Importance of Pandita Ramabai in comparison to contemporary Reformers

by Prof. Doc. Nandkumar Dyanoba Jadhav

Pandita Ramabai was a key contributor to woman’s reformation in modern India. She introduced the idea of empowerment to women in the 19th and 20th centuries. Sadly, in comparison to other reformers of her time, Ramabai’s work does not enjoy prominence in the social conscience. One wonders if her conversion to Christianity played catalyst in her being sidelined in history.
In the nineteenth century, Balshastri Jambhekar, Vishnubuva Brahmachari, Jyotiba Phule, M. G. Ranade, G. G. Agarkar, R. G. Bhandarkar etc. felt the acute need for social change in India. There are similarities in their and Pandita Ramabai’s concepts of social reformation, integration and equality. Pandita Ramabai was of the opinion that giving precedence to human dignity was the core of religion. Humanism was the foundation most reformers’ work was built upon. After becoming a Christian Ramabai saw reform as a natural expression of sharing the ‘love of God’ toward her fellow man.
Reformers of the time worked within the safe confines of established social frameworks and ideologies. They kept the family bond of the Dharma community intact. Pandita Ramabai did not enjoy such social and family security. In a way the lack of familial and religious constraints enabled her to make radical decisions at the risk of social censure.
Conversion to Christianity in nineteenth century India was in itself considered radical. Ramabai was transparent about her new faith in Jesus and faced the wrath of her fellow reformers who withdrew all notional and financial support. She soldiered on, developing her ideas and projects independently.

Social reformers promoting social enlightenment considered women’s reform vital to their cause. They formed organizations that spread awareness through speeches, novels and self-published newspapers. Their work was mostly limited to inspiring change through intellectual discourse. Pandita Ramabai infused proactive measures into her reform ideas. Reformers of the time emphasized enlightening the male mind in a bid to promote women’s advancement. Men monopolized the field of social reform, female reformers worked under the guidance of their husbands. Against this backdrop, the emergence of female leadership in the form of Pandita Ramabai, a widow, was starkly unique.
Pandita Ramabai worked for the betterment of women by empowering the very women who needed it most. She consistently pursued the rights of women. Her life was dedicated to the furthering the cause of widows, orphans and ostracized women. Mukti Mission has uninterruptedly continued the legacy of her work. This makes Pandita Ramabai’s work different from her contemporaries.

Pandita Ramabai was better travelled and had more exposure than other Reformers of her time. From childhood to adolescence she travelled within India with her family. She later traveled to countries like England, USA, Canada, Japan and Hong Kong. While living in these diverse Western and Asian Societies, she closely observed their customs, values and attitudes. Upon the strength of this experience, she was able to treat Indian society profoundly. Her rich experience informed the various aspects of her work. In a society where a woman’s sole value lay in being a wife, she had made a name for herself as an honorable woman. She was admired for her active participation in social work. Ramabai was the first woman to garner and bring in financial aid from abroad for the empowerment of Indian women.

Classic feminism considers it important to create “an awareness of woman’s oppression and expectation in society and conscious action to change this situation”. Had Pandita Ramabai created this awareness in the comfortable drawing rooms of high class married women, her work would have been easier and better received. She chose to live and work among the orphans, destitute, forsaken, crippled, blind and abandoned women. Pandita Ramabai worked tirelessly for 34 consecutive years through Sharda Sadan and Mukti Mission. The Mukti Mission has carried on this legacy for the last 90 years.
No one woman or man has done as much as Ramabai has in creating a favorable attitude towards widows in Indian society. She stoked enthusiasm for women and child education. The concept of widow remarriage, an idea alien to Hindu society, began to take root because of Ramabai’s efforts in that direction. In watching Ramabai’s actions, society began to consciously consider the existence of blind and disabled women. There was a feeling of empathy and compassion in society for the forsaken women.
The dignity of woman was the most radical idea Pandita Ramabai forwarded. She insisted that women have equal status and rights in education, society, family, inheritance, business and religion. Her progressive idea was that widows should inherit the estate of their husbands even after remarriage. Another revolutionary idea was that if a woman was forced into marriage or she had a dysfunctional marriage, she should have the right to divorce. Husbands and wives should be complementary and friendly, presented this modern idea. She rejected the traditional notion of the husband as an infallible god. This idea promoted female slavery, she felt. She asserted that men and women were to be equal partners in marriage. Aware that financial independence played a key role in empowerment, Ramabai offered vocational education alongside academic education in Sharda Sadan School and Mukti Mission.

The concepts of feminism were introduced to India by Pandita Ramabai. The dress code for women was harshly regimented in India at that time. She understood that clothing in itself was not the issue: the true issue was a woman’s ability and right to choose for herself. The traditionally beloved nine yard sari was too cumbersome and expensive for most women to wear on a daily basis. Women in Maharashtra, when allowed the choice, opted for the convenience of the 5 yard sari, reserving their treasured nine yard saris for special occasions.
The Consent Age bill became was a bone of contention for the nineteenth century reformists. Humanitarians Jyotiba Phule, Ranade, Telang, Agarkar and others supported the consent bill while the Tilak led Sanatani group opposed it. Ramabai veered quite dramatically from the thought prevalent at the time insisting that ages eight to twenty be spent in developing the intellect of the child. Reasoning that the physical or mental preparedness necessary for healthy motherhood comes only after age 20, Ramabai sought an increase in the consent age. Examining Pandita Ramabai’s writings and her impact on women’s lives, one realizes that India’s current women specific laws are a refinement of her ideas.
Roles assigned by gender have traditionally restricted Indian women’s lives. Reformers were reluctant to change the status quo on this matter. Ramabai sought self-reliance for Mukti Mission by training women in male dominated skills and vocations. As in other aspects of reform, Ramabai did not just challenge existing norms she pioneered the path to move forward in a sustainable manner.
Pandita Ramabai set high standards for social reform. With the exception of Jyotibai Phule, nineteenth century reformers worked mainly for the betterment of the upper castes. Initially, Pandita Ramabai established Sharda Sadan School to facilitate the education of upper caste widows. But soon, her efforts included destitute women of all castes.
A highly educated Brahmin herself, Ramabai didn’t place any pride in her high status. Her only desire was to serve those who were in need. The girls and women enrolled in Mukti Missions were from different provinces, different religions and different races. Even a cursory look at the history of the women’s movement in Maharashtra will reveal that Ramabai was the only one who sought the betterment of low caste women in her lifetime. Dr. Jyoti Lanjewar records that Pandita Ramabai accommodated thousands of Dalit and exploited women in Mukti Mission, following in the footsteps of Jyotirao Phule. Prabhakar Vaidya writes that Pandita Ramabai executed every detail of the program of Stree Shudra Seva taught by Mahatma Phule. Pandita Ramabai’s position as a promoter of Indian women’s liberation continues to be significant and unique.

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