left India to pursue a medical education in Great Britain.
In England, Ramabai spent significant time exploring Christianity and eventually converted. She had been introduced to Christianity during her brief marriage; disillusioned with Hinduism after the death of her parents and because of her growing awareness of social ills, Christianity held appeal for her as a religion that had at its heart a concern for the downtrodden. She wrote of her conversion process, “I realized after reading the fourth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, that Christ was truly the Divine Saviour he claimed to be, and no one but He could transform and uplift the downtrodden women of India. … Thus my heart was drawn to the religion of Christ.”1
Drawing upon her experiences as an Indian woman and inspired by her faith, while in England Ramabai wrote a book in English titled The High Caste Hindu Woman. This book describes the painful realities of Hindu women’s lives, including child marriage, the isolation of widows, and the practice of sati — the ritual immolation of a woman on her husband’s funeral pyre.
Discouraged, however, by the difficulty of obtaining a medical education in England, Ramabai left for the United States, where she watched Anandibai Joshee graduate from the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia as the first Indian woman to earn a medical degree. While in the United States, Ramabai published the book she had written in England; The High Caste Hindu Woman became popular, and Ramabai received a warm welcome in the United States. She spent the next few years traveling, speaking and studying across the continent.
As she traveled, she also raised funds for her dream project: a school for Indian women. She studied with educational and social reformers in America, developing plans that she could take back to India.
In 1889, back in India, Ramabai opened a school for Hindu widows called Sharada Sadan. At this school, widows were given an education, but Ramabai experienced resistance from both Hindus and Christians because she included Christian texts in her curriculum, but also used Hindu texts and did not require conversion. When her students began converting, however, Ramabai lost much community support for her educational project.
She was not deterred, however. When a famine hit her region of India in the mid-1890s, Ramabai began taking in many widows, orphans and victims of famine. She purchased land and founded a residential community called Mukti, which still exists today as a refuge for needy women.
Despite the pressures of running Sharada Sadan and Mukti, Ramabai became convinced that she needed to translate the bible into the regional vernacular, Marathi. She spent the last twelve years of her life on this translation, certain that this was a necessary ingredient in the transformation and empowerment of Indian women. Her legacy of her schools, her residential community, and her bible translation should impress us even today.
However, I had never heard of Pandita Ramabai until recently; I’m guessing that most of my readers are likewise unfamiliar with her. But her dedication to bettering the lives of women, and crucial role her Christianity played in that dedication, deserve wider recognition.
Ramabai began her activism for women before she became a Christian. And her conversion further fueled her activism, especially as she studied how Jesus interacted with women.
Additionally, her willingness to be counter-cultural extended to her faith. She saw no reason to give up Hindu culture entirely, preferring instead to develop a distinctly India theology. She also viewed church rituals with skepticism and the multitude of protestant denominations with dismay, focusing instead on scripture and on the ecumenism that was fast becoming a hallmark of Indian Christianity.
Ramabai’s willingness to defy culture and her desire to find the heart of the gospel led her to the creation of radically inclusive communities, dedicated to the welfare and uplifting of the lowest in Indian society and the creation of a community defined by its unity in diversity.
Although Ramabai has largely been forgotten, we have much to learn from her legacy: her passion for education, her dedication to social activism and her work to improve the lives of women should continue to inspire Christians and feminists alike.
Quoted in Keith J. White, “Jesus was her Guru,” Christian History 87 (2005). Accessed April 13, 2018. http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-87/jesus-was-her-guru.html ↩