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."


Sharon M. Himsl

Writer/Author. Blogging since 2011. 
Published with Evernight Teen: 
~~The Shells of Mersing


  1. I have always been fascinated by the women scholars/philosophers of ancient India. Some real grit, grace and brains..


    1. Me, too. They certainly appear to have had opportunities in education. I doubt if it was true for those in the lower classes, with the caste system.

  2. Another interesting scholar from a society that we often consider more patriarchal

    1. I think it was all about being born into the right class, but would need to research more. Thanks, Sage!

  3. Hi Sharon ... I don't think I'd do very well at studying philosophy... but it's interesting she was allowed to take part ... cheers Hilary

    1. I found philosophy interesting in college, but hard as I tried never excelled :(

  4. She sounds like a bit of a rebel.
    Good for her!

    M : )

    1. Yes, could have been... She wasn't afraid to debate the great vedic sage.

  5. I love how the description of that which pervades the akasha sounds an awful lot like dark matter.

    --Her Grace, Heidi from Romance Spinners

  6. Thank you for this interesting debate between these two scholars Sharon. I wonder what the actual outcome was.

    1. Not entirely clear from the source, other than it appears she conceded. Lots online though, but I ran out of time, and admittedly....dealing with too much a-zing :(
      Thanks, Susan!

  7. You have gone through this challenge with such dedication to find remarkable ladies who long before our time was on the first rung of the ladder to where we are today.
    I salute you.


    1. Thank you, Yvonne! Very happy to be nearing the end. And I have 3 yet to write!

  8. Hmmm-I think she won that debate when he got angry at her. He had no idea how to answer so he got angry which would mean he went against his own beliefs in some ways doesn't it?? She asked the question but found the higher power of humility and asked forgiveness...she won!

  9. Oh, I love your version :) A wise woman indeed. Thanks Birgit!


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You could call me an eternal optimist, but I'm really just a dreamer. l believe in dream fulfillment, because 'sometimes' dreams come true. This is a blog about my journey as a writer and things that inspire and motivate me.