Early every morning, millions of Indians may remember hearing family elders chanting the names of the panch kanyas or five virgins – Ahilya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara and Mandodari – from the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. Hindus believe that uttering the names of these five women every day can destroy the greatest of sins.
I always wondered why some obvious names like Sita and Savitri and Arundhati were missing in this list of pure women? Also, how could married women be called kanyas or virgins? Finally, weren’t all of these women traumatised by unsolicited sexual abuse, or stigmatised by being wives of serial abusers of other women? Is there an unseen clue hidden behind invoking their names each morning? What are the stories the names carry with them?
It was the great Sanskrit scholar Vishwanath Kashinath Rajwade’s brilliant unfinished treatise on marriage in ancient India, based on the Mahabharata, which gave me some answers. Today, in common parlance, the word kanya means a young virgin. But in the Mahabharata, as the sun god visiting young princess Kunti explains to her, the root of the word kanya is kam or to desire.
Thus a kanya is a young woman who has the right to claim whosoever is the subject of her desire. Our panch kanyas, therefore, are five extraordinarily honest, spunky women, who stood up for their right to justify their desires. When the need arose, these women meted out the harshest punishments to predatory men – who used wile or claims of familiarity to sexually abuse women and then expected them to stay silent and disappear.
Two poets Valmiki and Ved Vyas introduce us to this extraordinary band of women by recording their remarkable stories. Both the poets exonerated the women of the charges made against them by their divine and/or regal male abusers. Poets alone have the gaze that can plumb the depths of history and introduce the world to the inconsolable hearts of birds and humans. Valmiki and Ved Vyas knew what it was to be reviled for being illegitimate. They were poets living on the edge of society who were honest record-keepers of human history and wars. Valmiki, the writer of the Ramayana, was a dacoit-turned-saint who gave shelter to a pregnant Sita exiled by her maryada purushottam (ideal man) husband, Ram, after tongues began wagging in Ayodhya about Sita’s chastity following her rescue from the clutches of Ravana. Ved Vyas was the ugly illegitimate son of queen Satyavati (the great-grandmother of the Pandavas and Kauravas), who chose to live in exile upon a tiny island, while a fratricidal war between deemed legitimate brothers decimated a whole age as narrated in the Mahabharata.
She appears in the Ramayana as the plain-looking pious wife to the sage Gautama. The trickster god Indra, impersonated Gautama and abused her sexually while her husband was out for his morning ablutions. When the sage returned and saw them together, he cursed both Indra and Ahilya, who turned into a stone. Much later, when Rama was travelling through the forest, he stubbed his toe on the large boulder that was Ahilya and his touch broke the spell. As Ahilya stood before him, moved by her obvious grace and purity, Rama touched her feet and asked his brother to do likewise. “Such grace must be revered and bowed to”, he said.
She was born out of the fire of revenge that consumed her father Drupad. Her hand was won by Arjuna in a Swayamvara through a tightly contested competition of archery. But after an absent-minded mother-in-law asked the brothers to share Arjuna’s prize, she was forced to be wife to all five Pandava brothers. Then the oldest brother, Yudhisthir, lost her (and everything else) in a game of dice and the winners, his cousins the Kauravas, dragged her by the hair calling her a whore who slept with multiple partners. Draupadi then vowed gory revenge on her tormentors. “O Krishna,” she told her dearest friend and confidant, “these men are now nothing to me!”
“You lost our riches as a lazy cowherd loses his cows in a jungle,” she screamed to her husbands. “Fie upon such cowardice disguised as principle.”
According to Villiputthur Alavar’s Tamil version of the Mahabharata, several centuries later, this fiery woman, as Draupadi Amman, became a goddess of revenge all over north Arkot in Tamil Nadu. She also gained two local guardians – Pottu Raja and Muttal Ravuttan – one a Hindu, another a Muslim. Pottu Raja was minister to the king of Koshambi and managed to save his lord’s kingdom only with Draupadi Amman’s help while the king was away on a pilgrimage. Statues of Pottu Raja holding an enemy’s head dripping blood still guard gates to all Draupadi Amman’s temples, reminding visitors of how she did not tie her hair until she had washed it with the blood of those who had tormented her. Here, Draupadi is female memory pitted against the abusive authority of the male state and a weak jurisprudence.
Kunti’s story turns the male-created myths about legitimacy and heirs upon itself. As the five Pandavas – Yudhisthir, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakul and Sahdeva – sired by various gods claimed the throne of Hastinapur as theirs by the law of the land and killed and maimed the sons of a blind king who, being physically disabled, was deemed unfit to be king, the idea of a fratricidal Mahabharata war begins to look like a sick joke. As a young girl, Kunti was granted the powers to summon whoever she wished as her companion. She summoned the Sun God and became his bride for the night. She conceived but was forced to abandon her firstborn, as she was an unwed mother. Ironically, after her marriage to Pandu, her ailing and impotent husband, he begged her to use her boon discreetly to impregnate herself and her co-wife Madri, in order to provide the kingdom with heirs. Thus the five Pandavas were born. Misfortune thereafter followed Kunti like a shadow. She wandered incognito with her exiled sons, unable to publicly acknowledge the great archer Karna as hers. She tried to get even with the system in the only way open to widows like her – by upholding the myth of patriarchy and instilling in her sons the claim that they alone had the legitimate right to the throne of Hastinapur. The rest, as they say, is history.
The beautiful wife of King Ravana of Lanka, Mandodari, whose name literally means “she of the slender waist”, was the daughter of the great architect Maya, the Asura. She was given in marriage to Ravana while she was still very young. Maya, like many fathers of girls, had wailed that being father to a nubile daughter was a burden on any honourable man. Like all girls forced to grow up fast, Mandodari was a quick learner. She was both sharp and forthright in asking her errant husband to send the abducted Sita back immediately. “Sita seet nisa sum (Sita is here to haunt us like a long dark winter night),” she said. When she saw that her husband was unmoved, she prophesied that his abduction and degradation of another man’s wife with lustful intentions would end in his death. She told her husband that tears of good women did not fall to be absorbed and forgotten, they always brought nasty results.
Tara was the wife of the monkey king Bali who was presumed dead after a battle with a demon after which she married his twin brother Sugriva according to the custom of the time. When Bali returned, he was livid and abducted Sugriva’s first wife, Ruma, as revenge. As battle lines between the brothers were drawn, wise Tara counseled her first husband to return Ruma to his brother. Tara said Sugriva had not snatched her but married her legitimately only because Bali’s death had been confirmed. However, like Ravana, Bali remained unmoved. Tara, the mother of Bali’s son Angad, finally managed to wrest a promise from him that he would not kill his own brother. The brothers fought a duel in which Bali was killed by Sugriva’s mentor Rama. Sugriva was crowned king of the kingdom of Kishkindha. As dowager queen, Tara diplomatically left the question of ascension of her son to the throne for his stepfather to resolve. She knew well that the guilt-ridden uncle Sugriva would not deny her son his right to the throne.
Stories of women’s humiliation and their well-planned revenge as documented by both Ved Vyasa and Valmiki record five extraordinary and timeless struggles for truth and justice by the meek and marginalised. Elegant and austere, the unforgettable panch kanyas haunt our history. Their lives are balance sheets of the inhumanities women have been subjected to, and all those forcibly hushed secrets our young girls still carry in their wounded minds as they lie on string cots in slums and huts, or upon four poster beds in palaces, staring at the meagre skies above and hoping against hope that one day justice and revenge will be theirs.