Famous Women of Ancient and Modern India

Date: 5/30/2002


..........Famous Women of Ancient and Modern India

................Gargi Durgavati Sarada Devi

........Sita Ahilya Bai Holkar Bhagini Nivedita

......Savitri Queen of Jhansi Lakshmi Bai Mother Mirra

................Draupadi Shakuntala Devi

................Mira bai Sarojini Naidu

1. Gargi

Gargi, the wise and learned daughter of Rishi (sage) Vachaknu, was known as Brahmavadini because of her having the knowledge of Brahma-vidya. She participated in a debate with the knower of Brahma, Yajnavalkya in the Yajnasala ( place for sacrifices ) of King Janaka. We get in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad a dialogue between Gargi and Yajnavalkya. Thus it is evident that in ancient India, women used to obtain knowledge of many sciences and disciplines. They also used to participate in public functions and take part in intellectual debates. There used to be no ban of any sort in the field of knowledge, this is established very clearly from the account of Gargi's life.

A wife of Yajnavalkya, plays a major role in a section of the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, is the first Indian woman philosopher. One of the most interesting discussions of this absolute principle is given in the form of a dialogue between Gargi, and her husband Yajnavalkya, a great sage. Although in the preceding dialogues Gargi has been warned not to ask too many questions, lest her head fall off, she persisted, and was rewarded with answers to her questions.

Yajnavalkya said: "Ask, Gargi"

She said: "That, O Yajnakvalkya, which is above the sky, that which is beneath the earth, that which is between these two, sky and earth, that which people call the past and the present and the future - across what is that woven, warp and woof?"


2. Sita

Sita in the Valmiki Ramayana is not exactly representative for Vedic stridaharma.

To begin with, she chooses her own husband in a competitive svayamvara, only the strongest and the smartest prince will do.

Again, after Kaikeyi's intervention, when Rama goes into forest exile, she insists on accompanying him. Sita's strength and self-possession are apparent. She is dutiful, indeed, but she has to argue her case in order to do what she knows is right. She is not an obedient servant to a godlike husband; she has a will of her own and her relationship to Rama is governed by love for him, rather than obedience to his orders.

She shows her determination and independence throughout the years in the forest; her insistences that Rama get the gold-spotted deer and her command that Laksmana come to his rescue, eventually leads to her abduction by Ravana. She shows self-control and she doesn't give in to Ravanna's will. On being freed, she defends herself whole-heartedly against Rama's accusations. She is far from passive. It is in the context of this "dwelling in another man's house" that Vedic regulations for women are invoked and popular sentiment demands an ordeal to prove her purity.

This strength of character has not gone unnoticed by Indian women, who have found much in her to applaud. Despite being commonly held up as a paragon of the submissiveness, obedience, and loyalty that many men would like to see in their wives, women have often taken other lessons from her behavior. To many Hindu women, she is a great heroine, not just a goddess. Sita is a unique ideal of fidelity and chastity. She had to undergo unbearable trial and tribulations throughout her life but with the power of her unshakable fidelity and dedication to her husband she bore all the difficulties of life with fortitude and she, along with her husband, smilingly enjoyed the hardships of life in jungle. The rakshas king Ravana failed to lower her morale or weaken her moral strength.

It was through the ordeal of fire that Sita proved and established her virtue and stainlessness of her character. With the injury of the time of exile ( Vanavasa ) when Sri Rama as the king, in order to satisfy some of his subjects, banished Sita, she remained in the hermitage of Rishi Valmiki.

The very fact that Rama and Sita are always mentioned in one breath endows Sita with equality: whatever status Rama occupies, this will also be Sita's. If he is king, she will be queen, if he is god, she will become his goddess. However, she is queen and goddess on her own merit, not because of Rama's grace.


3. Savitri

She, who is mentioned among the great chaste and faithful godly women, took Satyavan as her husband knowing fully well that he would not live long. When only four days of his age were remaining she undertook a vow to defeat death.

