In many Hindu articles and blogs, the Brahmavadin Gargi Vachaknavi is mentioned proudly as a shining example of the glory of Indian women and the superior status that Vedic women had.
Gargi Vachaknavi appears in the Brhdaranyaka Upanishad in a section relating a philosophical session (Brahma sabha) in King Janaka’s court. Many scholars in the court question the renowned sage Yajnawalkya on the nature of Brahman. Gargi is one of the questioners who raise some of the more difficult questions. She does concede to the scholarship of Yajnawalkya at the end.
All the recent mentions of Gargi Vachaknavi (blogs, articles, Upanishad Ganga TV serial) seem to hold a tone of surprise and special appreciation about the fact that a unmarried girl was part of the Brahma sabha and dared to question the great sage Yajnawalkya in the august court of King Janaka in the presence of many famous scholars and philosophers.
In the context of the last couple of millennia with so very few women scholars/philosophers not just in Hinduism, but in all religions, the mention of women like Gargi, Mythreyi, Ghosa, etc come with a element of uniqueness and surprise.
However, when I read the actual translation of the Brhdaranyaka Upanishad, what struck me was that there is no “special’ mention of Gargi’s “womanhood”. She is just treated as one of the other scholars. There is neither a tone of surprise nor of appreciation that there is a woman in the mix.
This leads me to believe that, though Gargi rose to the “cream” of the women due to her presence in a large court, it was not so uncommon for women to learn and discuss Brahma gnana and philosophical topics. If she were so unique, the Brhdaranyaka would have indicated it.
Many of the sutras talk about women being initiated (upanayanam) –
Harita says that women are of two types: those who speak about Brahman and those who soon become wives. Of them, the first type has initiation, establishment of fire, the vedic studies and observance of begging alms. The second is just initiated and soon married. Yama also mentions tying of munja grass girdle (upanayana) for women who were taught the Vedas and who had to recite the Savitri (the sacred Gayatri mantra). Katyayana, Yajnikadeva and Satyasadha specifically mention chanting and performing fire ablutions for unmarried girls.
So, it is quite possible that many women were educated in the knowledge of Brahman and the various religious texts, and could hold forth equal to men in these topics. Gargi and others, while the “cream” appearing in the Upanishads, may not have been so unique as we suppose them to be.
More than quoting a handful of special women, it is the ubiquity of women scholars that should cited more often. An ubiquity that is still missing in the modern world, where we have equality in many areas, but not in the most important pursuit – the spiritual realm!
Faith is beyond measurement. I have to learn to “just be”. (And throw away all units of measurement)
In the aftermath of the sorry “Nirbhaya” episode, many politicians, celebrities and even so-called religious leaders are developing the practice of putting their “foot in their mouth” into a fine art!! From the suited-booted Todd Akins in the US to the saffron-clad Asaram Bapus in India – this notion of blaming the women for men’s weaknesses seem embedded in the psyche.
It reinforces the challenge I face as a mother narrating puranic stories to my children (ages 10 and 8). While it is so heart-warming to see them absorb the stories, accept them at face values and even be influenced in their actions by these stories, I stumble when faced with stories that deal with the world’s “oldest profession” as it is called.
I stumbled when we watched the episode of Satyakama Jabala on “Upanishad Ganga”.
Me: Nobody would teach Satyakama since his mother Jabala was considered an evil woman
Son: Did she do something bad?
Me: Well, she was a prostitute
Me: Well, she didn’t have a husband like other women with children. Many men came and stayed with her. (me trying to avoid going further)
Daughter (who is a little more aware): Then, who was Satyakama’s dad?
Me: Well, since we lived with many men, she didn’t know.
Daughter: But why? Could she not have married one of them?
Me: She could have. She was forced to be with many men.. maybe she was too poor or helpless. But once you do that, the whole town thought you were bad and nobody would marry you.
Son: But that’s not fair.. if she is poor, then they should help her.
Well, children do see things in black and white – maybe that’s the way to see it. Long story short, all our puranic stories as well as stories across the world, while acknowledging these women were pushed into it, at the same time, turn around and point to women as sinners, evil and temptresses. Same with Jabala, Mary Magdalene as with Nirbhaya.
One runs into this everywhere.. vedantic texts (Bhaja Govindam), Carnatic compositions (para dhana nari in dhyaname, para himsa para bhama in ente nerchina).
It used to puzzle me why great saints like Adi Shankar and Tyagaraja focused so much on this as though this were an everyday occurrence. Atleast in the circles we move in, it is so rare to hear of explicit violations. However, even while not widespread, they probably mention it only because it is the oldest vice.. a vice that predated drugs, alcoholism, cheating for money, etc.
