Stories in ancient Indian scriptures, legends and myths include a good number of women and instances when they bested the men in the battle of wits. The one readily coming to our mind is Savitri retrieving her husband from the jaws of certain death defeating Yama. And there was Gargi (800 BCE) questioning Yajnavalkya, the first philosopher in the Upanishads, Draupadi in Mahabaratha arguing her case like an attorney when she was dragged to the court of Duryodhana…While ancient text of Rig Veda, it’s said, mentions some twenty 20+ poetesses, the Sangam literature in the south is not far behind with 25+ poetesses living in its time 2000 years ago! One of the best known poetess Avvaiyar was bold enough to challenge the powerful Tamil kings. More recently, some 800 years ago(!), there was Lilavati, the renowned mathematician and astronomer Bhaskaracharya II’s daughter, teaching her father’s students math and astronomy and earning so much recognition to even get her own gurukul.
This morning I heard this delightful story on TV told by Shri Anantapadmanabha Swamy, an eminent scholar associated with Ahobila Mutt. Did not readily find any reference in Google in a cursory search except for one site Tamil and Vedas already known to me as an inexhaustible storehouse of information of this kind. The story here on Arundhati, the wife of Sage Vasishta, is drawn from these two sources, using some parts of text verbatim from the latter:
On one occasion, Vasishta had to perform a shrardha, a ritual dedicated to one’s forefathers (a practice followed by many even today though not with the originally prescribed austerity and rigor), mothers included.
As part of the ritual, a few guests are invited to participate and are provided, at the completion, with meals based on a prescribed menu allowing for a certain latitude. Acting symbolically as forefathers themselves, these guests are special, required to observe diligently certain austerities before and after the shrardha to preserve its sanctity.
And poor Vasishta searched high and low and yet wasn’t successful in finding the right person. As a last resort he approached Sage Vishwamitra who had a long-running feud with the former.
Vishwamitra heard him out and gladly agreed to be a guest on one condition. And, what was the condition? He must be served 1008, yes, 1008 side-dishes! Impossible to satisfy! Vasishta returned to his ashram crest fallen not knowing what next.
Arundhati gently inquired what had happened. Vasishta sadly admitted to his inability to find a right person, finally his request to Vishwamitra and how the latter did not make it easy, stipulating an impossible condition for his presence during the ritual.
Thence she assured her husband there was no cause to worry and asked him to invite the rishi stating his condition was acceptable. After all what could be better than having the great Sage Vishwamitra at the shrardha! But how? Vasishta felt quite apprehensive for the rishi was not one to be trifled with – on finding his condition not met, he was sure to fly into uncontrollable rage and cast some abominable curse on both of them. Nevertheless, faced with no alternative, he went ahead and invited the rishi agreeing to his strange condition.
On the day of shrardha, Vishwamitra came and sat at the dining place. To his chagrin he saw only 10+ curries on the plate (plantain leaf). When he angrily questioned, Vasishta, directed him to Arundhati as she was in charge of the ceremony.
Wondering (audibly) if the venerable sage did not know or pretending not to know what the shastra’s (rule-books) said in this regard, Arundhati responded citing a relevant shloka (couplet):
कारवल्लि शांत चैव वज्र वल्लि शतत्रयं
पनसं षट् शतंचैव श्रार्धकाले विधीयते
Kaaravalli satam chaiva vajra valli satatrayam
Panasam shat satam chaiva sraardhakaalE VidhiiyatE
Meaning: “Karela/bitter gourd served on the occasion of a shrardha is equal to 100 items, pirandai equal to 300 items and jack fruit equal to 600 items – thus is the rule set out for the ceremony.”
Pirandai (Cissus quadrangularis)
Jack Fruit (Panasam)
She had served these three vegetable dishes along with 8 more items on the plate. So it came to 1008 items!
There wasn’t much of a counter left for Vishwamitra to say or do but go along to complete the meal and the ritual.
Sources: tamilandvedas.com/2014/06/09/arundhati-wins-vishwamitra-defeated/ and neevmagazine.co.in/lilavati-the-mathematician/