Ranabai was born in the family of Chaudhari Jalam Singh of village Harnawa in Parbatsar pargana of Marwar. Jalam Singh was a Hindu Jat chieftain of Ghana gotra. Sagar Mal Sharma in his book 'Rajasthan Ke Sant' has mentioned that her father was Jalam Jat. But as per Dr Pema Ram she was of Dhoon gotra Jat vansha. According to Dr Pema Ram Ranabai was born on vaishakh shukla tritiya somwar samvat 1561 (1504 AD). This is also clear from a doha by Birdhichand, which reads as under in Rajasthani Language:
पन्द्रह सौ इकसठ प्रकट, आखा तीज त्यौहार
जहि दिन राना जन्म हो, घर-घर मंगलाचार
According to Dr Pema Ram Ranabai's father was Ram Gopal and Jalam Singh was his grandfather. This is also clear from a doha by Birdhi Chand, which reads as under in Rajasthani Language:
जाट उजागर धून जंग, नामी जालम जाट ।
बस्ती रचक ओ दौ विगत, गण हरनावो ग्राम ।।
जालम सुत रामो सुजन, जा का राम गोपाल ।
उनका पुत्र भुवन ओरू, बाई बुद्धि विशाल ।।
According to Karnisharan Charan of village Indokli also, as mentioned in 'Bā Rānā Jas Bāīsī' (बा राना जस बाईसी), Ram Gopal was father of Ranabai:
पन्द्रह सौ इकसठ प्रत्यक्ष, तीज अक्षय त्यौहार ।
पिता राम गोपाल घर, राना को अवतार ।।
Chandra Prakash Dudi in his book 'Shri Ranabai Itihas' writes that Ranabai's father was Ram Gopal.
Jalam Singh, grandfather of Ranabai, had two sons namely, Ramoji (elder) and Ram Gopal (younger). Ram Gopal was married to Gangabai of Garhwal Jat Gotra. He had one son - Buwanji and three daughters namely Dhaanibai, Ranabai and Dhapubai. Thus Ranabai was the daughter of Ram Gopal and his wife Gangabai.
Jalam Singh was grandfather of Ranabai and was a powerful sardar of about twenty villages around Harnawa. He was under Bidiyasar Chaudhary of Khinyala. Jalam Sing used to collect tax (lagan) from farmers and deposited with Chaudhary of Khinyala, who in turn used to send the taxes to Delhi Badshah.
Ranabai's father Ram Gopal, being younger, was not that popular. He was not educated and so was Ranabai. Ranabai's parchi refers Ranabai's father's name as Jalamji.
Ranabai after initiation by his guru Chaturdasji Maharaj, also known as Khojiji, completely devoted herself to the bhakti. When her parents became worried about her developments in spiritual matters, she tried to find a place where no body disturbs her in devotion of god. One day she found such place in a jungle behind her house in a cave, locally known as bhanwra. Without telling any body she went inside the cave and completely engrossed herself in devotion. She remained for about 9–10 months in this cave without any food and water. People believe that god himself provided water and food to her during this period. Her parents searched her every where and at last left the hope of finding her thinking that she might have died. At last when people found her in the bhanwra, they requested to come out before people. After asceticism and concentrating on meditation Ranabai attained Enlightenment. Her fame spread all around and people started coming to her for getting ashirvad. She attained the status of a devi.
A subedar of Badsah Akbar heard about the fame of unparalleled beauty of Ranabai and her devotion. Once he was stationed near Gechholāv pond at distance of 6 km from village Harnawa with a force of 500 horse-riders. He was a man of bad conduct. One day Jalam Singh was returning from Khinyala after paying tax, when the subedar invited Jalam Singh with a bad intention and pressured him to marry Ranabai with him. Jalam Singh refused his offer and abused him. The Muslim subedar arrested Jalam Singh and attacked Harnawa. When Ranabai learnt that Muslim subedar had attacked Harnawa with a bad intention to marry her she took sword in her hands and attacked the Muslim soldiers like a tigress. She attacked the Muslim subedar and chopped his head off. She also killed many of the soldiers. Looking to her bravery the rest of soldiers ran away. She thus got freed his grandfather Jalam Singh. The story of the bravery of Ranabai spread in the entire Marwar region.
