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Great Women of India

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Item Code: NAC340
Author: Swami Madhavnanda & Ramesh Chandra Majumdar
Language: English
Edition: 2022
ISBN: 8185301301
Pages: 571
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.5 inch X 6.5 inch
Weight 980 gm
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Book Description
Back of the Book

This volume deals with the ideals of Indian womanhood, its position in Indian life and society through the ages as well as the biographical sketches and contributions of great Indian women who made their mark in different spheres of activities and different periods of Indian history.

It is divided into two main sections. The first gives a general survey of the ideals and position of Indian womanhood in different with a chapter on the evolution of Mother worship in India. This in intended to emphasize not only the highest conception of woman as mother but also her potentialities as an instrument for realizing the divine the highest honor and reverence that a community can offer to its womanhood. This section mainly seeks to review in a general way what Indian woman was in the past and what she is present pointing to the obvious conclusion what she may be in the future.

The same object is sought to be achieved in the second section by a study of the lives of great women in India not only those who actually and died but also many others who are known only from literary sources such as the epics puranas and classical Sanskrit literature.


From the Jacket

This volume which commemorates the birth centenary of a great woman of our time is an attempt the first of its kind to survey the position and propect of women in Indian society during the last five thousand years and to present a kaleidoscopic picture of their dreams and visions hopes and aspirations through an illustrative study of the lives and achievements of the more outstanding among them. The position of women in any society is a true index of its cultural and spiritual level… quite a fascinating picture unfolds itself in the pages of this book. It is a long procession through the ages of Indian women who attained greatness in various sphered of life and culture political and aesthetic moral and spiritual. And this greatness they attained with the encouragement and good wishes of men in some cases and in spite of their discouragement and prejudices in others. Hence this book is a worthy memorial to Sri Sarada Devi the Holy mother in whom Indian womanhood fulfils nay transcends its purely Indian character and assumes a world significance.



The first birth centenary of the Holy Mother Shri Sarada Devi the spiritual consort of Shri Ramakrishna falls on December 27, 1953. A Short sketch of her life and activities is given in the concluding chapter of this volume. Anybody who reads it will feel convinced that she is revered today by the order of Shri Ramakrishna and millions outside it not because she happened to be the convinced that she is revered today by the order of Shri Ramakrishna and millions outside it not because she became a true disciple of her husband and during the thirteen years of sadhana under the master attained to the highest degree of spiritual realization. So much so that after the passing away of the master she became the unseen guiding force behind the Ramakrishna movement and for nearly thirty four years ministered to the spiritual needs of thousands of sincere seekers after god.

The different stages in the life of the Holy Mother form a simple village girl to the spiritual head of a great monastic establishment present many unique features. In some respects she may justly be regarded as the culmination of those qualities which have distinguished the culture and especially the women of India. It was therefore in the fitness of things that her first birth centenary should be marked among other things by the presentation of a systematic connected and continuous account of the achievements of Indian womanhood.

The committee which was formed to celebrate the occasion in a suitable manner very naturally put in the forefront of its programme the publication of a volume entitled Great Women of India. It was intended that this book would deal with the ideals of Indian womanhood its position in Indian life and society through the ages as well as the biographical sketches and contributions of great Indian women who made their marks in different spheres of activities and different periods of Indian history.

The present volume is the result of this endeavor. It is divided into two main sections. The first gives a general survey of the ideals and position of Indian womanhood in different spheres of life both in the past and in the present together with a chapter on the evolution of mother worship in India. This is intended to emphasize not only the highest conception of woman as mother but also her potentialities as an instrument for realizing the divine the highest honor and reverence that a community can offer to its womanhood. This section mainly seeks to review as a general way what Indian woman was in the past and what she is at present pointing to the obvious conclusion what she may be in the future.

The same object is sought to be achieved in the second section by a study of the lives of great women in India not only those who actually lived and died also many others whoa are known only from literary sources such as the Epics Puranas, and classical Sanskrit literature.

