What can you say about a young woman whose father, mother and sister die of starvation during the famines?
It would be an effort just to survive for the rest of her life. But what if you are told that such a poor, miserable woman not only went to UK and USA and became famous, but she also changed the life of millions of women in India! And this happened more than hundred years ago!
Read on to know more about Ramabai, her struggle and travails that will enlighten and inspire you; and the wonderful legacy she left behind for the next generations.
In the nineteenth century India, the position of women, especially those young widows who had been subjected to child marriages, was pathetic. During those times when it was difficult for any man even to stand up for the cause of women, one can imagine the hardship and resistance faced by a woman who tried to confront the male-dominated society at large. Pandita Ramabai Saraswati was an Indian social reformer who championed the cause of emancipation of women. She was the first woman to be awarded the titles of Pandita and Saraswati, as a Sanskrit scholar, after being examined by University of Calcutta.
A social worker, scholar and a champion of women’s rights, freedom and education; Pandita Ramabai also participated in the freedom movement. In 1889, she was one of the 10 women delegates in the Congress.
Childhood and Early Life
Pandita Ramabai Saraswati was born on 23 April 1858, to the Sanskrit scholar Anant Shastri Dongre, and his second wife Lakshmibai Dongre. She was born in an ashram run by his father in the Gungamal forests. Her name at birth was as Rama Dongre. Her family were Chitpavan Brahmins. During her childhood, her father taught Sanskrit texts to her and her mother.
During the famine of 1874-76, her father, mother and sister died of starvation. Ramabai and her brother Srinivas survived and travelled all over India. Ramabai’s fame as a lecturer reached Calcutta, where the pandits invited her to speak.
In 1878, Calcutta University conferred on her the title of Pandita, as well as the highest title of Saraswati in recognition of her interpretations of various Sanskrit works. The theistic reformer Keshab Chandra Sen gifted her a copy of the Vedas to study.
After her brother Srinivas died in 1880, Ramabai decided to marry a Bengali lawyer, Bipin Behari Medhvi, who was a shudra – a low caste. It was an inter-caste and inter-regional and was considered inappropriate by the society at that time. They were married in a civil ceremony on 13 November 1880. The couple had a daughter, Manorama.
Ramabai wanted to improve the status of women in India. She wanted to create awareness and address the issues that were being faced by Indian women due to outdated and oppressive Hindu traditions. She stood against the practice of child marriage, which resulted in many child widows who led a miserable life.
Along with her husband, she planned to start a school for child widows. However tragedy struck in 1882, when her husband Medhvi died due to cholera.
Her Journey of Social Activism
Ramabai moved to Pune after her husband’s death. In 1881, she founded the Arya Mahila Samaj (Arya Women’s Society), for promoting the cause of women’s education and to stop child marriages.
In 1882 Lord Ripon’s Education Commission was appointed to look into education. Ramabai petitioned the commission to promote women’s education. She also suggested training of teacher and appointment of women school inspectors. She also argued that under the existing social environment only women can medically treat women, therefore Indian women should be admitted to medical colleges.
Ramabai’s evidence created a great buzz in the Indian society sensation and the news also reached Queen Victoria in London. Soon there was a Women’s Medical Movement started by Lady Dufferin.
She travelled to every part of India to spread her message and motivate the women.
In 1883, she visited England to start medical training. During her stay in UK, she converted to Christianity.
In 1886, she travelled to the United States from UK, to attend the graduation of the first female Indian doctor, Anandibai Joshi.
She stayed in US for two years, during which she translated textbooks and gave lectures throughout the United States and Canada.
She also wrote and published one of her most important books, and her first book in English, The High-Caste Hindu Woman. The book described the sad plight of women, including child brides and child widows. The book was dedicated to Dr. Anandibai Joshi, who died in 1887, six month after she returned to India.
Ramabai Associations were formed in major American cities to raise funds to run a Widow’s Home for upper-class Hindu widows in India.
In 1889, she returned to India and established ‘Sharada Sadan’, a home for destitute women. Her daughter Manorama returned to India after completing higher studies in the United States and became Principal of the High School under Sharada Sadan.
In 1896, during a severe famine in Maharashtra, Ramabai rescued thousands of outcast children, child widows, orphans, and other destitute women. They were given shelter in Mukti and Sharada Sadan.
In 1897, Ramabai went to USA again to revive the Ramabai Association. Upon her return she built a new building Kripa sadan within the Mukti complex to house and rehabilitates destitutes.
By 1900, the Pandita Ramabai Mukti Mission had more than 1,500 residents and more than 100 cattle. It is active even to this day. It provides housing, education, vocational training and medical services, for widows, orphans, blinds and many needy groups.
In 1912, Pandita Ramabai established Christian High school at Gulbarga, Karnataka where her daughter Manorama became the Principal.
Sad End and Tragic Death
A learned woman fluent in seven languages, Ramabai was also a poet and a scholar. She translated the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek, to her mother tongue, Marathi.
In 1920, Ramabai’s health began deteriorating. She passed on her daughter Manorama the mantle to take over the ministry of Mukti Mission. In a sad twist of fate, Manorama died in 1921. Her death came as a rude shock to Ramabai. After barely nine months, Ramabai, who was already suffering from septic bronchitis; breathed her last on 5th April 1922, almost a fortnight ahead of her 64th birthday.
Awards and Recognitions
- 1878 – “Pandit” and “Saraswati” titles at Bengal from Calcutta University.
- 1919 – Kaisar-i-Hind Medal for community service awarded by the British Government.
- She is honored with a feast day on 5th April, on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church in USA.
On 26 October 1989, Government of India issued a commemorative stamp in recognition of her contribution to the advancement of Indian women.
A prominent road in Mumbai is also named as Pandita Ramabai Marg, in her honour.
Many more awards and institutions have been named after her. She was a rare and unique Indian woman who had such strong character, so daring yet so compassionate, such a capability to organize and a spirit of selfless service and dedication.
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