Oct 24, 2023

Pandita Ramabai


Child marriage was common in 19th century Hindu Indian society. Girls as young as five were given in marriage and school and work were strictly off limits. Their primary role in society was to marry and bear children for their husbands. They were also held responsible if their husbands died. Widowhood was considered a punishment for sins committed in previous lives. Widows had to cut their hair, wear drab clothing, forego family gatherings and remain single. Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922) was born into such a society. Her progressive father taught her Sanskrit, the sacred language of Hinduism. By age 12, she had memorized 18,000 Sanskrit verses. Her parents died in a famine, so she moved to Calcutta. Hindu priests were amazed with her learning and bestowed on her the title Pandita (scholar). As she delved further into Hindu writings, she became disillusioned with its low regard for women. Though she belonged to the Brahmin upper caste, she shockingly married a man from the lowest caste. She read Luke’s gospel that she found in her husband’s library and desired to become a Christian. When a 12-year-old widow reduced to begging came to live with her, she knew what she had to do: rescue widows and orphans. A missionary invited her to live in England among an order of Anglican sisters committed to rescuing prostitutes. When she asked why compassion was shown to “fallen women,” a sister shared Jesus’ encounter with the “fallen” woman of Samaria in John 4. It stunned her that Jesus didn’t despise her but saved her. Ramabai was baptized and returned to India to work with widows and orphans. She had been drawn to Christianity for the respect Jesus showed to women, but she came to the point where, “I wanted to know Christ and not merely his religion. I had, at last, come to the end of myself and unconditionally surrendered myself to the Savior.” She started the Mukti Mission, and thousands of widows and orphans came to live there. She wrote, “A life totally committed to God, has nothing to fear, nothing to lose and nothing to regret.” A prayer spoken before her death expresses her total commitment:

I must praise and praise and PRAISE the Lord with all of my heart for all His goodness to me and mine. How great and wonderful are all of His mercies! He continues to bless His children at Mukti, lifting up the fallen, warming up the cold and lukewarm, healing our backslidings and loving us freely, according to His promises and the unspeakable riches of His goodness. I do not deserve the least of His goodness, but it is like Him that He is so “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, plenteous in mercy.”

Rev. Dr. Peter James served 42 years as the senior of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, VA — 21 years in the 20th century and 21 years in the 21st century. He retired in 2021 and now serves as Pastor-in-Residence at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Even as a pastor, prayer came slowly to Pete. Read Pete’s story.