133 Eventful Years of Liberating Indian Women and Children

Dr. Babu K. Verghese

Globally, 8 March is celebrated as ‘International Women’s Day.’ At the 133 year old Pandita Ramabai Mukti Mission in Kedgaon, 50 kms from Pune in Maharashtra, the celebration was most exciting and special for hundreds of its women residents. They gathered under a starry sky in an open stadium and expressed their lives through skits, songs and dances. Rutika, the anchor of the fun-filled evening, first came to Mukti as a little girl several years ago. She was educated in Information Technology and now serves in Mukti as a teacher. She received much applause for her professional performance as Master of Ceremony, shifting effortlessly between fluent English and Marathi. Every face in Mukti has a special story to tell. Stories of rejection and despair that turn into redemption at Mukti!
The story of Ramabai, the founder of Mukti, is revealing. She was the daughter of Anant Shastri Dongre, a high caste Brahmin from Mangalore, Karnataka. Dongre travelled the length and breadth of India teaching from the Hindu scriptures. He married Laxmibai and over the years they had six children, only three of whom survived. Their youngest was Ramabai, born on 23 April 1858.
In a society where women were not allowed to read Sanskrit or religious texts; Dongre taught his daughters to read Sanskrit. After years of study, Ramabai developed a deep understanding of the Hindu religious texts. In recognition of her learning, Ramabai became the first woman in India to be accorded the title ‘Pandita’ and ‘Saraswati’ in 1878 by the Pandits of Calcutta.
Ramabai became a social reformer. Her travels through the country made her painfully aware of the terrible plight of women in India. Many women were married as children to much older men and therefore widowed early and left without status or protection. Ramabai became an advocate for the rights and welfare of child widows in India.
After visiting England and America, she came to Mumbai and opened Sharada Sadan School for child widows in Wilson College in 1889. The school was named after its first student. The second student was Godubai who was a child widow. It was a revolution then to educate a widow. In 1890, Ramabai rescued 300 girls during the Madhya Pradesh famine. During the plague outbreak in 1902, she moved Sharada Sadan to a farm property outside Poona. During severe famine Ramabai toured the villages of Maharashtra with a caravan of bullock carts and rescued thousands of outcast children, child widows, orphans and other destitute women and brought them to the shelter of Mukti and Sharada Sadan. By 1901, there were almost 2000 residents including those rescued from the Gujarat famine. Mukti continues to receive abandoned children.
Ramabai was fluent in seven languages. Her greatest achievement was translating the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into the simple Marathi that is spoken by the common man. Another great service of Mukti Mission is their care of visually challenged girls. A home for the blind was started at the very beginning. In 1900, the Gujarat famine brought more blind girls to Mukti. They are made literate and are taught professional courses.
Ramabai wanted to build a church within the Mukti campus. She consulted an architect and he informed her his charge was 500 British pounds for a plan (120 years ago!). She could not afford the exorbitant price. So she prayed and in a dream God gave her the design. She drew it and the building was constructed accordingly. She wrote in her journal: “I humble myself under His mighty hand. The Holy Spirit has full liberty to work in us and He takes charge of the revival meetings in Mukti. The Mukti Church is a lighthouse in the community and it is our dream that it will fulfill the words of Haggai 2:9, “in this place I will grant peace.” This magnificent church stands strong right in the heart of Mukti.

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