A panegyric on ancient Indian women in the quest for truth

Unlike the West, the presence of women pioneers in science and mathematics in India across the ages has always been substantial.

A panegyric on ancient Indian women in the quest for truth

Women suffragette and gender equality became a preeminent topic of discussion and debate in Europe in the Age of Enlightenment, in the eighteenth century. The battle for obtaining equal voting rights, with suffragettes such as Susan B. Anthony, Isabella Baumfree, Mary McLeod Bethune, Amelia Bloomer, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Emmeline Pankhurst, Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe, was a long and sustained one, which eventually led to women in the West and across the world obtaining rights similar to that of men, with women getting equal voting rights around 1902-1920 in Western countries. Historically the presence of women in social, political, educational, technological and scientific fields remains mostly marginal, but there remains one shining light in this entire discussion: that of the presence of women pioneers in science and technology in India, across the ages. While 19th and 20th-century women scientists or women of science like Rupa Bai Furdoonji, Mary Poonen Lukose, Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi, Kadambini Ganguly, Janaki Ammal, Kamala Sohonie, Asima Chatterjee, Rajeshwari Chatterjee and Kalpana Chawla are worth noting, it is the world of ancient Indian women of science and mathematics that I would like to look at, in this article. While the onset of the late Vedic and Itihasa period (1000 BCE – 600 BCE) saw impositions of parochial ideas on women, such as those seen in the Arthashastra (wherein Kautilya mentioned that the main responsibility of women was to get married and bear children, women enjoyed a prestigious position in the early Vedic period (2000 BCE – 1000 BCE), with famous personalities like Gargi Vachaknavi, Lilavati and Maitreyi mentioned in textual evidence, including in the Vedas and Upanishads, where them being adept and experts in their respective fields being highlighted.

Gargi Vachaknavi is regarded as one of the most renowned Indian sages of the Vedic age. She mastered Hindu scriptures and Itihasa and studied Vedic philosophy, surpassing many of her contemporary male sages in her knowledge. According to Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, King Janaka of Videha held a Rajasuya Yagna and invited all the learned seers, sages, princes and kings of India to participate. The galaxy of scholars included Gargi Vachaknavi and the renowned sage Yajnavalkya. Eight renowned sages challenged the latter for a debate, including Gargi. The exchange between Yajnavalkya and Gargi centred on the question of the basic foundation or material that comprises reality. Their initial dialogue was on metaphysics, with discussions on the essence of reality, at an abstract rather than any instantiated or worldly level. She then probed him on the environment existing in the world and how existence itself originated. However, the crescendo in her thinking and questioning was seen when she asked him

सा होवाच यदूर्ध्वंयाज्ञवल्क्य दिवो यदवाक्पृथिव्या यदन्तराद्यावापृथिवी इमे यद्भूतं चभवच्च भविष्यच्चेत्याचक्षते कस्मिंस्तदोतं च प्रोतं चेति॥ (Brhd. Upan. 3.8.3)

where she asks Yajnavalkya about what is that which pervades ‘above the heavens, below the earth and in between the two (heaven and earth) about which they say it was, is and will be (exist)’. She also asks about what is it upon which the ‘world is woven back and forth’. This question related to a then-commonly known cosmological metaphor that expressed the unity of the world and the inherent interconnectedness of its constituents, across scales. She continues with a number of questions on the Universe, the stars and the Sun and the moon. Realizing the depths from which she was composing her questions and comments, one can understand her knowledge and wisdom. Yoga Yajnavalkya, a classical text on Yoga, is also on a dialogue between Gargi and Yajnavalkya. Gargi, as Brahmavadini, composed several hymns in the Rig Veda that questioned the origin of all existence. Gargi was honoured as one of the Navaratnas (nine gems) in the court of King Janaka of Mithila. More on the lines of philosophy and metaphysics, another Brahmavadini named Sulabha discussed the truth of entities, in what she called Atmatattva or the ‘essence of the self’, saying that any physical body is formed by the combination of animate and inanimate substances filled with Mithyajnana or ‘false identification/knowledge’. According to her, once the unity of this Atmatattva is understood, the diversity is dissolved and then Sva (self) and Para (others) cease to exist.

In the world of mathematics, the name of Lilavati comes to the fore. She is said to have been the daughter of the renowned mathematician Bhaskaracharya. There is a story around how Bhaskaracharya suggested she pursue mathematics when she faced a struggle in life after her husband’s untimely demise. Bhaskaracharya’s most famous book, Lilavati, written for his contains various interesting algebraic poems, as a mark of recognizing Lilavati’s taste for higher mathematics. A famous poem from this seminal work is on Lilavati’s swarm:

A fifth part of a swarm of bees came to rest on the flower of Kadamba, 

a third on the flower of Silinda. 

Three times the difference between these two numbers 

flew over a flower of Krutaja, 

and one bee alone remained in the air, 

attracted by the perfume of a jasmine in bloom. 

Tell me, beautiful girl, how many bees were in the swarm? 

If we assign the number of bees as the unknown variable, we can compose the problem in terms of a linear equation and solve the problem to see that there are 15 bees in Lilavati’s swarm. It is said that Lilavati was as much an active collaborator with her father as the subject of many of his mathematical verses. Another father-daughter pair that made ripples in the world of science and mathematics is that of Varahamihira and Khana, albeit the latter was the former’s daughter-in-law and their area of expertise was astronomy. The story of Khana (Khona) is popular in Bengal and eastern parts of India, and she is believed to have lived during the 5th century CE. Varahamihira, a key member of the royal court of King Chandragupta II Vikramaditya, was a great mathematician and astronomer. He wrote the seminal works Pañcasiddhāntikā and Brihat Samhita. There is a story that one day, Varahamihira returned home bothered, apparently since the King had wanted to know the number of stars in the sky and Varahamihira was unable to answer it. Khana was said to have solved the problem, and Varahamihira shared the answer with the king back at court.

These are some of the anecdotes and accounts of the preeminent place that women had in advancing science and mathematics, along with metaphysics and philosophy, in ancient India. Even as we move into the next chapter in the existence of this beautiful and ancient land called India, may we always cherish the achievements of these Bharatiya women. As Mark Twain said,

“India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grandmother of tradition.”

About Author: Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar

Dr. Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar is a postdoctoral Fellow at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, and a research associate of Prof. Brian Josephson (Nobel Laureate in Physics, 1973) at Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge, working on unification physics. He completed his PhD at the age of 25 from Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge. He is also a science communicator, who has worked with Doordarshan in the past. He is a regular columnist in The Organiser, Opindia, Swaraj and Youth Ki Awaaz. He was a 35 under 35 UK-India Youth Leader in 2018.

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