A Testimony of Our Inexhaustible Treasure Questions and Answers Marks -2,5,10/15
1. Central Theme
[Q. Discuss the themes presented in the autobiography of Ramabai.
Q. What is the lesson of A Testimony of Our Inexhaustible Treasure by Pandita Ramabai? Discuss.]
Ramabai (1858-1922) was an extraordinary woman of her time an educator, scholar, feminist, and social reformer, whose life was an example of how womanhood and religious identity were negotiated against the backdrop of Brahmanical culture, Christianity, and colonialism.
For Hindus and Christians, her life and work, including her intellectual probings and hermeneutical clashes with Hindu social reformers and Christian missionaries, seemed to signal contradictory and confusing messages. As a learned scholar of her own tradition, she vigorously questioned the status of women within Hinduism.
Later, when she became a Christian, she challenged institutionalized Christianity with its creeds, which she felt stifled the power of the gospel, and she subsequently quarreled with Bible translators for their unwitting use of Vedântic terms in the Marathi version of the Bible. She seems to have lived and worked out her life on the margins of traditions, constructing her own independent agency.
Ramabai was born into a Chitpavan Brahman family in Karnataka. She was the youngest child of Anant Shastri Dongre, a devout Hindu and erudite Sanskrit pundit, and his much younger wife, Lakshmibai. Contrary to the prevailing mood of the time, Anant Shastri believed in women’s education and he opposed outdated customs like child marriage, having witnessed the sad fate of his daughter Krishnabai’s child marriage.
Ramabai had an unconventional upbringing in that she was taught at home, receiving Sanskrit education mainly from her mother, who herself was taught by her husband despite fierce opposition from their community. From an early age, Ramabai was exposed to a life of never-ending pilgrimage and the reciting of the PurâGas in various locations, a traditional religious vocation, which her family undertook in order to earn a modest living. While this kind of precarious living brought untold hardship later, it freed Ramabai from domesticity and any form of patriarchal control.
Ramabai’s life was marked by a series of unfortunate deaths in her family. She lost her parents, elder sister, elder brother, husband, and finally her daughter shortly before her own death. Her travels around India with her brother after her parents’ demise not only offered her the opportunity to visit several important Hindu holy places, but it also enabled her to witness the plight of women, which led her to champion their cause.
It was Ramabai’s visit to Calcutta in 1878 that brought a dramatic turn of events. Her knowledge of the Sanskrit language and literary and religious texts came to be widely known and appreciated, and in recognition of her Sanskrit learning the honorific title pag ita (learned) was conferred on her. She defied traditional caste norms by accepting an offer of marriage from a non-Brahman Brahmo Bengali lawyer, Bipin Behari Das, but he died within two years of their marriage, leaving her with an infant daughter, Manorama.
While her early widowhood deepened her concern for women in a similar predicament, her faith in the kind of PurâGic and ritualistic Hinduism in which she was raised was beginning to wear off. When she later became acquainted with other Hindu texts, such as the Dharmaúâstras, with a pronounced patriarchal bias, she was not convinced that Hinduism as such had any hope for women. She found, however, that her early forays into reform movements, such as the Brâhmo Samâj and Prarthana Samâj, were fruitless as alternatives to Hinduism because in her view these movements focused more on philosophical aspects than on the plight of women. She came into contact with Christian missionaries but had no intention of becoming a Christian until much later in 1883 while she was England, much to the dismay of Hindus back home. She was not wholly accepting of Christianity at this stage. She was not willing to substitute one form of patriarchy with another. She proved to be a thorn in the flesh of Anglicans when she questioned such basic tenets as the Trinity, miracles, the divinity of Christ, and the resurrection.
Ramabai put teaching into practice. It was her early disappointment with her own community that made her turn to England and the United States to solicit help for her work among women. Realizing the importance of education for empowering women, she ran a number of vocational programs. Sharada Sadan (Home of Learning), initially a home for high-caste child widows but later for destitute women and children of all castes, provided training and education. Although the school was initially secular in orientation, it gradually became explicitly Christian. There were allegations of conversions at Sharada Sadan, which caused a major rift between Ramabai and Hindu social reformers; although Ramabai was exonerated, the rift remained.
