“The chief means of happiness is complete independence…”
Pandita Ramabai Saraswati was born Rama Dongre on April 23, 1858 in the Canara District, Madras Presidency in British India. Ramabai was born into the Brahmin caste, which was the top caste of Hindu society. Her parents and sister died of starvation during a series of famines that took place from 1874-1876, leaving only Ramabai and her brother.
At the time that Ramabai was alive, the status of women in India was extremely low, with women having very few rights and privileges. This was further complicated by the Hindu caste system, which played a decisive role in one’s social status and access to opportunities. Ramabai, however, become a social reformer and activist who fought for the rights and emancipation of women. She was the first woman to receive the titles “Pandita” and “Saraswati” as a Sanskrit scholar from the University of Calcutta for her mastery of the Sanskrit language and texts.
In 1880, Ramabai married lawyer Bipin Behari Medhvi, who was from a lower caste. Due to this, their marriage was seen as inappropriate, since it was inter-caste and, because her husband was Bengali, even worse since it was inter-regional. The couple had one child together, a daughter named Manorama.
When Medhvi died unexpectedly in 1882, Ramabai moved to Pune and founded the Arya Mahila Samaj, or Arya Women’s Society, in order to increase women’s education and put an end to child marriage. Additionally, Ramabai petitioned Lord Ripon’s Education Committee to promote women’s education, train teachers, appoint women school inspectors. She also pushed for women to be admitted into medical school on the basis that, given the current sociocultural norms in India at the time, only women doctors could treat women patients.
Ramabai worked to improve the condition of women in India and was especially outspoken against child marriage. This was for many reasons, not least of which that widowed young women faced a miserable existence. Brahmin customs, for example, forbid widows from remarrying and required specific actions such as shaving one’s head and wearing drab clothing. Another problem was that widows were often the targets of physical and sexual abuse, especially because many widows were only young girls.
Ramabai traveled around India giving speeches and lectures advocating for women’s rights, especially as regarded women’s participation in education and public affairs. She also traveled to Great Britain, the USA, Japan and Australia to spread her message and push for women’s rights. She went to England and began her medical training in 1883, but was denied admission, more than anything because she suffered from deafness.
Ramabai wrote a book called The High-Caste Hindu Woman about the stark reality of women, particularly child brides and widows. Ramabai returned to India and established a home for destitute women there called Sharada Sadan, and she would later build other homes and organizations dedicated to protecting and helping women. At Sharada Sadan, women were able to learn skills such as gardening and carpentry, among others.
Ramabai died on April 5, 1922, but her legacy survives in India and around the world. Ramabai fought to dispel stereotypes and restrictions imposed both by the patriarchy and the caste system she grew up in. She was a trailblazer for women’s rights not only in India, but also on a global scale.
Written by Corinne Schoch, WAVE Intern
Hansdah, Raj Kumar. “Pandita Ramabai – The First Indian Woman Who Was a Feminist, Social Reformer and Educationist.” Inspirer Today. 2018. https://www.beaninspirer.com/pandita-ramabai-the-first-indian-woman-who-was-a-feminist-social-reformer-and-educationist/.
Khan, Aisha. “Overlooked No More: Pandita Ramabai, Indian Scholar, Feminist and Educator.” The New York Times. November 14, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/14/obituaries/pandita-ramabai-overlooked.html.
Women’s History Network. “Women’s History Month: Pandita Ramabai.” March 11, 2011. https://womenshistorynetwork.org/womens-history-month-pandita-ramabai/.