A group of five women named for ideal femininity in Santana Dharma are the Panchakanyas. “Ahalyā draupadī sītā tārā mandodarī tathā
pancakanyāḥ smarennityam mahāpātakanāsinīm”
Remembering the Pamchakanya, the five maidens: Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita, Tara, and Mandodari, destroys great offences.
Sometimes Kunti is named instead of Sita. Besides being purified of minor transgressions, one is even cleared of “mahāpātaka”– great offences which are killing a Brāhmin, consuming intoxicating drinks, committing theft, committing adultery and associating with anyone guilty of such offences (Jha, 1920).
These lines were quoted by Swami Vivekananda to call these women inspirational in the context of contemporary society (Vivekananda, 1989). Ahalya, Sita, Tara and Mandodari belong to the epic, the Ramayana. Kunti and Draupadi belong to the later epic of the Mahabharata. This paper explores the ‘kanyātva’ or the femininity of the Panchakanya – their life events, what makes them inspirational, and why these wives and mothers are called maidens.
(Figure 1: Credit: Wikipedia – Ahalya offering fruits and flowers to Rama, her savior)
Ahalya was not born of a human mother. She was a perfectly planned creation by Brahma himself who described Ahalya as “śreṣṭha śubhalaksaṇāmcārusarvāngī dṛiṣṭvā rupaguṇānvitām” – ideal with auspicious features, a lovely being with beauty and virtue. (Brahma Purāṇa, p.824) He gave her to Gautama for safekeeping. When Ahalya came of age, Gautama asked Brahma whom she would marry. Brahma decided it would be the pious sage Gautama himself. Once when Indra visited the hermitage of Gautama, he found an opportunity when the sage was out and approached Ahalya in the guise of Gautama. When the sage returned, the guard was surprised to see the sage outside when he had already gone in with Ahalya. In anger, the sage cursed Indra for defiling his wife. As Ahalya stood shocked at her indiscretion, he cursed her to be a dry river. Ahalya said she had not recognized Indra, and the guards corroborated her story. Gautama, with the power of his ascesis, knew this to be true, and told her that when she would meet the sacred river Gautami, her form would be restored. Ahalya can be translated in Sanskrit as ‘a-halyā’ or non-arable, that which cannot produce a crop. Indra is the deity for rain and thunderstorms. The narrative points to a seasonal river that was filled by rain, and flowed to meet the Gautami, at which point Ahalya resumed her original form and was united with Gautama. The duration of their separation would be the time it took for the dry Ahalya to start flowing again, and meet the Gautami. This time for Ahalya to live a life as a dry patch of land is a metaphor for an ascetic life with severe austerities, till she was redeemed.
In the Valmiki Ramayana, Ahalya is said to have recognized Indra approaching her, disguised as her husband. Indra praised her as being irresistible to everyone, “susamāhitā sumadhyamā” – slender-waisted with fine limbs (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Bāla Kāṇḍa 48:18). Vishwamitra described Ahalya’s response to Indra as being “durmedhā kutūhalāta” –ill-advised, out of curiosity (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Bāla Kāṇḍa 48:19). After being with Indra, she said she was gratified to comply with Indra’s wishes, and she said “gaccha śīghram” and “sarvadā rakṣa gautamāt”–leave quickly, and protect yourself from Gautama always (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Bāla Kāṇḍa 48:20-21). But the sage returned just then and cursed Indra to lose his manhood, and told Ahalya to perform penance –“vāyubhakṣā nirāhārā tapyantī bhasmasāyinī adṛiṣya sarvabhūtānām āśrame asmin nitvatsyasi”– perform austerities by living alone in the hermitage, without food, living on air, covered by dust, unseen by all (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Bāla Kāṇḍa 48:30). Gautama addressed Ahalya as “duṣṭacāriṇīm” – one who has committed an offense (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Bāla Kāṇḍa 48:33). He said she would be redeemed by welcoming Vishnu when he arrived as Rama. Gautama and all others left, leaving Ahalya alone in the desolate place. Gautama performed austerities in the forest, having given Ahalya the opportunity to redeem herself.
Arriving years later with the young princes of Ayodhya, Rama and Lakshmana, the sage Vishwamitra has described Ahalya as “mahābhāgā ahalyām devarūpiṇīṃ” – a highly glorious woman of divine appearance (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Bāla Kāṇḍa 49.11). “mahābhāgā” can also be construed as “mahā-abhāgā” or a highly unfortunate woman (Ramabhadracharya, 2016). Either way, Vishwamitra’s description is respectful towards Ahalya. Rama and Lakshmana saw Ahalya as “tapasā dyotitaprabhāṃ gautama vākyena durnirikṣyā” – glowing in her ascesis unseen to all in accordance with the words of Gautama, as she came out of her meditation and welcomed Rama by touching his feet (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Bāla Kāṇḍa 49.13). Word was sent to Gautama who was happy to be re-united with the glorious Ahalya. Her son Shatananda who was a priest for king Janaka, also arrived, and sang the glories of the sage Vishwamitra, and thanked Rama for his mother’s redemption.
The second biggest of the major Puranas, the Padma Purana describes Ahalya in Indra’s words as “suveṣā varavarṇinī … ratnabhūtā” – of beautiful complexion, well-attired and adorned with gems (Padma Purāṇa, Sṛṣṭikhaṇḍa 54.9). When Indra approached her in the guise of Gautama, she was reluctant to comply as it was time for household work and the timing of his suggestion was not appropriate. She gave in at his insistence thinking she is going by her husband’s will. When Gautama returned, Indra took the form of a cat. Gautama asked the cat to reveal himself immediately, and the scared Indra appeared in his original form. Gautama cursed Indra to be covered with women’s genitals that he so desired. Ahalya pleaded innocence and Gautama took pity on her. Even unknowingly, a wrong had been done. For being an “amedhyā pāpacāriṇī” –defiled wrong-doer, by being with Indra, Gautama said she would be reduced to bones without flesh or nails for a long time – an abject picture of starvation (Padma Purāṇa, Sṛṣṭikhaṇḍa 54.33-34). When Ahalya asked to be redeemed, Gautama told her that when Rama comes by and asks about this form without flesh, Vasishtha will narrate the story, and Rama will then respond –It is not her fault, it is Indra’s fault. Exonerated by Rama himself, Ahalya would then be restored in her present form and be united with Gautama. This version of Ahalya’s story shows that Gautama did not fault her. He was cognizant of the public outrage that would surround her, and he gave her an opportunity of public redemption through severe austerities and receiving a testimonial by Vishnu’s avatara on earth, Rama himself.
In other versions, Ahalya resisted Indra’s advances (KambanRāmāyaṇa, 2014, p.22-24) before giving in. Gautama cursed her to become a stone, and when she asked for forgiveness, he told her the curse would be lifted when the dust of Rama’s feet fell on her. Years later, on the way to Mithila, as the dust from Rama’s feet fell on a stone, it took the form of Ahalya. Tulasidas, in his devotional text Ramacharitamanasa, said that Vishwamitra told the young princes that the rock was Ahalya waiting for liberation. As Rama’s foot touched the rock, Ahalya appeared with folded hands, trembling with joy and love in the ecstasy of being in the presence of Rama. She sang the glories of Rama with folded hands (Shriramcharitmanas, Balakanda, 1:210).
A similar narrative of a lady being cursed to become a rock is found in the legend of Khaṇḍaśilā (Skanda Purana, 1.134) where Kamadeva was smitten by a beautiful woman by the lake. The pious woman was the wife of Harita, a Brahmin who observed strict austerities, and she was unfamiliar with the desire that rose in her. When Harita came looking for her, he saw her looking down bashfully as Kamadeva spoke words of praise and desire. Harita cursed Kamadeva to be afflicted with leprosy and cursed his wife to turn into a rock forever. Kamadeva pleaded for her innocence and said he alone was culpable. Harita said it was Kamadeva’s influence on the mind that gives rise to desire that manifests into speech and action. The woman instantly became a rock fragment known as Khaṇḍaśilā. Kamadeva built a temple at that spot to propitiate her, and was cured of his leprosy. The reference of Ahalya turning into a rock by Kamba from the thirteenth century and by Tulasidas from the sixteenth century with resumption of human form, aligns not with Harita’s wife becoming a rock permanently, but rather with Valmiki’s narrative of Ahalya going into deep meditation.
