On widowhood by pandith ramabai ,{ the high cast Hindu women}

​    The High Caste Hindu Woman by Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati Pandita Ramabai
Source://:-Author(s): Barbara Celarent

Source: American Journal of Sociology
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American Journal of Sociology

354

the entrance examinations to the E´ cole Normale Supe´rieure—Ramabai

was given the honorific titles by which she has since been known. Pandita

(roughly, “one greatly learned in Sanskrit and religious texts”) was not

enough, so her astounded admirers added Sarasvati (goddess of learning).

A series of controversial life decisions—her cross-caste marriage, her trip

to England, her conversion to Christianity, her evangelical witness—even�tually cost her her great reputation, at least in India. Yet by the late 20th

century, feminists, Indian nationalists, Anglo-Catholics, and evangelicals

would all be claiming her as a shining predecessor. Only the metropolitan

social scientists remained unaware of this extraordinary woman.

During her brief career as a social analyst, Ramabai wrote two works

that command our attention. The first, The High Caste Hindu Woman

(HCHW), presented Indian society to Americans via an analytic indict�ment of the place of women in traditional upper-caste India. Impassioned

and critical, the book yet maintained both Indian national pride and a

profound sympathy for the Hindu culture that Ramabai would never lose.

Reversing the exchange, Ramabai’s second book, Conditions of Life in

the United States (CLUS), presented American society to an educated

Indian (Marathi-speaking) audience. A synthetic work, it can be read

beside the other great foreign analyses of 19th-century America: Frances

Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), Harriet Marti�neau’s Society in America (1837), Tocqueville’s Democracy in America

(1840), and Bryce’s American Commonwealth (1888). Unlike them, it

brings a nonmetropolitan vision to its task.

The life that left us these books is the stuff dreams are made of. Ramabai

was born April 23, 1858, at her father’s ashram. Anant Shastri Dongre

was a learned Chitpavan Brahman who, although a rigidly orthodox

Hindu, conceived the forbidden idea of teaching his wife Sanskrit, the

sacred language. This dream failed with his first wife, who herself opposed

it. But after she died, another Brahman saw Anant Shastri bathing at a

sacred site one day and offered Shastri (then about 40) his nine-year-old

daughter as a wife. (The story is told in HCHW, without naming names.)

The girl fell in with her new husband’s linguistic plans and eventually

became herself a master Sanskritist. When public outcry about the lan�guage instruction grew annoying, Anant Shastri moved his new family

to a site he built deep in the forested mountains. Here he became a well�known holy man, and his ashram became a school.

And here Ramabai was born. Soon, however, her father’s money ran

out, and the family went on permanent pilgrimage. Moving constantly,

they read the Puranas in public (receiving in return the alms on which

they lived), visited the sacred sites, and gave away many of the alms they

received. Through all this, Ramabai’s mother taught her Sanskrit, the

Puranas, the Gita, and the commentaries. By 15, Ramabai was herself a

puranika, intoning the sacred texts for a living (indeed, she could recite

the 18,000 lines of the Bhagavata Purana from memory). Having wan�dered the whole of the subcontinent, she could speak Marathi, Kannada,

        

and Hindi. It was now a time of famine, however, and when Ramabai

was in her late teens, her father, then mother, then elder sister all suc�cumbed. She and her brother wandered another two years, then came to

Calcutta, where the girl became a sensation for her learning, receiving

the titles of Pandita and Sarasvati from the most learned Indian and

Western scholars of the city.

In Calcutta Ramabai began her disillusionment with Hinduism as then

practiced, becoming a Brahmo (a monotheistic sect). She left Purana re�citing and became a popular lecturer, speaking largely on women’s topics.

Here, as throughout her career, audiences found irresistible the combi�nation of her astounding learning, her broad culture, her great beauty,

and her quiet charisma. In this period, she also began reading the for�bidden books—the Upanishads, the Vedantas, and ultimately the Vedas

themselves. After two years, Ramabai’s brother died of cholera. Surprising

her progressive countrymen in Maharashtra (who were planning to bring

her back to western India and fund her work), she quickly married a

long-standing suitor, who was a pleader in the Indian courts. It was a

forbidden marriage, for Bepin Behari Das Medhavi was a Kayastha (al�though Ramabai nearly always referred to him as a Sudra, which may

simply have shown her ignorance of all caste distinction beneath her own

level). The marriage caused a furor, followed by tragedy when Ramabai’s

husband died, leaving her with an infant daughter.

