Episode 10 -Yagnavalkya in King Janaka's Symposium - Debate with Gargi Vachaknavi


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By Arghya Goswami. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

Hello my dear listeners, hope you all are enjoying Yagnavalkya’s debates in the courtroom of King Janaka. We heard how he defeated Ashwala and Arthabhaaga in part 1, then silenced Bhujyu, Usasta and Kahola in part 2. Part 3 is an important episode as it perhaps describes one of the most celebrated debates in the history of the Upanishads. Brihaadaaranyaka Upanishad has recorded this glorious and engaging debate beautifully. This part celebrates our Ancient India’s one of greatest Rishika, and women scholars Gargi Vaachaknavi. So I welcome you all to a great episode in which we will listen to the debates between Gargi and Yagnavalkya and how he stood his ground with his responses. Now I take you all to the courtroom where king Janaka’s symposium was taking place. The symposium was filled with learned men and women debating on the Brahman. During the debate, Kahola lost to Yaagnavalkya. After his defeat, he sat down at his place. Yagnavalkya looked at the members of the symposium. They all were awestruck and wondered how could Yagnavalkya defeat such great scholars on the other. His vision and philosophy on Brahman were astonishing. Yagnavalkya smiled and joined his hands and was about to take leave when he was interrupted by Gargi Vaachakanavi.

She stood up and greeted Yagnavalkya with folded hands. Yagnavalkya was quite surprised to see a woman challenging him as he never expected to be challenged by a woman! He greeted her back and walked towards her. Gargi asked him - “Yagnavalkya, as you explained to Kahola and Usasta that ‘all is pervaded by water, then tell me, who pervades water?”

Yagnavalkya smiled and replied - “O Gargi, my salutations to you for asking such an interesting question! I think water is pervaded by air!” Here in this question, Gargi had asked about the 5 elements or panchabhuta. Prithvi or Earth is the first element of panchabhuta which is pervaded by “Apas”, which is Water. Water is pervaded by Agni or Fire, Agni is pervaded by Vayu or Air and Vayu is pervaded by Aakaasha or Space or Cosmos. Yagnavalkya was well versed on these hierarchical connections of these 5 elements. He very well knew that Earth was pervaded by Water. He knew about -“kham vayur jyotiraphah prithivi vishvasya dharini’ which means - the universe is borne (supported) by space (Kham), air (vayu), fire (jyoti), water (apah) and earth (prithivi). These elements reconnect us with the nature outside of us and help us to connect to our inner Self.Also it is important to understand that Gargi had a presumption that every effect is impregnated by its cause just like the threads woven in a cloth, lengthwise which is called “warp” and breadthwise which is called “woof”, the limited by the unlimited and the gross by the subtle. For an example a “clay pot” which is an effect pervaded by its cause which is “clay”. That means only because of “clay”, the “clay pot” was formed. Similarly in the hierarchy of Panchabhuta, the “earth” is an effect which is pervaded by its cause which is “water”, “Water” which is an effect is pervaded by its cause which is “Fire”. The “Fire” which is the effect which is pervaded by its cause the “Air”. The “Air” which is an effect is pervaded by its cause which is the “Space”! The Space is causeless and infinite. The Space doesn’t have any beginning or end. It is limitless, boundary less and infinite. Friends don’t you think, this concept is actually a combination of various theories such as the “Big Bang”, “origin of earth” and other related theories on how earth was formed. A Belgian priest named “Georges Lemaitre” first suggested the “Big-bang” theory in 1920s, when he theorised that Universe began from a single primordial Atom. As per Scientific American, the Hubble’s law points to a “big-bang” 13.7 billion years ago! An article in the National Geographic states that in the first 10^-43 seconds of its existence, the universe was very compact, less than a million billion billionth the size of a single atom. Then it went through cosmic inflation, and after the inflation as the time passed by, the matter cooled and diverse kind of particles began to form and eventually they condensed to form the stars and galaxies including our earth! By the time the universe was billionth of a second old, the universe had cooled down enough for the four fundamental forces to separate from one another. The universe’s fundamental particles were formed, but still very hot and these particles condense. Until 180 million years after the big bang, it took for gravity to gather clouds of hydrogen and form stars. The hydrogen helped the stars to get ignited. Our Sun was born in this manner. The Earth along with other planets is believed to be born 4.5 billion years ago, as the solidified cloud of dust and gases left over from the creation of the star named the “Sun”. Due to the radioactive decay, gradually the earth heated. The iron and silicates formed the core of the earth over the period of many thousands of years. The earth surface was like a bubbling and exploding volcanoes and flowing red hot lava. As the earth’s core became stable, the water in the rocks and particles formed stream and came out of volcanoes as giant clouds that cooled and rained. Some water also came from comets as they crashed and melted, they produced some more water. As the earth’s temperature cooled down further the gases and vapours condensed to form water droplets and started to rain. The rain fell for centuries and water bodies such as oceans were formed and the earth was covered in water. From the water only few volcanic peaks were exposed. Due to movement of tectonic plates and volcanic activities, rock was formed. Thus earth was formed. Now don’t we find it similar to the cause and effect theory of panchabhuta as mentioned in the Upanishads? The Aakaasha, the space is the cause for Vayu or Air, in this context, the mixture of gases such as hydrogen and oxygen. These gases aided to ignite the stars and fire or Agni was formed. So Air was the cause for Fire. Due to Fire, heat was generated and resulted in formation of water vapours and finally it fell down as rains to form Water. So fire was the cause of water and due to earth quakes and tectonic shifts of plates under water, the rocks emerged and land masses were formed that means earth was formed. So Water becomes the cause of Earth. Interesting isn’t it?

