Two Weeks of Worthy Women: Ramabai

Setting: 19th century India. Against tradition and with no small amount of peer disapproval Anant Shastri introduced his daughter to religious texts. He schooled her in Sanskrit plus modern languages of the subcontinent. At the age of twenty Ramabai astounded intellectuals at Kolkata University with her academic skills and nuanced interpretation of Hindu holy writings. She was awarded the title of Pandita and encouraged to pursue further studies.

Ramabai suffered devastating personal losses, however. Both parents died in a famine in 1877. After her beloved brother died three years later, she married Bipin Behari Medhvi. He was a lawyer, but he was also a lower caste than Brahmin; he was Sudra. Pile on that their choice was a civil marriage ceremony, and the result was intense social disapproval. After the birth of a daughter Mano, Medhvi died.

Ramabai reached a crisis point in the Hindu faith in which she had been reared.

My eyes were being gradually opened; I was waking up to my own hopeless condition as a woman, and it was becoming clearer and clearer to me that I had no place anywhere, as far as religious consolation was concerned.

She found no consolation in Hindu festivals and pilgrimages. In Kolkata she was first exposed to the teachings of Christianity and its believers. Later, she reflected back on her experiences as a young adult:

This great grief drew me nearer to God. I felt He was teaching me and that if I was to come to Him, He must himself draw me.

Ramabai was determined to address the situation of women in India. Her mother had been a child bride at the age of nine. The sufferings of child widows pressed heavily on Ramabai as well. She and her husband had planned to open a home for these outcasts before his untimely death.

Ramabai testified before the Government of India:

In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred the educated men of this country are opposed to female education and the proper position of women. If they observe the slightest fault, they magnify the grain of mustard-seed into a mountain, and try to ruin the character of a woman.

Indian women must be encouraged, Ramabai insisted, to train as teachers and doctors and to serve their countrywomen as men would not. Cheltenham Ladies’ College granted her a scholarship, and so she spent three years in England not only as a student, but also as a teacher.

It was in England that she experienced hospitality from Anglican sisters. Their ministry left a deep impression.

Here, for the first time, I came to know that something should be done to reclaim the so-called fallen women, and that Christians, whom Hindus considered outcasts and cruel, were kind to these unfortunate women degraded in the eyes of society. I had never heard or seen anything of the kind done for this class of women by the Hindus in my own country.

She converted to Christianity.

Christ was truly the Divine Savior He claimed to be, and no one but He could transform and uplift the downtrodden womanhood of India and of every land.

Pandita-Ramabai stampShe toured the United States in the late 1880’s before returning to her life’s work in India. For more than thirty years, she struggled against prejudice, working to found schools, assist child widows, house orphans, blind persons, and the hungry, and address the needs of women shunned by society for sexual promiscuity. The Pandita Ramabai Mukti Mission continues its original apostolate to this day.

Through these decades her Christian faith deepened in spite of skepticism by neighbors, government officials, and even families of the people she saved from abandonment and starvation.

Ramabai continued to nurture inclinations beyond social justice. She translated the Bible from its original languages into Marathi, her mother tongue. She wrote poetry. She traveled widely in India and continued to author books to promote her feminist views. She was unsparingly critical of the misogyny she saw in her countrymen:

Men look on us women as chattels: we make every effort to deliver ourselves from this situation. But some will say that this is a rebellion against man, and that to do this is sin. To leave men’s evil acts unrebuked and remain unmoved before them is a great sin.

Helen Dyer’s biography is available online.

Though not a Roman Catholic, I found Ramabai’s stirring witness for the Gospel to be well informed and formed by Catholic principles: the witness of women religious, the compassion of Christ lived out in community, the ability to transcend personal tragedy, as well as a worthy balance of contemplation and action.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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