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Five Holy Virgins, Five Sacred Myths
A Quest for Meaning
When Vyasa asked Ganesha to become his amanuensis, the elephant-headed god agreed, provided the dictation proceed without pause. Vyasa, in turn, laid down a condition of his own: nothing should be transcribed without comprehension. To wrest breathing space, he often composed shlokas so abstruse that even the elephant-headed god had to pause, before writing them down, to plumb their meaning. It is not only these Vyasa-kuta in the Mahabharata that challenge comprehension. Even a traditional saying can pose an enigma, raising questions that have no simple answers. We begin a five-part series on the Panchakanyas of the Indian epics, taking as our starting point a Sanskrit verse in praise of these five women, all dancers to a different drum. In their stories, in their choices and the consequences these led to, we find upheld a pattern of values quite other than is conventionally understood to be the case.
here is an ancient exhortation1 naming five maidens as pratah-smaraniya, urging that they be invoked daily at dawn: Ahalya Draupadi Kunti Tara Mandodari tatha Panchakanya smaranityam mahapataka nashaka (Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara and Mandodari: constantly remembering these virgins five destroys great failings.) The verse poses a puzzle worth grappling with. Two things strike us in this verse: the use of the epithet kanya (virgin, maiden), not nari (woman); and the unusual combination of names that redeem, of whom at least two – Ahalya and Draupadi – are ayonijasambhava, “not-of-woman-born”. Of the five kanyas, none quite measure up to the standard of monogamous chastity, commended so overwhelmingly in our culture. Each has had either an extra-marital relationship or more than one husband. Why should invoking 4
these panchakanyas be extolled as redemptive and why, indeed, is the intriguing term kanya applied to them? As we shall see, the key to the mystery of these five ‘virgin’ maidens lies in the type of sexual encounters they have with non-husbands, encounters that are neither rape nor adultery but are, in fact, quite unique. Of this group three – Ahalya, Tara, and Mandodari – belong to the Ramayana, the epic composed by Valmiki, the first seer-poet. Draupadi and Kunti are celebrated in Vyasa’s Mahabharata. At the outset, we need to keep in mind that Valmiki and Vyasa’s great compositions are
designated as kavya, truth perceived by a kavi, a seer-poet. Hence, in evaluating the characters they have created, it is necessary to probe consciously beneath the surface appearance to reach the underlying meaning. When such an exhortation has come down the centuries, it cannot be dismissed as a meaningless conundrum, specially when it combines, as this one does, as many as five myths in one verse.
Ahalya: Crime and Punishment
It is the nobility of her character, her extraordinary beauty and the fact of her being chronologically the first kanya that places Ahalya at the head of the five virgin maidens. She had been true to her independent nature, fulfilling her womanhood in a manner that she found appropriate, though, finally, she is unable to assert herself. The name Ahalya itself has a double meaning: one who is flawless; it also means un-ploughed, that is, one who is a virgin. Her origin-myth 2 states that, having MANUSHI
created this flawless beauty from what was unique and loveliest in all creatures (as was later done to create Tilottama), Brahma handed her over to the sage Gautama for safe custody until she reached puberty. When Gautama handed her back to the Creator, he was so pleased with the sage’s self-restraint that he bestowed Ahalya upon him. Indra, lord of the gods, enamoured of her beauty, had presumed that this loveliest of women was meant for him and resented a forest-dwelling ascetic becoming her spouse. In the Adi (Bala) Kanda of the Ramayana, Vishvamitra tells Rama and Lakshmana that, assuming Gautama’s form in his absence, Indra approached Ahalya saying, “Those craving coitus cannot wait; I crave union, slim-waisted one!” Though Ahalya saw through the disguise, yet out of curiosity (kutuhalat) – the same impulse that impels Kunti to summon Surya – she granted him sexual favours and said, “I am gratified. Now leave this place quickly, best of gods! Protect yourself and me from Gautama in every way.” As Indra was leaving, however, Gautama returned. By his curse, Indra’s testicles fell off. Another version in the Mahabharata (12.342.23) states that Indra’s beard was turned yellow by the curse. 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, purified of delusion (lobhamohavivarjita), by offering hospitality to Rama, she, fairest of all (varavarnini3) would be redeemed to rejoin him. This account is frank regarding Ahalya’s deliberate choice to satisfy her curiosity. Creation’s sole beautiful woman, she is the archetypal feminine responding to the ardent, urgent, direct sexual advances of the ruler of heaven who presents such a dazzling contrast to her ascetic, aged, forest-dwelling No.141
The Ahalya myth in Orissi patachitra husband. Mortal woman welcomes the intimate touch of heaven’s immortal, driven by that irrepressible curiosity for varied and unusual experience, and a willingness to take risks for it, which is said to characterise the feminine. Although Ahalya already had a son, Shatananda, yet the deepest urges of her femininity remained unfulfilled. The kanya is not just mother but is also beloved, and it is this aspect that had not been actualised in her relationship with Gautama. The first kanya not-born-ofwoman, Ahalya has the courage to respond to the call of her inner urge, but does not challenge the sentence pronounced on her by patriarchal society. Meghanada), bear half the guilt of every act of rape and lose all peace of mind. As for Ahalya, she would cease to be unique as the only beautiful female – other lovely women would be born. (That is why men fall in love with different women, projecting their anima on to them.) When Ahalya protested that she could not recognise the disguised Indra and was not guilty of wilful wickedness, Gautama relented and said that he would take her back after she had been purified through Rama accepting her hospitality. In popular retelling of the myth, depicted often enough on stage and in films and television serials, Ahalya is turned to stone. She regains her form only when Ram, reluctantly, places his foot on her head. In Valmiki, however, there is no petrifaction nor does Rama restore the stone-Ahalya to flesh and blood. These are Katha-Sarit-Sagara innovations. We witness here a male backlash that condemns the woman as soiled even though she may not be at fault, as Rama does with Sita. 5
The Uttara Kanda4 version is exculpatory, as may be expected of a later addition to the epic. Here Agastya states that, infuriated at Brahma bestowing Ahalya upon Gautama, Indra raped her, thus absolving Ahalya of any active role in the liason. Gautama cursed Indra to suffer imprisonment (by
The opposite occurs in the Mahabharata version, told in the Shanti Parva, where the furious Gautama commands his son Chirakari to slay his polluted mother (as Jamadagni ordered Parashurama to behead Renuka), but later regrets his rash command, realising that the fault lies not with his wife but with the lustful Indra. The Brahma Purana 5 has Gautama turn Ahalya into a dry stream and disfigure Indra – who, terrified, has become a cat – with a thousand marks of the vulva. When Ahalya pleads her ignorance, Gautama grants her redemption upon her mingling with the Gautami River. By bathing in the same river, the marks on Indra’s body turn into eyes and he becomes “thousand-eyed” like the Greek Argus. The Shiva Purana 6 features Ahalya in an incident said to have occurred in another epoch (yuga). During a hundred year drought, Gautama’s ascesis resulted in Varuna gifting him an inexhaustible well, because of which his hermitage became a refuge for the distressed, including the Seven Sages. The wives of the Seven Sages abused Gautama’s disciples, insisting on having access to the well first. When Ahalya went to resolve the dispute, they abused her as well and lied to their husbands about what had happened. Blinded by passion for their wives, these sages turned to Ganesha, the vighna-karta, god of obstacles. They had him turn into an illusory cow that fell dead at Gautama’s touch, whereupon they stoned Ahalya and Gautama, driving them out of the hermitage. Shiva cursed the sages and their wives to be outside the Vedic pale, dooming them to perdition. Here Ahalya is a foil to the wickedness of the sages’ wives, instead of being the ‘fallen’ one. The Shiva Purana being later 6
“What were your dreams, Ahalya, when you passed Long years as stone, rooted in earth, prayer And ritual gone, sacred fire extinct In the dark, abandoned forest-shram? Earth Merged with your body; did you know her vast Love, did hazy awareness haunt your stone? …And keep you blindly, dimly, half-awake? …When life’s excited zest Rushed along branching paths in numerous forms To conquer the desert, did it rise in outrage, Circle your stone and crush your sterile curse? Didn’t its pounding blows shake you awake?… Did you, long asleep on her breast, enter That place of oblivion, cool as endless night, Where millions sleep forever without fear, Resting their life’s exhaustion in the dust, Where withered flowers fall in the day’s heat, Burnt-up stars and meteors, crumbled fame, Sated pleasure, grief too tired to sting? There, Earth smoothed with her soothing hand Your lines of sin and stress. Today you shine Like a newly woken princess, calm and pure. You stare amazed at the dawn world. The dew Which moistened your stone at night shimmers now On your black, loosely-flowing hair. The mosses Which clothed you with the green mantle of Earth, Thickened and brightened by each fall of rain, Are now a sari lightly placed by a mother’s Loving hand on your glorious naked limbs. The world smiles; you recognise that smile. You gaze; your heart swings back from the far past, Traces its lost steps. In a sudden rush, All round, your former knowledge of life returns… …Like first Created dawn, you slowly rise from the blue Sea of forgetfulness. You stare entranced; The world, too, is speechless; face to face Beside a sea of mystery none can cross You know afresh what you have always known.” Extracts from “Ahalya” Rabindranath Tagore (trans. William Radice)
than Valmiki’s composition, it is probable that here we see a later redactor’s attempt to re-write the Ahalya myth to remove the stigma of adultery. The Katha-Sarit-Sagara7 version provides a clue to the psychological condition of Ahalya. The story is told to illustrate how evil acts lead to suffering for evildoers. On Gautama’s return, as in the Brahma Purana, Indra flees in the form of a cat and is cursed to be covered with the marks of the vulva he had so coveted. Replying to the sage’s enquiry about who had been in the cottage, Ahalya dissimulates, saying that it was a majjara (in Prakrit meaning both “cat” or “my lover”, because of which a synonym for Indra is Ahalyayaijara). She is punished by being turned to stone, reflecting the social ostracism of transgressing women and their consequent psychological trauma. In the Adi Kanda of the Ramayana, Vishvamitra, who praises Ahalya to Rama, condemns the apsara Rambha to a similar fate for disturbing his ascesis at Indra’s behest. He curses her to become a stone until some sage of great spiritual prowess should redeem her. These are not simply physical transformations (as in the Grimms’ fairy tale of “Faithful John” or Hatim Tai’s “Seven Riddles”), but a deep psychological trauma, in which oppressive guilt virtually throttles the vital spirit, “freezing” the emotions and making the woman socially into a nonperson. Ahalya becomes an automaton, denying her emotions, feelings and selfrespect, shunned by all. Even as a mother, she finds no fulfilment. Shatananda, her son, abandons her in the forest, despite referring to her as renowned (mama mata yashasvini).
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. (It is ironic that though Rama’s visit redeems Ahalya, it is because of his suspicions that Sita decides to suffer fire and later enters exile and oblivion.) Vishvamitra repeatedly refers to Ahalya as mahabhaga, most virtuous and noble. In the eyes of this mighty rebel who proved that a kshatriya could
Ahalya meeting Ram, Deogarh, 5th c. transform himself into the greatest of seers, who presented the world the Gayatri mantra, saved Sunahshepa from being sacrificed and created a second heaven for the outcaste Trishanku, Ahalya was not a fallen woman. 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, divine, enchanting. Like a tongue of flame smoke-shrouded, Like the full moon’s glory ice-reflected, Like blinding sunlight mirrored in water.”
Among the panchakanyas, Ahalya remains unique because of the nature of her daring and its consequence. Her single transgression, for having done what her femininity demanded, calls down an awful curse. Because of her unflinching acceptance of her sentence, both Vishvamitra and Valmiki glorify her. Chandra Rajan, a sensitive modern-day poetess, catches the psychological nuances of her situation: “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.” 8
Tara: Bold Statecraft
On the other hand, Rama, at Vishvamitra’s behest, regards her as blameless and inviolate, as her name No.141
Tara,9 wife of Vali and daughter of the vanara physician Sushena, is the next kanya we meet in the Ramayana. She is a woman of unusual intelligence, foresight and selfconfidence. In the Mahabharata she is called sarvabhutarutajna, able to understand the language of all creatures. In the Kishkindha Kanda of the Ramayana, we see her warning Vali against Sugriva when he comes to challenge Vali for the second time. Appearances are deceptive, she points out; normally no contestant returns to the field so soon after having been soundly thrashed. Moreover, she says, she has heard that Rama, prince of Ayodhya, has 7
Dewi Tara. the Ramayana tells us. as he himself admits while he lies dying. Tara effectively disarms him. Tara is actually Sugriva’s wife whom Vali forcibly took away.” 10 In both the Nrisimha Purana (50. After Vali’s fall. Sugriva is so engrossed in Tara (and not his original wife Ruma) that he remains oblivious to the news. with his uncle Sugriva alive. demands that he kill her too. half-closed eyes and unsteady gait. he says. slim. in her performance of the Pancha Kanya dance in the Mahari Odissi tradition. she acts as Sugriva’s shield while ensuring that her son Angada becomes the crown prince. MANUSHI . When Hanuman asks her to stop grieving and place her son Angada on the throne. In this account. He pays a fine tribute to his wife. interprets Tara’s predicament as a story that reflects our present crisis. but Vali snatched her away and married her. in the Balinese dance Kebyar. suspects that Tara might be favouring Sugriva and therefore rejects her advice. by also depicting her as not born of woman. Tara fearlessly intervenes. SuVali. The Thai Ramkien states that Vali was given a trident and Sugriva got Tara. Tara curses Rama to be slain by Vali in a future birth. Surely that woman was the remarkable Tara for. 11 Dr. This is confirmed in the Mahanataka and the Ananda Ramayana where the hunter who causes Krishna’s death is Vali reborn. whereas Sugriva is a mere vanara (a forest dweller). Sugriva married Sushena’s daughter Ruma. Vali. imploring Ram to ensure that tapasvinim Tara is not insulted by Sugriva and advising Sugriva to follow Tara’s advice unquestioningly. back from his brother. since. Tara displays her superb ability to marshal information and to intervene in a crisis. When Lakshmana storms into the inner apartments of Kishkindha.befriended him. it is Tara who is sent by the terrified Sugriva to tackle this rage-incarnate. the nectar of immortality. as when tendering advice to Vali. This idea is reinforced when we find that. Tara is said to have emerged along with the other apsaras during the churning of the ocean for amrita. The Telegu Ranganatha Ramayana (4. She urges Vali to anoint Sugriva as the crown prince and live in peace with him. To ensure that her son 8 Ga nje e fa C ar d: Laks hm a na ara &T Angada is not deprived of his father’s throne.21-27) and the Mahanataka (5. lovely. Subsequently. Tara’s upbraiding elicits Rama’s assurance that Sugriva will protect both her and her son’s rights. unashamed. but also shows great political sagacity. Tara also curses Rama that he will not be able to enjoy the company of Sita for long. Approaching Lakshmana with intoxicated. pointing out that the rebuke is unjustified and details all the efforts already made to gather an army. when attendants report Lakshmana’s arrival. Ratna Roy. The strength of her personality in facing up to the prince of Ayodhya is strikingly portrayed. “Rama helps Sugriwa get his lover. Tara not only rallies the fleeing subjects. When he abuses Sugriva. By brushing aside her wise warning. In the Mahabharata there is an interesting statement in the Vana Parva that Vali and Sugriva fought over a woman. in the Mahabharata account. In several vernacular versions of the epic. he walks into Rama’s arrow. Thus.4) has an even more interesting account of Tara’s origins that aligns her more closely with Ahalya. Then she rushes to Rama and. Tara was then gifted to Vali and Sugriva for the help they had given the gods. she never judges the merit of anything wrongly. this would be inadvisable. She gently reprimands him for being unaware of lust’s overwhelming power that overthrows the most ascetic of sages. In Krittibas’ Bengali Ramayana. she refuses. in assessing a situation and deciding what action should be taken. she becomes her brother-in-law Sugriva’s consort. telling of the plight of women during war. Once again.51). She is skilled. to upbraid Sugriva who has reneged on his promise to track down Sita. in an extremely forceful speech.
We can also interpret her name as coming from the causative form of the verb t.”12 The story appears to be a version of the Oriya Dharma Purana (canto 5). As this second war is inconclusive. fair. giving birth to Angad Yama and Vayu revive her. ignoring social conventions in choosing to leave her ascetic husband for the young and irresistibly handsome Chandra. The Mahari Panchakanya dance composition. Mandodari: The Frog Princess It is with Mandodari. not Brihaspati. There is hardly anything special that Valmiki has written about her except that. When they refuse. By their curse. conveying the idea of a focal point. She warns her husband to return Sita to avoid destruction and has enough influence to prevent him from raping her. has sexual intercourse with her before marriage and she becomes pregnant.’r. Ravana asks the hermits for her hand. the wife of No. the Chandra Vamsa. or perhaps she was Ravana and Mandodari. like Tara. Of her birth. meaning ‘to cross’. with voice like that of a vina (somber and majestic). ‘she who saves’. she is a double of Tara. The hermit. that we face a problem. Like Draupadi. saves the kingdom and her son from ruin. her assessment of the enemy is shrewd and correct. Tara chooses to announce the truth instead of hiding behind the safety of conventions and declares that Chandra. by her intrepid actions Tara. while discussing the highest form of the feminine archetype. refuse to share with the earth any part of their cow’s milk. the frog jumps into the bowl of milk and dies instantaneously. is the father. Mandar and Udar. slender and sharp. 13 Two hermits. however. on his return. Mandodari. it is she who has the last word. she was named Mandodari. Indeed. The name Tara. ‘to traverse’ or ‘to escape’. she despatches her son Maninaga to poison the milk. Once again. with the gait of a white swan.Brihaspati’s Tara The earliest bearer of the name “Tara” is the wife of Brihaspati who runs away with his disciple Chandra. flashing and restless eyes. like Helen with Paris. The curse reverses a former curse and the frog turns into the beautiful maiden. the Goddess of Spiritual Transformation. which suggests that Tara is in some manner a very concentrated essence. Brahma himself requests Tara to declare who is the father of her son. whose fortunes are the stuff of Vyasa’s epic. the asuras. and desired of all men. causing the Tarakamaya war between the devas and their stepbrothers. the dananva Maya states in the Uttara Kanda (canto 12) that she is born to him from the apsara Hema who left him after giving birth (as apsaras do). Tara. A female frog resident in their ashram notices this and jumps into the vessel of milk to save the sages. He. however. Erich Neumann. she splits into two. That is how she becomes the ancestress of the Lunar dynasty. when the devas and the asuras fight again over possession of her son. as we shall see later. sees the frog in the milk and curses it for its gluttony. who is pure. Ravana’s wife and the last kanya portrayed by Valmiki. Rajasthani traditional painting 9 . Pulled in opposite directions by Ravana and Vali. he assumes Vali’s form (like Indra with Ahalya) and spirits her away. Even after the war. Tara is ‘she who ferries across’. therefore.141 Vali. Let us not forget that Tara is the name of the second of the Ten Mahavidyas (the ten Transcendental Wisdoms). let herself be ruled by her preferences. Her name signifies both ‘star’ and ‘the pupil of the eye’. Realising the consequences. Being obtained through ill means. she turns into a kanya whom they name Vengavati and affiance to Vali. Angered. carries an aura of internecine strife. views Tara as the highest evolution of this universal aspect of consciousness. Thus. provides the following myth of her origin: “A snake poisons the milk of a hermit as a frog watches.