Ramabai then went to Poona, where she caused another furor by ad�vocating the education of women (especially of women doctors) and found�ing an organization for the advancement of women. After about a year,

she went to England to study medicine, planning to support herself as a

lecturer in Sanskrit during her studies. She first stayed with the Anglo�Catholic Sisters of St. Mary the Virgin, whose missionary community she

had known in India. Within months of her arrival, the friend who had

accompanied her committed suicide (another parallel with Durkheim,

whose close friend Victor Hommay committed suicide when Durkheim

was 28). Ramabai’s baptism as a Christian—never fully explained—came

a month later. About this time, too, deafness put an end to her dreams

of becoming a physician.

The Sisters of St. Mary proved too rigid for Ramabai, and she moved

on to Cheltenham Ladies’ College, again supporting herself in part by

teaching Sanskrit. After two years of being mentored by Cheltenham’s

remarkable Dorothea Beale, she went to the United States to attend a

countrywoman’s graduation from the Woman’s Medical College of Phil�adelphia. Caught up in the active world of late 19th-century American

feminism, she conceived the idea of creating a school for Hindu widows

(the child-marriage system guaranteed that there were many of these). In

her new language of English, she quickly wrote The High Caste Hindu

Woman as a fund-raising tract. She traveled thousands of miles around

the United States, lecturing and organizing “Ramabai Circles,” which

would contribute the money necessary for her planned school. Also during

     

          

American Journal of Sociology

356

these American years, she took extensive notes, and on her return to India

(via Japan and China) she completed these as texts and assembled them

into the Marathi book Conditions of Life in the United States.

Thus by age 32, Pandita Ramabai had circumnavigated the globe,

raised metropolitan funding for a feminist social reform in her native

land, converted to a new religion (but only on her own terms), and written

two insightful pieces of social analysis. The rest of her career—founding

and managing her schools, becoming an evangelical Christian (and

thereby losing even more of her Indian supporters), translating the Bible

from original languages into Marathi (and in the process producing the

first Marathi textbooks for both Greek and Hebrew), and raising her

daughter—these things must be set aside here. We are concerned only

with her social analysis. But there is one last tragic parallel to Durkheim.

Like her French peer, Ramabai suffered the loss of a beloved child. Her

daughter Manoramabai died in 1921 at age 40. Ramabai followed, nine

months later.

Ramabai’s two major pieces of social commentary are yoked by an

eager desire to translate across cultural boundaries. In both works, the

foundation of that translation is women’s experience. Ramabai takes it

for granted that certain aspects of female experience—in particular moth�ering and being mothered—are universal to all types and kinds of people.

This focus on maternalism of course reflected the young widow’s own

life. In England she first lived in the all-female world of the sisters at

Wantage. Although Ramabai often disagreed violently with her spiritual

advisor Sister Geraldine, she was filled with respect and love for the much

older nun. At Cheltenham, she came under the spell of the forceful, devout,

but more free-thinking Beale, and in Philadelphia under the equally char�ismatic power of Dr. Rachel Bodley of the Woman’s Medical College of

Philadelphia. And behind all of these was her own beloved mother Laksh�mibai, who had died less than a decade before.

It is little wonder then that in places both works read like tracts from

the militant world of late 19th-century American maternalism, accepting

as given the notions that women are more moral than men, that women

are thereby society’s instructors in morality, and that the advent of women

to any workplace or social setting inevitably improves its social order and

harmony. Her accounts of the advances of women in education, in em�ployment, and in such social movements as the Women’s Christian Tem�perance Union all suffer from this somewhat one-sided position. But when

her empirical self dominates, Ramabai is plain enough about the failings

of women that complement this optimistic view of maternalism. In her

eyes, many American women are preoccupied with fashion that has no

meaning, with clothing and food that require the massacre of animals,

with small matters and trivial thoughts. Many of them, like their male

counterparts, participate in ethnic and racial hatreds that Ramabai finds

repugnant. As for the Hindu women, many of them have neither the

         

education nor the emotional depth to take on mothering at the early stage

of life when it is forced on them.

