Untold Tale of Revival: Pandita RamabaiGregory Perry | Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Copyright © 2016, Gregory Perry
One way to define revival is an outpouring of Holy Spirit, which results in God’s Word being honored and people coming to true faith in Jesus Christ. This definition highlights the importance of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God, and the life of faith. These three key components to vibrant Christianity are accentuated in the remarkable life of Pandita Ramabai and the story of the work of revival that God brought to her Mukti Mission in the early 20th century.
Her Father the Scholar
Ramabai’s father Anant Sastri Dongre (b. 1796) was a Chitpawan Brahman, the most influential of the twelve divisions of Maharashtra Brahmans in Western India. Early on he joined a bhakti sect that sought a path of devotion that “denies the self completely and strives for union with God.”1
When he was studying in Poona to be a Sanskrit scholar, his guru was also involved in teaching Sanskrit to an Indian princess. Upon witnessing the taboo practice of a woman learning the sacred language, Anant made it his goal to teach Sanskrit to the women of his house.
His hopes, however, were dashed when he returned to his home in Mangalore in 1818. Both his wife and his mother opposed his ambitious plan of teaching them Sanskrit. His family as a whole forbade him from attempting such a radical reform. His first wife died shortly after.
He left his home and for ten years lived under the patronage of the Maharajah of Mysore and became widely renown as a Sanskrit scholar and great philosopher. He then gave his life over to sacred pilgrimages as he advanced his learning. Vast wealth came his way through rich patrons who wished to honor his learning. When he traveled to Nepal to engage in religious studies, the Nepalese king honored Anant with bounteous gifts, including two elephants.
When he was 44 years of age, Anant married again. This time he married Laxmibai, a nine-year old daughter of a fellow pilgrim. This kind of child marriage was far from unusual in the Hindu society. Anant resolved to teach his new wife the sacred language, regardless of whatever obstacles stood in his way.
Unlike his first wife, Laxmibai did not object to her husband’s daring ambition. The same could not be said of the rest of his family and his surrounding society. He was soon called before the head priest to give account for his unorthodox practices. Anant, however, had spent endless hours studying the sacred Hindu writings to prove that they supported the idea of teaching Sanskrit to women. He eventually succeeded in persuading the priests that sacred literature sanctioned his views.
Despite his victory, Anant decided to leave his home in Mangalore and build a home in the nearby Gangamula Forest. Ramabai explains, “This was done in order that he might be away from the hubbub of the world, carry on his educational work and engage in devotion to the gods in a quiet place, where he would not be constantly worried by curious visitors.”2 He could focus on teaching his wife the sacred language without having to deal daily with disgruntled family and friends.
Anant chose to build his home near a place of sacred pilgrimage, where three rivers had their source. He would end up living in this home with his growing family for over twelve years.
On top of the support he received from his patrons, Anant made money by reading from the Hindu sacred writings called the Puranas to pilgrims as they passed by. Hindus believed that when the teacher publicly read the Puranas, he could free himself from sin and earn much-needed merit. Although the vast majority of the pilgrims did not understand the Sanskrit language in which the Puranas were being read, the teacher had no obligation to explain the reading. The pilgrims themselves gained merit by giving offerings to the sacred reader, as Ramabai explained, “The most religious hearers prostrate themselves before the reader and worship him and the books. They offer flowers, fruits, sweetmeats, garments, money, and whatever they may have as gifts.”3
Although Anant’s income was luxurious, what he spent in generous hospitality was even more luxurious. Pilgrims, students, and scholars would frequent Anant’s home and liberally partake of both his learning and his food. His generosity, along with the frequent thievery of his guests, led to the eventual loss of all his wealth.
While in the forest, six children had been born to Laxmibai. Three of these children died in early childhood, but the eldest girl, a boy, and the youngest girl survived. The youngest was Ramabai, born on April 23, 1858. When she was only six months of age her destitute family left their forest home to take up the nomadic life of sacred pilgrims.
The Wandering Pilgrims
Through her husband’s direction, Laxmibai taught Sanskrit to her youngest daughter from when she was eight years of age until she was 15. Ramabai says of her father, “He cared little for what people said and did what he thought was right. He taught and educated my mother, brother, sister, and others.”4
Ramabai proved to be an exceptionally brilliant student. By the age of twelve, she had memorized 18,000 verses from the Puranas. Besides Sanskrit, Ramabai leaned the Marathi, Kanarese, Hundustani, and Bengali languages.
Anant took his family on sacred pilgrimages all over India. Ramabai saw much that made her disillusioned with the Hindu system of religion. Her parents used to comment on the immorality of the idle religious beggars (sannyasis) and the local priests. They would laugh at the lies that these priests used to deceive the pilgrims, and yet Ramabai’s parents would continue to worship these priests because that was the way prescribed by the Hindu religion.
When Ramabai was around thirteen years of age, her family traveled to a most famous shrine, which was located at Dwarka on the Arabian Sea. Here supposedly resides on the sea Krishna’s legendary island city of gold. The city, however, remains invisible to sinful eyes. Only the sinless pilgrim is able to see the city of gold rise from the sea at sunset during the festival of Kapila Shastri, which takes place only once every sixty years. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims come to the festival, some being trampled to death in the frenzy.
At sunset some would cry out, “I see! I see!” Others remained silent, knowing that a confession that they did not see the city would be an admission of their own sinfulness. Ramabai and her family watched and waited but beheld no city of gold. It was at this point that Ramabai had her first grave doubts about her father’s faith.
On another occasion they ventured to the very holy place of Pandharpur, on the bank of the Bhima River. There they prostrated themselves in worship of the river. They sprinkled its water on their heads in order to wash all their sins away. They proceeded to drink some of the muddy water to cleanse the inner parts of their body of all sin.
In all of this, she would witness priests lining their pockets with the money of hoodwinked pilgrims. Their family stayed at the temple of Hanuman near Madras for nearly a year, but Ramabai did not see a single person’s prayer answered. This eventually led to her family’s complete economic collapse: “The sacred books declared that if people worshipped the gods in particular ways, gave alms to the Brahmans, repeated the names of certain gods, and also some hymns in their honor, with fasting and performance of penance, the gods would appear and talk to the worshippers and give them whatever they desired… We did nothing but perform these religious acts. At last, all the money which we had was spent but the gods did not help us.”5
Although their poverty was hastened by a great famine in the land that peaked in 1876-77, Ramabai referred to this as a self-inflicted famine because of the hordes of money they gave away to priests and religious beggars. Though they had sold every valuable they had, every last bit of the profit was spent in giving money to the Brahmans. Moreover, her father began to lose his eyesight and was not able to make money by reading the Puranas.
Anant grew weaker and weaker as starvation descended upon his home. His final injunctions to his youngest daughter were, “Child, I am now leaving you, but remember always how much I loved you. Follow only after that which is true, that which abides, that which is in accordance with religion. If you should survive, then always continue in the path of God, always make it your aim to serve God. As you are the last of my children, so you are of all the dearest to me. I have given you into God’s keeping, he will guard you. He alone is your Lord and you must always serve Him.”6
Ramabai never forgot her father’s final words to her: “His blind eyes could not see my face, but he held me tight in his arms, and, stroking my head and cheeks, he told me in a few words, broken with emotion, to remember how he loved me and how he taught me to do right and never depart from the way of righteousness. His last loving command to me was to live an honorable life, if I lived at all, and serve God all my life. He did not know the only true God but… was very desirous that his children should serve Him to the last.”7
When Anant finally died of starvation at the age of 78, the nearby Brahmans would not touch his dead body, because they could not be sure that he was truly a Brahman. Ramabai’s already emaciated and enfeebled elder brother, Srinivasa, himself carried the dead body two miles to the burial place. Shortly thereafter, Laxmibai suffered from fever and hunger and died as well. Then her older sister Krishnabai died from illness and hunger a few months later. Ramabai succinctly describes this time of terrible trial: “We were too proud to beg or to do menial work, and ignorant of any way of earning an honest living. Nothing but starvation was before us. My father, mother and sister all died of starvation within a few months of each other.”