It is unnecessary to discuss the historical character of the latter. Some of them may be real historical personages while many are undoubtedly legendary or mere creations of poetical fancy. But whatever may be their real character they have been for more than a thousand years so much the flesh of our flesh and the blood of our blood that it is impossible to ignore them as mere fictions. They have inspired the thoughts and ideals of our women and shaped their lives for untold centuries and may be said to have been more real more living and more vital than any actual women could be. What living women have proved to be such formative forces as for example Sati, Sita and Savitri? What could be better illustrative examples of the true dignity of Indian womanhood than Draupadi Shakuntala and Gandhari?

For hundreds of years millions of Indian women including girls is their teens have heard or recited with rapturous interest the stories of these famous women of the past and to many of them they have been the sole guide and moral inspiration in their lives. All over India from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin they have been more familiar and more real than most of the women who have played even a prominent role in Indian historical in the true sense of the term but they are undoubtedly the representative types of Indian womanhood who cannot be ignored in any study of India’s history.

The force of these observations is considerably strengthened by the undeniable fact that we know so very little of the actual lives of the many great women who flourished in India. We know their names and the particular lines in which they distinguished themselves but in most cases hardly anything more than that. Even the few details that we know in some cases are not such as can serve to explains the motive forces behind their lives or show the gradual growth of their moral virtues and mental powers which can stimulate or inspire others by their examples.

These deficiencies in the delineation of characters are by no means peculiar to the women of India. They are almost equally applicable to men though there are more exceptions in the latter than in the former case. The reader of this volume is sure to be painfully reminded of this defect at almost every step as he goes through the lives of the great women who actually flourished in our soil. He would then realize the inestimable good that our literature has accomplished by holding out before us the pictures of great women in all spheres of life throbbing with vitality and showing a fullness of life by the interaction of different sometimes even jarring motive foreces as was undoubtedly the case with many of the historical figures which however we sadly miss in the actual accounts of their lives.

In spite of this great deficiency the panorama of great women of India represented in this volume cannot but evoke a profound interest. They cover a wide range of time and space from the dawn of Indian civilization represented in the Rig-Veda to the end of the nineteenth century and extending over the whole of the sub continent of undivided India. For the sake of convenience both of treatment and understanding some classifications have been adopted in Part II which are not quite accurate from the point of view of either chronology or subject matter. The first two divisions marked A and B are on a religions basis dealing with the great women known respectively from Brahmanical literature and the of the heterodox sects like Buddhism and Jainism. From the stand point of chronology the two portrayed there are common features in both particularly in respect of literary and spiritual attainments.

The next three divisions C,D, and E are chronological through the first two of these are further subdivided on a regional basis here again chronologically the divisions B and C cut across each other and the subdivisions under C and D represent more or less the same types arranged under different regions. It is to be distinctly understood therefore that these regional divisions are more due to considerations of practical convenience than to any inherent distinction of types represented in each.

As a matter of fact the types represented in C,D and E possess many features in common. There are scholars poets administrators and brave fighters as well as those distinguished by piety charity, or other moral virtues of a very high order. Only those women who have proved their greatness by these or other qualities of a similar nature have been included in this volume. This has naturally led tot eh exclusion of some who possess greater fame or celebrity than many of those who have been included. To cite finds no place in this volume since she has no claim to real greatness by her known character and exertions.

As this volume deals with the great women of Indian we had to exclude from its purview some notable women of foreign countries who spent their lives in the service of India. The two most famous examples of such exclusion are sister Nivedita and Mrs. Annie Besant. Sister Nivedita dedicated her life to the welfare of the Indian womanhood and was closely associated both wit the holy mother and Ramakrishna Mission. But her life is not treated in this volume for though her greatness and service to India were undoubted she was not an Indian by birth.

This volume dealing with the great women of India will we hope remove a long felt need. The position of woman in a society is usually regarded as a fair index of the excellence of its culture and the character of its civilization. It is therefore necessary of make an objective study of the womanhood of India. There have been both undue encomium and much misinformed criticism on this subject. A presentation of the known facts concerning the great woman of India and a discussion of the ideals and position of women in India in a detached spirit are likely to lead to a proper understanding of the subject and a correct assessment of Indian culture. This volume presents a brilliant array of great Indian women many of whom are little known and this by itself is no mean contribution to our proper appreciation of the womanhood of India. Owing tot eh deplorable lack of materials most of them are drawn as mere skeletons but lets us hope that at some future date our more fortunate successors will be able to put flesh and blood n them and make them real human beings pulsating with life.