At the age of twenty-five Ramabai went to England for medical studies, having come to the conclusion that the best way to work for the advancement of Indian women was to become a doctor. While in England, it was discovered that Ramabai was hard of hearing, which disqualified her from pursuing a medical career, and so she studied to be a teacher. Her hosts were sisters of an Anglican mission, the Community of St. Mary the Virgin, headquartered in Wantage, England. Before she left home, she had stated to her sponsors that she would not convert to Christianity. Four months after her arrival in England, however, Ramabai and her daughter were baptized. The act remains controversial to this day, with questions as to whether Ramabai was coerced into the act, or was psychologically healthy at the time.
However, I believe that Ramabai’s decision to be baptized was a sincere one. Yet the controversy over Ramabai’s Christianity did not end with her baptism. It soon became clear to the good sisters at Wantage that Ramabai’s interpretation of Christianity was anything but orthodox. She could not believe in the Trinity, nor in the deity of Christ, whom she regarded as the Son of God; she therefore rejected parts of the Athanasian Creed. She had serious doubts about the miracles related in the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments. Moreover, she was drawn to British nonconformists and the Unitarian traditions. 13 What we see in Ramabai’s understanding of her faith at this point, then, is a theology that bears a striking resemblance to the thought of the Brahmo Samaj.
The sisters at Wantage, especially her spiritual godmother Sister Geraldine, were horrified at Ramabai’s unorthodox faith, and brought all sorts of pressure on her to conform to the tenets of the Church of England. Ramabai’s response in the following letter gives us a glimpse into her mental acuity and independence: It seems to me that you are advising me…to always accept the will of those who have authority, etc. This however I cannot accept. I have a conscience, and mind and a judgment of my own, I must myself think and do everything which GOD has given me the power of doing…Although priests and bishops may have certain authority over the church yet the church has another Master Who is Superior even to the bishops. I am, it is true, a member of the Church of Christ, but am not bound to accept every word that falls down from the lips of priests or bishops…I have just with great efforts 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 which comes from the priests as authorized command of the Most High.
One can sense here what is explicit in other correspondence: that Ramabai was rebelling as much against a controlling, imperial, and imperialistic hierarchy as against the orthodoxy that was being propounded by that hierarchy. Ramabai at this point, then, was extremely ambivalent toward Western Christians and Western Christianity. At the same time, she was also alienated from the religion of her childhood and youth: her faith is characterized by Enlightenment rationalism and logic, and not by a deep devotionalism to a personal Lord. The standoff between Ramabai and her sponsors was broken when, three years after coming to England, Ramabai received an invitation to visit the U.S.A. In America she was immediately swept into the orbit of nineteenth-century Protestant feminists, becoming close friends of the likes of Dr. Rachel Bodley, the principal of the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia, and Frances Willard, the powerful president of the even more powerful Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. These women in turn had access to a number of highly influential Protestant men. Ramabai and reforming American Protestant women developed an admiration that was mutual, instantaneous, and enormous.
A sojourn that was supposed to last a couple of months stretched into one of almost three years, with Ramabai touring the country and speaking to Protestant audiences, to great acclaim. Once again she was a national sensation. From a religious point of view, it is important that Ramabai found an extensive and generous network of like-minded and like-hearted Christians. Mainline American Protestant women of the time were extremely active in social reform, paying particular attention to women’s and children’s issues; theologically they tended to be broadly evangelical and pietistic rather than doctrinally rigorous, and they were also thoroughly ecumenical. They were quite a change from the Anglican sisters at Wantage, and a wonderful fit for Ramabai’s developing Christian sensibilities. In America Ramabai’s touring lectures resulted in the formation of more than 300 circles of a national Ramabai Association that pledged prayers and money to Ramabai’s plan for opening a house for mistreated women in India.
Just as importantly, American Protestant women provided a stream of missionaries “who worked with Ramabai over the years, the most prominent being Minnie Abrams.” Once back in India in 1889, at the age of thirty-one, Ramabai opened a home named Sharada Sadan (House of Learning) in Bombay for Brahmin widows, many of whom were mere children who had been given in marriage to much older men and who were shunned and abused in their families when their husbands died, because those deaths were believed to have been caused by the widows’ evil deeds in a previous life. The life of high-caste Hindu widows, many of them small girls, was almost without exception one of unmitigated torture and misery. The school was religiously neutral, which made it palatable to high-caste Hindu families. The next year Ramabai moved the school to Poona due to the high cost of living in Bombay. Poona, however, was the bastion of conservative forces that strongly disapproved of her amelioratory activities. Moreover, Ramabai experienced a religious awakening which led her to be more open about her own religious convictions.
