Living in the age of the millennials, it is impossible for you to not have been hit by the wave of feminism at least at some point of time in your life. Feminism is everywhere and more importantly, skewed icons of feminism are omnipresent. An attention-seeking actress becomes the national icon of feminism and somebody’s stupid video of “my choice” becomes a feministic video. In this mad world of bazaar mein bikta hua feminism, let me throw some light on an almost forgotten female mentioned profusely throughout Vedic literature: the venerable Rishi Gargi.
Who was Rishi Gargi?
Before I go into that, my sincere apologies for calling her ‘Rishi’ Gargi. Rishika would be the correct English for a female Rishi but then I doubt how many of us would interpret that as an address and not a name.
Here, let me point out how conveniently we have forgotten that Rishikas existed alongside Rishis in the Vedic ages and were many a time, more popular than their male counterparts. Alas, the exemplary progress evident throughout the Old Vedic Age vanished into narrow realms of orthodox-ism in the Later Vedic Period.
She was an invitee to the world’s first conference on philosophy, convened by King Janaka of Videha, and challenged Yajnavalkya to a public debate. Her acknowledgement of defeat and praise of Yajnavalkya induced the king to gift him 1,000 cows and 10,000 gold pieces, which Yajnavalkya rejected and retired to the forest, followed by his wife Maitreyi, an equally educated and spirited woman.
The epic debate with Yajnavalkya
[This part is primarily sourced from Wikipedia.]
King Janaka of Videha kingdom held a Rajasuya Yagna where he invited all learned scholars of his time. The Yagna was a magnanimous one with over-the-top arrangements. Janaka, being a learned man himself, thought of selecting a scholar from the assembled group of elite scholars, the most accomplished of them all who had maximum knowledge about Brahman. For this purpose, he evolved a plan and offered a prize of 1,000 cows with each cow dangled with 10 grams of gold on its horns.
The galaxy of scholars, apart from others, included the renowned sage Yajnavalkya and Gargi. Yajnavalkya, self-assured in his supremacy, ordered his disciple to drive away the cow herd to his house. This infuriated the scholars as they felt that he was taking way the prize without contesting in a debate. Most of the scholars were unsure of their knowledge, however, there were eight renowned sages who challenged him for a debate, which included Gargi, the only lady in the assembled gathering of the learned. Sages like Asvala, Artabhaga, Bhujyu, Ushasta contested with him and lost as Yajnavalkya was able to provide satisfactory answers to all of their questions.
Gargi then questioned Yajnavalkya on his claim of superiority among the scholars. Her initial dialogue with Yajnavalkya tended to be too metaphysical when she changed her approach and asked him pointed questions related to the environment existing in the world, the question of the very origin of all existence.
In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the debate is narrated as:
“On air, Gargi.
On What, then, is air woven back and forth? On the intermediate regions, Gargi.
On what, then, are the worlds of the intermediate regions woven back and forth.
On the worlds of the Gandharvas, Gargi”
Yagnavalakya put an end to the debate by telling Gargi not to proceed further as otherwise she would lose her mental balance.