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Panchakanya Stuti: Five Virgins Prayer

Explained by Pradip Bhattacharya

The traditional Sanskrit prayer runs thus: Ahalya Draupadi Kunti Tara Mandodari tatha

panchakanya smaranityam mahapataka nashanam English Translation: Contemplating 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.

Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara and Mandodari are not chaste wives in the regular sense because each has known a man, or more than one, other than her husband? If s o, 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 Sage Valmiki. Draupadi and Kunti are celebrated in Mahabharata, Harivamsa and the Markandeya, Devi Bhagavata and Bhagavata Puranas.

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 sages 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 Gautamas 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) 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, Indras 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 Ahalyas 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 heavens 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 creations 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 Ravanas 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 Gautamas return, Indra fled in the form of a cat. By the curse, Indras whole body was covered with marks of the vulva that he had coveted. In response to the sages 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 selfrespect and her status in society, so that she truly lives again.

Vishvamitra repeatedly refers to her as mahabhaga, most virtuous and noble. Valmikis description of Ahalya as Rama sees her needs to be noted (my translation):

The Creator, it seems, with utmost care had perfected this form divine, enchanting. Like a tongue of flame smoke-shrouded, Like the full moons glory ice-reflected, 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 a kshatriya (belonging to warrior class) can transform himself into the greatest of seers and presented the world the Gayatri 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.

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 Ramas arrow.

To ensure that her son Angada is not deprived of his fathers throne, Tara becomes her brother -in-law Sugrivas 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 halfclosed and unsteady gait, lovely, slim and unashamed Tara effectively disarms him. She gently reprimands him for being unaware of lusts 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 Sugrivas 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 husbands enemy and brother as spouse, either at Ramas 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 Ravanas 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 husbands 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 Ravanas 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 prosper 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.

Women of Mahabharata

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 Karnas birth. She finds no mother as she grows up in Kuntibhojas 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 Durvasas 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 Kuntis 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 Karnas lips: a maidens misstep a gods prurient curiosity, a virgins 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 Durvasas 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 Dushyantas 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 asceticism or the scriptures? Your family name is spotless; of Vashishthas 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 high-born, virtuous, scripture-versed, dharma-knowing. 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. Hell upset the boat and drown. Hes desperate, his heart pierced by desires 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. Cant you sense it? Making love ought to delight both equally.

As she spoke, in a flash she turned fragrant-for-a-yojana, 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 doesnt please me. It disgusts me. Hence, O best of sages, wait till nightfall. Coitus is prescribed for men only at night, not at daytime. In daylight its grievous sin; If seen 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:

Im a virgin, O tiger among twice-born. Enjoying me, youll depart where you will. But infallible is your seed, O Brahmana. What of me? If today Im 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, wondrously gifted. May my body be forever fragrant; May my youth be forever fresh, ever new.

Assuring her of her sons 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 fragranta gift that was Helens, 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 translation)

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-inherselfness 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.

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 sons widows to be impregnated by her illegitimate mixed-caste offspring, Vyasa. Neither Dhritarashtra nor Pandu carry any of the Puru dynastys bl ood 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 Kuntis illegitimate son Karna who becomes the mainstay of Dhritarashtras 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, Satyavati Daseya (as Bhishma refers to her) accomplished it in Hastinapura. She pays special attention to Vidura, born of Vyasa and Ambikas 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 the niyoga-born Pandavas.

The Devi Bhagavata Purana records a very important detail absent in Mahabharata. 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 Vichitraviryas 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 Kuntis 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 Satyavatis 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 Shantanus 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 anothers wife. This incident from Harivamsha helps explain Satyavatis 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, Satyavatis 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 horrible 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 Kuntis 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 Pandus father, but whose wife Bhadra obtained seven son s 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 ones 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 Shvetaketus scriptural directive for implicitly obeying the husbands 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 husbands. She gives in only when Pandu abjectly begs her: "Sweet lady, 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: shouldnt 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 brought to his knees.

How pregnantly succinct is Vyasas account of Kuntis encounter with Dharma! He smiled. Kunti, what can I give you? She smiled, A son. (123.4)

There is no coy coquetry here, no bashfulness. A need is voiced to someone who is known and is fulfilled. When Kunti summons Vayu (123.15), she is described as smiling shyly, for he is a newcomer. Does this not remind us of another woman whose smile was also so mature and meaningful, the adolescent Kali smiling at the obsessed Parashara? Moreover, Kunti will not be dictated to by Pandu in choosing the person who will impregnate her. Her smile indicates precisely her assertion of freedom of choice, selecting the father of her son four times over.

Thereafter, too, Kunti has the last word where Pandus desires are concerned. Very much like his grandmother, Pandu urges Kunti to give him more and more sons. Kunti bluntly refuses, quoting the scriptures to him, just as he had quoted Shvetaketu to her: The wise do not sanction a fourth conception, even in crisis. The woman who has intercourse with four men has loose morals; the woman who has intercourse with five is a prostitute. (123.83)

Kunti shows remarkable control over her libido here. It is not that she will go on indiscriminately satisfying her sexual or maternal urges. However, while her mastery of scripture is admirable, her words also give her away. Arjuna is her fourth conception and she has had relations with four different men. If she had summoned gods, this prohibition should not have been invoked by her. For, Pandu would seize upon this flaw and command her to gratify his hunger for sons. The fact that he accepts her argument shows that the fathers of her three sons were not gods. Thus, out of her own mouth Kunti appears to condemn herself unawares. It also explains why she did not confess regarding Karna, for that would have put her into the


loose morals category. Her last words bristle with tragic irony: this is precisely the fate into which she thrusts her daughter-in-law. In the dice-game it is Karna, her first-born, who, on the basis of this very pronouncement, declares Draupadi a whore.

Kuntis determination to protect her interests, Satyavati-like, is brought to the fore when she flatly refuses Pandus request to help Madri have more children. Despite the bravado he displays before Madri (I know that if I ask Kunti/she will not refuse me), Pandu slinks away before Kuntis fury: She deceived me, said Kunti. With one mantra I gave her, she managed to get two sons. I am afraid she will get more sons than I. Scheming woman! What a fool I was! Had I known, I too would have summoned the Ashvins, and obtained twins. Dont come to me again, my lord, saying, Give her the mantra. (124.26-28) There is also an element of jealousy in this, because in one-upwomanship Madri has consistently upstaged her.