Ahalya’s petrification could be taken as an indicator of shame and guilt, “a psychological trauma in which the oppressive guilt virtually throttles the vital spirit” (Bhattacharya, 2000). Knowers of the Vedas like Gautama and Ahalya would know that meditation to reach a higher state starts from a state of equanimity, and not from negative emotion. Krishna has explained to Arjuna “bandhur ātmātmanas tasya yenātmaivātmanā jitaḥ. anātmanas tu śhatrutve vartetātmaiva śhatru-vat” – “For those who have conquered the mind, it is their friend. For those who have failed to do so, the mind works like an enemy.” (Bhagavad Gitā, 2019, 6.6) The rock-like form is an indicator of Ahalya’s mastery over body, mind and senses, as she looks inward.
A narrative from ancient Greece attributed to Hesiod speaks of Zeus, the king of the Gods, disguised as the Theban military general Amphitryon seduced his wife Alcmene. Hesiod has described Alcmene as the most beautiful woman with wisdom surpassed by no person born of mortal parents (Brouwers, 2014). Amphitryon arrived the same night and found out about Zeus impersonating him to deceive his wife but it was not taken as Alcmene’s transgression. She later gave birth to twins – the divine Heracles by Zeus, and the mortal Iphicles by her husband.
The life of the beautiful Ahalya, married in her youth to the wise sage Gautama who had brought her up in his hermitage and was ultimately punished by him, sparks a lively debate on the status of women in traditional Hindu society – “wound into an epic that reeks of testosterone, aggression and masculine strength is the story of a woman whom society and its code of ethics fail… wronged by the man who marries her and used by another man who claims to be in love with her” (Pal, 2015). Ahalya was devoted to Gautama which is why Indra came in the guise of Gautama. Gautama’s love and compassion helped tide the couple over an incident that would be a breaking point in most relationships even in current times. Ahalya, as the victim of deception, would not be considered responsible for the incident but acceptance in society would not be easy. If Gautama accepted her regardless of her error in judgment, it would set the wrong example for the hermitage, and Ahalya’s image would remain tainted in the public eye for an extramarital alliance. Gautama asked for a public atonement and a public redemption. She was redeemed by the grace of Rama, an avatara of Vishnu, in the presence of Vishwamitra. This testimonial to her purity was planned by Gautama to ensure Ahalya’s return to her respected position in society.
In the Valmiki Ramayana, Indra explained after being cursed by Gautama that he had undertaken this task for the Deva. “kurvatā tapaso vighnam gautamasya mahātmanaḥ krodhamutpādya hi mayā surakāryamidam kṛitam”– I created an obstacle to the great Gautama’s austerities; by causing him to be angry I have accomplished a task for the Devas (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Bāla Kāṇḍa 49.2). Gautama left for the forest to perform severe penance to uplift himself to gain the mental composure that he had lost in a fit of jealousy and anger. In a Mahabharata narrative on the benefits of reflecting before acting, it is said that before leaving for the forest, Gautama had asked his son Chirakari to kill his mother Ahalya for her transgression. Chirakari being of a contemplative nature, did not immediately follow his father’s orders. Instead, he reflected on his duties towards each of his parents. Gautama performed austerities in the forest, and as he meditated, he was overcome with remorse over having asked Chirakari to kill his own mother, which he now realized would be a grave offense for both Chirakari and himself. He realized that it was his own jealousy and anger that would cause the evil act of killing a pious woman. Ahalya and Indra were not responsible for the heinous crime. He returned hastily to the hermitage and saw his wife still sat unmoving while his son fell at his feet asking forgiveness for not having followed his father’s orders. Gautama was relieved that Chirakari’s habit of considering long before acting had saved both of them from killing Ahalya (Māhābhārata, 2015, Sānti Parva 266).
Ahalya accepted the punishment with the understanding that her husband would speak for her benefit, and she uplifted herself with her own effort– “uddhared ātmanātmānaṁ nātmānam avasādayet. ātmaiva hyātmano bandhur ātmaiva ripur ātmanaḥ” – Elevate yourself through the power of your mind, and not degrade yourself, for the mind can be the friend and also the enemy of the self (Bhagavad Gitā, 2019, 6.10). When Indra lost a battle, Brahma explained that Ahalya means unblemished. Indra’s defeat was in consequence of his seduction of the pious Ahalya and bringing her misery (Dutt, 1894). Once, the king Nahusha was asked by the Devas to administer Indraloka while Indra was performing austerities. Nahusha asked the sages to ask Indra’s wife to submit to him. When the Devas and sages deemed it inappropriate, Nahusha asked why they were questioning him when they had not questioned Indra when he preyed on the innocent Ahalya (Mahābhārata, 2015, Udyoga Parva 12). Purified through self-discipline, Ahalya’s reputation was unblemished, and Indra is considered culpable. Ahalya was welcomed back into her household life by her husband and her son.
(Figure 2: Credit: iStock – Disrobing of Draupadi)
Known by her patronymic Draupadi over the ages, Krishna was born from the Yajna performed by her father Drupada, king of Panchala who desired a son to avenge his humiliation by the preceptor Drona. After a tall, muscular, well-built young man emerged from the yajna fire, everyone looked in wonder as a tall slender graceful young woman emerged from the Yajna fire. The priests named the twins Dhrishtadyumna and Krishna. Draupadi is also known as Yajnaseni – born from a Yajña or sacrificial fire, and Ayonija – not born of a human mother. Draupadi is described in the Mahabharata as a divine being manifest in human form with outstanding beauty like the earth had never seen. She was dark, elegant, with eyes like lotus petals and curly blue hair with beautiful limbs and large eyes, like dark lotus leaves, beautiful convex nails bright like burnished copper, lovely eyebrows and beautiful breasts, with the fragrance of a beautiful blue lotus for miles. (Mahābhārata, 2015, Adi Parva 166.44-46).
Soon after, Drupada invited all the kings and princes for a svayamvara– an event for Draupadi to choose her husband from among the invited princes and kings. The five Pandava brothers were in exile and attended the event. Arjuna won Draupadi’s hand, but when he reached home and told his mother Kunti to see his win, she asked him to share with his brothers. Draupadi was married to all five Pandava brothers, with the approval of Veda Vyasa and Krishna Vasudeva (Mahābhārata, 2015, Adi Parva 196). The sage Narada set the rules for this marriage to give equal time to each relationship (Mahābhārata, 2015, Adi Parva 211). Draupadi had five sons, one with each husband, and two daughters as well. As her mother-in-law Kunti before her, Draupadi became the common responsibility as well as the integrator of the family unit of the Pandavas by entering this polyandrous marriage. She was equally close to each of the Pandavas, and was their friend, guide and counsellor. Being always present with the five Pandavas, she participated in the decision-making and influenced their course of action.
The blind uncle of the Pandavas gave them some barren land as their share of the kingdom. The Pandavas built a prosperous city, Indraprastha. Draupadi was the queen of Indraprastha as the chief queen of Yudhishthira. In a game of dice with his cousin Duryodhana, Yudhishthira lost his kingdom and all his wealth, and then he wagered and lost himself, then his brothers, and finally Draupadi. Duryodhana asked his younger brother Dushasana to bring the slave girl Draupadi to the court. As a “rajasvalā” – a menstruating woman during her period, Draupadi had not tied her hair and had wrapped herself in a single cloth as per the custom of the day (Mahābhārata, 2015, SabhāParva 67). In this vulnerable state, she tried to run towards the women of Hastinapura but Dushasana dragged her by her hair into the court as she tried hard to keep herself covered. None of the senior members present in the court, the family elders of the Pandavas, tried to stop Dushasana. Draupadi saw her five husbands sitting with bowed heads while Duryodhana and Karna made crude comments. Draupadi stood alone in this moment of abject humiliation.
With her courage and sharp intellect, as she was dragged falling and faltering in the court, Draupadi nevertheless spoke up for herself and asked the court elders to answer if inviting Yudhishthira to a gambling game and provoking him to wager his family and her becoming a slave was in accordance with Dharma. Bheeshma replied that when Yudhishthira who was considered an embodiment of Dharma had agreed to the game, made the wager, and acknowledged his loss, nothing more could be said (Mahābhārata, 2015, SabhāParva 67). One of Duryodhana’s younger brothers, Vikarna, asked the court to answer Draupadi, saying that it was his opinion that Draupadi was the wife to the five Pandavas, and Yudhishthira had no right to wager her by himself, especially after having lost himself in a wager. But Duryodhana’s vassal Karna asked him to be silent when the elders in the court had not spoken.
