Pandita Ramabai: An Inspiring Story of Perseverance And Adventure
There are some life histories that continue to enchant and inspire us. In this revealing piece a researcher depicts the story of Pandita Ramabai – the difficulties she confronted, possibilities she generated.
Roopa Rathnam is pursuing her doctoral research on feminism and religion with particular interest in the historical figure of Pandita Ramabai and the legacy of her work in Pune district in Maharashtra.
This is the story of Rama*, whom we meet as she turned sixteen. And the reason we do so is because her’s was not like any other sixteen year old girl’s life, way back in the nineteenth century, or for that matter even now, in the twenty first. Why sixteen, you may ask and it would be a good question if you do, for her life before this is worth a visit too.
Born in the Western Ghats in 1858 to Anant Shashtri and Laxmibai Dongre, Rama had the most unusual childhood, learning Sanskrit with other students at her parents’ gurukul and knowing the Puranas by heart at a young age when her contemporaries were getting married off to older men, with no hope to literacy leave alone mastery of the sacred texts in their lifetimes. Later on, travelling across the southern part of the Indian subcontinent as she and her siblings accompanied their parents as wandering puranikas (those who recited the Puranas in temples and accepted offerings of money, food and clothing in appreciation) even as her father sought to seek his God within the Madhava Vaishnava tradition, Rama’s horizon’s widened.
At the time when Rama was sixteen, she lost both her parents and her sister to a severe famine that ravaged the Madras Presidency (as it was called then) in the years 1876 to 1878. These deaths made Rama question everything that her parents had held as true – their religion, their ways of living and their utter helplessness in the face of poverty, having never been trained to do any manual or skill based work in their lives. Yet her brother Srinivas and Rama continued travelling for they knew nothing else, and made their way to Calcutta as it was then called, where their lives took on a different course.
In Calcutta, young Rama was tested by a gathering of Sanskrit scholars who were surprised to find a young unmarried girl so well versed in the sacred language of Sanskrit that they felt the need to test this knowledge. On witnessing her scholarship in Sanskrit and the sacred texts, they gave her the title of Pandita and Rama arrived on the world’s stage as Pandita Ramabai Saraswati, so called by the gathered scholars in light of a person blessed inordinately by the Goddess Saraswati with boons for learning and wisdom.
A chance meeting with Keshub Chandra Sen of the Brahmo Samaj opened up ways of seeing hitherto unexplored by the razor sharp intellect of Ramabai. On Sen’s urging, the Pandita read the Vedas which even her complicatedly liberal yet orthodox father had not allowed her to access and on completing her study of the texts, she realised how unfair it was to both women and to those being classified as belonging to the Shudra varna. This insight severed the last connections she had with the Hinduism that her parents has taught her and followed all their lives as she plunged into the work of meeting women and encouraging them to seek the path of education and financial independence that would truly liberate from the chains that their religion and community seemed to bind them with. In these meetings was born PanditaRamabai’s lifelong quest to provide a safe place for women, Hindu widows mainly who were probably at the very lowest in the social ladder, seen as being responsible for taking their husbands’ lives and so dealing with a lifetime of punishment for such an act.
Tragedy continued to dog her as Ramabai lost her brother and her husband – a lawyer who was a friend of her brother’s, belonging to a so called lower caste and whom she married in a civil ceremony rejecting the rituals and priest craft that Hinduism prescribed – in a short period of two years to cholera, with a nine month old daughter and huge debt to show for her short lived married life. After paying off her debts and returning yet again to the state of penury that had always been over her like the sky, an invitation from Bombay (as it was then called) by members of the Prarthana Samaj to come and join them and lead their work with women came as a welcome sign. Pandita Ramabai, along with young Manorama moved to Bombay and to her community of Chitpavan Brahmins, believing that her dream for a widows’ home was within grasp. But it was not so. Realising the need for setting up both primary schools as well as specialised education for women in the field of medicine such that women could approach these lady doctors with issues of health that they thought too intimate to share with male doctors, Ramabai decided that she too would pursue a medical degree and serve her sisters better with this knowledge. This led her to approach the Community of Saint Mary the Virgin (CSMV) within the Anglican Church who promised to offer her an opportunity to study medicine in England while staying the premises of CSMV for the course of her education. Ramabai paid for her ticket to England by writing a book called Stri Dharma Nitin and for her stay at CSMV by offering to teach Marathi to the missionaries preparing to work in CSMV’s Poona (as it was then called) Mission.
