History among Indian Hindus and those in the Diaspora
The Indian diaspora rarely pays attention to the importance of history and archaeology. Before and certainly after the post-independence era, India’s history has always been written and controlled by academics with a colonial anti-India, anti-Hindu agenda using deliberately designed narrow perspectives. History has been used as a tool for suppression and control. One of the areas of Indian history that has been hidden is the history of India’s warriors: freedom fighters, kings and definitely their Hindu warrior queens. These women controlled matriarchal kingdoms, raised armies, had elite female infantry units, fought on the battlefield against the Mughals, Portuguese, British and many others, and won. These queens began to fight the colonisers long before many of its kings and many other male revolutionaries.
The environment created by an ancient pagan goddess-worshipping religion like Hinduism allowed such women to be nurtured within its society surprising many an invader from both Arab and British conquest. In the West Indies, we have subconsciously adopted much of this dominant constructed colonial perspective on India without critically analysing it or the intentions of the colonial hangover academics. In the post-indentureship period West Indian women of the Indian diaspora, especially the Hindus, have been portrayed as members of an uneducated, illiterate and abused section of a patriarchal society who are subservient to their men, and who can only be uplifted by western feminist ideals. However, a thorough understanding of their own Hindu history can bring tremendous confidence in their identity and empower them as Hindu women on a Hindu foundation, given a proper understanding of formidable female characters who can reshape their confidence and be a powerful antidote to continuous colonial objectives.
Our history as Indo-Caribbean people does not start upon reaching the Caribbean in 1838 like Guyana or 1845 for Trinidad. It starts in India. As people of Indian descent all of India’s history has an impact on us from how we think, how we act and how we are seen to how we see ourselves. In Trinidad and Tobago and other diaspora nations we are greatly subjected to almost all areas of history in copious amounts except Indian and Hindu history and therefore our entire outlook is shaped by what we know of ourselves.
Importance of History among East Indian Hindu Women and those in Diaspora
Those women who originate from the East Indian diaspora should be given the tools not just to forge a powerful place in society but enhance it with a powerful identity. Women proud of their heritage will be less susceptible to propaganda meted out against their culture and/or religion by social shaming and/ or through media bias. Women tend to be and have historically been the caretakers and the education providers at home or at least they did that job for a long time therefore a woman clueless about history not only makes her susceptible to culture shaming and even conversion but makes an entire generation which she is rearing vulnerable.
A similar but subtler form of this has been happening throughout the years here in Trinidad and Tobago and by extension the entire West Indies/ Caribbean region. In the media, Indian culture is constantly portrayed as being violent towards women. While it is not explicitly said, it is implied by association with images and with almost no rebuttal the damage is practically permanent in the psyche of all the people that Indian culture and religion is somehow to blame. There are conferences in the region on women’s empowerment but there is never any that connects East Indian women to the uplifting parts of their culture. The next issue is that once you mention the word Indian, it applies an association with Hinduism. Whenever people associate something with India/ Indian it immediately projects a vision of Hindus.
If Indian women knew their history, then such issues would not create a false equivalent that vilifies Indian culture. This research was not in denial of the problems women face in the West Indies or anywhere else but the powerfully insinuating and false associations of it to Indian and Hindu culture that has major repercussions never publicly rectified. The premise of my research hypothesized that it is Indian Hindu history especially of their women that is one of the major antidotes to their problems, not the oppressor.
In history, we are taught that without western intervention women would never have gotten the right to join the army, become powerful leaders or even lead men into battle. That narrative is false and it is false through omission of Indian history and certainly applies to the history of Indian women which can clearly be seen through the lens of its mighty Hindu warrior queens who have been fighting for India’s independence and defense for over a thousand years, longer still through antiquity.
India’s/ Bharat’s Hindu Warrior Queens
India’s legendary warrior queens are numerous. They span the length and breadth of Bharat (India). These women fought for freedom and independence from both Mughal and British control among other achievements. The Hindu Warrior Queens (Rani’s) I’ve chosen as examples include: Rani Naiki Devi, Rani Karnavati, Rani Velu Nachiyar, and Rani Lakshmi Bai.
Due to constraints I only chose four as examples but my own research has uncovered at least 13 Hindu Warrior Queens.
Rani Naiki Devi- Western India
Rani Naiki Devi became Queen Regent of her son in 1175 A.D. She was self-trained in the art of war and administrative affairs. She was attacked by Mu’izz ad-Din Muhammad of Ghor or Mohammed Ghori of Afganistan. This region was previously Buddhist/Hindu before they were converted to Islam. Ghori’s army marched to the queen’s Chalukyan Capital, Anhilwara in 1178 A.D. Ghori not expecting to march into the realm of a Hindu Warrior Queen, sent a message to her court and requested she hand over all the gold, women of the Kingdom including herself and surrender her sons otherwise he would loot and destroy the kingdom. To his surprise the queen showed up ready for battle. The Queen’s forces surrounded the enemy camp and overcame Ghori’s army with Rani Naiki Devi herself taking charge on the battlefield. His army sustained heavy casualties and they fled the battlefield along with Ghori.