On the fourth day Satyavan died with Yamaraja ( The god of death ) walking away with his vitality. Savitri walked pursuing Yamaraja. As they were walking one behind the other, on the way there occured a ' question-answer ' between them. Yamaraja was very much impressed by the gentle behaviour of Savitri, her wisdom, her one pointed devotion ( dedication ) to her husband. Getting pleased he asked Savitri to ask for boons. Savitri asked for such boons which helped not only to obtain for her the well-being of both her father's and her husband's families but Yamaraja had also to return the vitality of Satyavana. Savitri with the power of her chastity and fidelity protected her good fortune.


4. Draupadi

Draupadi was a very impressive and brilliant and strong personality (character) in Mahabharata.

The daughter of Drupada, the king of Panchala (Punjab), came to Hastinapur as a daughter-in-law of the Kuru-clan on being won by Arjuna, at her Swayamvara, by piercing with arrow the eye of a moving fish on a high pole, looking into the fish's image in a cauldron of oil below. She was never ready to compromise on either her rights as a daughter-in-law or even on the rights of the Pandavas and remained ever ready to fight back or avenge high-handedness and injustice meted out to her and them. Draupadi had absolute faith in Sri Krishna. She was also dear to Sri Krishna equal to his real sister. Draupadi was put through much suffering and disgrace in life.

Dussasana tried to remove her clothes and as such made an attempt to violate her modesty in full view of the assembly.

During the days of the banishment to jungle of the Pandavas, Jayadratha made an attempt to abduct her and during the period of their dwelling secretly, Keechaka wanted to outrage her modesty. After the duration of their stay in the jungle was over, Draupadi, with a view to fulfill her vow ( promise to herself to tie her untied hair after washing them with the blood of Dussasana ) and to punish all those who had disgraced her and perpetrated offence against her, blazed the fire of revenge burning in her heart into the hearts and minds of Pandayas. The refulgence (glow) of Draupadi's lustrous prototype of womanhood shall always be a source of inspiration for the women of India.


5. Mira Bai (1498-c. 1546).

Drenched in the color of love to Sri Krishna, Mira was a well known devotee of God in the 47th century Kali Yugabda (calculation of time in terms of cycles of ages Yugas) i.e. in the 16th century A.D. Entire Bharat, particularly the area where Hindi is the language that is spoken and read, has been resounding with the verses sung by Mira in her love for Krishna. In the case of Mira, the daughter of Ratna Singh Rathaur, attachment with the devotion to Krishna had touched her heart even in her early childhood. She was married to the son of Maharana, named Bhojaraja, but her heart and mind were already in the grip of her devotion to Krishna.

She used to be always absorbed (engrossed) in devotion to God. In the midst of saints, in temples, she sang her own devotional compositions ( songs ) and danced filled with emotion. After the untimely death of Bhojaraja, his brother Vikramajit wanted Mira to turn her back to the path of devotion and face towards the life of ordinary people. Her going to temples, singing and dancing there, appeared to him to be against tradition and discipline of his family. For not renouncing her obstinacy of love to Krishna Mira was subjected to great deal of infliction of. pain and suffering. But Mira on the contrary, laughingly submitted herself to these inflictions and bore them with fortitude but there did not occur any change in the one pointed ness of her divine love and devotion. The refrain of her life's song was : ' Mine is the preserver of cows who upholds mountain and no one else '. Her songs in the propensity of emotions are unmatched.


6. Durgavati

Durgavati was that brave woman of India during the 47th century of Kaliyugas i.e. 16th century A.D. who fought with the alien invaders with utmost courage and heroic bravery and in the end, thinking that lest her living body may even be unpurified by a touch of the aliens she with her own sword brought forth a situation of self-sacrificing through which she got the ' going of the brave ( Viragati ) '.

After the death of king Dalpatishah of Gadha Mandala there came the hazard of a crisis over the state. The Mughal ruler Akbar sent a big army to capture the state of Gadha ( fort ) Mandala. Mounting on an elephant, Maharani Durgavati fought with utmost bravery along with providing a constant encouragement and inspiration to her army. Unfortunately because of internal disunity and her army being too small in comparison with the invaders, self-defense did not succeed. Among the brave women who resisted, retaliated and acted towards containing the Mughal thirst for empire-building Maharani Durgavati occupies a high place.