9. He remembered the vow of worshipping God but he had forgotten to bring the idol with him. 18 The Khmer Ramakerti account has Hanuman snatch away Mandodari’s clothes to break Ravana’s meditation. After twelve years. The Ananda Ramayana account (1. “The sperm of Shiva which remained dormant in the womb of Mandodari when she was a frog began to develop.. writes. the idol of Parshvanathji worshipped by Mandodari and Ravan began to be known as ‘Shri Ravan Parshvanath.. Mandodari is also ayonijasambhava. womb. by Shiva’s grace. When Hanuman fails to disturb Ravana’s meditation. she exclaims that such a husband were better dead and calls on her dead son to protect her honour. translating and commenting on the epic. her husband’s enemy and brother. it is Parvati who makes the doll and Shiva breathes life into it. and finally gave birth to Indrajit. who has just killed her brother. In order to keep the vow.. Having worshipped God with devotion. The doll is Mandodari. Tara and Draupadi.”15 Here we find another clue to the reason behind her name. On her return. and all-conquering warrior. Like Ahalya. the Sri Alvar Tirth of the Jains celebrates the power of Mandodari’s chastity: “Ravana. Desiraju Hanumanta Rao. By thus sullying her purity. the king of Lanka observed the vow of taking meals only after worshipping God. Mandodari made an idol of sand and invested it with life by reciting the mantra of Namaskar.. the presiding deity made the idol adamantine. Had Mandodari given birth to one or two more Indrajits. whom he has asked for from Shiva. whose beauty causes Parvati concern. In the Mahabharata.’ ”17 Not Her Husband’s Shadow Mandodari’s importance for Ravana is highlighted in certain recensions which describe Ravana performing a sacrifice after his son Indrajit’s death. According to the Ranganath Ramayana. she has Shiva turn Mandodari into a frog. In the Mahanataka. Shiva had intercourse with the apsara Madhura. By virtue of the vow and Mandodari’s chastity. when Parvati was away. Once he was going in a plane [sic] to a foreign country. either at Rama’s behest or because it was the custom among non-Aryans for a new ruler to wed an enthroned queen. That arouses Ravana who attacks Angada to free his wife. an extraordinary fighter.named after the two sages who turned her from a frog into a woman. Shiva restores the frog to human form and gives her to the danava as his daughter. the frog took the form of Mandodari who was adopted by Maya and Hema and became the wife of Ravana. When Maya begs for children. The Thai Ramakien provides a fascinating parallel with the Ahalya story and the myth of Vishnu assuming Shankhachuda or Jalandhar’s form to seduce his wife Tulsi. performed to make her husband immortal. “When Shurpanakha was claiming herself a befitting female for Rama. her sanjivani yajna. Parvati turned Madhura into a frog.”16 In Rajasthan. when Mandodari asks Rama what her fate will be after MANUSHI Kadambari Mishra . tearing off her bodice and girdle so that her skirt slips. There is an analogous myth about her origin in the Telegu Uttara Ramayana. Angada drags Mandodari by her hair to Ravana.” Mandodari gives birth to one Indrajit. Upbraiding her husband for shamelessly countenancing all this. Assuming Ravana’s form. Thus. Thus. leaving the ritual incomplete and sealing his fate.33-57) has Vishnu create her from the sandalwood paste smeared on his body to delude Ravana into believing that she is Parvati. as spouse. Ravan and Mandodari kept their vow. a dozen Ramas have to take incarnation. 19 Like Tara. he landed near Alvar to take rest. the socalled son of Ravana – Indrajit of Lanka – was an intelligence son [sic] of Shiva. Hanuman embraces her. and belittling Seetha she uses words like krishodari. shaatodari meaning “a female with feeble womb”.14 Once. and she even has a son by him. the rakshashi Hidimba has no hesitation in pursuing her desire for Bhima. So also manda udari “slow. Vibhishana advises Rama to prevent him from completing the ritual. is rendered fruitless. According to this telling. Mandodari had learnt the secret of preparing amrita from Uma. once again. When it was time for lunch. Mandodari accepts Vibhishana. not-of-woman-born.lady with 10 slow conception. who came to Kailash to worship him. son of Ravana.
(Delhi: Rajpal & Sons. Furious with his violating women during his conquests. 298. canto 87 (Aryashastra recension. like Satyavati and Kunti later.141 Kadambari Mishra as shadows of such strong personalities as Vali and Ravana. Tara. Kolkata 1964) also known as Bala Kanda. Birla Foundation. Also Brahma Purana 87. Tara and Mandodari are parallels. The Bengali Krittibas Ramayan. O’Flaherty in The Origins of Evil in Hindu mythology (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. Sudhirchandra Sarkar’s Pauranik Abhidhan (Calcutta: M. so this must be another Ahalya.219. Endnotes 1 “Ahinik Sutravali”. Three of the five kanyas (Ahalya. cf. Damayanti. All these are aspects of the supreme Prakriti herself. 11 . Durga. embellishing the palace with her loveliness”) for Sita in Ravana’s palace. celebrating famous women as emanations of the goddesses Lakshmi. Mandodari shows she is not her husband’s shadow. 1994). 3. Tara and Mandodari can never be described No.44. 21 This is perhaps the reason why we see Hanuman in the Sundara Kanda of the Ramayana mistaking Mandodari (“resplendent in bejewelled ornaments. Ravana had stored blood drawn from ascetics in a pot and kept it with Mandodari.uk/ cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0302&L=indology& D=1&F=P&O=D&P=8493) a similar sloka in the Brahmavaivarta Purana. Mandodari) are mentioned here.15-34 (Aryashastra recension. fair. 1988) p. 2nd edition. of West Bengal and International HRD Fellow.25-27 summarised by W. Both offer sound advice to their husbands who recklessly reject it and suffer the ultimate consequence. wife of king Harishchandra in some Puranas and an example of a sati. they are able to keep their kingdoms strong and prosperous as allies of Ayodhya. and. There is no encounter with Indra in this story. but has not seen it himself (personal communication).D. This shloka forms part of Orissa’s dying Mahari dance composition. Bharatiya Sanskriti Kosh by Liladhar Sharma ‘Parvatiya’. both deliberately accept as their spouse the younger brother-inlaw responsible for the deaths of their husbands.7 specifically mentions puberty as the time when Ahalya is to be returned to Brahma. she broke his injunction not to drink from the pot. Prakriti khanda (16. 4. 4 Ramayana: Uttara Kanda 30. Sarkar & Sons. The Guru told Dr. discards the newborn infant in the field Janaka ploughs to discover the orphan Sita. p. beautiful. 7 Somadeva’s Katha Sarit Sagara. Taranga 17 translated by V. The consequence is that she becomes pregnant. 1996) p. Roy that the text was by Ratnakar Bandhu (personal communication). In Harivamsa 31. The Adbhut Ramayana (canto 8) provides more insight. and they are able to continue to have a say in governance. complementing Tara’s curse on Rama. goldencomplexioned. The verse was not found in the editions of this Purana available in Calcutta. Sharma also cites the Brahmanda Purana. Calcutta. 5 Brahma Purana.P.113. By doing what she felt moved to do. Radhika.the war and the death of her husband. 1963) has an entry on “Panchakanya” (p. 3 Ramayana: Uttara Kanda 30. Ganga and Yamuna (Manasa in the Bengal recension) – Ahalyarundhati mena tara mandodari para Damayanti vedavati ganga ca manasa tatha. Sarasvati. Mena.46. 502. 8 Chandra Rajan: Re-visions (Calcutta: Writers Workshop. 9 Not to be confused with Tara. 2 Ramayana: Adi Kanda 48. Thereby. Brahma Purana 87. To be continued The author has written 22 books and numerous papers on Indology and Comparative Mythology. the Oriya Balaramdas Ramayan. Jan E. along with Arundhati.287) giving these five names. Vedavati. Houben notes (http://listserv. not created by Brahma.68). nor is Menaka called an apsara.M.C.ac. and they are the cause of all that is auspicious. ManchesterUniversity.20 Vernacular versions of the epic have Mandodari curse Sita that she will be abandoned by her husband. 62 where Ahalya cites the ashram guards as witnesses that Indra deceived her by assuming the sage’s form and therefore she is not at fault. Savitri. telling her that it contained deadly poison. he prohibits her from committing sati and advises her to rule by Vibhishana’s side. 12. Then. Dr. etcetera.7. preceptor of the gods who elopes with his disciple Chandra. kept alive by Padma Sri Guru Pankaj Charan Das. 1987) p. Vadhryashya is the son of Maudgalya who is one of the five sons of Vahyashva after whom the kingdom was named “Panchala”. He is a Principal Secretary to the Govt. the Thai Ramkien and the Mahari dance composition all refer to Mandodari marrying Vibhishana. Ratna Roy and Ritha Devi. 1983).liv. 6 Shiva Purana. or with Taramati. his disciple Dr. Balasubrahmanyam (Calcutta: M. wife of Brihaspati. mistress of the royal inner apartments. 31-34 she is one of the twins (king Divodasa being the other) born to Vadhryashva and Menaka.
The Kind of Writing We Look for: We seek out writing that brings new. If you are sending hard copy manuscripts. neglected or unexplored information to light. 2 0 Bulcke op.htm. which carry sweeping generalisations and unsubstantiated opinions. virtuous in spite of her second marriage. 1 7 www. 1 6 www. The new temple was built in the year 1654 of the Vikram era. m u r n i s . c o m / Valinesedances. 476.. Demons and Spirits. o l y w a .cit. Dr. fire.htm) and that the emphasis is on the purity of these women because they did not break any humanistic codes. Ravana’s brother.net/kishkindha/ sarga58/kishkindha_58_prose. and the idol was reinstalled in the year 1983 of the Vikram era. We discourage writing that strengthens existing stereotypes . Atikaya and Akshakumar. poetry and reports of important events from regional languages. 3rd edition. please make sure they are neatly typed in double space and come with a self. We welcome submissions through e-mail because that saves us the bother of retyping the selected manuscripts.cit.valmikiramayan. pp. Ananda Ramayana 1. Rama sanctifies Ahalya.jaintirth. 1971).11. Ratna Roy writes that.10 h t t p : / / w w w .362-4) provides several references to Jain versions and the Mahabhagavata Purana canto 42 that tell of Sita as the daughter of Mandodari. 636-7. whose lives have been inspirational for others.10. We are especially keen on writing that describes positive contributions made by individuals or groups.” 2 1 Bulcke (p. 141. 1978) p.469. Ravan Parshvanath is mentioned in many ancient scriptures and tirthmalas written from 1422 to 1689 of the Vikram era. 18 Adhyatma Ramayana 6. 476 that Mandodari has 3 sons: Meghanada. quoted www.uni-giessen. especially women. stories. Camille Bulcke: Ramkatha—utpatti aur vikas (Hindi Parishad Prakashan.d a v i d / panchakanya.133-135. in Part X of the Mahari Panchakanya dance: “In celebration of his victory.de/ ~gk1415/amorous-gods-andgoddesses. Singh. p.htm However. especially women. The Kind of Writing We Avoid We avoid publishing articles.D.htm 1 1 op. canto 269 as having the incident as well.cit. 1 4 Vettam Mani: Puranic Encyclopaedia (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.. Rama places Bibhisana. We encourage writing that focuses on concrete life situations and struggles of specific groups of people. Padma Purana Uttara khanda. n e t / r a t n a . Tara and Mandodari at the climactic moment of the dance drama. 1 2 Parts III and IV of Guru Pankaj Charan Das’ repertoire presented by Dr. water. We Invite You to Write for MANUSHI We are happy to consider the writing of even those who have never written before. We urge you to send us profiles (not hagiographies) of people.org This ancient temple survived till the fifteenth century. 540. 1 9 Bulcke ibid. Bulcke op. She states that the five elements – earth. We are sceptical of accounts of struggles and movements where inconvenient facts are swept under the carpet to present an unrealistic rosy picture. 1 5 Dr. Vettam Mani’s Puranic Encylopaedia states on p. p. 1975) p.229. Ratna Roy. 12 MANUSHI . We do not consider for publication articles already published or submitted elsewhere. We welcome translations of analytical articles.negative or positive. S. Abraham Kovoor: Gods. (p. 1 3 Fr. in different regions and communities. 579) refers to the Telegu Dvipada Ramayana 6. We want to give more coverage to the work of those who have provided innovative solutions to issues they took up and problems they chose to work on. Polyandry in Ancient India (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.addressed stamped envelope. on the throne of Lanka and blesses Mandodari as his bride and queen. Prayag Vishvavidyalay. air and ether – represent the five virtuous women ( w w w. only the strictures of an orthodox patriarchal society. We appreciate contributions that provide new and critical insights into our cultural and literary heritage.
she frankly states that she had desired (sprihayanti) Surya. Draupadi. to wed. to the vagaries of the eccentric. Surya. In the Mahabharata.142 K not to neglect any service out of pride in her beauty. Once summoned. Kuntibhoja himself hands her over. In the account she gives much later to Vyasa. Draupadi and Kunti are not only closely related to each other as daughter-in-law and mother-in-law. Tara and Mandodari . She wishes to test whether Durvasa’s boon really works. on the Panchakanyas of the Indian epics. Kunti chooses the scion of Hastinapura. but are also parallels. and she stipulates that the son 21 . takes its starting point from a Sanskrit verse in praise of five unusual women: Ahalya. is curious. this desire arises in her after she has menstruated. By birth. we find upheld a pattern of values quite other than is conventionally understood to be the dominant code for women in our epics. arriving virtually out of nowhere as the adopted daughter of Drupada. Pandu. This rankles deep within her. Large-eyed and wellendowed. in adolescence. as her name Pritha connotes. will not return unsatisfied. or Pritha.PART II: FIVE HOLY VIRGINS. The interaction that she describes after this between her and the sun god. again reminding us of Ahalya when approached by Indra. He cajoles and browbeats the girl. she is warned. she finds no mother. one of the major shapers of epic action. Surya. is the daughter of Shoora of the Vrishnis.62-64). she had not given way to it (XV. Significantly. she tells him that despite Durvasa’s conduct having been such as to provide abundant cause for anger. Kunti. and threatening to consume the kingdom and the boon-bestowing sage if denied. becomes the common wife of the Pandavas and the cause celebre of the epic. and that she obeyed out of fear of his curse. Draupadi. She further states that she was constrained at the sage’s insistence to accept his boon.30). Kunti. FIVE SACRED MYTHS Of Kunti and Satyawati Sexually Assertive Women of the Mahabharata Pradip Bhattacharya Our five-part series. Growing up in Kuntibhoja’s apartments. assuring her of unimpaired virginity. Perceiving a radiant being in the rising sun she invites him. Should she displease the sage. In her account to Vyasa. irascible and fiery sage Durvasa. and Kuntibhoja exhorts her No. like Indra. unti and Draupadi are two women who shape the entire course of dynastic destiny in the Mahabharata. in their choices and the consequences these led to. whereby any god would be compelled to answer her summons. and becomes the mother of the epic’s protagonists: the Pandavas. she is strikingly lovely. A thrilling conflation of desire and fear overpower Kunti’s reluctance. Kunti’s relationship with Durvasa does not appear to have been easy. king of Panchala and rival of Hastinapura. given away when just a child to her father’s childless friend Kuntibhoja. it will dishonour her guardian’s clan as well as her own. like Ahalya with Indra. begun in issue 141. is exactly similar – the same insistence and the same fear.90. she voices her resentment pointedly both before and after the Kurukshetra war (V. Kunti. she is a Yadava and her brother’s son is Krishna. using the mantra. In their stories.
seized Matsyagandha again for intercourse. your ascesis or the scriptures? Your family name is spotless. she muses: “Oh! mad to possess me this dvija has lost his senses. Kshirodeprasad Bidyabinode struck home in his Bengali play Nara Narayana (1926). In her previous birth. and says (my translation): “What you are about to do. has Durvasa’s boon that. O Indra among Brahmins. she gives in to him on two conditions: that her virginity shall remain unimpaired and that the disgusting body-odour that attends her be removed. enchanting. the sage Parashara. before giving in to Dushyanta’s importunate advances. Best of the twice-born! You are highborn. if raped. too. my translation) Kunti wins two boons from the encounter: her own virgo intacta and special powers for her son. she will regain her virgin status1 . A virgin’s curiosity and his shameless lust. daughter of the pitris (manes). daughter of apsara Menaka and king-turnedsage Vishvamitra. Kali smiles. plying her boat across the black Kalinidi (Yamuna) with a lone passenger. she spoke to the sage before her: “O best of sages! My body stinks. When Parashara grasps her right hand. Quivering. He’s unstoppable. He’ll upset the boat and drown. to Madhavi. Yojanagandha. Just as Satyavati’s illegitimate son Vyasa protects the Pandavas. my body stinks of fish. it is Kunti’s illegitimate son Karna who becomes the mainstay of the sons of Dhritarashtra and. the illegitimate ashramite Shakuntala. befits it your ancestry. Little is written about Satyavati in the Mahabharata although she transformed the fortunes of the royal lineage of Hastinapura despite her low-caste origins. dharma-knowing. the sage. (IV. enslaved by desire? Best of Brahmins! Rare is human birth on earth. O dharma-knower. annoyed. Thus. Can’t you sense it? Making love ought to delight both equally. Making his beloved musk-fragrant. also repeatedly challenges the authority of the family head. Satyavati the Queen-Mother. daughter of the lunar dynast Yayati (to whose lineage she belongs). But reaching the other side. pragmatically concerned that he might upset the boat in midstream. what is this you crave. because of her dark complexion. We meet Satyavati in the epic and in pauranic accounts as an adolescent fisher-girl called Kali. with his succinct.2. that the offspring of their union alone would inherit the throne of Hastinapura. He’s desperate. king of Hastinapura. desire-tormented. Bhishma. yet why do un-Aryan feelings arise in you? O twice-born! Your wisdom is doubtless most prescient.” Suta said Parashara heeded her well-meant advice. scripture-versed. cursed to be reborn of apsara-turned-fish Adrika. lovely. yet profound. In this she is remarkably akin to her grandmother-in-law. of Vashishtha’s clan are you.2 She resembles an early queen of the lunar dynasty. Her hand he left and sat quiet. his heart’s pierced by desire’s five arrows.” Then the girl tells the sage: “Great one. who presses her to satisfy his desires. Specially rare in men is Brahmin birth. description of this encounter placed on Karna’s lips: A maiden’s misstep. who swallowed king Uparichara Vasu’s semen. but what auspicious marks do you perceive in my body that you crave me thus? Does desire so possess you that your own dharma you forget?” So saying. in a flash she turned fragrant-for-a-yojana. be patient till we reach the other bank. 3.” As she spoke. Satyavati is named Achchhoda. virtuous. ever so mature. Kali the Matsyagandha (she who stinks of fish) transforms into Yojanagandha-Gandhakali (she whose fragrance can be smelled across a yojana) who later will captivate Shantanu. who insisted.1-36). beautiful. MANUSHI Aditi . a god’s prurient curiosity. and to the Yadava Bhanumati who.thus born must be like his father. like Vyasa. She obviously engaged the imagination of later redactors in the Harivamsa and even more so in Devi Bhagavata Purana (II. Hence. ever so much in control. Finding 22 him importunate and.
Hence. Then auspicious Satyavati told the sage bent on coitus. desire-tormented. Even after becoming musk-fragrant she does not give in. This fisher-girl’s striking character emerges from this interaction.the sage. Coitus is prescribed for men only at night. Act that my virgin status isn’t ruined. Such beastly conduct doesn’t please me. lest in forcing her he should capsize the boat. Once again. Though she has but just reached puberty. brings great disrepute. what shall I do? Tell me!” Parashara said. O tiger among twice-born. what shall I tell my father? When. In daylight it’s grievous sin. Raja Ravi Varma’s version of the Satyavati myth 23 . ask what boon you will. Reaching near the other shore. hoping his passion will have cooled by then. never to have any contact with her again. you leave. “From the bank all people and my father can see us. not in daytime. Instead. wondrously gifted. if you fear. seized her right hand.” Satyavati said. she takes care not to refuse him outright. “Best of twice-born. Parashara swoops upon the consenting maiden. With a maturity and frankness that astonishes us even in the twenty-first century. objecting to beastly coupling in daylight in public. May my youth be forever fresh. a No. What of me? If today I’m pregnant. Then the desirable woman spoke to the sage in dulcet tones: “I’m a virgin. you shall again be virgin. Hence. resisting his advances with remarkable presence of mind. She buys time till they have crossed. O best of sages. It disgusts me. Yet Kali still does not give in and raises the ultimate objection: what will her status be when he has deflowered her and departed? No one will point a finger at the highcaste sage. Yet. woman. May my body be forever fragrant. you’ll depart where you will. but what about her? With a maturity that is astounding for an uneducated pubescent girl.142 sage. It is daylight. Grant this desire of mine. ever new. today having delighted me. “Beloved. wise one.” Assuring Kali of her son’s fame as arranger of the Vedas and author of the Puranas. wait till nightfall. But infallible is your seed. As the mist arose deep darkness shrouded the bank. the sage bows to the logic of her arguments and raises a screen of mist. O Brahmin. she harbours no illusions that the sage might wed her. the sage bathes in the dark waters of Yamuna and leaves. Enjoying me. ever you honour others. if seen. the generous sage at once shrouded all in mist by his powers. May your son be like you. Having sated himself. she reads him quite a lesson in propriety. she voices her irritation and disgust at his animal lust and draws attention to her own repulsive body-odour more than once. Noticing his violent passion. enjoying me. does not overawe her. howsoever famous.” Finding her words proper. she points out that coitus ought to be mutually enjoyable. Act that neither my father nor anyone knows anything.