However in his response Yagnavalkya said that “Water” is pervaded by “air” instead of Fire. It would be objectionable response, however he clarified that Fire cannot be independently manifested like other elements as it must take help of other elements such as water and earth. As fire requires air or gases such as Oxygen and Hydrogen to lit so Air becomes its cause. So replied it as Air rather than fire. Now continuing our story further...Gargi without wasting any moment asked him her next question - “What is Air pervaded by Yagnavalkya?”

Based on the hierarchical connections of panchabhuta, Yagnavalkya immediately replied - “Air is pervaded by Space or Antariksha, O Gargi!”

Gargi smiled as she knew that was a straight response to a direct question. Then she asked - “O scholar, what pervades Space or Antariksha?”

This was a tricky question, Yagnavalkya closed his eyes and thought for a while, with extreme calmness he replied -“ Antariksha is pervaded by the world of Gandharvas!”In the modern scientific context, the “World of Gandharvas” can be related to the cosmic dance of our solar system and how it was formed from the residue of the Sun.

Gargi immediately asked -“Then tell me what is the world of Gandharvas pervaded by?”

Yagnavalkya replied - “By Sun!” First, the stars were formed. Our sun is a star which was born first and from the remains and residue of the sun, the solar system was born. So Sun was the cause of the formation of the solar system. Gargi asked again - “By what is Sun pervaded?”

Yagnavalkya firmly replied “By moon!”As per the Appollo Missions Giant impact theory is most widely accepted theory of formation of moon. Before the earth or moon, there was proto earth and Theia and eventually these two bodies collided. Due to this massive impact, nearly all of the proto-earth and Theia melted and reformed as one body, with a small part of a new mass spinning off to become a moon. Gargi continued -“then by what is Moon pervaded?”

Yagnavalkya continued his response - “By Stars” It is well known fact that after big bang, stars were first formed.

“What pervades the Stars, o scholar Yagnavalkya?” Asked Gargi.

“By the world of gods!” replied YagnavalkyaThe gods in Indian Vedic texts were mostly elements such as Varuna or Water, Agni or fire. They were the basic building blocks of universe.

Gargi asked again -“What is world of gods pervaded by?”

Yagnavalkya immediately replied - “By the world of Indra!”As per the Vedic text Indra was the king of gods, so Yagnavalkya said that world of gods is pervaded by world of Indra.

Gargi continued her barrage of questions. She asked -“What pervades the world of Indra?”

Yagnavalkya replied -“By the world of Viraaj.”Friends, Viraaj is one of the 12 manifestations of Brahman. It is the sum of all manifestations emerge from Hiranyagarbha or Golden Cosmic Egg. Viraaj is the ego-sense or body sense of Hiranyaagarbha and is the ruler of all material manifestations. The Upanishads state that In the beginning of each creation, Hiranyagarbha mixes the five great elements, namely space, air, fire, water, and earth in the same order to project Viraj, the universal body. The elements first appear in their subtle forms and later in their gross form. Then he mixes them in different proportions to create the diversity, consisting of millions of macrocosms, fourteen worlds specific to (each of the macrocosms) and globular gross bodies fit for each world. All that is called Viraj, the being ness or the Universal Body of the Lord. Viraj is the materialized form of Ishvara Brahman who contains Hiranyagarbha as his Cosmic Soul. Gargi smiled and asked again - “What pervades the world of Viraaj?”

