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Early-19th-century Sanskrit manuscript of the Rigveda. Maitreyi, an ancient Indian philosopher, was familiar with the Vedas and other sacred texts; about ten hymns in the Rigveda are attributed to her.

Maitreyi ("friendly one"[1]) was a Hindu philosopher who lived during the later Vedic period (about 1100–500 BCE) in ancient India.[2] She is mentioned in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad[3] as one of two wives of the 8th–7th-century BCE Vedic sage Yajnavalkya. In the Hindu epic Mahabharata and the Gṛhyasūtras, Maitreyi is described as an Advaita philosopher who never married.[4] In ancient Sanskrit literature, she is known as a brahmavadini (an expounder of the Veda).[5][6]

About ten hymns in the Rigveda are attributed to Maitreyi, and she explored the Hindu concept of Atman (soul or self) in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. According to this dialogue, love is driven by a person's soul; it discusses the nature of Atman and Brahman and their unity, the core of Advaita philosophy. The Maitreyi-Yajnavalkya dialogue (considered by scholars the quintessence of the Upanishads)[7] has spawned analysis, including Sureshvara's varttika (commentary).[8][9]

Maitreyi is cited as an example of the educational opportunities available to women in Vedic India, and their philosophical achievements. Symbolic of an Indian intellectual woman, a number of institutions are named in her honour.

Early life

Physical map of late Vedic India
Maitreyi, mentioned in Vedic texts, is believed to be from the Videha region of eastern India.

In the Asvalayana Gṛhyasūtra, the daughter of the sage Maitri is referred to as Sulabha Maitreyi[4] and is mentioned in the Gṛhyasūtras with several other women scholars of the Vedic era.[4] Her father, who lived in the Videhan capital of Mithila, was a minister in the court of King Janaka.[4]

Although Maitreyi is said to be a wife of the sage Yajnavalkya in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (contained in the Shatapatha Brahmana) in the time of Janaka, in the Mahabharata Sulabha Maitreyi is a young beauty who never marries.[4] In the epic, Maitreyi explains Advaita philosophy (monism) to Janaka and is described as a lifelong ascetic.[4]

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Maitreyi is described as Yajnavalkya's scholarly wife; his other wife, Katyayani, was a housewife.[10] While Yagnavalkya and Katyayani lived in contented domesticity, Maitreyi studied metaphysics and engaged in theological dialogues with her husband in addition to "making self-inquiries of introspection".[10][11]

Maitreyi-Yajnavalkya dialogue

This dialogue appears in several Hindu texts; the earliest is in chapter 2.4 and modified in chapter 4.5 of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (about 700 BCE), one of the principal (and oldest) Upanishads.[12][13] The Maitreyi-Yajnavalkya dialogue has survived in two manuscript recensions from the Madhyamdina and Kanva Vedic schools; although they have significant literary differences, they share the same philosophical theme.[9]

After Yagnavalkya achieved success in the first three stages of his life – brahmacharya (as a student), grihastha (with his family) and vanaprastha (in retirement) – he wished to pursue the accepted practice of becoming a sannyasi (a wandering ascetic) in his old age.[11][8] He asked Maitreyi for permission, telling her that he wanted to divide his assets between her and Katyayani.[14] Maitreyi said that she was not interested in wealth, since it would not make her "immortal", but wanted to learn about immortality:[14]

Then said Maitreyi: "If now, Sir, this whole earth filled with wealth were mine, would I be immortal thereby?."
"No", said Yajnavalkya. "As the life of the rich, even so would your life be. Of immortality, however, there is no hope through wealth.
Then said Maitreyi: "What should I do with that through which I may not be immortal? What you know, Sir - that, indeed, tell me!"
Yagnavalkya replied to Maitreyi: "Ah! Lo, dear as you are to us, dear is what you say! Come sit down. I will explain to you. But while I am expounding, do you seek to ponder thereon."

— Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.4.2–4, [14]

In the dialogue which follows, Yajnavalkya explains his views on immortality in Atman (soul), Brahman (ultimate reality) and their equivalence.[13] Maitreyi objects to parts of Yajnavalkya's explanation, and requests clarification.[13]

Painting of a sage and four disciples, sitting near water
Adi Shankara with his four foremost disciples, including Sureshvara; both wrote commentaries on the Maitreyi-Yajnavalkya dialogue from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.

