Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922)
Indian Christian and Reformer
by Robert Ellsberg

A woman with an all-embracing heart is a gift to the whole world. Today more than ever we must be grateful to pioneers like Pandita Ramabai for breaking down prison walls of narrowmindedness. Can we show our gratitude better than by following her example? — Br. David


Photo: Pandita Ramabai "People must not only hear about the kingdom of God, but must see it in actual operation, on a small scale perhaps and in imperfect form, but a real demonstration nevertheless."

Pandita Ramabai, a poet, scholar, and champion of the rights of women, has been acclaimed as a "mother of modern India." In her own time she struggled hard, as a Christian convert, to define her own identity and spiritual path, in the process drawing criticism from Hindus and fellow Christians alike. She remains an intriguing example of the effort to bridge the spiritual traditions of the East and West; both sides felt the challenge posed by this courageous and independent woman.

Ramabai was born in Karnataka in 1858. She was the daughter of a wealthy Brahmin scholar and his much younger wife. Though her father was a devout and orthodox Hindu he scandalized his high caste friends by teaching his wife and later his daughters to read the Sanskrit classics. This talent later stood her well, when her family perished during a great famine. At the age of sixteen, Ramabai walked across India, visiting the holy Hindu shrines and attracting astonished audiences to her recitation of Sanskrit poetry. Her knowledge of Sanskrit, the sacred language of Hinduism, eventually won her fame and honor. She was given the honorific title "Pandita," mistress of wisdom.

Soon Ramabai had become the leading advocate for the rights and welfare of women in India.

She married at the age of twenty-two, but her husband died of cholera after only sixteen months, leaving her alone with an infant daughter, Manorama. Her travels in India and now her present circumstances sensitized her to the bleak plight of widows and orphans. The practice among higher castes of betrothing young girls to much older men (her own mother had been nine, her father over forty, at the time of their marriage) had contributed to the vast number of widows, women without status or protection. Ramabai set out to do something about this social problem, establishing centers for widows and orphans in Poona and later Bombay, where the women were given basic education and training in marketable skills. Soon Ramabai had become the leading advocate for the rights and welfare of women in India.

Her work brought her into contact with Christian missionaries. In 1883 she accepted an invitation by a congregation of Anglican nuns to visit England. For some time Ramabai had felt a distance from her Hindu upbringing, both on spiritual grounds and on the basis of her perception of the status of women in India. While in England she undertook a serious study of the Bible and eventually asked to be baptized.

The gospel of Christ represented for her the purest expression of her own spiritual intuitions, in particular her growing belief that to serve women and the poor was a religious and not simply a social work.

News of her conversion provoked angry public controversy in India. Ramabai herself wrestled with her strong aversion to the cultural imperialism of foreign missionaries in India. She was determined that becoming a Christian should not be construed as a denial of her Indian culture and roots. The gospel of Christ represented for her the purest expression of her own spiritual intuitions, in particular her growing belief that to serve women and the poor was a religious and not simply a social work.

She returned to India and continued her charitable work, among other things founding a center for unwed mothers, a program for famine relief, and a series of schools for poor girls. Now, ironically, it was her fellow Christians who became her public critics. They charged that because she made no effort to convert the poor women in her centers her own conversion was only superficial. They also pressed for proof of her doctrinal orthodoxy. Ramabai refused to be drawn into theological or confessional debates. "I am, it is true, a member of the Church of Christ, but I am not bound to accept every word that falls down from the lips of priests or bishops.... I have just with great efforts freed myself from the yoke of the Indian priestly tribe, so I am not at present willing to place myself under another similar yoke."

...she learned that the heart of true religion was the love of God and the love of one's neighbor as oneself.

Ramabai criticized the profusion of Christian denominations, a fact, she believed, that was bewildering to the poor. The spirit of Christ as reflected in the Bible sufficed to satisfy her own religious questions. From that source she learned that the heart of true religion was the love of God and the love of one's neighbor as oneself. That she live by this creed, she insisted, was all that anyone had a right to ask of her. In later years she prayed not for the conversion of Hindus but for the conversion of Indian Christians.

She died on April 5, 1922, at the age of sixty-four.


Sincere thanks to Robert Ellsberg
for permission to use this chapter from his book All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses From Our Time. "Since soon after it came out; I have used this book for daily spiritual reading and still find it inspiring." —Br. David

  • See Also: S. M. Adhav, Pandita Ramabai (Madras: Christian Literature Society, 1979).