Yagnavalya replied -“By the world of Hiranyagarbha!” Hiraanyaagarbha is the golden cosmic egg, perhaps the single primordial atom as stated in the big bang theory! In Vedic terms, it emerges out of Ishvara as a projection or expansion into the quality of rajas. He is the cosmic Self, who represents Ishvara's creative potency and soul consciousness. Vedas depict Hiraayaagarbha as Brahma the God of Creation. All the worlds and beings are either his children or projections. Just similar to what is explained in the Big Bang Theory.

Then Gargi again asked “By what is the world of Hiranyagarbha pervaded ?”

Yagnavalkya stopped Gargi immediately and said -“Stop! Dont ask too many questions else your head will fall off! You are questioning about something that should not be reasoned about!” This series of questions and answers between these two ancient Indian scholars revolved about the elements composing the universe! To understand these texts further, we must know that the implication, is that the cause, the subtle and unlimited is woven like warp and woof of a cloth, in the effect, the gross and the limited and that cause always pervades the effects. However, this cannot be extended to everything as a point will come where there is no other cause. That point is causeless as the only cause of entire Universe is Brahman, which is the source of all. We still dont know what created the primordial single atom which caused the big bang! That primordial single atom is causeless, so Hiraanyaagarbha is also causeless. Hence Gargi’s question asked of the effects which were pervaded by some cause, till the point we come to the Self, which is within all! All objects below the Self consist of Panchabhuta. Self is the only Truth of Truth! The Truth is the Pancha Bhuta or 5 elements and Truth of Truth is the Supreme Self or Brahman, which is within all! The cause of Hiranyagarbha cannot be determined by logic. It's beyond any reasoning. Brahman is the Cause of Everything! Since Gargi was pushing Yagnavalkya to know the cause of supreme cause, Yagnavalkya stopped her and warned her as it is causeless.

Friends as a matter of fact, Gargi’s debate is mentioned across two sections of chapter 3 of Brihaadaaranyaka Upanishad. In the section VI Gargi was told to be quiet after she inquired about the causes of Brahman. Then Uddaalaka challenged Yagnavalkya in section VII of chapter 3. After Yagnavalkya’s triumph over Uddaalaka, Gargi challenged him again in section VIII. For this podcast we’ll keep it more convenient and easy to understand, we have decided to club the debates between Gargi and Yagnavalkya featured in sections VI and VIII into one so that it becomes more understandable.

All scholars and learned men and women in the symposium were frustrated as they were unable to defeat Yagnavalkya in debate on Brahman. Uddalaka’s defeat had brought in an atmosphere of agreement that Yagnavalkya is the rightful owner of the cows and gold coins. Suddenly Gargi got up again. Everyone in the symposium looked at her. She again greeted Yagnavalkya and announced -“I, Gargi, daughter of Vaachaknavi, seek permission from all the scholars and brahmins in the room to ask Yagnavalkya two questions! If he answers them satisfactorily then none of you can ever beat him in describing Brahman!”Hearing such bold statements from a rishika was quite surprising for the learned men in the courtroom. They felt bit ashamed and a bit insulted. However, they were all helpless as many of them failed to defeat Yagnavalkya in the debate on Brahman. They all agreed and permitted her. Then she turned towards Yagnavalkya, and said to him -“Just like a warrior from Kashi or Videha who would string an unstrung bow along with two arrows which when shot at the enemy can bestow terribly painful blows! Similarly, I stand in front of you, O great scholar Yagnavalkya with two questions, which are as sharp as those two arrows. If you are the knower of Brahman then you must answer me!”

Curious Yagnavalkya said -“Ask O Gargi”Gargi was glad to receive the great scholar’s permission. She asked -“Yagnavalkya, by what is that pervaded, which is above the heaven and below the earth, which is that which is in between heaven and earth, and which they say was.. in the past, is… in the present and will be… in the future?”What Gargi’s question meant was, what is that which is above the heaven which is the upper half of the cosmic shell and below the earth, which is the lower half of the cosmic shell? What is in between these two halves of the cosmic shells and which we know by the authority of the scriptures was in the past, is present in the current moment and will be doing its function in the future as well. Which is that which is described as all this, in which, the whole universe is unified!

