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3 Ancient Feminist Icons Who Created Ripples In The World Of Science And Mathematics!

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Women suffragette and gender equality became a preeminent topic of discussion and debate in Europe in the Age of Enlightenment, in the eighteenth century. The battle for obtaining equal voting rights, with suffragettes such as Susan B. Anthony, Isabella Baumfree, Mary McLeod Bethune, 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.

This eventually 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 Western countries. Historically, the presence of women in social, political, educational, technological 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 19th and 20th-century women scientists or women of science like Rupa Bai Furdoonji, Mary Poonen Lukose, Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi, Kadambini Ganguly, Janaki Ammal, Kamala Sohonie, Asima Chatterjee, 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 Arthashastra (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 personalities like Gargi Vachaknavi, Lilavati and Maitreyi mentioned in textual evidence, including in the Vedas and Upanishads, where them being adept and experts in their respective fields being highlighted.

Gargi Vachaknavi.

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 contemporary male sages in her knowledge. According to Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, King Janaka of Videha held a Rajasuya Yagna and invited all the learned seers, sages, princes and kings of India to participate.

 The galaxy of scholars included Gargi Vachaknavi and the renowned sage Yajnavalkya. Eight renowned sages challenged the latter for a debate, including Gargi. The exchange between Yajnavalkya and Gargi centred on the question of the basic foundation or material that comprises reality. Their initial dialogue was on metaphysics, with discussions 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 thinking and questioning was seen when she asked him

सा होवाच यदूर्ध्वं याज्ञवल्क्य दिवो यदवाक्पृथिव्या यदन्तरा द्यावापृथिवी इमे यद्भूतं च भवच्च भविष्यच्चेत्याचक्षते कस्मिंस्तदोतं च प्रोतं चेति ॥

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3.8.3

where she asks Yajnavalkya about what is that which pervades ‘above the heavens, below the earth and in between the two (heaven and earth) about which they say it was, is and will be (exist)’. She also asks about what is it upon which the ‘world is woven back and forth’.

This question related to a then-commonly known cosmological metaphor that expressed the unity of the world and the inherent interconnectedness of its constituents, across scales. She continues with a number of questions on the Universe, the stars and the Sun and the moon. Realizing the depths from which she was composing her questions and comments, one can understand her knowledge and wisdom. Yoga Yajnavalkya, a classical text on Yoga, is also on a dialogue between Gargi and Yajnavalkya.

Gargi, as Brahmavadini, composed several hymns in the Rig Veda that questioned the origin of all existence. 

Gargi was honoured as one of the Navaratnas (nine gems) in the court of King Janaka of Mithila.

More on the lines of philosophy and metaphysics, another Brahmavadini named Sulabha discussed the truth of entities, in what she called Atmatattva or the ‘essence of the self’, saying that any physical body is formed by the combination of animate and inanimate substances filled with Mithyajnana or ‘false identification/knowledge’. According to her, once the unity of this Atmatattva is understood, the diversity is dissolved and then Sva (self) and Para (others) cease to exist.

Lilavati

A variant of Lilavati’s swarm problem by Bhaskar.

In the world of mathematics, the name of Lilavati comes to the fore. She is said to have been the daughter of the renowned mathematician Bhaskaracharya.

There is a story around how Bhaskaracharya suggested her to pursue mathematics when she faced a struggle in life after her husband’s untimely demise. Bhaskaracharya’s most famous book, Lilavati, written for his contains various interesting algebraic poems, as a mark of recognizing Lilavati’s taste for higher mathematics. A famous poem from this seminal work is on Lilavati’s swarm:

A fifth part of a swarm of bees came to rest on the flower of Kadamba,

a third on the flower of Silinda.

Three times the difference between these two numbers

flew over a flower of Krutaja,

and one bee alone remained in the air,

attracted by the perfume of a jasmine in bloom.

Tell me, beautiful girl, how many bees were in the swarm?

If we assign the number of bees as the unknown variable, we can compose the problem in terms of a linear equation and solve the problem to see that there are 15 bees in Lilavati’s swarm. It is said that Lilavati was as much an active collaborator with her father as the subject of many of his mathematical verses.

Varahamihira And Khana

Another father-daughter pair that made ripples in the world of science and mathematics is that of Varahamihira and Khana, albeit the latter was the former’s daughter-in-law and their area of expertise was astronomy.

The story of Khana (Khona) is popular in Bengal and eastern parts of India, and she is believed to have lived during the 5th century AD. Varahamihira, a key member of the royal court of King Chandragupta II Vikramaditya, was a great mathematician and astronomer. He wrote the seminal works Pañcasiddhāntikā and Brihat Samhita. There is a story that one day, Varahamihira returned home bothered, apparently since the King had wanted to know the number of stars in the sky and Varahamihira was unable to answer it. Khana was said to have solved the problem, and Varahamihira shared the answer with the king back at court.

These are some of the anecdotes and accounts of the preeminent place that women had in advancing science and mathematics, along with metaphysics and philosophy, in ancient India. Even as we move into the next chapter in the existence of this beautiful and ancient land called India, may we always cherish the achievements of these Bharatiya women. As Mark Twain said, “India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grandmother of tradition.”

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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