PANDITA RAMABAI SARASWATI – Pioneer of women’s liberation

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Camil Parkhe

In 1881, a 21-year-old woman arrived in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and astonished the intellectuals and social reformers there with her brilliance and knowledge of Sanskrit. The scholars of Kolkata felicitated her and conferred upon her the title ‘Saraswati’.

Surprisingly, nobody in Maharashtra (which was then part of the erstwhile Bombay State) had ever heard of this young woman till then. Ramabai Dongre came to Maharashtra with her newly acquired aura in faraway Calcutta. She chose Pune and later Kedgaon, about 20 kilometres from Pune, for her social and religious mission. The aura and fame stuck throughout the rest of her life.

As a social worker, she refused to follow the beaten track and decided to trudge her path. She became a social worker at a time when women did not even have an identity as individuals. But this woman showed the courage to swim against the tide, all by herself. There was no support from a male member of the family. The learned lady faced many a storm after her conversion to Christianity.

The life of Pandita Ramabai is an epic of unending struggle marked by the refusal to part with her values amidst adverse and often harsh circumstances.

Pandita Ramabai Saraswati was born in the village Gangamul near Mangalore in modern-day Karnataka on 23 April 1858. Her father Anantshastri (Anantapadmanabh) Parmeshwar Dongre was a Sanskrit scholar. Anantshastri was from a Chitpawan Brahmin family and had taught Sanskrit to his wife, Laxmibai.

When Ramabai was merely six months old, Anantshastri left on a pilgrimage along with his wife, son, and two daughters. Fifteen years later, the family reached the Madras province. A severe famine in the area claimed the lives of both Anantshastri and his wife. Ramabai, her elder brother, Shrinivas, and her elder sister, Krishnabai, were orphaned. This was the beginning of life’s struggle for Ramabai.

After their parents’ demise, the young siblings continued with their pilgrimage. A few months later, Ramabai’s elder sister Krishnabai died. Shrinivas Shastri and Ramabai had mastered Sanskrit and theology under the guidance of their father. They continued the journey, giving discourses on mythology and delivering lectures in Sanskrit. There was no one to offer them shelter or look after them. After moving about for three to four years and covering thousands of miles on foot, Shrinivas Shastri and Ramabai reached Kolkata in 1878. Here they came across many people who valued their knowledge. Scholars from the Brahmo Samaj and Calcutta University treated these bright youngsters.

Shrinivas Shastri and Ramabai’s knowledge of Sanskrit amazed the social reformers of Kolkata. In those days women had no right to education and therefore Ramabai’s mastery over Sanskrit was a matter of much awe. Ramabai was conferred upon the title ‘Saraswati’ at a meeting of scholars at Calcutta University. Since then, people across India started recognising the young Ramabai Dongre as ‘Pandita Ramabai Saraswati’.

In July 1878, the following news about Ramabai was published in a Mumbai daily:

‘A Maharashtrian lady named Ramabai has come to Kolkata recently. During her stay there, she has astonished the learned people there. She speaks in Sanskrit and composes Sanskrit poetry on the spot. She is 22-years-old and unmarried. Though a Maharashtrian, she comes from the State of Karnataka.’

This news created a sensation in Maharashtra. In Pune and Mumbai, several questions about Ramabai were asked. ‘Although a woman, how did she learn Sanskrit? How can she be unmarried when she is already 22 years old? Though a Maharashtrian, how come people here do not know anything about her?’

Ramabai was introduced to Maharashtra in this manner. She was to stir the social life of Maharashtra in the days to come. Her felicitation in Kolkata followed by the debate in Maharashtra was just a prelude to her stormy life.

But before that Ramabai and her brother went to Sylhet in Assam and Dhaka in Bengal. While in Dhaka, Shrinivas Shastri took ill and died on May 8, 1880. After the loss of her parents, Ramabai at least had an elder brother for support. Now he too was gone. Suddenly for the young, unmarried woman, her native land was left far behind and there was nobody to fall back upon in this world.

When Shrinivas Shastri was alive, he and Ramabai had got introduced to a Bengali person named Bipin Biharidas Medhavi. After Shrinivas Shastri’s demise, Bipin Bihari proposed to Ramabai and they tied the nuptial knot at the registrar’s office in Bankipur on June 13, 1880. Their registered marriage, devoid of any religious rituals, generated a heated debate in the traditional society. After the marriage, Bipin Bihari Das practised law in Sylhet. Ramabai was blessed with a daughter on April 16, 1881, and the baby was named Manorama.

