Once, on a visit to Badrinath and at a stop-over at Haridwar. I heard women chanting in the early morning light which breaks so serenely over the northern plains:
'Ahalya Draupadi Kunti Tara Mandodari tatha
Panchakanya smarennityam mahapataka nashaka'
I was immediately transported back to Ronobala's small, oily room in our house where she lit a pradip at dawn and devoutly chanted that same incantation.
'What does it mean", I had asked, curiously. A child of twelve, I knew the names, being a devotee of Amar Chitra Kathas.
Our maid had looked at me, 'They are holy, they are satis', she had whispered.
"Yes, but what does it mean?', I had insisted. Years later, Pradip Bhattacharya's Panch-Kanya fell I into my hands, which helps, explain the meaning of that incantation. Bhattacharya explains that the meaning of Kanya as "maidens" is not to be taken literally. Were they then 'satis', as Ronobala had pointed out, hands clasped in fervour, women sacrificing their all, their very sense of self, for their husbands and clan?
Not really, answers Bhattacharya, for the Panch Satis are different women: Sati, Sita, Savitri, Damayanti and Arundhati. What then distinguishes the kanyas? We are familiar with all of their names from the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Ahalya, Tara, Mandadori are from the Ramayana and while Kunti and Draupadi figure in the Mahabharata. Are they called kanyas because they knew men other than their husbands? Or unlike the satis, their lives were not bound up in one man? But all of these women, whether they were with men other than their husbands have been known to us As having loved only one man, though being forced by chance or circumstances to consort with men other than their beloveds. Bhattacharya tries to unravel the mystery of the kanyas, their origins and myths in this delightful book.
Consider the first kanya, Ahalya. This flawless beauty was given in marriage to Sage Gautama by her creator, Brahma, when pleased with the ascetic. Indra, king of the gods, fell in love with the rishi's wife and seduced her, assuming the form of her husband. This so enraged Gautama that he cursed his wife to be turned into stone. She was redeemed by the touch of Rama's toe, when he came to the forest many years later, and Ahalya regained her human form, delivered by the same man who would ironically cause his wife to pass a trial through fire and ultimately cast her into exile, because her 'chastity' was in doubt. While Sita chose oblivion as her form of protest, Ahalya went back to her husband, serene and unruffled, or so it would appear.
But Bhattacharya probes this 'freezing' of Ahalya into stone: was it a stone statue she was turned into as legend depicts, or was it a throttling of the vital spirit that enlivens the human being'a psychological trauma, that rendered Ahalya into a non-person for so, many years till a man younger than her son, kicked her alive? And how did Ahalya remain so serene, so content through all this? Even as a mother, she found no joy, for her son Shatananda, left her to her fate in the forest, shunned and reviled by the world. Where was that all-forgiving spirit of Gautama then? Did not Ahalya's husband show a petty mean-mindedness a smallness of revenge by turning a woman, his wife, into stone? Why did he not cast her off, if he was so appalled by her act? Why did he persist in being tied to the wife that he effected to despise?
In Ahalya's, serenity we have the remarkable spirit of the kanya, that is the essence of these women. Thrown out, mocked, reviled, she returns, time and again, head held high, to stake her rightful place in society.
Consider Tara and Mandadori: the wives of Bali the Strong, and the mighty Ravana respectively who had to witness the death of their husbands by unfair means. More tragically, they had to marry the dead husband's younger brothers, Sugriva and Vibhishana who were responsible, directly or indirectly, for turning them into widows. Tara married Sugriva to secure the throne of her son, Angad. Mandadori, with her husband and son killed, married Vibhisana to unite her fragmented kingdom, torn apart by strife and war.
Yet, we must also recall that these queens had cautioned their husbands against their downfall: Tara had reproved Bali for casting eyes at Sugiva's wife and Mandadori had upbraided Ravana for kidnapping Sita and hastening his own annihilation.
The lives of Kunti and Draupadi, the Mahabharata Kanyas, says Bhattacharya, ran parallel to each other. Both loved one man, but were forced to enter into relations with others. Kunti loved Pandu but she was compelled to see him wed to Madri. She was granted a boon by Durvasa which gave her the power to summon any one god to grant her a son ' a boon which became both a curse and blessing in her life. She was finally forced by the impotent Pandu to use her boon to summon gods so that he could have the sons he desired.
After the death of her husband, she moulded her five sons' destiny, unmindful of the barbs levelled at her, living with her children as poor relations in what was once her husband's palace. But never once losing sight of her goal-the throne of Hastinapura. She, Bhattacharya claims, is the prototype of that modern icon, the single mother.
Draupadi, though won by Arjuna, was compelled to become wife to all five brothers. Her happiness was sacrificed ruthlessly by her mother-in-law to ensure that the Panchala princess would become the unifying thread to hold the five brothers together and help them in then endeavour to gel back their rightful inheritance from the sons of Dhritarashtra.
The scene in court, which saw Draupadi's humiliation, also sounded the death-knell of the Kauravas. In their exile Draupadi-with her unbound hair and her sharp words, forever reminders to her husbands of the humiliations she had suffered-never ceased to goad her husbands into battle mode. And ultimately she become the Empress of Hastinapura: as much as her victory as that of Kunti's.
Interestingly, none of the Pancha kanyas knew the love of a mother: Kunti, because her father Shura of the Vrishis, gave her to his childless friend Kuntibhoja; Draupadi, because she sprang full-grown from fire, as Drupada's daughter alone; Ahalya was created by Brahma; Tara, daughter of the Vanara physician, Sushena; and Mandadori, whose birth is ascribed to various legends, and not a woman.
Ultimately the Pancha-Kanyas are women who triumph over every adversity and emerge victorious. Broken, reviled, raped, demeaned ' they struggle on and win through. They love deeply, but are never the beloved. Tara's Bali lusted after his own brother's wife while Ravana abducted Sita even when the beauteous and loving Mandadori was his wife. Pandu used Kunti as a vehicle for begetting him his sons, but his real love was the soft-limbed Madri, who followed him into the pyre. Draupadi loved Arjuna, but his real love remained his second wife, Suhhadra, the Yadava princess and Krishna's sister.
As mothers too, their fate was tragic. Except for Tara and Kunti, kanyas lost their sons. Mandadori's Indrajit, fell in a battle that was not of his own making and Draupadi's live sons were swallowed tip in the massive destruction of Kurukshetra. Kunti lost Karna, her illegitimate first-born, forever.
They are the shaktis of their husbands and clans. But in their victory there is always the shadow of a loss; in their defeat, we can hear the footsteps of victory.
Legend has it that the wise Shankaracharya once performed a special penance called Aachraj during which he concentrated solely upon Lord Shiva, forgetting hisShakti, the Goddess Parvati. All at once he felt weak and could not finish his penance;
'Shakti roop ko maram na payo,
Shakti gayi tab man pachhitayo'
It was only when he prayed to the Goddess that he received strength to finish the penance. These Kanyas are also forms of the same Shakti'woman as the giver of strength and fortitude that brings triumph.
Ultimately the Pancha-Kanyas are women who triumph over every adversity and emerge victorious. Broken, reviled, raped, demeaned ' they struggle on and win through. They love deeply, but are never the beloved.