Ramabai was sixteen years old at the time, and now only her and her eighteen year-old brother remained. Though they both had their significant doubts in the Hindu religion, they continued to live the only life they knew how to live. In the next four years with her brother, they would walk barefoot over 4,000 miles throughout India on various sacred pilgrimages.
The sibling pilgrims often went without food and shelter. Srinivasa occasionally found employment, but he would make barely four rupees for a month’s worth of work. They lived mostly on grain soaked in water and seasoned with salt. Once they dug beds for themselves on the bank of the Jhelum River in Punjab and covered themselves with sand all the way up to their necks.
The deception, unreality, and greed they found everywhere they went was especially evident at the Hindu shrine that featured the seven floating mountains in a lake in the Himalayas. These mountains purportedly moved toward sinless pilgrims, but remained immovable for wicked pilgrims. When Ramabai and brother prostrated themselves before these mountains, they did not budge. Although the priests had warned then not to cross the water because of the hungry crocodiles, Srinivasa rose up before the priests on watch were on duty and swam out to the mountains. When he arrived there he discovered that the mountains were merely stone and mud planted with trees and placed on wooden rafts. When the pilgrim came with a suitable offering, a priest would call out and another priest would give the raft a push toward the generous pilgrim. This fiasco finally destroyed any vestige of faith they still had in the Hindu religion.
The Woman Scholar and Reformer
In 1878 Ramabai moved with her brother to Calcutta. There three distinguished educators of Calcutta University tested her learning and were awestruck by the twenty-year-old woman’s astonishing scholarship. Not only could she recite over 18,000 verses from the Bhagavat Purana, but also when they asked her questions she would quickly answer in extemporaneous Sanskrit verse. Her responses were learned and bold, but at the same time gentle and humble.
The amazed questioners concluded, “We do not feel that you belong to this world since the great Pandits have been dazzled and amazed by your superhuman ability. The very Goddess of Learning ‘Saraswati’ has come down amidst us in human form.”8 With that she was bequeathed the title “Saraswati,” after the Hindu goddess of learning. Shortly thereafter, a Bengali scholar conferred upon her the title “Pandita.” A Pandit was a title of honor given only to the most learned individuals. Since Ramabai was the first woman in India ever to be honored with this title, the news was publicized throughout India and she gained widespread fame overnight.
Ramabai stayed in Calcutta for a year and interacted with many learned Brahmans. It was also in Calcutta that she had her first real interaction with Christians. She was invited to a Christian social gathering. There she saw Indians dressed in western attire and eating the same food as the foreigners. Ramabai recalls that when the Christians knelt down to pray, she thought they were “paying homage to the chairs before which they knelt.”9 At this gathering she was given a Sanskrit copy of the Bible, which she began to read but did not understand.
While in Calcutta, Ramabai was asked to give a series of lectures on the Dharma Sastras (the Hindu sacred law book) and the religious duty for women. In order to prepare for these lectures, Ramabai expanded her scope of studies of sacred literature. The theistic reformer Keshab Chandra Sen gave her a copy of the Vedas, the most sacred of all Hindu literature, and encouraged her to read them. She did so with a bit of trepidation, since even her radically-minded father had never favored his daughter learning the Vedas.
Ramabai was increasingly disturbed by what she found throughout the sacred writings: “My eyes were being gradually opened; I was waking up to my own hopeless condition as a woman, and it was becoming clearer and clearer to me that I had no place anywhere, as far as religious consolation was concerned.”10 There was no hope for her in Hinduism.
She was disgusted by the Hindu law books that instructed men to give their daughters in marriage before they reached puberty. She found that the sacred Hindu writings were agreed that women “women of high and low caste, as a class, were bad, very bad, worse than demons, and that they could not get Moksha as men.”11 A woman’s only god is to be her husband. She is to worship him no matter how dissolute and vile he may be. And if she has no husband, she has no god. “She is to worship [her husband] with whole-hearted devotion as the only god, to know and see no other pleasure in life except in the most degraded slavery to him. The woman has no right to study the Vedas and Vedanta, and without knowing them, no one can know the Brahma. Without knowing Brahma, no one can get liberation.”12
It was at this point in time that Ramabai resolved to spend her life attempting to better the status of women in India.
In May of 1880, Ramabai’s life took another ill-fated twist, when Srinivasa, her brother and lifelong companion, died of an illness while traveling in Bengal. His only concern at his deathbed was what would become of his younger sister when she was now left alone in the world. He knew as well as she that there was no hope for a woman without a husband, father, or brother.
At this, Ramabai had a conversation with her brother that demonstrated the theistic convictions into which they had arrived within the last two years. When Srinivasa told his sister of his concern for her, she answered, “There is no one but God to care for you and me.” He answered, “Ah, then if God cares for us I am afraid of nothing.” Ramabai recalls, “And indeed in my loneliness, it seemed as if God was near me; I felt His presence.”13
Although Srinivasa was comforted by his sister’s call to trust in God to care for them, he still asked her to promise that she would find a husband to care for her. Ramabai had suffered much grief for being already twenty-two and not married. Her father never gave Ramabai in marriage largely because he had previously given his eldest daughter to a marriage that turned out to be miserable and soon essentially dissolved.
In October, six months after her brother’s death, Ramabai married Babu Bipin Beharidas Medhavi, a Bengali lawyer and intimate friend of her brother. Over the previous year they had grown a fondness for each other and he had asked her to marry him at least five times. Since neither of them believed in Hinduism or Christianity, they were married with the civil marriage rites.
Her surrounding society had considered Ramabai’s previous state of not being married to be an indignity, but they considered her marriage downright scandalous. In marrying a lowly Sudra, she, a Chitpawan Brahman, had committed the unpardonable transgression of breaking caste. Medhavi too received his share of criticism and soon found himself without work. But Ramabai’s spousal choice was not an accidental oversight. She married Medhavi because she knew him well and respected him. Her marital decision cost her many Brahman friends and supporters.
Ramabai moved to Silchar in Assam, the city in which Medhavi practiced law. It was while living with her husband that Ramabai found in the local library a Bengali pamphlet of the Gospel of Luke, which she read eagerly. A Baptist missionary, Mr. Allen, also visited their home at this time and preached the Gospel. She was fascinated as he went through the Genesis account of creation. Ramabai recalls, “I eagerly learned everything which I could about the Christian religion and declared my intention to become a Christian if I were perfectly satisfied with the new religion.”14
Medhavi, however, was not as enthusiastic about the idea of converting to Christianity. Having studied at a mission school as a child, he had more background knowledge of Christianity and adamantly opposed the idea of he or his wife becoming a despised Christian. He angrily insisted that Mr. Allen not come to their house any more. Ramabai wondered, in retrospect, “I do not know just what would have happened had he lived much longer.”
On February 4, 1882, after only nineteen months of marriage, Medhavi died of cholera at age thirty. This was another heavy loss for Ramabai, who had a tremendous love and respect for her husband. She could later see, however, how God used the death of her husband for her good: “This great grief drew me nearer to God. I felt He was teaching me and that if I was to come to Him, He must himself draw me.”15
One significant lasting effect of the marriage was the baby daughter who was born April 16, 1881, only months before the death of her father. Ramabai named her Manoramabai, which means “the joy of her heart,” and she was the sole source of human comfort for her during this time.
