Women often bear a heavy burden in society. Throughout much of history, they were routinely silenced and denied educational and career opportunities available to men. A woman’s life in the rigid caste-based society of 19th-century India could be even harder. If you were an orphaned girl, if you married outside of your caste, or if you were widowed at a young age, you were destined for a life on the margins. The oppressive weight of an unjust society crushed many such women.
Pandita Ramabai could have been such a woman: she was an orphan, a widow, and married outside her caste. But thanks to her intelligence, her strength, and her faith in God, she did not let society’s burdens crush her. She not only survived and thrived, but she became an activist for women’s equality and started a mission to rescue other girls from that terrible weight.
Ramabai was born into a high-caste Brahmin family in 1858. Her father was a Sanskrit scholar, and the family eked out a living traveling around India reciting Hindu religious texts. Ramabai’s father taught her Sanskrit and the Vedas just as he did with her brothers.
Much of Ramabai’s family died during a famine in 1876. She and her surviving brother Srinivas continued as traveling religious speakers. Word of Ramabai’s knowledge spread far and wide. She was the first woman to earn the titles Pandita (meaning “learned one”) and Sarasvati (after the Hindu goddess of knowledge) after demonstrating her knowledge of Sanskrit to professors at the University of Calcutta.
After her brother died in 1880, Ramabai married a Bengali lawyer of a lower caste. Such an inter-caste marriage was considered scandalous at the time. Her plight worsened when her husband died in a cholera epidemic after just 19 months of marriage, leaving her widowed with a baby daughter. Hindu widows were considered cursed; Ramabai was expected to shave her head, wear drab clothes, and beg her late husband’s family for support.
Ramabai, however, ignored society’s expectations and began supporting herself as an independent single mother. She moved to the city of Pune and founded Arya Mahila Samaj, a society to promote education of women and oppose the practice of child marriage.
In 1882, she testified before the Indian colonial government in favor of educating women as teachers and doctors. She also decried the oppression of women in Indian society, saying: “If they observe the slightest fault, they magnify the grain of mustard-seed into a mountain, and try to ruin the character of a woman.” Her testimony caused a sensation throughout the country.
The following year, Ramabai went to England to train as a doctor; unfortunately, she was rejected because she was going deaf. Instead, having become interested in Christianity, she joined a community of Anglican nuns near Oxford and was baptized. As always, she did things her own way: she wore Indian dress, maintained a vegetarian diet, and rejected aspects of Christian theology she considered irrational.
In 1886, she went to the U.S. to attend the graduation of the first female Indian doctor. She stayed in America for three years, giving lectures and writing a book, The High-Caste Hindu Woman, which documented the oppression of women in India.
Ramabai returned to India with her daughter in 1889 to open a school to educate child widows. Her project was initially backed by several prominent Hindu reformers, but when some students at her school converted to Christianity, they withdrew their support. She moved her school to the countryside, renamed it the Mukti Mission, and offered shelter to abandoned widows and orphans. She taught her students the same lesson her life had taught her: “The chief means of happiness is complete independence.”
In 1896, during another famine, Ramabai took a caravan of ox carts into her village and brought widows, orphans, and starving children back to the mission to shelter and feed them. The mission continued to grow; by 1900, it housed over 1500 residents.
Ramabai continued her tireless work into the 20th century, opening a Christian high school with her daughter and translating the Bible into the Indian language of Marathi. In 1919, the colonial government recognized her exemplary work by awarding her the Kaisari-i-Hind medal. Ramabai gave all the credit to God. “[N]o one but He,” she said, “could transform and uplift the downtrodden womanhood of India and of every land.”
Alas, ill health and overwork took their toll on Ramabai. She died of bronchitis in April 1922, weeks before her 64th birthday.
The Pandita Ramabai Mukti Mission remains open to this day, supporting and educating women and children in need. And Ramabai’s remarkable life continues to inspire women around the world. She not only refused to be crushed by an oppressive society; she helped lighten the burden for generations of women who came after.
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