The bringing her illegitimate son into the limelight. clear-headed and assertive of their emulate her in acknowledging her illegitimate son Karna. she achieves to beget children on the widowed princesses. Dhritarashtra and Pandu carry no part of the After intercourse she does not become dependent on lunar dynasty’s blood in them. the Satyavati goes on to take Hastinapura. into the lineage of a dasa maiden and Shantanu. Satyavati turns the renowned Chandravamsha. Her disregard of social not even any anguished query about the child to be opprobrium stands out all the more when we find that born. purpose of the encounter fulfilled. No romantic hope is expressed of meeting again. Modern-day women could well wish that they were her royal granddaughter-in-law Kunti does not dare half as confident. and one that women Because of his vow of all times. Parashara. blood that will run Conceived the through the ruling same day line of Hastinapura From her by forcing her intercourse with princely son Shantanu falls in love with Satyavati Parashara. she come forward. her to marry him.3 Vi c h i t r a v i r y a ’s Matsyagandha is careful to tell the sage that. by clinging to him or insisting that the moment Satyavati does not suffer from high-caste hesitations in be made eternity through formalised marriage. When a love-struck Shantanu asks brings about a fascinating reversal in pauranic history. of celibacy – everywhere. who was slain by the Brahmins 24 MANUSHI . have ironically the fruit of craved. stepbrother and sire forever fragrant – a sons on the widows gift that was Helen’s. who is instead ruled by her. being widows to be impregnated by the son of her union with ruled by her father. When she then breaks away from stepbrother of Vichitravirya he has the social sanction this.she obtains agree to the assurances of wedding only if her regaining her virgin progeny succeed to status and of the the throne. by storm. When have been taken care fate plays her false of does she allow the and both her sons eternal feminine to die childless. she is not at liberty to respond to Parashara. Now she And she. offspring. she once again displays her The epic and the Puranas say that the world’s first characteristic far-sightedness by insisting that she will monarch was Vena. mixed-caste Vyasa. no guilt. ecstatic ensures that it is her with her boon. first asks Bhishma desiring to remain to do his duty as forever young. As the Parashara’s demand. both break off without she makes him the decisive factor in the fortunes of any lingering backward glances or mushy sentimentality. to assert her independence of action. by levirate (niyoga). Hastinapura. the illegitimate. desires and goals as Satyavati. The that “one-in-herselfness”4 that is unique to the virgin. and its king lunar dynasty. The her own stipulation Mahabharata that her children version provides a must not have any fascinating glimpse rival claimants to into the feminine the throne – he psyche: refuses. Thus fame of her she manoeuvres the illegitimate offspring. Rather. rivalling the shadowy authority of Bhishma. crown prince Only after these Bhishma out of practical aspects reckoning. With her low-caste birth.
Harivamsa 18. and tried to put him off peacefully. 5 Vishnu Purana I. he refuses to beget sons on the widows of her royal son Vichitravirya. The Devi Bhagavata Purana records a very important detail absent in the Mahabharata. she argues that even the improper directives of elders ought to be obeyed and that such compliance attracts no blame. each abandoning her pre-marital first-born to fate. In this. Vishnu Parva 90. while the other seduces him into fathering her sons in secret.24. Kunti parallels Satyavati. who turned pale with shock on seeing Vyasa. and their profession is plying ferries. during the period of mourning after Shantanu’s death. Delighted to hear of the births of his stepbrothers. and intercourse with the wives of others is a grievous sin. born to their aunt Ambika by Vyasa. 25 . All translations are from this version unless otherwise specified. she reminds us of the earliest queens of the lunar dynasty: the Brahmin Devayani and the Asura Sharmishtha.15 Vyasa laments that his mother abandoned him immediately after his birth. When this failed.26-45. deprived of its birthright. of West Bengal. This incident explains Satyavati’s desperation for heirs.5 It is this nishada tribe. at the end of the mourning period Bhishma killed Ugrayudha whose discus had. London. Vyasa returns to his birthplace in search of his mother.24. Vidura and his father Vyasa become the protectors of the niyoga-born Pandavas against the conspiracies of their uncle. Satyavati once again displays her mastery of realpolitik. However.28). finds out from the fishermen that she is now queen and. born from Ambalika.94 6 She is of the dasa race. just as.83. Mahabharata Shanti Parva 59. not of the mother-inlaw.24.13. snub-nosed human whom they named Nishada. in the meantime. There was yet another. In the Harivamsa 7 Bhishma tells Yudhishthira that. particularly when it will remove the sorrow of a grieving mother. P. Pandu.56). In both cases the younger wife charms her husband into giving her what she craves. 1971. 103. which shows what a ravishing beauty she must have been. Ambika’s sister and co-wife Ambalika’s son Pandu.25. is sickly and unable to have children. The ministers did not allow the affronted Bhishma to attack Ugrayudha. which is precisely what Gandhakali was engaged in. has his wives Kunti and Madri beget sons for him employing the same means – levirate (niyoga) – by which he was born of Vyasa. Parashara and Shantanu were not Satyavati’s only conquests. wishing to be near her. Madri betters Kunti. Esther Harding: Woman’s Mysteries.46-48). Writers’ Workshop. is himself blind. Bhishma explains in the Anushasana Parva 48. she was compelled to be all too conscious of the greedy eyes of neighbours on the empty throne of Hastinapura. generations later. Harivamsa 18. desperate to propagate her lineage to keep the throne secure (her grandson Pandu inherits this trait. he received a demand from the usurper of Panchala. Ugrayudha Paurava. Dhritarashtra. Satyavati daseya (of the dasas. settles on the banks of the Sarasvati. She pays special attention to Vidura.21 that offspring of a Nishada and a Sairandhri (an orphan working as a servant maid) of Magadha are called madguru or dasa.45 narrates Achchhoda being cursed to be born as Daseya Satyavati.50-73 1 2 The author has written twenty-two books and numerous papers on Indology and Comparative Mythology. ensuring that he is brought up with the two princes Dhritarashtra and Pandu as their brother to become the undisputed conscience of the throne. born from Vyasa’s encounter with Ambika. Niyoga was permissible for a widow only at the instance of the husband (as in Kunti’s case. as Bhishma calls her6 ) accomplished it in Hastinapura.because he refused to obey their dictates. Grievously upset by the death of his son Shuka. his survival he attributes to chance. invincible because of his dazzling discus. How prophetic! Dhritarashtra. lost its power because of his lusting after another’s wife. successfully out-manoeuvring the elder.142 ever be a source of happiness (VI. they churned his right thigh and produced a short. 3 Adi Parva. 1968 ff. to hand over Gandhakali in return for considerable wealth. born of Vyasa and her daughter-in-law Ambika’s low-caste maid. who shut her eyes in revulsion. 7 Harivamsa Parva XX. finding his appearance not kingly enough. craving son after son). 63. 4 M. Rider. slipping a move past her co-wife Devayani. whose fortunes are restored by Satyavati. Lal: The Mahabharata verse-by-verse transcreation. “Hungry for grandsons”. Vyasa even tells his mother that preserving the dynasty by adopting such heinous means is improper (VI. To be continued Endnotes Harivamsa. as they are like his daughters. In relentlessly pursuing her ends. dark. Seeking a successor. Vyasa wonders whether progeny born of perversity (vyabhicharodbhava) can No. He is a Principal Secretary to the Govt. unable to father children. p. When Bhishma urges Vyasa to obey his mother he gives in and engages in what he describes as “this disgusting task” (VI. References to the Sanskrit text are to the Aryashastra (Calcutta) edition. Calcutta. Long before Mahapadma Nanda established what is known as the first shudra dynasty in the country. The one virtually forces king Yayati into an inter-caste marriage.76-77. they assigned him the forest as his dwelling. ordered by Pandu). In VI.
only to find Bhishma snatching away her happiness by marrying him off again immediately to the captivating Madri.121.122. Ambika and Ambalika. 1 Kunti chooses the handsome Pandu in a bridegroomchoice ceremony. the Pandavas. “Not even in thought will I be embraced by another (I. Hence. Finally. Kunti. is a remarkable study in womanhood. (b) the new custom of being faithful to one’s husband is very recent. who had no problems with summoning her illegitimate son Vyasa to keep the Hastinapura dynasty running.122. Satyavati’s granddaughter-in-law. It is.unti. It is in this husband-wife encounter2 that Kunti’s individuality shines forth. but whose wife Bhadra obtained seven sons by embracing his corpse. seeking to understand what makes them such remarkable women. as well as describe what special features characterise all these kanyas. 25 . Pandu refuses to invite death-in-intercourse with Kunti—though ironically that is precisely what he does with Madri— No. 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.7). svayamvara. Ahalya and Mandodari of the Ramayana. I have provided the broad linkages of these characters in a separate box (see opposite page). She insists on accompanying her husband into exile and faces a horripilating situation: her beloved husband insists that she get son after son for him by others. however. eating a meal. Five Sacred Myths “One-in Herself” Why Kunti Remains a Kanya Pradip Bhattacharya In the first two parts of this quest we have explored two of the five kanyas. even when. Draupadi’s brother eavesdrops on their nighttime conversation to ascertain the identity of the ascetics. Nothing must interfere with the chances of Pandu’s restoration to the throne. who died prematurely because of sexual overindulgence like Pandu’s father. Unlike her grandmother-inlaw Satyavati. He then hastens back to report to his father to stop worrying about Draupadi because the ascetics are indeed princes in disguise.19) This Kangra painting ca 1800 painting shows Draupadi. She does not tell Pandu about Karna. is guilty of the sin of infanticide.* and tries to persuade her urging that (a) she will only be doing what is sanctioned by the northern Kurus (I. then their figures are repeated as they lie down to sleep. (c) precedents exist of Sharadandayani. To help the readers through its thickly interwoven maze of relationships. commanded by her husband to procreate children.We are now entering the dense forest of the Mahabharata to discuss Kunti. Kunti does not acknowledge the existence of her premarital son. including kanin (one born to the wife before marriage). he enumerates various categories of sons who are scripturally permissible. while trying to persuade her. Madayanti.5). At first she firmly refuses saying. he quotes Shvetaketu’s scriptural directive for implicitly obeying the husband’s commands: “The woman who. and their mother. Kunti urges Pandu to emulate Vyushitashva. evidence of her resolve to maintain an unsullied reputation.” (I.143 K Part III: Five Holy Virgins. as already she has embraced Surya and regained virgin status by virtue of his boon after delivering Karna. 3 . refuses.” Her statement is somewhat devious.
marries (m. At Pandu’s plea. Shantanu m. Pandu is childless. Vayuà Bhima. No.143 26 . Indraà Arjuna. for begetting a son. an “m. Entrusting her sons to Kunti.122. whom he gifts away in childhood to his childless friend Kuntibhoja who renames her Kunti. a “—”indicates alternative names for the same character. To experiment. The youth dies without progeny. Dhritarashtra rules. Perhaps it is this love. one daughter Duhshala. At his insistence. The Pandavas reach the kingdom of Panchala where Arjuna wins the hand of its king Yajnasena-Prishat-Drupada’s miraculously born daughter Yajnaseni (emerging from the sacrificial altar)Krishnaa (dark)-Parshati (daughter of Prishat)-Panchali (of Panchala)Draupadi (daughter of Drupada). Immediately. she too denies her daughter-in-law Draupadi of any say in choosing her husband and ensures that all her five sons. She summons her illegitimate son Vyasa who is a famous sage by now. Dhritarashtra asks the Pandavas to make their home in the forest of Khandavaprastha. In grief. The latter rules. Karna is rescued by a childless charioteer Adhirath and his wife Radha. just as Kunti was denied the choice of her sons’ fathers. Duhshasana etc. as she is unmarried (see Part II). the choice of the impregnators remains wholly Pandu’s. Kunti uses the mantra to summon Dharmaà Yudhishthira. However. being cursed to die if he ever engages in coitus. even a god. She becomes the common wife of the five brothers. In a svayamvara Kunti m. I fold my palms joining the tips of my lotus-leaf fingers and I implore you listen to me!” (I. Gandhari’s brother Shakuni becomes their advisor. * an “a” signifies “parent of”.” signifies “married”. Bhishma refuses to break his vow and practice levirate on the widows as requested by the Queen-mother Satyavati.This makes no impact on Kunti. Pandu.32) Only now. Vichitravirya m. Shantanu. Duryodhana makes Karna ruler of Anga and his fast friend. Shura of the Yadavas of Mathuraà Pritha. sister of Balarama and Krishnaà Abhimanyu who m. Balarama and Krishna assist the Pandavas in building their capital Indraprastha by clearing the forest of Khandava. wed her. Kunti reveals the ace up her sleeve: where her husband had wanted her to approach some eminent Brahmin. Arjuna m. whereupon she blinds herself by tying a cloth over her eyes permanently)à 100 sons called the Kauravas (Duryodhana.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?” (I. Satyavatià Chitrangada (killed in a duel) & Vichitravirya who becomes king in adolescence. not just Arjuna who won her. Dhritarashtra m. Kunti teaches the mantra to Madri who invokes the twin Ashvinikumarasà Nakula and Sahadeva. Jealous of their cousins’ claim to the throne. Uttara daughter of king Virataà Parikshit who becomes king of Hastinapura at the end of the epic. These are the five Pandavas. She cannot be browbeaten and her character is far stronger than her husband’s. that drives her all through her life. Pandu forces himself on Madri and dies in coitus. who abjures the throne and vows celibacy to obtain the agreement of Satyavati to marry his father. Kunti returns to Hastinapura with the five Pandavas. Reluctantly he agreesà blind Dhritarashtra and pale (jaundiced?) Pandu.) Gangaà DevavrataBhishma (of the terrible vow). The Pandavas flee into a forest where a rakshasi Hidimba m. She gives in only when Pandu abjectly begs her: “Sweet lady. Like her grandmother-in-law Satyavati revealing her final weapon Vyasa to Bhishma only in the last extremity. with Bhishma as regent. princesses of Kashi (Benares) whom Bhishma abducts for this purpose. whose sons Balarama and Krishna are Pritha’s nephews. Yet. The sage Durvasa gives her an incantation (mantra) whereby she can summon anyone. king of Hastinapura. Kunti shares the secret of her mantra only after Pandu has been virtually brought to his knees. A son of Shura is Vasudeva. the Kauravas conspire with Shakuni and Karna to kill them. he exiles himself with his wives in the Himalayas. Ambika and Ambalika. Bhishma pays heavy bride-price and brings Madri as Pandu’s second wife. she invokes Suryaà Karna. and another son Yuyutsut from a Vaishya maidservant when Gandhari was pregnant. Madri dies too.). she has the power to summon any god to her bed. whom she sets afloat in a basket in the river. How pregnantly succinct is Vyasa’s account of Kunti’s encounter with Dharma! Relationship of Characters of Mahabharata to Each Other The sage Parashara forces himself on the fisher-maidKali (dark)Matsyagandha (fish-odorous)Satyavati who is ferrying him across the Yamunaà Krishna (dark) Dvaipayana (born-on-an-island) Vyasa (the arranger). Subhadra. Let us not forget that she had chosen Pandu as her husband from among all the assembled kings. Bhimaà Ghatotkacha. Gandhari (Bhishma had terrorised her father into giving her in marriage. never trumpeted for public Kunti cannot be browbeaten and her character is far stronger than her husband’s. Kunti has no say in it. as the former is disqualified because of his blindness. consumption.122. the main name of the character is given in bold.
and obtained twins.” (I. for he is a stranger. Kunti’s grandmother-in-law.123. who. who is scripturally designated as the proper person to approach when levirate (niyoga) is required.26-28 The jealousy is clear.143 “The wise do not sanction a fourth conception. Dharma is Vidura’s other name. Indra.124. The fact that he accepts her argument shows that the fathers of Yudhishthira. Does this not remind us of another woman whose smile was also so mature and meaningful: the adolescent Kali-Matsyagandha. ‘Give her the mantra. had sought to persuade Kunti pointing out that she would only be adopting the custom of “the northern Kurus”.15). She has had sexual intercourse with four different males (Surya. Dharma. She refuses to be turned into a mindless womb seeded according to her husband’s whim to satisfy his inveterate craving for male heirs. Kunti bluntly refuses.”’ (I. Satyavati-like. Bhima and Arjuna were not gods. Pandu. because Madri has consistently outmanoeuvred her. is brought to the fore when she flatly refuses Pandu’s request to help Madri have more children. Out of her own mouth Kunti appears to condemn herself unawares as falling in the “loose morals” category. He is Kunti’s devara.’” – I. The woman who has intercourse with four men has loose morals. she managed to get two sons. Pandu slinks away before Kunti’s fury “She deceived me”.123. It is a revealing commentary on how Pandu discriminates between his wives. And so. No. Pandu now wants a paragon. Scheming woman! What a fool I was! Had I known. quoting scripture at him. She refuses to be turned into a mindless womb seeded according to her husband’s whim to satisfy his inveterate craving for male heirs. However. while her mastery of scripture is admirable. Indra). Kunti’s last words (“the woman who has intercourse/with five is a prostitute”) bristle with tragic irony. despite the bravado he displays before Madri (“I know that if I ask Kunti/she will not refuse me”). Yudhishthira assures the shocked Drupada that it is the custom of their ancestors for brothers to have a common wife. 27 . “Kunti. I am afraid she will get more sons than I. my lord. Vayu. for that is precisely the category into which she thrusts her daughter-in-law.5 Moreover. We notice the difference when Kunti summons Vayu (I. Thereafter. If she had truly summoned gods. “A son. In the dice-game it is Karna. smiling at the obsessed Parashara? 4 Not content with a virtuous son (Yudhishthira born of Dharma) and a strong one (Bhima born of Vayu). Arjuna is actually her fourth conception. “Hungry for sons”. Later. just as he had quoted Shvetaketu to her: Surya appears at Kunti’s call Kunti shows remarkable control here. Pandu urges Kunti to give him yet more sons.4) There is no coy coquetry here.‘He smiled. I too would have summoned the Ashvins. saying. even in crisis. younger brother-in-law. Here she is described as smiling shyly. In the epic.123. as we have seen above. A need is voiced to someone who is known and it is fulfilled. no bashfulness. As Kunti herself admits to Madri. however. the words subtly give her away. her first-born. much like his grandmother Satyavati. Kunti has the last word where Pandu’s desires are concerned. finding her in the arms of the dead Pandu. said Kunti. Perhaps he might have been anxious. it is the king of the gods. what can I give you?” She smiled. when proposing that Draupadi marry all the Pandavas. the woman who has intercourse with five is a prostitute. Don’t come to me again.83) Kunti shows remarkable control here. because of this very pronouncement. for he does not prescribe to Madri whom she should approach and leaves the choice to her. “With one mantra I gave her. It is significant that all this occurs in the Himalayas where even today in the Garhwal region polyandry is practised. Kunti’s determination to protect her interests. having heard of Gandhari’s miraculously obtaining hundred sons. declares her daughter-in-law Draupadi to be a whore. Then. Pandu would have seized upon this flaw in her argument (“The woman who has intercourse/with four men has loose morals”) and commanded her to have more sons of godly origin. who fathers Arjuna on Kunti.
