They Helped India Win Independence: European Women and the Cause of Indian Freedom

Bhuvana Sankaranaryanan, Bangalore, India

Western women who have shone as icons, lanterns, or candles battling for the Indian cause during the freedom movement have always had a spiritual tinge attached to them, a spiritual aura. Mother Teresa was not unique in Indian history, since a long line of European women have committed themselves to the Indian cause. In fact, Annie Wood Besant, an Irish woman married to (and then separated from) a clergyman, was the first woman to be elected President of the Indian National Congress (see Keswani, story of Modern India). She too played a role in the Theosophical Society. Frustrated in marriage, Madame Blavatsky of the Theosophical Society turned Annie Besant into a mystic. She translated the Bhagavad Gita into English, started the Central Hindu School and College at Benares which later became the Hindu University. Her famous speech begins, "Wake up, India."

Sister Nivvedita (Margaret Noble)

Here is "A Benediction" by Swami Vivekananda addressed to Margaret Noble or Sister Nivvedita:

The mother's heart, the hero's will,
The sweetness of the southern breeze,
The sacred charm and strength that dwell
On Aryan altars, flaming, free;
All these be yours and many more
No ancient soul could dream before —
Be thou to India's future son
The mistress, servant, friend in one. [VI, 178]

Madeleine Slade

According to Rajni Bakshi,

"Madeleine Slade was born into an aristocratic British family on a cold November day in 1892. Ensconced in lace, frills and strict discipline, she was just like any other well-bred baby. But a good sooth-sayer could have told the family that for most of her adult life Madeleine would be known as Mirabehn. . . .

the age of fifteen, Madeleine fell irrevocably in love with the music of Ludwig Von Beethoven . . . So she went in search of Romain Rolland, the French philosopher and writer, who had written a loving account of Beethoven's life and work. But when she met Rolland he was more keen to talk of his latest book, Mahatma Gandhi. Madeleine had never heard the name. But Rolland said enough to intrigue her. [pp. 4-5]

In Madeleine Slade's autobiography, The Spirit's Pilgrimage, she describes the "inner call" of Gandhi: "Now I know what that something was, the approach of which I had been feeling. I was to go to Mahatma Gandhi, who served the cause of oppressed the cause of oppressed India through fearless truth and non-violence, a cause which, though focused in India, was for the whole of humanity. I did not weigh the pros and cons or try to reason why this was the outcome of my prayers. The call was absolute and that was all that mattered" (quoted by Bakshi, p. 9). Bakshi describes the year of austere, hermetical preparation that Madeleine went through, including sleeping on the hard, cold floor (in the manner of Sabarmati ashramites) and finally sending a letter to Gandhi who beckoned her to join his ashram. She had also already learnt spinning on a charkha. Gandhi christened her Mirabehn after saint-poet Meera, who was the role essayed by Carnatic singer M. S. Subbalakshmi in a black and white film. Meera Bhajans are still popular, especially in South India.

According to another biographer of Gandhiji, Louis Fischer, "Her bond with him was one of the remarkable platonic associations of our age . . . Gandhi often told Mirabehn, 'When this body is no more there will be no separation, but I shall be nearer to you . . . The body is a hindrance" (p. 6). Slade accompanied Gandhiji to the Round Table Conference of 1931. She nursed the Mahatma through a bout of malaria. "The home that Mirabehn built became a place of pilgrimage."

Swami Vivekananda described the missionary activities of Sister Nivedita thus: "Now we have got one Indian magazine in English fixed. We can start some in the vernaculars also. Miss M. Noble of Wimbledon is a great worker. She will also canvass for both the Madras papers. She will write you" (V, 123).

Mirra Richards (now known as The Mother

Mirra Richards, another European woman searchjing for spiritual enlightenment in India, took charge of Sri Aurobindo's ashram in Pondicherry. According to K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar, the Indian critic who compiled the first authoritative set of biographies of great Indian writers, "Romain Rolland saw in Sri Aurobindo the foremost of Indian thinkers . . . . Aurobindo, himself a poet, was associated with Subramania Bharati, a great Tamil poet." On 29 March 1914, Madame Mirra Richards made the following note:" It matters not if there are hundreds of beings plunged in the densest ignorance. He whom we saw yesterday is on earth. His presence is enough to prove that a day will come when darkness shall be transformed into light, when Thy reign shall indeed be established on earth." Iyengar explains her importance when he points out that "with Madame Richard's return to Pondicherry in April 1920, the Ashram began to acquire a clearer definition and after 24 November 1926 (when it is said Sri Aurobindo experienced 'the descent of Krishna in the physical'), she took full charge of the Ashram and came to be known as The Mother" (p. 158). Their work continues, for as Special Women's Issue of Outlook, (November 1, 2004), Page 123:"The first thing that strikes you about Pondicherry is the Aurobindo Ashram. Founded in 1926 by one of India's famous sons, Sri Aurobindo and his French disciple, The Mother, it's a unique, spiritual concept revolving around work being a divine offering" (123).

What is the magnet that brought Mother Teresa tand these women to Calcutta? The combined flavours of the tonics of "nationalism" and "non-violence" lent a spiritual thread to the call of oriental India, mystical India. These women renounced their homelands in the Westfor India, helping the country struggle for freedom, taking care of its ashrams, helping emancipate women, drive out plague and famine. They were angels, fair and lovely angels who will forever be cherished in the annals of Indian history, be nuggets in its archives.


Bakshi, Rajni. Bapu Kuti: Journeys in Rediscovery of India. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.

Keswani, K.B. History of Modern India(!800-1984). Mumbai: Himalaya Publishing House, 1985.

Special Women's Issue of Outlook New Delhi. (November 1, 2004): p. 123.

Iyengar, K.R.Srinivasa. Indian Writing in English (1962) 5th ed. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, n. d.

Tharoor, Shashi. The Midnight and The Millennium. Penguin Books, 1997.

Vivekananda, Swami. The Complete Works. 8 vols. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1970-73

Postcolonial Web Indian Subcontinent India OV Politics Gender

Last modified 20 February 2006