Wednesday, April 26, 2017

V for Gargi Vachaknavi: Female Scientists Before Our Time

Gargi Vachaknavi was born in India around 700 BC. She was a bright child and it was only natural that she would follow in her father’s footsteps in the study of Indian philosophy. She mastered the scriptures in Hindu theology and studied Vedic philosophy, surpassing even some of the male sages in her knowledge. As a leading scholar, she became a strong proponent of education.

A depiction of Gargi and Yajnavalkya in the debate
The most remembered event in Gargi’s life as a philosopher was the famous debate between her and Yajnavalkya, a renown and widely recognized Vedic sage. King Janaka had announced a Rajasuy Yagna (the king’s inauguration ceremony) and invited some of India’s most learned sages, kings, princes and princesses to participate in a debate. Gargi must have been thrilled Yajnavalkya was coming. He always welcomed women in such debates. The grand prize would be 1000 cows and 10 grams of gold attached to the horns of each cow.

Yajnavalkya was so confident he would win, however, he had the cows delivered to his place in advance. He had mastered the art of Kundalini Yoga, “the yoga of awareness,” and no one he felt, could challenge his knowledge and win. Of course, this made everyone all the more determined to try, but only eight sages volunteered. Gargi was one of them. 

One by one the different sages lost the debate, until it was finally Gargi’s turn. Gargi forged ahead pounding him with questions one after another concerning the status of the soul and the origin of the world. Yajnavalkya answered each question masterfully. She changed her tactic and asked one final question, but her new line of questioning angered the sage. She had asked what exactly exists above Brahmalok (Hindu heaven). 

He replied, “Beware Gargi! You dare to ask who is above Brahman (God). Beware of the limits of your questions; otherwise you will lose your head!”

Gargi respectfully sat back in silence for a moment, thinking about what to say. Finally, she asked two more questions, both of which he answered correctly:

Gargi's first question: “That, O Yagyavalkya, which is above the sky, that which is beneath the earth, that which is between these two, sky and earth, that which people call the past and the present and the future—across what is that woven that ‘permeates’ it?

Yagyavalky: “That, O Gargi, which is above the sky, that which is beneath the earth, that which is between these two, sky and earth, that which people call the past and the present and the future—across space is that woven, (which) permeates it.”

Gargi: “Adoration to you, Yagyavalkya, in that you have solved this question for me. Prepare yourself for the other.”

Gargi's second question: “Yajnavalkya, what pervades that Sutra which is above heaven and below the earth, which is heaven and earth as well as what is between them and which—they say—was, is and will be?”\

Yajnavalkya: “That, O Gargi, which is above heaven and below the earth, which is heaven and earth as well as what is between them and which—they say—was, is and will be, is pervaded by the un-manifested akasha.”

Gargi: “What pervades the akasha?"

Yagyavalkya: “That, O Gargi, the knowers of Brahman call the Imperishable. It is neither gross nor subtle, neither short nor long, neither red nor moist; It is neither shadow nor darkness, neither air nor akasha; It is unattached; It is without taste or smell, without eyes or ears, without tongue or mind; It is non—effulgent, without vital breath or mouth, without measure and without exterior or interior. It does not eat anything, nor is it eaten by anyone. 

At this point in the debate, hours had passed. There were probably those sitting in the crowd swaying as they dozed. Yagyavalkya was concerned about Gargi's stamina and suggested they end the debate. My guess is he was pretty exhausted too. The debate ended with praise from Gargi that Yagyavalkya was indeed the greatest brahmanishtha (yoga).

Reading this story at other sites online, I noticed that some neglect to tell the outcome of the debate, emphasizing Gargi’s strength as a woman only. She was certainly strong, but I think her performance in the debate also demonstrated her courage, humility, and wisdom.

Education in 700 BC India: "The stupa of Sariputta at Nalanda University." In the northwest region of India, Takshashila, sat the world's first great university, Nalanda University.  Subjects taught by the masters included: "the vedas, languages, grammar, philosophy, medicine, surgery, archery, politics, warfare, astronomy, accounts, commerce, documentation, music, dance and other performing arts, futurology, the occult and mystical sciences, and complex mathematical calculations."


