India's cultural heritage has repeatably discussed the significance of women in protecting its society, a fact lost to most.
Yashowardhan is a final year BA LLB (H) student at Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat. He is primarily interested in the studies of jurisprudence, sociology of science, and the interface between science and religion.
Shivani is pursuing MA Political Science at Delhi University. Her academic interests include political history of India, science and philosophy.
Women may not have played a dominant role in the recording of what is commonly understood as official history, but they surely have been the epicentres and key forces of social and cultural heritage preservation. They have performed the role of carriers of oral histories and narratives, while themselves being the active bearers and symbols of our social and cultural traditions. Being the nodal points of every familial unit, women have nurtured and sustained these traditions within their families over generations. This essay attempts to shed light and reconsider the significance of their role, so as to bring to the forefront this rather underplayed factor in preserving our society and culture. The essay has been divided into four parts: a) an examination of the oeuvre of Swami Vivekananda to highlight his ideas on the subject, b) a brief analysis of the statements and writings of Mahatma Gandhi to understand his method of mainstreaming women in the national struggle for freedom, c) examining the contribution of Sister Nivedita in anchoring women’s education in accordance with Indic traditions, and d) Annie Besant as a role model for women to play an active political role in pushing our cultural heritage as a basis for the political systems. Although of limited scope, the essay hopes to convince its readers of the importance of women and women leaders in conserving our culture, heritage, and traditions. We ought to acknowledge that the very essence of conservation has a feminine element to drive it, as conservation isn’t constricted to bare sustenance of the traditions, but rather encompasses their nurturing and flourishing which is not possible without the grace and love showered by femininity, and this tendency lies at the core of womanhood.
Swami Vivekananda's emphasis on womanhood
Swami Vivekananda was on a quest for invoking a Vedic consciousness within the Hindu masses and worked relentlessly towards the resurgence of a version of Hinduism compatible with scientific rationality and modernity. He was well aware of the fact that such a resurgence would not be possible without empowering the Hindu women, which demanded both a transformation within his contemporary Hindu outlook and also a validation of such a movement at the textual-cum-historical level. He chose to invoke the ancient texts themselves to validate his accounts and ideas of womanhood. Further, he enriched his ideas through repeated descriptions of his personal experiences concerning the conception of womanhood. In his Paper on Hinduism presented at the World’s Parliament of Religions, Chicago, on 19th September 1893, Vivekananda thundered:
“The Hindus have received their religion through revelation, the Vedas. They hold that the Vedas are without beginning and without end. It may sound ludicrous to this audience, how a book can be without beginning or end. But by the Vedas no books are meant. They mean the accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by different persons in different times. Just as the law of gravitation existed before its discovery, and would exist if all humanity forgot it, so is it with the laws that govern spiritual world. The moral, ethical, and spiritual relations between soul and between individual spirits and the Father of all spirits, were there before their discovery, and would remain even if we forgot them. The discoverers of these laws are called Rishis, and we honour them as perfected beings. I am glad to tell this audience that some of the greatest of them were women.”
Vivekananda observed the cultural rootedness and social status of women in the Vedic period which signified their contribution as equals in shaping the social structure and order of Hindu society. He openly called women to actively practice Vedanta and participate in propagating its ideas across the world:
"In the West, women rule; all influence and power are theirs. If bold and talented women like yourself versed in Vedanta, go to England to preach, I am sure that every year hundreds of men and women will become blessed by adopting the religion of the land of Bharata. The only woman who went over from our country was Ramâbâai; her knowledge of English, Western science and art was limited; still she surprised all. If anyone like you goes, England will be stirred, what to speak of America! If an Indian woman in Indian dress preach there the religion which fell from the lips of the Rishis of India — I see a prophetic vision — there will rise a great wave which will inundate the whole Western world. Will there be no women in the land of Maitreyi, Khanâ, Lilâvati, Sâvitri, and Ubhayabhârati, who will venture to do this? The Lord knows. England we shall conquer, England we shall possess, through the power of spirituality."
The above statements reflect the modern saint’s vision and his ardent faith in the potentiality of women as the flagbearers of Vedanta philosophy.
