Sunday, June 16, 2013

The freedom to Be - Pandita Ramabai

Book cover Rewriting History
Over two months have passed since I have held two books in my hand. One, more recently, Against the madness of Manu, Dr B R Ambedkar’s writings on Brahminical Patriarchy, selected and introduced by well known scholar, Dr Sharmila Rege. The other, Dr Uma Chakravarti’s Rewriting history – The life and times of Pandita Ramabai. I have not read two books that make me revert back and forth to each other, so often. Both books are extremely engaging and very scholarly. But, today, I will write of Pandita Ramabai, because, she was blessed with parents who broke the cast, and caste rules, and brought up a daughter who cannot be forgotten to the history of women, who were scholarly and independent, who were able to be free flowing and to invent a word –“un-castable”.

Ramabai’s father, Anant Shastri Dongre, was born a Brahmana and lettered in Sanskrit which was a language that could not be taught to anyone outside the Brahmana caste, nor could it be taught to women. However, Dongre broke the first law by trying to teach his wife, Sanskrit but her family came hammer and tong on him forcing him to abort the effort. Many years later, now a widower, Dongre, married the 9 year old Lakshmibai, (Dongre himself was at that time, 44 years old), and found a keen learner of Sanskrit in her. Under much pressure for his non-conformist behaviour, Dongre preferred to move into the forest and start an ashram, which was managed by the couple. It is here that Pandita Ramabai was born, and her first letters were studied in Sanskrit and of course the sacred books of the Hindus. Having gone out of pocket, the family now began their pilgrimage around places, a pauranikars, that is public narrators of the Puranas. This lifestyle also was accompanied by a life of sannyasa, which means, the family lived on alms provided by the people to whom they taught the Puranas. A life of a wandering minstrel brought Ramabai close to knowledge and renunciation, both, at one and the same time. After many years of travel and starvation, Anant Shastri Dongre, performed jala samadhi, a practice by which he drowned himself to be shortly followed by his grief-stricken wife, Lakshmibai. The children, Srinivas and Ramabai, survived, even as the eldest sister passed away and in 1878, arrived in Calcutta.

For the intellectual imaginative cream in Calcutta, Ramabai, unmarried and knowledgeable became the symbol of the return of Maitreye and Gargi, who followed their husband Yagnavalkya, to the forest to seek Knowledge, leaving all possessions behind. On the behest of Keshav Chandra Sen, who founded the Brahmo Samaj in Bengal, Ramabai, began to study the Vedas, which were gifted to her by Sen. The Vedas, Upanishads and the Vedanta, and the Brahma Sutras were texts which were not allowed to be read by women, even if they were Brahmanas, which she was.

“IX.18. Women have no right to study the Vedas. That is why their Sabskars (rites) are performed without Veda Mantras. Women have no knowledge of religion because they have no right to know the Vedas. The uttering of the Veda mantras is useful for removing sin. As women cannot utter the Veda mantras they are as untruth is”. (Quotation from Manu, Against the madness of Manu, selected and introduced by Sharmila Rege, p.121)

Indeed, the reading of these texts caused much dissatisfaction in Ramabai, because it became clear that the status of women and low caste men, were seen very poorly. Her engagement with Bengal’s intellectuals about uplifting women became a focus. The Hindu religious texts were an eye-opener for her. She saw the dominance of Brahmana patriarchy through them. It is at this juncture that she met with another tragedy in her life, that being the death of her only surviving sibling, Srinivas, to an illness. Alone, in the world, she accepted the marriage proposal from her brother’s friend, from Sylhet, now in Bangladesh. Bipin Bihari Medhavi, was a sudra, and her marriage with him in the Civil Court, proved another slap on the face of Brahamanical tradition, of endogamy and marriage by performing religious rites. In her own words, “Having lost faith in the religion of my ancestors, I married a Bengali man of shudra caste” (Rewriting History, The life and times of Pandita Ramabai, by Uma Chakravarti, p. 310) The marriage lasted for only 3 – 4 years and Ramabai was left a widow, with a daughter to fend for. She returned to her place of origin, this time with child, in 1882, when the reformists in Poona, Maharashtra called her back. But in orthodox Poona, as a widow, engaged with talking of uplifting women in Public discourses, the scorn of the Brahmana community in Poona was not far. Indeed, even the wives of reformers like Justice Ranade wrote with unabashed venom, fearing that, she might now convert to Christianity, far worse than marrying even a sudra.