In a mortifying incident that would traumatize a person for life, Draupadi of divine birth raised in a royal family and a queen by marriage to the most outstanding warriors of her time, faced humiliating taunts and assault in the court. The horrific nature of this incident stands unparalleled in Indian history. When Dushasana attempted to disrobe her, she cried out to Krishna piteously for help. Her single cloth became an endless piece of fabric that Dushasana could not take off her, and he sat down exhausted. Various kings present in the court now voiced their criticism of the Hastinapura elders and asked them to answer Draupadi’s question, till Vidura finally stood up and said that in his opinion, Yudhishthira after losing himself could not wager his brothers and wife, as per Dharma. (Mahābhārata, 2015, SabhāParva 67)
In the moment, in the presence of her husbands, family and elders, it was Draupadi who had saved herself and her husbands by repeatedly asking for an answer. At the prompting of the queen Gandhari, the blind king Dhritarashtra said she was his esteemed eldest daughter-in-law and she was a free citizen. He asked what else he could give her. She asked for the freedom of her husbands along with their weapons, knowing that they could build a life as long as they had their weapons. Duryodhana asked for one last game in which the loser would go into the forest for fourteen years. Yudhishthira lost the game, and the Pandavas had to go into exile in the forest for fourteen years (Mahābhārata, 2015, SabhāParva 71).
Draupadi pledged that she would leave her hair open till it was washed in Dushasana’s blood. The Pandavas pledged revenge and killing those responsible for the gambling game and Draupadi’s humiliation. The fathers and brothers of the other Pandava wives came to take them home. Draupadi’s brother took her sons with him to Panchal. Kunti was too frail to come with her sons. Draupadi stayed in the forest with her five husbands. Like her mother-in-law Kunti before her, she was the force behind the five Pandavas staying united and integrated.
When Krishna visited them in the forest, Draupadi spoke bitterly on how she had to battle alone, and how she was treated by Dhritarashtra’s sons. Characteristically, she spoke in moving words to get her message across to all present. “naiva me patayaḥ santi na putrā na ca bāndhavāḥ. na bhrātro na ca pitā naiva tvam madhusudana.” – I have no husbands, nor sons, nor friends, brothers, father, not even you, Madhusudana (Mahābhārata, 2015, Vana Parva 12). She pointed out to Krishna that he needed to support her because they were related as family, she was of divine birth, she was his true friend and that he was capable of defending her. Krishna promised her that she would be queen one day, and those who had ill-treated her would pay with their lives.
Draupadi’s image is of a stunning beauty, an intelligent sharp-tongued woman of strong character, whose platonic friendship with Krishna is the only example in Vedic literature of an enduring friendship between a man and a woman. There is also the householder aspect of Draupadi that is highlighted by the fact that Krishna asked his wife Satyabhama to ask Draupadi for advice on running a household and keeping her husbands happy. Draupadi’s conversation with Satyabhama (Mahābhārata, 2015, Vana Parva 12) gives deep insights in her expert householder skills in her era. The work may be different in this age, but her advice is applicable as a practical guide in planning for a strong and lasting marriage.
Draupadi is seen to think straight even in the most adverse of circumstances. Though she was not a warrior, her mind worked like one, staying calm and rational in the most trying of situations, and turning the battle around in her favor. In the forest, once when Duryodhana’s brother-in-law Jayadratha was out on a hunt, he found Draupadi alone while the Pandavas had gone hunting. He abducted her, and this is the second instance where Draupadi was under assault but does not play victim. She taunted Jayadratha defiantly that her husbands would return from their hunt, and would defeat him which they did (Mahābhārata, 2015, Vana Parva 267).
In the forest, Yudhishthira asked the visiting sage Markandeya if he had ever known of another duty bound and resourceful woman such as Draupadi who released herself from slavery, and had the Pandavas released after they had gone into slavery. Markandeya cited the example of Savitri who had argued successfully with Yama to get back her husband’s life, also getting her exiled father-in-law’s eyes and kingdom restored, and getting a blessing for a hundred sons for her father-in-law and her husband. This comparison with Savitri who is known for presence of mind, righteousness and wisdom, shows the high regard in which Draupadi was held by a wise sage like Markandeya. (Mahābhārata, 2015, Vana Parva 293)
Draupadi and the Pandavas spent their last year of exile in disguise in the kingdom of Matsya where the king’s brother-in-law Kichaka was the military commander and one of the strongest wrestlers in the world. When he made advances towards Draupadi disguised as the queen’s attendant, Draupadi resisted him. This was the third assault on Draupadi narrated in the Mahabharata. Choosing her words and recipient wisely, she found Bhimasena and described her humiliation. Her arrow found its mark; Bhimasena killed Kichaka, and when his sons and family members tried to burn Draupadi alive on his funeral pyre, Bhimasena killed them too (Mahābhārata, 2015, Virāṭa Parva 23).
At the end of the exile, when it looked like there would be attempts at peace, she reminded Yudhishthira that her humiliation had to be avenged. Draupadi’s power of communication is her biggest strength throughout her eventful life. She commanded respect from her illustrious family, wise sages, and shared a close friendship with Krishna. The Pandavas won the war of the Mahabharata. That last night after the war, Drona’s son set fire to the Pandava tent, but it was actually the tent of Draupadi’s brothers and her sons, who were all burned to death as they slept.
Draupadi who had emerged from the fire to take revenge for her father, lost him, all her brothers and all her sons in the war. After performing the last rites, Yudhishthira was torn by remorse, and wanted to renounce the kingdom. The other four Pandavas and Draupadi advised Yudhishthira to take on the duties and the responsibilities of the kingdom. (Mahābhārata, 2015, Śānti Parva 14) She went on to become the queen of Hastinapura with Yudhishthira as king.
Rarely has a woman seen a tumultuous life as Draupadi did, and yet at the end, when she and the Pandavas renounced the kingdom and left for their final journey, she was the first to collapse along the way and die. Yudhishthira explained to his brothers that she had always loved Arjuna more than the other Pandavas, and therefore she had not been entirely true to her marriage vows (Mahābhārata, 2015, Mahāprasthānika Parva 2). Other than this flaw in her character, Draupadi stands out for having stood up to everything life threw at her, and finding the way forward.
(Figure 3: Credit: iStock – Images of Rama, Lakshman and Sita)
Sita is known in popular culture as the mother – Sita ma. She is revered as a deity, the avatara of Lakshmi on earth, who came along with Vishnu in his avatara of Rama to lead by example, to emphasize the establishment of Dharma on earth. Devotional texts and songs written for Rama and Sita, where they are addressed as Sitaram – a united couple seen as one.
The birth of Sita is described by the king of Mithila, Janaka, to Vishwamitra in one line in the Valmiki Ramayana –“kṣetram śodhayatā labdhvā nāmnā sītā iti viśrutā”– I found her in a furrow, while tilling the field before a yajna (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Bāla Kāṇḍa 66:13-14). Sita means a furrow. Janaka called his daughter ayonijā – not born of a human mother, and that he was looking for a bridegroom with courage. The same story of Sita’s birth is found in Kamban’s Tamil retelling of Ramayana (KambanRāmāyaṇa, 2014). There are many versions in folklore in various parts of India and in surrounding countries of Sita’s birth, and how she reached Mithila.
When Rama easily strung Shiva’s bow that strong men could not budge, Janaka said he was qualified to marry Sita who could also lift the bow easily. This strength is an indicator of Sita’s inner strength and steely determination to match Rama’s strength. When giving Sita’s hand in marriage to Rama, Janaka described his daughter as “pativratā mahābhāgā chhāyevānugatā” – devoted to her husband, auspicious and bringer of great fortune, abiding with her husband always like a shadow (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Bāla Kāṇḍa 73:27). When Rama was exiled for fourteen years, she insisted on following him into the forest though Rama tried to dissuade her from the hard forest life, citing wild animals, sleeping on the ground to the sound of waterfalls, crossing crocodile-infested waters, eating fruit when available, and yet having to perform rituals and austerities daily. He advised her to live a disciplined life in the palace while he was gone.
