Pandita Ramabai: an unsung pioneer of Bible translation.
Wycliffe, Luther, Tyndale, Townsend all feature prominently on these pages – and rightly so. They are all relatively well known. But Pandita who?
Pandita Ramabai was born in India in 1858 into a Marathi speaking family, belonging to the priestly Brahmin caste. There were no schools for girls but, most unusually, both her parents gave her a thorough education in Sanskrit. They were, however, very poor.
As a youngster, Ramabai helped bring in money by reciting the Hindu Scriptures in Sanskrit. She wrote in later life: ‘We all read Puranas in public places, but did not translate them or explain them in the vernacular. The reading of the sacred literature was in itself believed to be productive of great merit.’
For a Brahmin, begging and menial work were not options for earning a living. During the great famine of 1876–78, both her parents died from starvation. Living with her older brother, she became well known for her extraordinary intellectual abilities and teaching skill. It was at this time that the University of Calcutta gave her the title Pandita, ‘wise teacher’, the first woman to be so honoured. Even so she sensed increasing hopelessness at the place of women in Hinduism.
In 1880 her brother also died. Alone in the world, she married a friend of her brother. But in doing so, she was held to have polluted herself, for he was from the lower Shudra caste. They had a daughter, and then her husband died too. So Ramabai was left in the worst of all positions in the India of that time: an orphan, a widow and a single mother.
The longing for social reform that would improve the lot of women in areas such as child marriage and literacy and education grew ever stronger in Ramabai. She learnt English, started to write, and met, amongst others, theologian Nehemiah Goreh, who helped her to an understanding of the Christian faith.
In 1883, she travelled to England for studies and was invited to stay at an Anglican community. In the community’s London Rescue Home, she saw first-hand how women who had fallen on hard times were helped. This experience moved her enormously. In particular, the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4 impacted her. Acknowledging that ‘Christ was truly the divine Saviour’, she was baptised. And yet she wrote later, that ‘though she had found the Christian religion, she had not found Christ.’
Back in India, she did indeed find the Lord Jesus. She wrote: ‘The Holy Spirit made it clear from the Word of God that the salvation which God gives through Christ is present and not something future. I received, I believed and I was filled with joy.’
She then undertook a lecture tour of the USA, where she was able to raise funds to realise her growing vision of a refuge for women in India. In 1889, she founded the Mukti Mission for destitute orphans, widows and single mothers, offering a Christian welcome to all, irrespective of caste, gender or wealth. It remains open to this day. In 1896 she famously organised a caravan of ox carts during a severe famine, rescuing thousands of young girls and widows.
Ramabai tells of how, in 1905, she ‘was led by the Lord to start a prayer circle’. 70 people met to pray for the true conversion of all. They experienced an amazing Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit. One of the consequences of this was a conviction of the power of the Scriptures in the language of ordinary people.
And so she turned to Bible translation. She learnt Hebrew and Greek and worked on a translation into Marathi. A translation into Marathi had already been completed in William Carey’s day. There had been subsequent revisions too. But Ramabai thought that these translations relied too heavily on Sanskrit words and phrases; they did not speak to women of lower castes. Her translation had a specific audience: uneducated women of lower castes.
Ramabai died in 1922, just as she completed the final checking of her translation.
We could present her as a token woman. After all, advances in 20th Century Bible translation were so often made by women. It was after the third Camp Wycliffe in 1936 that two single women went out together to work in Mexico. That may be the first time when an organisation sent out ‘unaccompanied’ women to work in that way. Women make up around two thirds of the global Wycliffe work force.
Similar expansion of the work force came about when local workers began to take the lead in Bible translation. Ramabai was in the vanguard of both these advances, but she is no token. Her life story is as remarkable as any in the history of Bible translation. And her translation of the Bible into Marathi as spoken by lower-caste women is utterly inspirational. Could it be that she has not received international prominence because she was a woman, an Indian, and worked independently?
Intellectually brilliant, Ramabai was deeply familiar with suffering, hardship and opposition. Her life journey with its gradual discovery of Christ is heart-warming. The constant in her life was the quest for social justice for low caste women. Only in her discovery of Christ did that quest find fulfilment. How fitting then that all this climaxed at the end of her life in a Bible translation that was crafted for an audience that others had considered not worth the bother.
Thank God for the remarkable life of Pandita Ramabai!
David Morgan worked in multiple roles in Central Africa for 16 years; he then headed up Wycliffe’s training programme in the UK for 12 years and now works in a management role supporting Bible translation in Eurasia. He gives an annual presentation on Bible translation history at the School of Language and Scripture.
Quotations in italics taken from India's Woman of the Millennium: Pandita Ramabai: Her Story in Her Own Words (Int'l Christian Women's Hall of Fame Series Book 3)
Header image: Ramabai Sarasvati, Pandita, 1858-1922 / Public domain