A traditional Sanskrit exhortation runs thus:
Ahalya Draupadi Kunti Tara Mandodari tatha
panchakanya svaranityam mahapataka nashaka
“Remembering ever the virgins five –
Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara and Mandodari
Destroys the greatest sins.”
Two things strike us in this verse: the epithet kanya (virgin, maiden), not nari(woman); and the unusual combination of names that redeem the sinner from transgressions, howsoever grievous. There is another traditional verse celebrating fivesatis, chaste wives: Sati, Sita, Savitri, Damayanti and Arundhati. Are then Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara and Mandodari not chaste wives because each has “known” a man, or more than one, other than her husband? If so, why should invoking them be extolled as redeeming? Moreover, why is the intriguing term kanya applied to them?
Of this group, three – Ahalya, Tara, Mandodari – belong to Ramayana, the epic composed by Valmiki, the first seer-poet. Draupadi and Kunti are celebrated inMahabharata, Harivamsa and the Markandeya, Devi Bhagavata and BhagavataPuranas.
The first point to keep in mind is that Valmiki and Vyasa’s great compositions are designated as kavya, truth perceived by a kavi, seer-poet. Hence, in evaluating the characters they have created, it is necessary to probe consciously beneath the surface reality to reach the eternal verities on which these are founded. Further, when an exhortation such as this has been handed down over a millennium, it cannot be dismissed as a meaningless conundrum. In the context of the powerful wave of feminism sweeping in from the West, we particularly need to comprehend what is sought to be conveyed through this intriguing verse.
The name Ahalya itself has a double meaning: one who is flawless; also, one who has not been ploughed, i.e. a virgin. According to the myth of her origin [Ramayana: Uttarakanda, 30], having created this flawless beauty from what was unique and loveliest in all creatures, Brahma handed her over to the sage Gautama for safe custody. After a long time, presumably when she had reached maturity, Gautama handed her back to the Creator, who was so pleased with the sage’s self-restraint that he gifted Ahalya to him as his spouse. Indra, lord of the gods, enamored of her beauty, had presumed that this loveliest of women was meant for him and resented that a forest-dwelling ascetic should become her spouse. In the Adikanda.48 Vishvamitra states that, assuming Gautama’s form in his absence, Indra approached her saying, “Those craving coitus cannot wait till the fertile period. I crave union, slim-waisted one!” (48.18). Ahalya, despite knowing the disguised sage to be Indra, out of curiosity, kutuhalat – the same impulse that impels Kunti to summon Surya – consented to grant him sexual favors. Thereafter, she told Indra, “I am gratified. Now leave this place quickly, best of gods! Protect yourself and me from Gautama in every way” (48.21). As he was departing, Gautama returned. By the curse that followed, Indra’s testicles fell off. Ahalya was condemned to perform penance in that terrible forest, hidden from all, fasting, subsisting on air, sleeping in ashes, tormented by guilt. Gautama ordained that by offering hospitality to Rama she would be purified of delusion and greed. Then, restored to her pristine form, she would rejoin Gautama (48.29-32).
The Adikanda account is typically frank regarding Ahalya’s conscious choice to satisfy her curiosity. The sole beautiful woman in creation, she is the eternal feminine responding characteristically to the ardent, urgent, direct sexual advances of the ruler of heaven who presents such a dazzling contrast to her ascetic, aged, forest-dwelling husband. Mortal woman welcomes the intimate touch of heaven’s immortal, driven by an irrepressible curiosity for varied and unusual experiences and a willingness to take risks for this that marks the feminine.
It is a fine instance of the interlinking of the anima and the animus. Ahalya is attracted to Indra precisely because she projects her animus on to him. For Indra, Ahalya is the anima personified because she is creation’s loveliest mortal woman. This is a mutually reinforcing irresistible mutual attraction. Although prior to this encounter Ahalya has already had a son, Shatananda, by Gautama yet her womanhood remained unfulfilled. The kanya is not just mother but also beloved and this aspect had not been actualized in her relationship with Gautama. As the first kanya not born of woman, she has the courage to respond to the call of her inner urge, but is unable to challenge the sentence pronounced by patriarchal society.
