When saints of God suffer in silence; Life and achievements of Pandita Ramabai Saraswati

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Today (April 23) marks the 161st birth anniversary of Pandita Ramabai Saraswati, a pioneer of social reforms movement, a great scholar and a humanist who scripted history by spearheading the first organised movement for the emancipation of womanhood in the erstwhile Bombay Presidency in 1882. She represented then the awakening of Indian womanhood and she voiced with persuasiveness and courage, the demand of women for a richer and fuller life than the prejudices of the past permitted. Here’s a three-part series to mark this 161st anniversary. 

This great daughter of India was born in the dense forest of Gangamul near Malheranji, an obscure village in South Canara of Madras Presidency in British India on April 23, 1858. Coincidentally, exactly a year earlier to Rama’s birth, another great daughter of India, Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi laid down her life on the battlefield for the freedom of her country in 1857. One fought for the independence of her country, the other one was destined to play a revolutionary role in the upliftment of womanhood in India.

Rama’s father, Anantpadmanabh Parmeshwar Dongre, a Chitpavan Kokanastha Vaishnavite brahmin, was a deeply religious man. He was also an eminent Vedic scholar; with authority on Hindu scriptures in his own time. 

However, it is on account of his progressive views on female education and on women and Shudras’ rightful access to higher knowledge of Sanskrit scriptures, that he invited the wrath of supreme temple priests. He was denounced and repudiated. Defiant Anantshastri, thereupon, shifted his establishment and ashram to a new abode in Gangamul forest where he set the tone to his early reform - perceptions by bringing up his entire family, comprising his wife Laxmibai and children Rama, Krishna and Srinivas in the traditional ways of Sanskrit learning. This development on his part assumed great significance since it was at a time when the position (status) of women, in particular, of child-widows, widows and destitute women in Hindu society was deplorable and women were treated as a chattel. Female education was totally forbidden. Their access to higher knowledge and to Sanskrit scriptures was considered to be the greatest sin in the Hindu religion.

Over a period of 14 years, he suffered severe financial crisis in his forest establishment. Disillusioned, Anantshastri was, thus, forced to wind up his ashram and leave Gangamul. He then embarked on a pilgrimage along with his family on foot in pursuit of spiritual truth wandering helplessly all over the country visiting sacred shrines, worshipping temple deities and reading Puranas to devotees -- covering over 4,000 miles of the strenuous journey. The pilgrimage trail went on for over 14 gruelling years, eventually causing great hardships and starvation for the entire family. As they moved into the famine-zones, sufferings became the order of the day with death constantly staring in their eyes. By now, Anantshastri was nearly 78. He had almost lost his eyesight and was totally exhausted, shrunken and incapacitated, but still dragging on and on in search of food, water and God. However, despite starvation, Dongre family never lived by begging or seeking alms.

While on a pilgrimage to South, the destiny dealt its first massive blow to the Dongre family. Anantshastri, his wife Laxmibai and elder daughter Krishna succumbed to starvation in rapid succession during the period of the Great Famine of the Century that devastated Madras Presidency around 1876-77. Out of the five members of the Dongre family, three perished, one after another. Only two, Ramabai and elder brother Srinivas survived.

In spite of these tragic events, Ramabai and Srinivas continued their journey to North, worshipping temple deities and reading Puranas to devotees, their only source of livelihood.
They finally arrived in Calcutta in 1878. Ramabai was now 20 years of age, a hard disciplined woman with remarkable crises management skills and courage, scholarship and strength of character. 

In her introduction to Ramabai’s first book in English, The High Caste Hindu Woman, Dr Rachel L Bodley, Dean, Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, describes Ramabai as an intellectual prodigy of erudition. This observation indeed marks a fitting tribute to Ramabai’s amazing intellectual capabilities. Even at the tender age of eight, she had overwhelmed intellectuals and Sanskrit pandits in India with her great scholarship in Sanskrit and Shastras. It was not surprising, therefore, that Bengali intellectuals conferred upon her the title of Pandita Ramabai Saraswati at a public meeting in Calcutta in 1880. This title was in recognition of her scholarship in Sanskrit, her progressive thinking on female education and her outstanding interpretation of various Sanskrit scriptures.

Ramabai and Srinivas stayed in Bengal and Assam for over four years. At Bankipur, Ramabai married a highly educated young Bengali lawyer Babu Bipin Bihari Medhavi, a Shudra by caste, in November 1880. Fate, however, had harder tragedies in store for her, as within 19 months, her elder brother Srinivas passed away in May 1880 and her husband Babu Bipin Bihari Medhavi in February 1882. Pandita Ramabai Saraswati was, thus, left a widow with a baby girl Manorama in her arms to solace her widowhood. She then left Bengal and arrived in Poona on April 30, 1882, a Hindu widow, unwanted and regarded accursed by the Hindu society.

Pandita Ramabai Saraswati, age 24, made a formal announcement of the formation of Arya Mahila Samaj (AMS) in Poona on May 1, 1882. The AMS was an institution of women dedicated to the emancipation of child widows, destitute girls, unwed mothers, divorced and deserted women, mentally retarded and physically handicapped girls and orphan women in Bombay Presidency.
Significant among the objectives unveiled by AMS were: 1) Promotion of female education 2) Abolition of child marriages, caste system and caste discrimination 3) Re-marriages of women 4) Encouragement to inter-caste, inter-provincial marriages and 5) Rehabilitation and protection of destitute women and girls. 

(This is the first part in the three-part series. The second part will be published in tomorrow’s edition )

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