Contrary to the docile image in popular folklore, Sita knew her mind and did not hesitate to speak it, and she made balanced arguments to support her case in the Valmiki Ramayana. She questioned Rama’s decision to go alone, saying “patiḥ ekogatiḥ sadā”– her fortune was tied to her husband’s lot (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Ayodhyā Kāṇḍa 27:5). At first, she tried to charm him saying she would walk in front and crush the thorns in his path. And then she praised him saying she had nothing to fear when she was with him. She insisted that she could enjoy a hundred thousand years bathing in ponds and living on root and fruits with Rama, without whom she would die. To bolster her argument, she also recalled a mendicant visiting her father Janaka’s house and predicting forest life for her (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Ayodhyā Kāṇḍa 29:13). She reminded Rama that her father Janaka had given her to Rama thinking he is brave and would be able to protect her, and that she would kill herself if Rama left her behind. Rama finally agreed that she could come with him.
The wise sage Vasishtha who was the guru for Rama’s family recommended that Sita could rule Ayodhya in place of Rama who was going into exile, being “ramasya ātmeyam”–Rama’s self (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Ayodhyā Kāṇḍa 37:23-24). Being nominated by Vasishtha to be the ruler of Ayodhya was no small recognition. It shows how the young Sita was respected for her intelligence, dignity, sense of justice, and ability to command, and she was held at the same level of regard as Rama even by wise sages like Vasishtha.
In the forest, she asked Rama to get her the deer with a shiny coat that appeared before them. Even as she wondered at the deer, Sita was aware of the desire as it took root in her, saying “kāmavṛittam idam raudram strīṇāmasadṛisamatam” –action-filled desire in women is not seen in good form traditionally (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Araṇya Kāṇḍa 43:21). Unlike Ahalya, Sita’s purity of mind and clarity of intellect warned her it was a sensory desire even as her mind was filled with wonderment at the shiny coat of the deer. The illusory deer cried for help in Rama’s voice, when hit by Rama’s arrow. Lakshmana did not believe that Rama would need help, and he did not want to leave Sita alone but Sita insisted. She chastised Lakshmana at behaving like an enemy to Rama, insinuating that he had his eye on her (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Araṇya Kāṇḍa 34:6). Knowing her anxiety, Lakshmana reminded her of Rama’s prowess but she berated him for not going to help Rama, calling debased, discompassionate, terrible, and a scourge to the family, and that she would rather die than give in to Lakshmana.
Stung by Sita’s acerbic words, Lakshmana folded his hands and replied that Sita was like a deity to him and nothing could happen to Rama. He said her emotional speech was beyond the bounds of decency and her words were burning his ears; he was in the forest only to serve her and Rama. Seeing her miserable, he invoked the forest deities to take care of her and left to look for Rama when the Rakshasa king Ravana abducted her.
While looking for the abducted Sita, Rama had formed an alliance with the Vanara king Sugriva. Hanumana was sent to locate Sita and find out about her well-being. When Hanuman looked around Lanka, he momentarily mistook Ravana’s dignified and regal wife Mandodar ito be Sita. He finally found Sita surrounded by female Rakshasa attendants, sitting under a tree in a garden in Ravana’s palace grounds. Sita’s beautiful, dignified, and sometimes angry form described so far, was now plunged in sadness. She was “malinasamvitam rākshasibhirsamavṛitam upavāsakritam dinam nishvāsantim punaḥ punaḥ” – dressed in dirty clothes, surrounded by Rakshasa women, feeble from having fasted, sighing constantly. (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Sundara Kāṇḍa 15:18)
Hanuman watched as Ravana proposed to Sita that he would make her his chief queen, and all his other queens would serve her, claiming that he surpassed Rama in austerity, strength, might, wealth, brilliance and fame. Even in her humble condition, relying only on her own courage and resourcefulness, Sita responded to Ravana that as a married woman, she was devoted to her husband, and she would never think of leaning on any man for support. She asked Ravana to seek refuge in Rama, to avoid bloodshed and destruction in Lanka. Sitting all by herself in Lanka with no news of Rama, Sita’s rejection of Ravana is an act of exceptional inner strength.
After the war in which Ravana was killed, his younger brother Vibhishana was made king of Lanka. At Rama’s request, he brought Sita to Rama in fine clothes and adorned with jewelry in front of all the Vanara and the Rakshasa in a palanquin surrounded by guards. Rama asked Vibhishana to let the queen Sita walk in front of her own people (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Yuddha Kāṇḍa 114:27-30). In doing so, Rama ensured Sita was seen not as a victim of a kidnapping, but looked upon as a queen. Knowing Rama’s mind and walking with grace and dignity towards him, Sita saw his sombre face and stopped a little distance away. Rama addressed her for all to hear. He said the entire effort by the Vanara and Vibhishana and others was successful, and the honor of the Ikshvaku dynasty has been restored by freeing Sita from Ravana. She was free to go with anyone she liked, even Sugreeva or Vibhishana, because the family honor would be at stake by his accepting her back. Rama who was on earth to teach by example, was protecting Sita from the “janavāda” – public scandal, thought his heart was torn at seeing his beloved Sita so close to him (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Yuddha Kāṇḍa 115:11).
Knowing Rama’s mind, Sita played her part, replying for all to hear that she was perplexed why her purity was even being questioned. She said she had fainted when Ravana took her in his carriage, implying that Ravana lifted her up when she was unconscious and vivaśā – helpless (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Yuddha Kāṇḍa 116:8). Kamban has put it more delicately and avoided any touching of a married woman, “Sita’s hermitage was carried in toto by Ravana with Sita” (Ottilingam et al, 2021). Sita asked Lakshmana to light a pyre, and she would give up her life. (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Yuddha Kāṇḍa 116:18) Lakshmana did not speak when he saw the dark expression on Rama’s face; he lit a pyre, and Sita entered deep into the fire among shrieks and expressions of shock from the onlookers. In the Shiva Purana, Shiva’s consort Sati had invoked the fire within herself to self-immolate when she realized her father showed disrespect towards Shiva (Shiva Purāṇa, 2:20). Sati’s as well as Sita’s agni-praveśa – entry into fire, were performed for their husband’s honor. While Sati gave up her life through yoga techniques invoking the fire within her to consume her, Sita was brought out of the burning pyre untouched by Agni, the deity who manifests as fire. Agni as a credible witness testified to Sita’s inviolate status like Rama had testified to Ahalya’s purity years ago.
There is criticism by modern researchers of Sita entering the fire as an unjust custom of a patriarchal society asking a woman to prove herself – “when the war is over, Rama first rejects her as impure even though she’s been faithful to him and then abandons her” (Pal, 2015). Firstly, Rama did not doubt Sita’s purity. He wanted her to be accepted as queen knowing the taint that society would attach to her having stayed in Ravana’s compound. Unlike Gautama asking Ahalya, Rama did not ask Sita to perform penance because he was aware that she had not committed a transgression. Secondly, this was not a test by fire. There is no such prescribed test in Vedic literature of entering a fire to prove chastity nor is it a custom. Thirdly, Sita was not trying to prove a point. She said she wanted to end her life if it was not to be spent with Rama. Fourthly, Rama did not ask her to enter fire. Just as Gautama had freed Ahalya decades ago of householder responsibilities, Rama freed Sita so she could decide independently on the future course of action. And fifthly, when Agni presented Sita to the world, Rama’s eyes filled with tears of joy at uniting with Sita again. He declared that he knew Sita was pure in body and mind. They were devoted to one another, and their union was like they were one person. (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Yuddha Kāṇḍa 118:11-20)
In the Skanda Purana, it is said that when Rama left in pursuit of the deer, Agni who was present there from the Agnihotra yajna Rama had just performed, hid the real Sita at his home with his wife Swaha, and he resurrected Vedavati who had earlier burned herself in a fire asking to be re-born to avenge her humiliation and attempted assault by Ravana. Ravana abducted her thinking it is Sita, and thus Vedavati attained her goal of being the cause of Ravana’s death. When she entered the funeral pyre, Agni swapped her with the real Sita whom he presented to Rama. This story of the false Sita or Maya Sita is re-told by Tulasidas ji in his devotional text that reveres Sita as a deity, and would not present Sita in Ravana’s physical proximity. (Shriramcharitmanas, Lankā Kāṇḍa, 5.108)
One has to question the rationale for a duplicate Sita. Firstly, when the purpose of the battle is to establish Dharma, it would not befit Rama to build a false narrative to kill Ravana. Secondly, while there are many versions of the lifes tory of Rama and Sita, Valmiki Ramayana is the original narration by a contemporary, Valmiki. It does not show Rama using māyā– illusion. Rama lived among humans, leading by example. It does not appear tenable that he would use illusion just this once. Thirdly, this duplicate woman is a common storyline in cultures to highlight the physical purity of the woman. The switch-and-bait theme is used for Ahalya in some folklore to portray it was the false Ahalya who was with Indra. This is used for Helen of Troy in Greek legends to say that the real Helen never did leave with Paris (@sentantiq, 2017).