It was in England that Ramabai’s controversial decision to convert to Christianity was taken, severing her ties with the nationalists in Bombay and Poona who saw this as a betrayal and a joining of the ranks of the enemy – the colonial rulers that the nationalists were fighting at a political and cultural level. Feeling ostracised by her own community, Ramabai turned to the community at CSMV, only to face deep seated racism and sexism within as she voiced her doubts within her new religion. Never one to be silenced, Pandita Ramabai wrote long eloquent letters to the leaders within the Anglican Church, her principal at the Lady Cheltenham College where she studied (having given up her dreams of medicine owning to poor hearing in one ear, which was probably a consequence of the starvation that she experienced in her young life) and other religious thinkers, calling out their patriarchal and imperial practices towards her. In an alien country, with few to understand her and many to judge her every action, Ramabai gladly accepted the offer to travel to the United States of America (America henceforth) to attend the graduation ceremony of her relative Anandibai Joshi as the first Indian woman to become a doctor and to address the gathering there. Her speech in Pennsylvania where the ceremony took place, created such a ripple that she extended her stay in America for more than two years, travelling from coast to coast, speaking about the condition of women in India and collecting funds for the widows’ home that she had never forgotten in all these years of struggle.
On her return to Bombay, Pandita Ramabai established the Sharada Sadan for young women – single, married or widowed and exposed them to a well-rounded education where the young women learnt skills, language, philosophy and also pursued spiritual growth according to their interest. This led to a few girls converting to Christianity and all scandal broke loose as a consequence. The governing board resigned as they were fearful of being associated with the Pandita and her bold stance that while she did not actively seek to convert any child in her institution, offering access to both Hindu and Christian texts; if a girl decided to convert based on what she saw and read then the Pandita would respect such a choice, instead of banning all forms of spiritual seeking altogether in the SharadaSadan. Marred by controversy, the Pandita slowly withdrew from many of the political forums that she was active in and set up the Mukti Mission in Kedgaon by the early 1900s where she lived and worked with the women she loved most, till she died in 1922, having survived the death of Manorama, her daughter a year before.
Ramabai’s story needs to be told, not only because it speaks of an extraordinary life, but because it’s forgetting, or maybe even silencing in our country’s history fills me with the same foreboding as every effort to painting people and events in monochrome does.
For Ramabai’s life, if anything, speaks of the courage to change one’s mind and consequently one’s view of the world, to say “I don’t know” and to stay in the ambiguity even as one seeks clarity. Within the limits of an article, let me show some of the shifts in consciousness that Ramabai exhibited in her lifelong quest for the truth in her religious life as well as the aspects of activism she engaged in ceaselessly.
Many scholars are conflicted by Ramabai’s shifts and turns in her religious beliefs but to me it exhibits the continuity of curiosity and courage, knowing full well that a change in beliefs will lead to some very inconvenient changes in one’s lifestyle and life choices. The first such choice Ramabai makes is when she rejects the religion of her father, allowing her whole worldview to crumble around her, even as she stood among the ruins of all that defined her till then. Reading the Vedas, the vast literature of the Brahmos and then an Assamese translation of the Gospel according to Luke within a span of a couple of years with the same curiosity, the questions and the doubts constantly stirring inside her speak of an intellectual bravery few have exhibited. Later, she would make an in depth study of all the texts of faith of the Anglican Church with the same zeal. If you keep in mind that Ramabai had to learn all languages apart from the Sanskrit she was schooled in, the act of delving into the philosophical meanings of each of these texts highlights the hard work that she was willing to put in to her quest and inspires awe among all who pursue scholarly interests.
Later, Ramabai showed the same dedication to arguments put forth by the Prarthana Samajis, who drew a lot from the Brahmos but chose to stay within the Hindu fold when she tried to defend her stance on women’s freedom through education and financial independence. Her Stri Dharma Niti, written in such a context, makes many feminists studying Ramabai squirm with discomfort as she expounds the virtues of a companionate marriage, but her radical notions lurked a few layers underneath. The High Caste Hindu Woman, written in America as a bid to raise funds for the widows’ home, tears through the layers of her previous book, to come out strongly as one of the first feminist manifestos ever written in the West and East.
