Sketches of some distinguished Indian women/Chapter 2

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In spite of all the attacks that have been made upon it from time to time, by Buddhism, by Mahometanism, and by Christianity, in spite of the undermining influences of education and of civilization, Hinduism still reigns supreme over the minds of millions of the people of India.

The old superstitions still bear sway, and the old ceremonies and institutions are maintained in much the same form as that in which they were practised a thousand years ago. Not the least remarkable of these are the annual pilgrimages to the banks of the sacred rivers, such as the Ganges, the Nerbudda, and the Godavery, or to some particular temple or shrine of more than ordinary sanctity. To these holy places flock hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all parts of the country. The rajahs and rich men arrive in their carnages or on gorgeously caparisoned horses, surrounded with a brilliant following; the poorer pilgrims come in "ekkas," little two-wheeled carriages, and bullock carts, while others, who cannot afford a conveyance, tramp wearily along in the dust. Men, women, and children of all ages take part in these pilgrimages and meet with a common purpose, for all alike, rich and poor, young and old, healthy and diseased, come to bathe in the purifying waters, or to offer their prayers on a spot whence they believe they gain immediate access to the gods.

Many of the pilgrims travel hundreds of miles to the appointed spot, and meet there others who have done the same; and the occasion is often taken advantage of by a Hindu father, to arrange that which is ever uppermost in his thoughts, namely, the marriage of his daughters. Although it is nowhere so stated in the Hindu Scriptures, it is a popular belief that a woman cannot obtain salvation unless she has been married. It is considered a sin and a shame for a father to have marriageable daughters on his hands, and it is therefore hardly to be wondered at that parents are not very difficult to please in the matter of suitors, and jump eagerly at any opportunity of disposing of their daughters.

Once upon a time, that is, about fifty years ago, a Hindu father set out upon one of these pilgrimages, taking with him his wife and his two little girls, aged respectively seven and nine. In the course of their journey they halted for a day or two, to rest, in a town on the banks of the Godavery. In the early morning the father went down to bathe in the sacred river, and while he was there he perceived another pilgrim who came down to perform the same duty. After the conclusion of their ablutions, and of the devotions which followed, the two men entered into conversation.

The father inquired of the stranger, who was a striking-looking man, who he was and whence he came. Having learned that he was a Brahman, of a very high class, and that he was a widower, he without any further preliminaries offered him his daughter in marriage. The offer was accepted, and the very next day the marriage ceremonies were performed, and the little girl of nine years old was handed over to her husband, and departed with him to his distant home, never seeing her parents again. Happily for the child bride, she had fallen into good hands. Her husband was a Brahman pundit, Ananta Shastri by name, a man of good family, of high character and of great learning, and what was more remarkable, he was a man who believed in women, and held the opinion that they ought to be allowed to share with men in some at least of the advantages of education, and to cultivate their intellects and their talents. Such a doctrine was totally opposed to the received tenets of the Hindus, and when Ananta Shastri tried to put it into practice by attempting to educate his first wife, his other female relations interfered and succeeded in t thwarting him.

He was, however, determined to try the experiment again with his second wife, and as soon as he reached his home, which was in the Mangalore district in Western India, he set to work to teach Lakshmibai Sanskrit. Again his mother and the other members of his family raised their voices in protest against this breach of time-honoured custom, but the pundit was resolved not to be baffled this time.

He broke up his home, and taking his child wife with him, he journeyed away far into the jungle. There, in the middle of the forests which clothe the slopes of the Western Ghauts, near the fountain head of a sacred river, he took up his abode. A rude dwelling of branches and mats was soon constructed, and here in the forest solitudes, with the roar of the tiger and the howling of the hyaena breaking the silence of night, Ananta Shastri made his home, and devoted himself to the education of his wife. Day by day he taught her to read Sanskrit, the language in which the sacred books of the Hindus are written, and then as her intelligence developed he opened out to her the stores of Hindu poetry and philosophy; but not of religion. The sentences from the Code of Manu are considered too sacred for women to utter, and even Ananta Shastri, with all his liberal views, could not go so far as to allow his wife to peruse the sacred texts.

