Gargi Vachaknavi was a great philosopher and astrologer who lived in India in Treta Yuga about eight thousand years ago. In Vedic literature, Gargi Devi is revered as a natural philosopher and an expert on the scriptures. She is known as the interpreter of the Vedas and Brahmavadini, who attained knowledge of Brahman.
In the sixth and eighth brahmana sections of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishads, her name comes to the fore as she participated in the Brahmayagya, a philosophical discussion organized by King Janaka. She also composed many hymns in the Rig Veda, one of the four Vedas.
Gargi remained celibate all her life and is revered among the followers of Vedic culture. Rishi Gargi, a renowned sage even mentioned in Rigveda, was also a leading scholar who significantly contributed to the spread of education.
Gargi Vachaknavi (born in the 9th to 7th centuries) is the daughter of Garga Muni, a famous philosopher, and astrologer who made an astrological prediction for Krishna. She was born to a long lineage of sage Garga.
However, there is little information about Gargi’s birth and place of origin. Though the name Yajnavaklya appears a lot in the Puranas and Mahabharata, there is no particular mention of Gargi. Gargi is mentioned in the Upanishads and Brahmin literature only in the context of the dialogue of the Spiritual Assembly of Mithila.
It is said that from a young age, Gargi had a strong inclination toward the Vedic scriptures and quickly gained proficiency in philosophy. She was well-versed in the Vedas and Upanishads. She was also known for her engaging intellectual discussions with other philosophers during Vedic times.
Gargi’s Dispute with Yagyavalka Muni
According to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishads, King Janaka, the father of Sita Devi, conducted the Rajasuya-yajna. He invited all the elite scholars, sages, kings, and queens of India to participate in it.
King Janak himself, being a scholar, was impressed by the great gathering of Indian sages. He wanted to single out exceptionally gifted scholars with the greatest knowledge of Brahman among the audience. To do this, he offered a prize to the winner of the debate, which consisted of 1000 cows, each of which had 10 grams of gold hanging on their horns.
In the assembly of sages, among others, there were Yagyavalka and Gargi Vachaknavi. Yagyavalki, being aware that he was the most spiritually enlightened among the entire assembly, having mastered the Kundalini yoga, ordered his disciple Samsrava to drive the herd of cows to his house.
This pissed off the others as they believed he was taking the prize without fair participation in the debate. Some local pundits did not volunteer to challenge his decision because they were unsure of their knowledge. Nevertheless, eight famous sages entered into debates with him, among whom was Gargi, the only lady in the assembly of scholars.
Gargi asked Yagyavalka about his claims of superiority among scientists. She gave him arguments one by one. The primary topic of their discussion was the basis of reality. Her dialogue with Yagyavalka gradually became too metaphysical, touching upon topics such as the eternal status of the soul, which were far removed from practical topics.
At Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the sequence of questions she posed to Yajnavalkya and her answers are narrated as follows:
Gargi: How does the air come and go woven?
Yajnavalkya: In the intermediate regions.
Gargi: So how are the worlds of these regions interwoven?
Yajnavalkya: In the worlds of the Gandharvas (celestial beings in Hinduism).
Gargi continued with a series of questions, such as the universe of the moons, stars, and the suns, the Gods, Indra, and Prajapati. Gargi went ahead with two more questions.
Gargi requested Yajnavalkya to enlighten her on the fabric of reality and asked: That, oh Yajnavalkya, what is below the earth and what is above the sky, what is between these two, the sky and the earth, what is that people call the past and the present and the future, through what is it woven?
Yajnavalkya replied: space.
Gargi was unsatisfied with the answer and posed the question: Through what are prayer and space woven?
Yajnavalkya replied: oh, Gargi if one performs sacrifices and worships and undergoes austerities in this universe for many years. Still, without knowing about imperishable, truly limited is all that [work] that he did. On the other side of the imperishable is the invisible, oh Gargi, and it is the woven space.
Gargi then asked the final question: what is Brahman (the world of the imperishable)?
Yajnavalkya ended the debate by telling Gargi not to go ahead. Otherwise, she would lose her mental balance. This answer ended their dialogue.
However, at the end of the discussion, she recognized Yajnavalkya’s superior knowledge by saying: “Venerable Brahmins, you may consider him a great thing if you bow down to him. No one, I believe, will defeat him in any discussion with respect to Brahman”.
Srila Baladeva Vidyabhusana on the Vedanta sutra relates to this episode. He writes that when Gargi began to ask questions about the transcendental issues, Yagyavalka felt uncomfortable; he realized inside that he could not answer many of her questions.
Gargi was recognized as one of the Nava Ratna (nine gems) in the court of King Janaka Mithila. Her philosophical debates are mentioned in the Chandogya Upanishads. Gargi, being a Brahmavadini, wrote several hymns of the Rig Veda, which describe the source of all that exists. Yoga Yagyavalka, a classic yoga text, depicts a conversation between Gargi and Yagyavalka (also referred to as Yajnavalkya).
There is not much information available about the later life of Gargi Vachaknavi. She was a well-known and respected philosopher in her time and had many intellectual discussions with other sages and scholars. However, there is no specific information about her later life or any details about her death or legacy.