First women of philosophy


A prince and attendants visiting a noble yogini at an Ashram. Murshidabad sub-style, c1765. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Philosophy was once a woman’s world, ranging across Asia, Africa and Latin America. It’s time to reclaim that lost realm

‘I rise to challenge you, Yajnavalkya, with two questions, much as a fierce warrior … stringing his unstrung bow and taking two deadly arrows in his hand, would rise to challenge an enemy. Give me answers to them!’ With these daring words, Gargi Vachaknavi, a Vedic female sage, launched into philosophical debate with Yajnavalkya, the semi-legendary philosopher king and the greatest sage of his day. She repeatedly confronts him with existential questions about the fundamental ontology of the world: what is it that holds the Universe together? Yajnavalkya eventually proclaims it to be ‘the imperishable [and] on this very imperishable, Gargi, space is woven back and forth’. Vachaknavi is satisfied, and she declares to the other Brahmins: ‘You should consider yourself lucky if you escape from this man by merely paying him your respects. None of you will ever defeat him in a philosophical debate.’

The story of Vachaknavi’s debate is from chapter three of the oldest of the Upanishads, the B?ihadara?yaka, a diverse and complex Sanskrit text on metaphysics and ethics from about 700 BCE. Vachaknavi is one of the many ‘hidden figures’ of women in the history of philosophy in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America – what is often called the Global South. Philosophers today increasingly recognise the contributions that female philosophers have made to the history of European philosophy, such as Elisabeth of Bohemia, Margaret Cavendish and Anne Conway in the 17th century. (Indeed, the new Oxford University Press series Oxford New Histories of Philosophy might revolutionise how we look upon the history of philosophy.) But beyond Europe, female philosophers in general continue to get short shrift, and their contributions go largely unrecognised.

Vachaknavi is not the only female thinker that helped to shape the world’s oldest philosophy. Already in chapter two of the Upanishad, it is a woman, Maitreyi, who launches a discussion on the importance of one’s self (atman) to gain ‘the knowledge of this whole world’. She begins by asking Yajnavalkya (often described as her husband, but better thought of as her philosophical companion) a basic existential question of human beings: ‘If I were to possess the entire world filled with wealth, would it make me immortal?’ When he denies this, Maitreyi asks rhetorically: ‘What is the point in getting something that will not make me immortal?’ With that, the first foundation stone for the investigation of the relationship of knowledge to materialism is laid.

And then there is Sulabha, an ascetic Yogic wanderer, who wins a lengthy philosophical debate against the philosopher king Janaka in the epic Mahabharata (4th century BCE-4th century CE). The king goes quiet after Sulabha sets the record straight: ‘My body is different from yours. But my soul is not different from your soul.’

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