Panch Kanya – the true Pati-vratas of
Scriptures mention five women as ideal wives -
Ahalya Draupadi Sita,Tara Mandodari tatha, l
Pancha kanya smarenityam, maha pataka nashanam ll
"Mediating on the merits of the five great ladies, namely Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita, Tara and Mandodari, helps destroy even the greatest of sins !!"
So say the scriptures !!
But why ?
Why these five in particular ?
What is so special about these five ladies ?
What do they have that is so special as to be able to destroy even the greatest of sins?
Indeed, these five are so special on the minds of most Hindus, that they are held up as the “ideal” wives for most Hindu women to emulate.
Lets examine what makes them so ideal and indeed so special.
If somewhat unconventional, their lives do have a very special story to tell.
Ahalya was raped.
Draupadi had multiple husbands.
Sita was accused of having sons by another man.
Mandodari was the wife of a serial womaniser.
If you read their lives, one thing is for sure, none of them was a “compliant, malleable” wife. They were not the picture perfect “pativrata” depicted in novels, movies and popular folklore. None of these women stood by and took what family and society gave them at face value. Infact, they held on to their dignity as women despite what family and society threw at them.
Ahalya refused to accept social exile for being raped. She was duped into thinking she was having sex with her husband. How can that be her fault ? Instead of slinking away into a forest retreat to cry over her dishonour, she stood firm, staying in the very ashram where she was shamed and carrying on her good work despite society’s censor. In the end, Rama, considered to be the model of duty and embodiment of correct behaviour, came out on her side and declared her blameless in this incidence. At no point did Ahalya seek anyone’s assistance in her fight against injustice. She let her work speak for itself. It is a telling point that in the end, her husband had to come back to her, not the other way around. Indeed, Ahalya was the embodiment of patience.
Draupadi’s life was full of woes. She was mocked and subjected to all sorts of unkind remarks all her life, yet, she lives through it all with queenly dignity. From time to time, she lashed out at her husbands, her family, society and even at Shri Krushna to remind them of their duties. But, at no time did she cry like the typical heroines of Indian movies, instead, she was the lioness who urged her champions to fight for the just cause time and again. One wonders what she would have done had she had the capacity to yield weapons instead of her husbands !! Draupadi fanned the fires of revenge whenever her husbands seem to “cool off” in the 12 year exile. But, she is no war monger, when compassion was called for, she was the first to relent and forgive Guru-putra Ashwasthama. Her keen sense of justice and “rights” kept her husbands from veering off into sentimentality under family pressure. Loyal to her husbands till the end, she demonstrated how “divided love” can unite a family. Hers was the toughest task as she had to keep together five different personalities and focus their energies towards a great goal. Indeed, Draupadi was the embodiment of “karma – action”.
Sita, the often misunderstood wife and queen of Rama was a woman with an independent mind of her own. After Valmiki’s original, later renditions of Ramayan of paint Sita in softer, sadder tones. Unlike most women at the time, Sita was a headstrong woman, one who successfully argued her case with Rama and her in-laws to follow Rama into exile. Even while in exile, she proved herself up to the challenges of living in the forest. During her captivity, Sita showed the strength of her character by staving off the unwelcome attentions of Ravan for nearly a year. Her spirited speech at the time of Rama’s abandonment alone is proof of her strong, independent streak. It was no mean feat in those days to live the life of a single mother, and yet, she successfully bought up two sons in the ashram of sage Valmiki. At no point did she ask for assistance from her parents, compensation from Vibhishan or compassion from Rama. Indeed, Sita was the embodiment of dignity.
Mandodari the beautiful ! She was the captivating beauty who married an aspiring asura king and became the empress of his vast asura empire. Mother of valiant sons, she was the queen of a golden city, on a jewel shaped island in one of the most beautiful. tropical paradises on earth. However, her husband had a roving eye and Mandodari must have suffered constantly by his lust for beautiful women. But, instead of arguing, fighting or making life a misery for her family, she took charge of the situation and managed the ever growing seraglio of her husband with aplomb. Like
There are the characteristics of great wives as listed in the Puranas – dignity, patience, diplomacy, resourcefulness, drive to succeed, looking out for the family etc. Later descriptions of wives as Rambha in the bedroom, mother in the kitchen etc are fanciful descriptions of poets like Kalidas who had rather a romantic image of what it means to be a woman and a wife. The Puranic description of womanhood seems to be more in keeping with realities of today.
I would exhort all Indians, regardless of their religious affiliations, to read the original scriptures and their accurate translations, rather than commentaries and abridged versions, to get an idea of what being an Indian man / women actually means.
