Page 23 - ScienceIndia Magazine March 2021
P. 23

Women’s Quest
For Truth: India’s
Enviable Legacy
They might have had certain societal problems over the ages, but women of science have shone bright through the centuries
 n Dr Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar
Women suffrage and gender equality became a preemi- nent topic of discussion and debate in Europe in the Age of Enlight- enment, the 18th century. The battle for obtaining equal voting rights, with suffragettes such as Susan B. Anthony, Isabella Baumfree, Mary McLeod Bet- hune, Daisy Elizabeth Adams Lampkin, Alice Paul, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Lucretia Mott, Amelia Bloomer, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lydia Becker, Millicent Garret Fawcett, Emmeline Pankhurst, Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe, was a long and sustained one, which eventu- ally 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 West- ern countries.
Historically, the presence of women in social, political, educational, tech- nological 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 the 19th and 20th century women scientists or women of science like Rupa Bai Furdoonji, Mary Poonen Lukose, Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi, Kadambini Ganguly, Janaki Am- mal, Kamala Sohonie, Asima Chatter- jee, 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 BC – 600 BC) saw impositions of parochial ideas on women, such as those seen in the Ar- thashastra (wherein Kautilya mentioned that the main responsibility of women was to get married and bear children), moving into the Sultanate and Mughal period, women enjoyed a prestigious position in the early Vedic period (2000 BC – 1000 BC), with famous personali- ties like Gargi Vachaknavi, Lilavati and
Maitreyi mentioned in textual evidences, including in the Vedas and Upanishads, which highlight their expertise in respec- tive fields.
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 con- temporary male sages in her knowledge. According to Brihadaranyaka Upani- shad, King Janaka of Videha held a Raja- suya Yajna and invited all learned seers, sages, princes and kings of India to par- ticipate. The galaxy of scholars included Gargi Vachaknavi and the renowned sage Yajnavalkya. Eight renowned sages who challenged the latter for a debate included Gargi. The exchange between Yajnavalkya and Gargi centred on the question of the basic foundation or mate- rial that comprises reality. Their initial dialogue was on metaphysics, with dis- cussions 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 think- ing and questioning was seen when she

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