After her husband’s death, Ramambai moved with her daughter to Madras in order to study the English language. Evidence suggests that her removal from Assam was somewhat of an escape from the predictable criticism she received because of her husband’s death. Widows were often blamed for the death of their husbands, and this was seen as all the more obviously Ramabai’s fault since she dared marry outside her caste.
Shortly thereafter she left Madras and returned to Poona, the intellectual center of the Chitpawan Brahmans. Judge M. G. Ranade, a leader in the movement for social reform, asked Ramabai to deliver a series of lectures in his home on the sacred literature of India and the emancipation of women. At the time, Judge Ranade’s wife of was studying English and the Bible with Miss Hurford, the principal of the government female training school in Poona. Ramabai was granted permission to join them in their studies.
Ramabai formed a society for Indian women that met every Saturday called “Arya Mahila Samaj,” which is Sanskrit for “Noble Women’s Society.” The society purposed to work for the deliverance of Indian women from the oppression of child marriage. Bursting with zeal for her cause, Ramabai labored for both their spiritual and physical betterment. In a lecture given in June 1882, she pronounced, “Men look on us women as chattels: we make every effort to deliver ourselves from this situation. But some will say that this is a rebellion against man, and that to do this is sin. To leave men’s evil acts unrebuked and remain unmoved before them is a great sin.” In an address to Lord Ripon’s Education Commission, she declared with fervor, “In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred the educated men of this country are opposed to female education and the proper position of women. If they observe the slightest fault, they magnify the grain of mustard-seed into a mountain, and try to ruin the character of a woman.”16
She not only talked about aiding helpless women, but she personally put it into practice. She met a twelve-year old widow named Thakubai, who had been cast out by her husband’s relatives and was living in the streets as a beggar. When this girl appealed to Ramabai, she took her into her home. This same girl would remain with Ramabai and later prove a useful Bible woman at Mukti.
In Poona, Ramabai also came across Rev. Nikant Nehemiah Goreh, who helped guide her in her continued study of the New Testament. Like Ramabai, Goreh was also a Chitpawan Brahman and a Sanskrit scholar. He had converted to Christianity thirty-four years earlier. Though she profited by his teaching, she declared in a letter written to a newspaper that nothing would induce her to embrace Christianity. This declaration may have only been masking the inward turmoil she experienced as she continued to consider the claims of Christ more seriously.
A desire increasingly grew in Ramabai to go to England in order to learn more about the education of women and receive training for her lifelong battle to help unshackle the women in India. She also desired to study English and the Bible. In order to raise the funds necessary to get there, she published her first book, a Marathi volume entitled Morals for Women. In this 145-page work, she pleaded for greater opportunities for India’s demoralized women. Although this book proved successful enough to raise the funds needed to get to England, by author’s request it was never reprinted, like every book she wrote before her conversion to Christianity.
She landed in England in 1883 and was first taken in by the Sisters of Wantage. She had met one of these Anglican Sisters while in Poona and arranged to stay in their Home. The love that these sisters showed toward suffering women at a rescue home they ran left a deep impression on Ramabai: “Here, for the first time, I came to know that something should be done to reclaim the so-called fallen women, and that Christians, whom Hindus considered outcasts and cruel, were kind to these unfortunate women degraded in the eyes of society. I had never heard or seen anything of the kind done for this class of women by the Hindus in my own country.”17
She could not help but contrast the compassion she witnessed with her Hindu society that considered morally destitute women as being the greatest sinners and unworthy of any compassion. The Hindu law demands that the king feed “fallen women” to the dogs on the outskirts of town.
She also visited Rescue Homes at Fulham run by the Sisters of the Cross. When Ramabai inquired as to why these Sisters showed such concern to these fallen women, one of the Sisters shared with her the account of Jesus’ encounter with the “fallen” Samaritan woman in John 4. She told how Jesus came not to despise sinners but to save them. Ramabai was awestruck by the infinite love of Christ. Here is God actually offering salvation to a woman, and a “fallen” woman at that! She realized that “Christ was truly the Divine Savior He claimed to be, and no one but He could transform and uplift the downtrodden womanhood of India and of every land.”18
While still in Wantage, Ramabai received from Rev. Goreh a personal letter that would later be published as a pamphlet entitled, “Is There Any Proof that Christianity is a Divinity-given Religion?” After reading this letter, she became intellectually convinced of the truth of the Christian faith, and she had already been attracted to its proven compassion and hope for women. Though she knew that her conversion would cause a great stir back home, she and her daughter were baptized in the Wantage Parish Church by Dean William Butler, the founder of the Community of St. Mary the Virgin, on September 29, 1883.
Ramabai reminisces, “I knew full well that it would displease my friends and my countrymen very much, but I have never regretted having taken the step. I was hungry for something better than the Hindu Sastras gave. I found it in the Christian Bible and was satisfied.”19 Some back home would later accuse her of being opportunistic in her converting to Christianity, but the truth is that she stood to gain nothing by becoming a Christian.
Quite the contrary, she realized she would be considered a derelict back home and knew that her conversion would likely hinder her ability for effective work in India. The Indu Prakash, a leading newspaper for reform in India, wrote on June 11, 1883, “Ah! What a learned woman! We do however hope the news is utterly false. We all were taken with awe and wonder and were struck by her charms of appearance and the fluent tongue wielding the language; her modest and intelligent instinctive speeches, all so sweet and juicy, all now gone and wasted. Oh Pandita Bai! … You have disappointed a number of friends and admirers, be assured!”20
All that being said, Ramabai saw in retrospect that there was still something vital missing in her newfound faith: “Although I was quite contented with my newly-found religion… my heart longed for something better which I had not found. I came to know eight years after my baptism that I had found the Christian religion which was good enough for me; but I had not found Christ which is the life of religion and ‘the light of every man that cometh into the world.’”21 She still lacked Christ, and in not having Christ, she lacked the one thing needful.
In September of 1884, Ramabai moved to Cheltenham Ladies’ College in England as both a student and a teacher. She taught Sanskrit and studied higher mathematics, natural science, English literature, and Greek. She became close to Dorothea Beale, the renowned English educationist and principal of the college. Ramabai was solidified in her faith through faithfully attending Miss Beale’s Saturday evening Bible lessons.
Travel in America
In February 1886 Ramabai and her four year old daughter set sail for the United States to attend an important graduation at the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia. The graduation was that of Anandibai Joshi, the first Indian woman to earn a medical degree through training in Western medicine.
Ramabai’s original plan was to return soon to England to continue studying and teaching at Cheltenham, but she became increasingly fascinated with America and decided to stay. She developed a more clear vision at this time for what would become her future ministry in India. She dreamed of founding schools in India that combined education and industry. She also realized the need for Kindergarten school in India, so she intently studied the kindergarten systems in America.
During this time she also translated textbooks and gave lectures throughout the United States and Canada. Somehow she also found time to write and get published one of her most important books, The High-Caste Hindu Woman. This was also the first book that she wrote in English. Ramabai dedicated this book to Dr. Anandibai Joshi, who died in February of 1887, less than six months after returning to India.
In The High-Caste Hindu Woman, Ramabai sought to expose the oppression of women in Hindu-dominated India. Dr. Nicol MacNicol summarized the book as being “a passionate indictment of her countrymen, but it is an indictment framed against the past in behalf of the future.”22 In this book, Ramabai unmistakably and unashamedly declares that “Christ is the hope of Indian women.”23 She ended the book with a moving appeal to Americans to come to the aid of the women of India: “In the name of humanity, in the name of your sacred responsibilities as workers in the cause of humanity, and above all, in the most holy name of God, I summon you, true women and men of America, to bestow your help quickly regardless of nation, caste or creed.”24
A group in Boston calling itself the Ramabai Association especially answered this call to action and offered Ramabai $5,000 a year for the next ten years to run a school for child-widows in India. The Association was religiously eclectic, being made up of Unitarians, Episcopalians, Orthodox, Baptists, and Methodists. They committed to support a school that was secular in nature, specifying that “no religious instruction either Hindu or Christian should be given.”25 Ramabai pledged that there would be no public religious observances of any kind. Ramabai herself thought it was not to be an organized Christian group, because she thought it would hinder her ability to reach high-caste Hindu women.
