It is unfortunate. It is unfortunate that the book takes this angle rather than simply examining the life and time of Pandita Ramabai who, from all accounts, was an extraordinary woman who lived an extraordinary life in an extraordinary time. A mere forty-two pages of a 369 page book is devoted to a study of her. And what is in there is styled in a strange way and distinct from the rest of the book. Major portions of this chapter are reproduced from Ramabai's tract The High Caste Hindu Woman and A Testimony of our Inexhaustible Treasures. The balance of the book is an in depth study of the structure of 18th and 19th century Brahminical practices and widowhood of Brahmin women. These are all well documented with notes and bibliography which are quite fascinating and informative. But according to census report of 1920, many years after Ramabai's time, the widows in India amounted to 329,000. Of which the Brahmin widows must be a minuscule number. As sad as their lives were surely there were many other miseries that existed then. The dominance of this obsession with Brahmin widows seems a little out of balance for a book dealing with Ramabai's life.
The last and final chapter in the book "Structure and Agency: A life and Time" reveals the most about the woman. Her father, a Chitpavan Brahmin, made a choice to live outside the community and took to roaming the country with his young family that grew in number, living off of donations as a puranic storyteller. Had he lived in the 60's in America he would have been a hippie, living in a commune! Ramabai as the youngest learnt to read Sanskrit and Puranas in this way. There seems to have been very confusing issues her father was trying to resolve for himself, half in and half out of the Brahminical way of life, accepting some and reject some of the caste laws. This is not surprising as there is space for this kind of living on the edges within Hinduism today and only confirms that it was always thus. When her parents and siblings died Ramabai was sixteen. After traveling for three years all over India she arrived in Calcutta in 1878, very far from home at the age of nineteen. From all descriptions she was an attractive woman, although unfortunately no photographs have been provided in the book. Here, amazingly enough, with no family, no connections, poor and a woman, she is received warmly with open arms by the elite of the city and encouraged to study the Vedas and Upanishads. Although disallowed for women, she is encouraged to do so. But then a strange thing happens, as quoted from her books. She starts reading the Dharmashastras and gets discouraged by the restrictions placed on women and starts writing a critique of the Brahminical patriarchy. But here is a woman who was never touched by the patriarchy, lived outside it freely, learnt Sanskrit, studied the Upanishad, traveled the country, and at nineteen was embraced by a community of religious scholars. Why did it not occur to her that if she could do this, other women could, instead of bemoaning their fate based on ancient texts?
She then receives several marriage proposals from men who were "Sanskrit scholars and 'modernists' from Maharashtra." This by itself is quite amazing, that as a single, young and attractive woman with no family she received marriage proposals from mean all across the country, instead of propositions from the locals. She rejects all of them and accepts a proposal from a Bipin Behari, a Shudra, " and in accepting the proposal Ramabai chose to break decisively with tradition." She says "Having lost faith in the religion of my ancestors I married a Bengali gentleman of the Shudra caste." But if she lost faith with Hinduism then why marry another Hindu?
They married in a civil ceremony and her husband Bipin Behari was excommunicated. There is no explanation as to who did the excommunication as Hinduism is not organized this way, or why? Because he married a Brahmin woman? Because it was a civil ceremony? Within two years her husband died leaving Ramabai with a little girl. Inexplicably she decides to shave her head and wears the Bengali Brahmin widow's clothes. If she renounced Hinduism and Brahminism what compulsion did she have to do this? It seems as though she was a very confused young woman who did not know how to reconcile the caste injunctions she read about in the religious texts and the freedom she so obviously enjoyed in reality, with apparently no repercussions. What is interesting is that there was space for her, for her mode of living and thinking and inquiring within the society and time in which she lived, in 1882! "Ramabai refused to stay in the domestic space; she refused also the traditional role for the widow, that of withdrawal from the society. Instead, following widowhood, she once more turned to a 'public' (those strangely placed quotes!) career. . . . Her background, her life choices, her personality and her career now catapulted her into the public gaze, making her the most controversial Indian woman of her times."
