Women’s History Month: Pandita Ramabai

On 11 March 1889 the Indian activist known as Pandita Ramabai opened her Sharada Sadan (or Home for Learning) in Chowpatty, an area of Mumbai (which was then, under the British Raj, known as Bombay). She designed this institution to further a cause dear to her heart: security and an education for Hindu women who were widowed young. With this, after spending five years abroad in England and the USA, Pandita Ramabai launched her mission to improve the lives and opportunities of Indian women.

She was born as Ramabai Dongre, a high-caste Brahmin. While she was still very young her family fell into poverty and took to the roads as religious vagrants, travelling the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent and learning many of its languages. When she was sixteen both of her parents died of starvation, closely followed by her sister. Only she and her brother were left. Despite these horrors, her taste for reading enabled her at the age of twenty to become the first woman in India to earn the titles of pandita (the feminine of pundit, or Sanskrit scholar) and sarasvati, after examination by the faculty of the University of Calcutta. She then married a Shudra, a man of a labouring caste who were debarred from education.

Such a marriage would have been impossible before the Civil Marriage Act of 1872. Put together with Ramabai’s scholarly achievement it represents a remarkable commitment to the questioning of tradition, The marriage seems to have been happy, but it was brief. Ramabai’s husband died less than two years afterwards, leaving her with a daughter. In the first year of her widowhood she did three highly significant things. She founded the Arya Mahila Samaj, a society of high-caste Hindu women working for the education of girls and against child marriage. She published her first book, Morals for Women, or in the original Marathi Stri Dharma Niti. And she testified before the Hunter Commission on Education in India, an enquiry set up by the British government. (Her testimony, which was later printed, is said to have influenced the thinking of Queen Victoria.)

The year after that she sailed for England, where she hoped to study medicine so that in the end she could return to India as a doctor. This was startlingly innovative: those few women practising as physicians in Britain at this date had trained in continental Europe or the USA. Pioneering female medical students at Edinburgh University were just then meeting with opposition both from stealthy committee work (changing the rules from year to year, withdrawing permissions already granted) and from raucous male students who screamed and threw mud. (The results of a chronological search in Orlando on Sophia Jex-Blake, on Edinburgh, or indeed on medicine during the mid and later nineteenth century, each tell a gripping story.) Jex-Blake founded the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874, during Ramabai’s stay in England. The Times came out in favour of medical education for women only in 1878, after she had left. Ramabai found, apparently, that a greater impediment to her own medical education in England than being female or being Indian was the fact that she was deaf. Instead she used her time in England to continue the study of Christianity which she had begun in India (her faith in Hinduism had been shaken by the deaths of her parents) and had herself and her young daughter baptised as Anglican Christians.

Many aspects of English life appealed to her, but having rejected the Indian caste system by her marriage she was uncomfortable with the hierarchy of social classes in England. Her view of the country must have been darkened when an Indian woman who was accompanying her committed suicide. Having relinquished her own dreams of a medical degree, she travelled on to the USA to attend the graduation from the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia of Anandibai Joshee, the first Indian woman to become a medical doctor, who was also her distant relation.

Pandita Ramabai was by now full of plans for reforms in India, and spent much of her time in America (and briefly in Canada) fund-raising. She took up American causes too, supporting in print the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and speaking at the first meeting of the International Council of Women in 1888 (a body which brought together activists from the US, Britain and Canada). She took a course in kindergarten teaching. In America she found the kind of democracy and the kind of women’s education that she was looking for. “The national might of the United States,” she wrote, perhaps drawing an implicit contrast with Britain, “does not lie in its standing army, cannons, and swords; it lies in the educational advancement and diligence of the nation’s inhabitants.”

By the end of 1888 Pandita Ramabai was back in India, where she very soon founded her Sharada Sadan, or Home for Learning. Women in this community were taught the doctrines of Christianity, though they were also free to continue in their Hindu beliefs. Ramabai ran into problems in India when she was seen as part of the Christian missionary effort, though the same perception was useful when fund-raising in the USA. In fact her own position was ecumenical, in keeping with her internationalism and her opposition to divisions of caste and gender. The  Sharada Sadan was only one of her many initiatives working for the education of women (from young girls to adults) and for security for widows. When famine and plague struck the central Indian provinces in the late 1890s, she turned her attention to the housing and education of famine victims, creating a new organization for this purpose. She published in Hindi and Sanskrit as well as in Marathi and English. Her travel books about England and America interestingly reverse the conventions of the western travel writer in the East. Her last, posthumous work was a translation of the entire Bible into Marathi. Half a century after her death, A. B. Shah called her “the greatest woman produced by modern India and one of the greatest Indians in all history.”

It is humbling to realise how few Western feminists know about Pandita Ramabai. A number of scholarly works have appeared about her recently in both India and the west (notably by the Indian feminist sociologist Meera Kosambi), but she is not widely known. In spite of her privileged background and her conversion to Christianity, she is very much a heroine for our times. And of course she did not work alone. Such reforms as the Age of Consent to Marriage Bill, 1891 (which raised the legal age only from ten to twelve), took the efforts of innumerable doctors, journalists, and others, many of them women. Indian society as it is today owes an immeasurable debt to feminist thinkers like Pandita Ramabai.

This information is provided by Dr Isobel Grundy, University of Alberta, and comes from Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present, Cambridge University Press, by subscription: see http://orlando.cambridge.org.

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