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  • Writer's pictureRevShirleyMurphy

Jesus Was Her Guru

If you don't know the inner strength of an Indian woman with a divine call, you haven't met Pandita Ramabai.

Born in the second half of the 1800 to a high ranking Hindu family, she became a pioneer of women's rights in her country. She converted to Christianity because in Jesus, she discovered her "best Liberator."

Pandita Ramabai was just five feet tall, with short black hair and small bones. Yet wherever she went the presence of this Brahmin Indian woman—characterised by her grey-green eyes, shapely lips, and light complexion—seemed to cast a spell over all whom she met. She was adored as a goddess when she arrived in Calcutta at age 20. Years later, when she addressed the 2000 delegates of the National Social Congress in Bombay in 1889 (the first woman to do so), she took the assembly by storm.

Ramabai Pandita, born in 1858 to a very conservative society, was a rebel against the oppressive Hindu system; she was a woman with a vision, and her spiritual growth is such that she became a forerunner of women's rights.

Ramabai was born on 23rd April 1858, in Karnataka. She was the daughter of a wealthy Brahmin Sanskrit Scholar. Though her father was a devout and orthodox Hindu he scandalised his high caste friends by teaching his wife and later his daughters to read the Sanskrit classics. 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 honour. She was given the honorific title "Pandita," mistress of wisdom.

Pandita 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. She was one of the first to rebel against the inhuman condition to which widows were subjected. In 1887, she wrote ‘The High Caste Hindu Women’ in which she highlighted the deplorable conditions of Hindu widows. She set out to do something about this social problem, establishing centres for widows and orphans in Pune 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. Pandita also became the first to introduce Braille for blind girls, subsequently opening a Blind school in Mukti.

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 baptised.

The congregation of Anglican nuns invited her to England to the rehabilitation of "fallen women". This represents a radical 'experience for Pandita, since "fallen women" were ostracized in Indian society. She asked the nuns why they helped such women, the Sisters responded by reading from the Gospel of John, the story of adulteress, and how Jesus treats her. Pandita was so moved and impressed by the testimony of the nuns she received baptism. Although Pandita accepted Christianity, she retained much of her culture, wearing Indian dress, and remaining vegetarian. She saw Jesus as the greatest liberator of women. 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.

Pandita was passionate about reforms in India and travelled to the United States. There she wrote a book that was very critical of the way women were treated in India. She developed close friendships with many American Christian women activists, including Harriet Tubman, and gained support from a wide range of churches and organisations.

She returned to India and continued her charitable work, among other things founding a centre 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 centre 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."

The spirit of Christ as reflected in the Bible sufficed to satisfy her own religious questions.

She learned that the heart of true religion was the love of God and the love of one's neighbour as oneself. That she live by this creed, she insisted, was all that anyone had a right to ask of her. Pandita was an extraordinary linguist – she was fluent in seven languages including Greek and Hebrew – and in the last two decades of her life worked to create a new and more accessible Bible translation in her own Marathi language. It was finally completed just days before her death in 1922 at the age of 64. According to her, Jesus spoke to ordinary people, in their local language, hence she was eager to translate the Bible in a language that could be easily read and understood. In 1919, the king of England bestowed on her the Kaiser-i-Hind award, one of the highest awards that an Indian could boast of during the colonial regime.

Pandita ‘s life was transformed in 1891 when she read the book From Death into Life in which the English vicar William Haslam recounted his dramatic conversion from a dead formal Christianity to a living faith. Pandita wrote, ‘One thing I knew by this time, that I needed Christ and not merely His religion. I had at last come to an end of myself, and unconditionally surrendered myself to the Saviour.’

From now on Pandita’s life had a new power and joy and although she remained heavily involved in social work, she was now an evangelist, preaching to all a message that focused on Christ, the Holy Spirit and prayer.

Inspired by news of the Welsh revival of 1904 Pandita encouraged prayer for revival in India, and in 1905 there were extraordinary encounters at Mukti as the Holy Spirit fell, giving deep repentance, conversions, and profound and lengthy worship. The revival spread out across India and was a tremendous encouragement in the United States when, a year later, the Azusa Street Revival broke out.

Although Pandita Ramabai was called by one Indian academic ‘one of the greatest Indians in all history’ she has been largely forgotten by her nation. I think it’s time to remember her.


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