Yagnavalkya replied - “It is space O Gargi! !! Aakashey Tadotam cha Protam cha!!It is the space which is above the heaven and below the earth, it is the space which is in between this heaven and earth. It is this space which was in the past, which is in the present and will be in the future. It is the space which the only truth of origin, continuance and dissolution.” This response from Yagnavalkya, pleased Gargi. She with folded hands greeted the scholar and said - “I bow to you O great Yagnavalkya, you have answered my first question! Now here’s my next question!”Pleased Yagnavalkya said - “Ask O Gargi! I am waiting for your next question!”Gargi asked -“O Yagnavalkya, by what is Unmanifested Space pervaded?”Yagnavalkya immediately replied - “O Gargi, the knowers of Brahman say, that is that what you have asked!”Gargi smiled, and asked - “Then tell me what is that immutable… which the knowers of Brahman speak of?”

Yagnavalkya referred his answers to the knowers of Brahman so that whatever he responds will not be contested or challenged by anyone. He continues -“It is the changeless and immutable Brahman! It is neither complete nor it is incomplete! It is neither short nor long! It is not of red color or any other color! It is neither shadow nor darkness! Then,… is it air? No it is not air,.. then it may be the space… but it is not space either! It is neither sticky or attached nor it is unattached! Neither it is savor nor it is odor. It is without eyes as he sees without eyes nor he has ears as he hears without ears! It is not vocal and does not have a mind! It is non-luminous and has no lustre like fire, nor without the praana the vital force of the body. It doesn’t have a mouth or opening, It is not a measure, It is not porous! It is without interior or exterior. It does not eat anything, or is eaten by anybody! It is devoid of all attributes, qualities or parameters for it is one only without a second, so what is that… which cannot be described, which has no attributes?”Yagnavalkya continued - “O Gargi, due to the mighty rule of this changeless Brahman, the Sun and moon follows its routine and hold their positions. Due to the mighty rule of this immutable Brahman, the heaven and the earth maintain their positions. Due to this mighty rule, the moments, muhurtas, days, nights, fortnights, months, seasons and years held in their respectable places, under this rule, some rivers such as Ganga, Yamuna flow eastwards from the snow cladded mountains of Himalayas and others such as Indus flows westward in its own course, notwithstanding their power to do otherwise they remain in their own course. O Gargi, under the mighty rule of this Immutable, learned men praise those who give gifts in personal sacrifices or in charity, during sacrifices or yagna, the gods also praise those who provide then sacrifices, and the ancestors praise them when they offer them water or tarpan. “O Gargi, here is another reason for the existence of the Immutable, because until one knows it, one is bound to suffer transmigration and that must exist the knowledge of which puts a stop to it for this is but logical. Who in this world, without knowing this Immutable, will offer oblations in the fire during sacrifices, perform sacrificial rituals and undergo austerities even for many thousands years and performs all these acts but yet is perishable? Who departs from this world without knowing the immutable Brahman is miserable, and the one who departs from this world after knowing this Immutable Brahman is a Brahmin or the knower of Brahman.”O Gargi, this immutable Brahman cannot be seen by anyone as it is the vision itself! It is never heard but it is the hearer. It is never thought by anyone as it is the Thinker. It is never known by anyone as it is the Knower! There is no other vision, no other Hearer, no other Thinker, no other Knower as this is the Immutable Brahman which is the unmanifested space itself. The Brahman is immediate and direct, which is the self within all and is beyond the relative attributes of hunger and by which the unmanifested space is pervaded. It is the extreme limit, the ultimate goal, the Supreme Brahman which is Truth of Truth which begins with Earth and ends in Space or Ether.”

Gargi smiled after listening to his response of Yagnavalkya. With folded hands she turned towards the learned men and scholars participating in the symposium and said - “O revered brahmins and scholars, you should never hope of defeating great scholar Yagnavalkya in the debate about Brahman! None of you shall be able to beat him in describing the Brahman.”After this, she sat down at her place!

That was part 3 of the story of Yagnavalkya and his participation in King Janaka’s symposium. Yagnavalkya and Gargi were ancient Vedic India, prominent scholars. I will have a special episode just on Yagnavalkya and Gargi Vaachaknavi in the future.


The Concept, Script, Narration and Audio Design: Arghya Goswami

Co-narrated by : Jiniya Goswami


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