she can sacrifice six lives to foil him. brothers and sisters. Once Bhishma has provided a roof over her head. particularly the youngest. In the Bhagavata Purana (X. There is none like you… …you are my light. it is the younger brother (stepbrother in this case). As we recall. A grave problem faces us. transcreator of the epic puts it. kith and kin. my guide. Neither Kuntibhoja nor the Vrishnis come forward to provide shelter or support. Madri’s tribute to Kunti brings out the beauty of character that makes Kunti a true leader. “Could I bring up your children/ as if they were mine?” (125. that Krishna and Balarama do not consider her children as their aunt’s offspring. 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. As a widow. Greater in status. As P. With unerring instinct Kunti rallies her sons: “Hai! I am Kunti. sensitive. Kunti.”7 No half-measures for Kunti where the security of her sons is at stake. upbraids Krishna in almost similar terms. Once it is ready. when he visits her in Hastinapura. It is interesting to note the connection between her and her daughter-in-law Draupadi who.125. that her parents. Since infancy.13) The response is immediate.153. A widowed daughter is an unwelcome proposition. friends. bringer-forth of men-children only.“Princess of Vahlika! You are fortunate indeed— I never had the chance to see his face radiant in intercourse. Madri continues.8 Fleeing into a terrible forest. I want your promise now. and I thirst for water sitting in their midst!” (I. lacking that firmness of will that rises above the ego’s petty bounds (Kunti always takes special care of the Madreyas.123.143 lives among enemies.23 Despite the mutual rivalry between the two women. “was Kunti. He even accompanies her at the very end into the forest. later.”— I. disciplined. He saves them from being burnt alive and it is in his home that Kunti takes shelter when her sons are exiled.21). in front of both of us. the Pandavas’ spirits droop.” – I. the first “god” summoned by Kunti.—was drawn to her by the unfailing and sincere respect she displayed and her devoted service. “Instigating Macbeth-Bhima (to set fire to the house)”. people find the bones of six persons and no evidence is left of the Pandavas’ escape. elders. niyoga. she brings up five children in a hostile court.66-68 How true a thumbnail portrait of Kunti! Even as an adolescent girl her adoptive father Kuntibhoja found her exceptionally intelligent. most respect-worthy. despite her kin being powerful. Hence that welcoming smile with which she greets “Dharma” in I. My son. after Bhima has killed the ogre Hidimb he is about to despatch his sister Hidimba who has fallen in love with him. everyone— Brahmins. The insecurity is of such dimensions that she dare not inform anyone but Vidura. what an implacable will we find revealed in what follows! It is Kunti who gets a Nishada woman and her five sons drunk in the festivities the Pandavas arrange in the House-of-Lac so that when it is gutted. I wish it. pure in character and conduct.303. not even Bhishma.Lal. Then. was none other than Vidura. with her utterly helpless fatherless children. nieces and nephews no longer think of her. bereft of relatives and allies. Kunti complains that she is truly most wretched in the world because.157. mother of five sons. Yudhishthira makes out the inflammable nature of the dwelling built for them and plays for time while Vidura’s sapper digs a tunnel underneath the floor for escape.125. known as Dharma’s incarnation in the epic. of Duryodhana’s attempt to poison Bhima and the strangling of his charioteer. who is the first appropriate person to turn to for levirate. With this ruthless holocaust of six Nishadas we realise that the Nishada dynasty Satyavati sought to establish continues only through Dhritarashtra and his sons. It is she who alerts Yudhishthira to mull-out the secret message in Vidura’s parting words couched in mlechchha dialect warning him against an attempt to burn them alive in Varanavata. If Duryodhana can plot fiendishly to burn them alive. although like a deer surrounded by terrible wolves she No.4.”— I.8-13) she upbraids Akrura.19-20). devara. purer in virtue. immersed in a sea of sorrows. You know Hidimba loves you… Have a son by her. none made a single enquiry about her welfare when she was in danger. I do not want a ‘no’ from you. with remarkable foresight. “You are blessed. Kunti swiftly turns to her grandmotherin-law Satyavati’s favourite grandson by a servant-maid: Vidura. It is replaced by the dynasty Kunti founds through her son Arjuna. lasting for just two generations. He will work for our welfare. None in the city and the inner apartments was annoyed with her and even her treatment of servants was praiseworthy (IV. when the Yadavas visit Kurukshetra during a full solar eclipse (X. Again. He proves to be her fast friend and more.49.42) Madri asks.47-49 28 . No wonder Iravati Karve6 surmised that Dharma. Hemmed in by adverse forces. While Yudhishthira only prevents Bhima from killing the infatuated woman. it is Kunti who guards her sons. as earlier she had cast away her newborn son to save her reputation. Sahadeva).
is of inestimable value to them in exile and above all as Arjuna’s saviour from Karna’s infallible weapon at the cost of his own life. an alliance with the forest-dwelling Rakshasas is established. The enforced exile brings her sons into intimate contact with the common people. for “He indeed is a man whose gratitude/exceeds the favour he receives”. though the text does not explicitly say so. their lives had been governed by her and revolved 29 . This is an act of dharma. Now.”—I. her father ’s maternal grandfather. Therefore. save once after the war when she reveals that Karna was his elder brother. she brings up her sons from virtually the lowest economic rung of society to become rulers. Kunti. the Kaunteya dynasty is slowly but surely structured into an entity with multiracial affinities. Bhima was befriended by the Naga chief Aryaka. Overruling Yudhishthira’s frantic remonstrances. in the process turning necessity to glorious gain. 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 from the visit to the svayamvara. those who discharge the duty of pleasing their subjects. she deputes Bhima to meet the ogre instead. I know exactly what I am doing. Kunti now pulls up her son masterfully and then explains the reasons for the decision: “I am not foolish: don’t think me ignorant. In the exchange between mother and son. Arjuna will forge marital alliances with the Naga princess Ulupi and others. Earlier. emerges totally triumphant. Kunti’s foresight perceives that any split among the united five will frustrate the goal of mastering Hastinapura. You are the eldest son of the Pandavas.15) Vyasa had already briefed them that Draupadi was fated to have five husbands and urged that they proceed to Panchala to win her as their common wife. In Panchala she chooses to stay in the hut of a potter. what right had you to expose him like this? have you lost your reason? have our sufferings unbalanced you?”—I. Kunti teaches her sons a lesson in attending to the welfare of the common man even at the risk of their lives.74 Thus.11 Never again will he upbraid his mother in such strong terms. After pointing out that they ought to repay the kindness of their host. I’m not being selfish. In I. in Ekachakra (I.143 Kaunteya dynasty is slowly but surely structured into an entity with multiracial affinities. Kunti knows that the only way to forge an unbreakable bond among the five is not to allow them to get engrossed in different wives. the ability to observe life closely and use the learning from experiences to arrive at swift decisions benefiting her children. Yudhishthira. she reminds Yudhishthira of Bhima’s extraordinary strength and then teaches him a lesson in kingship: “It is a king’s duty to protect even the Shudra if the Shudra seeks protection”—I. so that they develop the feeling for the felt needs of the vast majority that equips them to become true rajas. because of Kunti. To me you are like Bhima himself.164. Yudhishthira exclaims. profound wisdom and practical sense underlying Kunti’s decision. we’ll repay a Brahmin.157. set her apart from and above all characters in the epic. these three are already with their mother when Draupadi arrives with Arjuna and Bhima. Therefore.Ghatotkacha. we’ll gain moral merit… a Kshatriya who helps a Brahmin gets the highest heaven in his after-life. except perhaps Krishna.29 we find Yudhishthira and the two Madreyas slipping out of the svayamvara hall after Draupadi has been won by Arjuna. as it is his turn to become that day’s meal for the ogre Baka.164. apparently rash and fraught with life-risk to their sole protector. as earlier with Pandu. Kunti’s maturity and foresight. Later.15.” —I. Up to then. the fruit of this union. 28 It is precisely in failing to extend this protection to the Pandavas that Bhishma’s greatest failure lay as a Kshatriya. they take shelter with an impoverished Brahmin and discover him in anguish. Yudhishthira’s outburst only shows his failure to appreciate the No.190. two benefits will follow from this act— one. In Ekachakra. Again. “Mother.20-22 Thus the people of Ekachakra are freed from a terrible menace by unknown benefactors. Thus. two.168.164. it is Kunti who instructs her first grandchild in order to ensure his loyalty: “You are one of the Kurus. Kunti’s decision to proceed to Panchala is another step aiming at winning its princess Draupadi to forge a princely alliance with the traditional enemy of Hastinapura and challenge the Kauravas. you should help them. Moreover. even lower down in the caste and economic hierarchy than in Ekachakra.
4-5). and is therefore named to a common wife of extraordinary Yajnaseni. Kunti’s ambition for her children is finally voiced openly when she formally only around her.”— “May your drink be the same. subconsciously. Draupadi is virtually born from the sacrificial fire-altar. Karna points out that being wedded yajna vedi. asks that whatever has been brought Hereafter.143 30 . this time with the help of Vyasa. This first each having instance of her D r a u p a d i removing herself in his heart (I.18 Perhaps. will I not be tainted with untruth?” —I. to the total After this.9 may your food be common. Vayu and Indra) other than her spouse. this ploy is doomed. Dharma.”—I. It “May you be queen of is as though she were bringing into the kingdom of the Kurus practice the Atharva Vedic 9 with your dharma-loving husband injunction : in the capital of Kurujangala. despite all the paeans to Gandhari’s virtues.12).29. 198. her complete failure as a mother to command any respect from Duryodhana only serves to highlight the qualities that make Kunti preeminent among all women in the Mahabharata: “My mother’s will is my will because I think she is right… Isn’t it said that obedience to gurus is a supreme virtue? What greater guru than one’s mother?… To me this is the highest dharma. If that unified blesses Draupadi after the marriage focus is to persist. consulting her when Yu d h i s h t h i r a ’ s invited to the dicespeech to Drupada game. her real father-in-law. Painting by Nandalal Bose emerges from the obedience paid by Kunti’s maturity and foresight.” [III. As Yudhishthira finishes. that something Proof of her must be done so that astonishing her directive does detachment is seen not become untrue in the Pandavas not (I. gather round Kunti’s strategy is proved when the the sacrificial fire Kauravas plan to destroy the unity like the spokes of a chariot-wheel of the Pandavas by despatching round the nave. up the Pandavas. After “discovering” background. I.five husbands. Kunti deliberately beauty. By manoeuvring Draupadi into having No. not five.. Kunti ensures that she has her way. her only worry is place to Draupadi. giving up pride of her “mistake”. Her nephew Krishna comes I bind you together with one forward with Yadava wealth to build common bond. the brothers to Kunti that is unparalleled in the epic. the ability to observe life closely and use the learning from experiences to arrive at swift decisions benefiting her children. And if that happens. from the decisionIt is also a making role leads to magnificent tribute disaster. she immediately appeals to Vyasa: “What dharma-firm Yudhishthira says is right. Kunti retreats into the be shared as usual. she respect and implicit Draupadi marries Pandavas. only a single ceremony: woman can replace her.193. Significantly. The soundness of United.193. For example. I fear my words will become as pointless as lies.209.. she is also protecting herself.197. which is so amply clarifies very unusual in the that the decision context of her overis Kunti’s though arching influence the brothers have over them till the eagerly acquiesced.6] lovely hetaerae to seduce them.17 It is instructive to see how desperate Kunti is that her stratagem is not foiled.10 As usual. 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 four persons (Surya. set her apart. marriage. Hence.30.198.
Kunti’s reply to her bewildered sons’ anguished questions is that she had inspired them to fight so that they did not suffer oppression. shadows thrice to intervene decisively. Instead. She sheltered in the shade of Karna’s dress.132. in order to secure the safety of her sons. this ignores the fact of Karna’s unquestioning submission to Duryodhana. Dhritarashtra and Gandhari. watch your merits waste away.” Kunti’s remarkable perspicacity sensed that Karna would not provide her sons the leadership needed to win back their heritage.” —V. and that having glutted herself with joy during her husband’s rule. Later. When all that she had worked for has been achieved.29 Though Karna rejects her as she had discarded him after birth. in Udyoga Parva. redeem your family honour. he would offer it to Duryodhana. That is why she heroically steeled herself and silently bore the anguish in her heart. the defeat at dice did not hurt me. she assumes the person of Vidula. dissension.144. she has no wish to Kunti has that rare capacity to surprise us that distinguishes the kanyas. like tinduka-wood Do not smoulder away in billowing fireless smoke. to spend her last days serving those who were responsible for her sufferings 31 . she effectively weakens him from within. mincing no words in upbraiding the five to arouse their hibernating manhood: “The princess of Panchala followed all dharmas. with your brothers. to urge Yudhishthira to fight for their rights as Kshatriyas must. To inspire him she repeats a tactic used in the Varanavata exile in the forest: “Can anything be more humiliating than that your mother. she decides to stay back in Hastinapura as a silent but constant and visible reproach to Dhritarashtra about her sons’ violated rights. she wilted in the sun’s heat like a faded lotus garland. 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. they are only aware that he is the detestable charioteer’s son who must be slain for his crimes against Draupadi and Abhimanyu.”11 No. As for the criticism that Kunti remained silent about his birth so long. of all persons. Kunti now adds the climactic motivation: the insult to her daughterin-law. force or negotiation. she astonishes everyone by retiring to the forest with. When her sons are exiled. Moreover. narrating the tale of how she berated her son Sanjaya who was reluctant to face battle after defeat: “Flare up. she tells Krishna. even if briefly.16-18 After this.32-34 To inspire him further. “As Karna tells Krishna.”—V.137.143 To these twin spurs to prick them on. Do not. she decides to stay back in Hastinapura as a silent but constant and visible reproach to Dhritarashtra about her sons’ violated rights. in that apparent failure lies Kunti’s victory.12 Kunti has that rare capacity to surprise us that distinguishes the kanyas. she astonishes everyone by retiring to the forest with.When her sons are exiled. the Kaurava wife waited. friendless and alone. For. Dhritarashtra and Gandhari. he would lead them into serving Duryodhana. she obtains his promise not to kill any Pandava but Arjuna. While he knows that he is battling his mother’s sons. of all persons. choosing the greater good of motivating her sons to win their kingdom over the evil of not acknowledging her first-born. “The Vrishni lady. she takes the conscious decision to undergo the trauma of acknowledging her shame to her first-born. yet in your presence they mocked her— how can you ever forgive this insult? The kingdom lost did not hurt me. gifts. if the kingdom were to be given to him by Yudhishthira. who has come on a peace-embassy. When all that she had worked for has been achieved. Not knowing that Krishna has already failed after approaching Karna with the same secret. Follow the dharma of rajas. recover the ancestral paternal kingdom use gentleness. to spend her last days serving those who were responsible for her sufferings. baiting his offer with the prospect of Draupadi becoming his wife. She reprimands him for abandoning his duty as king and mistakenly believing that espousing peace is the proper dharma. should have to eat other’s food? Strong-armed one.”—V.
all passion spent. an integrated personality on what others think and therefore not.13).15 Making her own way in a virgin is not dependant in this way. or wished for. 304.“married” woman who is dependent summoned. ancient Mesopotamia and Greece. she of the psyche that remains clearer if we study Madri. is independent (IV. 14 Vyasa. virginity is not just a physical naiveté that is associated with Because the kanya is empowered to condition but refers to an inner state “maiden”.enjoy a kingdom won Harding. She is “one-in. or pleased. Madri commits sati.98). relations. Esther does what she may not actually desires (IV. How herself while she is virgineffortlessly she unwed and may not be transcends the symbiotic compelled either to bonds of maternity! maintain chastity or to Seated calmly. untrammelled by any slavish Ambalika. sons and ultimately sublimates the How precisely this delineates Why Kunti Remains Kanya ego. a counterpart or syzygy to some just a physical condition personality that has successfully male. approve of. says Surya. had much sexual She is indeed the experience.143 32 . in the words of Dr M. desire. wish” denoting patriarchal cultures denounced them with “maiden” one who is radiant. Ambika. The concept becomes choose her partner. continues Dr. “belongs to sons to enter into more sexual “The woman who is psychologically herself while she is.305. would be bound to satisfy her who..303. that the what it has come to mean. be liked. Harding. the goddesses of love in of “spinster” nor the meaning “to be satisfied.” On the use Pandu’s hankering after more other hand.’”16 today: the Single Mother. transcending the self to give up the unique quality of the kanyas! It is in the account of Kunti’s life her life reconciled. calm Kanya has neither the pejorative that we find a clue about why she is of mind. The boon of satisfied and pleased with herself. she establishes her ‘married. made whole. as immoral and wanton. she has not more than does not exceed her husband. she yield to an unwanted accepts death as a forest embrace…This liberty of fire engulfs her. keeping her libido “Gandhari blinds herself so that she slavish dependence on under control. “virgin” or kanya celebrated as a kanya. on a who present the exact opposite: the had explained that anyone she particular man.” 17 Ambika and Ambalika but refers to an inner state integrated the animus with its silently accept their mother-in-law’s rationality and heroic predilections to of the psyche that remains command to receive the repulsive master external adversity. “belongs to by her sons. It is Surya who tells the adolescent Kunti while connoted precisely the opposite of Kanya has neither the responding to her summons. but acts as a female The boon of virginity is not in our mythology of the kanya. Its womanhood and the real significance is to be archetype of the modern found in its use as Unique Panchakanya temple in eastern Nepal phenomenon that is of contrasted with such concern all over the world hostile world. whether he wished it or herself”. another. herself”.. “She is not one-inKunti is the pre-eminent example herself. The later strive after. to were called virgins. Gandhari and Subhadra While giving her the boon. Ishtar and pejorative connotations word kanya comes from “kan” Aphrodite. consummation. desired by all. naiveté that is associated to shine. on a particular one son from each of the four Subhadra is just a shadow like her man.” No. She is “one-inrelationships and does not choose to daughter-in-law Uttara. it may be even consummation of applied to a prostitute. connotations of “spinster” nor the Originally. untrammelled by any Simultaneously. Durvasa dependence on another.10. 13 It is action involves the right to profoundly significant refuse intimacies as well as that the epic declares her to accept them…It may be the incarnation of used of a woman who has siddhi.
Dasgupta & Co.120-124. Nrisimha Prasad Bhaduri op. Andal. Kolkata. Kunti shares two of these gods— Indra and Yama/Dharma—as her sexual partners. Journal of the Asiatic Society. 1970). Bombay. See Sri Aurobindo’s superb transcreation of Vidula’s exhortation to her son Sanjaya. whether married or not. has them as her husbands (Vayu and the Ashvinikumaras replace Agni and Varuna). points out an interesting parallel in the Nala-Damayanti story where Damayanti is claimed by four gods—Indra. brilliantly portrayed by Roopa Ganguli. 68 following Irene Claremont de Castillego. and intuitions…A woman. Tara. Bahinabai. p. trim her sails and adapt herself to expediency dependent on what other people think. Satyavati and Kunti? In the next part of this series. Calcutta. or to be approved. vermillion in my hair parting. issue 142. Calcutta.143 . 4 See Part II. Bose: The Call of the Vedas (Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Karna Kunti Kaunteya (Ananda. one-in-herself. 1 6 M.cit. p. profusely illustrated Price: Rs 100 (+Rs 15 postage) Overseas Price: US$ 5 Send your orders to : MANUSHI C1/3 Sangam Estate. Lal Ded. Mirabai Available in an attractive hardbound edition.Mira set out in ecstasy. Nala is the fifth. M. Calcutta. 1 5 I am indebted for this insight to Smt.a beauty more true. Bhaduri points out (op. who was given away by her father the emperor Yayati to four kings and one sage to produce sons. 1991. 8 A brilliant insight offered by Dr. not because of any desire to gain power over another to catch his interest or love. Modesty. needs to learn how to focus her awareness. we will examine if it applies to Draupadi as well. and of Marisha wife of the ten Prachetas sages. XXXVII.C.103. Asim Chattopadhyay: Karuna tomaye Kunti. has Kunti persuade Gandhari and Dhritarashtra to walk towards the flames. Lal: Introduction to Fascicule 19 of Mahabharata (Writers Workshop. made of flowers and buds.115. N. p.P. Endnotes 1 Pradip Bhattacharya: Themes & Structure in the Mahabharata.133. 9 A. Chitra Chaturvedi in her speech on Kunti in the seminar on “Pancha Kanya of Indian Epics” held on 27 December 2003 by the Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre. The translations are from P. see Dr Nrisingha Prasad Bhaduri’s excellent study. 1 0 In the Bengali tele-serial Draupadi (1999). Knowing Woman (Harper & Row. 1991. 1989. 1 2 Pradip Bhattacharya: “Epic Women: East and West—Some Observations”. Karna Kunti Kaunteya (Ananda.Lal’s verse-by-verse transcreation of the epic. red the windows .cit. you go to your house .1 Under Hill Road.all these I threw off my head Flinging away praise and blame. Writers Workshop. Varuna and Yama. V. while her daughter-in-law. Civil Lines.72) this is precisely what Bana says berating Krishna’s grandson Aniruddha’s clan (the Yadavas) referring to Kunti having been a lover four times over Kunti caturnam kamini bhuvi.” Journey into Consciousness (Motilal Banarsidass.).a formless bed is spread. The woman who is virgin. 81. Draupadi. Sarkar. 1 3 Shaoli Mitra.. 262). Janabai. 2 Mahabharata I. Contains accounts of the life and poetry of some of the most outstanding women in Indian history from the 6th to the 17th century . 121. 1995.77). guardians of the four quarters.Mirabai. therefore. Rana. in the Brahmavaivarta Purana (4. who becomes her husband after urging her to accept them first. Avvaiyar. 3 It is curious that Pandu omits the far more apt instance of his own ancestress Madhavi. but because what she does is true…she is not influenced by the considerations that make the nonvirgin woman. 11 Ibid. 1 8 ibid. 1988. Loyal. Calcutta. Calcutta. Delhi-110054. Bombay. in Katha Amrita Saman. 1969). be unconventional. Esther Harding: Woman’s Mysteries. Dr. Tall the towers. Also. Many of these poems had never been translated into English before. 125. emotions. this is precisely what Draupadi does.14. shame. No.Mira set out in ecstasy. Also. Modern Column. 1998). Agni. The tray of remembrance in my hand . p.3.you and I annnot pull together. Toral. 1998). see Dr Nrisimha Prasad Bhaduri’s excellent study. No one can stop you . Muktabai. 1973. New York. family honour .C. 33 No. Mira sleeps on the bed of happiness . indeed. 6 Iravati Karve: Yuganta—the end of an Era (Deshmukh Prakashan.auspicious the hour today. Her actions may. 1 7 ibid. The animus helps her to clarify her purpose and meaning in life. Beautiful armlets and bracelets. Women Bhakt Poets “No one can stop you . Rider. Suprobhat Bhattacharya. I took the narrow path of knowledge. 1968 ff. 1971. p. Auspicious the five coloured necklace. even by herself. 1998) p. does what she does—not because of any desire to please. the human. 126. 5 As Dr. Calcutta. Calcutta.”18 Does not this describe Ahalya. p. welcoming release from this life filled with rejection and loss. not to be liked. 1 4 Charles Breaux explains the role of the animus thus: “A woman’s conscious self is attuned to instincts. p. 120 pages. 7 P. Delhi.She is what she is because that is what she is.
