Born in an era when women were looked down on and not educated, Pandita Ramabai’s life was groundbreaking. She was called the “Indian woman of the millennium” for the impact she made on Indian culture, specifically in its attitudes and beliefs about women. After becoming a follower of Jesus, her commitment to help women in India took the shape of a mission center, where vulnerable people still find help to this day.
Have you heard of Pandita Ramabai? If not, it’s time you get to know this remarkable woman who changed the prejudices of a nation and the lives of countless women, and made the good news of Jesus real to many.
Ramabai was born in India in 1858, the daughter of a high caste Sanskrit scholar. Ramabai’s father believed strongly in educating women. He taught both his wife and daughter Sanskrit, despite opposition from his family that forced them to flee the family home. Ramabai’s father, a Brahmin (priestly caste), made his living by traveling to Hindu temples to read the Hindu scriptures.
When Ramabai was 13, there was a famine in India, and both her parents died, one after the other. Ramabai and her older brother traveled the countryside, continuing to read the Hindu scriptures as their father had done. They ended up in Kolkata, where Ramabai’s abilities in Sanskrit were a marvel to the scholars there. They gave her the title Pandita (teacher) as well as the highest title in Sanskrit scholarship, Saraswati. This was the first time these honors were ever bestowed on a woman. Ramabai was only 20 years old.
As Ramabai studied the Hindu scriptures more deeply, she became disillusioned. She found that they contradicted each other on every point—except for the hopeless state of women, who were considered worse than demons.
Ramabai decided she wanted to devote her life to improving the status of women in India, including their education—something her father had suffered much to accomplish.
Around this time her brother, her one remaining family member, died, and she decided to marry a Bengali man of lower caste, who supported her vision to empower women. Her husband died 18 months later, leaving her a widow with an infant daughter. After her husband’s death, Ramabai founded a women’s society to educate women and oppose child marriage. She advocated for women to receive medical training, as women in India could only receive medical help from another woman. Her message about the needs of women in India made it all the way to Queen Victoria in England, and in 1883 Ramabai had the opportunity to travel to England for further training for her life work.
In England, Ramabai and her daughter stayed with a group of Christian Sisters. She became convinced of the truth of the Christian message—a message she was first exposed to through the book of Luke in her husband’s library. She witnessed the way women’s lives were changed through the Sisters’ work, as they encountered the love of Christ. “I realized that Jesus Christ was truly the Divine Savior He claimed to be, and no one but He could transform and UPLIFT the downtrodden womanhood in this world, physically as well as Spiritually,” Ramabai wrote.
After three years in England, Ramabai traveled to the US, where she stayed for two years, lecturing and translating textbooks. She wrote a booklet called The High-Caste Hindu Woman, which discussed the oppression of Hindu women, including child marriage and child widows. With the sales of this book, Ramabai was able to return to India to start a home for widows. The home operated in Pune, India, for about ten years, preparing widows to be self-supporting as teachers or nurses.
During this season Ramabai grew deeper in her personal relationship with God and reliance on the Holy Spirit. She wrote, “One thing I knew by this time, that I needed Christ and not merely His religion. I was desperate. What was to be done? My thoughts could not and did not help me. I had at last come to an end of myself, and unconditionally surrendered myself to the Savior, and asked Him to be merciful to me, and to become my righteousness and redemption, and to take away all my sin.”
When famine and plague hit the area, Ramabai bought 100 acres of land in order to keep meeting the needs of vulnerable women, and started Mukti Mission (Mukti means salvation), which is still helping people today. Ramabai traveled through the region, rescuing widows and orphans and bringing them to the new mission site. Within a few years there were 2,000 girls living there, receiving care and a good education.
Along with the school, Ramabai worked on translating the Bible into her mother tongue, Marathi, from the Hebrew and Greek texts. By this time she knew seven languages. Ramabai continued her work up until her death in 1922. The Marathi Bible was published after her death. Just a few years before her death, in 1919, the King of England honored Pandita Ramabai with the Kaiser-i-Hind award, the highest honor that could be bestowed on an Indian during the Colonial Period. Her accomplishments and impact on the country of India were profound.
Pandita Ramabai was called the Indian woman of the millennium by the well-known Indian scholar and author Vishal Mangalwadi. He wrote, "There are good reasons to nominate Mrs. Indira Gandhi as the Indian Woman of the 20th Century. However, had she been born a century earlier, she would have been married off to a Brahmin as an illiterate girl before she was 12 years old. And had she refused to be burnt alive on her husband's funeral pyre, she would have had to spend her widowhood in seclusion as an inauspicious woman. The woman who began reforming India's attitude towards women was Pandita Ramabai Sarswati—a builder of modem India. Pandita Ramabai is the Indian woman of the Millennium."