Rani Karnavati- Northern India
Rani Karnavati from the Himalayan mountain region of Garhwal located in modern day Srinagar, Uttarkhand where the Vedas and Mahabharat were thought to be compiled. She became the Queen Regent in 1631. In 1640, Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan of Taj Mahal fame, thought it would be a bright idea and perfect time to attack the kingdom and establish Mughal rule in the region. He led an expedition against Garhwal under General Najabat Khan with an army of thirty thousand horsemen and other infantry. The Mughals were no match fighting the Garhwali forces in the mountainous regions of the Himalayas. They were quickly defeated, many were killed and some fled the battlefield. The Queen chopped off the noses of all the surviving soldiers including General Khan. The remaining soldiers were surrounded by Garwali forces and very few made it back. Shah Jahan demoted his general for such a crushing and humiliating defeat.
Rani Velu Nachiyar- Southern India
Rani Velu Nachiyar was a Tamil queen. She was an expert in military skills, could wield weapons such as the Silabam and Valari and was a proficient in many languages including French, English and Urdu. She became the first queen to fight the British and was known to her people as Veeramangai or “Brave Woman.” One of her commander’s Kuyili, of the women’s contingent called Udayal Padai, made the ultimate sacrifice to destroy the ammunition so the queen could take on the British forces. Kuyili was able to infiltrate the Rajarajeshwari temple during the Vijayadashami festival where the guns and ammunition were stored and blow up their supply after the worshippers had left. Rani Velu Nachiyar defeated the British due to Kuyili’s sacrifice. Eventually she passed the throne to her daughter Vellachi.
Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi- Central North India/ Uttar Pradesh: Land of West Indians
Rani Lakshmi Bai learnt all the military arts such as horsemanship, swords, guns and other weaponry at the court of Peshwa Bajirao II of the Maratha Empire along with his sons. She married the king of Jhansi, took the name Lakshmi and began to advise the king on administrative and judicial affairs of the kingdom. She added her own women’s contingent to the Jhansi army, Durga Dal, commanded by a brave female general Jhalkari Bai who held off the British during an invasion so the Rani could escape.
When the 1857 rebellion had broken out she launched an attack on the British. She held a haldi kum kum ceremony for women only and convinced them to fight bravely. The British under Commander Hugh Rose ordered the queen to surrender the fort. Rani Lakshmi Bai quoted the words of Lord Krishna on the battlefield to her soldiers that they would enjoy the fruits of victory if they won and if they were defeated they would still attain glory. The British attacked Jhansi Fort and the Rani’s forces were overwhelmed with the help of a traitor, however, she jumped from the fort with her horse Badal, escaping the British. On June 17th 1858 Rani Lakshmi Bai was badly wounded: thrown off her horse, stabbed with a sword and had gunshot wounds. She fled the battlefield but did not want the British to capture her body. She burnt herself alive in the tent of a hermit. General Rose is said to have remarked, “The Indian Mutiny produced one man and that man was a woman.” This valiant queen hails from the region of our West Indian ancestors, Uttar Pradesh/Bihar etc.
Hinduism created an environment for the emergence of Hindu Warrior Queens
India achieved Independence in 1947 however, only Gandhi’s name was made world famous by people who wrote history for Indians. History is written by the victorious consequently those who write our history and give it to us had other intentions for glamorizing only Gandhi instead of a compendium of other heroes and heroines. What were the colonial historians’ intentions and those who write and continue to propagate this history for us? Why do we learn of the western suffragettes only and not these remarkable Ranis.
Hindu women are considered pagan and pagan voices and perspectives tend to be left out of the women’s empowerment discussion, globally not just locally. Hinduism remains one of the last great ancient pagan goddess-worshipping civilizations. Unlike the other pagan empires of Greece, Rome, Persia and Egypt, Hinduism continues to exist as an ancient unbroken continuous civilization. The last of the ancient heavyweight civilizations on the planet, retaining the numbers to be called the third largest religion on the planet even after British and Islamic conquest. No other religion and no other pagan religion has that resume. As the third largest religion in the world it should be taught as mainstream history everywhere and an example of a Non-Abrahamic religion. If not then it should at least be taught to Indian women and Hindu women as part of their community curriculum and dialogue.
The earliest warrior queen recorded in this paper is Rani Naiki Devi who gained power in 1175 A.D. If one notices, no religious leader objected to their ruling, issued orders against them for being women and taking the lead in military, administrative, judicial and religious affairs. Their armies and generals followed them into battle without question. Not only did they take to the battlefield in India but many of them organized their own women’s wing within the army. They were taught the art of warfare by their fathers without hesitation who were also the kings and generals of the era. The same cannot be said of their counterparts in Europe or many other parts of the world. This is not by coincidence but by design of Dharma.