Kunti herself tells Madri who is in the arms of the dead Pandu, Princess of Vahlika! You are fortunate indeed I never had the chance to see his face radiant in intercourse. (125.23) This reinforces 123.83 which implies that she has not had sexual relations with Pandu, for then she would have had intercourse with four men and thereby already be condemned as of loose character.

Actually, in the Brahmavaivarta Purana (4.115.72) this is precisely what happens. Bana, berating Aniruddhas clan, scornfully refers to Kunti having been a lover four times over [ kunti caturnam kamini bhuvi]. Madris tribute to Kunti brings out the beauty of character that makes her a true leader. Could I bring up your children/as if they were mine? (125.42) asks Madri, lacking that firmness of will that rises above the egos petty bounds (Kunti always takes special care of the Madreyas, particularly the youngest, Sahadeva). Madri continues, You are blessed. There is none like you you are my light,


my guide, most respect-worthy, Greater in status, purer in virtue. (125.66-68) How true a thumbnail portrait of Kunti! She brings up five children in a hostile court, bereft of relatives and allies. Neither Kuntibhoja nor the Vrishnis come forward to provide shelter or support. Quickly she turns to Satyavatis favourite grandson by a servant-maid: Vidura. He proves to be her fast friend and more. It is he who saves them from being burnt alive and it is in his home that Kunti takes shelter when her sons are exiled. He even accompanies her at the very end into the forest.

It is not for nothing that Iravati Karve surmised that Dharma, the first god summoned by Kunti, is none other than Vidura, known as Dharmas incarnation in th e epic, for it is the younger brother (stepbrother in this case), devara, who is the first appropriate person to turn to for niyoga. Once Bhishma has provided a roof over her head, it is Kunti who guards her children. The insecurity is of such dimensions that she dare not inform anyone but Vidura, not even Bhishma, of the attempt to poison Bhima. It is she who alerts Yudhishthira to mull-out the secret message in Viduras strange parting words couched in mlechcha dialect.

What an implacable will we find revealed in what follows! It is she who gets the Nishada woman and her five sons drunk in the House-of-Lac so that no evidence is left of the Pandavas escape from the gutted dwelling: instigating Macbeth-Bhima (to set fire to the house) was Kunti, bringer-forth of men- children only. With this ruthless holocaust of six Nishadas it is fitting to realise that the Nishada dynasty Satyavati sought to establish continues only through Dhritarashtra, not through Pandu. Thus, the Nishada dynasty of Hastinapura lasts for just two generations, through Dhritarashtra and his sons, all of whom are slain.

Even the forest, with what unerring instinct Kunti rallies their drooping spirits: Hai! I am Kunti, mother of five sons, and I thirst for water sitting in their midst! (153.13)

Where Yudhishthira stops short with preventing Bhima from killing the infatuated Hidimba, Kunti, with remarkable foresight, seizes upon this fortuitous occurrence to cement an alliance for the friendless five: I can see no way of taking fit revenge for the terrible injustices that Duryodhana has done us. A grave problem faces us. You know Hidimba loves you Have a son by her. I wish it. He will work for our welfare. My son,


I do not want a no from you. I want your promise now, in front of both of us. (157.47-49)

We know how useful the fruit of this union, Ghatotkacha, is for them in exile and a s Arjunas saviour from Karnas infallible weapon at the cost of his own life. It is again Kunti who instructs her first grandchild in order to ensure his loyalty: You are one of the Kurus. To me you are like Bhima himself. You are the eldest son of the Pandavas, Therefore, you should help them. (157.74) Thus, the Pandava dynasty is slowly but surely structured into an entity with multiracial affinities. Earlier, because of Kunti, Bhima was befriended by the naga Aryaka, her fathers maternal grandfather. Now an alliance with the forest-dwelling rakshasas is established. Later Arjuna will forge alliances with the Nagas and others.

Kunti teaches her children a lesson in attending to the welfare of the common man even at the risk of their lives. In Ekachakra she overrules Yudhishthiras frantic remonstrance and deputes Bhima to meet the ogre Baka as the substitute for the impoverished Brahmin who has given them shelter. In this exchange between mother and son, Kunti, as earlier with Pandu, emerges totally triumphant. Yudhishthira exclaims, Mother, what right had you to expose him like this? have you lost your reason? have our sufferings unbalanced you? (164.11) Never again will he upbraid his mother in such strong terms, except once after the war when she reveals that Karna was his elder brother.

Yudhishthiras outburst only shows his failure to appreciate the profound wisdom and practical sense underlying this decision, apparently rash and fraught with life-risk to their sole protector. After pointing out that they ought to repay the kindness of their host, for He indeed is a man whose gratitude/exceeds the favour he receives (164.15), she reminds Yudhishthira of Bhimas extraordinary strength and then teaches him a lesson in kingship: It is a kings duty to protect even the Shudra if the Shudra seeks protection (164.28) It is in failing to protect that Bhishmas greatest failure lay as a Kshatriya. Kunti now pulls up her son masterfully and then explains the reasons for the decision:


I am not foolish: dont think me ignorant; Im not being selfish. I know exactly what I am doing. This is an act of dharma. Yudhishthira, two benefits will follow from this act one, well repay a Brahmin, two, well gain moral merit a Kshatriya who helps a Brahmin gets the highest heaven in his after-life. (164.20-22) Kuntis maturity and foresight, the ability to observe life closely and use the learning from experiences to arrive at swift decisions that benefit both society and her children, set her apart and above all characters in the epic, except perhaps Krishna.

In commanding Bhima to marry Hidimba, Kunti showed her clear desire for righting the injustices done to her and her sons. Her decision to proceed to Panchala is another step in that direction, aiming at winning Draupadi to forge a princely alliance with the traditional enemy of Hastinapura and challenge the Kauravas. In Panchala she chooses to stay in the hut of a potter, even lower down in the caste and economic hierarchy than in Ekachakra. She brings up her sons from virtually the lowest rung of society to become rulers of the kingdom. In that process she turns necessity to glorious gain. The enforced exile brings her sons into intimate contact with the common people, so that they develop the feeling for the felt needs of the vast majority that equips them as true rajas, those who discharge the duty of pleasing their subjects.