The Uttara Ramayana that some scholars argue may not be authored by Valmiki as the language appears to be different from the rest of Valmiki Ramayana, follows the story of Rama and Sita after their return to Ayodhya. Rama heard of a washerman throwing his wife out of the house saying he was not Rama that he would keep his wife who had been in another man’s house. Realizing that there was suspicion in people’s minds despite Agni having testified to Sita’s purity, Rama asked Lakshmana to leave Sita in the forest where she could live peacefully without scandal. She lived in Valmiki’s hermitage where she gave birth to twins – Lava and Kusha. Rama himself slept in the palace on a bed of grass, knowing that Sita lived a simple life devoid of luxuries.
Sita raised her twins as a single parent in Valmiki’s hermitage (Dutt, 1894). Valmiki had taught Lava and Kusha to recite his composition, the Ramayana. When they sang it in front of Rama, he enquired of their parentage. Valmiki said they were Rama’s sons, born of Sita after she was left near his hermitage. Rama and Sita met again for the final time, and he asked her to establish her inviolate status to come home again. Knowing that she had fulfilled the purpose of her lifetime on earth, Sita who had emerged from the earth, went back into it. Rama passed the kingdom to his sons and his brother’s sons, and he entered the waters of the Sarayu along with his brothers, to leave earth.
As a young child of divine birth, Sita was respected for her strength by her father, respected by Vasishtha for her intelligence and wisdom and considered fit to rule the kingdom, respected by Rama as his equal in devotion to one another, regarded by Lakshmana as a deity, revered by Hanumana as a mother, respected even by Ravana who abducted her but did not dare to touch her till she gave consent. Sita is equally the protagonist of the Ramayana as Rama. Sita and Rama are seen as one in Indian culture, and Hindu devotional songs address Rama as Sitarama. With her inner strength and commitment to protocol, Sita raised spousal commitment to the level of devotion to a deity that makes her resilient in adversity and separation. She is strengthened by Rama’s devotion to her. As a part of the righteous ideal couple, Sita’s personality shines independently in her speech and behavior. “Sita is the name in India for everything that is good, pure and holy; everything that in women we call women. The women in India must grow and develop in the footprints of Sita, that is the only way.” (Vivekānanda, 1989, p.842)
(Figure 4: Credit: iStock – Statue of Kunti)
Kunti’s name is sometimes used in this couplet instead of Sita. Her name is Pritha that literally means the earth. She was born to a Vrishni chief Shurasena who gave his daughter “rupeṇapratimā” – an incomparable beauty, to his childless cousin Kuntibhoja (Mahābhārata, 2015, Ādi Parva 110.1). Kunti is a patronymic for the daughter of Kuntibhoja. Pleased by her hospitality and care during his visit, the sage Durvasa blessed her with a mantra with which she could invoke any Deva for a child. The young Kunti was curious and invoked Surya who blessed her with a child (Mahābhārata, 2015, Ādi Parva 110.8). Afraid of public outrage and ostracization as she was unmarried, Kunti begged Surya to forgive her curiosity and leave. Surya explained that he was invoked by the mantra and she would have a child with a protective armor and ear-rings that no weapons could pierce, and she need not worry as she would keep her physical virginity (Mahābhārata, 2015, Ādi Parva 110.15). Kunti placed the baby in a basket that she let him flow in the river. The child was found and brought up by Adhiratha, the charioteer of king Dhritarasthra of Hastinapura. Kunti married Pandu who ruled Hastinapura as his elder brother Dhritarashtra was disqualified by blindness.
There is a woman with a similar story before Kunti. Pandu’s grandmother, Satyavati of divine birth, was found and raised by a fisherman chief. Once when Satyavati was rowing the boat for the sage Parashara to cross the river, he asked her to be with him. The young lady demurred, but the sage ensured her that she would be physically a virgin after the birth of their child, and he blessed her that the smell of fish around her would be replaced with a divine fragrance that spread for miles. The child born of their union, Krishna would not be given the patronymic or matronymic because he was born out of wedlock. He was known as Krishna Dvaipayana – Krishna born on an island. Satyavati went on to marry the king Shantanu of Hastinapura, Pandu’s grandfather.
Pandu also married the beautiful warrior princess Madri, and lived with both his wives in the forest. He was childless for years as he carried a curse of death if he had physical relations with a woman. He asked Kunti to have a child through the accepted practice of Niyoga – an accepted custom for a qualified person like a sage to have a child with a childless woman without lust (Mahābhārata, 2015, Ādi Parva 121.17-20). Satyavati’s first-born before her marriage had given children through Niyoga to her widowed daughters-in-law. Dhritarashtra and Pandu were born through Niyoga.
Kunti used the mantra given by Durvasa to have a son each with Dharma, Vayu and Indra. She taught the mantra to Madri who invoked the Ashvini twins and had twins. One day, Pandu approached Madri and died due to the curse on him. Madri held herself responsible for her death and joined him in the funeral pyre, leaving her sons in the care of Kunti. At the end of her unconsummated marriage with Pandu, Madri joined Pandu in death while Kunti went on to a live a single life. She brought the five Pandavas to Hastinapura. Pandu’s eldest son Yudhishthira was the heir to the kingdom.
Despite being the widowed queen of Hastinapura and the mother of the future king, it was Dhritarashtra and his wife Gandhari who were seen as the king and queen of Hastinapura. When an archery competition was held for the princes, Kunti recognized her first-born by his armor and ear-rings as he entered the arena, showed his archery skills and challenged the princes. The guru of the princes, Drona, named the lineage of Arjuna, and asked the visitor for his lineage since a duel would be between equals. Kunti fainted from emotion but even when her first-born was asked not to participate in the event which was organized for princes only, Kunti did not identify him from the same fear of social stigma that had made her abandon him.
Like Ahalya, Kunti bore the consequences of her curiosity-driven action. Ahalya uplifted herself by meditation and strengthening her mind, Kunti lifted herself by constant discipline in her social environment, and did not let scandal touch her.
Duryodhana had plotted to burn Kunti and her five sons alive in a palace of lac but they escaped into the adjoining forest where a Rakshasa princess Hidimba stated her desire to be with Bhimasena. Kunti gave permission to this relationship that was not a traditional marriage. This was cultural integration with an Asura family, and her eldest grand-child was the child of this union who would not sit on the throne of Hastinapura but rule the forest with his mother. Unlike her own first-born son born out of wedlock, she ensured Bhimasena’s son Ghatotkacha was recognized by the family and society, and he fought on the side of the Pandavas in the war of the Mahabharata.
The Pandavas moved on further south where Arjuna won Draupadi in her ‘swayamvara’ – an event for a woman to choose among invited suitors. Hearing Arjuna had won, without looking up, Kunti told him to share with the brothers. Kunti had four sons from four incidents. Her daughter-in-law Draupadi had five sons from her marriage to the five Pandava brothers. Kunti’s blessings to Hidimba and Draupadi reflect on her acceptance of uncommon events in life, and resolving them with fortitude. Like Sita, she commanded respect for her inner strength. Her sons, all extraordinary warriors and military commanders, took her word as command.
