Maitreyi was a Vedic philosopher from ancient India. 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 Upanishads and was called brahmavadini or "an expounder of the Veda". About ten hymns in Rig Veda are accredited to Maitreyi. She was not only spiritual but also dedicated to worship of God. Her admiration and whole hearted 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 (awaken her spiritual energy). She was one of the few women of the Vedic period, a highly revered scholar, who espoused the spiritual truths of life.
Maitreyi was the daughter of sage Mitra who lived in Mithila as a minister in the court of King Janaka. In the initial years of her life she was groomed by her aunt Gargi who was a renowned Vedic scholar and a natural philosopher. This interaction fired the mental frame work of Maitreyi to the theological subjects of the Vedas, Upanishads and the scriptures.
Noting her niece's keen interest in theology, Gargi took her along to witness in a conclave of scholars arranged by King Janaka who was a religiously oriented king and a scholarly person. Yagnavalkya’s magnum opus, the Shukla Yajurveda, was proposed to be recited and discussed in this conclave 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 soul and immortality. Following the deliberations, Yagnavalkya was praised by all sages for his erudite scholarship of the Vedas and accepted his Shukla Yajurveda as a sacred text worthy of emulation, and Yagnavalka was also declared a Maharishi. Maitreyi who was witness to all the adulation showered on Yagnavalkya was happy and she wanted to be his disciple and live with him as a spiritual partner and become proficient in the knowledge of Brahman through rigorous process of Vedic learning.
Maitreyi was in a dilemma as she did not want to enter into marital relationship with Yagnavalkya to go through the house wifely duties of bearing children and aspiring for material comforts. The dilemma was that being his companion, as an unmarried 18 year old beautiful girl would generate unwarranted scandals. As Yagnavalkya was already married to Katyaayanee it was not certain whether at all he would consent for a second marriage with her. Maitreyi then decided to directly approach Katyaayanee and seek her permission to allow her to be a companion to Yagnavlakaya to acquire spiritual knowledge. When she met Katyaayanee, seeking her permission for the alliance, she promised her that she would only be a celibate spiritual companion to do sadhana or spiritual development, and be in the role of her younger sister. After Katyaayanee gave her consent, Maitreyi approached Yagnavalkya with her proposal and requested him to accept her as his second companion. As Yagnavalkya was expressing his view that his wife Katyaayanee has the final word in the matter, Katyaayanee walked in and gave her consent.
Maitreyi and Yagnavalkya, along with Katyaayanee lived a happy domestic life. But Maitreyi continued to acquire knowledge of metaphysical subjects and was in constant dialogue with her husband “making self-inquiries of introspection”. However, Yagnavalkya persuaded Maitreyi to get involved with the rigours of a housewife and to go through the essential cycle of grahasthasrama (family life) that a wife should abide by.
In the last stages of his life, Yagnavalkya after achieving success through the first three stages of life (brahmacharya, a student; grihastha or family life and vanaprastha or life of forest dweller), conforming to an accepted practice, wanted to renounce his life and become a sanyasi (a wandering ascetic), asked his wife Maitreyi's permission to do so. He told her that he would make a settlement of all his assets between her and his first wife Katyaayanee who was a housewife. An intellectual conversation ensued between them. The dialogue between them, which is part of the text in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad establishes the fact that women enjoyed the role of teachers of Brahman in their own right, and reads:
Maitreyi tells 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’s 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, reasoning on the aspect of the doctrine of universal self and its relationship to the Individual. Initially he tells Maitreyi:
|“||One holds a husband dear, you see, not out of love for the husband, rather it is out of love for oneself (atman) 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 Soul (Atman), Yagnavalkaya tells 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, author of the work Indika) has observed that during a time when Brahamanas did not disseminate the knowledge of philosophy to their consorts, the equation between Yagnavalkya and Maitreyi was an exception.
At the conclusion of the discussion, after Yagnavalkya renounced his life, Maitreyi also decided to lead the life of an ascetic, though not attired in a prescribed code for sanyasis. She wandered around living on alms and charities and spread her spiritual knowledge among people. She also composed a theological scripture, an Upanishad, which is known as Maitreyi Upanishad.
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- The Sanskrit text brahmavadini is the female of 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 doesn't means "one who speaks like God".
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