7. Ahilya Bai Holkar

After the death of Malhar Rao Holkar (1694-1766), founder of the Holkar dynasty, as his son had died before him (killed by a cannon ball), he was succeeded by his daughter-in-law Ahilya Bai Holkar. She ruled from 1767 to 1795 with great skill and understanding. She governed the state from a palace fort at Maheshwar on the northern bank of the Narmada river.

Sir John Malcolm, in his memoirs of Central India described her as a "female without vanity... excercising in the more active and able manner, despotic power with sweet humanity..."

Though Ahilyabai never stayed in Indore, it is in her reign that Indore grew up into a city. Indore was an island of prosperity in a sea of voilence. Her rule became proverbial for justice and wisdom. She was the rare Indian royalty to be deified in her life time. She contributed a lot to the heritage of India by establishing several religious edifices remarkable in architecture. The Kashi Vishweswar temple at Varanasi being notable among them. Her unique pan-indian look is reflected in the fact that she built Dharmashalas at Badrinath in the north and Rameshwaram in the south, established Anna Chhatras at Dwarka in the west, Jagannathpuri in the east, and at Omkareshwar and Ujjain in central India. She also establishes charitable institutions at Gaya, Varanasi, Ayodhya, Prayag (Allahabad), Haridwar and Pandharpur. She was at heart a queen of whole India rather than that of the Holkar kingdom. She died at Maheshwar where a large mousoleum stands in her memory.

..........(source: www.ee.ualberta.ca/~naik/holkar.html).

8. Queen of Jhansi - Lakshmi Bai (c.1830-1858)

Lakshmi Bai, the Rani of a principality called Jhansi in northern India, led an uprising against a takeover of her homeland by the British. She became a heroine and a symbol of resistance to the British rule.

Lakshmi Bai was born around 1830 into a wealthy, high-caste Brahmin family. She was named Manukarnika, which is one of the names of the holy river Ganges. As a young woman, she learned to read, write and debate. She also learned to ride horses and use weapons while playing with her adopted brothers. She accepted the name Lakshmi Bai when she married Gangadhar Rao, the maharajah of Jhansi and became the Rani (short for maharani, the wife of maharajah) of Jhansi.

Gangadhar Rao was between forty and fifty years of age at the time of their wedding. This was his second marriage. His first wife died without producing an heir. The new Rani of Jhansi gave birth to a son, but he died when he was three months old. Subsequently, Damodar Rao, Gangadhar's relative, became their adopted son. In 1853, Gangadhar Rao died.

The Governor-General of India, the Marquess of Dalhousie, announced that since Gangadhar Rao left no heir, the state of Jhansi would be annexed by the British Government. The British rejected the claim that Damodar Rao was the legal heir. According to Hindu law, little Damodar Rao was Gangadhar's heir and successor. In the Hindu religion, a surviving son, either biological or adopted, had an obligation to perform certain sacrifices after his father's death to prevent his father from being condemned to punishment or hell. The refusal of the British to acknowledge the legitimacy of Rajah's adopted son caused a serious consternation in the local population. Rani appealed her case to London, but that appeal was turned down.

Not wishing to give up her kingdom, Lakshmi Bai assembled a volunteer army of 14,000 rebels and ordered that defenses of the city itself be strengthened. Jhansi was attacked by the British in March 1858. Shelling of Jhansi was fierce and the British were determined not to allow any rebels to escape while Rani was determined not to surrender. The British noted that the Indian soldiers fighting them showed more vigor than they ever had while following British orders. Women were also seen working the batteries and carrying ammunition, food and water to the soldiers. Rani, herself, was seen constantly active in the defense of the city. Jhansi, however, fell to the British forces after a two week siege. A priest from Bombay who witnessed the British victory, said that what followed were four days of fire, pillage, murder and looting without distinction. He said it was difficult to breathe due to strong smell of burning flesh. British historians, on the other hand, suggested that while four to five thousand people died in battle, the civilians were spared.

The Rani managed to escape on horseback under the cover of darkness and within twenty-four hours rode over one hundred miles to the fortress of Kalpi. Several other Indian rulers joined the rebel forces there. It is believed that the Rani was influential in convincing the others to go on the offensive and seize the fortress of Gwalior. This maneuver was successful and helped rally the rebel forces together.

