23 April 1858
|Died||5 April 1922 (aged 63)|
Bombay Presidency, British India
|Years active||1885 to 1922|
|Organization||Pandita Ramabai Mukti Mission, Kedgaon|
|Known for||Ministry among destitute and orphan girls|
|The High-Caste Hindu Woman|
Bipin Behari Medhvi
(m. 1880; died 1882)
Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati (23 April 1858 – 5 April 1922) was an Indian social reformer. She was the first woman to be awarded the titles of Pandita as a Sanskrit scholar and Sarasvati after being examined by the faculty of the University of Calcutta. She was one of the ten women delegates of the Congress session of 1889. She converted to Christianity and is credited to translating the Bible to Marathi along with the help of her daughter and students. In the late 1890s, she founded Mukti Mission at Kedgaon village, forty miles east of the city of Pune. The mission was later named Pandita Ramabai Mukti Mission.
Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati was born as Ramabai Dongre on 23 April 1858 into a Marathi-speaking Chitpavan Brahmin family. Her father, Anant Shastri Dongre, a Sanskrit scholar, taught her Sanskrit at home. Dongre's extraordinary piety led him to travel extensively across India with his family in tow. Ramabai gained exposure to public speaking by participating in the family's public recitation of the Purana at pilgrimage sites around India, which is how they earned a meager living. Orphaned at the age of 16 during the Great Famine of 1876–78, Ramabai and her brother Srinivas continued the family tradition of traveling the country reciting Sanskrit scriptures. Ramabai's fame as a woman adept in Sanskrit reached Calcutta, where the pandits invited her to speak. In 1878, Calcutta University conferred on her the titles of Pandita and Sarasvati in recognition of her knowledge of various Sanskrit works. The theistic reformer Keshab Chandra Sen gave her a copy of the Vedas, the most sacred of all Hindu literature, and encouraged her to read them. After the death of Srinivas in 1880, Ramabai married Bipin Behari Medhvi, a Bengali lawyer. The groom was a Bengali Kayastha, and so the marriage was inter-caste and inter-regional and therefore considered inappropriate for that age. They were married in a civil ceremony on 13 November 1880. The couple had a daughter whom they named Manorama. After Medhvi's death in 1882, Ramabai, who was only 23, moved to Pune and founded an organization to promote women's education.
After Medhvi's death (1882), Ramabai moved to Pune where she founded Arya Mahila Samaj (Arya Women's Society). Influenced by the ideals of Jesus Christ, the Brahmo Samaj, and Hindu reformers, the purpose of the society was to promote the cause of women's education and deliverance from the oppression of child marriage. When in 1882 the Hunter Commission was appointed by the colonial Government of India to look into education, Ramabai gave evidence before it. In an address before the Hunter Commission, she declared, "In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred the educated men of this country are opposed to female education and the proper position of women. 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." She suggested that teachers be trained and women school inspectors be appointed. Further, she said that as the situation in India was that women's conditions were such that women could only medically treat them, Indian women should be admitted to medical colleges. Ramabai's evidence created a great sensation and reached Queen Victoria. It bore fruit later in starting of the Women's Medical Movement by Lord Dufferin. In Maharashtra, Ramabai made contact with Christian organizations also involved in women's education and medical missionary work, in particular a community of Anglican nuns, the Community of St. Mary the Virgin (CSMV).
With earnings from the sale of her first book, Stri Dharma Niti ("Morals for Women," 1882) and contacts with the CSMV, Ramabai went to Britain in 1883 to start medical training; she was rejected from medical programs because of progressive deafness. During her stay she converted to Christianity. Among the reasons Ramabai gave for her conversion was her growing disillusionment with orthodox Hinduism and particularly what she saw as its ill regard of women. In an autobiographical account of her conversion written years later, Ramabai wrote that there were, "only two things on which all those books, the Dharma Shastras, the sacred epics, the Puranas and modern poets, the popular preachers of the present day and orthodox high-caste men, were agreed, that women of high and low caste, as a class were bad, very bad, worse than demons, as unholy as untruth; and that they could not get Moksha. as men." Ramabai had a contentious relationship with her Anglican "mentors" in England, particularly Sister Geraldine, and asserted her independence in a variety of ways: she maintained her vegetarian diet, rejected aspects of Anglican doctrine that she regarded as irrational, including the doctrine of the Trinity, and questioned whether the crucifix she was asked to wear had to have a Latin inscription instead of the Sanskrit inscription she wished for.
