Go Beyond ‘Just’ Reading Your Bible

Karen Wright MarshBy Karen Wright Marsh10 Minutes

Excerpt from Wake Up to Wonder: 22 Invitations to Amazement in the Everyday by Karen Wright Marsh.

Invitation 15
Wander Through Scripture – Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922)

Out in the untamed jungle of southern India, Ramabai Dongre knew she was different from the village girls. Her father had chosen this life when he did the unthinkable: taught his wife and daughters to read Hindu scripture. Young Ramabai could recite eighteen thousand verses of the Bhagavata Purana by heart. In town, the neighbors judged it as heresy. Though the religious authorities deemed all women hopelessly unholy, even worse than demons, Ramabai’s father, a pious high-caste Brahmin scholar of Sanskrit, dared to place the revered words of faith into his daughter’s mouth.

Cast out of the community, the family trusted the Hindu gods to take care of them. Living only by “unbounded faith in what the sacred books said,” they wandered across India, reciting scripture aloud at pilgrimage sites, surviving on the donations of worshipers. Ramabai became known as a Pandita, which means “wise scholar:’

But Pandita Ramabai’s trust in the gods was shattered by the Great Famine of1874. Though her family had faithfully fulfilled all the conditions laid down in the sacred books, the sixteen­year-old watched helplessly as her mother, sister, and father starved to death. Pandita Ramabai would endure even harsher judgment from Hindu society when, after a brief marriage, her husband died of cholera. Despite her independent mind and education, Pandita Ramabai could not escape the curse of the high-caste widow, her unchosen status that, by cultural norms that endure to this day, damned her to destitution and social exclusion. She searched and found no relief for widows within the religious texts of her childhood, no vision there to affirm her as a human worthy of redemption. The young woman despaired.

Still, Pandita Ramabai would write, “I was desperately in need of some religion, hungering after something.” To her sur­prise, the strange Bible of “the despised Christian community” led her to that something.  One day Ramabai stumbled upon a little pamphlet in her library; it was Luke’s Gospel translated into Bengali. Where had it come from? As she read it, it struck her as containing truth, and, ever the student, she determined to learn everything she could about the Christian faith.

Ramabai’s academic study of the Bible took a personal turn during a stay in England sponsored by Christian missionaries. Visiting the Rescue Home, a haven “to re-claim the so-called fallen women,” she was stunned. Why would Christians show such kindness to unfortunate women, those her own Brahmin community rejected so utterly? In reply to Ramabai’s piercing questions, her host read a Bible story in which Jesus meets a Sa­maritan woman ( an outsider in her own time) and enfolds her in respectful compassion. “I realized, after reading the fourth chap­ter of St. John’s Gospel,” she announced, “that Christ was truly the Divine Saviour He claimed to be, and no one but He could transform and uplift the downtrodden womanhood of India and of every land. Thus my heart was drawn to the religion of Christ.”

While the Hindu Puranas had grounded her childhood, the Bible ensured her liberation. Ever the freethinking daughter of a principled father, “wise scholar” Ramabai aspired to be at once fully Indian and fully Christian. She followed the Jesus who cared for the Samaritan woman; she loved the Scriptures that assured her of her identity as a person saved by grace and intended for good service. And as a linguist, author, educational pioneer, and social reformer, she had mountains of work ahead of her.

Ramabai created learning communities for needy women and girls in India, especially the starving child-widows cast out from society, desperate as she had once been. She learned Hebrew and Greek in order to translate the Bible into commonplace Marathi and then printed it at her own expense. She educated and equipped bands of “Bible women” to take literacy and faith from village to village. And when British clergy preached against women in leadership, she bristled, saying, “I have a conscience, and a mind and a judgement of my own. I must myself think and do everything which GOD has given me the power of doing.” Newly “freed from the yoke of the Indian priestly tribe,” she was not keen to take on the gendered assumptions of the imperialist Western church.

A recent Indian postage stamp celebrates Pandita Ramabai and her pioneering vision for India’s women. If she were here today, perhaps Ramabai would tack onto the stamp the motto of the girls’ school she founded, adapted from Leviticus 25:10: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants here!”

Pandita Ramabai’s story may seem very unlike yours, so stay curious as you look over these prompts. What might Ramabai teach you?

Try This

The Biblical account that changed everything for Ramabi is found in John 4 (verses 4-7,9-11,13-15, and 27-29). Read it with fresh ears and eyes of your own, then consider the following.

  • What do you notice about Jesus’ actions and words?
  • Is there anything in this story that personally moves you?
  • How might a religion of this Jesus Christ hold the key to the liberation of women or of any other people seeking empowerment?

Imagine This

Reading the Bible can be so much more than decoding words or learning doctrine. Gospel contemplation is a spiritual exercise that invites you to envision yourself in the stories of Scripture.

In this practice, first created by Ignatius (1491-1556), you choose a Bible story and then envision yourself as an onlooker, an active character, or even Jesus. You allow yourself to taste, see, smell, hear, and feel what is going on in each scene. As you engage your imagination, you are able to spend time in Jesus’s presence; as you are led down the path of discovery, you come to know Jesus-and yourself-more intimately. (The app and website I used to listen to the story of Jesus in the storm is called Pray-As-You-Go. There you’ll find a whole section of imaginative contemplation exercises along with other rich resources.)

Are you ready to give Gospel contemplation a try?

Choose a Gospel passage in which Jesus is interacting with someone. (For a start, go to Mark 4:35-41, where Jesus calms a storm, or Luke 8:43-48, where Jesus heals a woman with a chronic illness.)

  • Focus your heart and mind. God is present. Be aware of your desire to encounter God through your reading.
  • Read the passage twice. Become familiar with the story and its details.
  • Now get comfortable and close your eyes.
  • Picture the scene. Decide: Are you observing the scene as an outsider, are you one of the characters, or are you Jesus? Where is it taking place? Who is there? What is Jesus doing? What are the sights, sounds, smells? How do you feel? What do you think? What do you say?Take all the time you need to imagine people’s words and actions and your response to it all.
  • As you conclude, take time to talk directly to Jesus. Speak whatever comes to your heart.

Wander through Scripture

Perhaps the Bible is completely new to you, or you haven’t read it since you were a kid. Did you know that you can explore the complete Bible online for free? The Message is an easy-to-read version of the Bible, and you can find it here: www.biblestudy­tools.com/msg/. Why not just poke around and see what you find-or what finds you?

Order your copy of Wake Up to Wonder: 22 Invitations to Amazement in the Everyday by Karen Wright Marsh.