one daughter Duhshala. princesses of Kashi (Benares) whom Bhishma abducts for this purpose. Pandu is childless. Dhritarashtra marries Gandhari (whose father Bhishma terrorised into giving her in marriage.Part IV: Five Holy Virgins. Shantanu. whom he gifts away in childhood to his childless friend Kuntibhoja who renames her Kunti.” the heroine of the Mahabharata: Draupadi. A son of Shura is Vasudeva. Duryodhana makes Karna ruler of Anga and his fast friend. the first recorded instance of a redoubtable Single Mother. Tara. Shura of the Yadavas of Mathura Pritha. etc. being 19 No. let us lay out the broad linkages: The sage Parashara forces himself on the fisher-girl. To experiment. Bhishma pays heavy bride-price and brings Madri as Pandu’s second wife. Vichitravirya marries Ambika and Ambalika. are Pritha’s nephews. discovered in the Mahabharata her grandmother-in-law Satyavati. therefore. Duhshasana. The younger Pandu rules as Dhritarashtra is disqualified because of his blindness. insists that Ambika make good her lapse but the princess sends in her maid to Vyasa instead Vidura the veritable soul of righteousness. Satyavati. Vidura becomes the conscience-keeper of the ruler. Matsyagandha-Satyavati.144 . Satyavati. Immediately. Ahalya. Bhishma refuses to break his vow and practices levirate on the widows as requested by the Queen-mother. Now we meet the last of the five “virgins. she invokes the sun god Surya Karna. born with celestial earrings and armour. becomes their advisor. after whom he is called Radheya. seeking to understand what makes them so special and. The youth dies without progeny. even a god. whose sons Balarama from Rohini and Krishna from Devaki. king of Hastinapura. Karna is rescued by a childless charioteer Adhirath and his wife Radha. Five Sacred Myths She Who Must Be Obeyed Draupadi : The Ill-Fated One Pradip Bhattacharya Draupadi’s emergence by Aditi In the first two parts of this quest we explored three of the five kanyas. who is ferrying him across the Yamuna Krishna (dark) Dvaipayana (bornon-an-island) Vyasa. who abjures the throne and vows celibacy so that Satyavati agrees to marry his father. In the third instalment. To help us through the thickly interwoven maze of relationships. The sage Durvasa gives her an incantation (mantra) whereby she can summon anyone. Reluctantly he agrees to impregnate the two widows “ ” signifies “leading to the birth of” blind Dhritarashtra born from Ambika who shut her eyes in aversion during intercourse and pale (jaundiced) Pandu from Ambalika who became pale from shock at Vyasa’s ugliness. Shantanu marries Satyavati Chitrangada (killed in a duel) and Vichitravirya who becomes king in adolescence. as she is unmarried (see Part II). another remarkable woman sharing features that characterise the kanya. She summons her illegitimate son Vyasa who has become a sage by now. we saw the remarkable character of Kunti. scheming Shakuni.). In a svayamvara Kunti marries Pandu. and another son Yuyutsut from a Vaishya maidservant during Gandhari’s pregnancy. for begetting a son. She blinds herself by tying a cloth over her eyes permanently) 100 sons called Kauravas (Duryodhana. whom she sets afloat in a basket in the river Ashvanadi. marries Ganga DevavrataBhishma. with Bhishma as regent. Gandhari’s brother. and Mandodari of the Ramayana. while en-route Pritha-Kunti.
a departure from the auspicious vedic sacrifice and partakes of the nature of abhichara (black-magic). because of which Upayaja. Here. it is linked to Yudhishthira’s birth. Like Janamejaya’s serpent-holocaust ritual performed by priests in black robes. Jealous of their cousins’ claim to the throne. in which Draupadi is staked and lost by Yudhishthira. Krishna assists the Pandavas in building their capital Indraprastha by clearing the forest.cursed to die in coitus. invocations linked by black magic. ocean-born Tara. too. and treeengendered Marisha (wife of the ten Prachetas).144 Born to Destroy Draupadi’s emergence is an unintended bonus for Drupada who performed the rite for obtaining a son to kill Drona. She appears. Her manifestation does not require the matrix of a human womb and ignores the absence of Drupada’s queen who does not respond to the priest’s summons. Like Athena springing cap a pie from Zeus’ head and Durga taking shape from the combined fury of the gods. to fulfil not Drupada’s purpose but that of the gods. by a skiey heavenly announcement that this lovely. Vayu Bhima. luring the intrigued Indra into the presence of Shiva playing dice with his consort. deathdealing. therefore. The Pandavas flee into a forest where a rakshasi Hidimba marries Bhima Ghatotkacha. whom Drupada approaches first. Her birth is accompanied . Even her very first appearance is as Shri in the Adi Parva (I.34). 20 Yajnaseni-Krishnaa-Panchali If Kunti’s is a death-in-flames. not of woman born. Pandu forces himself on Madri and dies in coitus. 42). These are the five Pandavas. not recognising Shiva. during which there is no death in the world. berates him for not showing respect and is despatched into a nether-world-like cave to join four other arrogant Indras (Vishvabhuk. responding to the Earth’s anguished prayer to lighten her burden of oppressive Kshatriyas. sakhi. Indra Arjuna. In particular. she is ayonija-sambhava. he exiles himself with his wives in the Himalayas. Shri is a mysterious femme fatale weeping tears that turn into golden lotuses in the Ganga. Kunti returns to Hastinapura with the five Pandavas. as her make-up is unfinished. Pandu specifically urges Kunti to summon Dharma with abhichara rites. Despite being aware of this announcement—or being conscious of it—the godsengendered Pandavas wed her and destroy the Kauravas. on the Brahmin Drona—like the kritya (a woman created by sorcery to slay an enemy) sent by the prince of Kashi against Krishna to avenge his father’s death and the kritya invoked by demons to bring suicidal Duryodhana No. sacrificial fire-altar. her daughter-in-law Draupadi is fire-altar born. the rite performed for Drupada draws on nonshrauta (sacred) tradition. The Kauravas deprive the Pandavas of their kingdom in a game of dice. Advised by their grandfather Vyasa. Arjuna marries Subhadra. too.196). In grief. Shibi. dark (hence. Bhutadhama. Her marriage to the son of Yama-Dharma.1 Dhritarashtra asks the Pandavas to make their home in the forest of Khandavaprastha. Kunti uses the mantra to summon Dharma Yu d h i s h t h i r a . there is a resemblance with Kunti because Durvasa’s boon to her is described as abhicharasamyuktam…varam mantragramam (I. performs on the banks of the Ganga. It is significant that Draupadi emerges gratuitously at the end of a sacrificial rite performed to wreak vengeance—that. in the context of a twelve-year sacrifice Yama. the Kauravas conspire with Shakuni and Karna to kill them. Kunti teaches the mantra to Madri who invokes the twin Ashvinikumaras Nakula and Sahadeva. Like Ahalya fashioned by Brahma. Entrusting her sons to Kunti.39. upacharabhicharabhyam dharmam aradhayasva (I. one of her names is Krishnaa) lady will destroy all Kshatriyas. whose birth is entirely human. refuses to perform it. Indra.113. too. the god of death. the Pandavas reach the Panchala kingdom where Arjuna wins the hand of its king Yajnasena-Drupada’s miraculously born daughter Yajnaseni (emerging from the sacrificial altar)-Krishnaa (dark)Panchali-Draupadi. At Pandu’s plea. Yudhishthira. to them for restoring his confidence after his humiliating defeat by Gandharvas and rescue by the exiled Pandavas. sister of Balarama-Krishna Abhimanyu who married Uttara daughter of king Virata in whose court the Pandavas take shelter in exile Parikshit who becomes king of Hastinapura at the end of the epic. Yajnaseni’s complexion resembles the blue and red (nilalohita) kritya of the Rig and Atharva Vedas. which is repeatedly cited as a simile for her hour-glass figure. At Pandu’s insistence. Madri dies. reinforces her ominous links with death. Yajnaseni emerges in the bloom of youth from Yajnasena-Drupada’s yajna vedi. Dhritarashtra rules. Mandodari created by Vishnu or Parvati. The Pandavas are sent into exile for 13 years. She becomes the common wife of the five brothers at Kunti’s command and is Krishna’s special friend.
emerging chaste like the pole star. No. 3 Dr. Gandharva. Lovely-waisted and noble-minded indeed. Draupadi bathes in fire after each marriage. all sentenced to be reborn on earth as the Pandavas accompanied by the cherchez la femme Shri as Draupadi. they all lose their hearts to her. The story shows how popular memory has treasured Draupadi for her acute intelligence and forceful personality that took nothing lying down. ) 6 She-Who-Must-be-Obeyed According to the Villipputtur’s Tamil version of the epic. an Anima archetype. Nrisingha Prasad Bhaduri records an account narrated by Pandit Anantalal Thakur in which Duryodhana’s wife Bhanumati sneers at Draupadi asking how she manages five husbands. Shining coppery carved nails.” as she is called when she appears from the altar. as opposed to the open lotus of fertility Subhadra holds.Shanti. Draupadi has to live out Lovely and Enchanting “Panchali.197. she “knows”—like her mother-in-law Kunti and great grandmother-in-law Satyavati—more than one man. Lotus-eyed lady.2 An Amorous Lover Dark like her great grandmotherin-law Gandhakali and gifted with blue-lotus fragrance wafting for a full krosha like Yojanagandha.186. Yet. worth noting: eye-ravishing Panchali./ Soma to the Gandharva.169. and greatgrandmother-in-law Satyavati. therefore. ever-renewable virginity: The divine rishi.190. Noticing this. Yudhishthira recalls Vyasa’s prophecy and announces that she will be their common wife (I.144 her entire life parcelled out among five men within the sacrament of marriage. Soft eye-lashes. The South Indian cult of Draupadi sculpts her holding a closed lotus bud symbolising virginity. and Agni and only then to the human bridegroom as her fourth husband? Somah prathamo vivide gandharvo vivida uttarah/ Tritiyo agnishte patisturiyaste manyushyajah// (Soma obtained her first of all. too).” This presages how she lives her entire life. Icons of Draupadi also hold in one hand a parrot. is pregnant with double meaning: “of Panchala” and “puppet. the Arjuna. 21 .” renewing her youth by bathing in fire. hers is an immeasurably greater predicament compared to those women of her husbands’ family. miraculous and excellent event said.5 She shares with Satyavati and Kunti an imperishable. black-and-smiling-eyed… Dark-skinned Panchali. The kings in the svayamvara hall are described as so tormented by the arrows of desire (kandarpabanabhinipiditangah) that even friends hated each other (I. Bhima bring Draupadi home. narrating this wondrous. Swelling breasts and Shapely thighs… Blue lotus Fragrance for a full krosha Flowed from her body… (I. and to Agni the Gandharva gave:/ And Agni hath bestowed on me riches and sons and this my spouse. Wavy-haired Panchali Hair like dark blue clouds.14) Is there a link with the Vedic marital hymns where the bride is first offered to Soma. Like Kunti she is also described as an amorous lover: Draupadi bhratripati ca pancanam kamini tatha. next the Gandharva was her lord. and Tejasvi). she became virgin anew after each marriage” (I. When the brothers look upon her in the potter’s hut. “kena vrittena Draupadi pandavan adhitishthasi. vehicle of Kama the god of Dhrishtadyumna watches erotic desire. “pativriddhi kule mama”4—a right royal riposte that encompasses in a fell swoop her mother-in-law Kunti. Where theirs were momentary encounters.” Draupadi swiftly responds that among her in-laws the number of husbands has always been rather excessive.5). She is the only kanya whose appearance is described in detail and it is.12-14)./ Agni was thy third husband:/ now one born of woman is thy fourth.44-46) Vyasa categorically states that the creator had so fashioned her that her loveliness surpassed that of all women (reminiscent of Valmiki about Ahalya) and enchanted everyone. acting out not just her father’s vengeful obsession but as an instrument of the gods to bring death back to the world. grandmothersin-law Ambika and Ambalika (who are Bhanumati’s.7 This emergence from fire reinforces the kritya image and reminds us of Rider Haggard’s “She-who-must-be-obeyed.
and O Madhusudana.144 No husband have I. 127) The special relationship she enjoys with Krishna is seen not only in such dramatic confrontations but also in unexpectedly delicate. The affront to Karna sows the seeds of the assault on her in the dicegame. both non-Kshatriyas: Marisha/Varkshi mother of Daksha married to the ten Prachetas rishis and Jatila spouse of seven sages. She transforms herself into stone. she reappears to join her sons in gifting their joint merit to Yayati so that he rises back to the realm of the gods. understated interactions. 9 She resembles Madhavi. and she is wedded only to Indra who had divided himself into five. you are bound to protect me ever: I’m related. In Pauranic accounts. in retaining her virginity despite being many-husbanded.10. Shri leaves the demons and goes over to the gods to become Indra’s “good fortune and prosperity. It is Draupadi’s wholly unexpected refusal to accept Karna as a suitor (significantly. Divodasa of Varanasi. the partial incarnation of Indra. and to the sage Vishvamitra. I’m renowned. nor son nor brother. the spouse of Vishnu who is incarnated as Krishna.” Draupadi’s insistence on accompanying the Pandavas into exile is. an equality of status that empowers her to upbraid him much as his aunt Kunti does in the Bhagavata Purana: . That is the secret of the unique intimate relationship between Krishnaa and Krishna which is one of the most enchanting features of the epic. nor father. After this. Possibly. Sharadandayani. using the identical term by which Yayati describes his daughter Madhavi while bestowing her upon Galava. Krishna. even you are not mine!” She exhorts that he is bound fourfold to protect her13: For four reasons. When Krishna tells Yudhishthira that Arjuna has one defect in his body that condemns him to misfortune.12 The conjunction of both occurrences of this epithet in the same parva is surely deliberate on the part of the seer-poet for drawing our attention to these correspondences. whom Pandu mentions when persuading Kunti to have children by others. here Vyasa does not call her “Panchali”) that alters the entire complexion of that assembly and. the only comparison can be with two women Yudhishthira mentions. She alone enjoys the unique relationship of sakhi with her sakha Krishna. carrying the two interdependent and interactive symbols of desire and creation is none other than the goddess as the genetrix of all things. Draupadi.“The parrot symbolizing the principle of desire. she is wed to Arjuna.14. Madhavi regains virginity every time after giving birth to a son each to the kings Haryashva of Ayodhya. I’m your sakhi and all revere you.” writes Archna Sahni.” Panchali has a mind of her very own. Krishna. It is her sakha-to-be. so as to begin creation. therefore. The Markandeya Purana (V. the course of the epic itself. 10 Kunti herself describes Draupadi to Krishna as sarvadharmopacayinam11 (fosterer of all virtues). She is the incarnation of Shri. “Krishnaa Draupadi glanced askance at Krishna in annoyance” and Krishna’s reaction is one of approval at her display of love (III. However. indeed. “is poised atop the bud to tease it open. Ushinara of the North-West. of whose lives we know nothing else. when touched by the demon Kempirnacuran by invoking her chastity in an act of truth. who steps in to put an end to the skirmish between the furious kings and the disguised Pandavas. (III. Both Krishna and Krishnaa appear for the first time together in the svayamvara sabha and make decisive interventions.125.”8 Thus. doubly significant: 22 A Mind of Her Own A true “virgin. like Ahalya. Yayati holds a bridegroom-choice ceremony for her.89). she is Shakti. When her father falls from heaven because of his pride. who is at once virgin and erotic. stood at night at crossroads and chose a passer-by from whom she had three sons. but at that point she chooses to retire to the forest and become an ascetic. Arjuna and Draupadi with lotus bud and parrot brothers at specified intervals.2526) seeks to solve this awkward situation of Vishnu’s spouse becoming Indra’s by indulging in some rewriting to declare that it was Indra’s wife Shachi who emerged from the sacrificial flames (instead of the epic’s altar) as Krishnaa. Relation with Krishna Her relationship with Krishna and with Arjuna is complicated. ancestress of the Kurus. neither Madhavi nor Sharadandayani nor Kunti had to live out their lives adjusting repeatedly to a different husband from among five No. On the other hand.
11-14. is a telling instance of this. Bhima. face and lotus-feet of this lady. knowing him to be a true disciple of Yudhishthira as seen in the dice-game.82). Seeking Bhima out when he is alone. Leaning against a kadamba tree.144. it is Bhima who comes to her rescue. In No. holding on to a branch with an upraised hand. 20) Draupadi makes a similar request when they come across multicoloured flowers lying on the banks of Ashvaratha River. is like Indra in might and should free the mountain peak of rakshasas because. There is no Sita-like lamentation here. which is so different from their total indifference to her collapse in their final journey. then bring me many more such. As her husbands close on Jayadratha. she slipped and fell like a plantain tree. mighty-armed Bhima seemed to come under a spell. What is of interest is the reaction of the Pandavas here.160. Draupadi going to Kichaka: Painting by Ravi Varma Kamyaka forest when she finds a wonderfully fragrant golden flower saugandhika. despatching hordes of Krodhavasha Rakshasas guarding the lake where these flowers grow.222.1). I want to be on the summit. It is Nakula who rushes to help and calls out to Yudhishthira who.26-27) Voicing what she fancies. The captivating pose she strikes when alone in Kamyaka forest.7) Bhima. (III. obliges her with a vengeance. And now. deeply concerned and lavishing personal care on her. I have wanted this for a long time.their Shri has not abandoned them. are dark-blue today—all my fault! my obsession with dice is the cause of all this! I am reduced to seeing her in an animal-infested forest!” Saying. deserving the finest cosmetics. after covering just a krosha on Gandhamadana mountain en route Badari ashram. Throughout the exile she constantly badgers Yudhishthira. Then Bhima alone had roared out his outrage. Bhima rushes to decimate 23 Art and Craft of Sexual Power The manner in which Draupadi manipulates Bhima to get what she wants is a fascinating lesson in the art and craft of sexual power. Kalyani. She does not turn to Arjuna. Panchali. taking her head on his lap. protected by you. She uses it in getting her way with Bhima in Virata’s kitchen (IV. When Jayadratha seizes her. (III. broken down with the rigours of sorrow and travel—all my fault!—she lies unhappy on the ground…. no Ravana would have succeeded in spiriting Draupadi away. her upper garment displaced.4) Again. Just before this. we have seen how delicate she is.146. grieves: The soft hands. she appeals to his masculine ego by wanting his protection and comparing him to his younger brother. is fully conscious of her sexual power. summoning Ghatotkacha to carry her. The twins. too. Foe-chastising.264. she gives it to Yudhishthira and calls Bhima by the name usually reserved for Arjuna. she taunts him with an elaborate description of the prowess of each and the inevitable trouncing that will follow. (III. like Helen of Troy. no shrill outcries for succour. she flashes like lightning against clouds or like the flame of a lamp quivering in the nightbreeze (IV. enchanting Jayadratha. of course.144 . using a ploy common to women for getting what they want from their men: If you truly love me. Partha. Satyabhama explicitly begs her to share her secrets of female sexuality by which her husbands are at her beck and call (III. Draupadi trembles and falls: Trying to support herself on her elephant-trunk-graceful thighs. she repulses him so hard that he falls to the ground. shrewdly she first praises Arjuna’s prowess in the burning of Khandava forest and urges Bhima that he. His amour propre wounded and his manhood appealed to. ‘O auspicious one.7). desperately and tirelessly labouring to arouse in him a desire to win back what she symbolises and he has gambled away. You will find happiness with Pandavas’ King Drupada bestowed on us his large-eyed daughter. Unused to walking on hilly terrain. she mounts his chariot on finding him bent on forcing her. he stood like a proud. Though as lovely as Sita left alone in the wilderness.20) and with Krishna in turning the peace-embassy into a declaration of war (V. whip-tormented bull. Retaining full control of her faculties. (III. calmly asking the family priest to report to her husbands. began massaging gently her red-soled feet graced by all the auspicious signs. with bowstring-scarred hands.144.
