Mahadev Govind Ranade was born into a strictly orthodox Chitapavan Brahmin household in Niphad on January 18, 1842. He was a serious student, distinguished by his originality, and begged his father to be sent to Bombay to complete his English education. At age fourteen he enrolled in the Elphinstone institute. Three years later he was in the first batch of students to join the Bombay University. He became a teacher of economics and later of history and literature.
However, he preferred a career in law. Before the age of thirty he received his first appointment as a subordinate judge in the courts at Pune. During his thirty years' career as a judge he worked firmly towards the reform of social evils such as child marriage, the seclusion of women and tried to introduce the remarriage of widows.
He was one of the first members of the Prarthana Samaj, founded in 1867, following Keshab Chandra Sen's visits to Bombay. Under his guidance the Samaj engaged in a campaign of reformation without alienating the more orthodox elements of the society. Despite the opposition of Tilak, this campaign met with success.
His judgeship precluded Ranade from actively entering politics. As a result, his contribution to the nationalist movement came largely through his reformist campaigns. In 1887 he founded the Indian National Social Conference, whose meetings were concurrent with the annual Congress sessions. In 1890 he inaugurated the Industrial Association of Western India, having come to the conclusion that a constructive solution to India's problems lay in a vigorous policy of industrial and commercial development.
He maintained contact, in person or through correspondence, with numerous younger men, whom he inspired to greater patriotic endeavour. After his death in Pune on January 16, 1901, his writings continued to inspire other leaders of Western India, notably Gokhale and Gandhi.