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.

Also read: Origin Of The 7 Swaras In Indian Classical Music

But let’s come back to Rishi Gargi. Gargi Vachaknavi (born about c. 700 BCE) was an ancient Indian philosopher and this is a profound understatement. In Vedic Literature, she is honored as a great natural philosopher, renowned expounder of the Vedas, and known as Brahmavadini, which essentially means a person with knowledge of Brahma Vidya.

Yet, the above achievements are but trailers. Rishi(ka) Gargi is said to have done the impossible: she had even awakened her Kundalini (indwelling spiritual energy) and realized the existence of the soul or aatma.

Gargi was the daughter of sage Vachaknu and was named after her father as Gargi Vachaknavi. From a young age, she showed a keen interest in Vedic scriptures and became very proficient in fields of philosophy. Her knowledge of the Vedas and Upanishads was rivaled by few at the time.

So, what happened when there was a battle between Rishi Gargi and one of the most learned men of her time?

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.

Rishi Gargi
Artist impression of Rishi Gargi

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. 

A lesson or two to learn

It is not clear who won the debate. Some sources say that Gargi acknowledged Yajnavalkya’s greatness but such an ending could very well be manipulated.

Gargi was honoured as one of the Navratnas in the court of King Janaka of Mithila. Her philosophical views are mentioned in the Chandoga Upanishads and she has made significant contributions to the construction of the Rig Veda.

Unfortunately, in the face of modern-day skewed icons like Kangana Ranaut and Taylor Swift(?!), most people have forgotten this woman of sheer brilliance: a woman who was unparalleled by men of her times.

The basics of feminism lie in, equality and empowerment. Rishi Gargi is a very important lesson to all of us bra strap revolutionaries who shout at every occasion without never really uplifting ourselves.

Image credits: Google

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