Kuntis foresight perceives that any split among the united five will frustrate the goal of mast ering Hastinapura. Moreover, in Ekachakra Vyasa had already briefed them that Draupadi was fated to have five husbands because of the boon Shiva had given her in a previous birth and had urged them to proceed to Panchala to win her as their common wife ( Adi Parva, 168). Hence she plays that grim charade of pretending not to know what Bhima and Arjuna mean when they ask her to see what they have brought home.

In Adi Parva 190.29 we find Yudhishthira and the two Madreyas slipping out of the svayamvara after Draupadi has been won. These three are already with their mother when Draupadi arrives. Kunti knows that the only way to forge an unbreakable link among the five is not to allow them to get engrossed in different wives. So long their lives have been governed by her and have revolved only around her. She can be replaced only by a single woman, not five, if that unified focus is to persist. It is as though she were bringing into practice the Atharva Vedic injunction:: May your drink be the same, may your food be common. I bind you together with one common bond.


United, gather round the sacrificial fire like the spokes of a chariot-wheel round the nave. [III.30.6] Draupadi, of course, is virtually born from the yajnic fire-altar.

Hence, Kunti deliberately asks that whatever has been brought should be shared and enjoyed as usual. After discovering her mistake her only worry is that something must be done so that her command does not become untrue (Adi Parva, 193.4-5). Yudhishthiras speech to Drupada amply clarifies that the decision is Kuntis though the brothers have eagerly acquiesced, each having Draupadi in his heart (193.12). It is also a magnificent tribute to the total respect and implicit obedience paid by the brothers to Kunti which is unparalleled in the epic. Despite all the paeans to Gandharis virtues, her complete failure as a mother to command any respect from Duryodhana only serves to highlight the qualities which make Kunti pre-eminent among all women in Mahabharata: My mothers will is my will because I think she is right Isnt it said that obedience to gurus is a supreme virtue? What greater guru than ones mother? To me this is the highest dharma. (197.29; 198.17) It is instructive to see how desperate Kunti is that her stratagem should not be foiled. As udhishthira finishes, she immediately appeals to Vyasa: What dharma-firm Yudhishthira says is right. I fear my words will become as pointless as lies. And if that happens, will I not be tainted with untruth? (198.18) She is also protecting herself, perhaps subconsciously. By maneuvering Draupadi into having five husbands (the same number of men as Kunti had known), she effectively ensures that her daughter -in-law will never be able to point an accusing finger at her for having had sexual relations with persons other than her spouse. As usual, Kunti ensures that she has her way, this time with the help of Vyasa, her father-in-law. Kuntis ambition for her children is finally voiced openly when she formally blesses Draupadi after the marriage ceremony: May you be queen of the kingdom of the Kurus with your dharma-loving husband in the capital of Kurujangala. (209.9)

Her nephew, Krishna, comes forward with Yadava wealth to build up the power of the Pandavas. The soundness of Kuntis strategy is proved when the Kauravas plan to destroy the Pandavas unity by


despatching lovely hetaerae to seduce them. Karna points out that as they are wedded to a common wife of extraordinary beauty, this ploy is bound to fail.

Hereafter, Kunti retreats into the background, giving up pride of place to Draupadi. Proof of her astonishing self-effacement is seen in the Pandavas not consulting her when invited to the dice-game, which is so very unusual in the context of her overarching influence over them till the marriage. This first instance of her removing herself from the decison-making role leads to disaster. After this, she emerges from the shadows to intervene decisively thrice. When her sons are exiled, she decides to stay back in Hastinapura as a silent but constant reproach to Dhritarashtra about her sons violated rights. Later, in the Udyoga Parva, she tells Krishna, who has come on a peace-embassy, to urge Yudhishthira to fight for their rights as Kshatriyas must. She reprimands him for abandoning his duty as king and mistakenly believing that espousing peace is the proper dharma. To inspire him she repeats a tactic used in the Varanavata exile: Can anything be more humiliating than that your mother, friendless and alone, should have to eat others food? Strong-armed one, recover the ancestral paternal kingdom use gentleness, dissension, gifts, force or negotiation. Follow the dharma of rajas, redeem your family honor. Do not, with your brothers, watch your merits waste away. (132.32-34) To inspire him further, she assumes the persona of Vidula to her son Sanjaya/Yudhishthira who is reluctant to face battle after defeat: Flare up, even if briefly, like tinduka-wood Do not smoulder away in billowing fireless smoke. (133.14)

To these twin spurs to prick them on, Kunti now adds the climactic motivation: the insult to her daughter-inlaw, mincing no words in upbraiding the five to arouse their hibernating manhood: The princess of Panchala followed all dharmas, yet in your presence they mocked her how can you ever forgive this insult? The kingdom lost did not hurt me,


the defeat at dice did not hurt me; the exile of my sons did not hurt me so much as the humiliation of Draupadi weeping in the sabha as they mocked her. Nothing more painful than that insult. (137.16-18 ibid.) To secure the safety of her sons she takes the conscious decision to undergo the trauma of acknowledging her shame to her first-born, kept secret so long. Not knowing that Krishna has already failed after approaching Karna with the same secret, baiting his offer with the prospect of Draupadi becoming his wife, The Vrishni lady, the Kaurava wife waited; she wilted in the suns heat like a faded lotus garland. She sheltered in the shade of Karnas dress. (Udyoga 144.29 ibid.) Though she is rejected by Karna, in that apparent failure lies Kuntis victory. For, she obtains his promise not to kill any Pandava but Arjuna. Moreover, she effectively weakens him from within. While he knows that he is battling his mothers sons, they are only aware that he is the detestable charioteers son who m ust be slain for his crimes against Draupadi and Abhimanyu.

Kunti has that rare capacity to surprise us which distinguishes the kanya. When all that she had worked for has been achieved, she astonishes everyone by retiring to the forest with, of all persons, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari, to spend her last days serving those who were responsible for her sufferings. Kuntis reply to her bewildered sons anguished questions is that she had inspired them to fight so that they did not suffer oppression, and that having glutted herself with joy during her husbands rule, she has no wish to enjoy a kingdom won by her sons. How effortlessly she transcends the symbiotic bonds of maternity! Seated calmly, she accepts death as a forest fire engulfs her. It is profoundly significant that the epic declares her to be the incarnation of siddhi, fulfilment. She is indeed the consummation of womanhood and the archetype of the modern phenomenon which is of such concern all over the world today: the Single Mother.

