"Full many a ray of purest ray serene the dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness to the desert air."
from "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Panchakanya - the five maidens

ahalyā draupadī kuntī tārā mandodarī tathā
panchakanyā smarenityam mahapatākā nāshinīm

Met a friend yesterday, and as conversations over coffee flit from one topic to another, he brought up the reference to the five kanyā in the Sanatana Dharma scriptures, and asked me to think about why these five were specifically named.  These are not the five satī, or the chaste wives - Sati, Sita, Savitri, Damayanti and Arundhati, who are celebrated elsewhere in the scriptures. The word kanyā can be construed as virgins, but none of these strong women of character are known for their physical virginity, nor, methinks, would they care to be known for it. In fact, each one of them had more than one man in their life.  Construing kanyā as woman is not sufficient, because it only indicates gender. Each of these is more than just a woman - each is not necessarily defined by a relationship but by being related to many. Enough said...

The first one - Ahalya (flawless), was a direct creation of Brahma given to the sage Gautama for safe-keeping, and later in marriage.  Indra was enraged.  Being king of Heaven, he had assumed this perfect creation whom all male mortals and immortals wanted, was made for him.  One day, taking advantage of Gautama's absence, Indra took his form and approached Ahalya.  At some point in the action, she suspected that this was not her husband.  Valmiki's Ramayana goes on to say that she "knew" this was not her husband, and the mortal Ahalya was well aware of her beauty, and also curious about the king of Heaven's interest in her.  Then again, there are some conflicting accounts on whether she actually exchanged sexual favors.  Gautama realized the fleeing lover from his wife's bed was Indra, and cursed him to lose his physical vigor, the worst possible curse for someone as known for his amorous advances as for his military achievements.  What of Ahalya?
Gautama cursed her to be a rock, trampled on by all who passed by.  This was not Ahalya's penance. It was the punishment meted to her for accepting a man who fulfilled her as a woman, whom she had at least initially thought to be her husband.  Her flawless beauty preserved in spooky petrification, Ahalya was redeemed by this forced silence, as she stood rooted for centuries, without thoughts or emotions or actions, knowing He will surely come to redeem her. How many of us know for certain we will be redeemed in this life?  We strive and we hope.  Vishnu, as Rama avatar, addressed her as mother, touched her feet, and restored her physical form, her self-respect and her social standing.   

Tara, the queen of Kishkindha, wife of Vali, welcomed her husband home from his battle with his exiled brother Sugriva in the forest.  Knowing of Rama's support for Sugriva, Tara had warned her husband to not get drawn into battle again.  But Vali ignored her well-meaning intervention, and got killed by Rama's arrow while fighting Sugriva.  Tara then married Sugriva, ensuring that there would be no animosity between her son, the crown prince Angada, and her former brother-in-law and new husband Sugriva.
Lost in her charms, Sugriva delayed putting together an army to support Rama.  It was Tara again, who ensured Sugriva's survival and his alliance with Rama.  She calmed down Lakshmana who was enraged at Sugriva's ungratefulness. She reminding Lakshmana of the power of physical passion that disarms the mightiest of warriors and sages, and ensured him that Sugriva was indebted to Rama, and would always support Him.  Tara's son Angada went to Lanka as Rama's messenger, and towards the end of the battle, Angada assaulted Ravana's wife Mandodari to provoke Ravana to interrupt worship rituals and ensure his own fall.  What I find notable is that when Vali died, it was not the crown prince that was crowned king with Sugriva as regent, but Sugriva himself became king as Tara's husband, bearing testimony to Tara's power in assigning royal status.  Tara directed both her husbands and her son on a path of Dharma. 

