Gārgī Vācaknavī, the Eloquent Philosopher

A woman philosopher in Ancient India, and the art of debate

Will Buckingham
5 min readJul 25, 2023

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Nine female deities performing a yagna, a fire sacrifice, an old Vedic ritual where offerings are made to the god of fire, Agni. Gouache painting by an Indian artist, 19th century. Public Domain via Wellcome Collection.

Philosophical Swagger, and the Nature of Reality

The philosopher Gārgī Vācaknavī appears in the Bṛhadāraṅyaka Upaniṣad, a philosophical compilation that dates to around the seventh or the sixth century BCE, although it contains strains of material that may be much older. She is one of the earliest named women philosophers in the Indian tradition, and may have lived some time around 700 BCE. Her name Gārgī suggests she traced her lineage back to the sage Garga, and Vācaknavī means “eloquent”, coming from the word “vāc”, or speech.

We don’t have any reliable biography for Gārgī Vācaknavī. But we do have a fascinating account in the Bṛhadāraṅyaka Upaniṣad of the part she played in a palace debate about the nature of reality.

The debate was organised by King Janaka of Videha, who wanted to find out who among the scholars in his kingdom was most skilled in interpreting the Vedas, or the religious texts. To encourage the scholars to participate, King Janaka rounded up one thousand cows, tied ten pieces of gold to the horns of each cow, and offered the entire herd to the winner. But before the competition started, the cocky philosopher-sage Yājñavalkya — convinced that there was no contest — made off with the prize. Only a handful of other sages, among them Gārgī Vācaknavī, were willing to stand up to Yājñavalkya’s swagger.

Illustration of King Janaka.
Image: Illustration from the 18th century depicting king Janaka. Public Domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Weaving the World

What is fascinating about Gārgī Vācaknavī is not so much the conclusions that she draws, but the fierce style with which she goes about debating with the self-assured Yājñavalkya. She pursues her questioning, and her opponent, with a single-mindedness that still has the power to take your breath away.

Gārgī begins the debate with a question: “Since the whole world is woven back and forth on water, on what, then, is water woven back and forth?” Over in Greece, Thales might find himself agreeing with Gārgī’s starting point, that the world is ‘woven’ on water. But…

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Will Buckingham

Writer & philosopher. PhD. Stories & ideas to make the world a better place. HELLO, STRANGER (Granta 2021): BBC R4 Book of the Week. Twitter @willbuckingham