In 1893 she devoted her life to Jesus Christ as her Lord. This led girls at the Sharada Sadan to seek baptism. Indian national support for Ramabai plummeted over the next few years, and she was never again influential on the national stage for reform and liberation, although she continued to work until her death in 1922 to change the conditions of women, especially widows, in her beloved land. Once the break was made with strict Hindu society, the Sharada Sadan became an “avowedly and explicitly Christian” institution. 22 From 1896 a severe famine once again ravaged the country, and Ramabai “launched herself into a massive rescue and relief campaign.” She rescued famine orphans and brought them to Poona, but then was forced to move them to the not-too-distant village of Kedgaon where she had purchased some land. In Kedgaon she built the Mukti Mission, a large institution for girls rescued from the famine. The word mukti is a synonym for moksha, which is literally the escape from the horrible repeated cycle of life and death. Moksha is what all Hindus long for; it is salvation, freedom and liberty, and release from bondage to the misery of life.
The Mukti Mission was built largely with funds derived from Ramabai’s supporters in America, and American missionaries such as Minnie Abrams, Helen Dyer, and the Reverend Bruere who worked at the mission were crucial to its functioning. In other words, the Mukti Mission, though it was the child of Ramabai’s vision, was a thoroughly cooperative venture between Indian and Western Christians. In 1898, Pandita Ramabai, now forty years old, was deeply moved during a visit to a Keswick convention in England, where she asked for prayers for a revival to come upon India. Keswick was known for its revivalist meetings. In 1905, a year before the famous Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, Ramabai and the girls in the Mukti Mission experienced a Pentecostal revival. 2u It had many marks of other such revivals: hours of continuous singing, clapping and dancing, continuous praying, ecstatic speech (including shouting, moaning, and glossolalia), ecstatic movements, and visions. There was also a great emphasis on confession of sins.
Ramabai’s last great endeavor as a Christian witness was to be a Bible translator. She began work on producing a Marathi Bible early in 1905, the same year as the revival at Mukti Mission, and as the years went on the Bible translation project became the great consuming work of her life until her death. She translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek because she wanted a text that could be easily used by common, ordinary people, many of whom lived in villages. Her translation project was started to provide Bibles for “Bible-women, catechists, and preachers, who have very elementary and ordinary education.” One of the problems she saw with Marathi Bibles from the Bible Society was that they used the “high Marathi language full of Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian words” that were “understood by scholars only.”
However, a Bible in the common person’s language was not enough: the people needed aids for understanding the Bible. So Ramabai also produced Hebrew and Greek vocabularies and grammars, interlinear translations, a Bible commentary, and a concordance. The purpose of all these lexical tools was to provide assistance to minimally educated preachers and Bible-women in their task of evangelism. “Many of the Bible-readers do not know how to explain several passages of the Bible,” Ramabai explained. “The great need of ordinary Bible-readers in India must be supplied, by putting such information as will help them in their study of the Holy Scriptures, at their disposal.”
Ramabai died at the age of sixty-three, one week after she completed the project of translating the whole Bible into Marathi. I have briefly recounted the life of Ramabai in order to demonstrate how over the course of her life as a baptized Christian she slowly appropriated more and different strands of the Christian tradition, while she persevered in her fundamental task of witnessing to the liberating life of the Christian gospel made known to us in Jesus Christ. Ramabai started out her Christian life as a social activist, rescuing girls from the misery of widowhood, and later from famine. She then developed a Jesus-centered piety, which matured into a Pentecostal revival, and finished her life as a Bible translator. The interesting thing
is that although she moved from one religious phase to another, she never completely rejected the previous phase. She always had a preferential option for women, which she actually inherited from her father; she always cared about the physical well-being of the poor. In some ways she held onto the rationalism of the Brahmo Samaj, mocking the superstitions of the villagers in her later years. And there are even elements of her Hindu upbringing that persisted to the end of her life.
A Testimony of Our Inexhaustible Treasure (1907), Ranade’s last public discourse, was a pamphlet narrating a spiritual odyssey that culminated in her final acceptance of the Christian faith. The fact that Ramabai’s commitment to Christianity coexisted with her conscious attempt to declare herself a Hindu and Indian in public discourses, continues to puzzle Hindus and Christians who would like to categorize her neatly.
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