On Wednesday 30th April we celebrated at the Eucharistic service the life of Pandita Mary Ramabai. For this article I have taken an extract from the Book ‘Celebrating the Saints, Daily Spiritual Readings to accompany the Calendars of the Church of England’, compiled and introduced by Robert Atwell.
Mary Ramabai was born in 1858, the daughter of a Sanskrit scholar who believed in educating women. Converting to Christianity, she nevertheless remained loyal to many aspects of her Hindu background, pioneering an Indian vision of faith. It is true of many Hindu Converts to the Christian faith that they were rooted in Christ but remained related to their soil. Mary Ramabai became well-known as a lecturer on social questions, becoming the first woman to be awarded the title ‘Pandita’.
Ramabai was pre-eminent among Indian women for her time as a social and educational reformer, Sanskrit scholar and translator of the Bible. She was devout in her faith and saved thousands of women and girls from lives of misery.
Her early life was an extraordinary and tragic adventure. Her father, Anant Shastry, was a Sanskrit (an ancient Indian Language) scholar of the caste of Chittapan Brahmins (an upper caste in Hinduism), many of whom occupied positions of distinction in Western India: He was a follower of the Bhakti faith (Hindu Devotional faith) which focused on personal union with God. His main eccentricity was to believe in the education of women, with the result that from the age of eight Ramabai was instructed in Sanskrit literature.
Tragically, her father, mother and sister all died of starvation within months of one another., leaving only herself and her brother. They move to Calcutta (now known as Kolkata), then the capital city of India. It was here for the first time they came in contact with Christianity. They also met learned Pundits (Hindu scholar Priests) who asked her to lecture to women on their duties according to the Shastras (Hindu religious guidance).
In studying the books of Hindu law whilst preparing her lectures, Ramabai was struck by the fact that, although the sacred books were inconsistent on many things, they were unanimous in holding that women as a class were bad, worse indeed than demons. Their only hope of liberation from millions of rebirths and suffering was through the worship of a husband, with no other pleasure in life than the most degraded slavery to him. Women had no right to study the Vedas (Hindu scripture), and without knowing them no one could know Brahma (God); without knowing Brahma no one could obtain liberation. Therefore no one could obtain liberation whilst incarnate as a woman.
Her disgust with these doctrines led her to associate with a reformist group, and eventually embrace Christianity. Yet the Anglo-Catholic sisters of the Community of St. Mary the Virgin (Wantage), who were responsible for her conversion, watched her remarkable career unfold as much with dismay as with gratification: for on becoming a member of the Church of England she continued to regard herself culturally as a Hindu, and she welcomed ministers of all Christian denominations to conduct worship in the great church which she was to build for widows and orphans. Writing to one of the sisters, she said:
“I am not bound to accept every word that falls down from the lips of priests and bishops; I have just freed myself from the yoke of the Indian priestly tribe. … I must be allowed to think for myself. God has given me an independent conscience. … You are all too learned and too spiritual, too wise, too faithful to your faith which you profess from your childhood, to understand my difficulties in accepting wholly the religion taught by you. You never had the experience of choosing another religion which was foreign to you as I have”.
The converts in India were influenced by the simplicity of the earthly life of Jesus Christ. They believed that Jesus is the ultimate revelation. Like Ramabai, Sadhu Sunder Singh, a great Indian Christian Saint converted to Christianity, believed,
“Indians greatly need the water of life, but they don’t want it from European vessels.”
John Steinbeck, a Christian theologian, in his studies on conversion, particularly involving transition of traditions observes that, when
“Someone leaves one major religious tradition for another…these changes are typified as a change in worldview rather than in personal orientation and self-transcendent experience. Such transitions are painful and yield some form of syncretism.”
We rejoice and thank God for the life and witness of Pandit Mary Ramabai and many other converts into Christian faith from Hindu religion in India.
The writer of Hebrew in chapter 12:1-2: exhorts us to focus on our life of witness as Christians. The writer says,
“… since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Robert Atwell, 2004, Celebrating the Saints – Daily Spiritual Readings to accompany The Church of England, The Church of Ireland, The Scottish Episcopal Church and Church in Wales, SCM Press
Gillespie V. Bailey, 1991, The dynamics of Religious Conversion – identity and transformation, Birmingham, Religious Education Press
Boyd Robin, 1989, An Introduction to Indian Christian Theology, Delhi, ISPCK