Mandodari, the queen of the golden city of Lanka, wife of Ravana, was known for her beauty, intelligence, pious nature and grace.  There are some accounts of Mandodari having a daughter who was abandoned, and who grew up as the princess Sita in king Janaka's court.  Driven by lust and anger, when Ravana kidnapped Sita, Mandodari begged with her husband to get over his passion for Sita.  This was not the first time, she had pleaded with him for Vedavati in the past as well.  But Sita was no mere crush for Ravana, he could not let go, and that led to his doom.   At one point, Mandodari even advised her husband who was proficient in māyā, to take Rama's form and approach Sita, if this would allow him to get over his mental agitation.  At all times, she kept trying to avoid war with Rama.
Her husband and her eldest son died in the war. Mandodari did not burn herself in the funeral pyre like her daughter-in-law did, but instead she married Ravana's brother Vibhishana and remained queen of Lanka.  While she had privately cajoled and pleaded with Ravana, yet publicly she always stood by her husband, even after her own sons died in a battle due to her husband's lust.  She was cognizant of Ravana's arrogance and constantly guided him to the path of Dharma. She had major challenges as a mother and a wife, and yet she was not swayed by her emotions.  She kept her cool and chose the path of dharma. She did what was asked of her in the situation - purushārtha, and accepted her destiny - prārabdha.  How many of us can claim to have successfully led a life of such detachment and dispassion? 
The other two maidens - Draupadi and Kunti - are from the Mahabharata era. 

Krishna Draupadi, daughter of king Drupada of Panchal, is known to be alluring in beauty and fiesty in temperament.  She is also known as Panchali - the princess of Panchal, and as Yajnaseni - born of the sacrificial fire in a yagna. Like Ahalya, she was not born of a woman.  She came out of the sacrificial fire, dark-skinned, and was named Krishna.  There is some reference to her liking for Krishna Vasudeva, the blue man with the flute, but He planned on keeping the relationship platonic.  His cousin, the exiled prince Arjuna, shot the revolving metallic fish in the eye by looking at its reflection in the water, and won Draupadi's hand in marriage.  When Arjuna came home, his mother told him to share what he had brought with his four brothers, not knowing that it was a bride.  King Drupada was aghast at his daughter's fate but the sages referred to some precedents in history, and assured him a polyandrous relationship was not adharma.
Draupadi lived one year with each brother in turn, and bore them a son each.  She became the queen of Indraprastha, and ultimately the queen of Hastinapura. She was aware of her beauty and her power throughout her dramatic life - assault by Duryodhana and Dushasana, kidnapping by Jayadratha, assault by Keechaka, exile in the forest, living in disguise as a hairdresser, facing all her sons burned alive by a vengeful Ashwatthama, and the list goes on.  She lived with her head high, conscious of her rights, reminding people of their duty - chastising her husbands, challenging the court of Hastinapura, and even getting sharp with Krishna Vasudeva at times.  At no point, do we ever think of Draupadi as a victim, though she was not above making loud lamentations to incite her husbands to action.

She is unique in Indian history as the only woman who unapologetically has a sakhā - a close male friend, Krishna Vasudeva, who protected her from molestation in the court of Hastinapura when her husbands could not help her, who protected her from the sage Durvasa's rage in the forest by providing food to his retinue, and who advised her to accept Subhadra as a co-wife - a strategic decision that allowed the dynasty to continue when all her own sons were killed.  Narayana Himself was by her side at all times, guiding her with difficult decisions - how many of us have a life as blessed as hers?

Draupadi's mother-in-law, Pritha (bountiful) was the daughter of Surasena, but was adopted by his childless brother-in-law Kuntibhoja. Known to be ravishingly beautiful, she was blessed for her selfless service by the visiting sage Durvasa, to successfully seek a son from anyone, without losing her virginity.  In curiosity, Kunti invoked the Sun before her marriage, and put the child in a basket that floated down the Yamuna. After her marriage to Pandu, the king of Hastinapura, one of the most powerful kingdoms in the land, her husband told her that he was cursed to die if he touched a woman.  She told him of the mantra she had received form Durvasa, and very reluctantly, at Pandu's behest, she invoked Dharma, Vayu and Indra to have three great sons - the righteous Yudhishthira, the mighty Bheema and the accomplished warrior Arjuna. She magnanimously shared the mantra with Pandu's other wife, Madri, who then invoked the divine Ashwini twins to have Nakula and Sahadeva, who are known for their caring and nurturing nature.

