The First Woman as Seen by Greece and India
The study analyses the story of the birth of the first woman in Greek mythology and contrasts it with the story of the birth of the first woman in Indian Puranas, revealing the Indian perception of woman in contrast to the Ancient Greek and Western perception of woman. In the ancient Greek perception, woman appears as a curse on mankind, born out of the anger of the gods and their need to punish man, all-negative except that she can be the mother of his children; whereas in Indian stories, she is born of the calm, serene mind of the creator and is an expression of the sacred creativity inherent in the divine, all-beautiful, with not one thing negative about her.
Pandora is the first woman created according to ancient Greek myths and Sandhya, the first woman born according to ancient Indian myths. While there are a few similarities between the two, the contrasts between them are great. By comparing the stories of the first woman in these two cultures, we can arrive at how the two cultures perceived women – perceptions that influenced Indian and western attitudes towards women for millennia and still continue to influence to some extent. True, one example from each culture is not enough for such a study, but then when it comes to the first woman, we cannot have many examples either.
Let’s begin with Pandora. There are variations in the story Greece tells us about her, as is true of all Greek stories, but according to Hesiod, one of the earliest Greek poets and Homer’s near contemporary, in whose work Theogony she first appears, Pandora’s story begins when the gods and human beings decide to have a sacrificial feast together at Mekone. Human beings until then were only male – anthropoi – there were no women, the first one was yet to be born, yet to be created. And these human beings lived in perfect harmony among themselves, perfect peace and perfect concord with gods and nature. Life was a symphony and man did not have to work – the earth yielded whatever he needed and more, without sweat and toil. There existed no old age, no disease, no suffering, no pain, and nothing unpleasant ever happened – as in the satya yuga of India!
Enter Prometheus, the titan who had immense love for men and wanted to do what is best for them. And when he heard about the feast, he slew an ox, as was common in ancient Greece, and divided the ox into two parts – one consisting of the most edible parts of the animal like its meat, muscles and fat and the other, just the bones. Prometheus is known for his cunning – he wrapped up the good parts and covered it with the innards of the ox, making it unappealing; and the bones he wrapped up and covered with fat, making it look appetizing. He then offered the choice to Zeus – the god could choose for the gods whichever part he preferred. Zeus knew the cunning of Prometheus – generally considered a great asset by the ancient Greeks as by folk cultures all over the world. In spite of knowing the trap, he chose the wrapped up bones and as a punishment for the people for whose sake the titan wanted to cheat the gods, pronounced a curse on them: from then on, the earth would no more yield food on its own and men would have to sweat and toil to produce it. And even that yield would depend on the seasons, would be unpredictable and so on and so forth. He also decreed that in future, when a sacrifice is offered, gods would take the bones of the animal burnt at the altar – the smells carried upward by the smoke – and all the meat men can have for themselves. Still not content with what he had done, his fury at the cheating still not appeased, Zeus took away fire from the earth – men would no more be able to cook food, but would now have to eat it raw.
Titan Prometheus, with his cunning and his love for man, had an idea about this too. He wouldn’t allow Zeus to punish man so cruelly for what was essentially his mistake. So what he did was to hide a spark of fire in a reed and bring it to the earth. For which blessing, humanity called him their savior, the fire-bringer. They could now eat cooked food, work with metals, bake earthenware, do all kinds of things with fire and thus have civilization.
That was again an act that would not go unpunished by Zeus – Prometheus was given, as a punishment for his transgression of trying to benefit man once again, the most awful punishment imaginable perhaps, a brutal torment that would have no end and would go on and on. He would be chained to a rock where a vulture would forever feed on his liver – the vulture would peck and pull out pieces of his liver and feed on it; and the liver would grow back overnight so that the vulture can feed on the immortal titan’s liver the next day again.
