Wednesday, February 5, 2020

On the Need to Fall Silent

“Thereupon, Gārgī Vācaknavī fell silent.”-- Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 3.6

I’m currently teaching a class called “Ancient Women Philosophers: India and Greece,” which is interesting for many reasons. I’ll get to some of those reasons in another post.

In this post I want to talk about the sage Gārgī Vācaknavī, who is one of the few women to appear in the Upaniṣads. I’m particularly interested in why she fell silent, and what I think we might learn from this today.

Gārgī appears in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad in conversation with the famous sage Yājñavalkya (BAU 3.6 and 3.8; I am using Olivelle’s 1996 translation). In their first interaction, she asks him a series of penetrating metaphysical questions about the foundation of reality. She starts with, “since this whole world is woven back and forth on water, on what, then, is water woven back and forth?” After several exchanges with Yājñavalkya, she asks, “On what, then, are the worlds of brahman woven back and forth?” Instead of answering with something even more basic, Yājñavalkya declares, “Don’t ask too many questions, Gārgī, or your head will shatter apart!”

After he explains that she is asking the wrong kinds of questions, the text says, “Thereupon, Gārgī Vācaknavī fell silent.”

What is going on here? Is Gārgī’s silence representing the fact that brahman is that which one cannot ask beyond (Lindquist 2008)? Is it that her questions are the wrong way to know about brahman, as Śaṅkara and others have argued (Raveh 2018)? Is this a violent terror tactic on the part of Yājñavalkya to keep her in her place (Vanita 2003)?

I don’t in any way want to eliminate the possibility that Gārgī is being silenced in the way that women and other marginalized people have often been silenced as a tool of their marginalization, being told to shut up and know their place. I also don’t want to deny that this kind of bad silencing has been and remains a tactic of oppression.

Yet I suspect something else may be going on in Gārgī’s case—or at least something in addition to that sort of problematic silencing. For one thing, falling silent is a common trope in the Upaniṣads. Almost every man Yājñavalkya speaks to in the chapter three of the BAU also falls silent, and the head of the man Śākalya actually does shatter apart (BAU 3.9). Yājñavalkya does not remark upon Gārgī’s gender directly; by contrast, consider King Janaka’s misogynist dismissal of the sage Sulabhā in the Mahābhārata (although she later silences him in that debate). So, what is going on here?

Perhaps a clue comes in Gārgī’s second conversation with Yājñavalkya (BAU 3.8). This time she is putting him to the test and declares that if he can answer her questions, nobody else can defeat him in debate. 

She asks a similar question concerning that on which everything is woven back and forth. There may be some humor in the fact that she asks him the same question twice after she is dissatisfied with his first answer, or rather, lack of an answer (Black 2007). The first answer after this is space, and the next answer is “the imperishable.”

Gārgī once again falls silent, but this time it seems to be a silence of satisfaction, since Yājñavalkya has answered her question and demonstrated his superiority over the other Brahmins.

I’d like to suggest that Gārgī’s first silence could be taken as a silence that allows her to turn inward to make space for her thoughts, which is demonstrated by the fact that she comes back later for another debate. The second silence may indicate that she has done what she set out to do (namely, to test Yājñavalkya), but still, I think, this leaves room for deeper thought about these fundamental metaphysical questions.

I think there is a valuable lesson here about the value of silence for philosophical thinking. Philosophical thought is often about frameworks and deeper principles, usually while inhabiting those frameworks and using those principles.

Philosophy is not merely an enterprise of finding answers via established methods and moving on. You are thinking about thinking while trying to think about questions that you have little idea how to answer. And this is hard. Really hard. As I often tell my students, if philosophy is not difficult, you’re not doing it right!

Gārgī is thinking about the fundamental nature of existence—what it could be, how we could know it, and whether we could put it into language even if we did know it. As important as philosophical debate has been and remains in India and elsewhere, you can’t always be worried about your next move in the debate. Sometimes you need to slow down and think rather than offer the first response that comes to mind.

I think this lesson could be especially important to people interacting online. There is a tendency to skim headlines, tweets, or blog posts and immediately rush to respond, but what if instead you thought silently before commenting? Often our initial gut reactions turn out to be wrong upon further reflection. A bit of silent thinking can help to sort out what to say and how to say it. It can help you to avoid misunderstanding others. It can get you immortalized in an Upaniṣad (at least that worked for Gārgī).

I will fall silent now so that you, dear readers, can think about this for yourselves.

Works Cited

Black, Brian. 2007. The Character of the Self in Ancient India: Priest, Kings, and Women in the Early Upaniṣads.  Albany: SUNY Press.

Lindquist, Steven E. 2008. “Gender at King Janaka’s Court: Women in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad Reconsidered.”  Journal of Indian Philosophy 36: 405-526.

Olivelle, Patrick.  1996.  UpaniṣadsTranslated from the Original Sanskrit by Patrick Olivelle.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Raveh, Daniel. 2018. “Silence or Silencing?: Revisiting the Gārgī-Yājñavalkya Debate in Chapter 3 of the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad.” Journal of the Indian Council of Philosophical Research 35: 159-147.

Vanita, Ruth. 2003. “The Self is Not Gendered: Sulabha’s Debate with King Janaka.” NWSA Journal 15 (2): 76-93.

Cross-listed on the Indian Philosophy Blog!

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