Book Reviews

Celebrated Women

Eight voices speak out their views about these five lives. What this book tries to do is realise why these five are papanasin (one who takes away all sin) when they should be paapis (sinners) in the first place... 

The names of these five women are supposed to redeem you of all sins. Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara, Mandodari. These are the five celebrated kanyas of Indian mythology, the pure ones, the sacred five'panchakanya smarennityam mahapataka nashaka' 

In itself this is a paradox, as Dr Nrisinha Prasad Bhaduri, points out in the first chapter, Pancha Kanyas, Condemnation And Expiation. These remarkable women are not 'pure' kanyas or maidens in the strict sense, each of them married and having known men other than their husbands, one having been turned into stone for perceived adultery, two with five husbands or lovers and two being "spoils of war", married to their younger brothers-in-law after their husbands had been slain due to the machinations of these selfsame siblings. Why should anyone be blessed or 'relieved of all sin' by chanting these names in the morning? Why remember these remarkable, turbulent lives with a sense of worship? Awe perhaps but worship? 

In this book, eight voices speak out their views about these five lives; Dr. N P Bhaduri in his essay mentioned above, Dr Pratibha Roy in Ahalya's Voyage: From Transgression To Transcendence, Dr. Ratna Roy ,who has portrayed the kanyas in dance based on the composition of Guru Pankaj Charan Das, writes on The Politics Of Representation : The Portrayal Of The Female In Pancha Kanya; Dr Chitra Chaturvedi's fascinating portrayal of Kunti As A Kanya; Dramatist and actress, Saoli Mitra's riveting Draupadi In Performance, Ms. Archna Sahni's Draupadi As A Kanya: Unpeeling The Layers Of Draupadi and Ms Saroj Thakur's impeccable summing up in Pancha Kanyas Of Indian Epics: A Critique. Dr Pradip Bhattacharya weaves the seams together effortlessly in his Pancha Kanya: A Quest In Search Of Meaning

What this book tries to do is realise why these five are papanasin (one who takes away all sin) when they should be paapis (sinners) in the first place! (My interpretation, not the book's!) Just stop a while and consider.

Ahalya, Brahma's lovely daughter, the most beautiful woman in the world, given as a wife to the grim ascetic, Gautama. Indra, king of the gods, seduced her, in Gautama's guise and her enraged husband condemned her to be turned to stone till she was redeemed by a touch of Rama's toe. 

Draupadi, born of the sacrificial flames of king Drupada's yagna, she loved and was won by one man, Arjuna, but condemned to be the wife of all five Pandava brothers. Dragged to the open court by her hair, she was reviled as a "prostitute" by Karna, as "one who knows five men is necessarily of loose and immoral character." Her humiliation flamed into the great Kurukshetra war where though her husbands were the victors she lost all her sons, brothers, father and kinfolk. 

Kunti's life was shadowed by the "blessing" of Durvasha, which said that whenever she wanted a child she could summon a god and conceive. Her curiosity led to the birth of her illegitimate son, Karna, while she was still unwed. Later she married Pandu, the scion of Hastinapura, and was used by him to summon gods so that his dynasty could have sons. After the death of her husband, she raised her sons, and ultimately helped them to win back their kingdom. Her life's work fulfilled, she retired to the forests with her aged brother and sister in law, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari.

Unmoved by the anguish of her sons, she had no desire to be Queen Mother in Hastinapura. Ultimately she perished in a forest fire.

How fire does recur in the life of these Mahabharata kanyas! Draupadi was born of fire and Kunti perished in one!

Tara, wife of great Bali, the monkey-king, suffered his death by treachery at the hands of Rama, and lived on as wife to his brother, Sugriva, safeguarding the inheritance of her son, Angada. 

So did Mandadori, Queen of Lanka, and wife of the mighty Ravana. After the death of Ravana, she married Bibhisana, his traitor-brother, so that Lanka was saved from civil war and more chaos. 

The above is a brief synopsis of the life of the kanyas. There were numerous facets and undercurrents to these lives, as a reading of the book will show. But again the unanswered questions - why kanya and why paapanashini? 

Did kanya mean then a woman of independent thinking, a woman who had never been mentally subservient to any man, no matter what happened to her body? If so, then the word kanya aptly describes these women. They were always independent, no matter how many times they had to bow before the will of society.

Kunti, fighting treachery, after the death of her husband, reduced to the status of a "poor relation" in her husband's palace, struggling to bring up her five sons, sacrificing her daughter-in-law' Ah! How that must have hurt! But she insisted that Draupadi must be married to all five brothers, because she did not want Draupadi's beauty to come between the Pandavas, because she knew that her sons would have to remain united to regain their throne and defeat their enemies. 

And paapanashini? Would you have to sin, even unwillingly, take part in so-called sin, to forever rise above it and be absolved? Do you have to be the dasyu, Ratnakar before you become the saint, Valmiki? Does the nectar of life, amrit, always come after the bitter poison, halahala? 

Draupadi's sin was in knowing more than one man, but her real sin was in loving Arjuna, always the best, ever the best. For that sin, she fell by the mountain-side, on her way to heaven, or so says the Mahabharata. Ahalya's sin was adultery. Kunti's actual sin was against Draupadi, for she manipulated her for her own ends, but her love for her wronged daughter-in-law, shines through the epic. 

Are basic human emotions then sin? 

In celebrating the kanyas, we celebrate survivors. Women who struggle against all odds and emerge victorious. Emerge triumphant. Emerge weary, through bloodstains, through violations, through the bodies of kith and kin, through tragedies' Think of the women of Nandigram. The lives of every kanya celebrates victory through tragedy.          


More by :  Amreeta Sen

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