When you think about historic female reformers in India, you’re most likely to conjure an image of Mother Teresa, cradling hungry babies in Calcutta. But this saint isn’t the only woman who blazed trails of change in this historically patriarchal society. Pandita Ramabai Saraswati, politician and founder of the Mukti Mission, should be the first name to pop into your head.

The titles of “Pandita” and “Sarasvati” in her name itself give away how much of a rarity she was. The word “Pandita” is the female form of the Sanskrit word “Pandit”, which means “learned man.” The title was usually bestowed as a high honor on learned Hindu scholars, who were well versed in the high language of Sanskrit. They also served as priests. Meanwhile, Saraswati is the name of the Hindu goddess of learning and the arts.

From a young age, Ramabai shunned societal norms. Born in 1858, Ramabai was taught Sanskrit by her father, who was a Sanskrit scholar himself. This was uncommon at a time when child marriages were the norm and girls were expected to be seen and not heard for at least fifty more years. At 16, she lost both her parents to the Great Famine of 1876, which is said to have wiped out about three percent of the world’s population. Now an orphan, she wandered the countryside with her brother Shrinivas, giving lectures in Sanskrit and spreading the word about women’s emancipation. When she was just 20 years old, her knowledge and expertise led to the University of Calcutta awarding her the first-ever title of Pandita. 

From a young age, Ramabai shunned societal norms.

In 1880, she married Bipin Behari Medhvi at age 21, which was unusually late for the time. Her husband was from a much lower caste than she was, making it a frowned upon inter-caste marriage. He passed away after just two years, leaving behind Ramabai and their young daughter, Manorama. In those times, widows faced extremely hostile conditions in Indian society. Some of the many rules and expectations included wearing white all the time, living in confinement, and even shaving their hair to remain in lifelong mourning. Many widows were also blamed for the deaths of their husbands, and ostracised by the family as a result. 

But for Pandita Ramabai, this simply wouldn’t do. Instead of confining herself or shaving her head, she moved to Maharashtra with her daughter and founded the Arya Mahila Samaj (the Aryan Women’s Society). Soon after, she left for Britain to become a doctor but faced setbacks because of her increasing hearing loss. When the British instituted a commission to influence the education system in India, Ramabai was vocal in championing the cause of women in the workforce and recommended that women be trained as doctors from their home country.

“It is not strange, my countrymen, that my voice is small, for you have never given a woman the chance to make her voice strong!” she declared. Her evidence before the commission became so well known that it even reached Queen Victoria

While in Europe, she announced her conversion to Christianity. In India, Christianity was seen as the religion of whites and Indians of the lowest castes. She received criticism from the higher sections of society for her decision, as well as her scathing, very public critiques of how women were treated in the country. In 1887, she published her most influential work, The High Caste Hindu Woman, in which she ripped into the oppressive conditions that women faced in India. She also started the Sharada Sadan, the first residential home for the rehabilitation and education of young widows and unmarried women.

When she ran into government restrictions with the home, she bought a larger place near Pune and in 1889 started the Mukti Mission, which is still active today. What is more, she was also one of only ten women delegates in the Congress Party, which later led India to Independence.

“It is not strange, my countrymen, that my voice is small, for you have never given a woman the chance to make her voice strong!” -Pandita Ramabai

My personal fascination with Pandita Ramabai began with a book my parents had given me when I was eight. I couldn’t imagine losing my parents as she had. And even though the significance of her work had yet to sink into my eight-year-old mind, I knew she had to be unstoppable to find her strength in championing the cause of other women despite finding herself alone at such a young age.

When I was ten I had the chance to visit the Mukti Mission near Pune, and there was a life-size cutout of her. I loved it because Ramambai was a short woman, just about five feet tall. For someone who was anxiously awaiting a growth spurt, being eye-to-eye with this feminist powerhouse was empowering, even then.

Want to learn more about Pandita Ramabai and her contributions to the female experience in Indian history? Read Pandita Ramabai: The Story of Her Life by Helen S. Dyer. 

From her criticism of the societal norms, her conversion to frowned-upon religion, and her bold moves for the empowerment of women in unfavorable conditions, the work of Pandita Ramabai was erased from Brahmin history. But try as they might, her story has still made it to the public, and hopefully will for years to come. 

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  • Hannah Rachel Abraham

    Hannah Abraham is your average twenty something arts student with a BA in English, Political Science and History. Her creative spurts occasionally materialize into writing and her work has been featured on publications like The Week and Cultured Vultures. She is super into Broadway musicals, correcting people's grammar, and one day landing the role of Aravis in a Narnia adaptation.