Kunti is the pre-eminent example in our mythology of the kanya. An integrated personality, with her libido under control, she has not more than one son from each of the four relationships and does not take advantage of Pandus hankering to enter into sexual alliance with more men. Making her own way in a hostile world, she establishes her sons and ultimately sublimates the ego. Finally, she transcends the self to give up her life reconciled, made whole, calm of mind, all passion spent.

Even more than Satyavati, Kunti is a virgin in the Jungian sense. Originally, this word connoted precisely the opposite of what it has come to mean. Ishtar and Aphrodite, the goddesses of love in ancient


Mesopotamia and Greece, were called virgins. The later patriarchal cultures denounced them as immoral and wanton. The boon of virginity is not just a physical condition but refers to an inner state of the psyche which remains untrammelled by any slavish dependence on another, on a particular man. She is one -inherself, an integrated personality who belongs to herself while she is virgin -unwed and may not be compelled either to maintain chastity or to yield to an unwanted embrace This liberty of action involves the right to refuse intimacies as well as to accept them It may be used of a woman who has had much sexual experience; it may be even applied to a prostitute. Its real significance is to be found in its use as contrasted with married.

Madri, Ambika, Ambalika, Gandhari and Subhadra present the exact opposite: the married woman who is dependent on what others think and therefore does what she may not actually approve of. Ambika and Ambalika silently accept their mother-in-laws command to receive the repulsive Vyasa. Madri immolates herself on her husbands funeral pyre. Gandhari blinds herself so that she does not exceed her husband. She is not one-in-herself, but acts as a female counterpart to some male.

On the other hand, The woman who is psychologically virgin is not dependant in this way. She is what she is because that is what she is. The woman who is virgin, one-in-herself, does what she doesnot because of any desire to please, not to be liked, or to be approved, even by herself; not because of any desire to gain power over another to catch his interest or love, but because what she does is true she is not influenced by the considerations that make the non-virgin woman, whether married or not, trim her sails and adapt herself to expediency dependent on what other people think. Her actions may, indeed, be unconventional. Does this not describe Ahalya, Satyavati and Kunti?

What of Draupadi? Like Ahalya and Sita, Draupadi is ayonija, not born of woman. Where Ahalya is the Tilottama prototype and Sita is ploughed up from a furrow, Draupadi is invoked by a sacrificial rite to wreak vengeance. Actually, she arrives as a bonus because Drupada was performing the yajna for obtaining a son who would take revenge on Drona and had not asked for a daughter at all. Like Athena, she springs fullgrown, in the bloom of youth, from the yajna vedi, not requiring the matrix of a human womb, ignoring the absence of Drupadas queen who is unable to respond to the priests summons because her toilet is incomplete. She is the only kanya whose appearance is described in detail and is therefore worth noting: eye-ravishing Panchali, black-and-smiling-eyed Shining coppery carved nails, Soft eye-lashes, Swelling breasts Shapely thighs neither short nor tall, neither dark nor pale,


with wavy dark-blue hair, eyes like autumn-lotus leaves, fragrant like the lotus extraordinarily accomplished, soft-spoken and gentle She is the last to sleep, the first to wake even earlier than the early-rising cowherds and shepherds. Her sweat-bathed face is lovely, like the lotus, like the jasmine; slim-waisted like the middle of the sacred vedi, long-haired, pink-lipped, and smooth-skinned. (Adi Parva 169.44-46, Sabha 65.33-37) Dark like Gandhakali, hence named Krishna, and gifted with blue-lotus fragrance wafting for a full krosha like Yojanagandha, she knows, like her mother -in-law Kunti and great grandmother-in-law Gandhakali, more than one man. Like Kunti she is also described as an amorous lover: draupadi bhratripati ca pancanam kamini tatha (Brahmavaivarta Purana, 4.115.73). Yet, hers is an immeasurably greater predicament. Where theirs were momentary encounters, Draupadi has to live out her entire life parcelled out among five men within the sacrament of marriage. Like Satyavati and Kunti, she remains a virgin, regaining that status after each marriage:

Devarshi Narada, narrating this wondrous, supernatural and excellent event said,

Lovely-waisted and high-minded indeed, she became virgin anew after each marriage (Adi Parva, 197.14)

According to the Villipputturs Tamil version of the epic, Draupadi bathes in fire after each marriage, emerging chaste like the pole star. The South Indian cult of Draupadi sculpts her holding a closed lotus bud symbolising virginity, as opposed to the open lotus of fertility Subhadra holds. Ahalya-like, she transforms herself into stone when touched by the demon Kempirnacuran by invoking her chastity in an act of truth. Like Kunti, she resembles Madhavi, ancestress of the Kurus, in retaining her virginity despite being manyhusbanded. Kunti herself describes Draupadi to Krishna as sarvadharmopacayinam (fosterer of all virtues, Udyoga Parva 137.16), using the identical term by which Yayati describes his daughter Madhavi while gifting her to Galava (ibid. 115.11). The conjunction of both occurrences of this epithet in the same parva is surely deliberate on part of the seer-poet for drawing our attention to these correspondences.


A true virgin, Panchali has a mind of her very own. Both Krishna and Panchali appear for the first time together in the svayamvara sabha and make decisive interventions. It is Panchalis categorical refusal wholly unexpectedto accept Karna as a suitor that alters the entire complexion of that assembly and, indeed, the course of the epic itself. The affront to Karna sows the seeds of the assault on her in the dicegame. It is her sakha-to-be, Krishna, who steps in to put an end to the skirmish between the furious kings and the disguised Pandavas.