But all the same, it is an audience of women and, more particularly,

reform-minded women that Ramabai takes for granted. Women’s expe�rience is the touchstone of her writing, and she is, for Indian women at

least, the figure who first systematized the feminist case against “tradi�tional” Hindu institutions. What made her difficult for later feminists to

swallow was her explicit Christian commitment, which increased with

time and which, despite her own efforts to contain it, would at times

become overbearingly evangelical. Yet while Ramabai remained an active

administrator and social reformer to her death, she turned increasingly

inward, becoming in her later years a holy person like her father: focused

on prayer and meditation and on the task of conceiving the meanings of

the Bible in three different languages.

The complex inward self of the later Ramabai is not evident in these

early works, however. Here feminism forms the universal experience that

can sustain translation between radically different cultures. For Ramabai

remained a Hindu, despite her conversion. Filling the pages of CLUS,

for example, are long celebrations of the beauty of nature and the graces

of the plant and animal environment. The writing is laced with Indian

proverbs. As a denizen of the tropics, Ramabai found snow unutterably

beautiful, but at the same time dangerous and frightening. Accustomed

to the calm waters of the Indian Ocean, she was overwhelmed and en�ergized by the fierce weather of the North Atlantic. These passages in

CLUS on the natural beauties of America are among the best in the book.

No other major social commentator on the United States took the

country’s physical beauty so seriously.

Also Indian is Ramabai’s implicit social theory. The most obvious ex�ample is her sympathetic treatment of the “Indians” of America, whom

she regards as analogous to the Indians of the subcontinent precisely

because the expanding Europeans defined them as related peoples. The

American “Indians” are for her an object lesson for the subcontinent, a

fate to be avoided. But there is a broader nonmetropolitan aspect to her

social theory. Throughout CLUS, she uses the word jati—typically ren�dered in English by “caste”—to mean “kind.” Racial bigotry is thus (lit�erally) kind-bigotry. Women are a kind. The black ex-slaves are a kind.

Each immigrant group forms a kind. To be sure, there are “kinds” that

later social critics would take seriously which Ramabai does not. Class

is one. She traveled first-class on the North Atlantic passage and makes

only a mild apology about getting preferred treatment when the boat ran

aground. Or again, she remarks in HCHW that high-caste women “have

inherited from their father to a certain degree, quickness of perception

and intelligence” (p. 132). Thus she accepts certain differences without

critique, although in the main her position is that “kind”-ness is not a

legitimate rationale for the differential treatment of human beings. Or

indeed of animals: her sympathy for the freezing herds out on the blizzard-

        

coated Great Plains is quite of a piece with her sympathy for mistreated

immigrants and slaves. One does not find such things in Martineau and

Tocqueville.

To be sure, one could read her entire position on “kind” as being utterly

aristocratic and Brahmin, a view from “above it all.” That this was not

the case becomes clear later in her life, for she moved steadily toward a

position that all human beings are in some sense equal. A better reading

of “kind” in these early works would therefore be that Ramabai was

deploying an early version of what would later be called the “other”

concept. She altogether avoids particular words for “tribe,” “community,”

“race,” “caste,” “ethnic-group,” “people,” and “sex.” All are jati—kind. By

doing this, Rambai insists that we view the world as filled not with

particular stratification orders and groups, but rather with “kind”-ness.

This is an important advance, one sadly missed by several of her later

English translators, who dutifully render the words into their different

(for the West) dimensions of difference.

Ramabai’s position implies that it is human to be particular and that

particularity comes in many types and kinds. Ramabai had, at one point,

early in her public life, a similar theory of religion: that there is, as she

put it, only one religion. “Now by religion one should not understand the

many doctrines such as Hindu, Muslim, Christian, etc. These names in�dicate doctrines and not religion. Religion is single in form” (“Strı¯ Dharma�Neeti” [1882], trans. Meera Kosambi [New Delhi: Oxford, 2000], p. 76).

Ramabai’s implicit theory of “kinds” of humanity thus seems an important

precursor of later ideas.

Ramabai’s view of temporality curiously combines a theory of decline

with a theory of progress. On the one hand, her interpretation of many

of the evils of her contemporary world was that they resulted from the

loss of the original messages. She goes to great lengths in HCHW to show

that the Code of Manu was more hostile to women than the earlier Vedas.