The international system of transliteration is generally followed in this volume with the following departures necessitated by practical considerations.

The object which the executive committee had in view in preparing this volume has been stated at the outset. How far this object has been achieved it is for the readers to judge. But no pains have been spared to make it worthy of the occasion. A band of well known writers all over India have volunteered their services at considerable sacrifice to ensure the success of this undertaking some have contributed learned articles others have in addition carefully revised them or have helped in various other ways. To all these we offer our most grateful thanks. It is always a hard and delicate task to pick up individual names where we have received help and sympathy from so many quarters. But we shall be failing in our duty if we omit to mention Dr. S.K. De, Prof. Haridas Bhattacharya, Dr. A.P. Pusalkar, Prof. K.A. Nilakanta sastri, Sri C. Sivaramamurti who have helped us in various ways. To Dr. S. Radhakrishna we offer our special thanks for having written the introduction mission are not included in the above list because the monks are above all praises and thanks.

In conclusion we gratefully place on record out deep obligations to the Dowager Maharant of mysore and the Government of India Ministry of education for their generous donation towards the cost of the publication of this volume.



Indian tradition has generally respected womanhood as the essays in this book indicate though occasionally we find derogatory references to women. Even God is regarded as half man, half woman ardha narishwara. Manu declares that where women are honored there the gods are pleased where they are not honored all works become fruitless.

Women are human beings and have as much right to full development as men have. In regard to opportunities for intellectural and spiritual development we should not emphasize the sex of women even as we do not emphasize the sex of men. The fact that we are human beings is infinitely more important than the physiological peculiarities which distinguish us from one another. In all human beings irrespective of their sex the same drama of the flesh and the spirit of finitude and transcendence takes place.

Women cannot do some things men can. Their physiology prevents this. That however does not prove any inferiority on their part. We must do the things for which we are made and do them well.

In early education of women was encouraged. The goddess of learning is saraswati. The Mahanirvana tantra says a girls also should be brought up and educated with great effort and care.

The Devi mahtamya declares all forms of knowledge are aspects of three and all women throughout the world are thy forms we hear of great women like maireyi Gargi Arundhati Lilavati etc.

In the Vedic age women enjoyed opportunities for education and work. They were eligible for upanayana or initiation and brahmacharya or study of Brahmana knowledge.

In certain periods of our history education of women was sadly neglected and women lapsed into illiteracy and superstition.

Writing to Margaret Noble on July 29, 1897 Swami Vivekananda said

Let me tell you frankly that I am now convinced that you have a great future in the work for India. What was wanted was not a man but a woman a real lioness to work for Indians women especially.

India cannot yet produce great women she must borrow them from other notions. Your education sincerity purity, immense love determination and above all your Celtic blood make you just the woman wanted.

If Swami Vivekananda complained, India cannot yet produce great women it is because of the degradation to which they were subjected in recent times. We have wasted in our recent past women’s gifts by failing to recognize them us human beings able to act to achieve and to engage in projects given the right condition.

Thanks to the Ramakrishna movement and Gandhi’s work women are slowly coming into their own. It is true that Ramakrishna advised renunciation of women and of wealth for his male devotees but that was only in view of man’s possible weakness with regard to the opposite sex for he also advised his women devotees to renounce men and wealth. Ramakrishna’s respect for womanhood comes out in his dealings with his wife Shri Sarada Devi and other women. He accepted a lady Bhairavi Brahmani for his teacher. Woman is not innately wicked any more than man is. Gandhi engaged many women in his struggle for the political liberation of the country. This has helped in the emancipation of Indian women.

While spiritual life and social service are open to women marriage and motherhood are treated as the normal vocation for them. Modern anthropology brings out clearly that marriage and family are found in one form or another as fundamental institutions in every human society primitive or civilized. It is difficult to imagine a social organization in which these institutions are not found. The relation of man and woman is the expression of an urge for duality.

Each is a self which requires the other as its complement. The division of the sexes is a biological phenomenon not a historical event like the division of races and classes male and female constitute ordinarily a fundamental unity.