Swami Vivekananda decoded and presented the Indic idea of womanhood as a distinct phenomenon, possibly superior to that of its Western counterparts. He emphasised the notion of suffering attached to womanhood and perceived mother to be the ideal Indic figure of femininity. Placing motherhood at the centre indicated the essentiality of love, nurture and character building, which would obviously involve passing down the cherished social and cultural values to the next generation. This process of inculcating societal values would begin at the level of an individual familial unit, executed by the mother, and would end up both developing and conserving the social heritage of the masses as a whole. Thus, it would inevitably, and consciously place women at the forefront as the flagbearers of upholding cultural norms and institutions. By invoking the folklores of various characters from Indic itihasa, the Swami pleaded the Indian women to follow the footsteps of their ancestors who were exemplars of loving-femininity personified. This would help anchor the women in their cultural roots and also pass the glorious heritage that they had inherited to the coming institutions, consequently maintaining the cultural and value basis of the society, so essential to its preservation.
Gandhi's calls for political mobilisation of women
Mahatma Gandhi’s relations with women have been a controversial subject for quite a long time. Notwithstanding his problematic positions on the subject, we may agree on the fact that he did indeed mobilise women en masse, motivating them to participate in the national freedom movement. His views on women should be contextualized in the social milieu of his time, as that would give a better understanding of his views.
Gandhi declared that he had based his khadi movement entirely on women’s participation and acknowledged that they were the backbone of his vision of economic independence. Gandhi’s strategy for mobilising women was not based on any radical idea of “progressive” concept of freedom but was rather derived from the Indic civilisational ethos. Gandhi demanded the women to emulate glorious female historical figures of India’s history and he attempted to stir them to proudly don their womanhood as a mark of resistance and suffering. He stated that:
“…But, in the present age, the women keep aloof from the things which really matter for the nation’s welfare and, hence, we get little help from them.
It was not so in ancient times. Sita set out for the forest with Ramachandra and there was nothing he did of which she remained in ignorance. Draupadi, making herself a true partner in life, accompanied the Pandavas in their wanderings and, when her honour was threatened, she proved to the world that she had the strength to protect herself with soul-force. Damayanti stood by Nala’s side in all he did; not only that, but she even proved to be his protector when he was not in his right mind…
Hence the first reform for the women should be to understand the important idea of freedom and cherish it as a part of dharma. The woman who has understood this should enlighten her sisters. Women alone can work and achieve great results among women. There is a limit to what a man can do. He can never understand their deepest feelings.
A woman nourishes the bodies of her children. In the same way, she should inculcate in their minds the qualities of independence, fearlessness, firmness, etc.”
Gandhi’s civilisational idea of Ramarajya was weaved around women as its “soul-force”. By invoking Indic civilisational symbols, Gandhi paved a way to break through the glass ceiling of stigma around women’s participation in active politics. On the contrary, he presented it as a value to be cherished. Gandhi based their participation on the ethics of endurance and suffering, the markers of femininity. In fact, for Gandhi, it was the women who were the actual saviours of their culture and ethos, and thus they were the ones with the greatest potential for bringing about reforms:
Women alone can emancipate themselves not men. If women will, they can help in the fulfilment of ahimsa. Through the charkha, they can serve the cause of their poor sisters. By wearing khaddar, they can bring help to the homes of the poor. They can bring about Hindu-Muslim unity. They can abolish the purdah and drive away the ghost of untouchability.
Sister Nivedita's advocacy for culturally-rooted women's education
Swami Vivekananda’s ardent disciple Sister Nivedita is often remembered as one of the most vibrant Indian reformers of women’s education in colonial Bengal. It is interesting to note that although she was of Irish origins and spent a large chunk of her early life in England, yet after being introduced to Swami Vivekananda’s idea of Vedanta, she got totally assimilated into Hinduism. The beauty of Hinduism and Indic culture lies in the fact that it does not demand much from anyone who accepts and comes in its fold, and that it can be very well represented by those who have immersed themselves in the culture without “converting” into the religion. Sister Nivedita exemplified the ideals of Hinduism better than many other Hindus and was all the more suited to expose the pitfalls of having a “progressive” education system as she had witnessed them first-hand. Tagore, in his tribute to Sister Nivedita after her death, noted:
“When I saw Sister Nivedita for the first time, she had freshly arrived. I had a notion that she must be like the usual kind of English missionary ladies – except for her religious persuasion.