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

U for Unusual: Female Scientists Before Our Time



  •  Trepanation – drilling holes in the skull to cure various ailments; some believed to release evil spirits. Perhaps the oldest surgery in history, dating back to 6500 BC. 
The Extraction of the Stone of Madness
-Hieronymus Bosch painting

  • Sickness – ancient Egyptians considered it a punishment sent by the gods; or an attack by angered ghost or demon.
  • Mercury for health – ancient Persians, Greeks and Chinese used it for health, as a common elixir and topical medicine; death from liver and kidney damage was common when ingested. 
  • Bloodletting – withdrawal of blood to cure or prevent disease. A practice dating back to Egypt 1000 BC.
Ancient Greek painting on a vase, showing 
a physician (iatros) bleeding a patient
  • Animal Dung Ointments – all types of dung, a cure-all for disease and injury. Ancient Egyptians swore by it. Might have had some antibiotic benefit. 
  • Cannibal Cures – “corpse medicine” from ground-up mummies, human flesh, blood, or bone and believed to be magical. Practiced by Romans and the English. Thought to cure headaches, ulcers, epilepsy, etc. Practice lasted for years. 
  • Wandering Womb – ancient Greeks believed the womb was a separate creature. Had a mind of its own and could escape from the body and have a ‘walk-a-bout’. Women were told to marry young and bear lots of children to prevent.
  • Hernia cures for infants – have one small green lizard bite the child! Then hang the lizard up over smoke until it dies. 
  • Infant’s first words – If the baby says “ny” it will live. If the baby says “mebi” it will die. Belief dates back to 1550 BC.


Monday, April 24, 2017

T for Tapputi: Female Scientists Before Our Time

Recipe for Perfume

Combine flowers with oil, calamus,
cyperus, myrrh and balsam. 
Mix with water or other solvents.  
Distill. Filter several times. 
 (my format)

This recipe for perfume was found in ancient Babylonian Mesopotamia on a cuneiform tablet dating 1200 BC. It’s the world’s first known record of a perfume-maker and a chemist, and the oldest recorded reference to a still, the apparatus used to distill liquids. The recipe had been recorded by Tapputi (also called Tapputi-Belatekallium).  

"Belatekallium" was the title for female overseer, which would have meant Tapputi had a position of authority at the Royal Palace. A second name, nini, was inscribed on the cuneiform with Tapputi's, but the first part of the name was missing on the tablet [???-nini]

1200 BC. Tapputi-Belatekallium's cuneiform table with perfume recipe.

Ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians are credited with the origins of perfume-making. Egyptians used perfume in religious and cleansing ceremonies, and for embalming, but eventually used perfume as a personal scent too. Burning perfumed incense to the gods would have been important in both cultures, for offerings to their deities and for enhancing the mind and spirit. The medicinal properties of perfume would have played a role as well. In Mesopotamia, for instance, perfume was used for inhalation, poultices, and in medicated baths. 

Egypt relief of perfume-making from flowers pressed in a cloth, 4th Cent BC

The connection between a perfume-maker and a chemist did not require much convincing for me. As I wrote this piece, memories of my daughter and the little perfume-maker kit she had received at Christmas years back kept popping into mind. It may have been her most favorite gift of all time. Dolls were of no interest in comparison. The family oohed and awed over the fragrant scents she created. Years later when she pursued a degree in Micro-Biology, I remembered the little scientist blossoming in our home. It made perfect sense she had chosen a science to study. Perhaps Tapputi had been a similar girl as a child. 

Perfume kit I remember giving our daughter for Christmas

Worwood, Valerie Ann, 2006. Aromatherapy for the Soul: Healing the Spirit with Fragrance and Essential Oils.
New World Library.
Palmer, Irene, 2013. Perfume, Soap and Candle Making - The Beginner’s Guide. Lulu.


Saturday, April 22, 2017

S for Salpe: Female Scientists Before Our Time

Salpe was a 1st Century midwife from the Greek Island of Lemnos. We have Roman author Pliny the Elder to thank for recording some of her life. She had some unusual treatments, all of them unconventional.

It's not likely Salpe was a well-educated woman, which is not to say she wasn't smart. Her form of medicine was different from the medical professionals of her day, and would have appealed more to the common people who couldn't afford to pay for a physician. Salpe relied on a “mix of superstition, herbal cures, prayer, and sympathetic magic.”

Some of Salpe’s unusual remedies:

  • For dog bites - wear the flux of wool from a black ram contained in a silver bracelet.
  • For numb or stiff limbs – spit into the bosom of patient, or touch the upper eyelids with saliva.
  • To strengthen eyes – apply urine.
  • To cure sunburn - mix urine and egg white (ostrich preferred); apply to skin every two hours.
  • To stop a dog from barking – feed it a live frog.  

Woman with elaborate dress and headgear sitting on a stool. 
Terracotta figurine (about 230 BC) from Myrina, 
Isle of Lemnos, Greece.