As the years went on Lakshmibai became the mother of a son and two daughters, and shared with her husband the task of educating them. Although, as we have seen, Ananta Shastri held far more advanced views than the majority of his countrymen with regard to women, he was still an orthodox Hindu, and well content to comply with the social customs of his race. Accordingly, when his elder daughter, though still a mere child, was sought in marriage for a boy very little her senior, he consented, on condition that the boy bridegroom should be kept with him to be educated. To this the parents agreed, but no sooner were the marriage ceremonies concluded than they forgot their promise and took the boy back with them to their own home, where he grew up not only in ignorance but in vice and brutality as well. When the girl had developed into a beautiful and intelligent woman, the man returned to claim her as his wife. She refused to go with him and maintained her opposition till the case had been taken into court, and a verdict obtained, which, in accordance with the law of the country, condemned her to live with her husband. Sad, indeed, might have been her fate, tied for life to a man totally unworthy of her, whom she could neither love nor esteem; but from this she was saved by an early death.

In the meantime the younger daughter, Ramabai, born in 1858, was growing up, and her education devolved chiefly upon her mother. How well that mother performed her task may be guessed when we find her daughter, now learned in the lore both of the East and West, looking back to the lessons of her childhood, and recalling in reverent affection the mother "whose sweet influence and able instruction, have been the light and guide of my life."

But now a time of sorrow came for this happy little family; their hospitality to the students and pilgrims who had visited them in their jungle home had exhausted their small means and involved them in heavy debt, to pay which they were obliged to sell their land and to wander forth, homeless, on a never-ceasing pilgrimage.

For seven long years they wandered from one holy place to another, the learned Brahman holding forth to the pilgrims who gathered round him, and obtaining from their offerings a scanty subsistence for himself and his family. Then he became totally blind, and at last he died, his devoted wife following him within a very few weeks.

Ramabai was sixteen at the time of her parents' death, and under their able instruction she had already developed into what was considered to be, for a woman, "a prodigy of erudition." She was thoroughly conversant with Sanskrit, and learned in all the sacred books of the Hindus. Besides this, she knew Marathi, which was the language of her father's people, as well as Kanarese, Hindustani, and Bengali, acquired colloquially during their travels. For her sake her parents had defied the tyranny of custom, and had allowed her to remain unmarried. Left alone in the world with her brother, these two continued to travel. They made their way as pilgrims, often in want of the common necessaries of life, from one end of India to the other, and wherever they went they advocated the cause of female education, maintaining that all women should, before their marriage, be taught Sanskrit, and be able to read and write in their own language, whatever it might be. At last they came to Calcutta, where the young lady lecturer attracted a great deal of interest and attention, and the fame of her learning spread rapidly through the city. The pundits or learned men of Calcutta could scarcely believe the reports that reached them, and they summoned Ramabai to appear before them. She did so, and underwent a long and searching examination, passing with high honours, and receiving in recognition of her merit the distinguished title of Sarasvati.

But just when she seemed to have reached the pinnacle of earthly happiness and success, a crushing sorrow came to her, in the death of her beloved brother, her only near relative. As he lay dying his thoughts were all for her, and he was grieved and troubled to think how unprotected she would be when he was gone. Most English brothers would have felt the same under similar circumstances; but for a Hindu it must indeed have seemed terrible to think of leaving a young unmarried sister alone, and almost friendless, in the country where women are entirely dependent upon their male relations. Happily, however, Ramabai was not left long unprotected; six months after her brother's death she married an educated Bengali gentleman named Bipin Bihari Medhavi. Like herself, he had thrown aside the old Hindu beliefs, without having embraced the purer truths of Christianity. This is the case with a very large proportion of the educated natives of India, especially among the Hindus. As they learn more and more, they get to see the folly, the absurdity, and the falseness of their old religion, and they become ashamed of the senseless, degrading teaching of the Brahmans. But as their education is purely secular there is nothing in it to lead them to adopt Christianity, and they drift either into a cloudy, undefined Theism, or into avowed and absolute unbelief. The former is, perhaps, the most common, and it seems to have been the state of mind of Ramabai and her husband. They believed in God as the Creator and Euler of the Universe, and they even believed that He cared for them, and could help and guide them. When grief came, they bowed in humble resignation to His Almighty will, and they thanked Him reverently for all their happiness, for both joy and sorrow came to them in their married life. First a little daughter was born to them, and instead of repining and weeping, as an orthodox Hindu mother would do, that the child was a girl and not a boy, Ramabai rejoiced and called her baby "Manorama," meaning "Hearts-joy." Only a few months later came the sorrow, when the husband was taken ill with cholera and died within a few hours.

