On 23 April 1858 Pandita Ramabai was born to a Chitpavan Brahman family in Karnataka. Her father, Anant Shastri Dongre, was a Sanskritic scholar and part of the bhakti devotional movement of reformed Hinduism. In line with his study of the ancient texts, he believed women should be educated—that it wasn’t in violation of the Vedas. So he taught his second wife, a child bride named Lakshmibai, Sanskrit and educated her from the ancient texts. The two of them later taught their children, including Ramabai and her sister, which was a very unusual thing for that time. This caused problems for the family among the other Brahmins, who forced them out. But wherever they went, her father spoke about the importance of female education.
She learned Sanskrit and to interpret Vedic texts and the Puranas. She also studied modern Indian languages, including Bengali, Hindustani, Marathi, and Kanarese. Her learning was impressive, to such an extent that after her parents’ death in 1877, followed shortly after by that of her sister, she was invited on her own merits to come speak among learned people on a variety of topics. Pandits in Calcutta invited her to speak and were so impressed by her learning, they gave her the title pandita, or learned one, and gave her her own copy of the Vedas.
In 1880, Ramabai’s brother Shrinivas Shastri died, and she got married to a man of the Sudra caste, a lawyer and member of the Brahmo Samaj named Bipin Behari Das Medhavai. Although bhaktis placed less emphasis on caste, Hindu society still considered this to be a very wrong thing to do, so they were married in a civil ceremony, rather than a traditional one. And as she broke down barriers in her own life and marriage, she swore to help other women do the same. She wanted to fight for women’s education and some of the more damaging Hindu customs, such as child marriage. She and Medhavai even had plans to open a place for child widows to learn and live.
It was during her time in Calcutta that she first came in contact with Christianity and was given a Sanskrit-language Bible. She studied it and discussed the teachings with a missionary nearby, eventually coming to believe in Christ. Her husband, however, opposed converting, so she didn’t.1 In 1882 Medhavai died, leaving her a widow—her father, mother, sister, brother, and husband all dead within five years.
The following year, Pandita Ramabai received a scholarship to a college in England, but the intervening year was full. In that time, she initiated the Noble Women’s Society and testified before Lord Ripon’s Education Commission about the need to educate women, men’s general opposition to it, women’s life situations, and the need to admit women to medical colleges, since the present society precluded women’s medical treatment by men.
In 1883, Ramabai sailed to England to study and, while she was there, she and her daughter attended an Anglican church, where they received careful instruction in the faith. They converted to Christianity and were baptised.
It was later said that a book written by Fr. Nehemiah Goreh, also a Sanskrit scholar and Brahman convert to Christianity, had a lot to do with her eventual belief. He later became a mentor to her, urging her away from a sort of Unitarian leaning toward full acknowledgment of the deity and saving power of Jesus Christ. He also encouraged her in her pursuit of an indigenous expression of Christianity, divorced from unnecessary Western trappings. Christianity was, after all, he told her, originally an Asian religion and not a Western one. He believed Christ was “the fulfillment of the longings of Hinduism”2.
She made a tour of the United States afterwards, lecturing on the plight of Indian women and studying the set-up of the kindergarten system there. One result was that a Ramabai Foundation was started in America to support her work with women and child widows back in India.
Afterwards, Pandita Ramabai returned to India and set up homes and educational centres for homeless Indian women and child widows and, later on, for orphans and fallen women. Women were taught sewing, weaving, and embroidery, as well as basic education. The first centre was called the Sharada Sadan.
She later opened up the Mukti Sadan home and school near Pune at Kedgaon, which included a kindergarten for up to four hundred children and produced its own food. Eventually, the mission opened its own church and transitioned into the Pandita Ramabai Mukti Mission, which is still functioning today.
In 1897 Pandita Ramabai experienced a baptism of the Holy Spirit, which opened new doors for her spiritually. It could be considered as a secondary Christian conversion experience. She then invited American Pentecostal missionary Minnie Abrams to minister to the church. During that time, many of the girls there experienced a spiritual awakening and reported speaking in tongues, healing, prophecy, and other gifts of the Spirit. They went out into the surrounding communities as a spontaneous and enthusiastic missionary movement. Consider that: In a place where women occupied a traditionally submissive, undereducated, and circumscribed sphere in the larger society—and in a time when women did not often fill roles of leadership in the Western church—these Indian “Bible women” were going out to teach and convert the people in their communities. This seems a fitting tribute to their teacher.
Pandita Ramabai’s only child, her daughter Manorama, was educated at Bombay University and in the United States. She went on to become principal of a Christian high school Pandita Ramabai founded in 1912. Manorama died in 1921, only nine months before her mother did on 5 April 1922.
Pandita Ramabai was a learned woman and poet, as well as a great social reformer and women’s rights advocate. She translated many textbooks, but she also found time to write original, insightful works of her own. Two of her best known books include:
She also translated the Bible from original Greek and Hebrew sources into her native Marathi.4