It was this notion which made me propose that she take charge of my daughter’s education. ‘What kind of education would you like to give her?’, she asked me. My reply was that a good grounding in English and English-based education would do. ‘What good is it,’ she asked, ‘to force education down the throat? For me real education is to draw out and develop the knowledge and skill which tradition has handed down, and the aptitudes acquired by the child. Not to subject them to the steam-roller of regimentation which goes by the name of English-based education in India.’”
Sister Nivedita dedicated her entire life to create a system for education which would be based and draw upon from indigenous cultures and their traditions. Her trajectory has been summarised by Moni Bagchee as such:
“Before coming to India, she had cherished dreams of a new method in education, and of a work which should enlarge the scope of learning from mere instruction to a real awakening of mind. It was her aspiration that womankind should enter new paths of life and develop the highest individualism of which it was capable. The newest moods of thought that occupied the leading minds of Europe were hers and she turned the currents of her personal energy into founding and upholding the standard and the principles of a new and expansive individualism for women…
Early in life, as a school teacher in England, with no special interest in philosophy or Oriental learning, Margaret Noble first heard in Vivekananda’s speeches how India had a spiritual truth to offer to the modern world which mankind would be poorer for despising. She sought him out and by doubting and discussion was at last convinced of the truth of the Vedanta and its supreme importance to us in this machine age. Then coming into direct touch with India she realized with sorrow and shame the then degraded condition of the race that once thought out and preached such sublime truths. Henceforth her life was devoted to one task – the raising of the fallen Hindus. In her newly chosen monastic life she rightly took her name ‘Nivedita’, the devoted one, the dedicated soul. She was, however, not a blind admirer of everything in India’s past or present. She asked us to penetrate to the inner significance of our myths and legends, rites and customs, and take to our modern life everything that was good in them. Here her marvellous power of interpretation came into full play…
She stood apart from our Hindu revivalists; she was not an obscurantist or defender of everything past. She keenly perceived, what Vivekananda had preached to us, that modern economic activity and modern science are not incompatible with Hindu spirituality, but rather absolutely necessary for the permanent spiritual uplift of the Indians.”
An insight into Sister Nivedita’s zeal for women’s development better explains the nature of empowerment desired by her:
“Sister Nivedita thus played the role of a pioneer in giving most of her energy in the constructive thought of women’s development, when very few of our countrymen worked in that direction. As Margaret Noble, she was interested in the overall development of a child and believed that to be the ‘true end of the true teacher.’ When she came to Calcutta and opened her small school at Bagbazar, she had to think particularly about the education of the Hindu girls – because that was the task given to her by her Master, Swami Vivekananda. To accomplish that task, Nivedita had to transform herself completely. While discussing the future of women’s work, Swamiji told her –“You have to set yourself to Hinduise your thoughts, your needs, your conception and your habits. She was touched by the friendliness and pleasure with which she was greeted by the lady devotees. Before settling down in her own house at Bagbazar, Nivedita stayed with Sarada Devi and her companions for sometime to gain some experience in the rituals, customs and many other intricacies of a Hindu household. This early association with Sarada Devi, and the atmosphere of her household, helped to instill in Nivedita an admiration and respect for the ideals of Indian womanhood. This admiration for Eastern women, their simple domestic virtues and values, influenced Nivedita’s concept of Indian women’s education to a great extent. He believed “the whole aim of their education is un-European, for we must not allow ourselves to suppose that Eastern women had no education – far from it.” Nivedita further wrote –“we must give Indian girls their own colour… For this we must convince of its own Indianness.” The academic curriculum of Nivedita’s school taught the girls to respect their heritage and tradition; to learn their literature, art, history by heart. The work education classes brought out the girls’ natural skills and talents.”
Through education, she aimed to empower women by helping them imbibe their own culture and traditions, and shape them into able carriers of their cultural inheritance.