Once more was Ramabai left unprotected to face the world, and this time in the condition of all others which is a sad one for a Hindu woman, that of a son-less widow. To add to her desolation and loneliness, she had committed the unpardonable crime of marrying out of her own caste, and thereby incurred the wrath and contempt of all her relations and friends. Her husband had been of an inferior caste to herself, but it was the fact they were not of the same caste which constituted their marriage a crime, and caused them to be shunned by all their belongings. The hardness and coldness of their relations had been hard enough to bear when they had their mutual love and help tp sustain them, but now that Ramabai was a lone widow, it added a fresh drop of bitterness to her cup of sorrow. To this time of heavy trial she thus refers in a letter to an American friend:—

"My husband being of low caste, my marriage was altogether against the country's customs, and we were despised and shunned by all our most intimate friends and relations. So much was this the case that my husband's brother would not write to him, for fear of losing caste. Under such circumstances we had no intercourse with many, and were too proud to ask any favours. I therefore resolved to do what I could to take care of myself and my baby, independent of all friends and relatives. I made this promise to my dear husband before he left me."

Only one woman was brave enough to hold out a helping hand to the lonely outcast, or to send her a message of sympathy. This was a kinswoman of her own, Anandibai Joshee, then living with her husband at Serampore, not far from Calcutta. She invited Ramabai, whom she had never yet met, to go and stay with her; but the generous offer was proudly, though gratefully, declined. Ramabai' s brave heart did not fail her, and she once more resumed her former role of lecturer, urging more than ever the emancipation of the women of her race from the degraded condition into which they had fallen, and which she demonstrated, by quotations from the Hindu Scriptures, to be contrary to the real teaching of their religion. Leaving Calcutta, she lectured in different parts of the country, but it was in the Bombay Presidency and among the people of her own race that she found the readiest response to her efforts; and here she toiled hard, going from city to city, and stirring up the hearts of the people by her eloquence and her earnestness. In Poonah she founded a society called the Arya Mahila Somaj, having for its object the promotion of women's education and the discouragement of child marriage. In 1881 she gave most valuable evidence before the Education Commission, presided over by Dr., now Sir, W. Hunter, laying particular stress on the evils resulting from early marriages, and of the need that existed for supplying medical aid to women.

But while thus working hard for others, Ramabai was beginning to feel the need of further help and guidance for herself. Like others of her race, her longing eyes turned to England, believing that there alone she could find the instruction and the assistance she wanted. Yet it was some time before she could gather up sufficient courage to leave her native land and all her friends, and cross the sea, the "black water" of which the Hindus have a religious horror. At last, in the summer of 1883, accompanied by her child and by one friend, she took this great step, which was to prove, in more ways than one, the turning-point in her life's history.

In the Home of the Sisters of St. Mary at Wantage, the Hindu widow found a warm and loving welcome, as well as simple, earnest instruction in the Christian faith. For some time before leaving India Ramabai had been contemplating the possibility of embracing Christianity. As we have already stated, she had long abandoned orthodox Hinduism, and found refuge in a vague form of Theism, which, however, failed to satisfy either her heart or her intellect. While living in Calcutta she received from Baboo Keshub Chunder Sen, the leader of the sect of the Brahmo-Somaj, a copy of one of his books, which consisted of moral precepts drawn from the sacred books of many religions. The larger number of these extracts were from the New Testament, and their lofty moral tone attracted Ramabai's attention. She then studied the Bible for herself, first in Sanskrit and then in English, and by degrees she became convinced of the truth of the Gospel, and after four years of anxious thought and consideration she was baptized at Wantage, in September 1883, together with her little girl.

She then set to work diligently to perfect herself in English, and when sufficiently proficient in it she went to the Ladies' College at Cheltenham, where she acted as Professor of Sanskrit, at the same time studying mathematics, English literature, and natural science. Here she had educational advantages of the highest order, by which she did not fail to profit to the. fullest extent, as well as by the daily intercourse with noble and highly-cultivated Christian women, whose sympathy and wise help she found invaluable. She remained at Cheltenham College from 1884 to 1886, and it was then her intention to return to India at once, and if she could obtain an educational appointment under Government, which it seemed almost certain she would do, to devote herself to imparting to her countrywomen some of the knowledge she had gained in England.

Before, however, she could complete her college course, a different direction was given to her plans by an invitation which she received from America to go there in order to be present on the occasion of her cousin, Mrs. Anandibai Joshee, taking her degree in medicine at Philadelphia. It was this same cousin who had given her such a friendly invitation to go to her at Serampore nearly five years before, and Ramabai felt a longing now to return her kindness by showing her interest in her success. She also had for some time had a great desire to visit America, but, on the other hand, she felt great reluctance in relinquishing her studies, and in giving up her plans for a speedy return to India.

