Gārgi Vāchnakavi was an ancient Hindu philosopher renowned for her Vedic knowledge and great skill in debate. She was born to Sage Vāchaknu in the Gārga lineage and is credited with authoring several hymns in the Rig Veda. Her story is told in the Brihadāranyaka Upanishad, and is looked upon as an example of a strong, spiritual, and intelligent woman who was deeply respected during her time and remains as so.
Her most famous debate took place in the court of King Janaka of Videha with Sage Yajnavālkya.
King Janaka, known for his deep interest in spiritual knowledge, was inspired by the mass of learned sages at a yagna. He announced an award of 1000 cows, each adorned with 100 grams of gold, to the sage-scholar who could prove that they knew the most about Brahman.
Yajnavālkya was so confident of his superiority in this realm, that he directed his disciples to begin herding the cows towards his ashram. This created quite the uproar, and many of the sages demanded a debate in order for Yajnavālkya to prove his superior knowledge before claiming the cows. Yajnavālkya agreed, and the best scholars of the day assembled in King Janaka’s court and began asking Yajnavālkya questions to test his spiritual prowess and knowledge of Brahman. One by one, they ceded defeat, till only Gārgi remained from amongst the group of scholars willing to question the great sage.
Gārgi began with the question, "Yajnavālkya, all this here is permeated by the waters. What then permeates the waters?"
"The waters are permeated by air," responded Yajnavālkya.
"And what contains the air?" she queried.
"The heavens," he stated.
"And where are the heavens contained?" she asked.
"In the world of the Gāndharvas," he said.
"And the world of the Gāndharvas?" she probed.
"In the regions of the Sun," he declared.
"And the solar regions?" she continued.
"In the worlds of the Moon," he asserted.
"And the lunar worlds?" she inquired
"In the regions of the stars," he uttered.
The questions continued in this vein, with Yajnavalkya growing increasingly irritated with Gārgi. But, Gārgi pressed on.
"In what then, are the worlds of stars woven?”
"In the worlds of gods, O Gārgi,"
"In what then, are the worlds of Gods woven?"
"In the worlds of Indra."
"In what then, are the worlds of Indra woven?"
"In the worlds of Prajāpati."
"In what then, are the worlds of Prajāpati woven?"
"In the worlds of Brahmā."
"In what then, are the worlds of Brahmā woven?"
Yajnavālkya had had it with Gārgi. He responded with a threat, and told the questioning Gārgi that if she continued with her litany of questions, her head would fall off — a popular threat among sages at the time.
Chastised so publicly, Gārgi sat down. But two other sages, understanding the direction she was intending to take Yajnavālkya, took up the questioning. But they too sat down after Yajnavālkya addressed their questions to what they believed to be complete answers.
Politely, Gārgi stood up once again and asked Yajnavālkya if he would answer just two more questions. He agreed and so Gārgi continued.
"O Yajnavālkya, that of which they say that is above the heavens, beneath the earth, embracing heaven and earth, past, present and future, tell me in what is it woven, like the warp and the woof."
Here Gārgi was probing the great sage to answer what pervades the Sutra as the warp and woof (weaving terms for the components that turn yarn into cloth) pervade a piece of fabric.
"That, O Gārgi, which is above heaven and below the earth, which is heaven and earth as well as what is between them and which — they say — was, is and will be, is pervaded by the unmanifested ākāsha (sky)."
“What pervades the ākāsha (ether)?"
This question put Yajnavālkya in a predicament. The question was basically unanswerable because ākāsha is pervaded by Brahman, but Brahman is acknowledged as being beyond human explanation. If Yajnavālkya said that it couldn’t be explained, he would be guilty of non-comprehension of Brahman. If he tried to explain this phenomenon, he would be accused of committing the contradiction of comprehending that which cannot be comprehended.
Yajnavālkya replied: "O Gārgi, in Brahman is the ākāsha woven and rewoven like the warp and the woof. Sages call this the Akshara (the Imperishable). It is neither coarse, nor subtle, neither short nor long, neither red nor white. It is neither shadow nor darkness. It is without ears, eyes, or mind, or breath, without speech, without smell, without mouth. It has no within and no without."
"By the command of this Indestructible Being, O Gārgi, sun and moon, heaven and earth, stand upheld in their places. By the command of this Akshara, O Gārgi, minutes, hours, days, nights, weeks, months, seasons and years stand apart."
"Whosoever, O Gārgi, without knowing the Akshara, departs from this world, becomes a miser. But he, O Gārgi, who departs from this world, knowing this Indestructible Being, is a true liberated sage."
"That Brahman, O Gārgi, although unseen, but He sees; although unheard, but He hears; although unthought, but He thinks; although unknown, but He knows. There is none that sees but He, there is none that hears but He, there is none that thinks but He, there is none that knows but He. In that Akshara, then, O Gārgi, the ether is woven and rewoven like the warp and the woof."
With his response, Yajnavālkya says that Brahman is devoid of all attributes. Because this line of argument can be used to also say that Brahman is then non-existent, Yajnavālkya gives the evidence of the orderliness of creation as proof of Brahman’s existence.
Satisfied, Gārgi turned to the scholars around her and declared that Yajnavālkya was worthy of their obeisances and of the cows. After Gārgi pronouncement, no other scholar dared to challenge Yajnavālkya. So much was their respect for Gārgi, that they immediately took her advice to bow in respect was prudent.
Her line of questioning and not relenting until she elicited a satisfactory answer suggests that Gārgi knew the answer already. Gārgi became one of the nine gems, Navratna, in King Janaka’s court. She was the only woman in the gathering, and her knowledge and skill in the debate were recognized by all in attendance, and her intelligence, bravery, and grace revered for generations to come. In most versions of the story of Gārgi, she cedes the prize of the 1000 cows and but there are some in which she successfully claims it at the end of the debate.
Today the name Gārgi is bestowed with pride upon baby girls and institutions like the Gārgi College, in tribute to the great philosopher. There are also mandir or temples in honor of Gārgi Devi scattered across India.
Holy People of the World: A Cross-cultural Encyclopedia