Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922)

map_indiaChristians Who Changed their World

Anant Shastri and the education of women
Traditional society in India was not a very welcoming place for girls. Women were considered inferior to men and were not allowed to be educated or to work. Child brides were very common, as were child widows. Even with the abolition of sati (the practice of burning widows on their husband’s funeral pyres), the fate of these widows was harsh: they were considered cursed and were subjected to terrible abuse and even torture at the hands of their husband’s family.

Anant Shastri was a highly educated Brahmin (the priestly caste in India) who made his living reading the Puranas (Hindu Scriptures) in Temples. Hinduism teaches that listening to the Puranas is a way of earning spiritual merit.

Unlike the vast majority of his peers, Anant Shastri believed that women should be educated. When he was forty years old, he married a nine year old girl and taught her Sanskrit. This led to his family and community ostracizing him, so he, his wife, and three children began an itinerant life reading the Puranas wherever he could—in temples, during festivals, for wealthy but illiterate Hindu families, etc. This was enough to earn them a modest living, even though they were constantly on the move.

One of the children in the family died young. The other two were an older son named Srinivas and younger daughter named Ramabai. When Ramabai was thirteen, the region was hit by a tremendous famine. People could no longer support the Shastri family, and they began to starve. They tried living off the land, but the parents grew ill. Anant Shastri was the first to succumb to hunger and illness, followed a few months later by his wife. Ramabai and Srinivas were left to fend for themselves.

A shaken faith
Ramabai’s faith was shaken by these experiences, but she followed in her father’s footsteps by reading the Puranas and teaching Hinduism. She and her brother made their way to the city of Calcutta where the local Brahmins welcomed them. Ramabai astonished them with her ability to read the Puranas and by her mastery of the very difficult grammar of Sanskrit. She also showed a great deal of wisdom, with the result that the Brahmin community in Calcutta gave her its highest title, Pandita (scholar) and invited her to give lectures and to continue her studies.

Her further studies did nothing to confirm her faith, however; she grew increasingly dissatisfied with Hinduism. Then in 1880 her brother took ill and died. Bipen Behan Das Medhavi, a friend of her brother, had sought her hand in marriage for some time. Although he was a lawyer from a lower caste, she followed in her father’s footsteps by breaking with tradition and married him. This again shocked the Brahmin community, but he did love her and took good care of her. They had a daughter, whom they named Manorama (Joy of the Heart).

Pandita Ramabai noticed a copy of the Gospel of Luke written in Bengali in her husband’s library (part of the fruit of William Carey’s work). She asked him about it, and he told her he got it at a missionary school. She wanted to know more, so they invited a missionary into their home to explain it to her. She felt drawn to Jesus and wanted to become a Christian, but she knew her husband would not agree to that.

Pandita Ramabai and her husband had planned to start a school for widows, but after they had been married for only eighteen months, her husband contracted cholera and died. As a widow, she was not welcome in her husband’s home, so she returned with her daughter to her home territory. She settled in Pune and began to learn English. She wrote her first book there, entitled Morals for Women.

Journey to Christ
One day, a child widow came to her door looking for charity. Pandita Ramabai took her in and treated her like her own daughter. In response to the young widow’s situation, Ramabai  started an organization called Arya Mahila Samaj to educate girls and to advocate for the abolition of child marriage. Unfortunately, she had little money and she realized she needed more training if she was going to be able to fulfill her vision.

Meanwhile, she got to know an English missionary named Miss Hurford. Miss Hurford was returning to England and she urged Ramabai to accompany her. Although she was afraid of the voyage, she believed God was calling her to go. The sales of Morals for Women earned just enough money to book passage for her and for Manorama, so they set sail with Miss Hurford for England.

In England, she converted to Christianity and would spend the rest of her life living out her faith even as she continued to pursue the vision for widows she had developed in India.

Pandita Ramabai arranged to teach Sanskrit at Cheltenham College, and in exchange she studied English and education. From there, she travelled to America in 1886 to study the public school system and get some industrial training. She also began networking. She wrote a book entitled High Caste Hindu Woman and began giving lectures on the plight of women in India. In 1887, the Americans responded by setting up an association to fund her work. They guaranteed support for her for 10 years.

Ministering for the Lord
Pandita Ramabai returned to India in 1889. She went to Bombay (modern Mumbai), and within six weeks set up a school for Brahmin girls called Sharda Sadan (House of Knowledge). Her friends in Bombay agreed to support her as long as she did not promote Christianity. She agreed, and so the school followed all the rules of the Brahmin caste while remaining non-sectarian. This was the first home for widows in the Bombay area and only the second in India.

But the reformers in Bombay, all of whom were Hindus, were suspicious of Pandita Ramabai’s motives and the financial connection with missionaries. Within a year the school was under attack, and given that she allowed the widows to attend prayer meetings, local financial support dried up. She moved the school to Pune, and by 1900, the school had trained 80 women who were able to support themselves through teaching or nursing.

At this point, she realized just how much she needed Christ’s help if she was to carry on with her work. She wrote,

One thing I knew by this time, that I needed Christ and not merely His religion... I was desperate... What was to be done? My thoughts could not and did not help me. I had at last come to an end of myself, and unconditionally surrendered myself to the Saviour; and asked Him to be merciful to me, and to become my righteousness and redemption, and to take away all my sin....


Meanwhile, a famine hit the area around Pune in 1897. Plague had also broken out, and so the government of Pune tried to prevent its spread by restricting the movement of people; as a result, the school was limited to 100 students. But Pandita Ramabai still felt called to care for the widows and girls who were suffering from the famine, so she purchased 100 acres in Kedgaon, 30 miles from Pune, and started her second school. She called this the Mukti Mission. (Mukti means “salvation” in Marathi, the local language.) She soon found 200 girls and child widows and brought them to the new school.

Pandita Ramabai had only two assistants, one Indian and one English. They quickly built huts for the girls and organized a system to take care of them and educate them. They would teach the older ones first, who would then take care of the younger ones. In this way, they managed to care for the growing number of girls who made their way to the school. By 1900, 2000 girls were living there.

The curriculum in these schools included a range of subjects: literature, selected for moral teaching to promote caring; physiology, to teach them about their bodies; botany; and industrial arts such as printing, carpentry, tailoring, masonry, wood-cutting, weaving, needlework, farming, and gardening.

Students were also required to join societies such as the Temperance Union or the Christian Endeavour Society to break down caste barriers and to develop relationships based on common interest rather than birth. Pandita Ramabai believed that caste was one of the most serious problems facing India, and she worked very hard to break its power over the culture.

Along with establishing these schools, in 1904, Pandita Ramabai began translating the Bible into Marathi, her native language, from the original Hebrew and Greek; the New Testament was published in 1913, and the complete Bible in 1924.

In 1919, the King of England awarded Pandita Ramabai the Kaiser-i-Hind award, the highest honor that could be given to an Indian during the colonial period.

Pandita Ramabai cared for her girls until her death in 1922. The mission in Pune is still active today.

Next Steps

Pandita Ramabai responded in the love of Christ to the needs of people around her. What needs do you observe, week by week, in the people you regularly see? How might the Lord Jesus use you as a channel of His grace and truth to the people in your life? Share your thoughts about this with a Christian friend, and ask your friend to pray for you as you try to be more the salt and light of Christ to the people around you.

Our Easter study series, “He Has Risen,” is now available. This series is suitable for personal or group use and includes five brief videos by John Stonestreet and supplemental study materials by T. M. Moore. Order your copy today from our online store.

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