To rouse his anger. Panchali (as Vyasa refers to her more than once in this sequence) seeks out Bhima in the dark of the night in Virata’s palace. daughter of the Panchala king… Look at me. again. to whom Draupadi turns for revenge when Kichaka. There is a piquant touch added in a Kannada folk myth. in an ineffable feminine touch. hiding in the inner apartments in female attire instead of protecting her and exclaims what can be more painful than her wasting away despite her husbands being alive.15 Even after the war. My queen. They abduct her to burn her with his corpse and she has. As Bhima awakens in her arms. she narrates all her misfortunes. as a wild shecrane presses close to its mate and a three-year old cow in season rubs against a bull. Finding him asleep in the kitchen. Panchali recklessly flaunts the horror before his kin. hurt self-image: 24 Kichaka insults Draupadi in court14 : Painting by Ravi Varma . How deeply this pained her is voiced frankly as she finds Pandu lying dead in her co-wife’s arms (I. Iravati Karve has her whisper to Bhima.144 the queen’s toilet and particularly mentions how she swoons when he wrestles with wild beasts. Similarly. To grant Draupadi’s prayer that Bhima should never forget her sorrow. Touch this blood. Kunti had chosen Pandu above all kings in the svayamvara ceremony and lost him to the voluptuous Madri. Ill-fated from Birth Catching these nuances. Virata’s queen. undoubtedly. before Arjuna’s turn came to be with Draupadi. to be saved by Bhima.” (IV. has kicked her in the presence of the king and the disguised Yudhishthira. and cease this fearful trembling. Furious.20. whom she has shaken off as she had done Jayadratha and rushed for protection into Virata’s court. revelling in her revenge. winning Kubera’s approval for what he has done for Krishnaa depending on his own prowess. His reaction is all that she had planned for so consummately: Wolf-waisted foe-crushing Bhima covered His face with the Delicate. which Bhatta Narayana dramatized in his play Venisamhara (6. has now to carry water for No. clotted on my hands— all that remains of the beast Duhshasana who dragged you into the council of kings’ and. Her anguish at losing him to Ulupi. as a maidservant (befittingly her disguise is that of Sairandhri) would steal out on an assignation. in the next birth. Never Forgets or Forgives After the terrible trauma of her humiliation in the Kaurava court. as a sheelephant embraces a huge tusker. Like her mother-in-law. Draupadi never enjoys possession of her first love. reprimands her for making a scene and disturbing the king’s dicegame and commands her to repair to the women’s apartments. She twines herself round him as a creeper entwines a massive shala tree on Gomati’s banks.30) Kichaka’s death is sealed. she extends to him her palms chapped with grinding unguents for the queen. having to bear barbed comments from maids. When Bhima has pounded him into a misshapen lump. Krishna creates onions and throws them into Virata’s kitchen. even how she. Draupadi’s most trying ordeal is when Sudeshna. It is Bhima. Chitrangada and Subhadra in succession is expressed with moving abhimana.16 As women. consumer of Khandava. so that whenever Bhima peels one. still liquid and smeared on all my body. She laments over mighty Arjuna. she snuggles up to him like a woman aroused (clearly it is planned seduction).rakshasas and their leader Maniman on Gandhamadana’s peak. And burst into tears. as a lioness clasps the sleeping king of beasts in a dense forest. Her eldest husband. both Kunti and Draupadi are singularly ill fated.40-41): With this very hand smeared with Suyodhana’s blood I will bind up Panchali’s black tresses.chapped hands of his wife. a special relationship between them. a princess. instead of coming to her rescue. touch this blood as well. pulled apart by Duhshasana. once again. in her splendid recreation of Draupadi’s last moments in Yuganta. it is to Bhima that she turns for wreaking revenge.125. Draupadi administers the coup-de-grace by addressing him in dulcet vina-like tones pitched at the Gandhara note. Finally. be the eldest!” There is. of the Kuru king whose thigh my mace crushed to extinguish the fire of your disgrace.23). his eyes burn and he recalls Draupadi. the third in the octave. when Ashvatthama has slain all her sons in a night-raid. he chose exile. “Aryaputra. beloved. despatches her to meet her brother Kichaka who is maddened by her beauty.
eyes like autumn-lotus leaves. she sends back a query which remains unanswered till the end of the epic: can a gambler. Her father and brother protest. without that excellent Pandava. Her questions show her to be intellectually far superior to all the courtiers. Instead of meekly obeying her husband’s summons.” also meaning “puppet”: Neither short nor tall. like the lotus. Kunti lies horizontally at the Pandavas’ heads. Yudhishthira. like the jasmine. Fire-altar-born Yajnaseni shocks everyone by challenging the Kuru elders’ very concept of dharma in a crisis where the modern woman would collapse in hysterics. is utterly “one-in-herself” in Esther Harding’s phrase for the Puppet like Submission As Draupadi replaces Kunti as the central female interest in the epic with the Sabha Parva. wipes out her very individuality as a human being. This forest. his strength an elephant’s. as he stakes her like chattel at dice. his skin is the colour of dark blue clouds. I see only an empty earth. her hand.65. we find a complete reversal from meek passivity to an extraordinarily articulate and forceful expression of a personality that towers above all the men in the royal court. Wherever I look. all of a sudden. the manner in which she is described by her husband Yudhishthira.144 Draupadi and dice by M. fragrant like the lotus… extraordinarily accomplished. Without that lotus-eyed hero. while Yajnaseni lays herself down similarly at their feet. and Vyasa.F. she had astonished everyone by publicly refusing to accept Karna as a suitor despite Drupada’s announcement that anyone passing the test would win No.12-15) As we have seen. but she does not utter a word throughout the multiple exchanges between them.17 This begins with her silent consent to the shocking dispensation of becoming the common wife of five brothers.220. pink-lipped. when he has left to acquire weapons from the gods. this forest has no charm. gives me no pleasure at all. the first to wake even earlier than the early-rising cowherds and shepherds. where she of the Satvatas is! A second knot loosens the first. We are reminded that when she emerged from the fire-altar she was called “Panchali. Hussain 25 . with wavy dark-blue hair. its pleasing sights. Kunti.17) During their exile. for Arjuna is absent. as expected from her conduct so far. stake his wife at all? She has a brilliant mind. with its flowering trees. silently. slim-waisted like the middle of the sacred vedi. having lost himself. she voices how much she misses him in plangent verses: Arjuna with two hands was like Kartavirya-Arjuna with many. The very first night in the potter’s hut—where the disguised Pandavas have taken shelter in Panchala—sees mother-in-law and daughter-in-law paralleling each other in their sleeping postures. neither dark nor pale. how insipid is the Kamyaka forest! I think of the thunderroaring twang of the bow of ambidextrous Arjuna. there appears to be a sudden decline in the status of women. however tightly re-tied. and smooth-skinned. she always gets Bhima to do what she wants by bringing in comparisons with Arjuna’s prowess. and my peace is gone.33-37) From Passive to Aggressive It is then that. Her sweat-bathed face is lovely. This is significant because. long-haired.80.” (III.” (I. soft-spoken and gentle… She is the last to sleep.Go son of Kunti. immediately before this. Does Vyasa’s story of her asking for many husbands in an earlier birth represent a psychological truth about Krishnaa the kanya?18 Later. (II.
be reprimanded by her husband for making a scene. Through the thirteen years of exile. I bow to all of you. who utterly wipes out her own self and lives only in.“virgin. (Udyoga Parva 29. belabouring her with a stick because she is too exhausted to move swiftly (VII.” (II. For. The epic says that it was Dharma (Vidura’s other name) who protected Draupadi when she was sought to be stripped. quite independent of her spouse and her offspring. with quicksilver presence of mind she seizes upon a social ritual to wrest some moments of respite from pillaging hands. Yajnaseni takes advantage of this to win back freedom for her enslaved husbands. it is only Vikarna. She has “nearly forgot” her duty.20) Rescuer of Husbands When the repentant Dhritrarashtra offers her boons. she does not need any gift from anyone. and made to spend a year with each in turn. but in such command of her intellectual faculties as to succeed in persuading Yudhishthira to rule instead of taking to the forest after the war? An illuminating contrast can be seen in Shaivya (also called Taramati).30-31).67. all my elders and superiors. he should sell her to pay Vishvamitra what he requires (VIII. Her speech drips with sarcasm. so that none has more of her than the others? Be staked at dice by her husband like an insensate object? Suffer molestation in public.” have remained silent in the face of Vidura’s exhortation to do their duty and protect the royal daughterin-law. wife of king Harishchandra. through. witness her husbands ask Krishna to sue for peace? Finally. Forgive me for not doing so earlier.” but rather the Kuru elders. 20 She does not utter a word when Vishvamitra drives her out of her kingdom. with her husbands sitting mute? Face abduction in the forest and see her husband forgive Jayadratha the abductor? Be molested again in Virata’s court. sit No. learned in dharma. Draupadi does not rest until the revenge her father sought is complete and the insult she suffered is wiped out in blood. Karna pays her a remarkable tribute. while the elders are wholly oblivious of theirs.” With striking dignity. despite being reminded by a servant-maid’s son. This is precisely the paradigm of the patrivrata.72.19 Here with lowered eyes like dead men with life-breaths gone. saying that none of the world’s renowned beautiful women had accomplished such a feat: like a boat she has rescued her husbands who were drowning in a sea of sorrows (II.Basholi 18th c.56).69. Herself and the Pandavas she lifted up as in a ship from the swell of the terrible sea. As Karna directs her to be dragged away to the servants’ quarters. she cries out to her silent husbands.” (II. and for her husband.41-42). Let us attend to Draupadi’s choice of words: One duty remains. one of the junior Kauravas. though won by one. Drona and others. deliberately using the word “duty. blazes forth.1-3). Finding no response. The elders whom she ceremoniously salutes. with her husbands free and in possession of their weapons from his two boons.144 Disrobing Draupadi. It is surely not her fault that she is being outraged and it is certainly not she who is “so confused. and be carried off to be burnt alive? With war imminent. on the other hand. Significantly. She seeks to fulfil herself regardless of social and family norms. She herself suggests to Harishchandra that. Later. chaste wife. of whom Bhishma says. since she has fulfilled her function by presenting him with a son.” and does not hesitate to berate the Kuru elders for countenancing wickedness. Dragged by this mighty hero. and a servant-maid’s son Vidura who voice their outrage. regardless of her own feelings. I nearly forgot. Crafts Her Own Morality The kanya’s personality. find all her kith and kin and sons slain—and still remain sane? And not just sane. Sirs. Krishna reiterates her remarkable deed saying: “That day Krishnaa did a deed exceedingly pure and difficult. she remains silent (VIII. Can we even imagine any woman married off to five brothers.30) It is a “mighty hero” who is dragging into public view his singlecloth-clad menstruating sister-in-law by her hair. “Our elders.29). gentlemen of the sabha. she refuses to take the third boon Dhritarashtra offers. which I must now do. When the Brahmin to whom she is sold drags her by the hair. It was not all my fault. she never allows her 26 . I was so confused.
urges Krishna to recall these tresses when he sues for peace.60-61). Arjuna is a second Krishna while Satyavati. Arjuna. laying aside her own comfort (III. with eyes streaming with tears that wet her breasts. and Vyasa. She gives this back in full measure after the war when he wishes to become a hermit. heaven collapse. besides controlling herself to avoid all criticism of Kunti (III.22 A particularly piquant revelation is that she takes particular care never to surpass her mother-in-law in ornaments.” The healthy respect in which her husbands hold her has been well brought out in Rajshekhar Basu’s delightful take-off “Panchali— Beloved of the Five.” and Thomas Hardy’s.233. saying that were his brothers not as crazy as he.224). Vasudeva Krishna. Hastinapura ruled by the Kauravas is on the Ganga. It is not without justification that she is called a pandita. When she finds her husbands.23 At this point. and she alone knew the extent of their wealth. “She is the only one among the Pandavas and Kauravas who assumes an atheistic. In the epic. scholar (III. Krishna. The complete account of income and expenditure of her husbands was in her grasp.husbands and her sakha to forget how she was outraged and how they were deceitfully deprived of their kingdom. III.28. the mighty archer Arjuna failed to protect the Yadava women from being abducted by staff-wielding Abhirs. 41). Shaonli Mitra’s Draupadi24 asks Krishna whether. stance in a violent outburst. like one who does not believe in scriptural norms of morality. It is Draupadi. the Earth shatter In a hundred pieces. dress.33). and Kunti. he will guarantee that in future no woman will be outraged as she has been. when meeting Draupadi for the first time. anticipating King Lear’s heart-wrenching.32. Draupadi’s only rival is Krishna’s favourite sister Subhadra.”21 In exile she says (III. It is Krishna.144 listening to a learned Brahmin discoursing to her father and brothers (III. son of Ganga. she is sent by Arjuna dressed as a gopika (cowgirl) to gain her favour.82.23) that creatures are like wooden dolls (darumayi yosha) in the hands of a whimsical creator. and Draupadi are prototypes of one another. sobbing with rage and hurt.30. she says. she declares that her five sons led by Abhimanyu and her old father and brothers will avenge her if her husbands will not. of whom three are kanyas: Kali-Satyavati. except Sahadeva. who are opposed by Bhishma.14. “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods/They kill us for their sport. Yet. 38.30. She kept track of what each of the many maidservants attending on her husband was doing. Krishnaa. It is she who used to make all the arrangements for Yudhishthira’s tours. purushartha. she brings to bear all her feminine armoury to turn the course of events inexorably towards war.45. The epic recounts that after Dvaraka was submerged. Vyasa himself describes her in Vana 27 . Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa. While Yamuna’s black waters link the first three. 48) The course of the epic is determined by the dark five and Kunti.” This. Krishna’s response is all that she has been aiming at: Consider those you disfavour As already dead!… The Himavant hills may move. This calls forth Yudhishthira’s plea that she abandon criticising the dharma observed by the strictly scriptural—as he is doing in accepting the exile for 13 years.2). she takes up her serpentlike thick glossy hair and. Kunti. Arjuna. they would have tied him up as an atheist non-believing in raja-dharma and ruled the kingdom themselves (XII. Draupadi-Krishnaa. is part of the political science she learned No. keeping count of the large retinue of horses and elephants and their quartering. The marital relationship between Draupadi and the Pandavas is constantly that of a mahout goading a somnolent elephant into the fray.233. My promise stands… You will see your enemies killed. while Indraprastha established by the Pandavas is on the Yamuna. recalling the significance of her own name Panchali. are indispensable to preserve society and one’s integrity anticipates her sakha Krishna’s discourse to Arjuna on the battlefield. Relations with Other Women What do other women have to say about Draupadi? Krishna’s favourite wife Satyabhama circumambulates Draupadi in admiration and in gratitude (III. if she agrees to forgive the Kauravas as he wishes. Krishnaa’s urging Yudhishthira in the forest that karma and individual enterprise. and Arjuna who jointly persuade Yudhishthira not to pursue his decision to renounce the throne after the war. “the President of the Immortals had ended his sport with Tess. and even her sakha Krishna in favour of suing for peace. Pouring out a litany of her injuries. (V. nastika. with Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa adding his voice to clinch the case. all linked with the Yamuna. There is also a thematic motif of Ganga opposed to Yamuna. sticking to the conditions of the dicegame—for that is nastika heresy.458). and even the food taken. Krishna remains silent.
As far back as 1887. she is known as trihayani and being vaishnavi krishnabhakta is named “Krishnaa. As with Kunti. O Madhusudana.57) that after the fire ordeal. his warning to the rakshasa contains a significant revelation of her destructiveness: In touching this woman you have drunk a jar of well-stirred poison. she exclaims accusingly. in Treta as Sita and in Dvapara as Draupadi).2). tormented by sexual desire and eager for a husband.64): satatam murttimantashca vedashcatvar eva ca/ santi yasyashca jihvagre sa ca vedavati smrita// Significantly.27. Maudgalya got fed up and reverted to ascesis. kamatura pativyagra prarthayanti punah punah. Ashvatthama (III. she first feeds her husbands and all Brahmins and only then assuages her hunger with what is left over (III. Even Vasudeva’s sister. Addressing Krishna in anguish when they meet in the forest. ever she lies on the ground. engages in fierce ascesis to destroy me and ensure her husbands’ success. anguished Krishnaa.4. asking the three-eyed god five times for a husband. she practised severe penance and pleased Shiva. 26 By asserting her womanhood and refusing to accept a life of blind subservience to her husband. (III.121). dragged by my hair” Her Earlier Incarnations According to the Brahmavaivarta Purana. “very auspicious” Subhadra who becomes subordinate to the overwhelming destructive nature of her senior co-wife. in the very presence of Pandu’s sons. Nalayani the sati was transformed into Yajnaseni the kanya. Pleased by this. saving them from drowning in the sea of distress. to the wicked she is death itself. The Southern recension of the epic states that in an earlier birth as Nalayani (also named Indrasena) she was married to Maudgalya. Maudgalya offered her a boon.10). that what irked me most was not losing the kingdom or the exile of my sons. Pandavas. of whom five incarnated as the Pandavas. despite being a sati admired of women. fiery. her sakha having taken no steps to protect her five sons from assassination. O Krishna. she prayed again and again. “virgin. traditional wife.” (IX.17-19). the great Bengali litterateur Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay 28 Draupadi. Thereupon.” Draupadi’s astonishing intellectual acumen also has its roots in Vedavati. When she remonstrated and insisted that he continue their love life. While doing so. became as Krishnaa’s maid. As she was insatiable. Because she existed in the three yugas (in Satya as Vedavati. I was.137. Indeed.25 husbands to satisfy her sexual craving.12. Her impact is borne witness to by none other than Duryodhana in his speech to Kripa after Karna’s death: Krishnaa-Draupadi.14. this text states (14. the dark. “O Krishna. ever obeying her. obtaining the boon of regaining virginity after being with each husband.” She urges him to tell Arjuna from her side to “follow Draupadi’s path” (V. Nothing more painful than that insult.50. Like a mother. When Jatasura abducts Draupadi along with the twins and her eldest husband Yudhishthira. and she asked him to make love to her in five lovely forms. 27 she is the reincarnation of the shadow-Sita who was Vedavati reborn after molestation at Ravana’s hands and would become the Lakshmi of the fourteen Mahendras in Svarga. discarding status and pride.144 In keeping with her deadly role. the lovely and youthful shadow-Sita was advised by Rama and Agni to worship Shiva. she took it out and calmly ate the rice without revulsion. learned. “beautiful. she is left childless after the war.Parva as priya ca darshaniya ca pandita ca pativrata.26) While she is like a boat to her husbands.18-19) No. devoted to her husbands and beloved of them” (III. the power and nobility that radiates from Draupadi places her far above the other female characters and most of the male.” Draupadi is the counterpoint of the fair.157. Kunti asks Krishna to convey to “that auspicious and renowned Krishnaa. but the humiliation of that great dark woman weeping in the assembly hall as they mocked her. She was so utterly devoted to her abusive husband that when a finger of his dropped into their meal. an irascible sage afflicted with leprosy. who was so named because the Vedas were ever present on the tip of her tongue (ibid. Sati who Turns Kanya Draupadi is the only instance in epic mythology of a sati becoming a kanya. he cursed her to be reborn and have five .