At different points while she was in America she struggled in her newfound Christian faith. The seeming endless sects within Christianity especially confused and troubled her. In fact, she would later look back on the first eight years of her being a Christian as a time in which she had become intellectually convinced of the faith, but Christ had not yet taken a hold of her heart: “It was nobody’s fault that I had not found Christ. My mind at that time had been too dull to grasp the teaching of the Holy Scriptures. The whole Bible had been before me, but I had given too much of my time to the study of other books about the Bible, and had not studied the Bible itself as I should have done…. I gave up the study of other books about the Bible, after my return home from America, and began to read the Bible regularly.”26
She recalls about her spiritual state at the time she left San Francisco in November 1888 to return to Bombay: “My religious belief was so vague at the time that I was not certain whether I would go to heaven or hell after my death. I was not prepared to meet God then.”27
Return to India
When Ramabai returned to India in February 1889, it had been nearly six years since she had been in India. Upon returning to India, Ramabai finished writing and published an account of her travels in America, written in Marathi. The book was entitled The Peoples of the United States and has since been republished in English as Pandita Ramabai’s American Encounter. The work was almost immediately praised as one of the greatest books of the time and was soon used as a textbook at the University of Bombay.
Her goal in writing was to introduce the people of India to the institutions and ideals of a nation that had so much more hope to offer women: “The happiness I derived from seeing the marvelous things in the United States will remain incomplete unless I share it, at least in some measure, with my dear countrymen and women; that is why I am publishing this small volume.”28 Though she criticized some of the American customs and manner, she marveled particularly at the American system of government, the state of education, and the condition of women.
Ramabai wasted no time getting started on her mission for which she had spent the last six years preparing. Only six weeks after arriving in Bombay, Ramabai opened Sarada Sadan, which means “Home of Wisdom.” Sarada Sadan was a school especially for high-caste girls who most felt the oppression of their surrounding society. The school began with only three students, but by the end of the first year there were twenty-five students, five of whom were widows that boarded at the school.
After only a year, Ramabai decided to move from busy Bombay to the more peaceful, smaller city of Poona. She thought that being away from the big city would make her better able to help the high caste widows, of whom she now had eighteen widows in residence.
Though almost all social reform leaders cordially supported Ramabai’s efforts at first, the criticism soon arose when a couple of the child-widows openly expressed their willingness to become Christians. The detractors charged that Ramabai was using the school as a means to convert the girls to Christianity, in spite of the fact that her policy from the beginning, as agreed to by the Ramabai Association, was to grant entire religious liberty to the inmates of her institution.
Ramabai, however, exercised her own religious liberty and refused to conceal her Christianity. When she conducted family worship in her own room, the door remained open for anyone to join. In the face of criticism for this, she insisted, “My Hindu brethren thought I was Christianizing the girls. They wanted me to shut my room when I was reading the Bible and praying. I said: ‘No; I have the same freedom to practice Christianity which these girls have to practice their religion. Why should I shut the door of my own room, which I do not shut at any other time during the twenty-four hours of the day?’ The Hindu friends were much offended at it, and wanted to pull our school down and raise another school on its ruins.”29
One by one the women began coming each morning at 5:00 A.M. to join Ramabai in her hour-long family prayer time. At first they only stayed for the Bible reading time and they would leave when she knelt down to pray. It was all pretty innocuous—that is, until the great change that took place in Ramabai’s life.
The Great Change
In 1891 God used the book From Death into Life by Rev. W. Haslam, an English evangelist. Through the account of his own conversion experience, Ramabai saw her need for such an authentic inward change. Up to this point, she had been content in finding in Christianity a religion that “gave its privileges equally to men and women,” without “distinction of caste color, or sex made in it.”30 She came to realize that she needed Christ himself, not merely his religion: “I realized that I was not prepared to meet God, that sin had dominion over me, and I was not altogether led by the Spirit of God, and had not therefore received the Spirit of adoption, and had no witness of the Spirit that I was a child of God.”31
Although baptized eight years earlier, God now convicted her of her sin and showed her the desperate need she had for true salvation: “The Lord first showed me the sinfulness of sin and the awful danger I was in, of everlasting hell-fire and the great love of God with which He ‘so loved the world, that he gave His only begotten Son.’”32 Finally, she surrendered herself unconditionally to Jesus Christ: “Only those who have been convicted of sin and have seen themselves as God sees them under similar circumstances, can understand what one feels when a great and unbearable burden is rolled away from one’s heart. I shall not attempt to describe how and what I felt at the time when I made an unconditional surrender, and knew that I was accepted to be a branch of the True Vine, a child of God by adoption in Jesus Christ my Savior.”33
Ramabai summarized her experience of discovering new life in Christ: “I can only give a faint idea of what I felt when my mental eyes were opened, and when I who was sitting in darkness saw Great Light, and I felt sure that to me, who but a few moments ago sat in the region and shadow of death, light had sprung up…. I looked to the blessed Son of God, Who was lifted upon the Cross, and there suffered death, even the death of the Cross, in my stead, that I might be made free from the bondage of sin and from the fear of death, and I received life. O the love, the unspeakable love of the Father for me a lost sinner, who gave His only Son to die for me! I had not merited this love, but that was the very reason why He showed it toward me.”34
Her new life in Christ was especially marked by an abundance of joy that she never knew before: “The Holy Spirit made it clear to me from the Word of God, that the salvation which God gives through Christ is present, and not something future. I believed it; I received it; and I was filled with joy…. All the riches, all the gain, all the joys of the world do not begin to compare with the joy OF SALVATION.”35
From this time forward she experienced joy unspeakable and full of glory, for she was receiving the goal of her faith, the salvation of her soul.36 This joy proved to be far too immense to keep hidden under a bushel: “My life is full of joy…. I can scarcely contain the joy and keep it to myself.”37 The joy of the Lord became her strength and empowered her to work indefatigably for her Master.
Ramabai also grew an irresistible burden for evangelism. She needed to share the good news about Jesus Christ with others: “I feel I must tell my fellow creatures what great things the Lord hath done for me. And I feel that if it was possible for Him to save such a great sinner as I am, he is able to save others. The only thing that must be done by me is to tell people of Him, and of His love for sinners, and His great power to save them.”38
The New Work
By July 1892 the Sarada Sadan had forty widows in residence, including girls from ages seven to the forty year-old cook. But after Ramabai’s radical conversion, the work of the school was never the same. Some of the women who had only come for the Bible reading portion of the Ramabai’s family prayers now began to stay and kneel down with Ramabai as she poured out her fervent prayers to her newfound personal Lord and Savior. She also began to encourage the others to cast their own burdens on the Lord. By 1893, out of the 53 girls in the school, 20 made it a habit to attend the family worship and her “Scripture Reading Class.”
In 1893 the gathering storm was unleashed. Two teachers, who did not look on Ramabai’s recent change favorably, arranged to take the girls out for a day-long picnic. Ramabai announced that she and a few of her assistants were going to stay back and spend the time in prayer. Moreover, she said that any of the girls that wanted to stay behind with them could also do so. More than half the girls stayed behind, and they spent all day in prayer and studying the Bible. By the end of the day, twenty of them expressed their desire to follow Christ, and a few received Him as their personal Lord and Savior.
