Encyclopedia Womannica

Beautiful Minds: Gargi Vachaknavi

Episode Summary

Gargi Vachaknavi (c. 700 BCE) was an ancient Indian philosopher and master of debate.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Today’s beautiful mind was an ancient philosopher. She was one of the few prominent women scholars involved in the Vedic religion, the ancient precursor to Hinduism. Today, she is remembered for her fearless skills on the debate stage and her deep questions about theology. Let’s talk about Gargi Vachaknavi.

Gargi Vachaknavi was born around the 7th century BCE in India, to a centuries-long lineage of sages. Gargi herself was an intellectual child. From an early age, she studied the most ancient Hindu scriptures known as the Vedas.

Gargi’s name soon became well known among philosophers of the Vedic religion. She contributed many hymns to some of the most important holy texts, and she held her own against male colleagues in debates. Philosophical debates were an important tradition in ancient India. In the centuries to come, they would become even more organized and pervasive in society. While Gargi was alive, debates were the primary way sages tested their knowledge and showed off their expertise.

One legendary story from Vedic literature demonstrates Gargi’s strength of will and skill. 

According to the story, King Janaka held a celebratory sacrificial bonfire and invited all of the country’s royalty and the most educated scholars to participate. Gargi was in attendance.

King Janaka was a scholar in his own right, who respected the wide range of knowledge present at the event. After several days of burning sandalwood, ghee, and barley as spiritual offerings, Janaka decided to hold a competition to determine who knew the most about scripture. The winner would earn a lavish prize - 1000 cows, each one adorned with 10 grams of gold.

One legendary sage named Yajnavalkya was so certain he would win, he ordered his attendant to start taking the prize home, right then and there. Though most of the scholars were angered by this, none of them felt confident enough to debate Yajnavalkya, a master of meditative, mind-awakening yoga.

Out of all the sages in the kingdom, only eight wanted to stand up to Yajnavalkya’s challenge, and Gargi was among them. She was the only woman in the group.

The seven other challengers attempted to face off against Yajnavalkya, including the king’s own priest, but each one failed. Then, it was Gargi’s turn.

She posed one question after another about the structure of the universe, the origin of existence, and the soul itself. 

Gargi asked questions like, “That, O Yajnavalkya, 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 woven, warp and woof?”

Warp and woof refer to the lengthwise and crosswise threads in a weaving, so Gargi was asking about the ‘weave’ of reality. When Yajnavalkya answered her questions, Gargi pressed further, asking that he break down the nature of the universe even more. Eventually, Yajnavalkya ended the debate himself, claiming that Gargi would soon lose her mental balance.

Gargi eventually conceded that she lost the debate. However, her sequence of questions, paired with Yajnavalkya’s answers, ended up establishing key theological concepts within the Vedic religion.

Gargi Vachaknavi was an unconventional thinker, and asked the questions few others thought to consider. Many of her hymns also posed questions about the origin of existence. This creative thinking earned her a place among scripture and legend.

Join us tomorrow to travel centuries in the future and learn about another incredible thinker!

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!