A beautiful woman walks into a bar and…
Having spent the last 37 minutes scouring the internet for appropriate endings to this joke, I can safely say there are none. Therefore:
She walks into King Janaka’s court, a gorgeous young renunciant-intellectual eager to discuss emancipation and enlightenment with a king who claims he’s always open to debates — a popular practice for kings, to encourage the patronage and lively religious debates with wandering scholars.
She’s welcomed in.
Not because she was a renunciant though, but because she was a beautiful young woman. When she dared (dared, says Janaka) to ask the king if he has attainted true enlightenment, he wasn’t happy.
This is the story of King Janaka and Sulabha, set at the end of the Hindu epic Mahabharata. When the battle has been won and the five main characters (brothers) stand in front of their dying uncle, the oldest brother thinks, oh, this is the perfect time to talk about the liberation of the soul with a dying man. So their uncle tells them the Sulabha-Janaka debate.
Are historical debates between men and women important?
Yes. Because when feminist scholars talk about women’s agency, the focus is on the angry protests of wives, of women wronged. They don’t look at their historical participation in intellectual and philosophical conversations.
For example, one of the most popular ancient debates is between a yogi called Yajnavalkya (a real mouthful there), and a woman named Gargi. It depicts how women are silenced in patriarchal society, because Yajnavalkya ends the debate by threatening Gargi’s head would fall off if she asked him more questions.
This is why Sulabha’s debate is important. Unlike Gargi, silenced by terror tactics, Sulabha silenced her competition with the truth.
She silences him by saying that there is no essential difference between men and women, besides that which is socially constructed.
The debate reflects some of the different schools of Hindu philosophy that ask: can women be autonomous? Can they be intellectually superior/equal to men? Can they attain emancipation independently?
This is why Sulabha is interesting; she appears as a sole woman scholar in texts that usually depict women in relation to the men in their lives.
But back to the story.
The gorgeous Sulabha walks into a court, challenges Janaka to a debate, and he agrees (as he should; can’t be seen backing down from a woman). Janaka starts the debate. It goes something like this:
Janaka: I am free from the vanity of kingship! Despite being king and married, I am enlightened, and will continue to praise my own spiritual lineage and achievements for the next 10 minutes like any emancipated person would. I also make the following three propositions:
What are some things Janaka is implying here?
#1: As a young and (I reiterate) beautiful woman, Sulabha is incapable of overcoming her desires for sensual pleasure to attain liberation.
#2: Women can’t be autonomous agents, only instruments under male control. When he accuses her of her wickedness for trying to prove her superiority over men, he means she’s been sent to his court to tempt him. He asks: who are you? where are you from? to whom do you belong?
Sulabha: You have said you treat friend and foe the same, and have no enemies or allies, but your hostile attitude towards me proves that you don’t really believe this, and consider women inferior. I might be young and a woman, but if you were truly liberated, you would know that we’re both essentially the same, because though our bodies are gendered, our souls/self/spirit (what she calls your atman) aren’t.
The soul is the same in every person. I am you, you are me. We are the same, though our bodies differ. Therefore, wom(x)n are equally capable of doing the same things as men.
Your soul has no fixed connection to your body (they mean that when you die, it’ll move on). If there’s no connection, it’s under no one’s control. Hence, no woman is under anyone’s control.
And that’s a wrap, folks.
But it’s important to see here that Janaka’s arguments on gender are conventional at best, and patriarchal at worst. He defines women by their association to men, and if he can’t do that, calls them “loose” or “wicked”, someone untrustworthy.
He doubts the ability of young women to conquer their desires and sense, a misogynistic attitude that says “women have uncontrollable natures”.
Though it’s important not to call yourself a superior ascetic within 15 minutes of meeting someone, the story’s also telling us that in the face of malevolence and arrogance, stay dignified and give people the truth — because they usually can’t handle it.
1. Vanita, R. (2003). The Self Is Not Gendered: Sulabha’s Debate With King Janaka. NWSA Journal. Vol. 15, №2. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Pp: 76–93.