Pandita Ramabai’s correspondence, to which she showed a lifelong commitment, is yet another site rich with resources that exhibit the struggles within Ramabai as she tackled issues of religion and gender, which interestingly were always intertwined for her. In her letters to Sister Geraldine of the CSMV, Ramabai is always affectionate and grateful for a motherly presence in the lives of her daughter and herself even as she despairs of the patriarchal and sometimes racist notions that Sister Geraldine subscribes to, or her unquestioning submission to church authority which is anathema to Ramabai who seeks to vest all authority only in the Bible, and even within that in the life of Jesus recorded therein. Yet we see that Ramabai does not sever contact with Sister Geraldine, even after she rejects Anglican Christianity for a nondenominational faith in her later years, trusting in the humanity that binds them together. And we as Ramabai scholars are forever indebted to Sister Geraldine for preserving the correspondence and opening it up for analysis, even as it often shows Sister Geraldine in poor light.
It is in the work of CSMV with women rehabilitated from sex work that Ramabai is able to see the manifestation of Jesus’s call to love the sinner even as one shuns the sin. Coming from a culture that was so unkind to even married women, leave alone widows and probably viewed women engaged in prostitution as sub human, Ramabai was able to hold this perspective on service even as she rejected the authority that the CSMV and the Anglican Church tried to exercise over her. Similarly Ramabai’s respect for the manner in which the CSMV was administered showed in the way that she modelled the Sharada Sadan and Mukti Mission in her later years.
This ability to not entirely reject any line of thought just because she did not agree with all that it stood for showed a remarkable maturity that only strengthened with the years of Pandita Ramabai’s life. Her writing kirtanas for Jesus or later her learning Greek and Hebrew in order to translate the original texts of the Bible into a non-sankritised Marathi show the integrity of her claim that she was in Indian (and she often used the term Hindu for this purpose) in her culture and that her eating habits, her dress or the manner in which she envisioned the running of the Mukti Mission all fell into the same continuum. This was clearly to the discomfort of missionaries in India who wanted her to be more European in her lifestyle and also to Indian coverts to Christianity who had rejected all the rituals and markers of their Hindu religion.
A similar expectation that her Christianity would make her more amenable to the colonial rulers present in India during her lifetime was challenged time and again by the Pandita. She wrote furious letters in newspapers when the British dragged their feet in their response to a plague epidemic and a famine in the Bombay Presidency. Much earlier, in her reaction to the judgement meted out to Rakhmabai as she petitioned the state to not be forced to return to her illiterate husband who placed all forms of restrictions on her, Ramabai wrote to Rakhmabai in a private correspondence that not much could be expected from the British in the name of justice for women when they were colluding with the dominant castes and classes of Indian society who never wanted the lives of Indian women to take a turn for the better, since it would involve compromises to their comfort in turn.
When people expected her gender to act as a suitable boundary for her behaviour, she threw open these limitations by making a voyage to England as a Hindu widow, with a child in tow, and that too with her own money that she made from the sale of a book. When the Anglican Church ruled that she should not teach young men Sanskrit for fear of sullying her reputation back in India, Ramabai challenged the order by claiming that even in India, which the British considered regressive, no such restrictions were put on her and that she had addressed gatherings of men and women alike.
And yet, dressed as a woman pilgrim, she rescued many widows from a state worse than death in Mathura to bring back to the Mukti Mission. Her maternal love was reflected in every letter she wrote to donors updating them on the welfare of the girls in her institution but she was accused of being a unloving mother to Manorama by Sister Geraldine and the other sisters of CSMV as they saw how the child, who had been brought up with English sensibilities, ate on the floor and played in the sand like all the other girls in Mukti.
Some have accused her of being Brahminical to the very end, maintaining rituals of purity in terms of her food habits and utensils etc., but it was Ramabai who went on a series of rescue missions across Gujarat and Central India to bring back women of all castes and communities, practising all forms of religion and livelihoods during the years of the famine. That with the coming of these women, the ‘orderly’ running of Mukti was suspended for a more ‘chaotic’ community life and worship was seen by Ramabai as the moving of the Holy Spirit in Muktiand celebrated likewise.
Ramabai refused to be slotted into any restrictive category – be it of gender or religion or nationality. Some have called her a rebel, some a saint, others a feminist foremother and yet others an opportunist who accessed all the privilege her identity accorded her for the furthering of her own agenda. My purpose in writing this article is not to defend any of these labels assigned to her, but to see beyond these to a life of hard work and perseverance, of travel and adventure, of meticulous reading and deep seeking, of untiring research and writing, of keeping curiosity alive and being open to the other point of view, of living with doubt and failure but knowing that the process is one of integrity.
It is not only what Pandita Ramabai achieved in her lifetime in the face of so many obstacles that becomes worth learning about, but how she lived her life is what is truly educational and relevant for all of us today in our own contexts of struggle.