Famous Women within Hinduism
Hindu scripture, particularly of the earlier period, places great value on contributions of women. The much-reported abuses of women in India demonstrate a falling away from traditional practice. Many famous women serve as lasting role models, though with the influence of feminism such values are less popular with the younger generation or need reinterpretation to suit the current social context.
Such famous figures are extremely diverse and include deities (such as Sita and Parvati), historical or mythological figures (such as Draupadi from the Mahabharata), political activists (for example, the Queen of Jhansi), and saints and spiritual leaders (e.g. Mirabai and Anandamayi). A more complete list is given below.
- Sita – The wife of Lord Rama, considered part of the Godhead. For many Hindus, Sita is the ideal example of womanhood and a dutiful wife.
- Kunti – The mother of the five Pandava princes. Her devotion to Lord Krishna never faltered even in great adversity. She is one of the “five virtuous women.” The others are Draupadi (see below), Mandodari (the wife of Ravana), Ahalya (wife of the sage Gautama), and Tara (the wife of Vali, the monkey king killed by Rama).
- Draupadi – The wife of all five Pandavas. She was insulted in the royal court and, as a result, millions of warriors perished on the plains of Kurukshetra. A chaste yet powerfully assertive woman, she displayed both fiery anger and remarkable compassion.
- Damayanti – Wife of Nala.Together they demonstrated unflinching devotion to each other.
- Savitri – By her selfless devotion she saved her husband from the court of Yama, the Lord of Death.
- Andal (725–755) – The only woman amongst the South Indian Alvars (poet mystics). Andal was so overwhelmed with love for Vishnu that she refused to marry anyone else. According to tradition she merged into the deity of Vishnu after being formally married to him.
Akka Mahadevi (12th century) – A medieval women saint with an unusually modern outlook. She was devoted to Lord Shiva. The Lingayats venerate her as a symbol of the equality of women and as an early exponent of women’s emancipation.
- Mirabai (1547–1614) – Great saint, born in a royal family and famous for her songs and her devotion to Lord Krishna, whom she considered her eternal husband.
- The Queen of Jhansi (1835–1858) – Famous for fearlessly fighting against the British.
- Kasturaba Gandhi (1869–1944) – Wife of Gandhi; still greatly honoured as a devoted wife by the Hindu community.
- Helena Blavatski (1831–1875) – One of the early foreigners (from Russia) to take up Hiduism, she co-founded the Theosophical Society in 1875 along with Annie Bessant (1847–1933), an English woman and prolific writer, who became the society’s president in 1907.
- Anandamayi (1896–1982) – A well-known female yogi from Bengal with a large following and many centres throughout India. She is credited with many miracles.
The daughter of King Janaka. She is the heroine of the Ramayana. As Rama’s only wife, she resolved to undergo the hardships of forest life rather than leave her husband. Out of infatuation for her, the tyrant Ravana met his ignoble end. After he kidnapped her, she refused to submit to his adulterous advances. Sita is considered to embody all the virtues of a traditional Hindu woman and has been held up as a role model for Hindu girls to follow. Some modern feminists have objected to this notion as being sexist.
A central figure in the Mahabharata. Born of the sacrificial fire in King Drupada’s court, she became the common wife of all five Pandava brothers. King Jayadratha tried to kidnap her, and she fought like a true warrior queen. She demonstrated how a traditionally devoted wife can also be powerfully assertive.
Once, Yudhisthira lost her in a rigged gambling match and the Kauravas tried to disrobe her before the entire royal assembly. In the attempt to strip her, the kings present failed to intervene, and thus sowed the seeds of their destruction on the plains of Kurukshetra. TheMahabharata thus illustrates the ancient ideal of valuing and protecting women, and the terrible consequence of neglecting or exploiting them.
Although many Hindu heroines exemplify the traditional role of women, others have opposed or transcended tradition when it declined into abuse. Mira was one such example. Born in 1547 in a Rajput (warrior) family in Rajastan, she became an ardent devotee of Krishna. At a young age, she resolved that only he could be her future bridegroom. She was, however, duly married into a Shakti-worshipping household. She refused to abandon the worship of Krishna for the Goddess, and was victimised by her husband. She left for Vrindavana, but returned when her husband reformed. Upon his death, she refused to perform sati and was persecuted by her husband’s family. The new king tried to kill her but by Krishna’s grace she survived. She finally abandoned her husbans’s palace to lead the life of a wandering saint. She sang and danced in public, unconcerned for social decorum and finally it is said that she mystically entered a murti of Krisna. Her poems and songs express her intense feelings for Krishna and are still sung and recited by devotees today.
How well do we understand traditional Hindu attitudes towards women?
Traditional Hindu attitudes towards women must be wrong (since they are dated). Identifying differences between men and women is sexist.
Not necessarily – there may be assumptions that need re-examining here.
Worldly comfort is an illusion, No sooner you get it, it goes. I have chosen the Indestructible for my refuge.