The Uttarakanda version is exculpatory, as is only to be expected in a later addition to the epic. Agastya states that, infuriated at Brahma gifting Ahalya to Gautama, Indra raped her and was cursed with imprisonment by Ravana’s son Meghanad, having to bear half the guilt of every act of rape and lose all peace of mind. As for Ahalya, so far she had been the only beautiful female, but henceforth she would lose her uniqueness and other lovely women would be born. Hence, men fall in love with different women, projecting the anima on to them. When Ahalya protested that she could not recognize the disguised Indra and was not guilty of willful wickedness, Gautama prescribed that he would take her back but only after Rama had purified her. We witness here a male backlash that condemns the woman as soiled even though she may not be at fault.
The Kathasaritsagara version provides a clue to the psychological condition of Ahalya. On Gautama’s return, Indra fled in the form of a cat. By the curse, Indra’s whole body was covered with marks of the vulva that he had coveted. In response to the sage’s enquiry about who had been in the cottage, Ahalya dissimulated by saying that it was a majjara (Prakrit for ‘cat’ or ‘my lover’). Thereupon, she was punished by being turned to stone.
The social ostracism and the consequential psychological trauma are reflected in the symbol of petrifaction. It is not a physical transformation as in a fairy tale. This is a psychological trauma in which the oppressive guilt virtually throttles the vital spirit. Ahalya becomes a living automaton, denying her emotions, feelings and self-respect and shunned by all.
Even as mother she finds no fulfillment, for Shatananda abandons her in the forest despite referring to her as renowned (“mama mata yashasvini”, Adikanda 51.4-5). Rama regards her as blameless, inviolate, as her name connotes. When he and Lakshmana touch her feet in salutation, this recognition restores her self-respect and her status in society, so that she truly lives again.
Vishvamitra repeatedly refers to her as mahabhaga, most virtuous and noble. Valmiki’s description of Ahalya as Rama sees her needs to be noted (my translation):
The Creator, it seems,
with utmost care
had perfected this form
Like a tongue of flame
Like the full moon’s glory
Like blinding sunlight
mirrored in water. (Adikanda 14-15)
It is the nobility of her character, her extraordinary beauty and the fact of being chronologically the first kanya that places Ahalya at the head of the five virgin maidens. In the eyes of Vishvamitra, the mighty rebel rishi, who proved that akshatriya can transform himself into the greatest of seers and presented the world theGayatri mantra, Ahalya was not a fallen woman. She had been true to her independent nature, fulfilling her womanhood in a manner that she found appropriate, although unable to assert herself finally. Is Ahalya a failed kanya?
In this unique type of sexual encounter with non-husbands, that is neither rape nor adultery, lies the key to the mystery of the five ‘virgin’ maidens.
Tara, wife of Bali, the next kanya we meet in Ramayana is a woman of unusual intelligence, foresight and self-confidence. When Sugriva comes to challenge Bali for the second time, she warns him against responding, pointing out that appearances are deceptive, for normally no contestant returns to the field so soon after being soundly thrashed. Moreover, she has heard that Rama has befriended him. By brushing aside her wise warning, Bali walks into Rama’s arrow. To ensure that her son Angada is not deprived of his father’s throne, Tara becomes her brother-in-law Sugriva’s consort. When Lakshmana storms into the inner apartments of Kishkindha, it is Tara whom the terrified Sugriva sends to tackle this rage-incarnate. Approaching Lakshmana with intoxicated eyes half-closed and unsteady gait, lovely, slim and unashamed Tara effectively disarms him. She gently reprimands him for being unaware of lust’s overwhelming power which overthrows the most ascetic of sages, whereas Sugriva is a mere vanara. When he abuses Sugriva, Tara fearlessly intervenes, pointing out that the rebuke is unjustified and details all the efforts already made to gather an army. Once again, as when tendering advice to Bali, Tara shows her superb ability to marshal information. Thus, she acts as Sugriva’s shield while ensuring that her son Angada is made the crown-prince.