© Bhagwat Shah
thank you shri rajaputhran for your detailed comment.
fantastic analysis. i have read iravati karve's works and admire her logic. i will look out for the other works you have mentioned in your write up too.
however, l do find that all these professors and intellectuals often look too closely and find things that are not there. its like looking at bacteria through a microscope and imagining them to be monsters of giant proportions. intellectuals sometimes over emphasis things that need not be considered and sweep important matters away because of their own ideology. its a professional hazard of being an intellectual.
i have written on various themes in this blog including the topic of indian women. do have a look and tell me what you think.
i also have two websites with lots of articles on indian culture and philosophy -
i would welcome you to the sites and hope you will enjoy reading there.
the five virgins of indian epics
review by dr. prema nandakumar
the take-off for the book's argument begins with the publisher's note itself. our veteran transcreator purushottama lal lists sixteen kinds of virgins found in india's ancient texts. kanya is a girl of eight; kanya is also the sign of virgo. why is the term "kanya" used in the "five virgins tradition", and not "stree" since all the five women cited in the tradition have borne children? prof. lal stops here. our professor knows when to be voluble and when to remain silent. this is "a quest in search of meaning" by his brilliant student. let the student speak!
pradip bhattacharya is one of those intrepid scholars who also happen to be bureaucrats. i have known some of them like iravatham mahadevan who have nurtured consciously the talent lodged within them, and saved it from being smothered by files. the results have been flattering to our culture. if mahadevan has made brilliant strides in deciphering the brahmi script, pradip has been exploring the mahabharata tradition with enviable tenacity. naturally such investigations spill over to the entire cultural history of india. the findings are never final as almost all of them are wet with womanhood's ancient tears. even today, sorrowing lies the space for women in this land of dharma, dharma-sankata and adharma. all the same, in the hour when the gods awake led by usha, the pious indian intones the verse glorifying indian womanhood:
ahalya draupadi kunti tara mandodari tatha
panca kanyd smarennityam mahdpataka nasanam
at the outset it must be conceded that pancha kanya: the five virgins of indian epics is a mine of information. it must needs be so, for each woman in our epics (it could be even the self-effacing foster mother of kama) has all the yesterdays encapsulated in her personality, while her unwound tresses still remain unavenged. yes, bhima destroyed duhshasana, spattered panchali's tresses with his blood and gathered it in a plait. that was in dwapara. but draupadi remains alive, still unavenged, as mahashweta devi's dopdi and millions like her. so pradip has taken up a cosmic canvas for his portraiture. his erudition lies in the ability to pick up a few intelligible details, send questions flying at himself, and seek answers from the reader. in effect, we become enthusiastic companions in this search in heroic india.
the germane question: are these heroines relevant in this technological age? again, where the man-woman relationship has lost its romantic connotation and mystery, where the female body has lost its pulsating mystery, who cares for the adulterous lady, for the princess who openly resided with several men, the helpless rakshasi, the monkey-queen who allowed herself to be buffeted to and fro by the monkey-brothers? the answer is recorded swiftly by pradip. the indian, whether in his motherland or in norwalk or in saigon is proud of his roots. chandrakant shinde's e-mail from los angeles quoted in the book tells all.
chandrakant and others may discuss the heroines but will not cease to worship them. of course, there are "courageous" voices (with half-baked knowledge of the myths) who try to make a stand as varsha pathak in her posting to shaaditimes, criticising the blessing of "sadd suhdgin ho":
"it hardly matters if the man she is married to turns out to be a monster, a la frankenstein.... time to brush up our knowledge of popular indian mythology and review the case histories of some of the more famous heroines of yesteryear. there is a very famous sanskrit shloka, the chanting of which supposedly frees you from all your sins. you guessed it, this verse is dedicated to five great satis, immortalised by myth and legend. they are ahalya, sita, draupadi, tara, and mandodari. all five are considered not just saubhagyavatis but are doubly exalted for having committed he ultimate act of sati. okay, by now you know from where phrases like sati-savitri have entered the popular hindu lexicon."
this confusion of categories in sanskrit terminology which has led scribes like varsha pathak to speak of the pancha kanyas as the five satis has to be cleared, for apparently there is something contemporaneous about the life histories of the five virgins (as it is with the iconised sapta matrikas—the seven mothers) which evokes such strong feelings even today. the pancha kanya today? swiftly pradip takes us to the singha devi sthal in nepal set up in honour of five virgin deities, dhrupadi, tara, kunti, parwati and manju (as in the sapta matrika concept, there are changes in names in pancha kanya a concept as well) where there is a cave which could be the originating backdrop of draupadi herself. a living inspiration even today.
to ahalya then. in valmiki she is an adulteress. after that one indiscretion, she has not been allowed a moment of peace by self-righteous moralists and theme-hungry artistes in all these centuries. pradip's approach is a feminist's delight and could also be interpreted as an insinuation characteristic of patriarchy:
"creation's sole beautiful woman, she is the archetypal feminine responding to the ardent, urgent, direct sexual advances of the ruler of heaven who presents such a dazzling contrast to her ascetic, aged, forest-dwelling husband. mortal woman wel¬comes the ultimate touch of heaven's immortal, driven by that irrepressible curiosity for varied and unusual experience and a willingness to take risks for it which marks the feminine. it is a fine instance of the interlinking of the anima and the animus that jung recognised to be unconscious elements of the psyche which the individual needs to develop, or make conscious, to maintain a healthy, balanced outlook in personal relationships and on the world at large."