While Ramabai and her Christian assistants met this news with joy, there was an immediate public backlash. Local members of the Advisory Board, including many longtime friends and supporters, sent in resignation letters to the Advisory Committee in Boston because of Ramabai’s active missionary tendencies: “If Sadan is to be conducted as an avowed proselytizing institution we must disavow all connection with it.” Twenty-five girls were at once withdrawn from the school by their guardians. Many who were forced to leave desperately wanted to stay. Even one reformer pronounced that it was better for a girl to be a Devadasi (a Hindu temple prostitute) than to become a Christian.39
An official of the National Indian Association told Ramabai that they would not recommend women to her school because the majority of people spoke ill of Ramabai and her school. Ramabai gracefully, yet boldly, replied, “Though I am sorry that I am thus prevented from helping many women whom I would have been glad to aid in any way, I am not sorry to hear the honored member of the School Board say that all people did not talk well of me and my school, for the Blessed Savior has said: ‘Woe unto you when all men speak well of you.’”40
In 1894 another tempest broke throughout India after the baptism of one of the girl-widows who received Christ. Twenty more girls were immediately withdrawn from the school immediately after the baptism, and Ramabai’s assistant Mary Fuller reports, “Many of the girls were taken away weeping, and Poona was filled with wrath and vituperation.”41 In spite of Ramabai becoming the target of slanderous reports, “she would neither apologize nor vindicate herself.”42 Padmini Sengupta summarizes the heavy persecution Ramabai received at this time: “Anonymous threats to her life reached Ramabai, papers abused her and even scurrilous words were used. Parents were advised to withdraw widows from the Home.”
The more severe the criticism Ramabai received, the more strength God gave her to endure and boldly stand for Him. She displayed this mettle when she gave an address to an antagonistic group of Brahman students at Poona. The Quarterly Paper records the event: “The telling feature was her fearless assertion of the moral and spiritual slavery of the Hindu, and of her hearers as Hindus; their utter inability to help themselves, while yet they were crying out for political privileges; the misery of their domestic system, and especially of the way in which it crushes their women; their weakness in yielding to orthodox clamor when manifest right and justice demanded firmness. Then the Pandita, holding up her Marathi Bible, claimed to read from its pages the real cause of all this moral degradation and helplessness, even their departing from the living God and His service…. Then she wound up by telling them that their opinion of her action, or their threats of doing her physical injury were alike unheeded by her. They might be slaves, but she was free: and how? Because the truth had made her so.”43 Ramabai was born and raised in the furnace of affliction, and one born in the fire will not whither in the heat of the noonday sun.
Ramabai had to give answer to her supporters in America, who were hearing all sorts of charges against her. She wrote to her American friends: “I was a Christian woman and I had a home of my own and a daughter for whom I thought I must make a home. I had made the resolution of Joshua, ‘As for me and my house we will serve the Lord.’ That shall be my resolution to the end…. I let my girls do what they like but I have the freedom with which Christ has made me free, and why should I keep my light under a bushel?”44 Her arguments ultimately proved persuasive. After the President of the American Committee paid a visit to the Sadan, she pledged the continued support of the Ramabai Association.
The blessings from God and the accompanying troubles from her opponents mounted when twelve of the girls in Sadan confessed their new faith in Christ by being baptized in November 1895. The resulting virulent publicity was a load too heavy to bear on her own. Ramabai found comfort and strength in casting her cares upon her Lord. The negative publicity, however, also unintentionally served to get the word out to others that there was a school in Poona for otherwise hopeless women. In spite of the exodus of pupils, there were at least forty-nine in the school by 1896.
In spite of the relentless criticism, Ramabai remained focused on her goal of helping widows. After hearing from a friend about the miserable condition of destitute widows in North India, Ramabai decided in 1895 to disguise herself as a sannyasi (a religious mendicant) in order to get a true picture of the conditions of widows in that region. She was especially horrified at seeing immoral priests reducing thousands of widows to the status of temple prostitutes: “As the agents brought these rich girl widows to the sacred places, the priests persuaded them to serve the sadhus and to worship Krishna. On arrival they were courteously received, but soon they lost both their money and their virtue. Thus they were forced to devote themselves to the vile and immoral worship of Krishna, who was known for his immorality.”45 Ramabai decried: “Oh, the sin and misery and heartless cruelty of men to women which I saw there on every side is beyond description.”46 God used what she witnessed with her own eyes to increase her hunger to reach more of India’s demoralized women.
Throughout this time, Ramabai was encouraged in her walk with Christ by attending various mission evangelistic services. The 1895 Lanowli camp meeting conducted by Rev. Gelson Gregson proved to be “an occasion of special joy” to Ramabai. She brought with her fifteen girls from the Sadan that publicly professed faith in Jesus Christ. God guided her prayers in faith-expanding ways: “Amid the troubles and trials that faced me at that time I rejoiced much to think that the Lord had given me fifteen immortal souls whom I could call my spiritual children. At that time my heart was full of joy and peace, and I offered thanks to the Heavenly Father for having given me fifteen children, and I was, by the Spirit, led to pray that the Lord would be so gracious as to square the number of my spiritual children before the next camp meeting took place.” 47 Even while rejoicing in the fifteen she had seen gloriously saved, God gave her the faith to boldly pray for 225. Ramabai knew that God had given her this prayer, but she did not know how He was going to answer it. God then gave her further assurance, “I then prayed to God to give me a clear word about it, and He graciously gave me the following words: ‘Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is there anything too hard for me’ (Jer. 32:27). This proved to be a rebuke to my unbelieving soul, as well as an assurance of the great things which God meant to do for me.” 48
The answer to the prayer came at the end of 1896, and it illustrates how the sovereign God works all things (even the most terrible things) for the good of His people and for the advancement of His kingdom’s cause. God expanded Ramabai’s work through a devastating famine in which perhaps 10-14 million Indians died. As a result of this tragedy, the national need to help the downcast became all the greater.
The Faith Life
Around this same time, Ramabai read the challenging and inspiring stories of George Muller (The Lord’s Dealings with George Muller), Hudson Taylor (The Story of the China Inland Mission), and John Paton (The Life of John G. Paton, Founder of the New Hebrides Mission). These men of faith trusted in God alone for everything. Their lives stirred within Ramabai a yearning to see God do such great work in her land: “I wondered after reading their lives if it were not possible to trust the Lord in India as in other countries. I wished that there were some missions founded in this country which would be a testimony to the Lord’s faithfulness to His people, and that truthfulness to what the Bible says in a practical way.”49
The more she prayed for God to raise up faith workers, the more she heard God calling her to live such a faith life: “I questioned in my mind over and over again, why some missionaries did not come forward to found faith-missions in India. Then the Lord said to me, ‘Why don’t you begin to do this yourself, instead of wishing for others to do it? How easy it is for anyone to wish that some one else would do a difficult thing, instead of doing it himself.’ I was greatly rebuked by the ‘Still Small Voice’ which spoke to me.”50
Ramabai learned from the Word of God and by His Spirit that she should completely trust in God to provide for the work that He called her to do. Henceforth, Ramabai decided to conduct her work purely on the basis of faith. Her heavenly Father would meet all her needs through fasting and prayer: “I was led by the Lord to step forward and start new work, trusting Him both for temporal and spiritual blessings.”51
The American Ramabai Association had committed to supporting the Sadan for ten years (until 1898). With all the mounting criticism, she wondered if she could count on such support in the future. This was especially true as she grew increasingly convinced that God was calling her to do a work that was even more overtly evangelistic.
As early as 1892, Ramabai devised a plan to purchase a large piece of farmland in rural Kedgaon and plant orange, lime, and mango trees on it. The idea was that the income from the produce would help maintain the school. This would make the school self-supporting, and not dependent on support from others.