Ramabai did not enjoy marital bliss for long. On February 4, 1882, merely 19 months after their marriage, Bipin Bihari Das died following a brief illness. Within a short span of time, Ramabai had suffered the loss of her parents, elder sister, elder brother and now, the misfortune of losing her husband. Ramabai along with the infant Manorama moved to Maharashtra.

Even before her arrival in Maharashtra, people in this region had heard of the scholar woman. After reaching Pune, Ramabai developed a very close association with Ramabai Ranade, wife of Justice Mahadeo Govind Ranade. Ramabai Ranade gave emotional support to Pandita Ramabai when the society in Pune turned hostile towards her. It was Ramabai Ranade and veteran Marathi novelist Hari Narayan Apte who took the initiative in organising public meetings of Pandita Ramabai in Pune.

She started creating social awareness in society, especially enlightening the womenfolk. Her work gained tremendous support from the social reformers of Pune. With Pandita Ramabai’s initiative the ‘Mahila Arya Samaj’ was established in Pune, Ahmednagar, Solapur and Mumbai.

Pandita Ramabai holds a very unique place amongst the social reformers who worked for the social awakening of the society in Maharashtra towards the end of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. Those days, a majority of social workers were men. The very few women who were active in the social field enjoyed the support of male members of their families.

Therefore, they could face adverse criticism for stepping out of their homes to do social work. Pandita Ramabai had come alone from another region and except for her infant daughter, she did not have anyone in her family for support. The hardships and criticism heaped upon Mahatma Jotiba Phule and his wife, Savitribai, is sufficient indicator of what an uphill task it was to work for the upliftment of women in those days. Ramabai had suffered a lot of grief in her personal life. Nonetheless, she chose the difficult path of social awakening.

During the same period, the British government appointed the first Indian Education Commission under the chairmanship of an educationist Sir W. W. Hunter. Pandita Ramabai’s deposition before the Commission regarding the education of Indian women is well publicised. In her testimony, she suggested that due to the prevailing social system in India the country badly required women doctors, and therefore facilities for education in medicine for women were very necessary. The members of the Hunter Commission cross-examined Ramabai. Ramabai did not know English then, so she gave her testimony in Marathi. Sir Hunter himself was highly impressed by Ramabai’s testimony. He got the English version of Ramabai’s testimony printed and even lectured on Ramabai’s social work after he returned to England. Thus, Ramabai’s fame reached England even before she could go there.

Soon thereafter, Ramabai left for England for higher education. Her daughter Manorama also accompanied her. While in England in Wantage city, Ramabai, along with her daughter, embraced Christianity. They were baptised on September 29, 1883. A new era had begun in her life. The fear expressed by a section of Maharashtrian leaders that Ramabai would embrace Christianity after going to England had come true. The conversion caused great turmoil in Maharashtra.

Ramabai stayed in England for three years i.e. till 1886 and completed her studies. During the same time, Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi from Maharashtra had gone to America for medical education. Anandibai was the first Indian woman to go to America for medical education and Pandita Ramabai was the second Maharashtrian woman to go to England for higher education. Annapurna alias Ana Tarkhadkar, daughter of Dr. Atmaram Pandurang Tarkhadkar, social activist and also a leader of Prarthana Samaj, was the first Maharashtrian woman to go to England for higher education. Anandibai Joshi and Pandita Ramabai had never ever met before. But Pandita Ramabai, along with her daughter, sailed from England to America to attend Anandibai’s convocation ceremony.

After Anandibai’s convocation ceremony, Ramabai stayed in America for two and a half years. During her stay there, she gave lectures in different parts of America. She visited various women’s institutes and studied the education system in America. Through her lectures, she created awareness in American society about the condition of Indian women, especially of child-widows. This awareness led to the establishment of an institution called ‘Ramabai Association’ to help Pandita Ramabai in her social work. The institution gave an assurance of financial support for her work among women in India.

The main aim of the Ramabai Association was to run a school for the high caste child widows in India. One of the objectives of the Association’s constitution was to have secular school education. Leading social lights like Ramkrishna Gopal Bhandarkar and Mahadeo Govind Ranade were on the advisory committee of the Ramabai Association. Both of them were recipients of the title ‘Rao Bahadur’ conferred by the British government upon eminent Indians.

