The penultimate day of Navratri celebrates the divine feminine in the form of Maa Mahagauri. The eighth day is also known as Maha ashtami. She is the most compassionate form of Goddess Durga, hence devotees worship her to ease their earthly and planetary suffering. In honour of Maa Mahagauri, we are looking back on the human custodians of compassion who fought for Indian independence and women’s rights.
1. Sarojini Naidu – The Nightingale of India
This freedom fighter was also a poetess. Sarojini Naidu fought for freedom shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. She was part of the Indian National Movement and formed the Women’s Indian Association for women’s right to vote along with another custodian of compassion, Annie Besant. Although she’s a feminist in that she stood for gender equality, her gaze was primarily fixed on Swaraj.
Naidu often walked with Gandhi on his missions, not surprising since she was President of both, the Indian National Congress and the East African Indian Congress in South Africa at different times. She stood right beside Gandhi during the salt satyagraha at the end of his historic Dandi March. However, Naidu is best known as the Nightingale of India for her immersive and musical poems.
2. Annie Besant
A comrade of Sarojini Naidu and a pioneering thinker, Annie Besant holds a unique place in Indian history for being a British woman who fought for India’s independence alongside luminaries like Gandhi and Nehru. Besant came to India because of her close association with the iconic Theosophical Society, but went on to become a member of the Congress. Annie Besant launched her own All India Home Rule League, advocated home rule by Indians in her writings in two political journals that she started and was imprisoned by the British Raj at one point. That didn’t stop her from travelling to Britain for speaking tours where she would tell her own countrymen about why India should be an independent nation. If this is not compassion, what is?
Besant also groomed one of our nation’s most influential educators and philosophers: J Krisnamurti. He and his brother were adopted by Besant when they were young because she saw in him the potential to become a world leader.
3. Madam Cama
Speaking of unique custodians of compassion in Indian history, another woman Madam Cama aka Madam Bhikaji Cama is the first woman to hoist the Indian flag on foreign soil. She displayed her design of the Indian flag at the second Socialist Congress in Germany more than a hundred years ago, back in 1907. international knowledge of the homegrown freedom struggle was low back then. She told the distinguished guests about the largescale famine here and spoke for autonomy.
She was a co-founder of the iconic Paris Indian Society. Like Besant, Madam Cama would travel to different parts of the world and speak about emancipation from British rule. What stood out in her approach was the passion for gender equality and women’s rights. She would tell women fighting for the right to vote that they should work for independence in India. Because when India achieves independence, women will get the right to vote and the other civil rights they deserve.