Maitreyi was a philosopher from ancient India who lived during the Vedic period (c. 1750 – 500 BCE). She was the second wife of the sage and philosopher, Yajnavalkya, the first being Katyaayanee. Maitreyi had deep knowledge of the Vedas and associated scriptures of the Upanishads and was called a brahmavadini, an "expounder of the Vedas". About ten hymns in the Rigveda are accredited to Maitreyi. She was a spiritual person dedicated to the worship of God. Her admiration and wholehearted support boosted Yajnavalkya's spiritual knowledge. Her goal in life was to acquire from Yajnavalkya his treasure trove of knowledge and secrets, and attain the stage of kundalini – that is, to awaken her spiritual energy. She was highly revered as one of the few women scholars of the Vedic period able to discuss the highest spiritual truths of life.
Maitreyi was the daughter of the sage Mitra who lived in Mithila as a minister in the court of King Janaka. In the early years of her life she was raised by her aunt Gargi Vachaknavi who was herself a renowned Vedic scholar and a natural philosopher. This interaction attuned Maitreyi's mind to the theological subjects of the Vedas, Upanishads and other scriptures.
Noting her niece's keen interest in theology, Gargi took her along to witness a conclave of scholars arranged by King Janaka who was a religious and scholarly king. Yagnavalkya's magnum opus, the Shukla Yajurveda, was proposed to be recited and discussed in this meeting of elite philosophers of the country. The deliberations in the conference lasted for several days, and Gargi was one of the scholars who questioned Yagnavalkya extensively on aspects of the soul and immortality. Following the deliberations, Yagnavalkya was praised by all sages for his erudite scholarship of the Vedas. The Shukla Yajurveda was accepted as a sacred text worthy of emulation, and Yagnavalka was also declared a Maharishi. Maitreyi, who witnessed all the adulation showered on Yagnavalkya, was happy and wanted to be his disciple. She wished to live with him as a spiritual partner and become proficient in the knowledge of Brahman through the rigorous process of Vedic learning.
However, Maitreyi was in a dilemma as she did not want to enter into a marital relationship with Yagnavalkya, which would require her to perform the wifely duties of bearing children and providing for the family's material comforts. On the other hand if she, an unmarried 18 year old, became his companion this would cause an unwarranted scandal. Furthermore, as Yagnavalkya was already married to Katyaayanee, it was not certain at all whether he would consent to a second marriage with her. Maitreyi decided to approach Katyaayanee directly and seek her permission to become a companion to Yagnavlakaya to acquire spiritual knowledge. She promised Katyaayanee that she would only be a celibate spiritual companion to perform sadhana or spiritual development, and be a younger sister to her. After Katyaayanee consented, Maitreyi approached Yagnavalkya with her proposal and requested that he accept her as his second companion. Just as Yagnavalkya was saying that his wife Katyaayanee had the final word in the matter, Katyaayanee walked in and gave her consent.
Maitreyi and Yagnavalkya, along with Katyaayanee, lived a happy domestic life. Maitreyi continuously acquired knowledge of metaphysical subjects and was in constant dialogue with her husband, "making self-inquiries of introspection". However, Yagnavalkya persuaded Maitreyi to involve herself in the rigours of being a housewife and to go through the essential cycle of grahasthasrama (family life) that a wife should abide by.
After Yagnavalkya had achieved success in the first three stages of his life – brahmacharya, the life of a student; grihastha, family life; and vanaprastha, the life of a forest dweller – in his old age he wished to conform to the accepted practice of renouncing his current life and becoming a sanyasi (wandering ascetic). He therefore asked permission from his wife Maitreyi to do so. He told her that he would make a settlement of all his assets between her and his first wife Katyaayanee. An intellectual conversation ensued between them. The dialogue between them, which is part of the text of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, establishes the fact that women enjoyed the role of teachers of Brahman in their own right, and reads as follows:
Maitreyi asked Yagnavalkya: "My lord, if this whole earth, full of wealth belonged to me, tell me, should I be immortal by it?" "No," replied Yagnavalkya. And Maitreyi then asked him "What should I do with that by which I become immortal? What my lord knoweth of immortality, tell that to me."
Yagnavalkya replied to Maitreyi: "Though who art truly dear to me, thou speakest dear words. Come, sit down, I will explain it to thee, and mark well what I say."
Yagnavalkya then gave a profoundly philosophical lecture to Maitreyi, expounding aspects of the doctrine of the universal self and its relationship to the individual. Initially he told Maitreyi:
One holds a husband dear, you see, not out of love for the husband, rather it is out of love for oneself (ātman) that one holds a husband dear. One holds a wife dear not out of love for the wife rather it is out of love for oneself that one holds the wife dear.
In his concluding words expounding on the aspect of the "inner-self" or soul (Ātman), Yagnavalkaya told Maitreyi:
Lo, verily, it is the Soul that should be hearkened to, that should be pondered on, O Maitreyi. Lo, verily, with the seeing of, with the hearkening to, with the thinking of, and with the understanding of the Soul, this world-all is known.
On the above aspect of their conversation, Megasthenes, a Greek ethnographer and explorer in the Hellenistic period who was the author of the work Indica, observed that during a time when Brahamanas did not disseminate the knowledge of philosophy to their consorts, the equal relationship between Yagnavalkya and Maitreyi was an exception.
At the conclusion of the discussion, after Yagnavalkya had renounced his current life, Maitreyi also decided to lead the life of an ascetic, though she did not adhere to a prescribed code for sanyasis. She wandered around, living on alms and charity, and spread her spiritual knowledge among the people. She also composed a piece of theological scripture, an Upanishad which is known as the Maitreyi Upanishad.
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- The Sanskrit term brahmavadini means a female brahmavadi. According to Monier-Williams's Sanskrit-English Dictionary, brahmavādín means "discoursing on sacred texts, a defender or expounder of the Veda, one who asserts that all things are to be identified with Brahman". It does not mean "one who speaks like God".
- Maguire 2003, p. 135.
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- Litent 2014, p. 12.
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