In 1989, the government of India issued a stamp finally acknowledging a woman that Hindu India did not want to recognize. Her name was Pandita Ramabai (1858–1922), and this stamp was issued on the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Mukti Mission, a place of refuge she founded in 1889 for low-caste and outcaste girls who were trafficked and abused. I would like to introduce some thoughts on Ramabai’s work during the great bubonic plague pandemic which struck the world, and especially India, between 1896 and 1918. Those were the most crucial years of Ramabai’s work, especially her Bible translation work.
Ramabai’s Early Life and Conversion
Pandita Ramabai was born in 1858. Her father was a wandering Hindu Brahmin priest, which meant that his family traveled with him from one temple to another in South India, and they lived on the alms given by the devotees of the gods and goddesses. She lost her father, mother, and sister during the great famine of 1876–78, which killed an estimated five million people. Ramabai and her brother fled South India for Calcutta, where they wandered from one Hindu temple to another.
Ramabai was trained in Sanskrit and in the knowledge of the Hindu texts by her father and mother. She was a skillful interpreter, though her knowledge was technically forbidden. Yet reading these Hindu texts also made Ramabai intensely aware of the unjust place given to women in Hindu society. In her autobiography, she wrote, “There were two things on which all those books . . . were agreed: women of high and low caste, as a class, were bad, very bad, worse than demons, and that they could not get Moksha [salvation] as men.”1
Ramabai’s quest for a solution for girls, widows, and low-caste women led her to explore the teachings of Jesus from the book of Luke, which she found in her husband’s library. She wrote, “I had found a little pamphlet in my library. I do not know how it came there, but I picked it up and began to read it with great interest. It was St. Luke’s Gospel in the Bengali language.”2 The story of Jesus’s interactions with women in particular grabbed her attention. Throughout the text, whenever women encountered Jesus, he elevated their status and offered them spiritual, emotional, and social salvation. This was a great contrast to the place of women in Hindu texts.
Against the advice of her Hindu leaders, Ramabai became a follower of Jesus, and her work with the low-caste and outcaste women of India began. She deemed it “of first importance to prepare the way for the spread of the gospel by throwing open the locked doors of Indian zenanas [a place of seclusion in the house for women], which cannot be done safely without giving suitable education to the women.”3 The emancipation of low-caste girls and women became her life’s work.
Ramabai’s Motivation to Rescue
When the bubonic plague hit Mumbai and Poona (today called Pune) in 1896, Ramabai knew that low-caste girls and women would face the worst of the pandemic. Girl babies and sacred prostitutes from low castes were offered to the gods Ganesha and Yellamma. Ganesha’s vehicle, the rat god, was worshiped alongside him, with rats living and fed in temple precincts. Because rats were also one of the primary ways the plague spread, low-caste girls were the most vulnerable to infection. During the pandemic, girls were secluded by high-caste authorities on the pretext that they were being checked out for signs of the plague. Then the girls would disappear from these seclusion centers, becoming sexual slaves/mistresses to these high-caste men. Ramabai knew the truth about what was going on, so she went deep into villages to rescue these girls.
In a letter to her supporters in 1897, she wrote that she had no choice but to do something about the plight of these women and girls. “My heart sank within me, and I cried to God for help. I feel deeply for these poor dying people.”4 Against the advice of people around her, she decided to do something. Her desire to serve was fueled by two Scripture verses: “Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondsman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee” (Deut. 15:15, KJV), and “Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esth. 4:14, KJV).5
Ramabai was also motivated by her memories of her own state of servitude in Hindu society. She sought to always remember what Hinduism did to her sister: her father married her teenage sister to a much older man who severely abused her. She died at a very young age in poverty, hunger, and disease. Ramabai herself must have suffered much during the wanderings from one temple to another as an orphan with her brother.
Ramabai established Mukti Mission, “House of Salvation,” for these girls. She rescued girls and women from the brothels of Mumbai and Poona, and widows and low-caste girls from the local villages. High-caste men would promise low-caste and outcaste parents in villages that their daughters would get good jobs in big cities. When they were brought to cities, they were sold into brothels. Sadly, this happens even today. When low-caste girls today must travel away from low-caste and outcaste villages, they are raped by high-caste young men. It was worse during the time of Ramabai.
The Daughters of Ramabai
The 1896 bubonic plague in India was a massive tragedy. Ramabai knew that there was a direct connection between the bubonic plague, Hinduism, and gender injustice against low-caste people. Ramabai tirelessly sought to right this injustice. At her own personal risk, she went on bullock carts to rescue hundreds of low-caste girls, orphans, and widows, to bring them to safety and nurture them to health. Ramabai is an amazing model of how a correct understanding of the Bible leads to liberation of the weak and vulnerable. In history, the weak and vulnerable have often been women.
In my last visit to the red-light districts of Pune and Mumbai, I saw freed and bold “daughters of Ramabai” do amazing work. They are freeing today’s slaves because of the impact of Ramabai’s Bible translation and legacy on their lives. I also find fascinating that during the coronavirus shutdown in Mumbai and Pune, the red-light districts are empty of high-caste men. They did not care about passing on their sexually transmittable diseases to these village girls previously. But now, scared of the coronavirus, they have disappeared. The only people holding the hands of the prostitutes of Mumbai and Pune today are the “daughters of Ramabai”! What a lasting legacy!
1. Pandita Ramabai, A Testimony: of Our Inexhaustible Treasure (Kedgaon, MA: Mukti, 1907), 6.
2. Ramabai, A Testimony, 9.
3. Ramabai, A Testimony, 118–19.
4. Meera Kosambi, Pandita Ramabai: Life and Landmark Writings (New York, NY: Routledge, 2016).
5. Kosambi, Pandita Ramabai, 223.
Boaz Johnson is a keynote speaker at “Men, Women, and God: Theology and Its Impact,” CBE’s international conference in London, scheduled for August 11–14, 2021. Learn more here.