Annie Besant and the demand for home rule
Annie Besant, again a foreigner, comes out as a motivating role model for women in terms of her political acumen and her ideas regarding political systems. Her clarion call for Home Rule was not just about freeing India from the clutches of British rule. Rather, she was arguing for indigenous political systems led by the native populace. She rejected the need for Indians to learn politics and administration under British tutelage and was confident of the ability of Indians to govern themselves efficiently. Although she didn’t go as far as totally rejecting any form of British interference (as her idea of Home Rule did envision India as a part of the British Commonwealth, as opposed to swaraj which meant total and absolute independence), yet the very conception of Home Rule as a mass movement was a radical demand in contrast to the moderate petitioning strategy of the Indian National Congress of the time. Annie Besant is a figure of inspiration for everyone, especially for women, as she made a strong case for the need for a political system which would be rooted in the indigenous culture and would be run by the native people as well. This would wholly assimilate the natives into the system, and co-exist with the given framework in harmony, rather than the latter being an alien imposition on them. Such arguments of Annie Besant actually advocated the decolonisation of the political systems.
Women have always been the ‘better-halves’ of human society. The responsibility of conserving any society’s social and cultural heritage primarily lies on their shoulders, as they are the chief caretakers and nourishers of a family. The Indic conception of womanhood, primarily manifested in the ideal figure of the mother, captures the essence of femininity. It reflects the women’s role as the shapers of our society, who mould the future generations into ethically and culturally rooted citizens of the society. There have several inspiring Indic role models throughout history, who compel us to rethink our Eurocentric conceptions of womanhood, women empowerment, and “progressivism”. They provide us with ample examples of the symbiotic relationship between a society’s progress and its cultural rootedness. They prove that the mooring of women in their own cultural milieu, carrying their heritage along, could, in fact, be much more beneficial for the prosperity of our civilisation, as it gives us a harmonious way out to both emancipate women and protect our valued heritage as well.
 Swami Vivekananda, Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, vol. 1, p. 8-9. Emphasis added.
 Swami Vivekananda, Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, vol. 4, p. 399.
 See Swami Vivekananda, Complete Work of Swami Vivekananda, vol. 2, p. 31. He stated that:
“You often note, when people are discussing as to what man and woman can do, always the same mistake is made. They think they show man at his best because he can fight, for instance, and undergo tremendous physical exertion; and this is pitted against the physical weakness and the non-combating quality of woman. This is unjust. Woman is as courageous as man. Each is equally good in his or her way. What man can bring up a child with such patience, endurance, and love as the woman can? The one has developed the power of doing; the other, the power of suffering. If woman cannot act, neither can man suffer. The whole universe is one of perfect balance.” See, Id.
 The Swami observed:
“In India the mother is the centre of the family and our highest ideal, She is to us the representative of God, as God is the mother of the Universe. It was a female sage who first found the unity of God, and laid down the doctrine in one of the first hymns of the Vedas. Our God is both personal and absolute, the absolute is male, the personal, female. And thus it comes that we now say: ‘The first manifestation of God is the hand that rocks the cradle.’” See, Swami Vivekananda, Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, vol. 2, p. 413-6.
 The saint often invoked Sita as the ideal woman. Once he discussed the image of Sita as such:
“And what to speak of Sitâ? You may exhaust the literature of the world that is past, and I may assure you that you will have to exhaust the literature of the world of the future, before finding another Sita. Sita is unique; that character was depicted once and for all. There may have been several Ramas, perhaps, but never more than one Sita! She is the very type of the true Indian woman, for all the Indian ideals of a perfected woman have grown out of that one life of Sita; and here she stands these thousands of years, commanding the worship of every man, woman, and child throughout the length and breadth of the land of Âryâvarta. There she will always be, this glorious Sita, purer than purity itself, all patience, and all suffering. She who suffered that life of suffering without a murmur, she the ever-chaste and ever-pure wife, she the ideal of the people, the ideal of the gods, the great Sita, our national God she must always remain. And every one of us knows her too well to require much delineation. All our mythology may vanish, even our Vedas may depart, and our Sanskrit language may vanish for ever, but so long as there will be five Hindus living here, even if only speaking the most vulgar patois, there will be the story of Sita present. Mark my words: Sita has gone into the very vitals of our race. She is there in the blood of every Hindu man and woman; we are all children of Sita. Any attempt to modernise our women, if it tries to take our women away from that ideal of Sita, is immediately a failure, as we see every day. The women of India must grow and develop in the footprints of Sita, and that is the only way.” See, Swami Vivekananda, Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, vol. 3, p. 214.