When Ramabai proposed this idea to the American Committee, they rejected the plan. But Ramabai decided to trust in God and pray for the needed $60,000 that they would need to purchase the land. She and her assistant resolved to pray without making their need known to others. As they prayed for two years, the money they needed gradually trickled in. Then an unexpected cablegram came from America. She was overjoyed to discover that her friends in America had raised for her sufficient money to complete the purchase of the 100-acre plot.
For Ramabai this faith life was a more complete obedience and a more unreserved surrender. She reflects about this new way of faith, upon which she would journey the rest of her life: “I feel very happy since the Lord called me to step out in faith and I obeyed. To depend upon Him for everything, for spiritual life, for bodily clothing, for food, water, clothing and all other necessities—in short, to realize by experiment that the promises of God are true and most blessed.”52
When the great famine came at the end of 1896, Ramabai began to see the need of using her newly purchased farmland for more than just producing crops. Although she wondered what one weak woman could do to help the dying thousands, “Louder and louder spoke the voice of God from within my heart: ‘Remember the days of old’; ‘Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee,’ and ‘Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?’ I could no longer keep still, and I started off for the Central Provinces.”53
God put it on her heart to save three thousand girls out of the famine districts, but at this point she spent whatever funds she had supporting the fifty people at the Sadan. How could she find resources to feed three thousand when she only had enough to feed fifty? Her faith response: “I do not know, but the Lord knows what I need.” The God who could feed five thousand with five loaves of bread and two small fish could multiply her resources in order to help three thousand famine victims.
Ramabai would go with her assistants into the famine areas. At one point, she gathered six hundred destitute girls from the famine areas. She sent half of them to other aid missions and sent the other half to the farmland that she now began to call the Mukti Sadan (“Home of Salvation”). In 1897 God supplied through prayer (and no advertizing) $85,000 for the work at Mukti farm. Mukti soon became a refuge for hundreds more, including orphaned boys.
Mukti Mission (as it came to be known) became much more than a rescue home or a school. It became a full-fledged industrial center, in which boys and girls not only received an education, but they learned practical work skills, such as teaching, nursing, weaving, and sewing. Unlike Sarada Sadan, however, the salvation of souls was the explicit chief end of the Mukti Mission. This deliberate change of purpose led to Ramabai’s returning back to America to help form a new Ramabai Association that would support conversions to take place freely, as long as it remained voluntary.
On her way back from America she attended the Keswick Convention in England, and she was given five minutes to speak. She asked for the believers to pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all Christians in India and that God would raise up 100,000 Indian men and women to preach the gospel throughout India. By the end of 1898, thirty-five girls formed the Mukti mission band and pledged their lives for Christian work.
Ramabai was constantly doing the work of administering Mukti. She met each morning and gave the daily orders to the leaders of every department—the head carpenter, the chief matron, the leading mason, the foreman of the weaving dept, the chief typesetter, etc. Her assistant Mary Fuller describes Ramabai’s work ethic: “Ramabai was everywhere, directing, helping, finding out malingerers, prodding on laggards, encouraging and teaching the diligent, and doing many things with her own hands. Anywhere on those busy hundred acres might be seen the indomitable little generalissimo—in her spotless widow’s white—who like George Muller trusted God as if all depended upon Him and worked as if all depended upon her. She was tireless—though often tired beyond telling—never ceasing in prayer, ever gallant in faith and resolute in praising God through fair and foul weather.”54 Ramabai most often arose before 4:00 A.M. and worked until half past eight at night.
In December 1897, Ramabai dedicated the Mukti land to the future work of the Lord. The theme verse for the “Home of Salvation” would be Isaiah 60:18: “Thou shalt call thy walls Salvation and thy gates Praise.” At Mukti, Ramabai cared for the physical needs of widows and famine refugees, but she was chiefly concerned about the state of their souls. She was especially interested in training “Bible women” for evangelizing the surrounding areas. Ramabai also bought twenty-two more acres adjacent to Mukti land and made it into a Rescue Home (Kripa Sadan) for “fallen” women, who had been cast out of society due to their moral failures. By 1900, the Rescue Home housed three hundred fallen women. She also established a day school for lower-caste village children, to which she actually paid a penny a day for them to attend.
Even while the Mukti Mission was getting itself established in Kedgaon, God was working mightily at Sarada Sadan in Poona. Rev. W. W. Bruere conducted special evangelistic services there in October 1897. The Spirit of God came in power and many came to know Christ. By the end of the services, seventy-three from the home were baptized, including a number of the older girls and one of Ramabai’s long-time Brahman associates. And on November 6, 1897, as a result of Rev. Bruere’s preaching, seventeen cartloads of young women traveled to the river Bhima, six miles away, to confess their faith in Christ and be baptized. Witnesses recall the women joyfully singing all the back to the Sadan.
Since they now had enough land at Kedgaon, Ramabai decided to incorporate the Sarada Sadan work into the Mukti Mission site, which was about 32 miles away. Having it all on one site made it easier for Ramabai to manage the ever-growing work. With all the expansion, the Mukti Mission employed between 80 and 120 workmen on their building projects. At the end of each workday, a missionary or Ramabai herself would preach to the workers and many were converted.
All money that Ramabai received she spent on the work at Mukti. She described her life thusly, “I am literally penniless, with no income of any kind. I own nothing on earth except a few clothes and my Bible.”55 Nevertheless, Ramabi became convinced that Mukti needed to learn the blessing of giving: “We have been great receivers and we ought to be great, large givers.”56 Ramabai began tithing all money that came to Mukti by giving to various Christian causes. She sent more than 5,000 rupees to sufferers from the Boxer Rebellion in China. In the last ten years of her life, Ramabai donated 11,000 rupees to the Bible Society.
Four years earlier, Ramabai had only enough funds to support fifty people, but now God provided above and beyond what she could ask or imagine. By 1900 God provided enough to care for 1,900 residents and over a hundred cattle. This was all brought about through earnest prayer and frequent fasting.
The Revival at Mukti
Ramabai began to hear how God was pouring out his Spirit in revival in various parts of the world. She heard about the movement of new life that God was bringing to Australia through the ministry of R. A. Torrey, and she sent her daughter Manoramabai and her assistant Miss Abrams to Australia in 1903. Ramabai also heard about the great outpouring of the Spirit in Wales.
At the beginning of 1905, the Lord led Ramabai to start a special prayer circle at Mukti to pray for revival: “There were about 70 of us who met together each morning and prayed for true conversion of all the Indian Christians, including ourselves, and for a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all Christians of every land.”57 By the end of six months 550 women were meeting twice a day to pray for this revival.