She alone enjoys the unique relationship of sakhi with her sakha Krishna. Only she, among all the powerful characters in the epic, has the capacity to upbraid Krishna: No husband have I, nor son nor brother, nor father; and O Madhusudana, even you are not mine (Vana Parva 10.125 my translation) She exhorts that he is bound fourfold to protect her: For four reasons, Krishna, you are bound to protect me ever: Im related, Im renowned, Im your sakhi and you rule over all. (Vana Parva 10.127, my translation)

Panchali is fully conscious of her beauty and its power, for she uses it in getting her way with Bhima in Viratas kitchen (Virata Parva 20) and with Krishna in turning the peace-embassy into a declaration of war (Udyoga Parva 82). The captivating pose she strikes when alone in Kamyaka forest, which enchants Jayadratha is a telling instance of this. Leaning against a kadamba tree, holding on to a branch with an upraised hand, her upper garment displaced, she flashes like lightning against clouds or like the flame of a lamp quivering in the night-breeze. Lovely as Sita left alone in the wilderness, no Ravana would have succeeded in spiriting Draupadi away. When Jayadratha seizes her, she repulses him so hard that he falls to the ground! Retaining full control of her faculties, she mounts his chariot on finding him bent on forcing her, calmly asking the family priest to report to her husbands. No Sita-like lamentation here, nor shrill outcries for succour! As her husbands close up on Jayadratha, she taunts him with an elaborate description of the prowess of each and the inevitable trouncing that will follow.

The manner in which Draupadi manipulates Bhima to destroy Kichaka is a fascinating lesson in the art and craft of sexual power. She does not turn to Arjuna, knowing him to be a true disciple of Yudhishthira as seen in the dice-game. Then Bhima alone had roared out his outrage. Now she seeks him out in the dark of the night. Finding him asleep in the kitchen, she snuggles up to him like a woman aroused, as a wild she-crane presses close to its mate and a three-year old cow in season rubs against a bull. She twines herself round Bhima as a creeper entwines a massive shala tree on Gomatis banks, as a lioness clasps the sleeping king of


beasts in a dense forest, as a she-elephant embraces a huge tusker. As Bhima awakens in her arms, Draupadi administers the coup-de-grace by addressing him in dulcet vina-like tones pitched at the gandhara note, the third in the octave. To rouse his anger, she narrates all her misfortunes, even how she, a princess, has now to carry water for the queens toilet and particularly mentions how she swoons when he wrestles with wild beasts, giving rise to barbed comments from maids. Finally, in an ineffable feminine touch she extends her palms to him, chapped with grinding unguents for the queen. His reaction is all that she had planned for so consummately: Wolf-waisted foe-crushing Bhima covered His face with the Delicate, chapped hands of his wife, And burst into tears. (Virata Parva, 20.30) Kichakas death is sealed. When Kichaka has been pounded to death, instead of hiding in safety she recklessly flaunts the corpse before his kin, revelling in her revenge. They abduct her and she has again to be saved by Bhima from being burnt to death.

Earlier, in the dice-game Yajnaseni shocks everyone by challenging the Kuru elders very concept of dharma in a crisis where the modern woman would collapse in hysterics. Instead of meekly obeying her husbands summons, she sends back a query which none can answer: How could Yudhishthira, having lost himself, stake her at all? She has a brilliant mind, is utterly one-in-herself and does not hesitate in berating the Kuru elders for countenancing wickedness. As Karna directs her to be dragged away to the servants quarters, sh e cries out to her silent husbands.

Finding no response, with quicksilver presence of mind she seizes upon a social ritual to wrest some moments of respite from pillaging hands. Her speech drips with sarcasm. The elders whom she ceremoniously salutes, deliberately using the word duty, have remained silent in the face of Viduras exhortation to do their duty and protect the royal daughter-in- law. Look at her choice of words: One duty remains, which I must now do. Dragged by this mighty hero, I nearly forgot. I was so confused. Sirs, I bow to all of you, all my elders and superiors. Forgive me for not doing so earlier. It was not all my fault, gentlemen of the sabha. (Sabha Parva, 67.30) It is a mighty hero who is dragging his menstru ating sister-in-law, clad in a single cloth, by her hair. She has nearly forgot her duty, while the elders are wholly oblivious of theirs despite being reminded by a servant -


maids son. It is surely not her fault that she is being outraged, and certainly it is not she who is so confused but rather the Kuru elders of whom Bhishma says, Our elders, learned in dharma, Drona and others, sit Here with lowered eyes like dead men with life-breaths gone. (ibid, 69.20) Yajnaseni succeeds in winning back freedom for her enslaved husbands. Karna pays her a remarkable tribute, saying that none of the worlds renowned beautiful women have accomplished such a feat: like a boat she has rescued her husbands who were drowning in a sea of sorrows (Sabha 72.1-3).

With striking dignity she refuses to take the third boon Dhritarashtra offers, because with her husbands free and in possession of their weapons, she does not need a boon from anyone. No twenty first century feminist can surpass her in being in charge of herself. Can we even imagine any woman having to suffering attempted disrobing with her husbands sitting mute; then facing abduction in the forest and having to countenance her husband forgiving the abductor; be molested again in court and be admonished by her husband for making a scene; then be carried off to be burnt alive; thereafter, when war is imminent, witness her husbands asking Krishna to sue for peace; and finally find all her kith and kin and her sons slain-- and still remain sane?

An illuminating contrast can be seen in Shaivya, wife of Harishchandra. She does not utter a word when Vishvamitra drives her out of her kingdom, be-labouring her with a stick because she is too exhausted to move swiftly (VII. 29). She herself suggests to Harishchandra that since she has fulfilled her function by presenting him with a son, he should sell her to pay Vishvamitra what he requires (VIII. 30-31). When the Brahmana to whom she is sold drags her by the hair, she remains silent (VIII. 56). This is precisely the conduct of a sati who utterly wipes out her own self and lives only in, through and for her husband.

The kanyas personality, on the other hand, blazes forth quite independent of her spouse and her offspring. She seeks to fulfil herself regardless of social and family norms. Thus, Draupadi does not rest till the revenge for which her father had invoked her manifestation is complete and the insult she suffered has been wiped out in blood. Through the thirteen years of exile, she never allows her husbands and her sakha to forget how she was outraged and they were deceitfully deprived of their kingdom. When she finds all her husbands, except Sahadeva, in favour of suing for peace, she brings to bear all her feminine charm to turn the course of events inexorably towards war. Pouring out a litany of her injuries, she takes up her serpent-like thick glossy hair and with tearful eyes urges Krishna to recall these tresses when he sues for peace. Sobbing, she declares that her five sons led by Abhimanyu and her old father and brothers will avenge her if her husbands will not. Krishnas response is all that she has been aiming at: Consider those you disfavor As already dead! The Himavant hills may move, the


Earth shatter In a hundred pieces, heaven collapse; My promise stands You will see your enemies killed. (Udyoga Parva, 82.45, 48) The course of the epic is determined by the dark five and Kunti, of whom three are kanyas: Gandhakali, Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa, Vasudeva Krishna, Yajnaseni, Arjuna, Kunti. The first three are further linked by the black waters of the Yamuna, while Satyavati, Kunti and Draupadi are prototypes of one another.