When Pandu died after forbidden moments of passion, Madri blamed herself for his death and immolated herself in his funeral pyre, pleading with Kunti to take care of her sons.  Kunti lived on to take care of the five boys, the Pandavas.  She came back to raise them in the scheming politics of the Hastinapura court, and formed an alliance with her brother-in-law Vidura.  By making the gorgeous and fiery princess Draupadi the common wife of her five sons, Kunti ensured that the Pandavas were tied lifelong by a bond of fraternal love as well as a deep love for Draupadi who would guide them with fervor.  Her own relation with the Vrishnis and her daughter-in-law Draupadi's relation with the Panchals ensured support from two of the most powerful kingdoms in the continent.

Kunti was born to a king who gave her away, and she had another king as adoptive father neither of whom appear to support her in her troubled life.  She married a powerful king who died early, and bore sons to four immortals who did not show up to protect their sons from the harsh life experiences.  She had powerful siblings, and yet needed to forge an alliance with her brother-in-law to protect her sons.  She had five illustrious sons whom she brought up, and an even more illustrious son whose identity she was able to disclose publicly only after his death.  A princess and a queen, she spent much of her life without luxury, with the challenges of a single mother.  After the battle of Mahabharata, when she would be queen mother, Kunti left to spend the rest of her life in the forest, leading her blind brother-in-law Dhritarashtra and her blindfolded sister-in-law Gandhari.  Yet she was not a victim, she always rose above her circumstances.  As Krishna Vasudeva's aunt and ardent devotee, she had asked that she always be given misfortune so that she may always remember Him.  How many of us remember to thank Him for the trials and tribulations in our lives?   

All of these kanyā suffer from loss of relationships - Ahalya was abandoned by her husband and her son, Draupadi accepted each of her husbands each taking on more wives and ultimately the loss of all her sons, Kunti lost her father by being adopted and later her husband first to a co-wife and later in death and her first-born in battle and ultimately left her remaining sons whom she had raised in extreme hardship, Tara lost her husband, and Mandodari lost her husband and her son in battle. And yet each lived on to face life's challenges. All of them have more than one man in their lives - Ahalya married to the accomplished sage Gautama and time spent with the immortal Indra, Draupadi with five wedded husbands and a platonic friendship with Krishna, Kunti with a wedded husband and four immortals she had children with, Tara married to the illustrious king Vali and later to his equally courageous and battle-strong brother Sugriva, and Mandodari married to the intelligent, devout and brave king Ravana and later to his righteous brother Vibhishana. Each of these women are known to be exceedingly physically attractive and aware of their effect on the other gender, and had unconventional relationships. From each life, there is a lesson to be applied in our own lives. Yet, why kanyā

As I think of these women, I think I understand the term kanyā better. Virginity in a woman is not a mere physical attribute - it is the quality of being untouched, that leaves the option open to enter into a new relationship.  Independence lies not just in resisting intimacies, but also in accepting them, free of social conditioning.  Each of these women are known for being independent, of having a will and having exercised it, for pushing the limit of social norm, for not being shackled by convention, for living eventful lives and yet standing out from their surroundings by being untouched by their environment. Each of these kanya were not tied down by their relationships and their circumstances, but rose above them and defined their swadharma - role in life.  Remembering and applying the same qualities and attitude in our daily life would uplift us. As the couplet says, remembering these five maidens destroys the greatest sins.   

1 comment:

  1. Very well written indeed. But in the shloka the word "panchakanyā" was supposed to have been "panchakam naha" meaning these five should be remembered by men(naha).
    Also in the symbology of Mahabharat, Draupadi represents kundalini and pandavas represent the chakras or energy centers. The marriage to five of them is symbolic of the process of kundalini rising through the five chakras in the process of enlightenment.