Nicol MacNicol and Vishal Mangalvadi,

What Liberates a Woman?

A Story of Pandita Ramabai, A Builder of Modern India. New Delhi: Nivedit Good Books, 1996. Pp. 205.

Review by Augustine Pagolu


One of the recent books I have been reading is the biography of Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922), a high caste Hindu woman who came to know Christ and gave her life thereafter to serve Him. I thought that this review would give you not only a glimpse of the life this remarkable woman but also into the Hindu world in which she was brought up. 


This book is a strange combination of a biography of Ramabai by Nicol MacNicol, an English missionary in Western India, written in 1926, four years after Ramabai’s death, and a modern commentary prefaced to it in the light of the recent ‘feminist movement’ in the West by Vishal Mangalwadi, a social activist and author of several books, some of which we have in our library. Ramabai’s biography was first published in 1926 as part of ‘Builders of Modern India Series’, now it is republished under the title as given above. This immediately raises the question, what is the connection between the story of Ramabai and the ‘women’s liberation’? This is precisely the issue that Mangalwadi deals with in the first part of the book. It is true that there was no idea of ‘women’s liberation’ in the 19th century when Ramabai lived as it was only a late 20th century phenomenon.


Mangalwadi argues, that there is no doubt that the

 ‘West has accumulated immense knowledge about human sexuality, sociology and psychology, and has sincerely exerted a great deal of energy for women’s liberation in general, but the results have been opposite of what was intended. The divorce rate among Christians in America is catching up with the national average. Among other things, the statistics mean that a significant number of non-Christians, especially those who come from broken families, are not getting married, and divorce becomes a norm. Men and women have become afraid of each other. The Western hero has changed from James Bond to Batman. Bond was at ease with women- the more the merrier! But Batman is afraid of even proposing marriage to the woman he loves. He feels that the Women’s Liberation movement has turned her into a ‘catwoman’- dangerous! So, many couples live together without getting married, but only for as long as they can endure each other. Some have become confused enough to advocate homosexuality as ‘same-sex-marriages’. Many in the church faithfully trailing behind the world instead of calling for a change, and accept Lesbianism as Liberation of women! The West has become extremely rich in knowledge, but it is becoming destitute in wisdom, inflicting upon itself and upon all those who follow its lead, emotional and social wounds that could take generations to heal. Many in the West recognize that their culture has become incapable of providing moral leadership to the rest of the world in the area of gender relationships. Not surprisingly, an increasing number of Western men and women are turning to Asia, in search of spouses, and stable, fulfilling relationships. But is the East any better?’


This is where Mangalwadi turns to the story of Ramabai, who he thinks, had truly understood the liberation of women better than the modern feminist movement. Born in a Chitpavan Brahmin (a sub-caste in Brahmin) family, and raised by her father who served as Peshwa (‘Prime Minister’ under several kings of central India, and later in Nepal), and also as a teacher of Shastras and Puranas (Hindu Scriptures next to Vedas). This man broke with his own tradition by teaching Hindu scriptures to his own wife and daughters and by not marrying off his two daughters (Ramabai, the youngest) before they were teenagers. Ramabai picked up Sanskrit from his father and mother and was able to recite 20,000 verses of Puranas while she was still a teenager. Her parents died while she and her brother were still teenagers.


But they continued on pilgrimage all over India in search of peace. It was during their visit to Calcutta, Ramabai surprised three Sanskrit professors of Bengal University (two of them Englishmen) by answering their questions in extempore Sanskrit poetry. It is they who conferred on her the title ‘Pandita’ (feminine for ‘scholar’) and ‘Saraswati’ (the Hindu goddess of learning) as incarnated in her. But she was not flattered by this title. It constantly troubled her that she belonged to a society that worships a goddess of learning but denies any learning, reading or writing to women! She learned from Hindu scriptures, that women are evil and can only gain their salvation by worshipping her husband. It also troubled her that Hindus worship Laxmi (goddess of money), but burn women if they do not bring dowry. The more she knew about Hinduism the more she was dissatisfied with it.


It was at Calcutta her brother became good friends with a Shudra (a lower caste Hindu). During their sojourn in Calcutta, her brother died of some sickness. Many high caste Brahmins wished to marry Ramabai, but she once again broke with the tradition and married the Shudra, her brother’s friend. Very soon they were blessed with a daughter, but her husband died of cholera. But it was during this time she was introduced to Christianity by a missionary who gave her the Bible and who often shared the Gospel with her. But she became lonely and friendless in a strange land, and decided to return to her home land Bombay with her daughter, but she now started studying the Bible. She also came in contact with some women missionaries in Bombay belonging to Wantage Sisters (a Women’s Order of Cheltenham, England). She was increasingly becoming convinced of the truth of the Gospel and at the same time she was also convinced that she must bring liberation to her Hindu sisters who were bound with the shackles of tradition, illiteracy, and superstitious religion. The Wantage sisters sent her to England for her to study English. It was there she was baptized. After two years she was invited to America where she taught Sanskrit in a college and at the same time learned English and training in education. For three years she moved through the length and breadth of America and Canada sharing her vision to start a home for hundreds of Hindu widows and helpless women.