Draupadi is the only instance we come across in epic mythology of a sati becoming a kanya. The Southern recension of the epic states that in an earlier birth as Nalayani (also named Indrasena) she was married to Maudgalya, an irascible sage afflicted with leprosy. She was so utterly devoted to her abusive husband that when a finger of his dropped into their meal, she took it out and calmly ate the rice without revulsion. Pleased by this, Maudgalya offered her a boon, and she asked him to make love to her in five lovely forms. As she was insatiable, Maudgalya got fed up and reverted to asceticism. When she remonstrated and insisted that he continue their love-life, he cursed her to be reborn and have five husbands to satisfy her lust. Thereupon she practised severe penance and pleased Shiva, obtaining the boon of regaining virginity after being with each husband. Thus, by asserting her womanhood and refusing to accept a life of blind subservience to her husband, Nalayani the sati was transformed into Yajnaseni the kanya.

According to the Brahmavaivarta Purana (4.116.22-23), she is the reincarnation of the shadow-Sita who, in turn, was Vedavati reborn after molestation at Ravanas hands, and would become the Lakshmi of the Indras in Svarga. As far back as in 1887 the great Bengali litterateur Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay drew an illuminating distinction between Sita and Draupadi, noting that while the former is chiefly a wife in whom the softer feminine qualities are expressed, the latter is pre-eminently a tremendously forceful queen in whom womans steel will, pride and brilliant intellect are most evident, a befitting conso rt indeed of mighty Bhimasena. He also pointed out that Draupadi represents womans selflessness in performing all household duties flawlessly but detachedly. In her he sees exemplified the Gitas prescription for controlling the senses by the higher self.

Since a wife is supposed to present her husband with a son, she gives one to each of the Pandavas, but no more, and in that exemplifies the conquest over the senses, as in the case of Kunti. Once this duty is over, there is no sexual relationship between her and the Pandavas. That is why, despite having five husbands, Draupadi is the acme of chastity. Akin to sakha Krishna, lotus-like she is fully of this world of senses, yet never immersed in it. The bloom of her unique personality spreads its fragrance far and wide, soaring above the worldly mire in which it is rooted.

Ultimately, the fact that Draupadi stands quite apart from her five husbands is brought tellingly home when not one of them not even Sahadeva of whom she took care with maternal solicitude, nor her favourite


Arjuna tarries by her side when she falls and lies dying on the Himalayan slopes, nathavati anathavat (husbanded, yet unprotected). That is when we realise that this remarkable virgin never asked anything for herself. Born unwanted, thrust abruptly into a polyandrous marriage, she seems to have had a profound awareness of being an instrument in bringing about the extinction of an effete epoch so that a new age could take birth. And being so aware, Yajnaseni offered up her entire being as a flaming sacrifice in that holocaust of which Krishna was the presiding deity. This feature of transcending the lower self, of becoming an instrument of a higher design is what seems to constitute a common trait in these ever-to-be-remembered maidens. Remembering them daily, learning from them how to sublimate our petty ego to reach the higher self, we transcend sin.

These maidens provide a parallel to the three forms of the ancient Arcadian goddess, Hera: maiden, fulfilled woman and woman of sorrows. Hera, too, would emerge from her bath in the spring Kanathos as virgin anew. As Hera is also her daughter Hebe and Demeter is also Kore-Persephone, so is Satyavati also Kunti and Kunti also Draupadi. Like Demeter-Nemesis and the awful Persephone queen of Hades who arouses both admiration and fear, Draupadi is Krishna, the dark goddess, the virgin Vira-Shakti whose cult still exists in south India, a manifestation of the goddess Kali, supping full of horrors on the battlefield at night, the primal uncontrolled, chaotic persona of Prakriti.

Draupadi, like the Kore - Helen, appears with the announcement that she will be the destruction of warriors. Draupadi, like Demeter and Helen, is always subjected to violence: her svayamvara ends in strife; a fivefold marriage is imposed upon her; she is outraged in the royal court twice over; Jayadratha and Kichaka attempt to rape her; the Upakichakas seek to burn her alive. Like vengeful Demeter Erinys and like Helen, Draupadi seems to attract rape and to wreak vengeance thereafter. Again, like the vengeful Amba, whose suicide in flames represents the inner anguish consuming her, and who takes rebirth to exact blood-price for her outraged femininity by causing Bhishmas death on the battlefield, Draupadi is also veritably a virgin goddess of war like Artemis and Athene.

A common feature these maidens share is motherlessness. The births of Ahalya, Satyavati and Draupadi are unnatural, none having a mother. We know nothing of Taras mother. Mandodaris mother is Hema, who remains just a name. The motherless Gandhakali and Pritha, as adolescents, are left by their foster-fathers to the mercies of two eccentric sages and become unwed mothers with no option but to discard their first born. Prithas mother is never mentioned even when she is given away by her father. As Kunti, she finds no foster-mother either and her only succour is an old midwife. If Draupadi had hoped to find her missing mother in her mother-in-law, she is tragically deceived as Kunti thrusts her into a polyandrous marriage that exposes her to salacious gossip reaching a horrendous climax in Karna calling her a public woman whose being clothed or naked is immaterial. As if that were not enough, Kunti urges her to take special care of her fifth husband, Sahadeva, as a mother! No other woman has had to face this peculiar predicament of dealing with five husbands now as spouse, then as elder or younger brother-in-law (to be treated like a father or as a


son respectively) in an unending cycle.

Simultaneously, we notice that Ahalya, Satyavati and Draupadi are not known for maternal qualities. Ahalyas son abandons her and lives comfortably in Janakas court, expressing relief that she is finally acceptable in society following Ramas visit. Valmiki has not a word to say about the mother -son relationship between Ahalya and Shatananda. Vyasa is abandoned by both parents and attributes his survival to chance. Draupadis five sons are mere names and are not even nurtured by her. She sends them to Panchala and follows her husbands into exile to ensure that the wounds of injustice and insult inflicted upon them remain ever fresh. Indeed, scholars, beginning with Bankimchandra over a hundred years ago, have questioned the very fact of her maternity since, unlike the other Pandava progeny (Ghatotkacha, Abhimanyu, Babhruvahana) the five sons are nothing more than names and might have been interpolated. The Draupadi Cult specifically states that her sons were not products of coitus but were born from drops of blood that fell when, in her terrifying Kali form, her nails pierced Bhimas hand.

