This Indian philosopher challenged the intellectual men of her time by being one step ahead…
Like Maitreyi, Gargi Vachaknavi is famous in Vedic literature for her intelligence and knowledge of Hindu scripture. Her story also involves the sage Yajnavalkya, Maitreyi’s husband and teacher.
King Janaka was deeply interested in philosophy, and filled his court with the great minds of his day. Among these was Gargi, one of Janaka’s Navaratnas (nine gems). She composed a number of hymns questioning the origin of existence and was an author of Gargi Samhita.
Gargi attended the brahmayajna – the world’s first philosophy conference which was also attended by Yajnavalkya. At this congress, Gargi challenged Yajnavalkya, considered the wisest man in the world, by asking questions about the foundation of atman (soul). After several questions which Yajnavalkya answered correctly, she asked about the nature of the word of Brahman (the supreme state of being) – to this the sage became angry, and told her not to ask so many questions
“Gargi, do not question too much, lest your head fall off. In truth, you are questioning too much about a divinity about which further questions cannot be asked. Gargi, do not over-question.”
Navaratnas – or “nine gems” was a term applied to a group of nine extraordinary people in an emperor’s court in India.
The Strides of Vishnu: Hindu Culture in Historical Culture – Ariel Glucklich
Gargi Vachaknavi on Indianscriptures.com
The Rigveda is the oldest religious text still in use, containing works by the world’s first recorded philosophers – among them Maitreyi.
Maitreyi benefitted from living in a culture which believed that ‘a girl also should be brought up and educated with great effort and care’ (Mahanirvana Tantra). Educated and intelligent, she was called a brahmavadini (expounder of the Veda) and is one of the known female Vedic philosophers of ancient India.
This philosopher was the wife of famous sage Yajnavalkya. He was already married to a woman named Katyaayanee (who was not a brahmavadini) when Maitreyi came to her and asked if she too might be a companion to Yajnavalkya, so that she may learn from and assist him as his spiritual disciple. Katyaayanee agreed.
“Rigveda MS2097” Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
The story goes that later in life Yajnavalkya planned to renounce material things and would instead divide up his worldly possessions among his two wives. He asked them both what they would like from him. Maitreyi asked her husband whether all of his wealth would make her immortal. He replied that no, it would only make her rich. The learned woman then asked for the wealth of immortality, rather than earthly goods. Yajnavalkya then imparted Maitreyi the doctrine of the soul and his knowledge of attaining immortality.
There are one thousand hymns and teachings in the Rig Veda, and at least ten of these are attributed to Maitreyi.
- Veda means knowledge and Rig means praises. The Rigveda is one of the four sacred texts of Hinduism, known as the Vedas.
Women-philosophers.com – Maitreyi
Four Famous Female Figures of Vedic Literature