Ranabai was a brahmcharini (observer of celibacy), a strong devotee of God Gopinath and follower of the Bhakti tradition. The tendency of Ranabai of bhajan-pujan since childhood had worried her father. Her parents started searching a suitable boy to marry her, but she refused and said she had selected god as her husband. When her father persuaded for marriage she replied in Rajasthan as under:
राना कहे राम वर मेरा, सतगुरु मेट्या सब उलझेरा ।
अमर सुहाग अमर वर पाया, तेज पुंज की उनकी काया ।।
Ranabai had visited the pilgrimage of Mathura, Vrindavana with Nimbarkacharya Parsuramdev of Salemabad. She is said to have apparently seen Krishna at Vrindavan. She requested god Gopinath to come to her marudhardesh. It is believed that Gopinath accepted her requests and wished to go in the form of sculpture. Ranabai brought sculptures of Gopinath along with Radha and established them in temple at Harnawa. One of Ranabai's pada mentions as under in Rajasthani:
राना की अरदास नाथ थासूं, राना री अरदास ।
जनम मरण री फेरी मिट गयी, पायो परम परकास ।
बिन्दरावन बंशीबत जमना, भलो करायो बास ।
उछव नित नया ही बिरज में, रमै साँवरो रास ।
म्हारे संगडे़ मुरधर चालो, पुरवो म्हारी आस ।
बिनवै 'राना' सतगुरु खोजी, परसराम परकास ।।
ओ महारा मनड़े रा ठाकुर, गोपीनाथ दयाल ।
ओ महारा कुञ्ज बिहारी, मो संग मुरधर चहल ।
मुरधर देस सुवावणों रे, आवड़ ज्यासी लाल ।
आतो जातो रही भला ही, एकर तो तूं चाल ।
बिन्दरावन रो पंथ बतायो, परसा करी निहाल ।
'राना' सतगुरु खोजी शरणे, ले आई गोपाल ।।
Thus Ranabai brought Gopinath and Radha to Harnawa. She always remained busy in worshiping them. She has composed many poems (padas) for the god Gopinath. She spent most of her time in prayer and worship of Gopinath i.e. Krishna. She left behind a legacy of many soulful and prayerful songs, which are still sung in Marwar region in India today. She is regarded as a saint in the tradition of the Bhakti Movement. The 16th century Bhakti Movement showed the path to salvation by devotion. She is known as second Mira of Rajasthan.
Ranabai's poem is traditionally called a pada, a term used by the 14th century preachers for a small spiritual song. This is usually composed in simple rhythms and carries a refrain within itself. Her collection of songs is called the Padavali. The typicality of Indian love poetry of those days was used by Ranabai but as an instrument to express her deepest emotions felt for her ishta-devata Gopinath. Her typical medium of singing was Rajasthani.
Ranabai took a live samadhi at village Harnawa on falgun shukla trayodashi samvat 1627 (1570 AD). Birdhi Chand has mentioned in one doha about her taking of samadhi:
सौला सौ विक्रम सही, सताईस शुभ साल ।
ली समाधी राना समझ, जग झूठा जंजाल ।।
Similarly Karnisharan Charan also mentions in a doha about Ranabai leaving this world as under:
सौला सौ सताईस में, फागन तेरस सुदी स्याम ।
बा राना बैकुंठ में, रमिया ज्योति राम ।।
Ranabai's brother Bhuwanji built a kachchi samadhi after she left the world. The samadhi is still present near the temple of Gopinath in Harnawa. The worship of samadhi and the Gopinath temple is done traditionally by the descendants of her family.
On the samadhi site at Harnawa village there is an annual grand fair organized every year on the Hindu calendar date bhadva sudi teras, when devotees come from far off places. There is a grand dharamshala near the samadhi site in Harnawa for stay arrangements of the devotees.