According to some scholars, this dialogue is evidence that in ancient Indian tradition women were accepted as scholars of Brahman.[15][12] American Indologist Wendy Doniger says that in this dialogue Maitreyi is not portrayed as a theological author, but is part of an Upanishadic story of a Brahmin with two wives who are distinguished by their intellect.[16] First-millennium Indian scholars, such as Sureshvara (Suresvaracharya, c. 750 CE), interpret the dialogue as profound on both sides; Maitreyi refuses wealth, wishing to share her husband's spiritual knowledge, and in the four known versions of the Upanishadic story she challenges Yajnavalkya's theory of Ātman.[9][17] In his varttika (commentary) Brihadaranyakopanishadbhashyavarttika, Sureshvara (an eighth-century disciple of Hindu philosopher Adi Shankara) discusses his guru's bhashya (also a commentary) on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad – including the Matreyi-Yajnavalkya dialogue.[18] Sureshvara wrote,

Yajnavalkya: "Unable to endure separation from me, as it were, owing to your great love for me, you wish to follow me even in liberation with the full desire of being one with me. Carried away by great love, Uma occupied half of Shiva body. But you, on your part, wish to secure the whole of me, the Atman, by your whole self.

— Brihadaranyakopanishadbhashyavarttika 68–69, [19]

In his bhashya, Adi Shankara notes that the purpose of the Maitreyi-Yajnavalkya dialogue in chapter 2.4 of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is to explain that renunciation is a way to attain knowledge of Ātman and Brahman and to understand their unity.[20] According to Shankara, the dialogue is repeated in chapter 4.5 as a "logical finale" to the discussion of Brahman in the Upanishad.[21]

Nature of love

The Maitreyi-Yagnavalkya dialogue includes a discussion of love and the essence of whom one loves, suggesting that love is a connection of the soul and the universal self (related to an individual):[22][23]

Lo, verily, not for love of the husband is a husband dear, but for the love of the soul (Ātman) a husband dear. Not for the love of the wife is a wife dear, but for love of the Soul a wife is dear.

— Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.4.2–4, [13]

According to theological author and editor Robert Van De Weyer, this asserts that all love is a reflection of one's own soul: parents' love of their children, a love of religion or of the entire world.[24] German Indologist and Oxford University professor Max Müller says that the love described in the Maitreyi-Yajnavalkya dialogue of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad extends to all aspects of one's life and beyond; in verse 2.4.5, "The Devas (gods) are not dear to one out of love for gods, but because one may love the Self (Soul, Ātman) that the gods are dear".[25] In the dialogue "the Brahman-class, the Kshatra-class, these worlds, these gods, these beings, everything that is what this Soul is", and when "we see, hear, perceive and know the Self, then all is known".[13][25]

Concluding his dialogue on the "inner-self", or soul (Ātman), Yagnavalkaya tells Maitreyi:[12]

One should indeed see, hear, understand and meditate over the Self (soul), O Maitreyi; indeed, he who has seen, heard, reflected and understood the Self – by him alone the whole world comes to be known.

— Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.4.5b, [26]

In Weyer's interpretation, soul is the dominant aspect which requires introspection and meditation (aiding the appreciation of existence).[24]

After Yagnavalkya renounces his previous life, Maitreyi also becomes a sanyassini. She wanders, living on alms and spreading her spiritual knowledge to the people. Maitreyi is credited with composing the Maitreyi Upanishad.[27]


Maitreyi, mentioned in a number of Puranas, "is regarded as one of the most learned and virtuous women of ancient India"[28] and symbolizes intellectual women in India.[16] She has a college in New Delhi named after her,[5] and the Matreyi Vedic Village is a retreat location in Tamil Nadu.[29]


  1. Staal 2008, p. 3.
  2. Bowen 1998, p. 59.
  3. Olivelle 2008, p. 140.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 John Muir, Metrical Translations from Sanskrit Writers, p. 251, at Google Books, page 251–253
  5. 5.0 5.1 Ahuja 2011, p. 39.
  6. 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" (Ultimate Reality). It does not mean "one who speaks like God".
  7. Hino 1991, p. 4.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Hino 1991, pp. 94–95.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Brereton 2006, pp. 323–345.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Pechilis 2004, pp. 11–15.
  11. 11.0 11.1 John Muir, Metrical Translations from Sanskrit Writers, p. 251, at Google Books, page 246–251
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Marvelly 2011, p. 43.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 Hume 1967, pp. 98–102, 146–148.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Hume 1967, pp. 98–99.
  15. Majumdar 1977, p. 90.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Doniger 2010, p. 187.
  17. Hino 1991, pp. 99–107.
  18. Hino 1991, pp. vii, 4–5, 8.
  19. Hino 1991, p. 106.
  20. Hino 1991, pp. 5–6, 94.
  21. Hino 1991, p. 5.
  22. Majumdar 1977, p. 204.
  23. Candrakīrti & Lang 2003, p. 52.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Weyer 2013, p. 60.
  25. 25.0 25.1 Brihadaranyaka Upanishad Max Muller (Translator), Oxford University Press, page 110
  26. Deussen 2010, p. 435.
  27. Yogeeswara Yagnavalkya. "Yagnavalkya's Marriages and His Later Life". Shukla Yajurveda. Shuklayajurveda Organization. Archived from the original on 2 April 2015. Retrieved 2 April 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. Geaves 2009, p. 484.
  29. "An Eco-Spiritual Retreat". Maitreyi - The Vedic Village. Retrieved 11 December 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


Further reading

External links