“Women have no minds. They are lower than pigs.” This was a common sentiment among Hindus in India in the 1880s, and one that Pandita Ramabai strongly opposed. In a society where most believed that women were not smart enough to be educated, she was a scholar, educator, social reformer, and one time revivalist, defying every convention of Indian society and surpassing all expectation of what a woman could do.
Born Rama Dongre on April 23, 1858, Pandita Ramabai Saraswati had an unconventional start for a female in India. It was normal for education to be limited to men and for women to be married off at a young age, but her father thought otherwise and, against the custom of the time, taught her Sanskrit. By the time she was twenty, she could recite 18,000 verses of the Puranas, a Hindu holy book, and was given the title of Pandita (scholar) and Saraswati (for the goddess of learning) in recognition of her mastery of the Hindu holy books, the first woman to receive these titles!
Yet for all his enlightenment about women and education, Ramabai’s father was never enlightened about the one true God. He led his family on pilgrimage after pilgrimage to seek peace, but never found it. In Ramabai’s own words:
“His last loving command to me was to lead an honourable life… and to serve God all my life. He did not know the only true God, but … he was desirous that his children should serve Him to the last… he said, ‘I have given you into the hand of our God; you are His, and to Him alone you must belong, and serve Him all your life.’”
Even though he did not know God, his words would prove prophetic when Ramabai eventually did find Christ, and once she did, she poured herself into serving Him wholeheartedly.
She founded the Sharada Sadan school that offered widowed child brides a refuge where they could study and learn skills like gardening, carpentry and sewing. While she promised not to pressure Hindu girls to become Christians, she did offer the Bible to them, and as they read the Bible and observed her life, several girls converted to Christianity. Hindus complained that Ramabai was betraying her own culture, and she soon realised that she could no longer sit on the fence — she declared that the school would be completely Christian. She also founded the Mukti Mission (which still exists today!) to educate women and child while also providing them a place of safety and hope.
There is no doubt that she was a passionate defender of women’s rights throughout her life, but her true legacy is found in her fervent love for the Lord.
WHY SHOULD WE NOT, AS CHRISTIANS, BE ABLE TO PRAY FOR MANY HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE BY NAME?
In 1905, the Mukti Mission experienced a great revival. The Holy Spirit started to convict the hearts of the girls, who started weeping inconsolably and confessing their sins. After this came a strong conviction of the love of God, and their tears were replaced with intense joy. In response to this revival, Ramabai felt that God was answering a prayer she first uttered in 1898, for 200,000 Indian evangelists to share the gospel in India. She wrote a letter to missionaries all over India to pray for this to come to pass, and for them to send in names of people to be prayed for. When more than 29,000 names were sent back, she candidly said, “When we were Hindus we used to repeat one or two thousand names of the gods daily, as well as several hundred verses from the so-called sacred books, in order to gain merit. This did not hinder our work or study. Why should we not, as Christians, be able to pray for many hundreds of people by name?”
In the last 15 years of her incredible life, she mastered Greek and Hebrew to translate the Bible into Marathi. As death neared, she prayed for ten days to finish the proofs and God granted her exactly ten.
Her courage, strong conviction, and heartfelt desire to fight for justice for women in India continues to inspire me today!