Commemoration of Pandita Maria Ramabai, Prophetic Witness and Evangelist in India, 1922
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” ’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ – Luke 18:1-8
Ever since humankind discovered fire, they have sat around those fires and listened to a storyteller recount how the world came to be, why things were named as they were, and what made people do the things they did. Jesus was a master storyteller, with or without a fire. He had a way of telling stories that caught the attention and gave the mind something to consider even after the story was concluded. This one was no different.
A nagging woman is quite often the butt of jokes (or spousal complaints). This woman was a widow on a mission and the object of her wrath was a judge who was intent on brushing off this nuisance. The nature of the complaint isn’t given, but the fact that the woman had had to seek redress from a judge herself was telling. Like many of the women to whom and about whom Jesus spoke and helped, this one was a woman on her own without a male to support or perhaps keep her in line. The only way this woman was going to get justice was to be as persistent as the proverbial bulldog.
Today’s commemoration is of a woman who, very much like the one in Jesus’ story, had to do things on her own. She believed that women should be allowed education and opportunities outside their traditional place in the home and wouldn’t rest until she had done all she could to achieve that goal. Born a Brahmin, she was fortunate to have been taught to read and write Sanskrit by her scholarly father. Through a series of losses, Ramabai found herself alone with a small daughter and a burning desire to help women gain an education and equality. Travelling to England, she worked with a group of Anglican nuns who demonstrated Christianity that attracted Ramabai who sought baptism and also helped in their work with former prostitutes. She gained further education herself at a college that taught young women subjects that were normally reserved only for young men. She took that knowledge back to India and began her crusade to liberate her sisters, other young widows who were left on their own with no education, no support and ho hope.
Ramabai was a feminist in a time when feminists weren’t very plentiful or even acceptable. During her travels to first England and then to the United States, she saw ways in which the lives of women in India could be made better. Upon her return, she worked first among the Brahmin widows and orphans and then gradually expanded her work to include those of other castes in what was still a very caste-conscious society. It was not an easy task, but she persisted like the woman in Jesus’ story. She achieved results and set the stage for the women of India to assume their rightful place as more equal partners in India’s life and story.
Some might call it nagging, some might call it persistence, but when someone seeks to right something they see as wrong, sometimes that is the only way to get people to listen. It takes drastic action on occasion and a great deal of talk. Ramabai is known as an evangelist who felt that to bring about the kingdom of God, it had to be demonstrated, even if that demonstration was very small and very imperfect. She did her best to give that demonstration as best she could. She was given the title “Pandita” which meant “learned one” as a result of her work and her translation of the Bible into the language of West India, Marathi. Still, it her work with the disadvantaged widows, orphans and women of every social class that we remember more.
Throughout the world women are still oppressed and forced to suffer great indignities and pain without recourse. In their book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn describe how even the smallest investment in the education of women and then in their efforts to start their own small businesses by way of microloans can pay off in a big way for not only the woman but her entire family and community. At a clinic in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, one of several such clinics begun by Dr. Catherine Hamlin and her late husband, young girls are saved from lives of misery and isolation caused by physical damage resulting from being forced to become pregnant before their bodies are ready to carry and birth an infant and then being forced to give birth to the infant on their own without any sort of assistance at all. Repairing the physical damage is very much like the healing of the hemorrhaging woman in the gospels; the thing that makes them an outcast can be cured and they can be restored to health and community.
Ramabai is called a prophetic witness because she saw something wrong with the world in which she lived and, instead of just accepting it, tried her hardest to do something about it. How often do people say “I’m just one person and one person can’t change anything”? People like Ramabai, Dr. Hamlin, and even the nagging woman in the story prove that one person with a vision or a mission can make changes. Every improvement and change came about because one person had a vision and decided to do something about it. Each one does a little bit, sometimes a lot of little bits, to make the world better and that’s what brings kingdom of God one or two steps closer.
The Pandita Ramabais of the world are still talking and still working. Maybe it is time we gave them a hand. The kingdom depends on it.