The High Caste Hindu Woman


Pundita Ramabai’s landmark book The High Caste Hindu Woman, was published by J. B. Rodgers Printing Co., Philadelphia, in 1887. It has an introduction by Rachel L. Bodley (Dean of Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania). Its seven chapters describe the life of a high caste Hindu woman, and analyse Hindu sacred texts – such as the ‘code of Manu’ – which prescribe the rules for that life.

Ramabai Sarasvati was a social reformer who advocated the education and emancipation of women. She was born on April 23, 1858 in a Chitpavan Brahmin family, in what is now Karnataka’s Chikmagalur district. Born Ramabai Dongre, she was conferred the titles ‘Pandita’ (this book spells it as Pundita) and ‘Sarasvati’ for her scholarship in Sanskrit at Calcutta University in the year 1878. Ramabai, a Brahmin woman, defied societal norms in many ways: she advocated women’s education, married outside her caste, travelled abroad to England, America, China and Japan, and converted to Christianity later in her life. Ramabai’s other notable works include the Marathi book Conditions of Life in the United States.

To understand the life of a Hindu woman, she writes in Chapter I: Prefatory Remarks, it is necessary to know about the religion and social customs of Hindus – “There is not an act that is not performed religiously by them.” Although they might disagree on other prescriptions, she observes, most sacred Hindu texts agree on matters concerning women.

In Chapter II: Childhood, Ramabai writes that “A son is the most coveted of all blessings that a Hindu craves, for it is by a son’s birth in the family that the father is redeemed.” This places a burden of anxiety on mothers in India at the prospect of childbirth – they must bear a son to win the approval of their husbands. About the birth of daughters, she writes: “In a home shadowed by adherence to cruel custom and prejudice, a child is born into the world; the poor mother is greatly distressed to learn that the little stranger is a daughter, and the neighbors turn their noses in all directions to manifest their disgust and indignation at the occurrence of such a phenomenon. The mother, who has lost the favor of her husband and relatives because of the girl's birth may selfishly avenge herself by showing disregard to infantile needs and slighting babyish requests. Under such a mother the baby soon begins to feel her misery, although she does not understand how or why she is caused to suffer this cruel injustice.”

In Chapter III: Married Life, Ramabai cites Manu in saying that the marriageable age of a Hindu girl is between eight and 12 years. She writes that marriage is the only ‘sacrament’ administered to a Hindu woman with the utterance of Vedic texts. Thereafter, she becomes the property of her husband and his kin: “The girl now belongs to the husband's clan; she is known by his family name, and in some parts of India the husband's relatives will not allow her to be called by the first name that was given her by her parents ; henceforth she is a kind of impersonal being. She can have no merit or quality of her own.” 

Ramabai comments on the status prescribed for women in the Manusmriti and the Vedas, in Chapter IV: Women’s Place in Religion and Society: “Those who diligently and impartially read Sanscrit literature in the original, cannot fail to recognize the law-giver Manu as one of those hundreds who have done their best to make woman a hateful being in the world's eye.” A woman is denied literature and sacred scriptures, and relegated to housekeeping.

“We now come to the worst and most dreaded period of a high-caste woman’s life” – writes Ramabai in Chapter V: Widowhood. A time of punishment for the sins committed by a woman in her former life. The widow is considered inauspicious – her head is shaved, she is not allowed ornaments or bright garments, she must not eat more than one meal a day and is confined to the house. Ramabai writes: “If the widow be a mother of sons, she is not usually a pitiable object; although she is certainly looked upon as a sinner, yet social abuse and hatred are greatly diminished in virtue of the fact that she is a mother of the superior beings… The widow-mother of girls is treated indifferently and sometimes with genuine hatred, especially so, when her daughters have not been given in marriage in her husband's life-time. But it is the child-widow or a childless young widow upon whom in an especial manner falls the abuse and hatred of the community as the greatest criminal upon whom Heaven's judgment has been pronounced.”

In Chapter VI: How the Condition of Women Tells upon Society, Pandita Ramabai asks how “these imprisoned mothers” may be expected to raise children better than themselves. She says that the most crucial needs of women are self-reliance, education and ‘Native Women Teachers’ who “make it their life-work to teach by precept and example their fellow-countrywomen.”

In the seventh chapter, titled The Appeal, the author says, “We, the women of India, are hungering and thirsting for knowledge; only education under God’s grace, can give us the needful strength to rise up from our degraded position.” In this concluding chapter, Pandita Ramabai appeals to other Indians, friends, benefactors, educators and philanthropists, to support women’s education.

Focus by Shraddha Agarwal and Oorna Raut.


Pundita Ramabai Sarasvati


J. B. Rodgers Printing Co., Philadelphia