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Ramabai Dongre Medhavi - An Educator and Humanitarian, Who Understood The Injustice Of The Caste System
Ramabai Dongre Medhavie
Ramabai Dongre Medhavi was born in 1858, the daughter of Ananta Dongre, a high caste orthodox Hindu scholar. Her mother Lakshmibai Dongre became a bride at the age of nine. Although Ananta had taken a bride of such tender age, he later came to view the practice of child marriage as barbaric. He taught his young bride to read and write, much to the horror of his peers.
Rababai's father was so ostracized by others of his caste, for his philosophy towards women, that he took his wife to the sacred Indian mountains of Gungamal, where he started his own ashram. And so Rababai, the youngest of three children, grew up, under the guidance and tutelage of learned and compassionate parents.
A generous man, Ananta Dongre, not only taught the pilgrims who came to the shrine, but housed and fed them as well. This practice soon depleted Ananta's meager resources, and he left the mountains, with his wife and three children, to wander India as an itinerant preacher (a Purinika or popular preacher). Because he was a learned man, he was paid whatever his listeners could afford, and so the family survived.
Ramabai was a beautiful and intelligent girl who learned well from her parent. She spoke numerous Indian dialects, and knew thousands of the verses of Hindu Shastras by heart. She was saddened by her readings which related to the inferior position in which Indian woman, especially young brides found themselves.
The Indian famine of 1874, ravaged parts of India, and resulted in the death, by starvation, of both Ramabai's parents and her sister. Ramabai and her brother traveled on, barely surviving, until they reached Calcutta. Here, at age twenty, Ramabai's exceptional knowledge was eventually recognized, and in spite of her status as a female, she was recognized as a rare scholar and given the title of Pundita (Learned Lady).
Two years later, Ramabai's brother died and she was left totally alone. She then defied tradition by marrying a man of lower caste, something unacceptable in Indian society. Unfortunately her beloved husband died shortly after the birth of their daughter Manorama.
Despised by her husbands family for not bearing a son and by her own relations for marrying outside her caste, Ramabai turned her attention to lecturing against the treatment of women, especially poor women, in Indian society, specifically to the plight of young Indian brides. In addition to marrying at a tender age, Indian brides who had not born a son at the time of their husband's death, were subjected to a life of isolation, neglect, and abuse at the hands of their in-laws. Ramabai wrote, and spoke often and eloquently on behalf of the oppressed. She founded the first Indian feminist organization, Ayra Mahila Sabra.
Life moved ahead for Ramabai at breakneck speed. She began moving toward Christianity, and, with the help of Christian missionaries, traveled to England to extend her studies. She later went to the United States where she wrote further and cemented her plans to found a school and shelter for young Indian widows. In America, she managed to find financial backers for her endeavor and so, after five years abroad, returned to India.
In Bombay, Ramabai established her first residential school, the Sharada Sadan. She later relocated to Pune and purchased a large piece of property nearby. Here she operated a large farming community, residential and industrial school, known as Mukti, which still operates today. Mukti was open to women of all faiths who were in need of education and a safe sanctuary. Here they received training in independence and moved on to become teachers, missionaries, and nurses.
During her life, Ramabai Dongre overcame many obstacles, including both religious and cultural prejudices, to become respected and admired, by all, for her wisdom, compassion, determination, and dedication to the less fortunate. She died in 1922.