Having a voice

Daily Reading for April 5 • Pandita Mary Ramabai, Prophetic Witness and Evangelist in India, 1922

Most missionary accounts of Christian conversions among natives are written as celebrations of achievement—that is, the acquisition of one more soul for the proselytizing enterprise. Pandita Ramabai’s story was an exception to the principle of missionary biographies, for Sister Geraldine had a much more cautionary tale in mind when she decided to preserve Ramabai’s often volatile letters. She believed her subject, Pandita Ramabai, had historical importance as an imperfect, erring sinner whose quarrels with certain doctrinal aspects of Christianity constituted an allegorical tale of warning to true believers.

If Ramabai is relegated to the ranks of a heretic by the very people who seek her conversion, their refusal to accept her conversion as a final event condemns as heretical the spiritual questioning they would have otherwise welcomed as a definitive step towards conversion. Thus, as long as Ramabai continued to probe into the varieties of Christian belief found in English sects, her receiving of Christian grace was deferred indefinitely and she remained disqualified from being accepted as a true Christian convert. From the missionaries’ perspective, conversion is the affirmation of a given set of propositions. For Pandita Ramabai, on the other hand, conversion is a form of self-fashioning, the right to “have a voice in choosing my own religion.” Ramabai keeps drawing attention to her “own free will: by it we are to decide for ourselves what we are to do, and fulfill our intended work.” When Rambai claims the right of free will and choice, she conjoins a theological point with a political and cultural one. She is making the argument, contrary to the missionaries’ wish or liking, that Indians have to make their own country, and that the free will, independent conscience, and judgement demonstrated in their religious choices strengthen the kind of moral society Indians must make for themselves. Ramabai recognizes that the missionaries’ attempt to restrict her thinking about religious questions is also a form of colonial control, and it is a central feature of her own critique that she makes independent conscience a matter of national reconstruction.

From “Silencing Heresy” by Gauri Viswanathan, in Women and Social Reform in Modern India: A Reader, edited by Sumit Sarkar and Tanika Sarkar (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2008).

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