Years later, when her sons were exiled, she was too old and feeble to go into the forest with them. After the exile was over, and Dhritarashtra’s sons thwarted any attempt at peace, war was declared to win back Yudhishthira’s kingdom. Krishna reached out to Kunti’s first-born, Karna, to inform him of his relation to Kunti so he would fight on the side of the Pandavas. But Karna said he would remain loyal to his friends on the other side. Here again, there is a parallel between Kunti and Pandu’s grandmother Satyavati who had also kept the identity of her first-born a secret till she needed him for her family. When Satyavati’s sons died, she had reached out to her son Krishna Dvaipayana to perform Niyoga to give her widowed daughters-in-law a child each. Similarly, with her sons facing war, Kunti reached out to Karna, her first-born and an exceptional warrior to ask him to join his brothers. Rejected by her since birth and not identified by her even after he had become a frequent visitor to Hastinapura, Karna said that she had come only for her love for the Pandavas. He refused to recognize her as mother but she managed to extract a promise from him that he would at most kill one of the five Pandavas. (Mahābhārata, 2015, UdyogaParva 145-146)
Karna died in the Mahabharata war, and she finally revealed to the Pandavas that he was their eldest brother so Yudhishthira could perform Karna’s last rites. Yudhishthira was aghast that he would become the king after killing his own brother who would be king. He cursed all women to not be able to hold a secret because of Kunti. None of her sons appreciated the secret that she had guarded closely all her life to protect them and herself from public scandal. She retired into the forest with Dhritarashtra and Gandhari, her lifelong purpose achieved with the coronation of Yudhishthira as king of Hastinapura. It is reported in the Mahabharata that there was a forest fire, and it is believed that Kunti perished in the fire that also took the lives of Dhritarashtra and Gandhari. (Mahābhārata, 2015, Āśramavāsika Parva 145-146)
Unlike most queens who live a life of luxury, Kunti’s life experiences are marked by separation and a consistent lack of comfort. Born as a princess, she was separated from her parents in childhood and adopted by her uncle. She became a single mother due to her own curiosity, and she had to abandon her first-born from fear of social stigma. She married the king of Hastinapura but the marriage was unconsummated. Within her marriage, she planned three children with different fathers from single encounters. Despite being the king Pandu’s widowed queen, she lived as the future king Yudhishthira’s mother in Hastinapura with no administrative responsibility or authority. Despite her father Shurasena being one of the most powerful Vrishni leaders, her brother Vasudeva being the son-in-law of king Ugrasena of Dwarka, and her sister being the queen of the powerful kingdom of Chedi, there is no evidence of Kunti getting any financial or logistics support from the Vrishnis or Chedis during her life in the forest with Pandu, and later with the Pandavas. When the Pandavas were exiled late in her life, she stayed in Hastinapura at Pandu’s half-brother Vidura’s house while her grandchildren were all living in various kingdoms with their maternal uncles. Her first-born Karna was in the court of Hastinapura most of the time, but Kunti did not interact with him to keep her secret.
Through the hardship in her life, an attitude of gratitude and acceptance is the underlying theme of Kunti’s life, with guidance from Krishna, Veda Vyasa, Bheeshma and Vidura. She stands out as the one true matriarch in the saga of the Mahabharata. Living among great military commanders and kings, she stands out as a strong-willed independent woman who faced her life with discipline, quiet determination and fortitude.
(Figure 5: Credit: Wikipedia – The scene of Vali’s death with Tara, depicted with a monkey face, is seated at his feet, lamenting his death)
Tara was of divine birth, not born of a human mother like Ahalya, Sita, and Draupadi. Her husband Vali was the Vanara king of Kishkindha, ably supported by his younger brother Sugriva (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015). Once when Vali chased the Asura Mayavi into a cave, he did not come out for days and blood started seeping out of the cave. Sugriva called out for Vali but when there was no response, he blocked the entrance of the cave with a boulder, thinking Vali had died, and he returned to Kishkindha. He named Vali’s son as the crown prince, and became the ruler of the kingdom. There appears to be no formal wedding, but Vali’s wife Tara was now seen in Vanara society as Sugriva’s wife Tara. Vali returned to Kishkindha to find his brother having replaced him as king, as well as husband to Tara. In revenge, he banished Sugriva, but kept Sugriva’s wife Ruma in the palace. In the Valmiki Ramayana, Sugriva narrates this tale of woe to Rama. When Vali heard that Rama had promised to kill Vali for abducting Sugriva’s wife, he was furious. This is when the dignified and gracious Tara makes her entrance to advise Vali in the Valmiki Ramayana.
Vali with bared uneven teeth and his golden complexion red with anger looked fearsome. While others would be afraid to approach the mighty Vali in this condition, Tara hugged him affectionately, and spoke “hita urdakam vacaḥ” – words of benefit, saying that his planning to fight Vali again was not to her liking (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Bāla Kāṇḍa 15:9). She explained her reasoning that Sugriva had already lost a duel once, and yet “punar avhānam śankām janayati”– Sugriva’s repeated challenge was suspicious (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Kiṣkindhā Kāṇḍa 15:11). While Sita and Draupadi are seen as intelligent and articulate with presenting their case, the equally articulate Tara is seen as well-versed in administration and diplomacy. She got the information from Angada who had heard from the spy network that Sugriva had met with Rama in the forest. Sugriva must have learned something that gave him such confidence to challenge Vali again after being beaten so badly. Perhaps an alliance had been formed. She requested Vali not to leave immediately to fight, but instead go the next morning. This was an accurate analysis of Sugriva’s behavior, as we know in hindsight. The plan was for Rama to kill Vali with an arrow while he wrestled with his brother Sugriva.
It is also impressive that she kept herself well-informed and could counsel the king, and she was preparing her son Angada to be the next king. To make peace with Sugriva, she asked Vali “yauvarājyena sugrīvam tūrṇam sādhu abhiṣecaya”–make Sugriva the crown prince to avert any hostility (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Kiṣkindhā Kāṇḍa 15:23). She advised Vali “sugrīvena ca samprītim vairam utsṛujya dūrataḥ” (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Kiṣkindhā Kāṇḍa 15:25) to make peace with Sugriva; that would win him the alliance Sugriva appeared to have formed with Rama. In his arrogance of physical strength and battle skills, Vali did not listen to her, and went to fight Sugriva, and then lay dying after being mortally pierced by Rama’s arrow.
Many Vanara were abducting others’ wives in the chaos that followed. Tara rushed with her son Angada to the dying Vali, disregarding the cries of her well-wishers asking her to safeguard herself. They asked her to ensure that Angada was crowned king. As the fiercely loyal wife of Vali, Tara said she would give herself up at the feet of the hero whom Rama had killed. Sitting by Vali in his dying moments, she spoke of his might and courage and lamented that he had ignored her advice. She announced she would follow him in death. Hanumana spoke of the transience of life, and asked her to live on for Sugriva and Angada who was the crown prince. Vali in his dying breath spoke of Tara in glowing terms as “sarvataḥ pariniṣṭhitā”– an insightful woman in all ways (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Kiṣkindhā Kāṇḍa 22:13). He asked Sugriva to rule the kingdom and be a father to his son Angada whom he referred to as Tareya – the son of Tara, in appreciation of the way she had brought up her son.
Vali’s implicit trust in Tara’s academic skills and counselling insights is apparent in his dying words to Sugriva –“yadaiṣa sādhu iti brūyāt kāryam tanmukta samśayam| na hi tārā matam kincit anyathā parivartate”– whatever she (Tara) says, is to be done definitely, and nothing contrary to her opinion, should happen (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Kiṣkindhā Kāṇḍa 22:14). This is high praise for Tara as an administrator and a diplomat, coming from Vali, an outstanding wrestler, warrior, military commander and king of Kishkindha. On seeing the wise Tara’s lament at Vali’s death, Sugriva regretted bitterly about getting his own brother killed as revenge. As she mourned, Tara’s eyes fell on Rama, and her body language changed at first to anger, and then she controlled herself and addressed Rama as the lord of the universe. It is a rare quality to be able to recognize divinity in human form. Even in moments of intense grief at Vali’s death and anger at the senseless killing, Tara recognized the divinity in Rama’s presence.
Tara then asked Rama to take her life as well, as she and Vali were one, and he should not think of it as killing a woman, but as endowing her to Vali (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Kiṣkindhā Kāṇḍa 24:37). Rama consoled Tara, and reminded her of the way of life. He told her that the wives of braves did not mourn their death. He asked her to compose herself and prepare to declare her son Angada as the crown prince. Lakshmana directed the arrangements for Vali’s funeral. Rama advised Sugriva to make Angada the crown prince. Sugriva was crowned king, and Angada was annointed crown prince. Sugriva now had his wife Ruma back, and he had the much-admired Tara as a queen again (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Kiṣkindhā Kāṇḍa 29:4).