With the support of many American and English friends, she started her work of ‘Mukti (Liberation) Mission’. She always followed the rule that she would not force Christianity on any one who comes to her. With a 100 acre land near Pune, Ramabai started, dairy, cottage industries and vocational schools for inmates. She was the first to introduce the kindergarten system of education and also the first to give a vocational bias to school education in India. Most important of all she was the first to rebel against the inhuman slavery to which widows were subjected to in Hindu society and to lay the foundations of a movement for women’s liberation in India.


During her 34 years of service hundreds of women came to know Christ. The Mukti Mission continues to serve women of India even today. During her last few years Ramabai became increasingly disappointed with the translation of the Bible into her mother tongue, Marathi. She found that many of the words and ideas used have serious Hindu religious connotations, and some of them betraying the assumption of ‘Higher Criticism’. Taking the help of Hebrew and Greek scholars she translated the entire Bible into Marathi, which is still used in the state of Maharastra.

Chapel Notes

Chapel on 29 November, 2006

“Characteristics of a Dead Faith” was the title of Hosea Lai’s sermon at chapel today. Taking the form of an exposition on James 1:14-20, the address dealt with the issue of “works” in the Christian’s life. 

Hosea, an alumnus of BGST, currently works with Habitat for Humanity, a humanitarian organization that looks into building homes for the poor.

Hosea spoke of his being quite literally a “concrete” ministry. His contention, based on the Letter of James, was that faith had to be made visible by deeds of charity. He backed up his argument with the quite disturbing Matthean passage (Matthew 7:21-23) where Jesus disclaims any knowledge of or relationship to those who would call upon Him. He also spoke of Matthew’s use of the “unknown Christ” (Matthew 25) whom we might be serving in ministering to the needs of the poor.

Hosea cited several quite remarkable instances of conversion in the course of his work. Still, what mattered to Hosea was the truth that faith, without works, was dead; as much as a body without life was dead. He referred to the monitor lamp on our laptop, an item we have become so familiar with.  When the light went out, it was a sign of real trouble ahead. So with the lamp of charity in our system based on “faith”.

(Summarised by Ng Seng Chuan)

News Bits 

  1. Erratum. In last week BTW,  the first paragraph should read “at BGST we do not have a “list of prohibited books” (index librorum prohibitorum). We are sorry for the error.

  2. Condolences. The Council, Faculty & Staff of BGST extend their heartfelt condolences to :

    ¨       the family of the late elder Ong Hock Chye who was called home to be with the Lord on Nov 26.

    ¨      Susan Foo on the demise of her father on Dec 2.


1         On Aug 15, 2006, BGST Council member, Siew Kim Siang, rounded up 5 golfers from his church to help organize an augural Golf Tournament (GT) to raise funds for the BGST Building Fund.

2         The GT Committee was expended to 9 when further organizing needs were identified. To date, the Committee comprises of the following:

  • Siew Kim Siang (Chairman)

  • Loo King Keong (Organizing Secretary)

  • Goh Leng Khiang (Tournament Director)

  • Leonard Wong (Treasurer)

  • Chan Kok Yong (Logistics)

  • Goh Swee Hong (Logistics)

  • Wong Kar Fatt (MC cum Dinner i/c)

  • Foo Kim Peng (Publicity/Photographer)

  • Koh Soo Keong (Advisor)

3        The Committee meets on the last Monday of the month to review progress of GT.

4        In organizing the first ever GT for fundraising purpose, we could feel the hand of God working among us:

  • Particularly so for a non‑golfing person like Kim Siang who only wants to do his coordinator role behind the scene.

  • But for the strong assurances and passion of each of the committee members the GT would not have taken off.

  • Prayers answered in the availability of the RCC venue and the Chinese Restaurant at special rate;

  • Mr. Heng Chee How agreeing to be our Guest of Honour despite his non‑golfing background

  • A kind soul/organization underwriting the entire golfing fees and dinner of $20K

  • Contribution of a brand new Camry 2.0 as the grand hole‑in‑one prize

  • Confirmed booking of all the top flights by corporations

  • Supplies of door gifts and prizes

  • Excellent admin support from the BGST

  • Support from churches to enable the GT road‑show team to present the laity equipping ministry and funding needs of BGST

  • Sending the most zealous group of people to organize the GT

5         Come Friday 12 Jan 2007, the GT  committee hopes to bring in at least  $75,000 to help contribute to the Building Fund.

6         To God be the glory, great things He has done!

A Blessed Birthday to…

Mr Choi Suk  11/12

Mr Woo Chong Yew  11/12

Ms Agnes Cher  11/12

Ms Jenny Low  12/12

Mdm See Poh Chan  12/12

Mrs Ang Tiong Keng  13/12

Mr Clive Lim  14/12

Mr Lawrence Yam  15/12

Mdm Joyce Tan  16/12

Mr Ian Chng  16/12

Mr Edwin Chua  17/12

Ms Patsy Lim  17/12

Mr Royston Koh  17/12

Mdm Sim Hong Siang  17/12

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