These kanyas remain quintessentially virgins and, except for Kunti, hardly ever assume the persona of mother. In this, as in much else of her flaming character, Draupadi reminds us of the ancestress of the Kuru clan, Devayani, wilful, assertive of her demands, her fathers darling, with no mention of he r mother, soliciting Kacha, virtually hijacking Yayati into marriage, flouncing off in fury to get her father curse Yayati with senility, and showing no evidence of any maternal role beyond producing a couple of sons. Indeed, the similarity goes deeper. In the Maitrayani and Taittiriya Samhitas, Devayani is the name of the fire-altar. Yajnaseni gets her name from having been born from this altar.

This feature of being rejected-and-rejecting-in-turn that is a recurring leit motif with the kanya is not just of antiquary interest. It recurs in one of the most significant explorations of the Bengali womans struggle to step into the modern age by experimenting with new ways of motherhood: Ashapurna Debis trilogy Pratham Pratisruti, Subarnalata and Bakul Katha. The heroine, significantly named Satyabati, is abandoned by her father who gives her away in child-marriage at the age of eight. When she gives birth to her son, she simultaneously receives news of her mothers death. She struggles to educate her child ren in a new urban milieu of a nuclear family, but her daughter Subarna is also married off at the age of eight. Thereupon Satyabati physically turns away from the wedding, abandoning her daughter on the threshold of motherhood, repeating the desertion she herself had experienced. The pattern repeats itself when Subarna, receiving news of her mothers death, finds herself unable to think of her own daughter.

It is a patriarchal societys tradition of enforced motherlessness that is sought to be challenged at the cost of being regarded as an aberrant mother. Ashapurna Debi questions the traditional concept of motherhood which confines woman to the role of a biological parent with no hand in shaping the future of the girl child. This is precisely what we notice in the case of the five kanyas.


This, again, is where the kanya is distinct from the apsara, the heavenly hetaerae to whom the maternal instinct is foreign.

Urvashi makes this amply clear to King Kukutstha when he reproaches her for deserting their daughter: O King, my body does not change when offspring are born and true to my nature as a courtesan, I do not rear children I give birth to.

The same characteristic is seen in Menaka abandoning her new-born daughter Shakuntala.

The theme of loss is common to the kanya. Ahalya has no parents, loses both husband and son and is a social outcast; Kunti loses her parents and then her husband twice over (once to Madri and then when he dies in Madris arms); Satyavati loses husband and both royal sons. Seeing her great grandchildren at each others throats, she realises, the green years of the earth are gone (Adi Parva, 128.6) and leaves for the forest so as not to witness the suicide of her race (ibid. 128.9). Vyasa tells us nothing of her end. Mandodari loses husband, sons, kinsmen. Tara loses her husband. Both have to marry their younger brothers-in-law who are responsible for their husbands deaths. Draupadi finds her five husbands discarding her repeatedly: each takes at least one more wife; she never gets Arjuna to herself for he marries Ulupi, Chitrangada and has Subhadra as his favourite; Yudhishthira pledges her like chattel at dice; and, finally, they leave her to die alone on the roadside like a pauper, utterly rikta, drained in every sense. In her long poem Kurukshetra, Amreeta Syam conveys the angst of Panchali, born unasked for by her father, bereft of brothers and sons and her beloved sakha Krishna: Draupadi has five husbands but she has none She had five sons and was never a mother The Pandavas have given Draupadi No joy, no sense of victory No honour as wife No respect as mother Only the status of a Queen But they have all gone And Im left with a lifeless jewel And an empty crown my baffled motherhood Wrings its hands and strives to weep.[[1]] Among the five it is Ahalya who remains unique because of the nature of her daring and its consequence. She is the only one whose transgression becomes known and is therefore punished for having done what she wanted to. Because of her unflinching acceptance of the sentence, Vishvamitra and Valmiki both glorify her. Chandra Rajan, another sensitive poetess of today, catches these nuances:


Gautama cursed his impotence and raged she stood petrified uncomprehending in stony silence withdrawn into the secret cave of her inviolate inner self she had her shelter sanctuary benediction within, perfect, inviolate in the one-ness of spirit with rock rain and wind with flowing tree and ripening fruit and seed that falls silently in its time into the rich dark earth. None of these maidens breaks down in the face of personal tragedy. Each continues to live out her life with head held high. This is another characteristic that sets the kanya apart from other women.

There is an aspect of exploitation that we notice about the kanya. Sugriva hides behind Tara and uses her to calm the raging Lakshmana. Kunti is used by Kuntibhoja to please Durvasa. Draupadi is used first by Drupada to take revenge on Drona by securing the alliance of the Pandavas and then by Kunti and the Pandavas to win their kingdom thrice over (first through marriage; then in the first dice game when she wins them their freedom; finally as their incessant goad on the path to victory).

Unknown to her, even sakha Krishna throws her in as the ultimate temptation in Karnas way when seeking to win him over to the Pandavas before the war, assuring that Draupadi will come to him in the sixth part of the day, shashthe ca tam tatha kale draupadyupagamisyati (Udyoga Parva, 134.16).

This is followed by Kunti urging Karna to enjoy (bhunkshva) Yudhishthiras Shri (another name for Draupadi) which was acquired by Arjuna (ibid. 135.8). There is an unmistakable harking back to her command to her sons to enjoy (bhunkteti) what they had brought together when Bhima and Arjuna had announced their arrival with Draupadi as alms. No wonder Draupadi laments that she has none to call her own, when even her sakha unhesitatingly uses her as bait! We cannot but agree with Naomi Wolfs condemnation of masculine cultures efforts to punish the slut, the sexually independent woman who crosses the ambiguous lakshmana-rekha separating good from bad.


The kanya, despite having husband and children, remains alone to the last. This is the loneliness at the top that great leaders bear as their cross. The absence of a mothers nurturing, love, modelling and handing down of tradition leaves the kanya free to experiment, unbound by shackles of taught norms, to mould herself according to her inner light, to express and fulfil her femininity, achieving self-actualisation on her own terms.