On returning to India, on behalf of ‘Ramabai Association’, Pandita Ramabai established an institution named ‘Sharda Sadan’ in Mumbai on 11 March 1889. Child-widow Godubai was the first student of the Sadan. She later became well known as Anandibai alias Baya Karve after her remarriage to veteran social worker Maharshi Dhondo Keshav Karve, the founder of the first women’s university in India, Shrimati Nathibai Damodar Thakarasi University (SNDT).

Baya Karve has described days at Sharda Sadan in her autobiography titled ‘Maze Puran’ (My Story). Like Godubai, many other child widows got shelter and education in Sharda Sadan.

One and a half years later in November 1880, Ramabai shifted the Sharda Sadan from Mumbai to the Camp area of Pune. Since Ramabai Association was not a missionary institution, one of its regulations was to conduct the functioning of Sharda Sadan as a secular institute. The Association’s advisory committee insisted that although Ramabai herself was Christian, she should not interfere in religious matters of child-widow inmates at the Sadan.

But the fact that the lady who was running Sharda Sadan was a Christian and doing so in the service of Jesus Christ could not be denied. It was natural for very young girls to get influenced by Ramabai’s intellect, lifestyle and overall personality. Hence it was often being alleged that Pandita Ramabai was carrying out her missionary work ‘discreetly’ and ‘compelling’ helpless girls to embrace Christianity.

On the occasion of the marriage of Sharda Sadan’s first student, Godubai, to Dhondo Keshav Karve, Pandita Ramabai hosted a grand feast in Sharda Sadan. Maharshi Karve wrote about the ceremony in his autobiography titled ‘ Atmavrutta’, ” Ramabai was very pleased to see her first student settle down. Other girl students also were very happy that one of their friends was getting an opportunity to experience marital bliss and that at last, the door to the future well being for widows had started opening.”

Baya Karve also wrote in her autobiography ‘Maze Puran’, – “Ramabai gave me ornaments and clothes and also clothes for her son-in-law, Karve.” This son-in-law of Ramabai made a great contribution to the field of education and women’s emancipation in the country. He lived long enough to see the fruits of his pioneering social work. India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru felicitated Maharshi Karve when he turned 100 years old. Karve respectfully mentioned Pandita Ramabai along with a select few personalities like Dr Bhandarkar, and Gopal Krishna Gokhale in his speech.

While working for Sharda Sadan, Pandita Ramabai was also active in the Indian National Congress. Due to her efforts, women representatives were included in Congress. Ramabai was present as a women’s delegate at the Indian National Congress session held in Mumbai in 1889. Ramabai was among the only two women members who were present at the Social Conference that took place after the Congress session.

A detailed report of Ramabai’s speech then was published in the issue of The Times of India, dated December 30, 1889.

An epidemic of plague played havoc in Maharashtra in 1897. At that time, Pandita Ramabai raised her voice against the miseries of common people due to the stringent checks carried out by the British officers in people’s residences. She wrote a letter in this connection in the English weekly, ‘Guardian’. While answering the question in this context in the Parliament, Lord George Hamilton read out Ramabai’s letter.

Caste discrimination was not acceptable to Ramabai. But the high caste girls in Sharda Sadan had to follow very strict puritanical rules of the Ramabai Association. Had they not followed such rules, many high caste people would never have sent their child-widow daughters and sisters for education to the Sadan. Baya Karve has described her initial days in Sharda Sadan in the following words, “for six months I had to cook my food because a Brahmin woman cook was not available then. Sometimes I had to cook even for Govindrao and Kashibai Kanitkar, Hari Narayan Apte and others when they visited the Sadan.”

Krishnabai Gadre, another famous inmate of Ramabai’s Sharda Sadan, has also written about her days in the Sadan – ‘what a beautiful bungalow it was, and what a garden full of lovely flowers! We were allowed to move about freely as per our wish. We would sit in the drawing hall also. We would sit on beautiful couches and chairs and chat, go to the garden, braid garlands of flowers like Jai, Jasmine, Mogra, Chameli, Bakuli and Madhumalti and adorn our hair. Ramabai gave us information about flowers, birds and trees and also taught us to observe them through binoculars. What pampering used to be there! Which child-widow would refuse to come and spend her time in such a splendid atmosphere? Sometimes Ramabai would take us to the terrace in the dawn and teach us about constellations etc. with great interest.”

One frequent allegation leveled against Ramabai was that she lured girls from Sharda Sadan to convert to Christianity. Some people got so scared due to the allegations that they withdrew their daughters from the Sadan. Nonetheless, the number of orphan girls and abandoned child widows who took refuge in the institute did not reduce. Ramabai bravely faced the allegations and continued her work for the rehabilitation of widows.