Let’s never forget – It is only because men had this oldest vice that the oldest profession was created.
Most students of Advaitha Vedantha have likely heard the name “Bhamathi”. Bhamathi is one of the sub-schools of Advaita Vedanta. I cannot claim to know much about these subtle philosophies, but I am fascinated by the story behing the Bhamathi school.
The interesting fact is that Bhamathi, the eponym behind the name of this sub-school, was the wife of the main author of this sub-school, Vachaspathi Mishra. You can find more details on them here. While using pen-names of loved ones/spouses are slightly common now, it is amazing that such a attribution happened several centuries ago! How did this come to be?
Vachaspathi, soon after marriage, completely forgot himself and his householder life, in the study of Vedantha and writing several works elucidating them. Decades rolled by when he barely paid attention outside of his work, thus likely neglecting his new wife.
What did the little wife do while her husband was tucked away with his palm leaf manuscripts and his tomes on various topics, his mind and body engaged in lofty philosophical thought? Did she manage her household on her own, care for aged in-laws, handle the affairs of property/land? Did she quietly serve him, anticipating his every need? Did she sharpen his bamboo brushes, prepare his palm leaves, dry and bind the written leaves? Could she read his works, comprehend them and understand their importance?
As her friends went on to bear children, celebrate festive occasions, enjoy the joys of married life, did she ever feel angst? Did she glace wistfully at the little children playing in the roads? Did she ever wish for the simple gifts that young brides seek from their husbands? Did she ever hesitatingly wait for her husband to look up from his work when she served him food? Did she resign herself to her lot or accept it with equanimity?
Legend goes that, one day, on the verge of completing his magnum opus (a commentary on Adi Shankara’s Brahma sutra Bhashyam), he looked up to see an elderly lady lighting a lamp. Not recognizing her, he questions her about her identity and learns that she is indeed his own wife “Bhamathi”!! He is naturally stunned, but touched by her unconditional support, uncomplaining nature and devotion to her duty.
As most legends are, this one is likely an exaggeration. However, it probably is based on some truth. Bhamathi could have been a born Jeevanmuktha who did what she felt was her duty, with no expectations or desire whatsoever. She may have known the import of her husband’s work for Hindu philosophy or she may have been ignorant of it, yet she supported him selflessly in his endeavor, her ego annihilated.
Can there be a better example of Shithapragna lakshana?
Does praise affect him?
Inspite of a wonderful devotion towards Swamiji, I control myself not to constantly show it amid people. I think it would make people uncomfortable to see unbridled devotion (It used to be the case with me – when people raved about their Gurus, I have stood embarrassed and unable to understand the guru bhakthi not many years ago, so I do understand!)
However, once in a while, it gushes out. Words of praise and gratefulness gush out, often incoherently. A friend told me to control it since it might make Swamiji uncomfortable. I feel strongly that it will not – I will control for others’ sakes, but he will understand. He is not like us ordinary mortals for such praises to go to his head – we cannot superimpose our weaknesses on somebody like him.
After all, for such saints, “tulya-ninda-stuti ” (Bhagavad Gita 12.19) Criticisms and compliments are alike for them.
When I do say such things, he passes it on to his guru. Kanchi Paramacharya speaks of this too in his “Namaskara mahima”. Let him pass it on, but for us, we do need to verbalize this once in a while directly.
Continuing on my Guru’s immensely beautiful actions.
Weariness with samsara
It is hard to measure progress in spiritual sadhana. However, the increasing periods of calmness and the ability to be in solitude have been blessings for me.
What was troubling me was a notion in my mind that family and work relationships were intruding in my contemplation and sadhana. Following my planned sadhana and my chosen values felt difficult and I was tending to pass the blame onto others close to me.
While this unnecessary torment went on for some time, it reached breaking point one time and I broke down before Swamiji. The compassion I got from him is incomparable – this is a compassion that is devoid of any judgements, any disappointments and any expectations. (when I analyze the compassion I give even my own children, it is tinged with either a judgement on their behavior or an expectation from them or stems from a disappointment in them).
His message was simple – nobody can hinder your spiritual progress/sadhana. However, in samsara, one also has to be subtle and not so in-the-face when following one’s path. Sadhana cannot be devoid of love for family, friends, etc.
When I analyzed my blabberings to him later, I felt it was very childish of me. However, he never treated me as anything other than an exalted person. I hope to show the same kind of compasstion to others.