But she exonerates Manu on the subject of sati, which she attributes to

later priests and their deliberate mistranslation of the Vedas. Similarly,

she was scandalized to discover that Christians were as internally divided

as were the Hindus, and she attributed this sectarianism to a failure to

read and follow the original message of the Bible.

Thus Ramabai had a theory of decline. Yet at the same time, she

accepted the 19th-century West’s profound belief in progress, an accep�tance which is evident not only in her accounts of American trade, in�dustry, and agriculture, but also in her belief that most social problems

can be overcome by sufficient education and by an end to ignorance and

mutual distrust. Her faith in her American mentors Rachel Bodley and

Frances Willard—and more broadly in the American example—is no�where more clear.

Ramabai’s ambivalence about the direction of history is complemented

by her ambivalence about colonialism. It is easy to see her as having gone

over to the imperialists’ side. She chose their religion, although rejecting

     

         

their particular version of it. She accepted western arguments for progress

and change. She got her funding and, after her Indian reputation faded,

most of her personal support from outside India. Yet at the same time

she was often a militant nationalist. In praising the religious pluralism of

the United States, she emphasized that it did not undercut patriotism:

“Although there are differences of belief among them [the Americans]

there is no fundamental difference in the religion they espouse. These

differences of belief do not stand in the way of anything that concerns

the welfare of the country” (CLUS p. 197). Similarly, she disliked the

Church of England because (among other reasons) the name of the im�perial nation was part of its name. Or again, a problem with Hindu high�caste women is their failure to help their nation: “[Women] grow to be

selfish slaves in their petty individual interests, indifferent to the welfare

of their own immediate neighbors, much more to their nation’s well-being”

(HCHW, p. 119). And “The men of Hindustan do not when babes, suck

from the mother’s breast true patriotism and in their boyhood, the mother,

poor woman, is unable to develop that divine faculty in them owing to

her utter ignorance of the past and present condition of her native land”

(HCHW, pp. 121–22). This nationalism occasionally crops out in the de�monization of the preceding imperialists (the Mughals), on whom she

blames (among other things) the rise of women’s formal seclusion.

In this, then, as in so many ways, Ramabai became a woman between

two cultures. One sees this especially in her analysis of sati. She gives a

straightforward feminist account of sati as a device for controlling women

with their “dangerous” desires. She is entirely in sympathy with the British

government’s proscription of sati. Yet she also realizes that that abolition

in some ways made matters worse, since many widows had chosen ritual

suicide, either because widowhood itself was so horrible, or because they

genuinely believed the official interpretation of sati, or because they truly

loved their husbands beyond life itself. The abolition, that is, removed

from women even their power to act and condemned them to the horrors

of widowhood or its only alternatives, escape and prostitution. It is a very

modern analysis.

Ramabai challenges us, finally, because she exemplifies those many

analysts of social life who were not professionals. Pandita Ramabai pro�duced her view of America not because she was theoretically interested

in improving a body of common knowledge called social science, but

because she had an ambition to change the place of women in India. She

thus takes a place beside the many reformers of the late 19th century

whose work laid the foundations of sociology in the United States (foun�dations quite different from the historical and positivistic foundations in

Germany and France, respectively). Most of that reform work disappeared

from the sociological canon, partly for want of method, but mostly for

want of “theoretical concerns,” the trope by which an emerging academic

discipline came to define itself.

But for Ramabai, social analysis was a precondition to—and a means

  

   of—reform. It was therefore a way station on the path to her fulfillment

as an activist whose life proceded directly from her religious devotion.

So also was social analysis a mere prelude to political power in the life

of Jomo Kenyatta or to cultural banishment in the life of Qu Tongzu or

to romanticized revolution in the life of Frantz Fanon. The non�metropolitan world could little afford the calm contemplations of aca�demic life. So we often find social science texts issuing haphazardly from

lives whose logic quickly drove their protagonists elsewhere.

This haphazard social science is all the more important for its com�mitment. A social science from nowhere lacks humanity: no human lives

in nowhere. Hence a committed social science is doubly valuable. But at

the same time, a social science utterly particular is equally problematic,

denying as it does the validity of others’ experience. The roots of humane

social science thus lie in translation, in making the systematic leap from

one social standpoint to another. Of this leap Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati

provides a profound example, both in her writing and in her life.

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