Ramabai, a forceful woman from the 19th century, is missing from our history books simply because she she mounted a scathing critique of Brahmanical patriarchy . ‘Worse’, she converted to Christianity.
Why has the life and work of Ramabai and, more importantly, her critique of society been marginalised from mainstream history which otherwise is more than generous to the great men (and occasionally women) school of history? Ramabai had all the elements required for a ‘great’ character: she was articulate, learned, confident and forceful — a woman who got considerable media attention when she first burst upon the public arena in the 1870s.
Men of the nineteenth century, both reformists and traditionalists who had been waxing eloquent on the ‘glorious’ position of women in ancient India, suddenly found an embodiment of such womanhood in the person in Ramabai. Welcomed and feted in Calcutta in 1878–79, Ramabai was soon honoured with the title of ‘Saraswati’ for her learning and eloquence, not just in any ‘vernacular’ but in Sanskrit (from which women had been traditionally excluded) — an apt title that was soon to become ironic.
The goddess Saraswati is associated with learning but also with vac (speech or voice). Unfortunately, as Ramabai was to discover, unless this voice or speech tied into what men wanted to hear and what they themselves were saying, it was regarded as dissonant. Ramabai’s critique of Brahmanical patriarchy and her decisive break with its oppressive structure through her conversion to Christianity were too much for those for whom nationalism was synonymous with Hinduism. Ramabai became at best an embarrassment and at worst a betrayer.
Her marginalisation then is not the mere consequence of gender bias in history, although that certainly accounts for a part of it. It is not merely an obscuring, an invisibilising, as is commonly the case with women, but a suppression. Our task then is not just to retrieve forgotten histories but to explore the histories of suppression.
That Ramabai’s absence from dominant history is not a case of forgotten history but a case of suppression is evident from accounts of Annie Besant, whose life and work invariably find mention in any history of modern India. In many ways Annie Besant’s life was a counterpoint to that of Ramabai and was probably perceived as such.
Before Annie Besant came out to India she had been an active member of the women’s suffragette movement. Once she was in India she threw herself into the task of the spiritual and national regeneration of the country. The nation’s regeneration itself was inextricable from a revival of Hinduism. Within a few years of her arrival in India Annie Besant established herself as an outstanding revivalist of Hinduism in south India as she held forth vigorously on the ‘glories’ of ancient and modern Hinduism.
What is significant is that reform itself was irrelevant in her national and spiritual revivalist agenda. Hindu culture was ‘blessed’ in her view and needed no major changes. The chief target of her ridicule, especially in the late nineteenth century, was the social reformers whose influence she regarded as ‘debilitating.’ The impact she had was tremendous, the more so because here was a cultivated European woman outlining the virtues of Hinduism in all its facets as she besought Hindus to avoid the pitfalls of so-called western advancement and revere their own culture.
The newly constituted English–educated elite fraught with ambivalent feelings about themselves and their society found it most reassuring that a member of the ruling race was vigorously defending Hindu society. Annie Besant’s defence of Hindu society and civilisation enabled this class to exorcise any sense of guilt they might have especially in relation to the low status of women in their own families and in the wider community.
Further, as she idealised many controversial practices, including celibate widowhood by a refusal to sanction widow marriage, her sex, her eloquence, her antecedents and her nationality, all worked together to undermine the basis for social reform which a section of the educated elite had begun to recommend.
Over the years Annie Besant revised her position on reforms to some extent but continued to speak and write fervently about Hinduism, with nationalism and Hinduism being intertwined in her social and political agenda. Her approach to women’s issues remained cautious and in her later years she concentrated her energies on building up the Theosophical Society and on the Home Rule Movement.
Despite the changes in her position on the need for reform Annie Besant continued to be associated in the minds of men with her pleas for a revival of Hinduism and for the foundation of nationalism as lying in Hinduism — ‘Without Hinduism there is no future for India,’ as she put it?
An important facet of Annie Besant’s career both in England and in India is that like Ramabai’s it was deeply controversial. But what needs to be noted is that unlike Ramabai, in the final analysis, the controversies around Annie Besant were not of the kind incapable of being accommodated within the dominant nationalist discourse in history, whereas in the case of Ramabai this appears to have been impossible.
Ramabai crossed two Lakshman rekhas: first, she mounted a scathing critique of Brahmanical patriarchy at a time when even contemporary male reformers were shying away from confronting its structure; second, as a high–caste Hindu widow herself, she ‘chose’ to become a Christian, ‘betraying’ her ‘religion’ and thereby her ‘nation’ in the eyes of nineteenth century Hindu society. Not just that, she had led other high-caste Hindu widows to do likewise.
Ramabai’s choice represented an audacious challenge to men: a widow was regarded in nineteenth century Maharashtra as someone who should retreat into the dark spaces even within the confines of the home. That such women could choose to accept a new religion and a break with the faith of their kinsfolk was seen as outrageous. Henceforth Ramabai symbolised a threat to the moral and social order of the kind of nationalism being forged by Hindu nationalists.
It was not without reason that Ramabai was regarded as having betrayed the nation; such a label masked the power relations which determined what the political and social agenda within nationalism should be. It was not an agenda which could include a critique of patriarchy, or of Hindu social institutions and religious practices, when it was voiced by a woman publicly and one who had opted out of the faith and customary practices of her ancestors.
The difference in the way in which Ramabai and Annie Besant have figured in historical writing in both the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as well as now indicates that there has been an easy conflation not only of nationalism with Hinduism but more importantly of Christianity with colonialism. There is a latent assumption that in opting for Christianity Ramabai and others had accepted the religion of the rulers and had therefore become ‘compradors’ and were complicit with the colonial presence.
Such an assumption is both simplistic and motivated. The mere existence of a relationship between Christianity and colonialism is not enough to treat Christianity automatically as the handmaiden of colonialism. That there were some shared ideological positions is evident but it needs to be noted that there were also major moments and points of tension between the colonial administration and the Christian missionaries.
More importantly, for those who were potential or actual ‘converts’ were Christianity and colonialism the same thing? Did acceptance of Christianity mean the acceptance of colonial relationship or of western dominance over indigenous people? There is no reason to accept such assumptions without an analysis, which has hardly been undertaken, of the many facets of Christianity in India. It is unlikely that such a lacuna is likely to be filled in the near future given the obsession with ‘colonial discourse’ which is currently dominating historical scholarship.
Practitioners of discourse analysis are unwilling to explore pre-colonial structures or to dismantle colonialism itself into its constituent elements. In practice, therefore, such a view ties in with the agenda of Hindu nationalism both in the past and in the present.
(From the preface to The Life and Times of Pandita Ramabai, By Uma Chakravarti, Kali for Women, 1998).