What made it possible for her? To be able to make these choices, as a single mother, to have a career choice? Mired in its own agenda the book never probes the depth of this, which is far more interesting, because the agenda the author had set for herself, which is a critique of the Brahmin patriarchy, prevents the writing to take that direction.
She returns to Maharashtra upon the invitation of moderate reformers such as Ranade and Bhandarkar who "promised to provide support for her." Obviously she had been networking, maintaining and developing contacts as any ambitious and driven career woman should! She makes a plea before the Hunter Commission for facilities to train women to become teachers and doctors and to serve other women. "But the task with which she most identified--the setting-up of a widows' home for high-caste (emphasis mine) Hindu widows, whose oppression was the subject of much concern -- made little progress." Why this obsession with the oppression of high caste women who already were privileged? Why not just women? Poor women? Surely they were greater in number and their oppression equal if not more severe than the Brahmin widows? For someone who had transcended, apparently, the caste boundaries and religious injunctions, why was she so obsessed with Brahmin widows only?
She feels alienated and could not connect to the women in Maharashtra, "she had no 'community', no social base and no real emotional bonds to fall back upon." She finds this support however, among the men such as Ranade who forces, through disapproval, his wife to maintain relationship with her. From what we can surmise between the lines Ramabai, at age 22, single mother, with an intelligent and inquiring mind, and a vibrant personality, ambitious, with a strong desire to do good, was falling into deep depression. She searches for solace in religion and God. Chakravarti writes "In an earlier age she may have found satisfaction among the Bhakti saints. . . . however the Bhakti tradition itself had been absorbed within the Brahminic Hinduism and does not appear to have been perceived as a distinctive alternate . . ." A rather confusing conclusion and too bad. Because had she been able to find peace in the Bhakti tradition, which is the way she approached Christ after her conversion, she could have avoided a lot of the turmoil of depression, guilt and confusion that plague her in her later years after her baptism and conversion by the Anglican Church. "Her need and search was thus for a solution that could simultaneously accommodate her social agenda as well as her personal quest for religious fulfillment."
Enter the Christian missionaries! "Disappointed thus in her 'countrymen' she decided to build up her own skills and make contact with people 'outside.' In order to get a medical education . . .she made up her mind to go to England 'if the way opened up.' " Here was a woman who could think outside the box! And knew how to get where she wanted to go! She then publishes Stri Dharma Niti, "representing the reformist's approach to Hindu womanhood." In 1882 the British government bought 600 copies of the book for distribution in schools. What an enterprising marketing jackpot! How did she convince the government, how did she negotiate this, how much money did she raise? Unfortunately we can only imagine as this is not discussed. The funds raised by this venture helped in her securing passage to England. That and the contacts she developed at the Church of England mission in Poona.
After publicly stating in Pandharpur in December 1882 that she had no intention of becoming a Christian, she and her daughter Manorama were baptized within nine months, in September 1883. Anandibai Bhagat, a close friend whom she looked upon as her own daughter and who had accompanied her to England, committed suicide a few days before this. Having swallowed poison she suffered several intensely painful hours before she died. Before that she had tried to strangle Ramabai. Ramabai never mentions these incidents or refers to them in her memoirs or writing except in passing when she is returning from America many years later. A traumatic and painful loss, this memory haunts her for the rest of her life. Anandi Bhagat in her letter is troubled by debts she owes for scholarship money to be repaid and what she owed for the boarding in England. She did not receive responses to her letters to her family and this troubled her. All these things raise questions in the reader as to the circumstances under which the conversion took place, but there is very little information available.