It is with Mandodari, the last kanya portrayed by Valmiki, that we face a problem. There is hardly anything special that Valmiki has written about her except that she warns her husband to return Sita and has enough influence to prevent his raping her. Further, like Tara, she accepts her husband’s enemy and brother as spouse, either at Rama’s behest or because it was the custom among the non-Aryans for the new ruler to wed the enthroned queen. The Adbhut Ramayana provides some more insight. Here we find Mandodari violating Ravana’s injunction not to drink from a pot in which he has stored blood gathered from ascetics. By doing what she felt moved to do, Mandodari shows she is not her husband’s shadow. The consequence is that she becomes pregnant, and, like Kunti in the future, discards the new-born female infant in a far-off place. That place happens to be the field which Janaka ploughs to discover the orphan Sita. In this light it is not surprising that Hanumana mistakes Mandodari for Sita in Ravana’s palace!
Tara and Mandodari are parallels. Both offer sound advice to their husbands who recklessly reject it and suffer the ultimate consequence. Then both deliberately accept as their spouse the younger brother-in-law responsible for the deaths of their husbands. Thereby, they are able to keep the kingdom strong and prosperous as allies of Ayodhya, and continue to have a say in governance. Tara and Mandodari can never be described as shadows of such strong personalities as Bali and Ravana.
In Mahabharata, Draupadi and Kunti are not only closely related to each other as daughter-in-law and mother-in-law, but are also parallels. Shura of the Vrishnis gifts his daughter Pritha, when just a child, to his childless friend Kuntibhoja. We find this rankling deep within her, voiced pointedly after the Kurukshetra war while confessing about Karna’s birth. She finds no mother as she grows up in Kuntibhoja’s apartments and is handed over, in teenage, to the vagaries of the eccentric, irascible sage Durvasa. Her foster father warns that should she displease the sage, it will dishonor his clan as well as her own. Well endowed, as her name Pritha connotes, she was strikingly lovely, for Kuntibhoja exhorts her not to neglect any service out of pride in her beauty. Later, four gods and one mortal respond with alacrity to her invitation. The abdication of responsibility by Shura and Kuntibhoja results in the birth of Karna, of which they remain blissfully unaware.
Kunti, like Ahalya, is curious. She wishes to test whether Durvasa’s boon really works. Perceiving a radiant being in the rising sun (referred to in Chhandogya Upanishad too), she invites him, using the mantra. Surya, like Indra, will not return unsatisfied. He cajoles and browbeats the nubile maiden, assuring her of unimpaired virginity and threatens to consume the kingdom if denied. Mingled desire and fear overpower Kunti’s reluctance and she stipulates that the son thus born must be like his father.
Kshirodeprasad Bidyabinode struck home in his Bengali play Nara Narayana (1926) with his succinct yet ever so profound description of this encounter put on Karna’s lips:
“a maiden’s misstep – a god’s prurient curiosity,
aa virgin’s curiosity and his shameless lust.” – IV. 3 (my translation)
Kunti wins two boons from the encounter: her own virgo intacta and special powers for her son. In this she is remarkably akin to her grandmother-in-law, Satyavati, to Madhavi, daughter of Yayati, the Lunar dynast, and to the Yadava Bhanumati who, too, has Durvasa’s boon that, if raped, she will regain her virgin status.
As the adolescent dark fisher-girl Kali (later known as Satyavati) plies the boat across the dark river Yamuna with her lone passenger, the sage Parashara, he presses her to satisfy his desires. Finding him importunate and afraid that he might upset the boat in midstream, she agrees on two conditions: her virginity shall remain unimpaired and the disgusting fishy body-odour must be removed. Thus Matsyagandha turns Yojanagandha-Gandhakali and to captivate, later, Shantanu, king of Hastinapura.
