Pandita Ramabai was a social reformer who was passionate about Christ and passionate about women. Ramabai was born in 1858 to a high caste Brahmin Sanskrit scholar, Anant Shastri Dongre. Her father, breaking tradition, taught his wife and daughter, Pandita, the sacred languages. The family traveled, Ramabai’s father teaching the Holy Scriptures for a living. Tragedy struck as her mother, father and sister all perished in the famine of 1877. Ramabai and her brother continued to travel and teach. Ramabai’s knowledge was so impressive, she was the first woman to be given the title Pandita and Saraswati. After the death of her brother, Ramabai married a Bengali lawyer below her caste and had a daughter Manoramabai. Tragically her husband soon died of cholera, leaving her with a baby daughter.
Ramabai’s travels through India made her aware of the terrible plight of women in India. Many women were married as children to much older men and therefore were widowed and left without status or protection. Ramabai soon became a leading advocate for rights and welfare of women in India. Through her work she came into contact with Christians who paid for her to travel to England. There she was taken in by the sisters at St Mary’s Home in Wantage. The sisters taught her about Christ. Ramabai undertook serious study of the Bible and decided to be baptized.
On returning to India she continued to study the Bible and accepted Christ as her personal saviour, a moment she described as being shut up in a dark room and suddenly released into bright daylight. In 1889 she established Sharada Sadan, a school in Bombay for child widows. She promised not to pressure the girls to become Christians but she had daily devotions which the girls could choose to attend. Many of the girls became Christians.
In 1890 she moved the home to Pune. She purchased a farm outside Pune and in 1896 300 girls were rescued from the Madhya Pradesh famine. During a plague outbreak in 1902 she moved Sharada Sadan to the farm property outside Pune. During a 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.
A learned woman knowing seven languages, she also translated the Bible into her mother tongue – Marathi – from the original Hebrew and Greek. She was the first native speaker to do so, not just the first woman. She died at Mukti in 1922 soon after completing the translation. She was awarded the Kaiser-Hind medal, the highest honour under the British Raj. The Indian government released a stamp in 1989 commemorating Pandita Ramabai’s work.