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 marks 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 spheres of life, both in the past and in the present, together with a chapter on the evolutions of Mother worship in India. This is intended to emphasize not only the higher conception of woman as mother, but also her potentialities as an instrument for realizing the Divine the highest honour 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 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 sections by a study of the lives of great women in India not only also many others who are known only from literary sources such as the Epics, Puranas, and classical Sanskrit literature.
The different stages in the life of the Holy Mother, from 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 British Centenary should be marked, among other things, by the presentation of a systematic, connected and continuous account of the achievements of India 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 if 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 endeavour. It is divided into two 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 hohour 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 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, but also many others who 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 vital than any actual women could be. What living women have proved to be such formative forces as, for examples of the true dignity of Indian womanhood than Draupadi, Shakuntala and Gandhari?
For hundreds of years, millions of Indian women, including girls in 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 history. The women characters in Indian literature may not be 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 explain 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 forces, 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, from Brahmanical literature and that of heterodox sects like Buddhism and Jainism. From the standpoint of chronology, the two divisions cut across each other, and as regards the types of characters portrayed, there are common features in both, particularly in respect of literary and spiritual attainments.
The next three divisions, C, D, and F, are chronological, though 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 to the exclusion of some who have been included. To cite only one example, Mumtaz Begum, immortalized by the Taj Mahal, finds no place in this volume, since she has no claim to real greatness by her know character and exertions.
As this volume deals with the great women of India, 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 with the Holy Mother and the Ramakrishna Mission. But her life is not treated in this volume for, though her greatness and service to India were undoubted, she was 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 to 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 women 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, itself, is no mean contribution to our proper appreciation of the womanhood of India. Owing to the deplorable lack of materials, most of them are drawn as mere skeletons, but let us hope that, at some future date, our more fortunate successors will be able to put flesh and blood in 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; ri, ch, chh, sh, sh and l stand respectively for r, c, ch, s, s, and while w is substituted of v after consonants.
The object which the Executive Committee had in view in preparing this volume has been started 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. Pusalker, Prof. K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, Sri C. Sivaramamurti, Prof. Sukesh Chandra Maulik and Acharya Nandalal Bose, who have helped us in various ways. To Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, we offer our special thanks for having written the Introduction to this volume. The name of some Swamis of the Ramakrishna Mission are not included in the above list, because the monks are above all praises and thanks.
In conclusion, we gratefully place on record our deep obligations to the Dowager Maharani of Mysore and the Government of India, Ministry of Education, for their generous donation towards the cost of the publication of this volume.
Women are human being and have as much right to full development as men have. In regarded to opportunities for intellectual 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 peculiarities which distinguish us from one another. In all human beings, irrespective and transcendence, takes place.
Women cannot do some things that 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 times education of women encouraged. The goddess of learning is Saraswati. The Mahanirvana Tantra ways: "A girl also should be brought up and educated with great effort and care" (8. 47).
The Devi-mahatmya declares: "All forms of knowledge are aspects of Thee: and all women throughout the world are Thy forms" (11. 6). We hear of great women like Maitreyi, Gargi, Arundhati, Lalavati, etc.
In the Vedic Age women enjoyed equal opportunities for education and work. They were eligible for upanayana or initiation and brahmacharya or study of Brahma-knowledge.
In certain periods of our history, education of women was sadly neglected, and women lapsed into illiteracy and superstition. Writing to Margaret Noble (Sister Nivedita) on July 29, 1897, Swami Vivekananda said:
"Let me tell you frankly that I am 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 nations. You 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 as 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 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.
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