It wasn't long, however, before the British forces determined to win Gwalior back. A fierce battle ensued. Rani was in charge of the eastern side of defense, however she lost her life on the second day of fighting. The British won back Gwalior. Rani's body was given a ceremonial cremation and burial by the faithful servants. Sir Hugh Rose, the commander of the British force, wrote later, "The Ranee was remarkable for her bravery, cleverness and perseverance; her generosity to her Subordinates was unbounded. These qualities, combined with her rank, rendered her the most dangerous of all the rebel leaders." A popular Indian ballad said:

How valiantly like a man fought she,

The Rani of Jhansi

On every parapet a gun she set

Raining fire of hell,

How well like a man fought the Rani of Jhansi

How valiantly and well!

"Bundeli har boli mein suni yehi kahani thi...

Khoob laDi mardaani woh toh Jhansi Wali Rani thi...."

( or more information refer to site on Jhansi Ki Rani).

J. Lang, who was the only Britisher who saw her face to face, left the following description of her:

"She was a woman of about the middle size, rather stout but not too stout. Her face must have been very handsome when she was younger, and even now it had many charms... The expression also was very good and very intelligent. The eyes were particularly fine and the nose very delicately shaped... Her dress was a plain white muslin, so fine in texture and drawn about her in such a way and so tightly that the outline of her figure was plainly discernible, and a remarkably fine figure she had."

"Bundelay harbolon ke munh hamne suni kahani thi/khuh lari mardani woh to Jhansi wali Rain thi" sings the ballad narrating the valiant struggle of one of the most famous characters of India in recent history. When Rani Lakshmi Bai rose against the British in I857 AD she immortalized Jhansi. She has since become a heroine of the Indian independence movement, a sort of central Indian Joan of Arc.

Long before Bal Gangadhar Tilak said "Swaraj hamara janm huk hai," Jhansi Lakshmi Bai said "Azadshahi hamara huk hai."


1. The Warrior Queens. The Legends and the Lives of the Women Who Have Led Their Nations in War by Antonia Fraser, Vintage Books, 1994

2. Herstory. Women Who Changed the World, edited by Ruth Ashby and Deborah Gore Ohrn, Viking, 1995


9. Shakuntala Devi

Shakuntala Devi, the human computer - holds an undisputed place in the Guinness Book of Records for multiplying in 1980 two randomly chosen 13-digit numbers and giving the correct answer in 28 seconds.

Her abilities, defying common theories of human intelligence, have been the subject of much research. In 1977 she won a standing ovation from an audience of mathematicians when she extracted the 23rd root of a 201-digit number. That means she found the number that when multiplied by itself 23 times equaled the 201-digit number she was given. She solved it in 50 seconds flat. The day's most sophisticated computer, a Univac 1108, also did the deed - in 62 seconds - but only after days of programming, 13 thousand instructions and 5,000 data locations. No one has a plausible theory as to how she could have arrived at the answer, for the feat far exceeds the supposed limits of human intelligence. Shakuntala Devi attributes her mathematical wizardry to her friendship with Lord Ganesha, developed in her early childhood.


10. Sarojini Naidu

Sarojini Naidu, (1879-a freedom fighter and the first Indian woman as Governor of West Bengal after the partition. Sarojini Naidu was a poet, mother of four and the first President of the Indian National Congress. Widely known as the Nightingale of India, she was the younger sister of the renowned poet, actor and playwright, Harindranath Chattopadhyaya. Sarojinidevi was a great patriot, politician, orator and administrator. She had an integrated personality and could mesmerize audiences with her pure honesty and patriotism. She was a life-long freedom fighter, social worker, ideal housewife and poet.

She was born on February 13, 1879 in Hyderabad. Her father, Dr. Aghornath Chattopadhyaya, was the founder of Nizam College of Hyderabad and a scientist. Her mother, Mrs. Varasundari, was a Bengali poetess. Sarojinidevi inherited qualities from both her father and mother.

