Overlooked No More: Pandita Ramabai, Indian Scholar, Feminist and Educator

Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men. With Overlooked, we’re adding the stories of remarkable people whose deaths went unreported in The Times.

By Aisha Khan

Pandita Ramabai Saraswati, a scholar, feminist and educator, broke nearly every rule and tradition that confined the life of an upper caste Hindu woman in 19th century India.

She was the rare woman who had learned Sanskrit, the ancient Hindu liturgical language reserved for Brahmin men; the rare Brahmin to marry out of caste; the rare widow who remained in public view, defying customs; and the rare Indian woman to decide, on her own, to convert to Christianity.

At a time when the expectation for women was to be little seen and never heard, Ramabai was an outspoken advocate of women’s education and participation in public affairs. She traveled widely across India, giving lectures on women’s rights. She studied in Britain and the United States, gave lectures in Japan and Australia and taught Sanskrit, as well as her mother tongue, Marathi.

Most remarkably for her time, Ramabai charted these paths as a single woman and mother while the few Indian women active in social reform at the time did so only with the encouragement — or, at least, permission — of their husbands.

“Her background, her life choices, her personality and her career catapulted her into the public gaze, making her the most controversial Indian woman of her times,” Prof. Uma Chakravarti wrote in “Rewriting History: The Life and Times of Pandita Ramabai” (1998).

Rama Dongre was born on April 23, 1858, in a Brahmin family. Brahmins, who were generally priests and scholars, were at the top of the caste system that governed Hindu society.

Though it was standard for learning to be limited to men and for women to be married off at a young age, Rama’s father, Anant Shastri Dongre, kept her home and taught her Sanskrit.

This “enabled her to escape the rigid gender code,” said Meera Kosambi, an Indian academic who wrote a biography of Ramabai and translated many of her Marathi works.

Ramabai was only 16 when she lost both her parents to famine. Her father’s “last loving command to me was to live an honourable life,” she said in a letter quoted by Kosambi, “if I lived at all, and serve God all my life.”

She and her older brother made a livelihood reciting Sanskrit scripture. They moved to Calcutta in 1878, where word spread of Rama’s mastery of the Hindu holy books. Sanskrit scholars at the University of Calcutta gave her the titles Pandita (scholar) and Saraswati (for the goddess of learning) and she became involved in social reform and education circles in Bengal.

After her brother’s death in 1880, she married Bipin Behari Medhavi, a lawyer, who was of a lower caste.

Rama was only 23 when Medhavi died of an illness, leaving her alone with their 1-year-old daughter, Manorama. She moved to Poona, (now Pune), in western India, and formed the Arya Women’s Association to promote education and empowerment.

She left for England with her daughter in 1883 to study medicine but was told she could not become a doctor because of her increasing deafness. Instead she enrolled in a teaching program at the Cheltenham Ladies’ College and taught Marathi and Sanskrit.

From there she straddled two worlds. She converted to Christianity and took the name Mary, angering her Indian supporters. At the same time, she clashed with church officials because she chafed at their colonial attitudes, and she continued to wear Indian dress and remained a vegetarian.

In 1886, she sailed to the United States to attend the graduation of a relative, Anandibai Joshi, the first Indian woman to complete medical college. Ramabai was touched deeply by the optimism of young girls in America and she viewed the United States as a model for a modern India.

Her most important published work, “The High Caste Hindu Woman,” was written in English in the United States in 1887, when she was 29. It focused on the plight of Hindu widows — she called widowhood “the worst and most dreaded period of a high-caste woman’s life.”

Brahmin customs prohibited widows from remarrying. They were considered cursed, and were required to shave their heads, wear drab, coarse clothes and subsist on meager food. Widows were also subject to physical and sexual abuse. The common practice of child marriage meant that some widows were just young girls when they were doomed to a lifetime on the margins.

Readers were moved by Ramabai’s account of life in India and women’s groups formed the American Ramabai Association, with dozens of chapters to support Ramabai financially in her mission.

“Here was a woman who circumnavigated the globe in the 19th century, built community in foreign countries and overcame the visceral challenges of diet, dress and language,” said Shefali Chandra, associate professor of history at Washington University in St. Louis.

Ramabai wrote wry, thoughtful accounts of her travels that were well received in India. She described how an American host was horrified to see her barefoot in the house, how Europeans avoided her small party of Indians on a ship and how she stood out when she pulled woolen sweaters over her Indian clothing to stay warm.

Using proceeds from her book and lectures, she raised funds to open the Sharada Sadan (Home of Learning) center in 1889 in Bombay, offering widowed girls a refuge where they could study and learn skills like gardening, carpentry and sewing. The shelter grew, at one point serving more than 700 girls and women. Many became teachers and nurses while others stayed, running a dairy farm and their own printing press. The home is still active today.

“The chief means of happiness is complete independence,” Ramabai urged in her writings, and the means for that is education, which she called “indestructible wealth.”

She identified with Native Americans and African Americans. In a letter to her daughter, she described meeting Harriet Tubman, and urged Manorama to be “as helpful to her own dear countrywomen as Harriet was and is to her own people.”

Over time, her shelter, which started as a strictly secular mission, became unabashedly religious. Ramabai built a church and established the Mukti (Salvation) Mission. She made contacts with Christian groups in Australia to help finance its expansion and received dozens of volunteers.

Her work drew opposition from conservatives and others in India suspicious of her conversion to Christianity. One newspaper accused her of trying to “set afire the ancient religion of her compatriots with the help of foreigners.” But she found allies in anti-caste reformers, who came to her defense.

Manorama worked as Ramabai’s partner, helping run the schools and mission. But her health was poor, possibly from overwork, and she died at the age of 40. Ramabai died soon after, on April 5, 1922. She was 63.

Ramabai’s critique of the Hindu patriarchy and embrace of Christianity extracted a heavy price, according to her biographers: It led to her marginalization in India and her ultimate omission from mainstream history books.

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