Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati was a pioneering Indian social reformer, educator, and Sanskrit scholar. Her life’s work significantly impacted women’s education and rights, defying social norms of her time and leaving a profound legacy in India’s social reform movements.
This topic of “Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati (1858-1922) – Championing the Cause of Women’s Rights and Emancipation” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.
Early Life and Education
- Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati, born on 23 April 1858, came from a Marathi-speaking Chitpavan Brahmin family.
- She was born in the forest of Ganamal in Maharashtra to Lakshmibai and Anant Shastri, a high-caste Hindu Brahmin.
- Her father, Anant Shastri Dongre, a Sanskrit scholar, taught her Sanskrit at home. He was not only a Sanskrit scholar but also a social reformer with a keen interest in educating girls.
- Raised in an orthodox Hindu religious environment, Ramabai’s upbringing was marked by her father’s unconventional beliefs for that era, particularly regarding women’s education.
- Her birthplace was an ashram run by her father in the Gungamal forests, indicating a life deeply rooted in Hindu religious and scholarly traditions. The family, belonging to the Chitpavan Brahmin caste, played a significant role in shaping her early experiences and perspectives.
Trailblazing Journey in Education and Sanskrit Scholarship
- Ramabai distinguished herself as a pioneer among women Sanskrit scholars at a time when girls’ education was not the norm. She advocated for girls’ education and campaigned against child marriage while promoting widow remarriage.
- Ramabai’s profound knowledge of Sanskrit earned her prestigious titles like ‘Pandita’ (wise person) and ‘Sarasvati’ (goddess of learning/wisdom).
- At just twelve years old, she had memorized 18,000 Sanskrit verses and was proficient in eight other languages. Ramabai was not only a scholar but also an activist who addressed the Education Committee of India to advocate against gender bias in education.
- Ramabai and her brother Srinivas traveled across India, reciting Sanskrit scriptures after their parents’ demise during the Great Famine of 1876–78.
Social Activism and Advocacy for Women’s Rights
- Ramabai’s journey into social reform began early, influenced by her childhood experiences of tragedy, learning, and poverty. She continued her reform work even after her husband’s death, Bipin Behari Medhavi.
- She founded the Arya Mahila Samaj in Poona (now Pune) in 1882 to promote women’s education and combat child marriage.
- Ramabai testified before the Hunter Commission on “native education,” stressing the need for women teachers and doctors.
- Initially aspiring to study medicine to improve women’s healthcare access, Ramabai later taught Sanskrit at Cheltenham Ladies’ College in Gloucestershire due to health and ideological differences with religious institutions.
- In 1886, Pandita Ramabai visited Philadelphia at the invitation of Rachel Bodley, dean of the Women’s Medical College in Pennsylvania, highlighting her reputation as a scholar, educationist, and women’s rights champion in India.
- In the US, she embraced Friedrich Froebel’s kindergarten philosophy and planned to implement it in the school she intended to establish in India. She also incorporated educational techniques observed in the US into primers she wrote in Marathi.
- Ramabai’s book “The High Caste Hindu Woman,” released in the US in 1887, solidified her status as a women’s rights advocate, enhancing her impact in social reform movements.
- Her collaboration with American progressives like Frances Willard of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and suffragette Susan Anthony signaled American philanthropic support for Indian movements over British policies, bolstering her cause.
- Upon returning to India, Ramabai established Sharada Sadan in Poona for child widows and later, Mukti Mission in Kedgaon near Pune.
- During the famine of 1897-’98, she actively rescued and sheltered affected women and children, demonstrating her commitment to social welfare.
Conversion to Christianity and International Influence
- Pandita Ramabai converted to Christianity during her stay in England in the early 1880s due to disillusionment with orthodox Hinduism, especially its treatment of women.
- Her conversion in September 1883 occurred while she was in Britain, where she initially intended to start medical training. It garnered significant attention in India.
- After her conversion, Ramabai traveled extensively in the United States, publishing “The High-Caste Hindu Woman” and giving lectures to raise funds for establishing a school in India for child widows.
- Her association with American progressives, such as Frances Willard, and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), contributed to her international influence.
- During the bubonic plague of 1896 in India, Ramabai rescued low-caste girls and women from seclusion centers, establishing the Mukti Mission, a sanctuary for them. She also translated the Bible into Marathi, leaving a lasting legacy.