“We cannot tolerate such sacrilege. What an accursed thing. Her father had turned her into a devotee and wedded her to the heavenly bridegroom Shri Dwarkanath. And yet, this wretch married a Bengali baboo and polluted herself. And did she build a home for herself after all? No fear. She brought utter ruin on everyone connected with her and is now out to pollute the whole world. (Rewriting History, The life and times of Pandita Ramabai, by Uma Chakravarti, p. 313)

It is at this moment, having seen through the Hindu texts and also being completely alone in the world along with her daughter, that Ramabai, began to feel the dire need for a personal God. In Father Goteh, a Chitpavan Brahmana convert himself, Ramabai found an answer, in Christ. Egged on by the involvement of Miss Hurford, a missionary, who introduced her to the Bible in Marathi, she found her peace with Christ, when she converted to Christianity on her visit to England, in 1883, despite the fact that her companion to England, Anandibai, having nearly throttled her, before she herself committed suicide in St Mary’s Home in Wantage, for fear that, the outlandish Ramabai, would yet again do the forbidden, that is to convert to Christianity.
An outcry followed in India, as soon as news came in of the conversion. They damned her as ‘fickle’, ‘peculiarly female’, meaning she was sentimental and not rational, as her scholarly mind should have made her.

Leave that as it may, she was about to encounter patriarchy in the Church as well. In September, 1884, Ramabai joined the Women’s College, Cheltenham, as a student and teacher of Marathi language. She was to teach the language to young English boys and women but the Bishop of Lahour and Bombay struck it down causing Ramabai to react sharply. She was not going to accept these racist rules, which forbade her, an Indian woman to teach English boys.

“I have a conscience and a mind of my own. I must myself think and do everything which God has given me the power of doing...I have with great effort freed myself from the yoke of Indian priestly tribe so I am not at present willing to place myself under another similar yoke by accepting everything that comes from the priests as authorised command of the Most High...” (Rewriting History, The life and times of Pandita Ramabai, by Uma Chakravarti, p. 322)
In 1886, Ramabai went to America and stayed there for two years, leaving her daughter Manorama with the sisters at Wantage. In these two years she travelled almost 50,000 kilometres across America, addressing hundreds of meetings, lecturing, writing, speaking, entertaining, thinking and raising funds for an upper caste widow’s home in India, because the plight of the higher caste widow in India was pitiable.

If as Dr B R Ambedkar, in his paper read out first before the anthropology seminar of Dr A A Goldenweiser at Columbia University, New York, on 9 May 1916, concluded in ‘[14] Thus the superposition of endogamy of exogamy means caste.’(Against the madness of Manu, selected and introduced by Sharmila Rege, p.86), [16] The problem of caste, then, ultimately resolves itself into one of repairing the disparity between the marriageable units of the two sexes within it...The husband may die before the wife and create a surplus woman, who must be disposed of, else through intermarriage she will violate the endogamy of the group...Thus, both the surplus woman and the surplus man constitute a menace to the caste if not taken care of;...’ [18] First: burn her on the funeral pyre of her deceased husband...[19] The second remedy is to enforce widowhood on her for the rest of her life.’(Ibid, pp 87 - 88)

This enforced widowhood, was pitiable, both in terms of the fact that the period of this widowhood could be long due to child marriage and the restrictions imposed on the widow, were inhuman. Thus, in March 1889 Pandita Ramabai, inaugurated the first Home for widows of upper caste women, called Sarada Sadan in Bombay, where widows could come to stay instead of remaining back in their families. This Home would be a place where women would be encouraged to have a new understanding of themselves, bringing the joy of new life, unlike the joyless life, widows were expected to lead, by Hindu society dictates.

In the same year she returned to India from America, then she moved to Poona, in 1890, where her work was looked at with much suspicion especially because by now she was seen as a convert, who in D K Karve’s words, “From the orthodox point of view, even the remarriage of widows was not so objectionable as their conversion to Christianity”. In her later years at Mukti Sadan, Kedgaon, the inmates were visited by a Pentecostal preacher and for a period began to ‘speak in tongues’ as if experiencing an ‘awakening’. This however was short lived and the girls trained in many crafts and lettered too, went back to singing Marathi kirtanas composed by the Christian poet Waman Narayan Tilak and printing the Bible in Marathi.

Ramabai died in 1922, suffering yet one more loss in her life, that of the death of her only daughter, Manorama. By now she was entirely deaf. But had changed the plight of widows in India and fought for equal rights for them. Indeed, the best obituary was from D.K. Karve, who had married one of the first widow inmates of Sarada Sadan.

For history to obliterate her name or to put her in the backburner would be equally participated by Hindus and Christians alike, for Pandita Ramabai, followed her heart and proceeded to a life free of both patriarchies, whether born and bred in the Hindu texts or in the Christian Church. In a way, she Indianised Christianity for the benefit of Indian women and widows in particular, in another way, she westernised the Hindu scriptures and societal dictates for the same group of women. And in that she stood on her own stead.

It would be impossible for women to do the same however, and notwithstanding what patriarchies in any domain do to erase or forget by omission, Pandita Ramabai, as women, we will not commit a heinous crime, like sati, or a forced widowhood, from the clutches of which she worked tireless towards and succeeded to make the difference. 

(c) Julia Dutta June 16, 2013

To buy:
Rewriting History – The life and times of Pandita Ramabai by Uma Chakravarti

Against The madness of Manu by Sharmila Rege

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