April 5: Pandita Mary Ramabai, Prophetic Witness and Evangelist in India, 1922

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Pandita Rambai (1858-1922) faced most of the obstacles a woman could encounter in the India of her lifetime. She was denied access to formal education and was ostracized from society as first an orphan and then a widow.  She experienced first-hand the effects of India’s rigid caste system that placed discriminatory walls between social and racial groups. Yet she fought back, first as a Hindu, then as a Christian.

Her father was a scholar who taught her both the Sanskrit language and the Vedas, the sources classical Hindu beliefs. An 1876 famine killed most of her family and a few years later a cholera epidemic killed her husband of nineteen months. Acutely aware of the difficulties facing Indian women, Ramabai was increasingly drawn to social work and in 1883 traveled to England where she spent time with the Wantage Sisters, an Anglican religious community near Oxford. She was baptized in 1883 and worked actively in London with a community of nuns whose clientele were former prostitutes. She also attended the Cheltenham Ladies College, an institution that favored women’s suffrage and instructing young women in the same subjects taught in schools for young men.

Ramabai returned to India in 1889 and founded the Mukti Mission, a home for abandoned widows and orphans of the Brahmin high priestly caste in Mumbai, (formerly Bombay). When India was again struck by famine in 1896, she extended the mission’s outreach to include women and orphans of all castes, and gradually added a clinic and vocational training courses.

Fluent in several languages, Ramabai translated the Bible into Marathi, a West Indian language. Indians who encountered her gave her the title “Pandita,” meaning “the learned one.” Ramabai, like Mother Teresa later, worked tirelessly among India’s poor, depending on the generosity of others to fund her activities. Her evangelical enthusiasm never waned. “What a blessing this burden does not fall on me. But Christ bears it on his shoulders,” she wrote, and “no one but He could transform and uplift the downtrodden womanhood of India and of every land.”


I    Everliving God, who didst call the women at the tomb to witness to the resurrection of thy Son: We offer thanks for the courageous and independent spirit of thy servant Pandita Ramabai, the mother of modern India; and we pray that we, like her, may embrace thy gift of new life, caring for the poor, braving resentment to uphold the dignity of women, and offering the riches of our culture to our Savior Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

II     Everliving God, you called the women at the tomb to witness to the resurrection of your Son: We thank you for the courageous and independent spirit of your servant Pandita Ramabai, the mother of modern India; and we pray that we, like her, may embrace your gift of new life, caring for the poor, braving resentment to uphold the dignity of women, and offering the riches of our culture to our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Isaiah 10:1-4

1 John 3:16-24

Luke 18:1-8

Psalm 9:1-5, 9-12

Preface of a Saint (3)

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

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We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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24 thoughts on “April 5: Pandita Mary Ramabai, Prophetic Witness and Evangelist in India, 1922

  1. This commemoration is for Trial Use. All elements (Title, Collect, Lections, and Proper Preface) are new.

  2. Bio. 1st paragraph: Ramabai is misspelled.
    Listing her birth and death years in parentheses is not consistent with other bios in HWHM. Better to have a ‘who she is’ and ‘why she is important’statement; and a ‘She died in 1922’statement.

    2nd paragraph, 2nd line: It should read ‘… the source of classical Hindu beliefs.’

    2nd paragraph, 9th line: Is ‘clientele’ the word we want to use for those women that the nuns ministered to? They were not selling shoes.

  3. Per Wikipedia: “By the late 20th century, the city was known as Mumbai or Mambai to Marathi and Gujarati speakers, and as Bambai in Hindi, Persian and Urdu. The English name was officially changed to Mumbai in November 1995.”

    I think the expression “Mumbai, (formerly Bombay)” is an anachronism. At the time of the Pandita’s life, the city– still under the Raj– was officially Bombay. This is easily remedied by reversing it to “Bombay (now known as Mumbai).”

  4. Also– the collect refers to her as the “mother of modern India.” What is this based upon? I imagine if anyone were to receive that title it might be Indira Ghandi– in no way a saint!

  5. In the collect:

    “offering the riches of our culture to our Savior Jesus Christ”

    What exactly does this refer to in her life or, more broadly, theologically? It seems that the core of her ministry was in offering the riches of the Christian Gospel to a wider segment of Indian society, through her gifts of translation. More theologically, isn’t this treading on semi-Pelagian grounds? Don’t we believe that “all things come of thee O Lord” and that only through His grace can we say that “of thy own have we given thee”?

    I don’t think that this means the whole collect has to be scrapped, but there are certainly enough phrases (“mother of India” as noted above) and the quite overtly political “independent spirit” and “dignity of women” that this collect seems more about Mrs. Ramabai, and how we want to see her as in light of our own political convictions, than about the Christ she loved. Don’t get me wrong: I fully endorse women’s “independent spirit” and a care for the “dignity of women,” I’m just not sure this is the best place for it.

    On a different note, I’d love for the collect to say more about her conversion. How did she grow up in a conservative Hindu home and later come to work with Anglican religious? Was there a falling out with her family when she returned home or did she convert them as well?

    • The end of that third paragraph came across differently than I meant. It should read something more like:

      I fully support women’s “independent spirit” and a care for the “dignity of women” and I believe the Church has an essential role in promoting these and preventing sexism wherever it is found. But, in this collect, it’s so overtly political that it seems to ignore the Gospel in which all her work was based.