nor her favourite Arjuna—tarries by her side when she falls and lies dying on the Himalayan slopes.32 Draupadi. As Hera is also her daughter Hebe and Demeter is also Kore-Persephone. and brilliant intellect are most evident. Indeed. son of Ghatotkacha. solicitude as directed by Kunti. Yajnaseni offered up her entire being as a flaming sacrifice in that holocaust of which Krishna was the presiding deity. yet never immersed in it. chaotic persona of Prakriti. The bloom of her unique personality spreads its fragrance far and wide. Draupadi is Krishnaa. we transcend sin. Remembering them daily. Despite having five husbands. Like Deirdre. like the Kore Helen. thrust abruptly into a polyandrous marriage. The Kali of Kailash did the Kurukshetra war. like the lotus bud and the parrot her icon holds. appears with the skiey announcement that she will be the destruction of warriors. too. and in that exemplifies the conquest over the senses.drew an illuminating distinction between Sita and Draupadi. the latter is pre-eminently a tremendously forceful queen in whom woman’s steel will. like Demeter and Helen. That. Once this duty is over. When his decapitated head that has witnessed the entire war is asked who really slew the Kauravas. did all that happened in eighteen days fulfil her hopes of being the cause of a righteous war. learning from them how to sublimate our narrow ego to reach the Higher Self. Since a wife is supposed to present her husband with a son. Jayadratha and Kichaka 29 Instrument of Higher Design This feature of transcending the lower self. not a word of sympathy for her. Yet. The crowning insult is the answer Yudhishthira provides: she has fallen because she was partial to Arjuna. a manifestation of the goddess Kali.2). 28 noting that while the former is chiefly a wife in whom the softer feminine qualities are expressed. “beloved. Hera: maiden. 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 No. like Kunti. each of whom has a wife of his own. but no more. the “sorrowful one. he answers that he saw only the Sudarshan discus flashing everywhere and Draupadi roaming the battlefield drinking the blood of the enemies. the Pandavalila of Garhwal celebrates her as an incarnation of the same goddess with an intriguing reference to her eight avataras: Draupadi took eight incarnations. is what seems to constitute a common trait in these ever-to-be-remembered maidens. the dark goddess. she gives one to each of the Pandavas.” Akin to sakha Krishna. soaring above the worldly mire in which it is rooted. only Bhima speaks. is always subjected to violence: her svayamvara ends in strife. In her. Draupadi is the acme of chastity. Like DemeterNemesis and the “awful” Persephone queen of Hades. as in the case of Kunti. so is Satyavati also Kunti and Kunti also Draupadi. dharma yuddha? 30 Kanathos as virgin anew.31 The later story of Barbareek. However. And. Draupadi can call no man her own and that is why she.144 . would emerge from her bath in the spring Left to Die Alone Ultimately. too. fulfilled woman and woman of sorrows. Krishnaa seems to have had a profound awareness of being an instrument in bringing about the extinction of an effete epoch. she is outraged in the royal court twice over. Draupadi. who arouse both admiration and fear. lovely. priya ca darshiniya ca pandita ca patrivrata (III. she is of this world of senses. pride. the virgin Vira-Shakti whose cult still exists in southern India. adds a significant dimension to the epic account.” she is the cause of wholesale destruction of warriors and is a mother left without any children.27. That is when we realise that this remarkable “virgin” never asked anything for herself. Similarly. he sees exemplified the Gita’s prescription for controlling the senses by the higher self. These maidens provide a parallel to the three forms of the ancient Arcadian goddess. in the northern hills. being so aware. a fivefold marriage is imposed upon her. scholarly and faithful to her husbands. nathavati anathavat 29 (husbanded. so that a new age could take birth. while her mother-in-law Kunti and greatgrandmother-in-law Satyavati both sought the status of virgo intacta and the royal throne for their sons. there is no evidence of any sexual relationship between her and the Pandavas. of becoming an instrument of a higher design. Hera. supping full of horrors on the battlefield at night. stands apart from other married women. is a question addressed to Yudhishthira. He also pointed out that Draupadi represents woman’s selflessness in performing all household duties flawlessly but detachedly. a befitting consort indeed of mighty Bhimasena. the primal uncontrolled. yet unprotected). Born gratuitously.
4041.” Barttaman. personal communication and “Unpeeling the layers of Draupadi” in the National Symposium on the Pancha Kanya of Indian Epics.com and in A Pauranik Score (Indialog Publications. p. 1978) p.144 30 . 1990). Cornell University Press. pp. 3 1 Hiltebeitel.khatushyamji. translated by R. A.157 and by Kunti in 5. Purana Perennis ed. 1973. number1396. 1 8 Dr S. 11 Mahabharata. 1985. A. Vol.R. Leiden. Chitra Chaturvedi’s Hindi novel Tanaya (Lokbharti Prakashan.J. p. Leiden. The story forms part of two teleserials: B. Delhi. 1991. Gandharva has her and transfers her at marriage to Agni from whom man takes her to produce wealth and sons cf. 1967.3. 2 9 A term used by Dhritarashtra to describe Draupadi in his lament in 1.attempt to rape her.290.com/kalranga/ mythology/mahabharat/draupadi. Brill. Motilal Banarsidass. 2002) and Dr.16. A. New Delhi. p. He does not provide the reference to the source of this story. New Delhi.P. Griffith. as a symbol of her insult. Bhaduri op. 188. Subramaniam: The Mahabharata Story: Vyasa & Variations. p. Minkowski: “Snakes. by A. 1 4 The painting of Draupadi insulted in Virata’s court is by Raja Ravi Varma. 1988 p. XX. 104. 9 Hiltebeitel ibid. 2 8 Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay: “Draupadi” in Bibidha Prabandha Part 1. 290.com 1 5 A. ca. 1991. more Krsnas”. 1995. William Sax. p.htm. 1978). Draupadi seems to attract rape and wreaks vengeance thereafter.V. 400. India. Sarama assures her that soon Rama will loosen her bound hair (Ramayana. Gitomer: “Rakshasa Bhima: Wolfbelly among ogres and Brahmans”. Soma enjoys her. Brill. Nrisingha Prasad “Draupadi. 1 6 D.htm 7 Alf Hiltebeitel: The Cult of Draupadi. p.boloji. Sharma. Chopra’s “Mahabharat Katha” and another named “Khatu Shyam. Bhisham Sahni’s play Madhavi (translated by Ashok Bhalla.63 2 5 Alf Hiltebeitel: “Two Krsnas. four Krsnas.71-77. Polyandry in Ancient India (Motilal Banarsidass. N. 1 2 Ibid. 438.1. Like vengeful Demeter-Erinys and Helen. Motilal Banarsidass. Punjab Hills.22-23.cit.T. 1991.C. Leiden. Leiden. 1990. V. cit. V. 2001). Madras. Nababharat Publishers. A. and the Upakichakas seek to burn her alive. State University of New York Press. 5 Pratibha Ray portrays this at length in her novel Yajnaseni: the story of Draupadi (Rupa. p.26. op. 2 0 Markandeya Purana VII-VIII. Brahmavaivarta Purana 4. When it has arisen. forthcoming).cit. Brill. 2 1 Parashuram’s “Panchapriya Panchali”. Sattras and the Mahabharata” in Essays on the Mahabharata ed. Brill. Yuddha kanda 33. Basholi. Albany. VSM at www. “Ritual and performance in the Pandavalila of Garhwal” in Essays on the Mahabharata ed. Singh. www. s h r i k h a t u s h y a m j i . p. Delhi. Sumitra Bai’s “The Jaina Mahabharata” in Essays on the Mahabharata ed. 1991. p. 391 and A. Kolkata (forthcoming). 9293.J. if her deportment serves as any guide. Calcutta. 2 6 Vettam Mani: Puranic Encyclopaedia. 2 2 Hiltebeitel: Rethinking Mahabharata p. Calcutta. 1765.73. XXXVII. h t t p : / / w w w. 1993.J. 6 The Hymns of the Rigveda 10. Singh describes this as “the significant but eloquent silence of Draupadi. www.L. The Jaina Nayadhammakahao picks this up and tells of suitorless Sukumarika reborn as a celestial courtesan because of her passion who is born as Draupadi (B. W. Eastern Zonal Cultural Centre. Draupadi is veritably a virgin goddess of war like Artemis and Athene. Ramanujam: “On Folk Mythologies and Folk Puranas”. Chloe etc. M. three Krsnas.).cyberkerala. is the exact opposite of what Sita does. translated by Pradip Bhattacharya) and Roopa Ganguli conveyed the anguish dramatically in the Bengali teleserial Draupadi. p. 549.com/legend. 222-4. 3 2 The Khatu Shyamji temple in Sikar district of Rajasthan is dedicated to Barbareek whose head is supposed to be buried here. 1995. 3 0 Shaonli Mitra op.D. pp. op. Sirkar & Sons. p. 1 0 Three outstanding artistic creations on the predicament of Madhavi are Subodh Ghose’s remarkably insightful Bengali retelling “Galav and Madhavi” in Bharat Prem Katha (translated by Pradip Bhattacharya.” Polyandry in Ancient India (Motilal Banarsidass. 67-83. pp. Calcutta. a s i a . Hiltebeitel:Rethinking the Mahabharata (University of Chicago Press. Sharma.3. whose suicide in flames represents the inner anguish consuming her and who takes rebirth to exact blood-price for her outraged femininity. 1991. E. 14. 1887. Delhi. Repeated in the Atharva Veda XIV. 2 7 Prakriti khanda. Also M. No.115. the 2 3 Draupadi leaving her tresses unbound. 2.90. 1976. S. 8 Archna Sahni. Doniger. The painting is by Nandalal Bose. 322. Journal of South Asian Literature. She leaves her hair braided in a single plait. 1 3 Dr.php3?lang=e Endnotes 1 C. p.137. Sharma. Hiltebeitel: The Ritual of Battle.K. 268.D. Seagull. E. 291 and vol. Sayana explains that till sexual desire arises in the girl.87. Greek mythology is replete with instances of metamorphoses undergone by virgins to protect themselves against rapists (Daphne. c o m / shri_shyam_katha_ii. translated into English by Major General S. 1989).htm 1 9 Ibid.J. The Disrobing of Draupadi attributed to Nainsukh (1710-1778). 46-47. Bhaduri: annual 4 Dr. Allahabad.253). 1 7 Pradip Bhattacharya: “Epic Women: East and West—some observations”.kamat.K.” http://www. RUPA. Calcutta. p. E. s i .220.65. Again. Shaonli Mitra created a riveting one-woman performance of this name in Bengali to depict the agony of Draupadi. e d u / d e v i / f u l l d e v i / deviCat81. Sharma.cit. Delhi.11. Motilal Banarsidass. E.34). p.58. Sen. 190-191. like the vengeful Amba who pursues Bhishma through death itself. Journal of the Asiatic Society. This is a detail from an 18th century Kangra painting taken from w w w. 1975.54 and Krishna Janma khanda 116.115.H.2. She is neither appalled nor outraged by the prospect of Pandava polyandry…She is exceedingly trustful and as willing as a woman could be. Delhi. I. p. Essays on the Mahabharata ed. 2 4 Shaonli Mitra: Nathaboti Anathabot.N. 2 3 Hiltebeitel ibid. Higginbothams.
2 Ahalya and Satyavati are also not known for maternal qualities. Satyavati is born of an apsara Adrika who is turned into a fish by a curse. Tara and Mandodari—followed. in the second instalment. first. as Kunti thrusts her into a polyandrous marriage that exposes her to salacious gossip reaching a horrendous climax in Karna declaring her a whore whose being clothed or naked is immaterial. considered the three kanyas of the Ramayana—Ahalya. As adolescents. Ulupi’s Iravan and Chitrangada’s Babhruvahana— Draupadi’s five sons are nothing more than names and might have been interpolated. Her five sons are not even nurtured by her. Ahalya’s son abandons her and lives comfortably in Janaka’s court. expressing relief that she is finally acceptable in society following Rama’s visit. In this concluding piece we seek to find answers to the question with which we began: why are these five women termed ‘Kanyas’ “(virgins)” and what is the secret of their being celebrated as having redemptive qualities.145 A Part V: Five Holy Virgins. If Draupadi had hoped to find her missing mother in her mother-in-law. Motherless Gandhakali-Satyavati and Pritha are given away by their fathers Uparichara Vasu and Shura in childhood. the Dasa chief and Kuntibhoja. then as elder or younger brother-in-law (to be treated like a father or as a son respectively) in an endless cycle. leaving only a kanya as their remainder: “pancalah subhrisham kshinah kanyamatra vasheshitah”. Draupadi.1 Draupadi is a sterile Shri. MatsyagandhaSatyavati does not even have that. Mandodari and Draupadi are unnatural. As if that were not enough. none have a mother. We know nothing of Pritha-Kunti’s mother. In the last issue we looked at Kunti’s daughter-in-law. Sahadeva. Tara.” The births of Ahalya. Her solitariness as a kanya is stressed explicitly after the war when Yudhishthira tells Gandhari that the Panchalas are exterminated. Kunti urges her to take special care of her fifth husband. Five Sacred Myths Living by Their Own Norms Unique Powers of the Panchkanyas Pradip Bhattacharya In the earlier instalments we have. scholars beginning with Bankimchandra over a hundred years ago.common feature shared by all the five panchkanyas is “motherlessness. In emerging from the elements. to the mercies of two eccentric sages and become unwed mothers with no option but to discard their first-borns. in her terrifying Kali form. her nails pierced Bhima’s hand. unlike the other Pandava progeny— Hidmimba’s Ghatotkacha. Draupadi’s motherlessness seems to be carried forward into her own lack of maternal feelings. Tara. as a mother! No other woman has had to face this peculiar predicament of dealing with five husbands now as spouse. No. have questioned the very fact of her maternity since. Ahalya. Vyasa is abandoned by 30 Ahalya with Ram . by Satyavati who shares many features that distinguish her grand daughter-in-law Kunti whose remarkable character and deeds were examined in the third part. like Jyeshtha or Alakshmi. both are left by their foster-fathers. The South Indian Draupadi cult specifically states that her sons were not products of coitus but were born from drops of blood that fell when. she is tragically deceived. Valmiki has not a word to say about the mother-son relationship between Ahalya and Shatananda. She sends them to Panchala and follows her husbands into exile to ensure that the wounds of injustice and insult inflicted upon them and herself remain ever fresh. Kunti finds no fostermother and her only succour is an old midwife. Indeed. Mandodari and Draupadi resemble the ocean-born apsaras. Subhadra’s Abhimanyu.
Thereupon Satyabati physically turns away from the wedding. abandoning her daughter on the threshold of motherhood. so as not to witness the suicide of her race (I. Her single transgression. The kingdom. It is a patriarchal society’s tradition of enforced motherlessness that the novels seek to challenge at the cost of the heroines being regarded as aberrant mothers. they leave her to die alone on the mountainside at the mercy of wild beasts. calls down an awful curse. Kunti loses her parents and then her husband twice over (first to Madri and then when he dies in Madri’s arms). she simultaneously receives news of her mother’s death. finds herself unable to think of her own daughter. while another is blind and the third cannot be king because her daughter-in-law Ambika deceived her and sent in her low-caste maid to Vyasa. sons. both royal sons and one grandson (Pandu). 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. for which she manoeuvred Devavrata into becoming Bhishma.both parents and attributes his survival to chance (see issue 143). Satyavati is abandoned by Parashara after he has enjoyed her. Ahalya remains unique because of the nature of her daring and its consequence. This feature of being rejectedand-rejecting-in-turn that is a recurring leit motif with the kanya is not just of antiquary interest.145 . “the green years of the earth are gone” and leaves for the forest. The heroine. bereft of father. receiving news of her mother’s death. She struggles to educate her children in a new urban milieu of a nuclear family. The pattern repeats itself when Subarna.3 Sivadas of Kalamandalam enacting the role of Draupadi and is a social outcast. hardly ever assume the persona of mother. repeating the desertion she herself had experienced. Mandodari loses husband. 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. Chandra Rajan. another sensitive poet of today. both Vishvamitra and Valmiki glorify her. She never has Arjuna for herself. utterly rikta. 9). no sense of victory No honour as wife No respect as mother — Only the status of a Queen… But they have all gone And I’m left with a lifeless jewel And an empty crown… my baffled motherhood Wrings its hands and strives to weep. Subarnalata and Bakul Katha. Finally. Draupadi finds her five husbands discarding her repeatedly. It recurs in one of the most significant explorations of the Bengali woman’s struggle to step into the modern age by experimenting with new ways of motherhood: Ashapurna Debi’s trilogy Pratham Pratisruti. as he marries Ulupi. except for Kunti. loses her husband Shantanu. for having done what her femininity demanded. Tara loses her husband Bali to Rama’s arrow shot from hiding. she realises the grim truth of Vyasa’s warning. In her absence. significantly named Satyabati.”5 The Unique Ahalya Among the five. slips through her fingers like sand. her son Vyasa tells us nothing of her end. kith and kin in the great war with Rama. Chitrangada and has Subhadra as his favourite. is “abandoned” by her father who gives her away in childmarriage at the age of eight.128. born unasked for.6. brothers. Both have to marry their younger brothersin-law who are responsible for their husbands’ deaths (see issue 141). loses both husband and son No. Strangely. When she gives birth to her son. her daughter Subarna is also married off at the age of eight. This is precisely what we notice in the case of the five kanyas. catches the psychological 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 31 Theme of Loss The theme of loss is common to all the five kanyas. like a pauper. drained in every sense.4 In her long poem “Kurukshetra” Amreeta Syam conveys the angst of Panchali. Because of her unflinching acceptance of the sentence. Ahalya has no parents. Each takes at least one more wife. Seeing her great grandchildren at each other’s throats. These kanyas remain quintessentially virgins and. Yudhishthira pledges her like chattel at dice.
writes. No wonder Draupadi laments that she has none to call her own.16 During the forest exile Draupadi prides herself on her fame as a sati exceeding that of any ruler. and as their incessant goad on the path to victory). Arjuna threatens to kill her. you slowly rise from the blue Sea of forgetfulness. You stare entranced. This attitude is well reflected in a report in the newspaper The Hindu of a Tara in stone carving from Kurudmale temple discourse by a lady. too. Sugriva hides behind Tara and uses her to calm the raging Lakshmana. perfect. Krishna crushes her pride by creating an unseasonal mango that she craves for and has Arjuna pluck for her. 9 This is followed by Kunti urging Karna to enjoy (bhunkshva) Yudhishthira’s Shri (another name for Draupadi) that was acquired by Arjuna. Krishna warns that this is the only food of a terrible ascetic. “Most Indian women would agree that. Here we have evidence of a male backlash expressed through inventive myth-making. Ahalya. Traces its lost steps. abandoned forestashram? … Today you shine Like a newly woken princess. … You gaze. Bhima—her invariable rescuer—upbraids her unmercifully for her evil nature. face to face Beside a sea of mystery none can cross You know afresh what you have always known.benediction within. The mango almost touches the tree as the brothers state what obsesses each of them. the sexually independent woman who crosses the ambiguous lakshmana-rekha separating “good” from “bad”. millions of women are publicly humiliated and even raped as a punishment for challenging the male will or for ‘talking back’ at a man. even sakha Krishna throws her in as the ultimate temptation in Karna’s way. The world. but falls down when Draupadi states that revenge is her sole desire. when you passed Long years as stone. shashthe ca tam tatha kale draupadyupagamisyati. assuring him that Draupadi will come to him in the sixth part of the day. Each continues to live out her life with head held high. You stare amazed at the dawn world.” Symbols of Reselience None of these maidens breaks down in the face of personal tragedy. in the first dice game. sacred fire extinct In the dark.10 There is an unmistakable harking back to Kunti’s command to her sons to enjoy (bhunkteti) what they had brought together when Bhima and Arjuna had announced their arrival with Draupadi as alms. your former knowledge of life returns… Like first Created dawn. In a sudden rush. prayer And ritual gone.11 Vimla Patil. 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. All round. She had to be taught a lesson.145 A telling example of patriarchal rewriting occurs in Kashiram Das’ early 18th century version of the epic in Bengali rhyme. is speechless. capping this with refusing to obey Duryodhana’s summons to appear in the dice-game assembly unless her question was answered. This is one of the characteristics that set the kanya apart from other women. and then by Kunti and the Pandavas to win their kingdom thrice over (through marriage. your heart swings back from the far past. Many men are known to use violence against wives merely because they ‘backanswer’!” 15 Draupadi made the unforgivable ‘mistake’ of publicly refusing to accept Karna as a suitor and of laughing at Duryodhana (as he laments to his father Dhritarashtra) when he made a fool of himself in Indraprastha’s magical palace. There is an aspect of exploitation that we notice in the No. Draupadi is used first by Drupada to take revenge on Drona by securing the alliance of the Pandavas. and then she has to confess that having Karna as her sixth husband has been her secret wish. whose anger will turn all of them into ashes.”6 A very different evocation of Ahalya was done by Rabindranath Tagore in a lovely poem7: “What were your dreams. like this passionate heroine of the Mahabharata. when even her sakha unhesitatingly uses her as bait! We cannot but agree with Naomi Wolf’s condemnation of masculine culture’s efforts to “punish the slut” in one way or another. rooted in earth. Jaya 32 ways the kanyas are treated. calm and pure. editor of Femina. Patriarchal Myth Making . Kuntibhoja uses Kunti to please Durvasa. 8 Unknown to her. and that only if they confess their secret desires will the mango be refixed to its branch.