pradip's explanation sounds close to virginia woolf's crisp phrase, "man-womanly". but still one wonders whether all this gives an adequate explanation of a deliberate trespass. pradip wanders to several spaces—uttara kanda, mahabharata, shiva purana,—and we realise that the creative artiste is always drawn to exceptions. ahalya was an exception to the rule. so the reteller of the original legend often sets up a legal defence. what right did gautama have to curse her?
however, we must needs standby the first ahalya we see. we find her in valmiki as indulging in the extra-marital connection even after recognising indra. the latter-day ahalyas are creatures of imagination. this ahalya is asli, honest, and is remembered by us at dawn as witness to sanatana dharma which does not condemn anyone to eternal hell. even when one has consciously committed a sin, one can gain redemption by tapasya, by melting in the heat of meditation and regret holding on to a firm decision never to commit the sin again. valmiki speaks of her as "yasasvini, tapo dirghamupagata". gautama also is witness to sanatana dharma which is based on compassion and an understanding of ground realities, so eloquently noted by valmiki's sita:
papanam va subhanam va vadharhanam plavangama
karyam karunamaryena na kascid naparadhyati
tara is a very significant term in tantra yoga. the second of the dasa maha-vidyas, she is pasyanti (vak) and signifies the pranava. according to vasishta gana-pati muni, she moves in the skies though she is no space power. she is the best among the powers that purify creation: advanebhyascha pavani bhavatyesha. has such a power been envisaged by valmiki? obviously yes because of the association with "movement in the skies". possessed of mature intelligence, she is praised by vali as one whose opinions never go wrong: nahi taramatam kincidanyatha parivartate. once again, let us not stray into the latter taras or other taras (like brihaspati's wife). we invoke valmiki's tara as one who is intelligent and follows her tribe's cus¬toms. neither she nor we find it strange that she is dishabille when she comes from sugriva's bed to meet lakshmana. nor will we ever know whether it was an intelligent ploy on her part so that she could get back to the inner apartments and announce, "mission accomplished"! the tara who meets lakshmana in kamban's tamil version is in widow's garments which seems to prove that the treatment of widows in northern india started in tamil nadu that has given a raw deal to these unfortunate women since the sangam times.
mandodari is very much part of contemporary consciousness. there is the popular manduka sabdam of andhra kuchipudi repertoire where the croakings of a frog are effectively synthesised in music along with the victory-gait of ravana. a week or two after holi, meerut holds the navchandi festival to celebrate the building of the original chandi temple by mandodari who was born in a "devil's house" in the city. but as with ahaly a and tara, valmiki shall be our truth-visioning seer. if so, we would have mandodari as a wife of great courage in spite of being married to one of the most powerful and arrogant rakshasas of all times. why bother about the latter-day retellings of a vali connection? valmiki's mandodari-vilapa points out clearly that in a land which has men flaunting several wives at a time (with high-profile politicians leading the band), it is woman who has chosen to remain loyal to the family idea, a proud living legacy for humankind.
in his exploratory search remote-controlled by jungian psychology, pradip feels that durvasa might have committed sexual abuse of kunti when she served him. i have read a variety of criticism against durvasa (being a patient listener of traditional kathas that go on till late at night), but this is the first time i find the spluttery sage associated with such an outrage. there is a good deal of taxi-ing around before we come to kunti and then another pradip-twist: kunti forced draupadi to share her bed with the five brothers to avenge her own life that was used by four different people (perhaps five, if durvasa is included)! there is then the vidura angle (iravati karve) related by pradip with apposite diction (one could write a thesis on pradip's diction in this monograph): "how pregnantly succinct is vyasa's account of kunti's encounter with dharma!" did kunti and vidura hoodwink everyone in the mahabharata and all of us who have come later?
draupadi. pradip's account is sublime because the subject is sublime. one may not trifle with her. in this wonderful chapter bringing together vyasa with a good deal of latter-day recreations of draupadi's personality, pradip teaches us how to distinguish between a "kanya" and a "sati" by juxtaposing taramati's docility when harishchandra sells her and draupadi's fierce independence. the sati finds fulfilment in and through her husband, the kanya "seeks to fulfil herself regardless of social and family norms." was this why sri aurobindo chose savitri as his epic heroine? did he think that by taking this independent stance, a kanya is able to strengthen herself and become an achiever? did goddess savitri's boon to king aswapati in the mahabharata provide him with the clue to savitri's character: kanya tejasvini saumya ksiprameva bhavisyati? "kanya tejasvini" no doubt inspired sri aurobindo to write of savitri:
an ocean of untrembling virgin fire;
the strength, the silence of the gods were hers.
though pancha-kanya seems to be a slim monograph (and some of its space taken over by appropriate sketches and portraits, including some by ravi vartna), it expands to trivikraman proportions as we ruminate on the past sorrows, trials, triumphs of these five heroines. this is the precise reason why we have been asked to recite the sloka every morning. remember! remember! avoid the line of least resistance, struggle forward, make life a tapasya. as pradip says in conclusion: "the past does indeed hold the future in its womb."
it would be superfluous for me to comment thereon.