03/08/2011, 00.00
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Pandita Ramabai, Brahmin Christian Pioneer of women’s liberation in India

by Nirmala Carvalho
Born in the second half of the 1800 to a high ranking Hindu family, she became a pioneer of women's rights in her country. She converts to Christianity because in Jesus she discovers her "best Liberator."

Mumbai (AsiaNews) - Panda Rababaj was the foremost pioneer in the women's liberation movement in India. Her immense contribution to education and empowerment of women is due largely to her faith in Jesus, whom she liked to call her " best Liberator". She is an icon of the value of the feminine genius, inspired by the Christian witness. Ramabaj Pandita, born in 1858 to a very conservative society, was a rebel against the oppressive Hindu system; she was a woman with a vision, and her spiritual growth is such that she became a forerunner of women's rights.

Ramabai was born on 23rd April 1858, in Karnataka. She was the daughter of a wealthy Brahmin Sanskrit Scholar. Though her father was a devout and orthodox Hindu he scandalized his high caste friends by teaching his wife and later his daughters to read the Sanskrit classics.. At the age of sixteen, Ramabai walked across India, visiting the holy Hindu shrines and attracting astonished audiences to her recitation of Sanskrit poetry. Her knowledge of Sanskrit, the sacred language of Hinduism, eventually won her fame and honour. She was given the honorific title "Pandita," mistress of wisdom

Pandita  married at the age of twenty-two, but her husband died of cholera after only sixteen months, leaving her alone with an infant daughter, Manorama. Her travels in India and now her present circumstances sensitized her to the bleak plight of widows and orphans. She was one of the first to rebel against the inhuman condition  to which widows were subjected .  In 1887, she wrote ‘The High Caste Hindu Women’ in which she highlighted the deplorable conditions of Hindu widows. She  set out to do something about this social problem, establishing centers for widows and orphans in Poona and later Bombay, where the women were given basic education and training in marketable skills. Soon Ramabai had become the leading advocate for the rights and welfare of women in India. Pandita also became the first to introduce Braille for blind girls, subsequently opening a Blind school in Mukti.

Her work brought her into contact with Christian missionaries. In 1883 she accepted an invitation by a congregation of Anglican nuns to visit England. For some time Ramabai had felt a distance from her Hindu upbringing, both on spiritual grounds and on the basis of her perception of the status of women in India. While in England she undertook a serious study of the Bible and eventually asked to be baptized.

The congregation of Anglican nuns who invited her to England at the rehabilitation of "fallen women". This represents a radical 'experience for Pandita, since "fallen women" were ostracized in Indian society. She asked the nuns why they helped such women, the Sisters responded by reading from the Gospel of John, the story of adulteress, and how Jesus treats her. Pandita is so moved and impressed by the testimony of the nuns she received baptism. She saw Jesus as the greatest liberator of women. News of her conversion provoked angry public controversy in India. Ramabai herself wrestled with her strong aversion to the cultural imperialism of foreign missionaries in India. She was determined that becoming a Christian should not be construed as a denial of her Indian culture and roots. The gospel of Christ represented for her the purest expression of her own spiritual intuitions, in particular her growing belief that to serve women and the poor was a religious and not simply a social work.

She returned to India and continued her charitable work, among other things founding a center for unwed mothers, a program for famine relief, and a series of schools for poor girls. Now, ironically, it was her fellow Christians who became her public critics. They charged that because she made no effort to convert the poor women in her center her own conversion was only superficial. They also pressed for proof of her doctrinal orthodoxy. Ramabai refused to be drawn into theological or confessional debates. "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."

The spirit of Christ as reflected in the Bible sufficed to satisfy her own religious questions. She learned that the heart of true religion was the love of God and the love of one's neighbour as oneself. That she live by this creed, she insisted, was all that anyone had a right to ask of her. Pandita Ramabai translated the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Marathi.and printed in her own press, which she set up in Pune, in 1924. According to her, Jesus spoke to ordinary people, in their local language, hence she was eager to translate the Bible in a language that could be easily read and understood. In 1919, the king of England bestowed on her the Kaiser-i-Hind award, one of the highest awards that an Indian could boast of during the colonial regime.

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