Women have played an instrumental role in the ancient India.
Gargi hailed from a lineage of great sages like Garga and Vachaknu. She displayed her intellectual prowess from a very young age. Her knowledge and expertise in Vedas and Upanishads was such that she surpassed distinguished male philosophers with her evocative and eloquent debates and reasoning. She was invited to the world's first conference on philosophy hosted by King Janaka, which took place 3,000 years ago. Amidst several learned scholars, she was the only lady who had the confidence to challenge Yajnavalkya, the wisest in the gathering. Her barrage of pointed questions even managed to ruffle the feathers of the well-composed Yajnavalkya.
Avvaiyar was the court poet of the Chola monarch. In the medieval times when widows were kept outside the purview of society, Avvaiyar travelled from one village to another, influencing and helping to build fortitude for people with her talent. She was nicknamed as 'the poetess who sang for the gruel' because she shared the gruel of the poor farmers and composed songs for their enjoyment and learning. Her fondness for children and the songs she composed for them speak volumes on her repertoire. Her work has been incorporated in children's textbook 'Aathichoodi' which consists of one liners that encourage children to walk the path of truth, humility and righteousness.
Urmila wanted to accompany Lakshmana during the exile but he advised her to stay back as he wanted to remain awake and alert to serve and protect Rama and Sita. He requested Goddess of Sleep to approach Urmila, who accepted the burden of Lakshmana's share of sleep. Being a devoted wife, she slept throughout the fourteen years, waking up only when Lakshmana returned to Ayodhya. In fact, Lakshmana could defeat Meghnadh, the son of Ravana as he had a boon that only a man of such penance could defeat him. Thus, Urmila's extreme sacrifice aided Rama's triumph against Ravana.
Maitreyi was raised by her aunt Gargi, a Vedic scholar and imbibed philosophy very early in life. Maitreyi became the second wife of the renowned sage and philosopher, Yajnavalkya. She did not want to marry Yajnavalkya so much as she wanted to become his disciple and a spiritual consort. When Yajnavalkya decided to become a sanyasi and was dividing his property between his two wives, Maitreyi decided to forego her share and preferred his spiritual knowledge instead. Later, she took sanyas and spent the rest of her life spreading her spiritual knowledge.
Mahabharata depicts Amba as a fierce and independent woman savagely seeking revenge on Bhishma. Innumerable rejections including that of her lover, left her heart broken but strong-willed in channelising them to reach her goal. Her austere penance pleased Lord Shiva who granted her wish to be born as a man in her next birth and avenge Bhishma. Without any hesitation she immediately jumped into the fire in order to be reborn as Shikhandi. Bhishma was fated to meet his end atthe hands of Shikhandi at the battle of Kurukshetra.
Ubhaya Bharati preached that only after removing the soot of ego covering the mind, one could behold the light of Atma. When she was chosen as an adjudicator in a debate between her husband and Adi Shankara, it was decided that her husband would take sanyas if he were to be defeated. She objectively listened to the debate and impartially declared Shankara as the winner. Thereafter, she challenged him that only after defeating her in the debate can he claim complete triumph over her husband and went on to engage the great Adi Shankara in the philosophical debate for 17 days.
In the Ramayana,
Tara is the queen of Kishkindha, wife of the Monkey King Vali. She rightly advised Vali not to battle with Sugreeva as she was aware of the latter's alliance with Rama. Vali ignored her advice and was slayed by Rama. On his death bed, Vali admitted that Tara's advice never goes in vain and asked his brother to follow her advice unquestioningly. She was also instrumental in reconciling Rama with Sugreeva after pacifying Lakshmana, who was about to destroy Kishkindha in revenge for Sugreeva's perceived treachery. She reminded Lakshmana that without an ally like Sugreeva, Rama could not defeat the powerful Ravana.
Mahabharata portrays Sulabha as a learned scholar who won a debate with the philosopher king, Janaka, in the presence of eminent Brahmin scholars. Her victory justified her own choices in life to wander the world alone and remain unmarried. Contradicting both scholarly and popular wisdom which subscribed to the idea that the primary path to emancipation for a Hindu woman is devotion to her husband, Sulabha logically established that there was no essential difference between man and woman. She was a beacon to prove men and women could attain Moksha by following the same path.
Mandodari defies the stereotype that a universal scorn of a group based on its predominant behaviour can undermine the greatness of a person. Extremely pious, she knew that Rama was Lord Vishnu incarnate and tried convincing Ravana to release Sita. Once Mandodari even grabbed Ravana's arm when he drew his sword in a fit of fury to kill Sita who kept refusing to marry him. Worshipped as one of the Panchakanyas, it is believed that reciting Mandodari's name washes away all the sins. She has also been equated to water, 'turbulent on the surface and deep in her spiritual quest'.
Akka Mahadevi debated with learned men of her era to prove that every soul, irrespective of gender, has a right to explore and reach the divine. She gave up her social position and travelled throughout the region, singing praises of Lord Shiva and recording her journey in vachanas. During the 12th century, a period of strife and political uncertainty in Karnataka, she contributed immensely in the Veerashaiva Bhakti movement by composing 430 vachanas. She was given the honorific title of 'Akka' by Veerashaiva saints for her contribution to spiritual discussions held at the 'Anubhava Mantapa'.
Visakha was never blinded by her prosperity. Once, she had left her valuable jewelled peacock crown and dress at Buddha's monastery. But feeling that something left in a monastery should not be taken back, she presented it to Lord Buddha, who did not accept it. Visakha then used her crown and dress to raise ninety million Kahapanas and built the Pubbarama Monastery where Buddha spent six monsoons.Later, she became the chief female follower of Buddha and was often chosen to settle disputes between Bhikkhunis. It is believed that some of the rules for Bhikkhunis were laid down based on her suggestions.
Kannagi's husband fell in love with a dancer and spent all his wealth on his mistress. Eventually he realised his mistake and returned to Kannagi. He tried to recoup his wealth by selling Kannagi's anklet to the king of Madurai who mistook it for a stolen anklet of the queen and beheaded him. Kannagi set out to prove her husband's innocence to the king and in the state of fury cursed that the entire city would burn. Due to her utmost chastity, her curse became a reality resulting in severe destruction. At the behest of Goddess Meenakshi, she calmed down and later attained salvation.