Six months into the prayer circles, the unusual outpouring of the Holy Spirit began. On the evening of June 29, Ramabai walked into one of the prayer meetings and found a roomful of women on their knees weeping, praying, confessing their sins and calling upon God to empower them with the Holy Spirit. Helen Dyer describes what happened the next night: “While Pandita Ramabai was quietly expounding the Scriptures in the church to the members of the prayer circle, the Holy Spirit descended and many began to pray aloud. They burst out in tears and loud cries. Little children, middle-sized girls, and young women, wept bitterly and confessed their sins. Some saw visions and experienced the power of God and things that are too deep to be described. Two little girls had the spirit of prayer poured on them in such great torrents that they continued to pray for hours. They were transformed, with heavenly light shining on their faces.”58
Miss Abrams reports, “From that time, our Bible school was turned into an inquiry room. Girls stricken down under conviction of sin while in school, or in the industrial school, or at their work, were brought to us. Lessons were suspended and we all, teachers and students, entered the school conducted by the Holy Spirit.”59
Ramabai summarizes the revival that came after the six months of concentrated prayer: “In six months from the time we began to pray in this manner the Lord graciously sent a glorious Holy Ghost revival among us, and also in many schools and churches in this country. The results of this have been most satisfactory. Many hundreds of our girls and boys have been gloriously saved, and many of them are serving God and witnessing for Christ at home and in other places.”60
Two weeks later, Ramabai took a band of assistants into nearby Poona, and the revival spread to orphanages and schools there. It eventually spread to various missions operating in India. There were daily Bible studies, prayer meetings, and evangelistic services held at Mukti during this time of revival. Rev. Franklin, an American missionary, wrote, “We are now seeing the results of God’s work in transfigured lives marked by intercessory prayer, Bible study, and more preaching to the heathen. Bible study and prayer have characterized the work here from its beginning and were the preparation for the revival, yet both have been deepened by the revival.”61
Ramabai wrote of the fruit the revival was producing: “Seven hundred girls and women of the Mukti people have given themselves to prayer and the study of God’s Word that they might go to the place where God sends them to take the Gospel. They are already visiting the villages around where they sing Gospel hymns and read the Word of God to the village people. About sixty go out daily by turns so that each one gets her turn every twelfth day. They pray regularly for those they visit. The Lord put this plan in my heart and He is going before.”62
Ramabai testifies that one result of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was that they were given a spirit of prayer that could spend hours praying for others. By January 1906, prayer bands at Mukti were praying for 29,000 people by name. Mary Fuller recalls that in Ramabai’s Bible were listed hundreds of girls for whom she prayed, some of whom are “the saddest derelicts, and the halt and the maimed and the blind,” but she “called all these afflicted ones by the names of ‘friends,’ lest any despise them.”63
While the focus of the revival was the abandonment of evil practices and the experience of joy in newfound salvation, the various extraordinary physical manifestations (e.g., sensation of burning, simultaneous prayer, speaking in tongues) soon attracted the attention and concern of others. Ramabai herself did not have a large share in these manifestations, but she never sought to restrain them. She gave her defense to critics in the Mukti Prayer Bell in 1907: “Love, perfect divine love, is the only and most necessary sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. But other gifts, such as the power to heal, to speak with tongues, to prophecy, are not to be discarded.”64
Rev. Butcher of Church Missionary Society speaks of his witnessing the phenomenon of simultaneous prayer during the Mukti revival: “It was impossible to hear what anyone was praying about in the volume of sound which arose and which might continue for an hour or more at a stretch.” He tells of Ramabai’s daughter Manoramabai participating in it. She told him that “they had never been able to give God praise or worship in such a satisfying way till they did so in tongues.” Although Rev. Butcher was reticent to acknowledge the validity of the more unusual manifestations of the Spirit, he concluded, “I could not help seeing what a number of splendidly devoted workers she had, women very truly converted and spirit-filled, with keen love for God and for His Word and also with a keen evangelistic spirit.”65
Manoramabai went to England and America in 1908, and she described the work of the Mukti revival: “The story of the work at Mukti is just the story of proving God. To my mother it is always God who has done all, never herself.”67
Her Latter Work
Ramabai never lost her thirst for learning. He scholarly interests just became increasingly channeled toward the Word of God. She had for a long time been dissatisfied with the available Marathi translation of the Bible: “Almost all the vernacular translations of the Bible were made with the help of Hindu pandits for the sake of putting the translations in the correct language. Consequently, they have many words which teach purely Hindu ideas of religion. There are some words which cannot be separated from idolatrous ideas. They make wrong impressions on non-Christian hearers, and if done knowingly it is dangerous and sinful to use them.”68
Convinced that it contained many Sanskrit words that introduced Hindu ideas alien to the gospel, she sensed a divine calling to put the Scriptures into the simplest form of Marathi speech, so that common people could easily understand God’s Word. In order to do this, Ramabai undertook the onerous task of mastering the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew. She eventually became as familiar with these languages as she was with English or Sanskrit.
Ramabai essentially spent every moment she could spare in her already incredibly busy days to the work of translating and printing her Marathi version of Bible. The missionary L. Couch observed, “Though twelve hours a day are spent by her at the office, at the Bible work, still she works in her room as well.”69 She began the work of translating the Bible in 1904 and completed the whole Bible only a few months before her death in 1922. She refused to allow any of her Bible translations to be sold.Mukti Mission ran its own printing press. Ramabai herself trained the girls to become experts in the printing trade. Between 1904 and 1922, Mukti had between seventy and 110 people employed in the printing department. They printed various tracts and translations of portions of the Bible. Ramabai’s Bible women distributed more than 100,000 copies of her translation of the Gospels.
The work of the Mukti Mission continued for the rest of Ramabai’s life. She trusted in the Lord to provide the $200 a day that was necessary to cover all the costs. In the 1910 issue of Mukti Prayer Bell, Ramabai testified about their complete trust in God: “The Mukti Mission depends wholly upon God…. God’s children who desire to pray for it need not consider themselves under any obligation to pay money for its support. The prayers of God’s people are more precious than silver or gold.”70Manoramabai tells how Mukti Mission ran on a short supply line, never having more than a day’s supply on hand: “The manna came day by day, and as our God gives our children their spiritual food of a morning, so He also supplies our temporal needs.”71
Ramabai fondly reflects on the faithfulness of the living God: “I am spared all trouble and care, casting my burdens upon the Lord. There are over 1500 people living here. We are not rich or great, but we are happy and getting our daily bread directly from the hand of our Heavenly Father, having not a pice over and above our daily necessities, having no banking account anywhere, no endowment or income from any earthly source, but depending altogether on our Father God. We have nothing to fear from anybody, nothing to lose, and nothing to regret. The Lord is our Inexhaustible Treasure.”72
During another food crisis in 1919, around five hundred famine victims turned to Mukti Mission for help. One man remarked at the time, “If Bai did not pay so much money to these people she could build a very big bungalow.” Another responded: “Bai is building bungalows in heaven.”73
Rachel Nalder, who met Ramabai in Nova Scotia, gave this touching description of her Indian friend: “My husband and I felt that we had a greater honor put upon us than if we had entertained our gracious Queen Victoria. I believe Pandita Ramabai is one of God’s queens, towering far above all of the white queens. I look upon that brown-faced Christian as head and shoulders above many other Christians of whom I have seen thousands. How is it? It is because of her single eye to God’s glory. She has but one idea, one ideal, and that is that she may reflect the Lord Jesus Christ. Pandita Ramabai radiates the Lord Jesus. You could not get into her presence without knowing the direct power of the Lord Jesus. If she were here she would not tell you of any of the things she has done but would be telling you of what Christ has done.”74In 1920 Ramabai’s body began to flag and she designated her daughter as the one who would take over the ministry of Mukti Mission. But God had other plans. On July 24, 1921, God called Manoramabai home to glory at the age of forty.
Though the loss was heavy, Ramabai trusted steadfastly in the Lord even in this painful trial. She wrote about this severe blow to the Association in America: “Let me thank you for your loving sympathy. All I have to say is, ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.’”75
Ramabai was too ill to attend her daughter’s funeral. She firmly believed she would soon see her daughter. Nine months later, Ramabai, who had been suffering from septic bronchitis, went to be with her Lord… and her daughter. She died on April 5, 1922, a few weeks before her 64th birthday.