It seemed to her, however, that the invitation to America was a call from God, and she believed that in thus taking a long voyage in order to show her sympathy with her cousin, she would be, in truth, acting for the welfare of her countrywomen at large.

She might, perhaps, have echoed the words of the poet Wordsworth—

Stepping westward seems to be
A sort of heavenly destiny.

At any rate, she felt it her duty to go; though, when leaving England, she fully intended to return after a few months and to resume her studies.

Once in the New World, however, the attraction which it seems to have so strongly for the oldest races of the world, began to work upon her. American manners and society, American institutions, and still more American schools, interested her greatly. New ways of helping her countrywomen presented themselves to her mind, and the Kindergarten system, in which the training of the hand was combined with that of the head, struck her as peculiarly suited to the wants of Indian women.

A correspondent of a Chicago paper, who after the manner of the country "interviewed" Pundita Ramabai, inquired of her the reason why she devoted so much time to the study of the Kindergarten system in Philadelphia. Her reply was as follows: "I wish all the educators would understand Froebel as I do. I see in his system the true means of reforming the old ideas of religious and secular education. In the first place, Froebel's system enables a child to think; all his senses are trained by it, and this is just what education means to do. In the second place, an intelligent thinker will not accept or submit to any belief without taking time to think whether it is profitable, or whether it is true. Truth is the spirit of Froebel's teaching, and I think if the Kindergarten system were introduced into India, in secular and religious schools, it would give to the people not only an advanced mode of thinking, but would also dispel the illusion of many superstitious beliefs, the wrong ideas that now keep women and children in subjection. My idea is to reach the minds of the mothers. You know that nothing will attract the mother's attention so strongly as the welfare of her children, and if there are some women in our country, as I know they are to be found everywhere, who are opposed to their own progress and education, the Kindergarten system, when presented to them in its true light, will convince them that the welfare of their children depends mostly upon themselves, and if they are not as intelligent and judicious in training as they are in loving, they will do more harm than good."

With the enthusiasm and thoroughness characteristic of her nature, Ramabai was not content with studying the Kindergarten system from the outside; in September 1886 she enrolled herself as a pupil in a training school for Kindergarten teachers, and lost no time in finding out how the various toys, or "gifts" as they are called, could best be adapted to Indian ideas. She was much struck by the superiority of the books provided in America, both for the instruction and the amusement of children. In England she had paid very little attention to the subject, but in Philadelphia she found that even the school-books were printed on excellent paper, in beautiful type, and adorned with illustrations, each of which was in its own way a triumph of art. When she saw these fascinating little books, and compared them mentally with the books supplied to Indian school- children, which are almost all, and more especially those in the vernacular, badly printed on thin discoloured paper, and destitute of any embellishment, she could not help feeling that even in a small matter like this her own people were at a great disadvantage. But this did not discourage her. She simply set to work to prepare a series of primers and lesson-books in Marathi, and to collect illustrations for them, so that they might be put into print as soon as she landed in Bombay, for they could not be printed in America, owing to the absence of Marathi type.

By the end of the year 1887 Ramabai's plans and ideas had taken a definite shape. She had come to the conclusion that she could best help her country-women, not by taking up the higher education in high schools and colleges, but by founding native schools, where the poorest, the most helpless, and the most oppressed members of society, the young widows, could find a home and learn how to gain a respectable livelihood independent of their families. Herself a high- caste widow, she determined to devote her life, her boundless energy, and her rare intellectual gifts to the task of educating and enlightening other high-caste Hindu widows. And this she determined to do apart from all questions of religion.

Although a true Christian herself, she felt convinced that no good, but rather harm, would ensue from making the acceptance of Christianity by the young widows a condition of their admission to the Home she had determined to establish. From her own personal experience, she felt sure that many suffering and down-trodden Hindu widows, the very ones perhaps who most needed her help, would not come to such a home if they were obliged to give up their own religious customs or were compelled to study the Bible.

Missionary homes and schools already existed for those who would use them; but Ramabai's aim was to provide a refuge for those who would not, for such orthodox women as, unable to bear the cruel hardships of a widow's lot, would commit suicide by drowning themselves in the sacred rivers, rather than lose their caste by putting themselves under the care of people who would teach them a strange religion and try to convert them.

The Pundita's idea was to open homes, where young widows of good family could take refuge without losing their caste or being disturbed in their religious belief, and where they might have entire freedom of action with regard to caste rules, such as cooking their food, &c. In these homes she proposed to train them, according to their several tastes and capacity, in such branches of work as might enable them in time to earn a respectable livelihood.