When Sugriva showed no signs of starting the search for Sita, Rama sent Lakshmana with the message of his displeasure at Sugriva’s lethargy. When the news of Lakshmana’s arrival and his fury reached Sugriva, he requested Tara to receive Lakshmana and calm him down, after which Sugriva would meet him. (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Kiṣkindhā Kāṇḍa 33:35-36)
Tara’s pacification of the angry Lakshmana is even more telling than her counselling of the angry Vali earlier. She is described as “madavihvalākṣī salakṣaṇā praskhalanti pānayogāta nivṛitta lajjā” – one with intoxicating eyes, exquisite features, swaying as she walked, uninhibited due to the influence of drink, as she came to meet Lakshmana (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Kiṣkindhā Kāṇḍa 33:38). It would appear that she was either inebriated or just woken from sleep, and yet her polished conciliatory words immediately soothed Lakshmana.
When Lakshmana pointed to Sugriva’s dereliction of his duties and indulgence in pleasure instead of taking care of the affairs of state, and asked her what she proposed should happen next, implying that Rama could straighten Sugriva out – fully understanding the import of such comments and knowing Sugriva had lapsed in his duties, Tara replied that Sugriva had sent Vanaras out in all directions to get information of Sita’s whereabouts, and she requested Lakshmana to come with her to meet Sugriva in his chambers. When Lakshmana rebuked Sugriva in strong words for not keeping his promise, Tara reminded Lakshmana of the great sage Vishwamitra spending ten years with the stunningly beautiful Apsara, Ghritachi, as if it was just one day. If a great sage could lose sense of time, a mere mortal like Sugriva needed to be forgiven for losing sense of time since he was enjoying a comfortable life after a very strenuous period in exile. And then, she recounted the strength of Ravana’s mighty army, as known through spies. Vanaras had been sent out in all directions to get support from other areas to be able to fight Ravana. Tara’s words spoken in a pleasing voice calmed Lakshmana. She had defused a potentially volatile situation as Sugriva had relied on her to do.
Unlike the Panchakanya life stories explored so far, Tara had multiple marriages as per the Vanara culture. She was wife to Vali, then Sugriva, then Vali, and then again Sugriva. Like Draupadi, she followed protocol, and loyally supported her spouse in each marriage. Tara appears thrice in Valmiki’s Ramayana – advising Vali not to fight with Sugriva a second time, next at the fall of Vali, and later to pacify the ire of Lakshmana. She was impressive in her interactions with her knowledge of current affairs, her analytical ability, and her composure even in emotional situations. She was familiar with negotiation tactics, conciliatory speech, and could turn around a volatile situation to her advantage. She stayed aware of the political situation and risks to the king by staying in constant touch with the spy network gathering such information as Sugriva’s meeting with Rama in the forest, and the strength of Lanka’s army. In an atmosphere rife with politics, she ensured she was the wife of the king and her son was the crown prince, maintaining her position of power through political changes and strife.
(Figure 6: Credit: iStock – Ravana and Mandodari in Thai classical mask dance of Ramayana Epic)
Mandodari was the daughter of Maya, the king of the Asuras. He rescued a beautiful girl child from the well where a frog had given birth to her. Maya and his wife Hema named the child Mandodari – born of a frog (Dutt, 1894). She was taught aspects of architecture by Mayasura, as well as the geography of Bharatvarsha. She was also involved in her father’s work which is how she met Ravana when he came to seek Mayasura’s counsel.
Mandodari’s appearance is described as a “cāru rūpiṇīm gaurīm kanakvarṇa ābhām muktāmaṇi-samāyuktair-bhūṣaṇaiḥ suvibhūṣitām sva-śriyā iṣṭāmantahpurīśvarīm”– very beautiful, light-skinned, with a hue of golden color, adorned with jewelry studded with pearls and gems, effulgent in her own glow, revered queen of the palace (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Sundara Kāṇḍa 10:50-51). When Hanuman entered Lanka at night in search of Sita, he saw Mandodari sleeping in Ravana’s palace and momentarily mistook her for a moment for Sita by her beauty and regal appearance.
Despite Ravana’s faults, Mandodari loved him and was proud of his strength. She was aware of Ravana’s weakness towards women. A righteous woman, Mandodari tried to lead Ravana to righteousness, but Ravana ignored her advice. She even advised him to not to subdue the Navagraha, the nine celestial beings that govern one’s destiny, and not to seduce Vedavati, who would be reborn as Sita and cause the destruction of Ravana.
When Ravana tormented the abducted Sita and asked her to marry him (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Sundara Kāṇḍa 10:50-51), it was Mandodari who advised him to return Sita to Rama, as his obsession would only bring destruction to Lanka. Like Vali not listening to Tara’s sound advice, Ravana also did not listen to Mandodari. Once when Ravana was angered by Sita asking him to take refuge in Rama, he rushed at her with his sword but Mandodari stopped him from such an inglorious act as killing a defenseless woman.
Mandodari’s lament on the death of Ravana provides insights into her character. As she wept, she chastised Ravana for his arrogance and not listening to her or Vibhishana, Kumbhakarna or Maricha when it was clear that Rama was no mere mortal when he had killed Khara and Dushana. She remembered their grand life together and said that she had never contemplated widowhood because she trusted the might of her husband and her family, but now her sons had already died, and her husband lay dead before her. She said – “na kulena na rupeṇa na dākṣiṇyena maithilī, mayādhika vā tulyā vā tvan tu mohanna budhyase”– Sita was no match for me in birth, beauty, or worthy of receiving an offering, she was not higher or even equal to me, but Ravana was too deluded to make the right decision (Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, 2015, Sundara Kāṇḍa 111:30).
Ravana respected her judgment and she had his ear, questioning his actions and thought process. It was a mistake on his part to not have listened to Mandodari in the case of Sita, and he paid for that mistake with his life. She was devout, righteous, learned, and despite being Ravana’s chief wife, she was not influenced by his arrogance and wayward behavior. She stood behind him from a sense of duty and loyalty, but she did not condone all his actions. When Ravana kidnapped Sita, Mandodari told him that he must take Sita back to Rama, or face the dire consequences of such actions. It is said in some versions of the Ramakatha that she married Vibhishana after Ravana’s death, and became the queen of Lanka again.
Kanyatva of the Panchakanya
The life stories of the five Panchakanya and Kunti, highlight their strength of character in dealing with their life situations in accordance with Dharma and the rules of society in which they lived.
Ahalya was the wife of a great sage while the others were all queens but their social status by birth or marriage would not make them inspirational. These women grouped as Panchakanya are not known for a specific skill or exceptional proficiency as artists, poets, sages, warriors or rulers. They were all known to be great beauties, but their physical attributes would not destroy sins. The commonality among the Panchakanya of having a divine birth is shared by many other women in their society.
Kanya refers to a maiden in Sanskrit, and Kanyatva is that attribute which makes a woman a Kanya. This is commonly taken to be virginity, or chastity, or purity. Virginity refers to the lack of physical relations in an unmarried young woman. None of these wives and mothers would qualify to be called Kanya by that measure. Other than Sita, all had more than one relationship. Of the five, Ahalya was with Indra outside her marriage to Gautama, and she would not qualify if Kanyatva meant chastity. There would be a question mark on Kunti as well, and she would not be mentioned in alternative versions of the verse. Kanyatva could refer to purity but we would have to define what constitutes purity. If Kanyatva refers to not being defiled by the physical touch of man, none of these women would qualify. Besides Ahalya being with Indra, Sita was touched by Ravana when he abducted her. Draupadi was assaulted at least thrice in the Mahabharata – by Dushasana, Jayadratha and Kichaka. Each of these concepts of maidenhood– virginity, chastity, purity –are commonly defined in the context of relations with a man. Illustrious women who need to be remembered daily for inspiration would not be defined by their relations with men.
If Kanyatva referred to purity of the mind, Ahalya would still not be included for her lapse of judgment and the action motivated by the desire for sensory pleasure. But after her atonement, Rama vouched for Ahalya’s purity, and Agni vouched for Sita’s purity. Draupadi touched and assaulted by multiple men, was never questioned for purity. Krishna ensured her that the wrong done to her will be avenged. Purity of the mind is a requirement, but it is not sufficient to group these five women and none other, as the Panchakanya.
There is a possibility of linguistic corruption in the lines (Mahulikar, 2021). Over time “Panchakam Na Smarennityam”– remembering this group of five, could have become “Panchakanya Smarennityam”– remembering these five maidens. This would explain why the conventional understanding of virginity, chastity, purity does not apply to this group because the reference is not to their being maidens, but being outstanding in this group of five.
