lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The impossible virgin

No, this is not a post about Modesty Blaise novels, though I am a fan. The impossible virgin I am considering is Ahalya. Now, virgin is only one of the meanings of the word kanya, but it is irresistible, so sue me.

There are five women celebrated as the pancha kanya in Indian literature and oral tradition;

అహల్యా ద్రౌపదీ సీతా
తారా మండోదరీ తథా
పంచకన్యాః స్మరే న్నిత్యం
మహాపాతక నాశనం
(ahalyaa draupadee seetaa taaraa manDOdaree tathaa panchakanyaa smarE nnityam mahaapaataka naaSanam)

is a well known sloka, and Ahalya is the first of these five. If you consider the names and their stories, you have to wonder why they were designated. My own feeling is that it wasn't for virtue or chastity, for those change according to times and mores, but for their fortitude and strength of character and how they influenced events around them. Another thing to note is that with the exception of Draupadi, the other four are all characters from Ramayana.

In fairness, I must tell you there is a version of the sloka that counts Kunti as one ofthe five maidens named, and please thank me for not saying more about it (I dislike Kunti anyway). I am going to hold forth about other things.

Most of us know the story of Ahalya. Let me give a quick recap:

In Valmiki Ramayana, Vishvamitra narrated the story of Ahalya to Rama when they reached the sage Gautama's hermitage and Rama wondered why it was deserted. Indra came to Ahalya in the guise of her husband the sage Gautama. Although she knew it wasn't her husband, in her vanity, and because she was curious, because she was flattered by the attention, she let him seduce her. Gautama encountered Indra leaving the hermitage and cursed him to lose his testicles. He cursed Ahalya to be invisible to atone for her vanity, and live on air, until she was released from the curse by Rama's advent and left. Rama entered the hermitage, she was released from the curse, and Gautama took her back as his wife.

That is the bare-bones tale in Valmiki Ramayana.

There are many variations and embellishments added to the story in retelling. Each version of Ramayana written has another little snippet to add to the story. Considering that there are versions of Rama's story in Malaysia, Laos, Thailand, Bhutan and Sri Lanka; considering there are Jataka tales, Jain and Buddhist versions of the epic, vernacular translations, it is no wonder the story got embroidered.

The curse varies according to the version. Ahalya turns invisible, into a boulder or becomes dust. And in addition, she is cursed that her beauty will no longer be unique. Indra, on the other hand, has his testicles dropping off (necessitating what was probably the first transplant surgery, when the devas bestowed upon him the testicles of a ram); or is cursed that he shall have a thousand phalluses or vulvas all over his body (later mitigated to a thousand eyes), and has to forever fear for his position as the chief of devas.

Padma Purana says Ahalya became petrified, Adhyatma Ramayana says Gautama cursed her to be a boulder. There is mention of Ahalya's adultery in Kama Sutra, referring to Indra as ahalyaa jaara. More about that later.

In several versions Indra crows like a rooster so that Gautama, thinking it was dawn, goes to his ablutions and then Indra beds Ahalya.

In Kathasaritsagara, Indra turns himself into a cat as Gautama returns to the hermitage. When questioned by Gautama as to who entered their abode, Ahalya replies quite truthfully 'eso thiyo khu majjara'. (Esah stitah khalu majjaara, it was a cat that stood there) Kathasaritsagara was written in Prakrit, where 'majjara' is a distortion of 'marjaara', a cat, and 'ma + jaara' means my lover, too.

Apart from this interesting tidbit, Vettam Mani mentions how Ahalya was foster mother to Vali and Sugriva, but I am puzzled why he cites her as a princess of the Puru dynasty.

There is more about Ahalya's tale in the uttarakanda of Ramayana, which is a later addition to the epic solely to deify Rama. (Some scholars think even balakanda is a later addition.) Brahma created her as a paragon of beauty.

In the eighteenth century erotic classic ahalyaa sankrandanam, Samukham Venkata Krishnappa describes with great humour the arguments that broke out among the sages and devas in Indra's court as they tried to decide who among the celestial maidens was the most beautiful. The passage reads like a stag party. They asked Brahma to adjudicate. Brahma stated that all of the apsaras had some fault or other, and created Ahalya as a faultless beauty.

హలం నామేహ వైరూప్యం హల్యం త త్ప్రభవం భవేత్
యస్యా న విద్యతే హల్యం తే నాహల్యేతి విశ్రుతాః
(halam naa mE ha vairoopyam ta tprabhavam bhavEt
yasyaa na vidyatE halyam tE naahalyEti viSrutaa)

Halam, apart from being a plough, means distortion, defect or crookedness. Halyam is that which is distorted or in the case of a field, that which is ploughed. Ahalya is she who is without any defects. Though all devas desired her, Brahma bestowed Ahalya as handmaiden to the sage Gautama. She was later given in marriage to him. In Ananda Ramayana it is said that Gautama circumambulated a calving cow and thus earned the merit of circumambulating the three worlds, and won Ahalya's hand.

The story can be viewed from many angles. I am not going to dwell on the patriarchal societies, or feminist viewpoints. I am not going to talk about temptation or fall from grace and virtue, and redemption; all these have been done before, by others.