the Rani of Raja Desing in the south. and with Lord Krishna for a personal friend. it is women scholars who cannot seem to agree on this. Born in a family of culture and having married a sage of distinction. A recent parallel would be the way Meera’s bhajans are sung by the marginalized and lower castes in Rajasthan. With her unconventional lifestyle and thirst for vengeance. Tamil. Why should she commit this mistake? There lie the lessons for others. Nabaneeta Dev Sen from Bengal.”20 Dev Sen appears to be ignorant of the popularity of the Mahabharata street plays. with all her five husbands. Women cannot identify with Draupadi.145 . as Dr. Draupadi inspires awe. she completes her cycle of seven births as sati. The Dropadai Amman Festivals are quite well known and there are night-long dramas (therukoothu) on the Mahabharata. and subsequently as Yakajoti. echoing the patriarchal response12: “It is indeed extremely difficult to control the mind as reflected in all scriptural texts. Maithili and Bengali on Sita. Hari and Govinda along with wedding chants calling on Allah and Radha. theru-koothu.”19 Contrast with Sita Kichaka and Draupadi: Ravi Varma protectors of the protagonists. we encounter war cries invoking Allah. but not the mind. The message from her life gives us great hope to secure His grace if only we hold on to the feet of the Lord… What Ahalya did was unpardonable and Sage Gautama.” (Emphasis in the original) reality. however. However on expressing her regret over the fault. Sita is a figure closer home…she is not part of the elite…she laments but does not challenge Rama in the songs…Sita is the one with infinite forbearance and thus a winner even when she loses. but Draupadi is quite different. This insight from a Tamil scholar is contradicted by Dr. as he knows what happened when Duhshasana rose to disrobe Draupadi! Not so Sita. a revengeful woman cannot win…Draupadi is too dramatic to be a role model for the weak and the exploited. And. the eminent scholar Dr.Srinivasan. Hiltebeitel points out. Between the 12th and 15th centuries she became the central figure in a number of bardic epics. naturally enraged at her misconduct. Even sensory organs may be kept quiet for some time. the curse was lifted when the dust particles from the feet of Rama fell on her. Analysing the reasons. not a word was said or written against Draupadi and her temples. Draupadi is the only kanya to whom a living cult is dedicated. Whereas Sita is generally associated with the upper caste (Aryan) hegemony. It is in this background that the Ahalya episode in the Ramayana should be viewed. By reincarnating as Bela in the Rajasthani Alha. giving a new currency to the Sanskrit epic lore. and the Draupadi Cult celebrated exclusively by villagers. I think. her mind faltered for a moment and she committed a grave sin and incurred a curse. Prema Nandakumar points out apropos Draupadi being too dramatic: “any woman whom a huge hulk of a fellow tries to disrobe in public while the entire Pandava-Kaurava ‘heroes’ look on (perhaps 33 Cults of Draupadi There is. Draupadi has always been the goddess of the common people. For the marginalized would have protested in a big way…Even after becoming legends. showing the Hindu-Islamic syncretism that had developed by then.13 Intriguingly. The political leaders knew this social Curiously. she states. where the so-called “Dravidian” political backlash against “Aryan” hegemony targeted traditional icons like Rama and Sita and even burnt copies of the Ramayana. In Yakajoti’s story. so they did not dare to say anything against her or burn the Mahabharata or write nastily about her. Either the legend will not fight back or it is so compassionate the political animal can get away with its desecration and be forgiven too. These oral epics celebrate Dalit and Muslim No. condemned her. Prema Nandakumar draws a perceptive distinction between the two great epic heroines: “Sita is the patient compassionate mother whose fire remains veiled by her soft approach. “No. it is Draupadi who remains a threat to the political animal and so he will not touch even the fringe of her pallu. Studying the folk songs of Telugu. with temples dotting the GingeePondicherry area of Tamil Nadu and street plays held annually celebrating her greatness. a feature that sets Draupadi quite apart from her fellow kanyas.
we need both. Dharma. of Ulupi with Arjuna. “The Anima lives beyond all categories. Jung. She must always be maiden and always be mother. before motherhood and after motherhood…Only a woman can know that and speak of that. despite having husband and children. after every love she is a mother.23 An invaluable insight into what is so very special in being a woman— No. leaves the kanya free to experiment. she is devoid of individuality and acts as a willing vessel for masculine projections. The real truth about the matter is that we are both (Sita and Draupadi). A woman can only do one thing…She must always be as her nature is. Amply do we see in the cases of these maidens that. achieving selfactualisation on her own terms. while discussing the phenomenon of the maiden describes her “as not altogether human in the usual sense. The absence of a mother’s nurturing. unbound by shackles of taught norms. But the day when a woman enjoys her first love cuts her in two…The man spends a night by a woman and goes away. Vayu.145 Draupadi being kicked by Kichaka in Virata’s court : painting by Ravi Varma 34 .22 An outstanding instance of how Draupadi’s character speaks powerfully to oppressed womanhood today is vividly brought alive in Mahasweta Devi’s remarkable short story. of Draupadi with her husbands.”24 (emphasis mine) We have only to recall the encounters of Surya. a symbol of perfect surrender to the Divine and the representative of womanhood subjugated for millennia. So long as a woman is content to be just a man’s woman. One is tempted to use a modern cliché to describe her: a woman of substance. Autonomy Inspires Awe C. we identify with both as the circumstances demand of us. and can therefore The Cross of Lonliness The kanya.”21 Draupadi is also the only kanya to have become a symbol of the oppressed and grossly humiliated Indian nation. While watching a night long street play in the Draupadi Amman Festival. to realise the profundity of this utterance. In her words we find the reason for our kanyas remaining such an enigma to men throughout the ages: “How can a man know what a woman’s life is?…He is the same before he has sought out a woman for the first time and afterwards. Ganga with Shantanu virgin.leeringly?) doing nothing will scream throughout her life and will not speak in ambassadorial accents across the table. or she looks strange or undergoes strange experiences”. His life and body are always the same…He does not know the difference before love and after love. a mother who models and hands down tradition. remains alone to the last. of Parashara and Shantanu with Gandhakali. the nation-in-shackles. love. to express and fulfil her femininity. “Dopdi” in which this name is given to a tribal woman who refuses to succumb despite gang-rape and torture. of Indra with Ahalya. the maiden uses the Anima of man to gain her natural ends (Bernard Shaw called it the Life Force).G. On the other hand. she is either of unknown or peculiar origin.25 This fits the kanyas as a group. Draupadi Sapatham (“Draupadi’s Vow”) depicting her as the wronged princess. wife and mother—is found in what an Abyssinian woman told Frobenius. Indra and Pandu with Kunti. This is the loneliness at the top that great leaders bear as their cross.the great Tamil poet Subramania Bharati was struck by the powerful appeal she had for common folk and penned an epyllion. That is why we won’t be told what to do by our husbands. Before every love she is a maiden. to mould herself according to her inner light.
”14 The Anima is characterised by “a secret knowledge. Balarama comes to the Plaksha Prasravana teertha where a brahmacharini. Kunti. Draupadi and Tara and are ever in awe of them. “This is the Sanatana Dharma. However. obtained the highest heaven and the supreme yoga as well as the fruit of a horse sacrifice. another apsara. Rambha. In these kanyas. enchants his son Shantanu: “He stood there. “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”. Entranced. No. paradoxically. a superior knowledge of life’ laws”15 which we see in this group of epic women.… the northern Kurus still practise it… the new custom is very recent. attain heaven!19 The Age of Freedom In Mahabharata. he says.22 By the time of Pandu. the mystic and poet Nolini Kanta Gupta’s study of these maidens tallies quite remarkably with the Jungian insight into the meaning of being a virgin.18 He notes how the epics had to labour at establishing their greatness in the teeth of the prejudice that woman must never be independent. when a Brahmin takes his mother away in their presence. They slept with any men they liked from the age of puberty. unless she married she could not. known for her absolute. the Aryans settled around the SarasvatiYamuna region had started looking down upon their Northern brethren and even classed them—such as the 35 Draupdi with Sairandhri . they enjoyed themselves freely.”21 Ulupi and Urvashi’s behaviour with Arjuna and Ganga’s with Pratipa and Shantanu—all approaching the men with frank sexual demands—are instances of the type of freedom characterising the kanya’s nature. in which man struggles to relate to his Anima “outside” himself by projecting her on numerous women although. but always be a sati.dispense with blame as well as with praise.”20 Pandu narrates the story of Uddalaka explaining to his outraged son Shvetaketu. Balarama also visits the Vriddhakanya teertha celebrated for an old spinster who had to learn that. Pandu. we find evidence of the freedom enjoyed by women in the past. as much as the sati. Urvashi curses Arjuna to lose his virility because he refuses to respond to her advances. Devayani curses Kacha that he will be unable to use the mantra he has learnt from her father Shukracharya by her favour. In the Adi Parva Pandu tells Kunti: “in the past. Ganga. was the converse: Shiva under the feet of his goddess-consort. All women of the four castes are free to have relations with any man. In the course of his pilgrimage. well. she is the psyche within that he must commune with.145 Sati Versus Shakti In this context. they are like bulls. unquestioning devotion to her husband. And the men. women were not restricted to the house. they moved about freely. Amba turns herself into Bhishma’s nemesis. The most ancient relationship. Vedavati curses Ravana that she will be the cause of his death. they were unfaithful to their husbands. In the Mahabharata we find confirmation of this paradigm shift. With both eyes He drank in her beauty And wanted To drink more. Each kanya’s unique feature is that she. the Kaunteyas. That. Dhritarashtra.”17 Jung pinpoints the desymbolised world we live in now. has the power to pronounce a curse. a celibate female ascetic. This he describes as the subjugation of Prakriti to Purusha. and yet not held sinful… the greatest rishis have praised this tradition-based custom. Bhishma. however. is the message hidden behind the hint to keep ever fresh the memory of the five maidens so that we become conscious of the Animaprojection. a hidden wisdom…something like a hidden purpose. typical of the Middle Ages. dependent on family members. curses Ravana with death should he rape any female in future. That is why Shantanu. turned down by Pratipa. we find the validation of Naomi Wolf’s celebration of women as “sexually powerful magical beings”. perhaps. Sugriva can never quite come to grips with Satyavati. He points out. All his body In horripilation. as a mere brahmacharini.
27 On the other hand. Like Mandodari. “Like their icons. beef and wine. The panchkanya theme has inspired Indian women for eons… Most Indian women believe that they tolerate and accept the worst kind of injustice like Sita and remain steadfast in their duty and devotion to their husbands and families. like Draupadi. Draupadi represents fire. they are left free to prolifically use the chinks in the armour of social and traditional laws made by a staunchly male-oriented pecking order... links each kanya to one of the elements: “Are you an ‘earth’ woman? Do you feel an affinity to the element of ‘fire’ because of your passionate nature? Do you flow serenely through life like “water’? Is your spirit free and elusive like the ‘wind’? Or do you dream of being light as air and vast like ‘space’? As an Indian woman. Tara and Mandodari Five virgins… Ahalya personifies water. while Sita (whom she incongruously includes in the group instead of Kunti) is the daughter of the earth. earth. This the wise know Ahalya. the five women have such a powerful hold over the hearts of millions of Indians that they are called the panchkanyas (five women) whose very names ensure salvation and freedom from all evil. only the strictures of their orthodox patriarchal society that undermines women such as the Maharis. Draupadi. surprisingly. fire. They are bound by the strictest norms of society. Ahalya “for her forbearance is likened to the freshness and active nature of the wind”. yet. Kunti symbolises mother earth.145 Queen Draupadi by Aditi morning in a Sanskrit shloka to remind them of the power they symbolised because of their spiritual strength…in truth. strong woman can ruin the most powerful of men. they can still express their personalities and design their own life-graphs…The life-graph of each of these women is somehow replicated in the lives of millions of Indian women even today.Madras—with Mlecchas. Tara and Mandodari are the epitome of chastity and purity but were punished for no fault of theirs. feels that this equation of each element representing one of these women cannot be substantiated. express their emotions uninhibitedly and mix freely with men. turbulent on the surface yet deep and silent in her spiritual quest. For her the emphasis is on the purity of these women because they did not break any humanistic codes.Ratna Roy. every Indian woman has shades of all the panchkanyas within her soul!”25 This is a modern restatement of a traditional belief that is part of the Mahari dance tradition in which the Oriya verse goes:26 Pancha bhuta khiti op tejo maruta byomo Pancha sati nirjyasa gyani bodho gomyo Ahalya Draupadi Kunti Tara Mandodari totha Pancha kanya. Harishchandra’s queen. However. Kunti. he criticises the loose morals of Madra women because they enjoy themselves with fish. water. compassion and largeheartedness”. Tara (all the three women of that name. for…all Indian women carry the legacy of their icons. Sita. wind.23 Mode of Elements One interpretation of why the epithet kanya is applied to these women is because they were not engendered in the usual way “but were created from various elements which compose the universe thereby establishing that their sanctity and chastity is not bound by physical bodies…Ahalya. Vali’s wife and Brihaspati’s wife who is Chandra’s beloved) is associated “with space and has the quality of intelligence. leading exponent of the Panchakanya Mahari dance. for Vimla Patil Draupadi’s personality personifies fire.. Dr.. you should not be surprised. these women still came out unscathed and set examples of being ideal women. they also hide storms of anguish anger and revenge in their hearts. former editor of Femina.” Pointing out that the Pancha Kanya are living role models for Indian women. the most celebrated panchkanyas of mythology …In fact. with the turbulence 36 . If this is so. on the one hand. they have dual personalities. Within the scope of social boundaries. Mandodari “with the element of water. It is not uncommon for devout Hindus to recite their names each No. They believe that the curse of a virtuous. Draupadi. she writes. Yet. nonAryans. Given the precarious situations they were in. they live a life of duality. ether Are in essence the five satis. When Karna lashes back at Shalya for abusing him. Five elements. Tara personifies wind and Mandodari ether. on the other hand. that is. it is likely that you have a little of all these elements in you and that you combine all qualities of the five elements.”24 Vimla Patil.
293.10. “Are you in much pain. 1988.4. Chitra Chaturvedi’s Hindi novel Mahabharati (Jnanpith Prakashan.htm#1 26 Dr. for life is founded on the harmonious interplay of masculine and feminine forces. From their lives we can learn how to integrate successfully the masculine in the feminine. 12 The Hindu(www. XXXIII. p. 27. 29 Gupta op. Their beings were glorified with a greater and higher capacity. 7 Ahalya http://www. 31 ibid. They seek a sacred place— which is their right—in the vastness of space. 1986) and Dr. pp.51-24 quoted in A.olywa. 26-28.com/2002/20021027/ herworld. Other notable interpretations of Draupadi’s lot are Dr. they have an inherent gift of distinguishing between right and wrong. www.S. 31. 6 Chandra Rajan: Re-visions (Writers Workshop. and atoms.97. WS-47 to 52. where wisdom originates. 134. to have offspring born under divine influence… a person used to follow the law of one’s own being. individuals.69.iskcon. 16 http://www.cit.1999.hinduonnet. It is for every woman to study the life-graphs and personalities of the panchkanyas and decide which element they empathise with. 22 Gupta op. 19 Mahabharata IX. Economic & Political Weekly. Each of them is a telling example of this. Bhima.11.44. pp. Matrimonial sincerity or adultery became irrelevant in that glory…Woman will take resort to man not for chastity but for the touch and manifestation of the gods.13-14. Sirkar & Sons. 15 ibid.org/gallery/002/ 006. 1995).4-8. “The Animus power…makes possible the development of a spiritual attitude which sets us free from the limitation and imprisonment of narrowly personal standpoint. annual number1396 B. one’s own path of truth and establish a freer and No. 3 Indira Chowdhury: “Rethinking Motherhood.1998. Jung: The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Barttaman. 14 C. p. (sic. The past does indeed hold the future in its womb.com/ radice1. Calcutta.”29 It is the ability to distinguish the masculine power of logos.”31 That is why the exhortation to recall the five virgin maidens is so relevant now. 30. pp. Nrisingha Prasad Bhaduri in “Draupadi”.16 (pointed out by Dr. silent core in their souls. 1990. 11 Naomi Wolf. the power of words. Rethinking the Mahabharata. We cannot easily admit that there was or could be any other standard of woman’s greatness beside chastity…Their souls did neither accept the human idea of that time or thereafter as unique. 8.tribuneindia. 21 Ibid.40. From this niche. 23 Mahabharata. her building a special relationship with Vidura and. Dipak Chandra’s Bengali novel Draupadi Chirontoni (Dey Books. beef. instead of looking upon the five maidens as maidens. sing and talk wildly and indulge in promiscuity. “Panchakanya ballet today” referring to danseuse Vani Ganapathy’s performance. within the individual human being as well as without.122. that makes the kanyas so significant to women today. 1 5 Amreeta Syam: Kurukshetra (Writers Workshop. In a crisis. 1987. nor admit the dharma-adharma of human ethics as the absolute provision of life.145. We have seen it in her ability to take the toughest decisions. Like Mandodari. Rupa. cry. vol. Panchali?” She answers. 8 The Bengali tele-serial Draupadi dwells upon this issue. 37 . I. Like Tara. 2003. laugh.53. Pratibha Ray’s Oriya novel Yajnaseni(Englished by Pradip Bhattacharya. her using the story of Vidula. of will and of acting in the outside world. 12). Kolkata). University of Chicago Press. 15.kundu. in Promiscuities quoted in TIME. 27 Personal communication. Dr. 1999. University of Chicago Press. of thought. Also see www. best-selling feminist author and advisor to the American President and Vice-President. 1. above all. drink wine. so that I may rest a little. p.) they have a dormant power buried deep down in their psyches.10.cit. p. 439-443.).”30 Emma Jung sums up the crucial importance of integrating the feminine and the masculine that the five kanyas represent uniquely: “In our time. 2 Mahabharata.44. Calcutta.2003. Karna Parva.2002.4-8 and 50. 1991.of varied experiences on the surface and a deep.htm by Rabindranath Tagore translated by William Radice. all passion spent” for. Like Ahilya.com/2002/ 09/30/stories/2002093003240900. “In the next birth. They have the strength to move like the wind and the compassion to forgive wrongs done to them.” Nathaboti Anathabot M.u-net. 31.C.G. 37 42: “Women mix freely with men known and unknown…They eat fish.htm painting by Puskar Das (Matthew Goldman) 17 Ibid. p. 25 The Tribune online edition 27.htm 28 Vimla Patil op. 30 Ibid. 38-9). 4 Shaonli Mitra has Bhima come up to her at the end and ask. they seek a special lustre of their own. p. Reclaiming a Politics”. Endnotes A. Ratna Roy. June 1995. 9 Udyoga Parva.1. in her farewell.net/ratna-david panchakanya. personal communication.145 wider relation with another. my head in your lap. they know how to insist on doing what they consider right. 13 Alf Hiltebeitel: Rethinking India’s Oral and Classical Epics University of Chicago Press.8. without one overwhelming the other. they spread their compassion and tenderness. splitting peoples. 10 ibid.htm) Sept. 2829.32. when such threatening forces of cleavage are at work. Hiltebeitel. 2001. be mine alone. 135. p.”28 Attempts at Sanitisation Nolini Kanta Gupta makes an extremely perceptive comment on how the patriarchal system has sought to sanitise the kanyas’ dangerous independence by projecting them as satis instead: “We moderns also. Calcutta. Routledge. Hiltebeitel Cult of Draupadi. 18 Mother India.cit. have tried with some manipulation to remember them as sati. 25.” 24 Deccan Herald. it is doubly necessary that those which unite and hold together should become effective. “calm of mind.28. 20 Mahabharata 1.122. perhaps Kunti most of all. p.