 Gandhi declared:
“As I am fully aware of the fact that countless women in India are illiterate, the principles of education which I have formulated are concerned with how they can attain their due status in spite of their lack of education; and it is from these that the means for securing swaraj have been derived. I can make the claim that this struggle has been so organized that the women of India, if they so desire, can make a bigger contribution than the men. The entire khadi movement depends on the women. This movement would collapse today if the women were to refuse to extend their co-operation to it.” See M.K. Gandhi, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 43, p. 189.
 Gandhi said, “…In this non-violent warfare, their contribution should be much greater than men’s. To call woman the weaker sex is a libel; it is man’s injustice to woman. If by strength is meant brute strength, then indeed is woman less brute than man. If by strength is meant moral power, then woman is immeasurably man’s superior. Has she not greater intuition, is she not more self-sacrificing, has she not greater powers of endurance, has she not greater courage? Without her man could not be. If non-violence is the law of our being, the future is with woman.” See M.K. Gandhi, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 43, p. 219-20.
 M.K. Gandhi, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 18, p. 320.
 Gandhi stated:
“To women I talk about Ramarajya. Ramarajya is more than swarajya. Let me therefore talk about what Ramarajya will be like- not about swaraj. Ramarajya can come about only when there is likelihood of a Sita arising. Among the many shlokas recited by Hindus, one is on women. It enumerates women who are worthy of being remembered prayerfully early in the morning. Who are these women by taking whose names men and women become sanctified? Among such virtuous women Sita’s name is bound to figure. We never say Rama-Sita but Sita-Rama, not Krishna- Radha, but Radha-Krishna. It is thus that we tutor even the parrot. The reason why we think of Sita’s name first is that, without virtuous women, there can be no virtuous men. A child will take after the mother, not the father. It is the mother who holds its reins. ... As long as women whose body and mind tend in one direction- i.e., towards the path of virtue- do not come into public life and purify it, we are not likely to attain Ramarajya or swaraj. Even if we did, I would have no use for that kind of swaraj to which such women have not made their full contribution.” See M.K. Gandhi, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 26, p. 2.
 M.K. Gandhi, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 68, p. 230.
 Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Sister Nivedita’, Indian Literature, vol. 10, no. 3, 1967, p. 4.
 Moni Bagchee, ‘Sister Nivedita: A Centennial Tribute’, Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 2, no. 43, 1967, p. 1943. Emphasis added.
 Here, author is making a reference to Swami Vivekananda.
 Sudeshna Basak, ‘Sister Nivedita and Women’s Education in Bengal in the First Decade of the 20th Century’, Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 53, 1992, p. 418-9. Italics added.
 See Joanne Stafford Mortimer, ‘Annie Besant and India 1913-1917’, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 18, no. 1, 1983, pp. 61-78. It has been observed that, “In the countless speeches which she made during her constant travels throughout India, she stressed the wisdom and morality of Hindu ideals, the splendid past of India, and the need for the Indians to regain the pride in themselves and their civilization which. They had lost during the period of British domination.” See, Id.
 Her achievements are worth taking note:
“In 1907 she was elected president of the Theosophical Society whose international headquarters were at Adyar, Madras. During the first twenty years there she devoted herself primarily to religious, educational, and social reform. Among other things she founded the Central Hindu College at Benares, promoted voluntary pledges by parents in which they promised to delay the marriage of their daughters, and sought the end of ostracism of those Indians who had travelled to England…
At the Central Hindu College she established a parliament to give the students experience in democratic and constitutional methods. She expanded her work to include younger children by founding the Sons of India and the Daughters of India to acquaint them with the principles of nationality. Her work emphasized the inculcation of pride in being Indian and the virtues of Hindu civilization. In 1910 a project was introduced to create a National Indian University. The plan for such a university had been submitted under her guidance to the British government. It proposed the incorporation of the university as a broadly-based organization that would eventually encompass a number of educational institutions, each connected with a religious group. The university would be an agency empowered to hold examinations and to grant degrees. Although the attempt failed, in 1913 the Central Hindu College became the nucleus of a Hindu University and Annie Besant’s connections with it became much less close.” See, Id. Further, see G.E. Mercer, ‘Mrs. Annie Besant (nee Wood)’, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, vol. 125, no. 5250, 1977, p. 334; Raj Kumar, ‘Annie Besant and Self-Government for India 1914-1916’, Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol. 41, 1980, pp. 511-19.