Pandita Ramabai was born a Brahmin, the highest Hindu caste in India. Her father defied Hindu tradition and taught his daughters to learn the Hindu holy texts. This progressive bent was surprising, considering he married Ramabai’s mother when she was only nine years old. However, at an early age both of her parents died of starvation during a national famine, leaving Ramabai and her brother as orphans. To stay alive, they traversed India performing recitations of the holy Hindu texts to earn income. Ramabai was so adept at recitations that she was noticed by Hindu scholars of her day and became an example of what Indian women could accomplish if they were allowed to study.
Like her father, Pandita Ramabai defied strict Hindu tradition and married a man from a lower caste. Though her husband died young, through her experiences in marriage and life, Ramabai was exposed to the evils of Hinduism that devalued women and low caste people. She found that women in particular suffered from child marriage, wife burning, the denial of education, temple prostitution, abandonment, and more. Thus, when she was exposed to Christianity in the late 1800’s she became convinced that Christ was good news for Indian women. But Ramabai was concerned about the Christian faith she saw in India on two counts.
First, she discovered that Indian Bible translations incorporated Hindu ideas that were oppressive to low caste people and women. To address this need, she deepened her studies of Greek and Hebrew, and then translated the entire Bible into Marathi, the Indian language in her area. This translation was true to the Jesus she had learned about from missionaries and in her own studies. Ramabai’s translation no longer used Hindu terms, ideas, and names for God that symbolized oppression and racism to low caste men and women.
Second, she felt that women needed a safe place to recover and experience salvation. So, she founded the Mukti Mission, which means “Salvation Mission.” Her mission housed 800 abandoned babies, the blind, the handicapped, abandoned mothers, and the ill. Within the strictly separated caste system of India, this mission radically embodied the egalitarian stance of the gospel, by requiring all the women – whether from high or low caste – to work alongside one another according to their ability to help care for one another and the operation of the Mission. Just as Galatians 3:28 declares there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or freed, there is no longer male and female; for you all one in Christ, the women of Mukti Mission learned to work together, to serve and be served as a family. Her work was so impressive that secular and Hindu Indians replicated these homes to bring healing to women.
Ramabai’s intelligence, work, and studies were noted and appreciated by India. To honor her, her image was placed on a national postage stamp of India – a high honor for an amazing Christian mother of the faith who impacted thousands of lives through her writings and service to the poor and marginalized.
To learn more, see: “Pandita Ramabai’s Legacy: How Gender Conscious Bible Translation Impacts Ministry” by Boaz Johnson.
To learn more about women Bible translators, see: “Correcting Caricatures: Women and Bible Translation,” by Mimi Haddad.