Establishment of Institutions for Women’s Welfare
- In 1889, Pandita Ramabai founded the Sharada Sadan (Home for Learning) in Chowpatty, Mumbai, dedicated to the education and security of young Hindu widows.
- Sharada Sadan offered education to girls and women of various ages, allowing them to learn Christian doctrines while retaining their Hindu beliefs. It aimed to challenge caste and gender divisions and promote women’s education and welfare, especially during crises like famine and plague.
- The Mukti Mission, another significant institution established by Ramabai, provided care to individuals in need, including orphans, the destitute, and those with special needs, without regard to caste, creed, religion, or status.
- Registered under various social welfare and trust acts, the Pandita Ramabai Mukti Mission in Kedgaon, Pune, includes specialized homes for destitute orphans, elderly women, individuals with special needs (including a Braille school for the blind), nurseries, adoption facilities, schools, colleges, and vocational training.
- Mukti Mission extends its impact through community development and social projects, including mobile health clinics, adult literacy programs, vocational training, kindergartens, day-care centers, and hostels across India, aimed at improving the quality of life for disadvantaged individuals.
- The mission is dedicated to promoting the right to education, equality, and equity, while also addressing child and women’s rights issues, including combating sexual abuse, violence against women, and human trafficking to safeguard the dignity and well-being of women and children.
Contributions to Education and Literature
- Ramabai made significant contributions to education and literature, with a focus on improving the status of women in Indian society.
- Her book “Stri Dharma Niti” (“Morals for Women,” 1882) funded her travels to England, where she originally intended to study medicine but couldn’t due to progressive deafness.
- Her influential work “The High-Caste Hindu Woman” critically examined the lives of Hindu women, exposing issues like child marriage and the plight of child widows in Hindu-dominated British India. The book and her speaking engagements raised funds for a school for child widows in India.
- In 1889, Ramabai established Sharada Sadan in Mumbai, providing formal education and vocational training to young widowed Brahmin women and unmarried girls. It offered a comprehensive education, including subjects like reading, writing, history, and environmental studies.
- Ramabai advocated women’s education as a means to challenge the patriarchal structure of Indian society, aiming to empower women to become independent and self-reliant, even teaching skills traditionally inaccessible to women, such as carpentry and running a printing press.
Influence on Early Pentecostalism
- Pandita Ramabai played a pivotal role in the early development of the Pentecostal movement in India, contributing significantly to its origins and growth, as recognized by scholars and historians.
- The Mukti Mission, established by Ramabai, was part of the international Protestant missionary network and became a focal point for religious revivals, with events there considered part of a new era in Christian history.
- Extraordinary events occurred at Mukti Mission in June 1905, including emotional and physical experiences among the girls, seen as signs of the Holy Spirit’s presence. This drew global attention and was interpreted as a precursor to the Azusa Street revival.
- Ramabai’s efforts, including intercessory prayer and sending young women to preach the gospel in villages, led to reports of an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, with participants receiving the gift of speaking in tongues by 1906.
- Ramabai’s influence and the revival at Mukti Mission were significant in shaping the emergence of Pentecostalism in India, with her role highlighted by missionaries like Alfred G. Garr, underscoring her integral contribution to the movement’s history.
Personal Life and Legacy
- Pandita Ramabai’s early life was unconventional, marked by challenges to societal norms. Born into a Chitpavan Brahman family in Karnataka, she received education in Sanskrit at home from her father who believed in educating women.
- Tragedy struck her life with the loss of parents, siblings, husband, and daughter. Her marriage to Bipin Behari Das, a non-Brahman Brahmo Bengali lawyer, broke caste barriers but was short-lived due to his early death.
- These experiences, coupled with exposure to patriarchal Hindu texts, led to her disillusionment with orthodox Hinduism and her eventual turn to Christianity.
- Her influential writings, including “Stri Dharma Niti” (Morals for Women, 1882) and “The High Caste Hindu Woman” (1887), critiqued Brahmanical patriarchy and highlighted the challenges faced by women in Hindu society.
- Her daughter, Manorama Bai, received an education and worked alongside Ramabai, eventually becoming her successor at the Mukti Mission.
- Despite facing societal challenges and personal losses, Ramabai’s legacy is one of resilience, empowerment, and advocacy for women’s rights and education.
Pandita Ramabai’s remarkable journey from a Sanskrit scholar to a social reformer and educator exemplifies her indomitable spirit and commitment to women’s empowerment. Her legacy continues to inspire and influence social change, transcending the boundaries of time and culture.