Pandita Ramabai was born in Mangalore District in 1858. Her father was a Chitpavan Brahman scholar, who taught her Sanskrit and refused to arrange her marriage. The family traveled from one pilgrimage site to another; her father supporting them by giving recitations of the Purāṇas. The famine of 1874 reduced the family to starvation. In the forest near Tirupathi, her father, mother, and elder sister died. She and her brother wandered all over India, mostly on foot, for the next six years, in an effort to attain to the forgiveness of sins. What they found was “insincerity and fraud”. But Ramabai and her brother were not deceived. “We knew we were sinners,” she confessed, “though we did not acknowledge it.” Still it was in those years that Ramabai became profoundly aware of the sufferings of women. In Calcutta, her intellect and charisma while expounding the scriptures captivated the Sanskrit scholars of Bengal, who bestowed on her the title Pandita. However, Ramabai eventually became disillusioned with Hinduism.
In 1882, Ramabai moved to Pune where she founded Arya Mahila Samaj (Arya Women’s Society). The purpose of the society was to promote the cause of women’s education and deliverance from the oppression of child marriage. When in 1882 a commission was appointed by Government of India to look into education, Ramabai gave evidence before it. In an address to Lord Ripon’s Education Commission, she declared with fervor, “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.” She suggested that teachers be trained and women school inspectors be appointed. Further, she said that as the situation in India was that women’s conditions were such that women could only medically treat them, Indian women should be admitted to medical colleges. Ramabai’s evidence created a great sensation and reached Queen Victoria. It bore fruit later in starting of the Women’s Medical Movement by Lord Dufferin.
Ramabai went to Britain in 1883 to start medical training. During her stay she converted to Christianity. From Britain she traveled to the United States in 1886 to attend the graduation of the first female Indian doctor, Anandibai Joshi, staying for two years. During this time she also translated textbooks and gave lectures throughout the United States and Canada. She had also published one of her most important book, The High-Caste Hindu Woman. This was also the first book that she wrote in English. Ramabai dedicated this book to Dr. Joshi, The High-Caste Hindu Woman-to be specific a Brahmin woman which showed the darkest aspects of the life of Hindu women, including child brides and child widows, sought to expose the oppression of women in Hindu-dominated British India. In 1896, during a severe famine Ramabai toured the villages of Maharashtra with a caravan of bullock carts and rescued thousands of outcast children, child widows, orphans, and other destitute women and brought them to the shelter of Mukti and Sharada Sadan. A learned woman knowing seven languages, she also translated the Bible into her mother tongue—Marathi—from the original Hebrew and Greek.
She was given a scholarship to study medicine in England; when she arrived there, she found that her hearing was defective and so she could not participate in lectures. While in England, she wrote the feminist classic “The High Caste Hindu Woman”, a scathing attack on traditional practices including widowhood, polygamy and child marriage. She established the Mukti Mission in 1889 as a refuge for young widows who were abused by their families.
In Marathi, her native tongue, the word mukti means liberation. The Pandita Ramabai Mukti Mission is still active today, providing housing, education, vocational training, and medical services, for many needy groups including widows, orphans, and the blind. Mukti Mission is located near the city of Pune (Poona) and enjoys support from several foreign countries including the United States and Australia. In 1919, the king of England conferred on her the Kaiser-i-Hind award, one of the highest awards an Indian could receive during the period of the British Raj. Her contributions as a builder of modern India were recognized by the Government of India by issuing a commemorative postal stamp on 26th October 1989 in honour of her.
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