Learning from Gārgī’s Silence

Gargi Vacaknavi

“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-posted to my personal blog.

18 Replies to “Learning from Gārgī’s Silence”

  1. Thanks for the post. It seems to me a.) that silence is a necessary pre-requisite for the metaphysician as (s)he attempts to climb the upper echelons of meta-philosophical thought and b.) that she has not reached the end of the road, instead her thought is being re-directed to a place where language loses its descriptive signification. Did not Wittgenstein also demand silence for “[w]hat we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”?

    • Thank you for the comment. I considered including that Wittgenstein quote, but I decided to keep things focused on the Upaniṣads. There is definitely a sense in this chapter that the type of thought or experience they’re getting at is in some sense beyond language. Or at least there comes a point where language is no longer helpful. So maybe Gārgī is actually demonstrating her understanding through her silence?

    • Wittgenstein prefaced his Tractatus with the following:

      “…and whatever a man knows, whatever is not mere rumbling and roaring that he has heard, can be said in three words.”

      To earn a living by teaching philosophy, it is necessary to pretend that the rant and gossip is more than it is. Moreover, it is necessary to promote it as something of value.

  2. Thinking necessitates and thereby reinforces the false dichotomy between thinker and thought which leads to solipsism, the nonsensical yet fundamental philosophy of almost everyone although they will not admit it (even to themselves).

    In that situation, all attempts to gain philosophical understanding are futile because those who deceive themselves are incapable of understanding anything except language (which they substitute for reality and hence philosophy). Consequently, whereas they believe they are philosophizing they are only playing word games.

    Many academic “philosophers” earn their living in that way and their utterances are best described as self-promotion rather than philosophy. Their actual motivation isn’t understanding but self-deceit (the most foolish of follies) which they hope to achieve by deceiving others. Obviously, to the extent that they succeed, the result isn’t philosophy but its opposite.

    • Thanks for the fascinating comment. I think some of this may depend on what one means by “thinking.” If it is an inherently dualistic, linguistic, self-promoting thing, then yes, this all follows. I have some sympathy for this view, actually. But even then maybe what Gārgī is getting at is that you need thinking in this sense to get at the type of experience she and Yājñavalkya are trying to reach, like maybe a step in the right direction.

      On the other hand, it seems at least possible to me that “thinking” could include a different kind of mental activity. Maybe “contemplation” is a better word for what I’m trying to get at? I mean something like this: when the mind slows down and something clicks into place in a deeper sense of full understanding. I think about the first time I really understood difficult philosophical views like causal determinism or for that matter, what non-dual experience might be like.

      Now, this still probably isn’t exactly the type of non-dual experience that may be the goal in chapter 3 of the BAU. Or it maybe it is — I find the Upaniṣads themselves extremely subject to interpretation. To me this is what makes these texts so fascinating and philosophically rich. For instance, in this post I wasn’t so much trying to give a definitive interpretation of these passages, but more to suggest possible contemporary connections for understanding how to understand the practice of philosophy.

      • I venture to suggest that, for most people, “thinking” is inherently dualistic, linguistic and motivated by self-interest. Insofar as that is correct, their “thinking” buries them more deeply in solipsism which is antithetical to philosophical understanding. In most cases, if you observe someone “thinking”, nonsense of some description is probably imminent.

  3. Hi Ethan! Incedentally I am writing recently an article in Bengali for which I have to get through the Dialogue about Brahma in Upanisad – the Gargi Jajnabalkya celebrated exchange..
    Though the questions seem to be still meaningful to me, many of Jajnabalkya’s answers doesn’t make much sense to me.
    How should a modern reader judge the epistemic content of these 3000 years old discourses?
    What do you think? Should we take all the answers in their face value?
    What if Jajnabalkya would have been replaced by some modern Neurologist or even a Buddhist like Nagarjuna ?

    • Thank you! Good luck with your article!

      The Upaniṣads are fascinating texts, but they aren’t easy to understand. The age of the texts creates difficulty, of course, but it also seems like maybe these sections are trying to use language to explain something that is difficult or impossible to adequately describe in language. Maybe this is also part of why silence is part of it.

      That’s an interesting question about neurology or Nagarjuna. There is some interesting work on consciousness these days that looks at Advaita and the Upaniṣads. I’m not super familiar with this work, but there are some great articles in a book called Self? No Self? edited by Evan Thompson, Dan Zahavi, and Mark Siderits.

      As for Nagarjuna, he also plays with language and what can be said, but of course as a Buddhist is not going to accept anything like ātman/brahman. But I do think the proper end of his reasoning in the MMK is silence, maybe even a deeper mental silence rather just not speaking.

      Thank you and good luck!

  4. Thank you Professor for this interesting comment on Gargi’s silence necessitated by the sharp remark by Yajnavalkya. The problem to my mind, after considering some of the conjectural positions which you have already mentioned, is the question of knowing Brahman/ the Self as well as the presupposition of its knowability. Every kind of cognition involves conceptual thinking and thought necessarily means relationality, which I would call, subject-object predicatability. In a radical sense, some of the Upanishads say that such a frame work is not amenable when one thinks about Brahman.In other words the conceptual logic required in any cognitive activity should be amenable to nature of the reality/subject in question. The Kathopansihad discusses this in detail. At the same time as speaking animals and thinking persons we should look for a justifiable framework to posit a meaningful discourse on reality/self/atman-brahman. On my view, the celebrated Mandukya Upanishad provides this when it speaks about the Self as the four-footed/chatuspad. It denotes the fourfold nature of the Self/Brahman, ie, the waking mode (jagruta), the dream mode (svapna), the deep sleep mode (sushupti) and the turiya (the fourth) mode. These modes are not exclusive binaries but rather a kind of interweaving symbiosis. Ramchandra Gandhi, one of the contemporary Indian philosophers, used to remark: one should learn to be silent sneakingly and tone speaking silently! ( I apologise for not putting diacritical marks on the transliterated Sanskrit words).

    • I am sorry for the typos in my earlier post. The last couple of lines should read as follows:
      Ramchandra Gandhi, one of the contemporary Indian philosophers, used to remark: one should learn to be speaking silently and be silent speakingly!’

      • Thank you for the comment!

        Given the evidence in the BAU and other Upaniṣads, something like direct, non-linguistic insight could be taken as the ultimate goal. But the Upaniṣads themselves are made up of words, and I think maybe the thinking I’m talking about (in my words!) is at the very least a kind of thinking is needed to prepare one for that kind of experience. Otherwise, what is the point of the Upaniṣads themselves? I don’t think Gārgī is necessarily going right from this silence to ultimate insight, but maybe she’s doing the prepatory thinking needed to get there.

        So, in other words (words again!), I think it’s a bit too simple to suggest that Gārgī’s silence simply equals some kind of direct, ineffable experience. I still think you need some space for thought before that can happen. Otherwise, I don’t really see the point of the whole sequence of Gārgī’s thoughts as recorded. After all, she’s not talking about how to experience brahman, but what it is. I also don’t see the text saying anything about her actually having this experience. So, it makes more sense, I think, that she’s still thinking quietly and maybe getting to some kind of direct experience later.

        In any case, my point was more to see what sorts of general lessons for philosophy we might draw from this text rather than giving anything like a detailed exegesis, much less one from a specific interpretive position (like Advaita, which would involve a non-dualist interpretation of this experience).

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