Jessie Ferguson, a missionary on staff, describes the scene at Ramabai’s deathbed: “At five a.m. we were aroused by a cry and knew without any telling what had happened. Only one word was on our lips—Bai! And only too true was the thought that filled our hearts with alarm, and which we hoped against hope was a mistaken one. We hurried around and found that a crowd had gathered near Bai’s door. We went into her room and there she lay upon her bed as though in a sound sleep—and such it was… Her face shown with glory and beauty and only one word seemed to come to everyone’s lips: Beautiful. No earthly beauty but the beauty and peace and joy of a soul whose home is God’s.” An old Brahman widow, bent with age, who had endured many fastings and hardships since she had been cast out by her family, cried, “O Great Mother, Great Mother, whom now shall I call ‘Mother’? Who will care for me?”76
Shortly before her death, Ramabai summarized the tenor of her life: “I must praise and praise and PRAISE the Lord with all of my heart for all His goodness to me and mine. How great and wonderful are all of His mercies! He continues to bless His children at Mukti, lifting up the fallen, warming up the cold and lukewarm, healing our backslidings and loving us freely, according to His promises and the unspeakable riches of His goodness. I do not deserve the least of His goodness but it is like Him that He is so ‘merciful and gracious, slow to anger, plenteous in mercy.’”77
The Spirit, the Word, and the Life of Faith
A revival is an outpouring of Holy Spirit, which results in God’s Word being honored and people coming to true faith in Jesus Christ. These elements of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God, and the life of faith radiate throughout the life of Pandita Ramabai. Basil Miller highlights all three of these aspects of her walk with Christ: “The Lord taught her by His Word and His Spirit that she should trust Him implicitly.”78 In the 1909 Mukti Prayer Bell, Ramabai shared her heart’s desire: “We want more workers filled with the Holy Spirit who will give themselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the Word.”79
The remarkable life of Pandita Ramabai poses three challenges for believers today:
1) Seek the Holy Spirit—Ramabai did not labor for the Lord in her own strength: “I found it a great blessing to realize the personal presence of the Holy Spirit in me and to be guided and taught by Him. The Holy Spirit taught me how to appropriate every promise of God in the right way and to obey His voice. I am sorry that I failed to obey Him many a time but He tendered rebukes and showed me my faults… Since 1891 I have tried to witness for Christ in my weakness and I have always found that it is the greatest joy of Christian life to tell people of Christ and His great love for sinners.”80We too must yearn for such personal communion with and empowerment by the Holy Spirit.
2) Honor the Word—Some criticize Ramabai for devoting the final years of her life doing the scholarly work of translating the Bible. Secularists bemoan that she could have done more to help the cause of the liberation of women in India. Christians may hold that she could have spent the time evangelizing. But Ramabai was one who herself had been born again through the living and enduring Word of God. She made this clear in 1896 to the Brahman students she addressed in Poona when she boldly declared that though they were still slaves, she had been set free by the truth of God’s Word. She was convinced the Bible contains the words of life and that its gospel message is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes. Ramabai’s passion became to make the precious Word of God available to more people. We too must ask the Holy Spirit to engender in us such an overwhelming passion for God’s Word.
3) Live by Faith—Ramabai found joy in taking God on his promises and depending on her heavenly Father for everything. Faith expresses itself in prayer. A visitor to Mukti once remarked on the atmosphere of prayer she found there: “Pandita Ramabai, whom God has placed at the head of this work, is one whom you seldom see or hear. She goes in and out so quietly and yet nothing escapes her notice. She is helped by her daughter and a few Indian and European workers, but shall I whisper the grand secret of success—success not as the world counts it, but success from God’s point of view. It is this: the whole of the work is begun and carried on in prayer, yea, the place seems impregnated with prayer. Night and day goes on in a ceaseless stream. God seems to be in the atmosphere and you feel that His glory is the grand aim.”81 Is your life impregnated with prayer? What about your family or your church?
In describing a service at Mukti that she attended, Rachel Nalder also identified Ramabai’s secret to her success: “Everyone carried a Bible and hymnbook and closed their eyes and prostrated themselves during prayer. Pandita Ramabai knelt in prayer during the greater part of the service and I realized that this is the secret of all of this marvelous work for the gathering in of those jewels for the crown of Jesus. Truly here is an object lesson of the truth, ‘Prayer changes things.’”82
What is God calling you to do by faith and to commit to through serious prayer? We do not need Pandita Ramabai; we need the God of Pandita Ramabai. The same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwells in you, and the same Spirit that raised Pandita Ramabai to spiritual life and used her to lead thousands of people to saving faith—this same Spirit dwells in you, if you are a true believer.
After Elijah departed, Elisha prayed, “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” (2 Kings 2:14). We too can earnestly and expectantly pray, “Where now is the Lord, the God of Pandita Ramabai?”
1 Padmini Sengupta, Pandita Ramabai Saraswati: Her Life and Work (Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1970), 25.
2 Pandita Ramabai, A Testimony, 3-4.
3 Ibid., 11.
4 Ibid., 4
5 Ibid., 6.
6 MacNicol, 69.
7 Ibid., 68.
8 Sengupta, 1.
10 Ibid., 11.
11 Ibid., 9.
12 Ibid., 9. She saw the same hopelessness for those of lower castes (the Sudras). The law books assert that “the Sudra who dares to learn a verse or verses of the Veda must be punished by having intensely hot liquor poured down his throat” (Testimony, 10). The Sudras are seen as pigs, and their only hope is in being content in living in their degraded condition. If they are faithful to their dharma (their caste-determined religious duty), they may be born in a higher caste after millions of reincarnations.
13 MacNicol, 84.
15 MacNicol, 93.
16 Sengupta, 97.
18 Ibid., 14.
19 Ibid., 14-15.
20 Sengupta, 141.
21 Ibid., 15.
22 MacNicol, 119.
23 Miller, 41.
24 Quoted in Sengupta, 174.
25 Ibid., 175.
27 Ibid., 27.
28 Pandita Ramabai, Pandita Ramabai: Through Her Own Words (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000), 53. (Meera Kosambi, ed.).
29 Manoramabai, Pandita Ramabai, The Widow’s Friend, 116-117. Quoted in Sengupta, 204-205.
31 Ibid., 17.
32 Ibid., 17.
33 Ibid., 17.
34 Ibid., 18.
35 Ibid., 21, 23.
36 1 Peter 1:8-9.
38 Ibid., 22.
39 Sengupta, 215.
40 Manoramabai, Pandita Ramabai, The Widow’s Friend, 122. Quoted in Sengupta, 216.
41 Mary L. B. Fuller, The Triumph of an Indian Widow, 33. Quoted in Sengupta, 217.
42 Ibid., 33. Quoted in Sengupta, 217.
43 Quarterly Paper, May 1896, quoted in MacNicol, 154.
44 Quoted in Miller, 57.
45 Ibid., 58.
46 MacNicol, 140.
47 Ibid., 143.
48 Sengupta, 232.
50 Ibid., 24.
51 Ibid., 25.
52 From Testimony, as quoted by Miller, 61.
53Pandita Ramabai, Australasian Edition, 130. Quoted in MacNicol, 147.
54 Quoted in Miller, 79.
55 Quoted in MacNicol, 160.
56 Quoted in Miller, 82.
58 Helen Dyer, Pandita Ramabai: The Story of Her Life, (London: Morgan and Scott), 102.
59 Quoted in Miller, 86.
61 Quoted in Miller, 88.
62 Ibid., 89.
63 Quoted in MacNicol, 169.
64 Ibid., 171.
65 Ibid., 173.
66 Quoted in Miller, 88.
67 Ibid., 97.
68 Ibid., 94.
69 Ibid., 100.
70 Ibid., 103.
71 Ibid., 106.
73 Quoted in Miller, 111.
74 Ibid., 114-115 (italics added).
75 Quoted in Sengupta, 303.
76 Quoted in Miller, 118-119.
77 Ibid., 117.
78 Ibid., 61.
79 Ibid., 100.
81 Miller, 102 (italics added).
82 Ibid., 115 (italics added).
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