She is like an early queen of his dynasty, illegitimate Shakuntala with an apsara for mother, who insisted before giving in to Dushyanta’s importunate advances that only the offspring of their union would inherit the throne. Once again that promise is extorted. Because so little is written about Satyavati in the epic, it is worthwhile taking a closer look at the version in the Devi Bhagavata Purana (II.2.1-36).
When Parashara grasps her right hand, Kali smiles, ever so much in control, so mature, and says (my translation):
“What you are about to do,
does it befit your ancestry,
your ascesis or the scriptures?
Your family name is spotless;
of Vashishtha’s clan are you.
Hence, O dharma-knower,
what is this you wish,
enslaved by desire?
Best of Brahmanas!
Rare is human birth on earth.
Specially rare in men
is Brahmin birth.
Best of twice-born! You are
O Indra among Brahmanas,
you notice my body fish-odorous, yet
why do un-aryan feelings in you arise?
O twice-born! I doubt not
your wisdom is most prescient.
But what auspicious marks
in my body do you see that
you crave to possess me?
Does desire so possess you that
your own dharma you forget?
So saying , she mused:
“Oh! mad to possess me
this dvija has lost his senses.
He’ll upset the boat and drown.
He’s desperate, his heart
pierced by desire’s five arrows;
none can prevent him.”
Musing thus, the girl told the great sage,
“Great one, be patient
till we reach the other bank.”
Suta said, Parashara heeded her well-meant advice. Her hand he let go and sat quiet.
But reaching the other side
the sage, desire-tormented,
seized Matsyagandha again
for intercourse. Quivering,
annoyed, she spoke to the sage before her:
“O best of sages! My body stinks.
Can’t you sense it? Making love
ought to delight both equally.”
As she spoke, in a flash she turned
Yojanagandha, lovely, beautiful.
Making his beloved musk-fragrant
enchanting, the sage, desire-tormented,
seized her right hand.
Then, auspicious Satyavati,
told the sage bent on coitus,
“From the bank all people
and my father can see us.
It is daylight.
Such beastly conduct
doesn’t please me.
It disgusts me.
Hence, O best of sages,
wait till nightfall.
Coitus is prescribed for men
only at night, not at daytime.
it’s grievous sin;
brings great disrepute.
Grant this desire of mine, wise one.”
Finding her words logical,
the generous sage at once
shrouded all in mist by his powers.
As the mist arose,
deep darkness shrouded the bank.
Then the desirable woman
spoke to the sage in dulcet tones:
“I’m a virgin, O tiger among twice-born.
Enjoying me, you’ll depart where you will.
But infallible is your seed, O Brahmana.
What of me? If today I’m pregnant
What shall I tell my father?
When, enjoying me, you leave,
what shall I do? Tell me!”
Parashara said, “Beloved, today
having delighted me,
you shall again be virgin.
Yet, woman, if you fear,
ask what boon you will.”
Satyavati said, “Best of twice-born,
you ever honor others.
Act that my father
nor anyone knows anything.
Act that my virgin status
is not destroyed.
May your son be like you,
May my body be
May my youth be
forever fresh, ever new.”
Assuring her of her son’s fame as arranger of the Vedas and author of the Puranas, Parashara swoops upon the consenting maiden. Having sated himself, the sage bathes in the Yamuna and leaves, never to have any contact with her again.
