Pandita Ramabai was an educator, a social reformer, and a feminist. In 19th century India, she was one of the first Brahmin women to break patriarchal norms and move out of the confined boundaries that were set for Brahmin women.
Ramabai was well-read in Sanskrit literature even though Sanskrit was a language reserved for men, she married outside of her caste in the 19th century which was unheard of amongst Brahmins, she converted to Christianity, on her own accord, and also studied in prestigious institutions across the US and the UK.
Pandita Ramabai was an outspoken advocate of women’s rights and was a well-known activist in the 19th century, even though women then were usually pushed to the margins of public life. She was unapologetically courageous as she went across the world delivering lectures about women’s emancipation and women’s education. She founded the Arya Mahila Samaj in Pune which focused on promoting women’s education and stopping child marriage.
In a time when widows were ill-treated and burnt on the pyre, Ramabai broke those shackles of patriarchy and did not shy away from being in public as a widow, a single mother, and a women’s rights activist. In many ways, her path was made easier by women like Savitribai Phule who had fought against all odds to ensure girls and women were educated. Ramabai continued to follow in her footsteps.
Pandita Ramabai was born Rama Dongre in 1858 to a Brahmin family, she later converted to Christianity. She was taught Sanskrit by her father, Anant Shastri Dongre, even though learning Sanskrit was limited to men. This was the first instance where Ramabai broke out of the rigid gender code. Tragedy struck Ramabai when she was 16. She lost her parents and sister to the famine. Ramabai had to beg for food during this time to try and save her family.
After this, she and her brother traveled the country reciting Sanskrit scriptures and they moved to Calcutta in 1878. When she reached Calcutta, her knowledge of Hindu scriptures caught the eye of Sanskrit scholars. They invited her to give lectures and talks and also invited her to speak on women and their emancipation. It was scholars from the University of Calcutta who conferred her with the title “Pandita.”
In 1880 Ramabai married outside her caste to a Bengali lawyer, Bipin Behari Medhvi. But within two years of their marriage, her husband passed away and she became a single mother to Manorama, their daughter. This is when she moved to Pune, at the age of 23, and started the Arya Mahila Samaj. It was seen as a radical organization that was trying to do away with the dominance of men.
She went to study medicine in London in 1883 but due to her progressive deafness, she was denied this opportunity. She started teaching Marathi and Sanskrit to women at Cheltenham Ladies College instead. During her time in London, she converted to Christianity and changed her name to Mary. This angered many of her supporters. She converted as she felt a deep disconnect from her religion and her faith. Even though she had converted, she did not give in to the rules of the Church blindly. “I am, it is true, a member of the Church of Christ, but I am not bound to accept every word that falls down from the lips of priests or bishops. I have just with great efforts freed myself from the yoke of the Indian priestly tribe, so I am not at present willing to place myself under another similar yoke,” she said in a letter to a nun who was deeply disturbed by Ramabai’s questioning of Christianity. Ramabai continued to wear Indian clothes and remained a vegetarian. Ramabai also challenged the notion that God was a man and believed that God was neither man nor woman, which further worried the Church.
In 1886 she left for the US. During her time in the US Ramabai addressed hundreds of gatherings and “she spent a lot of time speaking, writing, entertaining, and thinking.” During this time, she wrote her best-known work “The High Caste Hindu Woman” to highlight the plight of widowhood among Brahmin women. Ramabai wanted to collect money for widows back home. American Ramabai Association was formed with the help of women’s groups to support Ramabai financially in her mission.
She was also sensitive to the questions of race. According to a piece in the New York Times, “In a letter to her daughter, she described meeting the escaped slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman and urged Manorama to be ‘as helpful to her own dear countrywomen as Harriet was and is to her own people.’”
Once she came back, she set up homes for widows. She also set up a church that received a lot of backlash from Hindu elites. A newspaper called the Kesari said she was trying to “set afire the ancient religion of her compatriots with the help of foreigners”
Ramabai spent all her life struggling against Brahmin patriarchal structures and she refused to back down. She was a feminist who not only worked on the emancipation of women but also understood caste, race, and religious issues that were barriers towards equality.
Ramabai died in 1922 at the age of 63 due to health issues. Ramabai’s ruthless refusal to bow down to the Hindu patriarchal order, her perseverance to expose the status of women in the country, her dedication to her cause, and her identity as an outspoken feminist resulted in the Hindu order suppressing her story and erasing her role as one of India’s early social reformers.