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PANDITA RAMABAI (1858–1922)


Ramabai was an educationist and scholar. She was the daughter of Anant Padmanabha Dongre of Maharashtra, a great Vedantic scholar. His own people persecuted him because he educated his wife, Laxmibai. To escape, the family set out on a long pilgrimage, during which Laxmibai taught her daughter Sanskrit grammar and literature. By the age of fifteen Ramabai could recite twenty thousand verses from the Hindu scriptures. She came to Kolkata aged twenty with her only surviving brother, Shrinivas Shastri, in 1878. Here she was greatly influenced by the teachings of Keshab Chandra Sen, as she had lost her faith in her native religion. In 1880 Shrinivas died. Ramabai married Bepin Behari Das, a lawyer, but he died young, leaving her with a daughter in 1882. She was drawn towards Christianity at this time after going through a copy of St Luke’s Gospel left to her by her late husband.

Meanwhile, with the help of Maratha reformers like Ranade and Bhandarkar, she founded the Arya Mahila Samaj first in Pune, then in other parts of Maharastra. In 1883 she gave evidence before the Hunter Commission regarding the provision of medical care to Indian women, and her testimony received wide publicity. That year she went to England to study the language, writing her book Stree Dharma Neeti to pay for the expenses of travel, and was attracted to the attitude of the Christian faith towards ‘fallen’ women. Later that year she was baptised in Wantage Parish Church. She joined the Cheltenham Women’s College where she learned English, natural science and mathematics. In 1886 she went to the USA to learn Fröbel’s Kindergarten system of teaching young children, and in her leisure hours prepared a series of Kindergarten readers in Marathi. Her book The High Caste Hindu Woman won the admiration of Americans and in 1887 they set up the Ramabai Association at Boston ‘with an object of giving education to high caste child widows in India’. In 1889 Pandita Ramabai founded the Sharda Sadan in Mumbai, and later in Puné, a shelter home for widows. Girls and women wishing to attend school were also admitted. A severe famine broke out in 1896 in central India, and Ramabai gathered six hundred famine-stricken girls and women and kept them under her own care. In 1897 she founded the Mukti Sadan at Kedgaon to give shelter to destitute women during the famine of 1900. Ramabai also founded a rescue home with a hospital attached, Kripa Sadan, for women escaping the sex trade. She gave them vocational training and encouraged them to be self-sufficient. Ramabai did not tie herself to any particular church but announced her institutions were Christian Institutes and Christian instruction could be given to those who desired it. She carried out her work in the teeth of vehement opposition from Nationalist groups. In 1897 she protested the mismanagement and ill treatment of women in plague camps and even rebuked the Governor of Bombay. In 1898 she attended the Fifth National Meeting of the Congress. In her book United States-chi Lokasthiti Va Pravas Vritta she suggested that Hindi should be the Indian national language. She also wrote Ramabai’s Bible (translated from the original Hebrew), Ibri Vyakarana (a Hebrew grammar in Hindi), and edited Mukti Prayer Bell (a journal).
 
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