An invaluable insight into what is so very special in being a woman virgin, wife and mother is found in what an Abyssinian woman told Frobenius. In her speech we find the reason for our kanyas remaining such an enigma to men throughout the ages: How can a man know what a womans life is?He is the same before he has sought out a woman for the first time and afterwards. But the day when a woman enjoys her first love cuts her in twoThe man spends a night by a woman and goes away. His life and body are always the sameHe does not know the difference before love and after love, before motherhood and after motherhoodOnly a woman can know that and speak of that. That is why we wont be to ld what to do by our husbands. A woman can only do one thingShe must always be as her nature is. She must always be maiden and always be mother. Before every love she is a maiden, after every love she is a mother.[[1] ] We have only to recall the encounters of Surya, Dharma, Vayu, Indra and Pandu with Pritha, of Parashara and Shantanu with Gandhakali, of Draupadi with her husbands, of Ulupi with Arjuna, of Indra with Ahalya, to realise the profundity of this utterance.

C.G. Jung, while discussing the phenomenon of the maiden describes her as not altogether human in the usual sense; she is either of unknown or peculiar origin, or she looks strange or undergoes strange experiences. This fits the kanyas as a class. The maiden represents the Anima archetype in man in whose realm the categories of good and bad do not exist: bodily life as well as psychic life have the impudence to get along much better without conventional morality, and they often remain the healthier for it. So long as a woman is content to be just a mans woman, she is devoid of individuality, and acts as a willing vessel for masculine projections. On the other hand, the maiden uses the anima of man to gain her natural ends (Bernard Shaw called it the Life Force). Amply do we see in the cases of these maidens that, The anima lives beyond all categories, and can therefore dispense with blame as well as with praise. The anima is characterised not just by this zest for life, but also by a secret knowledge, a hidden wisdom something like a hidden purpose, a superior knowledge of life laws. which we see in this group of epic women. That is why Shantanu, Bhishma, Dhritarashtra, Pandu, the Kaunteyas, Surgriva can never quite come to grips with Satyavati, Kunti, Draupadi and Tara and are ever in awe of them.

One of the finest instances of the working of anima is found in the Ganga-Shantanu relationship. Ganga is yet another kanya, wedded to both Vishnu and Shiva in their realms and also to the human king of Hastinapura, but utterly independent in everything that she does. On her first appearance, she seats herself on Pratipas right thigh and demands that he take her:


It is improper to refuse a woman in love I am not ugly, she said, I do not bring ill fortune, No one has cast a slur on me, I am not unfit for sexual enjoyment. I am celestial, I am beautiful, I love you. Take me, my lord. (Adi Parva, 97. 5, 7) This is the quintessential kanya that we find also in Devayani soliciting Kacha and Yayati, in Ulupi spiriting Arjuna away and in Urvashi approaching Arjuna. After being turned down, Ganga enchants Pratipas son Shantanu, extorting a promise that he will never interfere in anything she does. Behind the puzzle of the heartless sport of drowning her new-born sons lies a deeper meaning that, when understood, divests her of chaotic capriciousness and gives rise to a new cosmos of understanding. That is precisely what Veda Vyasa does, creating a new archetype of meaning, which the spouses of these wondrous maidens fail to achieve.

Going to the root of the modern problem of insecure marriages, Jung pinpoints the cause as the desymbolized world we live in now in which man struggles to relate to h is anima outside himself by projecting her on numerous women although, paradoxically, she is the psyche within that he must commune with. That is perhaps the message hidden behind the hint to keep ever fresh the memory of the five maidens so that we become conscious of the anima-projection.

In this context Nolini Kanta Guptas study of these maidens is of importance and tallies quite remarkably with the Jungian insight into the meaning of being a virgin. He points out, In these five maidens we get a hint or a shade of the truth that woman is not merely sati but predominantly and fundamentally she is shakti. He notes how the epics had to labour at establishing their greatness in the teeth of the prejudice that woman must never be independent, but always be a sati, known for her single- minded devotion to her husband. This he describes as the subjugation of Prakriti to Purusha, typical of the Middle Ages. The most ancient relationship, he says, was the converse: Shiva under the feet of his goddess-consort.

In Mahabharata we find confirmation of the freedom enjoyed by women in the past.

In the Adi Parva Pandu tells Kunti: in the past, women were not restricted to the house, dependent on family members; they moved about freely, they enjoyed themselves freely. They slept with any men they liked from the age of puberty;


they were unfaithful to their husbands, and yet not held sinful the greatest rishis have praised this tradition-based custom; the northern Kurus still practise it the new custom is very recent. (122.4-8) Pandu narrates the story of Uddalaka explaining to his outraged son Shvetaketu, when his mother is taken away by a Brahmana in their presence, This is the Sanatana Dharma. All women of the four castes are free to have relations with any man. And the men, well, they are like bulls. (122.13-14) The account of Ulupis and Urvashis behaviour with Arjuna and of Gangas with Pratipa are instances of the type of freedom characterising the kanyas nature. In these kanyas we find the validation of Naomi Wolfs celebration of women as sexually powerful magical beings. By the time of Pandu, however, the Aryans settled around Sarasvati-Yamuna had started looking down upon their Northern brethren and even classed themsuch as the Madraswith Mlecchas, non-Aryans. Karna lashes back at Shalya criticising the loose morals of Madra women who go as they will with any one they fancy.

We moderns also, continues Nolini Kanta Gupta, instead of looking upon the five maidens as maidens , have tried with some manipulation to remember them as sati. We cannot easily admit that there was or could be any other standard of womans greatness beside chastity Their souls did neither accept the human idea of that time or thereafter as unique, nor admit the dharma-adharma of human ethics as the absolute provision of life. Their beings were glorified with a greater and higher capacity. Matrimonial sincerity or adultery became irrelevant in that glory Woman will take resort to man not for chastity b ut for the touch and manifestation of the gods, to have offspring born under divine influence a person used to follow the law of ones own being, ones own path of truth and establish a freer and w ider relation with another.

Hence Ahalya Draupadi Kunti Tara Mandodari tatha panchakanya smaranityam mahapataka nashanam. Contemplating ever the virgins five Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara and Mandodari, Destroys the greatest sins. Meaning, contemplating daily upon these five great women who became goddesses by the way they lived. Will destroy even the most grievous sins.