These queens quickly mobilized rule and warfare at ease mainly due to the ethos of their Hindu religion. It is to this capacity and character of Indian civilization we see Indian women engaging in warfare without opposition. The examples of Hinduism’s empowerment for women are seen in our everyday lives: the imagery found on the murtis (images), the sacred narratives (mythology) and scriptures.
The female Gods within Hinduism are all-powerful and sit in equal reverence to their male counterparts if not greater on the Hindu Trimurti (Trinity). Goddess Lakshmi, Durga and Saraswati take prominent roles right next to their consorts Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, with millions of other equally revered Goddesses. Nature, rivers, (the Ganga/Ganges) and other entities are treated with respect because they are seen as Goddesses. India itself is referred to as Bharat Mata. Many Hindu goddesses carry weapons. Goddess Durga carries the most weapons. When the Gods could not destroy the demon Mahishasur as written in the Devi Mahatmyam, they gave all their weapons to the female Goddess Kaali who finally destroyed the demon. We hear about this during Navraatri, nine nights dedicated to three powerful Goddesses four times a year.
Likewise, Indian Hindu armies quickly relinquished power to their warrior queens and followed them into battle without indecision, like their own Gods. The Rig Veda, the oldest literature in the world contains passages about women, written by women. The Devi Sukta of the Rig Veda purports the feminine divine as, “I am the Queen…I created all the worlds at my will.” Many of the Rig Veda hymns were written by women. Approximately thirty female seers called rishikas have been identified in the Rig Veda. One of Lord Krishna’s wives was a warrior queen herself, Satyabhama. She charioteered with Krishna to defeat the demon Narakasura who could only be defeated by a woman rescuing 16 000 princesses.
A brief comparison of women
Subhash Chandra Bose, the George Washington of India, before 1947 had ordered his own women’s wing of the Indian National Army (I.N.A.) to combat the British. He named this wing the Rani Jhansi Regiment. During the World Wars western women weren’t allowed to fight meanwhile Bose had his own women’s regiment named after warrior queen, Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi. Queen Victoria believed women should not take part in politics. Meanwhile, Rani Lakshmi Bai was handling the political affairs and battling the British Empire run by the same Queen Victoria.
Until recently women were not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. Women served the U.S. Military since the American Revolution but in non-combat civilian services. Deborah Sampson a woman during the American Revolution who wanted to serve in combat had to dress like a man so did Mary Owens during the Civil War. Women were not fully recognized in the U.S. military until the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948. We learn the named of suffragettes like Emmeline Pankhurst, Millicent Fawcet and Susan B. Anthony but not Hindu warrior women. Besides pagan queens like Boudicca of the Celtic Iceni tribe, in the last thousand years of England’s history Queen Elizabeth I of the Tudor dynasty also took to the battlefield and she did not actually fight. She certainly faced hostilities as a female ruler but she did not have her own female contingent fighting England’s enemies on the battlefield. Around Elizabeth’s age, Calvinist preacher John Knox had written in The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Rule of Women that “God hath revealed to some in this our age that it is more than a monster in nature that a woman should reign and bear empire above man,” (Morill 2020). Compare this to Rani Karnavati in 1640 who fought wars and Naiki Devi who had been fighting since the medieval times in 1178 A.D. Compare Europe and the U.S.A. to Rani Velu Nachiyar and Rani Lakshmi Bai who had their own women’s combatant wing of the army to fight for freedom long before western women earned the right to combat. East Indian women shouldn’t parrot only western figures in their search for great women in history. Women have been warriors for thousands of years in India. They served equally alongside kings and Gods, and contributed to the scriptures. There should be a curriculum that is the responsibility of the East Indian Hindu community leaders to include examples from our own culture and religion. Now I’m not saying don’t teach any western history! This is the west, western history is part of our history too.
When we are taught to think of Hinduism as patriarchal, it is an unbalanced narrative designed to malign Hinduism. If we believe Hinduism to be patriarchal, we are experiencing cognitive dissonance. Local Hindu organisations like our S.D.M.S Trinidad and Tobago Maha Sabha and other Hindu organisations must make greater efforts to uplift their own history through a particularly Indian and/or Hindu lens without the arm crotch of something western and stand on their own feet imparting their culture and history on their own terms. Otherwise, women of Indian Hindu culture will develop a distrust of their own civilization as the root of the problem when deep fault lines are drawn with their culture projected as the center of the problem and a new “savior” culture as the only cure. These women will become further entrenched in a colonial narrative disguised as modern women’s empowerment which strong arm’s its way throughout the world with no mercy especially for native pagan civilizations.
There are many reasons why women should learn history. We Indian Hindus take history for granted not realizing the deep psychological and emotional trauma it can have on us if we do not understand it and own it. India is the best example of why an ethnic and religious group should never hand over complete control of their history to anyone. Bias, prejudice and agenda can overtake and build an ecosystem with a hostile narrative to the detriment of a particular ethnic group that entrenches them further in a colonial mindset proving more difficult to escape than the physical shackles of slavery. Our women should know their own history. Indian Hindu women must own, control and foster their own narrative on history by decolonizing it and they can begin with their mighty Hindu warrior queens.