Young Sarojini was a very bright and proud girl. Her father aspired for her to become a mathematician or scientist, but she loved poetry from a very early age. Once she was working on an algebra problem, and when she couldn't find the solution she decided to take a break, and in the same book she wrote her first inspired poetry. She got so enthused by this that she wrote "The Lady of the Lake", a poem 1300 lines long. When her father saw that she was more interested in poetry than mathematics or science, he decided to encourage her. With her father's support, she wrote the play "Maher Muneer" in the Persian language. Dr. Chattopadhyaya distributed some copies among his friends and sent one copy to the Nawab of Hyderabad. Reading a beautiful play written by a young girl, the Nizam was very impressed. The college gave her a scholarship to study abroad. At the age of 16 she got admitted to King's College of England. There she met famous laureates of the time.

During her stay in England, Sarojini met Dr. Govind Naidu from southern India. After finishing her studies at the age of 19, she got married to him during the time when inter-caste marriages were not allowed. Her father was a progressive thinking person, and he did not care what others said. Her marriage was a very happy one.

Her major contribution was also in the field of poetry. Her poetry had beautiful words that could also be sung. Soon she got recognition as the "Bul Bule Hind" when her collection of poems was published in 1905 under the title "Golden Threshold". After that, she published two other collections of poems--"The Bird of Time" and "The Broken Wings". In 1918, " Feast of Youth" was published. Later, "The Magic Tree", "The Wizard Mask" and "A Treasury of Poems" were published. Mahashree Arvind, Rabindranath Tagore and Jawaharlal Nehru were among the thousands of admirers of her work. Her poems had English words, but an Indian soul.

One day she met Shree Gopal Krishna Gokhale. He said to her to use her poetry and her beautiful words to rejuvenate the spirit of Independence in the hearts of villagers. He asked her to use her talent to free Mother India.

Then in 1916, she met Mahatma Gandhi, and she totally directed her energy to the fight for freedom. She would roam around the country like a general of the army and pour enthusiasm among the hearts of Indians. The independence of India became the heart and soul of her work.

She was responsible for awakening the women of India. She brought them out of the kitchen. She traveled from state to state, city after city and asked for the rights of the women. She re-established self-esteem within the women of India.



11. Sarada Devi

Sri Sarada Devi was born in Bengal in 1853 to devout Brahmin parents. Her early years were marked by simplicity, charity, prayer, meditation and visionary gifts. At the age of six, she was betrothed to Sri Ramakrishna, but they lived apart until Sarada Devi was 18. It was he who initiated her into many spiritual disciplines, notably into the worship of the Divine Mother. Living a celibate life, they saw God in themselves and in each other. Sri Ramakrishna taught her the great mantras and instructed her in the method of spiritual guidance for others who would seek her help.

Immediately after her husband's death in 1886, Sri Sarada Devi began a pilgrimage through North India. For a time she lived at Vrindavan, where she attained the highest contentless consciousness called nirvikalpa samadhi, and where she began her role as guru.

On her return, Sri Sarada Devi went to Kamarpukur, where she met with great hostility from the uncomprehending villagers. Having no money and strictly observing purdah, she was forced to dig the earth herself to cultivate a few vegetables. When Sri Ramakrishna's disciples heard of her plight, they invited her to Calcutta. There she became known as the Holy Mother and gave spiritual instruction and initiation to many people. She was noted for her maternal tenderness and hospitality, her gift of healing, and her willingness to suffer vicariously for her disciples' sins.

In 1909, Sri Sarada Devi moved into what is known as the Holy Mother's House in Calcutta, and lived there for the next 11 years with several other holy women. In 1919, she was stricken with black fever and, although in great pain, continued to strengthen her disciples and to give spiritual advice until her death on July 20, 1920.

The spiritual teachings of this great woman seer are a window on the beauty of her soul: "As clouds are blown away by the wind, the thirst for material pleasures will be driven away by the utterance of the Lord's name." "No one is a stranger, my child; this whole world is your own."

(source: www.hssworld.org/all/grea...rada.html)


12. Bhagini Nivedita - A Proud, Generous, Momentous and Ardent Woman (1867-1911)

She great offering, giving her life for Mother India, was like a song of love, Love is blind for it sees no faults of the beloved, and Nivedita never found faults with India. Sister Niveditas childhood name was Margaret Elizabeth Noble.