The institution of marriage was exalted in the Indian tradition. Women were free to choose their husbands. The freedom of women is evident from the account of the popular festival called samanas where men and women met and mixed freely. There is an interesting passage in the Saptashati where Durga who is kumari virgin, tells the Asuras who aspired to marry her. Her who conquers me in battle he who humbles my pride he who is my equal in this world he shall by my husband. Women were not the bond slaves of pleasure. The end of marriage is spiritual comradeship. The Mahabharata says let this heart of your be mine and let this heart of mine be your. Yet sex life was not despised. Its importance for human development was recognized.

It has been the tendency of men to use woman as an object of amusement and pleasure. Woman is asked to look upon man as the meaning and justification of her existence. This is in line with the well known saying, he for god only she for god in him. It is self assertion is not her quality. The oriental woman is not very different from other women in her innermost nature. She remains essentially feminine on account of her social and religious culture. She gives and not takes. The world over women are devoted and obedient. The dare to suffer where men would shrink.

In both men and women especially in women there is a deep desire to reproduce their kind. This is not a product of social conditioning. The satisfactions and creative opportunities of motherhood are well knows. A woman bears the suffering caused by the pains of labor but she forgets them in the joy of creation. She is essentially not the object of man’s lust but is the mother the maker the leader. It is the privilege of a mother to bring up and mental ethical and spiritual Matri devo bhava treat your mother as a goddess is the advice given to the young. Again Manu says one acharya excels ten updahyayas in glory a father excels a hundred acharayas in glory but a mother excels even a thousand fathers in glory. Marriage without motherhood is incomplete.

The weakening of the union of marriage and so of the family is causing widespread concern. It is no use congratulating ourselves that things are not so bad here as in some other countries. For the deterioration is increasing gradually in our country. To check if we have to adopt higher standards of education and moral instruction not merely for women but also for men. A successful marriage requires personal adjustments which are not easily to make. They are possible only when we accept certain ethical and religious standards.

This spirit of Indian culture does not deny to individual women the opportunity for spiritual development or intellectural eminence. Those who are inclined towards saintliness or scholarship become sannyasinis in spirit though not always in form. Undivided allegiance to their aims is demanded of them. Shri Sarada Devi si a noble example of this type.

She impressed all those who had the privilege of meeting her as an embodiment of grace purity and simplicity.

Sister Nivedita said of her

To me it has always appeared that she is Sri Ramakrishna’s final word as to the ideal of Indian womanhood. But is she the last of an old order or the beginning of a new? In her one sees realized that wisdom and sweetness to which the simplest of women may attain. And yet to myself the stateliness of her courtesy and her great open mind are almost as wonderful as her sainthood. I have never known her hesitate in giving utterance to large and generous judgment however new or complex might be the question put before her. Her life is one long stillness of prayer. Her whole experience is of theocratic civilization.




  Preface ix
  Introduction xv
Part I
A General Survey
I Ideal and Position of Indian women in Domestic Life 1
II Ideal and Position of Indian Women in Social life 26
III Evolution of Mother worship in India 49
IV Women’s education in Ancient India 87
V Position of women in Modern India 112
Part II
A Women in Sanskrit Literature
VI Great Women in Vedic Literature 129
VII Great Women in the Ramayana 140
VIII Main Women characters in the Mahabharata 169
IX Women Characters in the stories of the Mahabharata 182
X Great women in the Puranas 221
XI Great women in Sanskrit classics 238
B. Women in Buddhism and Jainism
XII Great Women in Buddhism 253
XIII Great Women in Jainism 275
C. Women in the Classical period (C. 400 B.C. to 1200 A.D)
XIV Great women in North India 285
XV Great women in South India 298
D. Women in the Medieval Period (C. 1201 and 1800 A.D.)
XVI Great Hindu women in North India 320
XVII Great Hindu women in South India 332
XVIII Great Hindu women in Maharashtra 343
XIX Great Hindu Women in Gujarat and Saurashtra 362
XX Great Hindu Women in East India 369
XXI Great Muslim women of India 378
E. Women in the modern Period
XXII Great Indian women of the Nineteenth century 395
XXIII Great Women Devotees of Shri Ramakrishna 414
XXIV The Holy Mother 464
  Index 541

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