in 1886, she traveled from Britain to the United States at the invitation of Dr. Rachel Bodley, Dean of the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania, to attend the graduation of her relative and the first female Indian doctor, Anandibai Joshi, staying for two years. During this time she also translated textbooks and gave lectures throughout the United States and Canada. She also published one of her most important books, The High-Caste Hindu Woman. Her first book written in English, Ramabai dedicated it to her cousin, Dr. Joshi. The High-Caste Hindu Woman showed the darkest aspects of the life of Hindu women, including child brides and child widows, and sought to expose the oppression of women in Hindu-dominated British India. Through speaking engagements and the development of a wide network of supporters, Ramabai raise the equivalent of 60,000 rupees to launch a school in India for the child widows whose difficult lives her book exposed.
While giving presentations in the U.S. to seek support for her work in India, Ramabai met American Suffragette and Women's rights activist, Frances Willard in July 1887. Willard invited Ramabai to speak at the national Woman's Christian Temperance Union convention in November 1887 where she gained the support of this large women's organization. She returned to India in June 1888 as a National Lecturer for the WCTU. Mary Greenleaf Clement Leavitt, the first World Missionary of the WCTU, was already there when Ramabai returned, but they did not meet. Ramabai worked however with the WCTU of India once it was officially organized in 1893.
in 1889, she returned to India, and founded a school for child widows in Pune called Sharada Sadan, which had the support of many Hindu reformers, including M.G. Ranade. Although Ramabai did not engage in overt evangelism, she did not hide her Christian faith either, and when several students converted to Christianity, she lost the backing of Pune's Hindu reform circles. She moved the school 60 kilometers east to the much quieter village of Kedgaon, and changed its name to the Mukti Mission. In 1896, during a severe famine, Ramabai toured the villages of Maharashtra with a caravan of bullock carts and rescued thousands of outcast children, child widows, orphans, and other destitute women and brought them to the shelter of the Mukti Mission. By 1900 there were 1,500 residents and over a hundred cattle in the Mukti mission. A learned woman knowing seven languages, she also translated the Bible into her mother tongue—Marathi—from the original Hebrew and Greek.. The Pandita Ramabai Mukti Mission is still active today, providing housing, education, vocational training, etc. for many needy groups including widows, orphans, and the blind.
In many ways, Pandita Ramabai's family life departed from the norms expected of women in her day. Her childhood was full of hardships and she lost her parents early. Her marriage to Bipin Bihari Medhvi crossed caste lines. Moreover, when her husband died after just two years a marriage, she was left a widow. Under ordinary circumstances, such a tragedy put nineteenth century Indian women in a vulnerable condition, dependent upon their deceased husband's family for support. Pandita Ramabai, however, persevered as an independent woman, and a single mother to Manorama Bai. She ensured that Manorama Bai was educated, both in Wantage by the sisters of the CSMV, and later at Bombay University, where Manorama earned her BA. After going to the United States for higher studies, she returned to India where she worked side-by-side with Ramabai. Serving first as Principal of Sharada Sadan, she also assisted her mother in establishing Christian High school at Gulbarga (now in Karnataka), a backward district of south India, during 1912. In 1920 Ramabai's health began to flag and she designated her daughter as the one who would take over the ministry of Mukti Mission. However, Manorama died in 1921. Her death was a shock to Ramabai. Nine months later, on 5 April 1922, Ramabai herself died from septic bronchitis, a few weeks before her 64th birthday.
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