She was born in Ireland on October 20, 1867 to parents Mary Isabel and Samuel Richmond Noble Her father was a preacher to whom religion meant service to the poor. This had an imprint on Nivedita. She was very intelligent and hard worker, loved music, art, and the natural sciences. After her education, she spent ten years in teaching, from 1884 to 1894. She had a gift of being able to impart knowledge and inspire her students She was a proud, generous, impulsive and ardent woman. By the age eight~eil she came to understand that religion did not mean belief in the doctrines; it meant search of Divine Light and Eternal Truth. She began to doubt the truth of the Christian doctrines. She started reading about Buddhism but only with partial success.

This was the time when she met a Hindu Monk, Swami Vivekanand visiting England in 1895. She attended all the lectures. In question-answer sessions, she was an active and enthusiastic participan!. The Swamiji's words that selfishness, ignorance, and greed were the evils which brought suffering to the world, pierced through her mind and heart and her life changed for ever. Swami Vivekanand was very much impressed and urged her to help the women of I,?dia in his plans. In response to the call of Swaini Vivekananda, Nivedita left England and arrived in Calcutta on January 28, 1898. Swamiji could envision her future role in the service of Mother India. He initiated her to be his disciple on March 25, 1898 and gave her name 'Nivedita', meaning one who is dedicated to God. She started to study Gita and practice meditation. This helped her to cast off her pride in English culture and became humble. Salvation for one self and the welfare of the world were two of the ideas she pledged herself to follow, For this, she lived a simpler pure, and holy life to realize God and humbly work for the welfare of the people.

By nature, she was optimist but there were times she felt disheartened in such situations. Swami Vivekananda's words 'Death for the cause is our goal, not success' inspired her She made India the object of love and worship When Swami Vivekananda passed away on July 4. 1902, she felt an added responsibility to India and its people. She realized that political independence of India is an essential first step towards equality, progress and justice

She inspired the people in all walks of life through her lectures and writings She always believed that India could not be great and powerful unless there was unity. She emphasized this in every possible way and was never tired of speaking about it. Her hard work and lack of rest was having an adverse effect on her health She passed away on October 13, 1911.


13. Mother Mirra (1878- 1973)

The Mother, Mirra Alfassa, was born in Paris on the 21st of February 1878. Her mother was Egyptian and her father was Turkish. Both of them were perfect materialists. However, Mirra had divine visions from her childhood.

Outwardly, she was brought up as an atheist until she entered adulthood. In her early years, she had a good education in music (specially piano), painting, and higher mathematics. During this period she used to have spontaneous experiences including those of coming out of her body to discover inner realities, without understanding what they really meant. As she was growing up, she began to have such experiences more often. One day in the year 1912 the Mother had a first vision of the future: "the advent of universal harmony, the realization of human unity and the establishment of ideal society". Sri Aurobindo had already visualized these ideas in his writings. What a coincidence?

She met Sri Aurobindo on 20th March, 1914. He exactly resembled the man she used to see in her vision since 1904. She went back to Paris, Japan and other places and finally returned to Pondicherry in India where Sri Auribindo had established an Ashram, a celebrated spiritual centre. Now the question was as to the ways and means by which this great vision of whole-being, whole-knowledge and whole power could be attained for the whole society. Sri Aurobindo found, and this was Mother's discovery, that this could be done through the processes of Yoga, many of which were known, and many of which had to be rediscovered, created, built and perfected, so that they could meet the needs of modern man's upward evolution. This was the task Sri Aurobindo was engaged in since he came to Pondicherry.

The Mother also participated in this endeavor. The result was what is known as 'Integral Yoga' - developed jointly by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. In integral yoga, the Divine Power in us uses all life as the means of our upward evolution and then every experience becomes a step on the path to perfection. In this whole process the Mother was Shakti in action. She accelerated this process with great vigor even after Sri Aurobindo left his mortal body on December 5, 1950. She continued to expand that vision through education and counseling of the seekers of inner peace. Under her direction, Pondicherry developed into a residential Ashram.

Her imprint can be seen in almost all aspects of Ashram routine. She worked relentlessly till she passed away on November 17, 1973.

......... (source: www.hinduwomen.org/biogra...other.htm)