The remarkable character of this fisher-girl emerges from this interaction. Though she has just reached puberty, she is not overawed by a sage, howsoever famous he might be. Instead, she reads him quite a lesson in propriety, resisting his advances with remarkable presence of mind. Noticing his violent passion, she takes care not to refuse him outright, lest in forcing her he should capsize the boat. She buys time till they reach land, hoping his passion will have cooled by then. Reaching the other shore, she voices her irritation and disgust at his animal lust and draws attention to her own repulsive body-odor more than once. With a maturity and frankness that astonishes us even at the beginning of the twenty first century, she points out that coitus ought to be mutually enjoyable. Even after becoming musk-fragrant she does not give in, objecting to beastly coupling in daylight in public. Once again the sage bows to the logic of her arguments and shrouds all in a mist. Yet she does not give in and raises the ultimate objection: what will be her status when he has deflowered her and departed? No one will point a finger at the high-caste sage, but what about her? With a maturity that is astounding for a pubescent, uneducated girl, she harbours no illusions that the sage might wed her. Hence, she obtains assurances of regaining her virgin status and the fame of the illegitimate offspring. Only after these practical aspects have been taken care of does she allow the eternal feminine to come forward, desiring to remain forever young, forever fragrant—a gift that was Helen’s, and one that women of all time, everywhere, have craved. The Mahabharata version provides a fascinating glimpse into the feminine psyche:
“And she, ecstatic with her boon,
"Conceived the same day
From her intercourse with Parashara.” (Adi Parva, 63.83, the P. Lal transcreation) []
When Matsyagandha tells the sage that, being ruled by her father, she is not independent to respond to his demand, and then breaks away from this to assert her liberty of action, she achieves that “one-in-herselfness”[] which is unique to the virgin. After the intercourse she does not become dependent on Parashara, does not cling to him or insist that the moment be made eternity through formalised marriage. The purpose of the encounter fulfilled, both break off without any lingering backward glances or mushy sentimentality. No romantic hope is expressed of meeting again, no guilt, not even any anguished query about the child to be born. Is she any less modern than a 21st century feminist?
Satyavati takes Hastinapura by storm, maneuvering the royal Bhishma out of reckoning and ensuring that her blood runs through its rulers by forcing her princely son’s widows to be impregnated by her illegitimate mixed-caste offspring, Vyasa. Neither Dhritarashtra nor Pandu carry any of the Puru dynasty’s blood in them. With her low caste birth, Satyavati does not suffer from high caste hesitations in bringing her illegitimate son into the limelight[]. She makes him the decisive factor in the fortunes of Hastinapura, rivaling the shadowy authority of Bhishma who is ruled by her. Her disregard of social opprobrium stands out all the more when we find that her royal granddaughter-in-law Kunti dare not emulate her. It is Kunti’s illegitimate son Karna who becomes the mainstay of Dhritarashtra’s sons and also challenges Bhishma time and again. It is Satyavati who turns the Kuru dynasty into the lineage of a Dasa maiden and brings about a fascinating reversal in Puranic history.
The original monarch, according to the Vishnu Purana (I.13) and Mahabharata(Shanti Parva 59.94) was Vena who was slain by the Brahmins because of his refusal to obey their dictates. Seeking a successor, they churned his right thigh and produced a short, dark, snub nosed human whom they named nishada and assigned the forest as his dwelling as his appearance was not kingly. It is this deprived nishada race whose fortunes are restored by Satyavati. Long before Mahapadma Nanda established what is known as the first shudra dynasty in the country, SatyavatiDaseya (as Bhishma refers to her) accomplished it in Hastinapura. She pays special attention to Vidura, born of Vyasa and Ambika’s low-caste maid, ensuring through Bhishma that he is brought up with the two princes Dhritarashtra and Pandu as their brother to become the undisputed conscience of the throne and the protector of theniyoga-born Pandavas.
The Devi Bhagavata Purana records a very important detail absent inMahabharata. In VI.24.15 Vyasa laments that immediately after birth he was abandoned by his mother and attributes his survival to chance (in this, too, Kunti parallels Satyavati, both abandoning their pre-marital first-born to fate). Grievously upset by the death of his son Shuka, Vyasa returned to his birthplace in search of his mother, found out from the fishermen that she was now queen and, to be near her, settled on the banks of the Sarasvati. Delighted to hear of the births of his stepbrothers, he refused to beget sons on Vichitravirya’s widows since they were like his daughters and intercourse with wives of others was a grievous sin. Niyoga was permissible only at the instance of the husband (as in Kunti’s case, ordered by Pandu), not of the mother-in-law. Vyasa even told his mother that preserving the dynasty by adopting such heinous means was improper (VI.24.46-48). Satyavati once again displayed her mastery of realpolitik. “Hungry for grandsons”, desperate to propagate her lineage (Pandu inherits this trait), she argued that improper directives of elders ought to be obeyed and such compliance attracted no blame, particularly as it would remove the sorrow of a grieving mother. It is when Bhishma urged Vyasa to obey his mother that he gave in and engaged in what he describes as “this disgusting task” (VI.24.56). Vyasa wonders whether progeny born of adultery,vyabhicharodbhava (VI.25.28) can ever be the source of happiness for him. How prophetic!