In those days, girls were married off on turning five or six years of age. Many times these tender aged girls used to be married off to elderly men. Therefore misfortune would strike some girls even before experiencing marital bliss and they would become child widows. These child widows had to live an extremely neglected life. People of their own families and society would neglect them. A Parsi social reformer Bairamji Malbari raised his voice against the ill-treatment meted out to child widows. The effect of the movement was that the British government passed the Marriage of Consent Bill in India.

According to this Bill, physical relations maintained by a husband with his wife less than 12 years of age was to be an offence. The Bill would have helped to reduce the hardships faced by women. Pandita Ramabai, therefore, took the initiative to mobilise support for the Bill.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Marriage of Consent Bill kicked off a controversy in Maharashtra, especially in Pune. Right from the beginning, Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak had opposed the introduction of social reforms by the foreign British government. In addition to that, opposition to the Bill was also expected from orthodox sections of the society. Because of this Bill, a great conflict arose between social reformers like Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, Dr Ramkrishna Gopal Bhandarkar, Justice Mahadeo Govind Ranade and the orthodox people who opposed the proposed law.

Pandita Ramabai who was striving for the welfare of women started organising women to support the Bill. The rival groups in Pune indulged in a lot of mudslingings against each other during the row over the Marriage of Consent Bill. Of course, social reformers like Agarkar, Ramabai, and Dr Bhandarkar were in minority and had to pay a heavy price.

Notwithstanding the uproar raised against the Consent of Marriage Bill, the Bill was finally passed and the law came into existence. These days most girls do not get married before they are 20. But some 100 years ago, Ramabai had to struggle and face adverse criticism to ban marriages of girls below 12 years of age.

In 1897, there was a severe famine in central India. Ramabai gave shelter to hundreds of girls who had been reduced to skeletons due to hunger. Had Ramabai not rushed to help those girls, they would have probably died due to hunger.

Ramabai Association in America had agreed to financially support Ramabai’s work for Indian women for 10 years. Once that period got over in 1898, Ramabai once again went to America and dissolved the Association. Thereafter, with the help of a newly formed ‘American Ramabai Association’, Ramabai started work of the Mukti Sadan at Kedgaon near Pune. Ramabai spent the rest of her life in Kedgaon.

Ramabai opened various centres in Kedgaon for underprivileged women. Her family and relatives desert a woman if she goes astray or becomes a victim of an untoward incident. Pandita Ramabai opened ‘Krupa Sadan’ for the rehabilitation of such deserted women. She also started ‘Preeti Sadan’ for the old, disabled and destitute women.

The credit for opening the first school for the blind in India goes to Manorama, Pandita Ramabai’s daughter. This school was also located in Kedgaon. By teaching blind women to read and to write Braille script, Pandita Ramabai and Manorama, in a way, offered them vision. The blind women were taught to knit sweaters, make cane chairs and weave baskets. Thus, the blind women were made financially self-reliant.

Soon after settling in Kedgaon in 1905, Ramabai took up the task of translating the Bible into Marathi. She continued with this mission till the last day of her life. She took 18 years to translate the entire Bible. Many editions of English translations of the Bible were available during Ramabai’s time. But she decided to translate the original Hebrew and Greek Bible into Marathi. This scholar woman learned Hebrew and Greek only for this purpose.

Rama Dongre, who was born in Karnataka, knew Kannada language and from her father she learned Sanskrit. After coming to Maharashtra, she mastered Marathi. Later, she also learned English and lectured in England and America. After crossing 40, she started learning Hebrew and Greek for translating the holy Bible.

Pandita Ramabai is the only woman in the world to translate the holy Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek languages. While shouldering the responsibility of nearly 2,000 destitute girls and women in ‘Mukti Sadan’, Pandita Ramabai still found time for such extraordinary literary tasks!

Manorama expired at the age of 40 on July 24, 1921. Ramabai endured the shock of her beloved daughter’s death with great courage and continued with the translation of the Bible. This had become a mission during the last days of her life. She displayed a strong desire to live till the completion of the translation work. This she fulfilled.

Ramabai’s translation of the Bible was being printed at her own printing press in Kedgaon. A few months after her daughter’s death, i.e., on April 4, 1922, Pandita Ramabai read the last proof of her work and sent it to the printing press: the same night, this great scholar and social worker bid adieu to the world.

(Camil Parkhe is a senior journalist based in Pune. He started his journalism career in Goa and has worked in various newspapers in different capacities.)

Camil Parkhe