Editor’s Note: This continues our series on biographies of Hindus of the past who joined the Indian church.
Living with the Tension of Conflicting Heritages
Pandita Ramabai’s story is widely known, but has also been surrounded with myths and exaggerations. This brief account will try to clear some of the fog and raise some of the difficult questions related to her legacy.1
Ramabai’s Brahmin father was an interesting mix of reformer and traditionalist. He is noted as a reformer for teaching his daughter Sanskrit; yet he was very traditional in refusing to allow her access to the Vedas. Ramabai memorized the Bhagavata Purana, yet knew nothing of the Marathi bhakti poets who so influenced her contemporary, Narayan Vaman Tilak.
The family was on pilgrimage for many years as the father recited Puranas in various parts of India. Ramabai saw many of the abuses of popular Hinduism and especially the mistreatment of widows. In a severe drought and famine while on pilgrimage in 1877 her parents and sister died. When she and her surviving brother got to Calcutta in 1878 life began to change. Ramabai was honored for her knowledge of the Sanskrit Srimad Bhagavatam, and was honored as Pandita and Saraswati. She got involved with the Brahmo Samaj and for the first time read the Vedas. After marriage in 1881 to a non-Brahmin under Brahmo Samaj influence, she first received a gospel of Luke from a missionary. After the birth of her daughter her husband died, and Ramabai herself became a widow.
Ramabai returned to her native Maratha country where she would later become famous for her humanitarian work. She left to England to pursue medicine, but had to abandon that quest due to hearing problems. While in England she was baptized, but refused to submit fully to the authority of the Anglican Church. She spent three years in England and then three in America, raising funds and forming a service mission to widows in India during the years in America (The American Ramabai Association). In 1889 she was back in India, but soon found reforming work among widows to be complicated beyond expectation.
Initially Ramabai worked in close conjunction with Hindu reformers, and sought to work on a non-religious basis. She was a baptized Christian but did not believe in proselytizing. Yet as one of the very few individuals who cared for widows, it was only natural that the young widows around her would be drawn to her faith. In 1891 during the early years of her work she also entered into a living faith relationship with Christ. In her own words, “One thing I knew by this time, that I needed Christ, and not merely His religion.”2
After entering into vital union with Christ, Ramabai became more active as an evangelist, and tensions with her Hindu supporters increased. In 1896 when severe famine hit central India she decided to launch a faith mission on the lines of George Muller and Hudson Taylor. She developed the Mukti Mission in Kedgaon, about 30 miles from Pune. Ramabai continued to care for widows but also gathered famine orphans and built a huge humanitarian institution that was clearly Christ-centered. A famine in western India in 1900 brought another influx of helpless children, swelling the numbers at Mukti to nearly 2000. Many foreign and Indian volunteers worked under her leadership in the great challenge of caring for and raising these children, many of whom themselves grew to take on leadership roles.
1905 was a landmark year as revival came to Mukti. Many children were transformed and teams went out across India to share the gospel of Christ and the power of revival. But hopes that revival would transform India proved an illusion. Controversies about the revival were not the only complex topic Ramabai engaged. She was a critic of Bible translations in Marathi, so did one of her own! She learned Hebrew and translated the entire Bible into vernacular Marathi; sadly, her translation principles were very inadequate.
In Ramabai one sees the tensions involved in being in Christ and relating to the Hindu heritage. Ramabai remained vegetarian her entire life, was the first to publish a Marathi songbook of bhajans, and opposed the Westernization of Christians and churches. But in her Bible translation she sought to avoid all Sanskrit terms, suggesting that they contained a poison of Vedanta that is counter to biblical thought. She refused to allow her daughter to learn Sanskrit, and for many years had Latin taught in her schools. Yet her own mission was named mukti!
We must leave Ramabai and her legacy of tension, summing up from her biography by Nicol MacNicol:
In spite of the fact that she rejected peremptorily so much that we call Hindu, it was as what we must call a Hindu woman that she so charmed and subdued. Her soul was in its texture Indian and in her we see what such a soul may be under the control of Christ. The instinct of India, in spite of so much alienation and so much calumny, recognized with pride this kinship and, when she died, in many of the cities of the land people gathered to honour one who by her life had brought honour to her race. In Bombay at a public memorial meeting Mrs. Sarojini Naidu…laid claim to her in behalf of Hinduism as “the first Christian to be enrolled in the calendar of Hindu saints.”3
1. For the facts on Ramabai see Ram Bapat, “Pandita Ramabai: Faith and Reason in the Shadow of East and West,” in Representing Hinduism: The Construction of Religious Traditions and National Identity, eds. Vasudha Dalmia and H. Von Stietencron; Delhi: Sage, 1995, pp. 239-49.
2. Ramabai, Pandita, A Testimony, Pune, p. 23.
3. Macnicol, Nicol, Pandita Ramabai. Builders of Modern India, Calcutta: Association Press, 1926, pg. 140.
Note: These biographies originally appeared in the chapter “The Church and Hindu Heritage: Historical Case Studies in a Rocky Relationship” in Rethinking Hindu Ministry, Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2011.