Parashara and Shantanu were not Satyavati’s only conquests. There was yet another, which shows what a ravishing beauty she must have been. In Harivamsha(Harivamsha Parva XX.50-73) Bhishma tells Yudhishthira that after Shantanu’s death, during the period of mourning, he received a demand from the usurper of Panchala, Ugrayudha Paurava, to hand over Gandhakali in return for considerable wealth. The ministers did not allow the affronted Bhishma to attack Ugrayudha, invincible because of his dazzling discus, and tried to put him off peacefully. When this failed, at the end of the mourning period Bhishma attacked and killed Ugrayudha whose discus had, in the meantime, lost its power because of his lusting after another’s wife. This incident from Harivamsha helps explain Satyavati’s desperation for heirs, conscious of the greedy eyes of neighbours on the empty throne of Hastinapura. In relentlessly pursuing her ends she reminds us of the earliest queens of the Lunar dynasty: Devayani and Sharmishtha.
Let us return to Kunti, Satyavati’s granddaughter-in-law, a remarkable study in womanhood[]. She chooses the handsome Pandu in svayamvara only to find Bhishma snatching away her happiness by marrying him off immediately to the captivating Madri. She insists on accompanying her impotent husband into exile and faces a horripilating situation: her beloved husband insists that she get son after son by others. It is in this husband-wife encounter (Adi Parva 120-124) that Kunti’s individuality shines forth. At first she firmly refuses saying, “Not even in thought will I be embraced by another (121.5).” Although this is somewhat ironic as already she has embraced Surya and regained virgin status after delivering Karna, it is evidence of her resolve to maintain an unsullied reputation. Hence she does not emulate her grandmother-in-law by acknowledging her pre-marital son. Nothing must interfere with the chances of a restoration to the throne.
That is why she does not tell Pandu about Karna even when he enumerates various categories of sons including one born to the wife before marriage. Children born with the sanction of her husband would be a completely different proposition from one born to her in adolescence as an unmarried princess. She urges Pandu to be heroic and emulate Vyushitashva who died prematurely because of overindulgence in coitus like Pandu’s father, but whose wife Bhadra obtained seven sons by embracing his corpse. Pandu refuses to invite death-in-intercourse with Kunti (though that is precisely what he does with Madri) and urges that she will only be doing what is sanctioned by the northern Kurus (122.7), that the new custom of being faithful to one’s husband is very recent and cites the precedents of Sharadandayani, Madayanti, Ambika and Ambalika (rather strangely he omits the far more apt instance of his own ancestress Madhavi). Finally, he quotes Shvetaketu’s scriptural directive for implicitly obeying the husband’s commands:
“the woman who,
commanded by her husband
to procreate children, refuses,
is guilty of the sin of infanticide.” (122.19)
This makes no impact on Kunti. She cannot be browbeaten and her character is far stronger than her husband’s. She gives in only when Pandu abjectly begs her:
I fold my palms
joining the tips
of my lotus-leaf fingers
and I implore you
listen to me!” (122.29)
Look at the sheer grace and power of her reply:
“Best of Bharatas! Great adharma
it is for a husband to ask
repeatedly a favour: shouldn’t a wife
anticipate his wishes?” (122.32)
With delightful one-upwomanship, she reveals that where he had wanted her to approach some eminent Brahmana, she has the power to summon any god to her bed. Like her grandmother-in-law revealing her final weapon, Vyasa, to Bhishma only in the last extremity, Kunti shares the secret of her mantra only after Pandu has been
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