Since sages like Swami Vivekananda have quoted these lines referring to the Panchakanya, it appears that the Kanyatva has a significant meaning. The rationale for calling them Panchakanya would be found from the personalities of these women. A strong sense of duty, deep commitment to family, a righteous stand, correct conduct and protocol, an acceptance of circumstances and consequences, wisdom, and the ability to face adverse situations with equanimity, have won them respect from their family and peers. Their strong individuality has forged their individual identities – independent of birth, marriage and children, unlike most householder women in their societies.
- They have each lived through broken and difficult relationships in their lives, and built a life through such personal setbacks. Ahalya and Sita had a long separation from their husbands. Draupadi took the loss of her father, her brother and her sons, and she spent each year with a different husband in her polyandrous marriage. Tara bore the loss of a spouse, and Mandodari bore the loss of a spouse and her sons. Kunti who is the alternative sixth person here, had an unconsummated marriage, the loss of a spouse, and separation from her children. Each of these women have gone through experiences where they had to search deep within to find the courage and strength to face tough situations alone.
- They have each faced public outrage and social stigma with courage and self-confidence. Ahalya’s offence was publicly known; Sita was abducted and even after she had been coronated as queen, she went into exile at Rama’s wishes because there was a suspicion about her character. Draupadi bore the mortification of insults and assaults from her husband’s cousins and supporters, and others like Karna and Kichaka. Tara and Mandodari have faced the uncertainty of loss of social status on losing a husband, and built a life again.
- They have each established their support network of reliable and trusted friends and family members who stood by them. When Ahalya came back to society, Gautama and her son Shatananda were overjoyed at her return and they became a family once again. Sita enjoyed the trust and deep devotion of Rama, and the highly regarded counsellor Vasishtha had nominated her as the ruler of Ayodhya in place of Rama. Draupadi was the integrator of the Pandava family unit, and called herself a friend of Krishna who was always there to support her. Krishna had suggested to Satyabhama to learn from Draupadi how to maintain a happy household. Tara had the unequivocal trust of both her husbands, and Mandodari was regarded highly by Ravana and the other Rakshasas. Without being rulers, military warriors, or saints, these women commanded respect as leaders and strategic thinkers.
- They have each shown an exemplary adherence to righteousness. Even when Draupadi was told that she had been wagered and lost by Yudhishthira, she questioned if it was an act of Dharma. When Rama announced that the battle for the honor of his family was won, and Sita was now free to go with anyone she liked, she announced that she chose to die as she had lived, devoted to Rama. They faced hardship but did not play victim and did not let adversity be the reason for convenient choices over right conduct. Mandodari consistently advised Ravana to return Sita, keeping her personal emotion out of the way. Their sharp intellect, a strong sense of duty and being guided by Dharma has made them stand out from among millions of women.
As house-holders, the Panchakanya could have lost their individual identity in their husband’s household, as happened for many women around them. Dhritarashtra’s wife Gandhari is only known by the kingdom of Gandhar that she came from, as is Pandu’s second wife Madri of Madra. Not much is known about Dushala, the only daughter of Dhritarashtra with a hundred and one brothers beyond the fact that she married the king Jayadratha. Beyond being someone’s daughter, wife or mother, the Panchakanya are remembered as women who were known in their own right and they had the power to influence prominent leaders in their society.
Feminism in the Modern World
The modern feminism movement is beyond the peak of the third wave (Grady, 2018). The first wave was mainly about voting rights, the second wave about reproductive rights and gender equity, the third wave that extended the reach of gender equality and the continuance of the measures to remove inequity is what some already call the fourth wave. In the modern interconnected world, people from diverse historical and cultural backgrounds align globally to establish the woman’s role in society by ensuring equal rights in the form of equal opportunities and equal pay. The recent “Me Too” movement was an awareness campaign of sexual exploitation in work situations, in which women around the world shared their personal stories of humiliation, exposing their male colleagues and bosses. Many of these cases ended as lawsuits against the aggressors.
This modern movement with ongoing successes and setbacks, has provided relief to millions of women around the world. A movement that started in many countries around the world to ensure equality to women as citizens – the right to vote, the right to equal opportunities, the right to equal pay for equal work – has been de-railed in recent times by applying or questioning generic equality across genders for specific situations. The success of the single-issue steps like the criminalization of rape and the access to military combat roles for women in many countries has proven that small steps can be made towards a better life for all women. In the third wave, the definition of feminism has transformed with “young feminists of the very lipstick, high-heels, and cleavage proudly exposed by low cut necklines that the first two phases of the movement identified with male oppression” even rejecting the word feminist because of its connotations of radicalism created by the earlier waves (Rampton, 2008). Also, the new wave of feminism is no longer restricted to protesting suppression of women’s rights or gender inequity. Instead, it has become a “part of a larger consciousness of oppression along with racism, ageism, classism, ableism, and sexual orientation” (Rampton, 2008). With this changing definition of the word “feminism”, the movement has several harmonics and its multi-pronged progress is unpredictable.
The Vedic culture is based on Varnashrama Dharma that classifies people by field of operation and by stage of life so that the duties and responsibilities for any person can be determined in the context of the socio-economic milieu through history over various geographies. The role of the individual in society is defined in terms of prescribed duties. The distinction of duties by gender is applied by social norms based on various dharmasutras that do not enforce equity across genders; rather, they recognize the strengths of each gender, class and profession, and classified duties accordingly.
The femininity of the Panchakanya does not derive from their protest or fight against gender bias issues nor do they fight oppression of a group as addressed by the feminist movement. The Panchakanya did not protest the socio-legal structure or the prescribed duties and responsibilities in accordance with Dharma. Their focus was on ensuring they performed their prescribed duties correctly – the right action in a given situation in accordance with Dharma. They did not want to be equal to men; they stood their ground as women. Their inspirational duties-focused femininity is not in conflict with the rights-focused feminist movement.
Human life is as precarious or uncertain as a drop of water on a lotus petal. Yet, human beings expect constancy and continuity. When a change occurs, people lose their moorings as if they have been delivered a stunning body blow. The Dharma-defined outlook of the Panchakanya while facing life situations makes them outstanding as having accepted the situation and having withstood some of the most challenging life situations in ancient India. Instead of maidens entering marriage and losing themselves in their family identity, they are known as individuals, thus preserving their Kanyatva through householder life.
There are other examples of inspirational householder women as well but there is a pattern to these five women. Sita and Draupadi were queens of great dynasties in two different eras, facing a different society. Ahalya, as the wife of a sage living in the forest, had an entirely different environment to perform the householder duties that did not change much from the time of Sita to the time of Draupadi. Tara from the Vanara culture, and Mandodari from the Rakshasa culture, were also queens in the same era as Sita, with their own unique traditions and custom that made for a different life. Each of these Panchakanya bring a flavor of a different culture into the mix (Mahulikar, 2021). Remembering the Panchakanya and their life daily would give people a context to their lives, and motivation to meet life’s challenges.
Given their skillsets, many professions would have been open in the modern world for the Panchakanya. Perhaps, Sita would have made an exceptional teacher, Mandodari a successful counsellor, Tara a strategic ambassador to a sensitive country, Ahalya a popular life coach, and Draupadi would have run her own corporate house to phenomenal success.
The Panchakanya as the five inspirational maidens are personal role-models whose life stories have withstood the test of time and continue to inspire people to live a righteous life. They are not harbingers of social revolution against gender bias, or standing up for women vis-à-vis men in society. They have lived through hardship and challenges in life without a sense of victimhood, and with an adherence to righteous action as a woman in society. Their kanyatva or maidenhood is not defined from a masculine perspective in terms of physical virginity, chastity or purity as a woman. Their femininity is independent of their relationships with men. The freedoms of Kanya or young unmarried girls are curtailed by the rules of social protocol that come with marriage, and most married women in ancient societies became known as wives and mothers, losing themselves in the family identity. These Panchakanya were ideal wives and illustrious mothers, and in addition, they forged their individual identity, thus retaining their Kanyatva for life. They were highly regarded by their families and social networks, and their circles of influence included some of the major social leaders of their times. They did not protest or rebel against the social structure of their times; their very acceptance of their circumstances and their dignified conduct through the trials and tribulations of their householder life speaks of their tremendous inner strength, which was recognized in their own lifetime and inspires others through the millenniums.
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