Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Woman Who Found the Lost Piece of Silver

Pandita Mary Ramabai (1858-1922)
Social reformer, women's rights activist, 
author, translator of the Scriptures

Rummaging around in a Church of England book on the saints for info on SS. Philip and James (for tomorrow's blog), I stumbled upon the commemoration, for today, of a woman I'd never heard of.  Looking into her life, I'm blown away by the fact  that she isn't more known, or even known, in our branch of the Church.  What a fantastic role model, especially for women!

Ramabai Dongre was born in 1858, one of three children, two girls and a boy, to some very brainy Brahmin parents, Anant Shastri and Lakshmibai Dongre.  Anant was a Sanskrit scholar and was very different from most Indian men in that he believed, contrary to prevailing custom, that women should be educated as well as men.  He set about instructing Ramabai and her mother in Purani Sanskrit, but he paid a high price, both in being shunned by other men in the community and eventually losing an ashram for boys which he'd set up, because of financial difficulties.

The whole family then became virtual nomads, travelling throughout India, the parents making their living by long hours of teaching, reciting and commenting on the Vedas and other Hindu texts.  Meanwhile, Ramabai showed herself to be a fast learner, mastering 18,000 verses of the Bhagavata Purana in original Sanskrit by heart, and excelling in astronomy, botany, and physiology.  You have to remember that at this time less than 1/4 of 1% of Indian women were able to read or write.  Normally, too, Brahmin girls were expected to marry early, as soon as 9 or 10 years of age, and it was considered dishonorable for them to continue  studies after that.  Ramabai's father, further flying in the face of accepted tradition, refused to arrange a marriage for her.

When Ramabai was only a teenager, her family -- mother, father, and sister -- was wiped out as they fell victim to starvation in the great famine of 1874-1876.  She and her brother, though hungry and with no support now, wandered around India until they reached Calcutta in 1878.  There she amazed local scholars with her incredible command of Sanskrit and the ancient texts.  She was called a Saraswati or goddess of learning, and received the title Pandita, i.e., wise person.

After her brother died in 1880, she, although a Brahmin, married a lower caste Bengali lawyer: Babu Bipin Behari Madhavi.  Needless to say, this created a stir in her orthodox Hindu society.  She bore one child, a girl, Manorama, and raised the girl on her own after the premature death of her husband, of cholera, less than two years later.

Through her travel experiences and from her observation of the western Indian social reform movement, Ramabai developed into an activist for oppressed people, especially women.  In addition to writing and lecturing, she founded India's first feminist organization, Arya Mahila Sabha, in 1881, which crusaded for women's education and a more advanced age allowing girls to marry.  In 1883, having been invited to speak before India's Education Commission, she boldly proclaimed: " is evident that women being one half of the people of this country, are oppressed and cruelly treated by the other half."  

That same year, Ramabai and Manorama left India for England where Ramabai had received a scholarship to study medicine.  They were taken in by the Community of St. Mary the Virgin (Anglican) in Wantage, and given a home and an opportunity for Ramabai to learn English in exchange for teaching Sanskrit.  Not long after she arrived, she was distressed to discover that her hearing was defective, to the point that she had difficulty participating in lectures.  Her Hindu friends and colleagues were uneasy with her living in a Christian environment, though she tried to reassure them that she wouldn't "convert".  After a time, however, encouraged to read the New Testament by her hosts, she was deeply impacted by the stories of Jesus' ministry to poor and oppressed people, and his gentle way with women.  She felt that this Christian teaching was thoroughly consistent with her feminist views, and soon she and Manorama were baptized.  She later wrote: "...One can feel that the teaching of our Lord Jesus comes from the All-Father, who loves not one nation, not one class, or one caste, but bears in His heart every creature of His hand..."   Nevertheless, Ramabai remained true to her Indian heritage and always considered herself a cultural Hindu.  Though this stance caused her some difficulty, both with her Hindu friends and her Christian friends, -- and we've had reminders of such in our own Church recently -- she remained firm in her convictions. While in England, Ramabai wrote her feminist classic, The High Caste Hindu Woman, widely read in both England and America: a fearless yet sensitive critique of the plight of India's high-caste child widows, exposing the unreasonable and tragic circumstances to which they were subjected.  Although originally published in Marathi for the Indian public, it was understandably not well received.  In 1886, while a guest of the dean of the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania at a graduation ceremony, Ramabai, now 28, so impressed others that she became the talk of Philadelphia.  Other women's organizations began to invite her to speak, and she eventually became a friend and co-worker with such feminist leaders as Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, and Frances Willard.  Pandita Ramabai later wrote another book, Pandita Ramabai's American Encounter, a commentary on U.S. culture and people, sharply contrasting the treatment of women in the U.S.with that in India.  Nevertheless, she also leveled some pointed criticism, particularly regarding America's racial problem.

Pandita Ramabai returned to India in 1889 with fresh vision and sufficient financial support from American friends to open the Sharada Sadan, a secular residential school for high-caste child widows, making both Hindu and Christian texts available.  The school flourished until the latter part of the 19th century when there was an outbreak of the bubonic plague, forcing Ramabai and her students to feel to a rural village, Kedgaon.  Here she established the Mukti Mission as refuge, not only for high-caste child widows, but also for young widow victims of physical and sexual abuse, famine, and disability, from any caste.  The school eventually housed and educated some 2000 people.  It continues to this day, providing not only education and board, but vocational training and medical services for many in need, including widows, orphans, and the blind.  Panita Ramabai continued to write and lecture during this time, and eventually translated the entire Bible from Hebrew and Greek into her native Marathi language.  In 1919 the British monarchy conferred on her the Kaiser-i-Hind gold medal, one of the highest awards an Indian could received during the period of the British Raj.

Pandita Ramabai remained a life-long student, seeker for truth, and visionary feminist, while bridging two cultures: Hindu and Christian.   Shortly after her conversion she wrote:  "In this new faith there are some things which I cannot take in, and I shall not feel myself bound to do so, until I know them, as far as my poor understanding will carry me. But, I must ever continue to search [the] Scriptures and never stop until I find the lost piece of silver -- either in this world or the next.

What a testimony to humility and to both intellectual and spiritual openness -- for women and men!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I belong to the family of Ramabai Dongre, although there is no proof of that bloodline or connection now. My great grandmother was Subhadra Dongre and according to her, she was Ramabai's neice...either from Ramabai's father's side (Anant Shastri Dongre's brother's grandchild) or her mother's side (Laksmibai Dongre's family). It is unfortunately not clear, which side it is. My great grandmother and her brother Krishnaji Dongre were brought up at the Mukti Mission after they were orphaned. All I know is that my great grandmother grew deaf, my grandmother grew deaf, my mother can somehow manage with lip reading...and now, my left ear is almost gone. But then, that is common. More than that, her teaching lives on with us. Deepra Dandekar