We only know the surface of the circumstances surrounding the baptism and its aftermath and these are only revealed hazily. As a Brahmin Hindu scholar and a woman in India she enjoyed status, prestige and respect. Chakravarti's criticism of the practices of the missionaries and the Anglican Church does not carry the sting she reserves for the Brahmans although the trauma of the conversion had much more to do with the depression and confusion that caused Ramabai to become isolated and condemned, if that indeed happen. This had a large part to do with her own convictions that stemmed form her beliefs rooted in Hinduism and disillusionment with the Church and realization that she had exchanged one set of patriarchy to another equally virulent set which was in addition racist. When a promised position of teaching young English men and women Indian languages and philosophy was withdrawn upon the protest from the Bishops in Lahore and Bombay as being improper, she was furious. "She rejected outright their notion of a code of behavior befitting an 'Indian Woman' " She believed this violated all the teachings of her father, her brothers, mother and husband who "approved of young girls speaking in mixed assemblies." It was one thing after all to lecture to a mixed assembly of Indians about the sorry state of their oppressed women, which was encouraged, and quite another to lecture English men, who presumable did not need any such consciousness raising in matters of oppression. Anyway not from an Indian woman.
"I have a conscience and a mind of my own" she wrote. "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 the 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 authorized command of the Most High. . . .When people decide anything for me without consulting with me about it I do of course call it interfering with my liberty and am not willing to let them do it. " Spoken like a true feminist!
Ramabai refused to let any authority to interpret God to her. Her belief that her conscience was her best guide and was above any authority or anyone's belief was contrary to the Church's teaching. This was a discord she was unable to reconcile. It could not but have occurred to her that her conversion had become meaningless. She could have held on to this belief within Hinduism without any inner conflicts, and in fact did.
She traveled to America to raise funds for her project - upliftment for oppressed Hindu women from the higher caste. She traveled in America for two years lecturing and writing. She published her High Caste Hindu Women which sold widely and the proceeds were used pay off the Wantage sisters and to esrablish a fund for the widows' home. Perhaps publicizing the Brahmin widow's plight attracted more attention than just suffering Indian women. When she returned to India and set up the Sharda Sadan in 1889, it was greeted with a lot of support from the reformists which included Brahmins, and hailed by the press. It was a success as it attracted many widows who came there for training. Ramabai went to make speeches and talk freely and advocate for women's emancipation and equality. She defined loyalty and patriotism in terms of mother-worship, perhaps a pre-cursor to the Bharat Mata. She advocated Hindi as the national language.
Trouble started when Ramabai introduced religion into the Home. She believed the women under her care should have open access to religion and provided them with the Bible if they chose to read it or wanted to convert. Not only was this in violation of the conditions under which the American funds for the Ramabai Association was provided which was that it should be secular, it alarmed the Indian supporters at home who viewed the young widows as captive audience for proselytizing. They were under her charge and looked up to her as a role model and the Home as shelter. As captive audience they were not entirely free to make religious decisions.
Finally the two leaders of the community, her staunch supporters, Renade and Bhandarkar resigned from the Board. As there were no other institutions at the time for widows many Brahmans continued to send their women here. Until D.K Karve stepped in and opened up a widow's home for Brahmin widows. Ramabai never gave up trying to proselytize. This is a puzzling aspect in an otherwise intelligent person since her own experience with the Christian Church had been disastrous and her conversion was wrought with confusion and trauma.
In the end it was not Brahminical patriarchy that did her in nor Hinduism. It was her own confused state of mind, loneliness and inexperience taken advantage of by the missionaries who were bent upon snaring high-caste Hindus into their fold and who better to highlight the horrors of the powerful Brahminical patriarchy but one of their own! Ramabai was too smart not to see through it and she did. Once she showed her individualism and independent spirit, which stood her in good stead ironically enough with the Indians, the missionaries viewed her with suspicion and then abandoned her.
Chakravarti quotes Ramakrishna as having criticized Ramabai as being too ambitious--"she represented a kind of egotism and idealism which was not 'good' as it was a mere pursuit of name and fame." He may have been partly right, in that she was living in the wrong time pursuing wrong goals. Had she lived today, with her drive and ambition and intelligence she might have been an activist, a journalist, a professor of women's studies or even a business woman with real success!
More about Uma Chakravarti
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