      I fully believe — and I imagine that all the commentators on this board and Ms. Ramabai would agree — that the “dignity of women” can only be attained in light of a properly ordered Gospel message. If we have to exclude the Gospel for women’s causes, then we are not doing justice to either.

      I’m also not sure why the parallel is made to the women at the tomb in the collect. Wouldn’t a better scriptural type be Chloe and the other female leaders of the house churches noted by Paul who used their societal position and advantages to spread the Christian message?

  6. According to paragraph four, “Pandita” is an honorific. Presumably Ramabai was her birth name, and Mary was the baptismal name she took when baptized in 1883. If this is so, the collect should say “thy servant Mary Ramabai,” or “thy servant Pandita Mary Ramabai.” I prefer the former, since that seems to be more consistent with other collects, e.g., yesterday’s spoke of “Martin Luther King,” not “Dr. Martin Luther King.”

    • I can speak to that one, since my daughter worked in India for a year. Ramabai is her (single) birth name. Mary would be her chosen baptismal name, and Pandita is indeed an honorific, which is why she can be referred to as “the Pandita.”

      The male (and far more commonly seen) analog is Pandit, as in Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. It was actually given for a level of Vedic scholarship (typically, only to upper-caste Brahmins), and it’s the root of our English word “pundit.”

  7. Thanks for a good discussion. I’m getting ready to give a reflection on Ramabai for our midday Eucharist and am very pleased that this commemoration has been included in the calendar.

    I mostly wanted to comment on one of the phrases in the collect that struck me as awkward when I read it at morning prayer this morning: “braving resentment to uphold the dignity of women.”

    I think this would be much better if shortened to read simply, “upholding the dignity of women.” First of all, it will flow better. Secondly, the current phrasing would seem to imply that everyone who wishes to uphold the dignity of women must brave resentment in order to do so. But that isn’t always the case (it generally hasn’t been for me), so it doesn’t make sense to include “braving resentment” in the section of the collect that prays for us to be able to emulate her example.

    I also agree that I was uncertain about the meaning of “offering the riches of our culture to our Savior Jesus Christ.” Perhaps an added line or two in the biography could help clarify the reference?

  8. Bio: paragraph 4. The phrase ‘West Indian language’ immediately caused me to think of the West Indies, not West India. Though grammatically and geographically correct I suspect that I would not be the only one ‘confused.’
    I suggest: ‘a language of West India’ as a substitute.

  9. ” the sources [OF?] classical Hindu beliefs.” (Lacks “of” in print version, too.)

    “Pandita Rambai (1858-1922)” (spelled “Ramabai” in the rest of the write-up here and in printed version).

    “an institution that favored women’s suffrage and instructing young women in the same subjects taught in schools for young men.” Homogeneity in sentence would be better maintained without the -ing. For example, “an institution that favored women’s suffrage and instruction of young women and young men in identical subject matter.” Or, “and use of the same curriculum for all students, female and male.”

    About the collect, I don’t have a problem with “offering the riches of our culture to our Savior Jesus Christ.”
    Anglicans generally hold to the goodness of creation, and I hope that includes seeing some things in as good. The statement does not say or imply we’re saved by culture, or without God’s grace. I don’t have a problem with it. I do have ambivalence about restricting the other half of the sentence to concern for women, in that it seems to foreclose on an obvious opening toward all: “braving resentment to uphold the dignity of women.” Sexism goes hand-in-glove with racism, and I take the “braving resentment” phrase to mean standing in opposition to anything that undercuts human dignity. (It seems insulting to then add “including women.” OF COURSE it includes women!) If it’s not changed, however, I can live with it, and be happy to have this commemoration included in the calendar. This is an outstanding addition that speaks volumes to all Christians about following their baptismal promises into extremely significant ways of ministering God’s grace from the integrity of their own identity as representatives of the church scattered, while also being part of the church gathered.

    • That bothersome typist did it again while I was loading the champagne in the limo. It should say:
      “I hope that includes seeing some things in our CULTURE as good.”
      (Terrible thing, to completely lose culture!)

  10. I’ve never heard of her before, but that appears t be my loss. I’m sure she will be a worthwhile addition to the calendar

  11. It appears that the correct name for “the Wantage Sisters” is Community of St. Mary the Virgin.

  12. Line 1, first paragraph: substitute “was born on April 26, 1858, in Gangamoola, India. She” for “(1858-1922)”.

    Line 2, second paragraph: add “of” after “sources”.

    Line 9, second paragraph: I find the phrase “whose clientele were former prostitutes” risible and euphemistic, though “politically correct” in the jargon of 21st Century social workers.. Nuns didn’t have “clients” in the 19th Century. I suggest “…nuns who assisted former prostitutes to adapt to a better way of life”, or some such rephrasing–maybe simply “who worked with former prostitutes”.

    Line 11, second paragraph: substitute “instructed” for “instructing”. (It wasn’t that CLC favored instructing so much as that they actually instructed their pupils.)

    Line 3, third paragraph: substitute “Bombay (now Mumbai)” for “Mumbai (formerly Bombay)”.

    Line 2, fourth paragraph: substitute “a language of western India” for a “West Indian language”. (The West Indies are thousands of miles away!)

    Add a fifth paragraph: “Pandita Ramabai died on April 5, 1922, aged 64.”

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