Scholarly tradition of Indian women
By Stephen Knapp
Maitreyi was the wife of the great sage Yajna-valkya. His second wife was Katyayani. Both were devoted to their husband and were of lofty character. However, Maitreyi had a higher regard for spiritual knowledge and devotion to God than had Katyayani. The Brihadaranayaka Upani-shad relating the story says that the sage Yajnavalkya decided to renounce the householder life and accept the sanyasa order of life, and divide his possessions between his two wives. Maitreyi then thought to herself that her husband must have found something greate if he was willing to give up his present status as a householder. Surely, she thought, no one will give up his position unless he finds something better. So, she asked her husband if she had all the riches in the world, could she still attain immortality. Her husband said ?certainly not, it was not possible. All the happiness and conveniences from wealth will not lead you to God?. So, Maitreyi then asked why she should acquire wealth if it was not going to deliver her from the cycle of birth and death. She requested him to tell her about the Supreme Being, for whom he was happily giving up his household life.
Thereafter, Yajnavalkya explained to Maitreyi all about the divine knowledge of the Self. He informed her that no being in this world had any capability of being dear to another without the presence of the soul within. Even to enjoy the beauty of this world one has to have a soul within our own body, for the soul is all that we are. Understanding the depths of spiritual knowledge is the way to attaining moksha, liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Thus, Yajnavalkya took sanyasa and Maitreyi attained supreme bliss by hearing her husband'sdiscourse and by diving deep into this spiritual understanding. In this way, Maitreyi showed how all women can achieve the heights of spiritual understanding simply by careful listening and practising the Vedic path.
Maitreyi showed how all women can achieve the heights of spiritual understanding simply by carefully listening and practising the Vedic path.
Gargi was the daughter of Vashaknu, and was also called Vachakni. But because she was born in the line of the Garga gotra or family line, she was also called Gargi, a name by which she became well known. The Brihadaranayaka Upani-shad explains that she asked the sage many questions on spiritual science and became highly knowledgeable in this way. Once in the court of King Janaka there was to be a debate on the spiritual sciences. Janaka let it be known that the person who knew best the science of the Absolute would receive 1000 decorated cows whose horns would be plated with gold. None of the local Brahmins competed because they were afraid they would not be up to the task.
Yajnavalkya answered questions from many scholars who approached him, setting aside all of their concerns and doubts. Then came Gargi'sturn to ask the sage whatever she wanted. She asked many different and complex questions on immortality of the soul, the arrangement of the universe, and many other topics. Finally, Gargi herself bowed to the sage and proclaimed that there was no one else who was more greatly learned in the Vedic shastras than Yajnavalkya. In this way, Gargi showed that in Vedic culture it was not unexpected for women to become greatly learned in the Vedic sciences, nor that they could not discuss such topics with wise and kindly sages, who also shared their knowledge with them. Thus, she is a luminous example of women in the Vedic tradition.
Gargi showed that in Vedic culture it was not unexpected for women to become greatly learned in the Vedic sciences, nor that they could not discuss such topics with wise and kindly sages, who also shared their knowledge with them. Thus, she is a luminous example of women in the Vedic tradition.
Savitri was the only child of Ashwapati, the King of Madradesha, as explained in the Mahabharata and Matsya Purana. He had performed austerities to please Lord Brahma and his consort, Savitri Devi, to have progeny by chanting the Savitri prayer. When a daughter arrived, he named her Savitri, and she grew to be a girl of great beauty and character, and wonderful personality and qualities. Unfortunately, her father could no find a suitable husband for her when she came of age. So he sent her to different parts of the country to find the husband she deemed fit. After some time, Savitri decided to marry Satyavana. But he was the son of Dyumatsena, who was the blind and exiled King of Shalyadesha. Because of this, they lived in the forest. Satyavana was simple but bore a countenance of royalty, which attracted Savitri.
Savitri returned to her father to relate the news, however the sage Narada Muni happened to be there and heard it and revealed that Satyavana was highly qualified but was to live for only one year longer. But Savitri had made her decision and would not marry another. So to fulfill Savitri'swish, the King arranged for a wedding.
One day, after living in the forest for a year, Satyavana went off to chop some wood as usual. Savitri had been observing penance for many months and followed him into the woods. On this day, Satyavana fell down with a headache. At that same time, Savitri saw a ferocious person approaching and recognised him as Yama, the Lord of Death, who had come to take Satyavana. After Yama had taken Satyavana, Savitri started to follow Yama. He asked her not to follow him and even promised her many boons, all but the life of her husband. Nonetheless, Savitri continued to follow him until he granted her wishes.
Savitri asked Yama for her father-in-law'seyesight to return, along with his lost kingdom. Then she asked for 100 sons for her father. All these were granted as Yama became increasingly impatient. Then she asked for 100 sons for herself as well, all of them as handsome and wise as Satyavana, to which Yama also agreed without much thought. But then he realised his mistake and had to allow Satyavana to continue with his life. Thus, by the power of Savitri'sausterity, wisdom and devotion, she conquered death for her husband and blessed her own father and father-in-law as well.