In taittiriya and brihadaranyaka upanishads there are invocations to Indra addressing him as ahalyaayai jaara. Ahalya means several things. The clearest is, a tract that can not be cultivated, land that cannot be ploughed, wilderness, soil unsuited to cultivation and, (sigh), and saline tract. Indra, as chief of devas is the lord of rains and thunder, and seasons. So the liaison is allegory of land being made arable and fertile. Thus is Indra ahalyaa jaara.

Indra's seduction of Ahalya is night being overtaken by sunrise. Aha means daylight, aha rliyatE syaam and so on, and hence Indra is called Ahalya's paramour, says Kumaarila Bhatta, in his commentary. Yet another explanation of that invocation is that Ahalya is vaak, that is sound, and Indra, one who conjoins vowels and consonants into coherent speech.

Whether viewed as allegory or just a tale, Ahalya's story caught the fancy of many poets. Apart from ahalyaa sankrandanam, there are several other retellings of the story, often with further detail. As times and moral climate changed, Ahalya was made an innocent victim, not a willing adulteress. In most Ramayanas in Telugu, Ahalya is a victim of deception, but in Ranganatha Ramayana, she bore Vali and Sugriva to Indra and Surya and bestowed her favours freely and was a serial adulteress.

When we were discussing this, chastity and virtue and social mores, Chenthil told me that in Kamba Ramayana Ahalya was portrayed as a victim of Indra's deception. He also said that the tale has been extended in a different viewpoint by a modern Tamil author. I demanded a translation, pronto, so I can have one more Ahalya tale, and this promises to be a cracker. How many authors can conceive of Ahalya turning back to stone in disgust after she hears that Rama made Sita undergo an ordeal by fire? Your turn, Chenthil.



Anonymous Ash said...

Good post. You could have done a comparison with Sita, the other 'ayonija' in the epic. Both are tracts of land. Why did you leave that out?

4:58 pm  
Blogger Lalita said...

Ash- There is not much to compare. Yes, they are both fields, but Sita is furrow of the plough, Ahalya is the un-ploughed tract. Apart from that and being 'ayOnija' they don't have anything in common. Sita was loved, cherished, protected and rescued whereas Ahalya was cursed and abandoned. Sita went through the ordeal of fire, yes, but Ahalya was what Bongs call 'gyaan paapi'. She knew what she was doing.

5:52 pm  
Blogger anantha said...

This is interesting.

One's interested in hearing about the other veiwpoint too!

O' Chenthil, where art thou?

2:45 am  
Blogger The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

First time commenting though I've been reading your blog for a while now. Very interesting and very well written. I much prefer the version of Ahalya as a serial adulteress!

4:37 pm  
Blogger Lalita said...

Anantha- Indeed. O Chenthil, wherefore art thou silent?

Shoefiend- Oh. I am thrilled to bits. Thank you for taking time and trouble to comment, Shoefie. I rather like the idea of Ahalya the serial adulteress myself.

8:40 pm  
Blogger Sivaram said...

And why oh why does Indra do this ? He has access to the apsaras already.
Is it a thrill, is it a challenge, is it a compulsion ?
Who won finally ?

12:30 pm  
Blogger Lalita said...

Sivaram- Indra didn't have access to apsaras as such. They were free maidens he once in a while sent to seduce somebody, but he was a householder. As to why, Ahalya was the most beautiful woman created, and he was smitten. I suppose the challenge of cuckolding Gautama, the thrill of conquest might have been there too.

There were no winners, alas.

2:00 pm  
Blogger Bala said...

I think chenthil was referring to pudhumai pithan's "Saaba Vimochnam" written in 1943.

The synopsis can be read here

10:00 pm  
Blogger bhramaputra said...

Indra wanted to marry Ahalya but was disappointed when Gautama
married her. He sent Urvasi, TilOttamai and others to entice Gautama
but they refused saying that Gautama's wife was more beautiful than
them. Indra thought that if Gautama could not be enticed, it should
not be difficult for him to sexually exploit Ahalya. When Indra
appeared before her taking the form of Gautama, she was happy that
she now got an opportunity to avenge Indra for his evil designs. So,
she sent her shadow to Indra. In his intoxicated, infatuated state,
Indra mistook the shadow as Ahalya. And, when he was returning from
the hermitage imagining he had succeeded, Gautama spotted him and

"mathim chakaara durmEdhaa: dEvaraaja kudoohalaath" does not mean
that she was happy that dEvaraaja himself had desired her. On the
other hand, it should be taken as
"dEvaraaja Saapa kudoohalaath" which would mean that she was happy
that Indra was heading to his disaster for his misadventure through
Gautama's curse. This would be clear if "mathim Chakaara" is read
as "mathyaa chakaara" This shows her presence of mind whereby she
avoided cursing Indra herself and leaving the task to her husband.
In the process, however, she also got cursed unjustifiably. That is
why Gautama relented and advised a way out for her relief from his
curse on her. if she really commited adultery,gautama would have shunned her and rama would not have revived her.she was really pure and are spreading false concepts to the people.

9:33 am  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License. /body>