Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922)

Dr. Jeremiah Amai Veino Duomai

Ramabai was born as the sixth child to Anant Shastri Dongre and Lakshmibai. Her father earned his living by rendering Vedic recitals in temples, teaching and narrating Puranas in public platform and other similar activities as performed by a devout Brahmin. The family lived under severe economic strain. with famine sweeping the region the economic hardship increased. It was in this condition, when Ramabai was just 16 that her father passed away. Within few days her mother too passed away under the continued strain of starvation and emotional trauma of having lost her husband. Even her elder sister died of cholera within a short time leaving behind only her brother and herself, since her other siblings died in early years. But before her parents died she has mastered Sanskrit at the feet of her parent.

For years she led an intellectual nomadic life with her brother. In 1878 when Ramabai was 20, she reached Calcutta with her brother. it was here that Ramabai was honoured with the title ‘Pandita’ by Calcutta University for her learning in Sanskrit. Tragedy, however, struck her again when her brother Srinivas succumbed to Cholera in 1880. Shortly Pandita Ramabai married her brother’s friend Bipen Behari Das, a lawyer from a non-Brahmin background. Worse was to come when her husband died of cholera two years later leaving her with her daughter Manorama,

When she was 25, she travelled to England to study medicine. t here she got converted to Christianity and got baptized in the Church of England. Three years later she travelled to the US where she spent two years publishing her plan to open a home for Hindu widows in India.

In 1889, when she was 34, she started a widow’s home called Sharada Sadan in Bombay which was eventually shifted to Pune and came to be known as Pandita Ramabai Mukti Mission. She spoke out against gambling, drinking and other social evils that destroyed homes. She had acquired a fighting spirit from her parents which aided her as she went about encouraging widow’s remarriage despite opposition from conservative brahmin. her father had faced social boycott for having insisted on educating his wife when such practice as considered an anathema. Just as she led an independent life she taught women to be independent and confident. Pandita Ramabai also introduced kindergarten system of education to India for the first time.

In 1882, she started one Arya Mahila Samaj for the cause of women’s education. She also wrote two books: Sri Sharma Niti in 1882 and The High Caste Hindu Women in 1887. the former representing a reformist approach to Hindu womanhood and the latter a critique of the deplorable condition of Hindu widows. She went on to suggest, in Lok Stithi, that Hindi should be enriched and developed by incorporating from other language wherever necessary. her contribution to literature would be incomplete if her work in translating Bible to Marathi from original Hebrew and Greek is not given due recognition. The way she withstood personal loss, the manner in which she critiqued Hindu religious traditions that legitimized patriarchal oppression and her long quest for the truth which she found in Christ Jesus are some lessons one can learn from her life. in 1989 the Government of India in recognition of her contribution to the advancement of Indian women issued a commemorative stamp.

In honour of her scholarship and contribution towards social transformation, TRACI has a Pt. Ramabai Study Group that brings together Christian scholars from various disciplines to share their work and enrich one another’s learning. We pray and hope to take this endeavour to greater heights in the coming days.

Dr. Jeremiah Amai Veino Duomai is an independent researcher. He is currently a Board Member of TRACI.

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