Her proposal met with considerable opposition, many good people thinking she was making a mistake in attempting to work such an institution on non-missionary lines; but she had fully considered the question, and had made up her mind on the subject.

"I admire greatly missionary work," she wrote to the editor of the New York Evangelist, "but that does not make me shut my eyes to the many wants of my sisters that cannot always be met by missionaries. . . . Although we cannot enforce the study of religion in our school-home for widows, we shall encourage them, if they choose, to be acquainted with the teaching of Christ. Christian literature will be placed in our school library; besides, each pupil will have a copy of the Bible given her, with a request to read it for herself. And then we must leave the work of their conversion to the Holy Spirit."

The next step was to collect the necessary funds to start such a home. With this object a society, called the "Ramabai Association," was started in Boston in December 1887, and continues to work up to the present time, all its efforts being devoted to further the cause of Hindu child widows. In order to make the work better known, and to enlist public sympathy by letting people really understand the condition of Indian women, Ramabai wrote The High-Caste Hindu Woman, a book which could hardly fail to produce a deep impression, or to awaken a widespread interest in her work. Here for the first time was recorded, in earnest but temperate language, the complete story of a Hindu woman's life her position as defined by religion and by custom, her joys, her sorrows, and her needs. From her very birth a woman, we are told, is exposed to unkindness, to contempt, and to cruelty. So unwelcome is a daughter in most families, that it is not surprising that means of removing them are gladly seized, and that the practice of female infanticide, although sternly prohibited by law, yet flourishes in secret in some parts of the country. To quote the words of the Pundita herself, "The census of 1870 revealed the curious fact that three hundred children were stolen in one year by wolves from the city of Umritzur, all the children being girls, and this under the very nose of the English Government."

"Childhood is the heyday of a Hindu woman's life," but as almost all girls are married before they are twelve, these happy days of freedom are few in number. With her marriage begins a life of hard- ships, and oppression at the hands of her mother-in-law and other female relations of her husband. If she has sons there is some hope of happiness for her; but if not, her life is made miserable by the angry reproaches of her husband, and the knowledge that he can, if he chooses, discard her and take another wife. Then, if she becomes a widow her cup of bitterness is full.

Much of all this, indeed, was known before Ramabai wrote her book, but it had never been stated so clearly, nor with such authoritative knowledge of the whole subject; and there was in some people's minds a tendency to regard the accounts given by missionaries and others as highly coloured and exaggerated. The matter of this book is highly valuable, but it is not less remarkable from its style; the strong, nervous English and the calm, masterly treatment of the subject would do credit to a highly- trained and experienced English author; and a perusal of it must add to the respect felt for the writer, as well as to the sympathy felt for those whose cause she advocates so powerfully.

During the two years that Ramabai spent in America, she devoted her time and energy without ceasing to the work of helping her fellow-country-women. She visited different parts of the States, and spoke frequently at public meetings; and wherever she went her eloquence attracted a crowd of listeners, and her courage and perseverance commanded universal respect. A lady who was present at one of her meetings, wrote thus of her:—"Ramabai is strikingly beautiful; her face is a clear-cut oval; her eyes, large and dark, glow with feeling. She is a brunette, but her cheeks are full of colour. Her white widow's saree is drawn closely over her head and fastened under her chin."

Having at last collected sixty thousand rupees, a little more than four thousand pounds sterling, Ramabai considered she had sufficient to make a, beginning. She therefore left America, and reached Bombay on the 1st of February 1889. She lost no time in setting to work, and on the 11th of March opened her first home for widows, which she called Shardu Sadan—the "Home of Learning."[1] She is working hard, but it is up-hill work, and there are very many difficulties and discouragements to be faced. She has a large circle of sympathizers and friends; but many even of her well-wishers think that she must fail, and point to the small number of widows whom she has as yet induced to come to her as a proof of the truth of their predictions.

It may, indeed, be so, though it is early days to talk of failure; but even if this particular effort should fail, it will, without doubt, lead to others, and in the end success must be attained. It may not, perhaps, be granted to Ramabai to see the fruits of her labour in this world, but fruit there will assuredly be in due time, and the day will come when hundreds and thousands of Hindu women shall learn with good cause to bless her name.

  1. This has since been removed to Poona, and at the present time there are sixteen young widows in residence, mostly Brahmans, and an American lady has joined the Pundita, and is assisting her in the work.