Pandita Ramabai: India’s First Feminist?

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Pandita Ramabai in 1888. Image: Public Domain
Pandita Ramabhai was the most learned Indian woman of her time and an early icon of women's education in India.

The forerunner of modern Indian feminism was born in the Gungamal forest, at an ashram run by her father. Ramabai Dongre was born in 1858 to a Chitpavan Brahmin family.

Her father, Anant Shastri Dongri, though a member of the orthodoxy, was an early reformist in the household. Breaking tradition, he taught Laxmi, his child-bride, the Slokas in Sanskrit. This was frowned upon by their community, and the family was forced to move to the forest.

Living in the wilderness, Anant and Laxmi had a daughter and named her after the deity they believed in – Ram. They left the forest and wandered the subcontinent as pilgrims and teachers – studying and reciting the sacred texts in public. Ramabai was a natural, and by 15 had travelled much of the country. She was fluent in Marathi, Hindustani, Kanarese and Bengali, and was a learned Sanskrit scholar – a Puranika.

Defying the social norm, her father left her unmarried. But in 1877, tragedy struck. The Great Famine took away both her parents and her sister, leaving Ramabai alone to care for a brother.

She was already famed as a lecturer. She visited Calcutta University seeking a job – and was awarded the titles “Pandit” and “Saraswati” – reflecting her high academic stature.

Ramabai’s life seems to have been constantly haunted by death. She married outside of her caste, having long decided to be defiant of norms against women. But she lost her husband as well, leaving her with a newborn infant to care for. The collection of these many losses seems to have shaken her faith. But it was the experience as a widow that gave her purpose.

On the invitation of the Bombay Presidency, she travelled to Pune and took up the cause of women’s education. Her first novel, “Morals for Women,” in Marathi, broke the pattern of men writing in the name of women’s causes. To make sure women held the power over their own reform, she set up the radical Arya Mahila Samaj – irking the established ‘reformist’ movement, which included leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and V.N. Mandlik.

Among the criticisms she received was one that stated bluntly:

Women would have to submit to male control for a long time to come.

The British Commission on education sought her opinion. Her suggestions were simple: the country needed more female teachers and doctors, to remove the stigma women faced on a daily basis in accessing education or healthcare. As she testified:

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.

In 1883, she left to study in Britain. Death struck again, as her close friend committed suicide. A month later, she converted to non-denominational Christianity (she found much to disagree with under male-dominated versions of the Church). Championing the education of Indian women, she was invited to the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, to honour the graduation of India’s first female doctor – her cousin Anandibai Joshee.

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Pandita Ramabai and her daughter, Manorama Bai, in a 1911 publication. Image: Public Domain

Her visit made the front page of the New York Times, under the headline “Women’s Education in India: What Has Been Done by the Brahmin Lady Now in This Country.” From an initial plan of three months, she travelled across America for three years – raising support and funds for widows in India. She returned with the funding and commitment needed to start her own school.

There was always an Oriental gaze on Ramabai when she stepped foot abroad. She sought to inverse that when, in 1889, she published the Marathi travelogue “United Stateschi Lokasthiti ani Pravasav” (The Peoples of the United States), where she looked at the United States in the light of it being a former colony of the United Kingdom.

The support she found in the USA gave her a sense of kinship with the country, seeing similarities between it and India. In “Returning the American Gaze: Pandita Ramabai’s “The Peoples of the United States, 1889,” Meera Kosambi studies Ramabai’s unique position as a feminist Indian writing about the West. Kosambi attributes Ramabai’s fascination for America with its “…anticolonial stance, republican democracy, egalitarianism, and ideological opposition to the monarchy and rigid class structure of Britain.”

Ramabai’s other big-bang work was “The High-Caste Hindu Woman,” which she wrote in the United States, tearing apart the limitations imposed on women even in so-called high caste households. It helped her raise funds and she set up the school – Sharada Sadan ‘Home of Wisdom’ – the first of its kind for Indian widows. In yet another instance of tragedy around her, Anandibai died six months after returning to India in 1887, and Ramabai dedicated the “High Caste Hindu Woman” to her.

The plight of widows was truly pathetic. Considered “sexually and socially dead” by society, they struggle for basic human recognition and freedom. So horrific was their plight that though Ramabai supported the abolishment of Sati, she recognized that widows saw the act of ritualistic suicide as the only way out.

If tragedies held a cathartic effect on Ramabai, she had long since learned how to make use of them. In 1896, when another famine struck – far worse than the last – she rescued over 300 women and children and sheltered them in her farm near Poona.

Ramabai is a dauntless example of India’s evolving feminist movement. The world she faced was grim and relentlessly difficult – but she never bowed her head. Thanks to her, countless more Indian women were able to get up an fight another day.

In 1919, she was awarded the Kaiser-e-Hind medal by the British government for her service. Ramabai’s final tragedy was the death of her daughter a year before her own, in 1922. Ramabai died of Bronchitis in 1923. She was a one-woman wave of Indian feminism, and the world is better for her actions.

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