That was the punishment for Prometheus. But men whom he loved so much, for whose sake he did all this, wouldn’t be spared either. Their punishment would be worse than the earlier two: a new being would be sent into their midst, a new being called woman. And what would be woman’s job? To separate man from joy and happiness forever, to destroy his peace and serenity, to create discord among men, to drive them crazy – she would be the source of all their misery and yet they wouldn’t be able to live without her, for she promised them bliss, one look at her would fill them with intense pleasure; and also, she would be the mother of their children. An amazing creature that made them go dizzy, she would enter their homes, cunning, insidious, manipulative, treacherous, take over their hearts and make sure there was no peace there. She would create discord among them; would sow the seeds of jealousy, rivalry, disputes, conflict, dissonance, clashes, quarrels, discontent and greed. Her way would be seductive submissiveness. They wouldn’t be able to do without her, they would so pang for her that separation from her even for a moment would be hell for them. And with her in their homes and hearts – from where she would rule over them, dictate to them what to do and what not to do, play with them as though they were mere puppets make them dance to her least wish and drive them insane, life would be hell again.
Zeus was not finished yet, so furious was he, he ordered the gods to bestow gifts upon her – all kinds of gifts: that is what Pandora means, pan meaning all, and dora meaning gift. These gifts were meant to punish man, turn the world evil, fill it with misery and agony and distance man forever from the gods and all that made life worth living. She would be beautiful beyond words, and for that reason men would crave her, and suffer endlessly for it. Man would no more be the simple man, but would be split into male and female, forever restless, forever seeking, forever crazy, forever driven to the unattainable, forever searching for the paradise lost.
The last gift given to Pandora as ordered by Zeus was from Hermes, the heavenly thief. He gave her his thieving nature, the desire to exploit others, to steal what belongs to others, to live like a parasite without producing any food on her own unlike men who sweated in the fields in the sun and the rain, and in heat and cold, to plough the earth and sow seeds to produce yield from the earth, while she stayed home.
Pandora brings with her all these “gifts” in a jar. Down on the earth she opens the lid of the jar and all the gifts given her by the gods to punish man escape and spread all over the world – all except hope, which sustains man in the middle of all the misery that life had become.
The vengeance of Zeus is complete now.
This then is the story of Pandora, the first woman created according to Greek mythology.
Let us now take a look at the story of Sandhya, the first woman born of the Creator, Brahma according to Indian myths. As in the case of the Greek myth of Pandora, there are several versions of Sandhya’s story – in fact much more so – but for our discussion we shall follow the detailed Kalika Purana narration. The story is told in the opening chapters of the purana.
Brahma, the Creator [different from Brahman the Ultimate Reality, pure existence-consciousness-bliss], first created the Prajapatis such as Daksha and then the ten mind-born sons such as Marichi, Angira etc. Following the birth of the mind-born sons, manasa-putras, as Brahma sat in deep meditation, from his mind was born a woman of amazing beauty named Sandhya, Twilight. She was endowed with every desirable quality, says the Kailka Purana: sampurna-gu?a-salini. There was no equal to her in the world of gods or anywhere else, and she was without equal in the past, present or future. Her hair was enticing blue-black and she had large blue eyes that reminded you of blue lotuses. Those eyes were timid like those of a doe, moving constantly, and her eyebrows reached out towards her ears. Her nose resembled a sesame flower and was so incredibly beautiful that it made one feel as though it was the beauty of her forehead melting and flowing down in such a wonderful shape. Her face reminded you of a golden lotus; and her rich, lush red lower lip, the ripe bimba gourd. Her two full breasts, thrusting upward as though they were trying to reach her lovely chin [pinottungau, chibuka? yatu? udyatau iva], her thin waist, broad hips, heavy thighs, lovely feet, all made her temptingly, irresistibly alluring.
But of course, Kama, the god of desire and love, was yet to be born. So while Brahma, the prajapatis and the manasaputras were all curious to know who she was and what her function in the process of creation would be, none of them lusted for her – at least not for now.
And then, all of a sudden, without any warning, as they sat musing about Sandhya, there emerged from the mind of the Creator yet another being of great beauty – this time a male, of the complexion of gold dust, with a wide chest, long dark-blue hair, dancing eyes, young, tall, chest as wide as a door plank, shoulders like those of a rogue elephant. The Kalika Purana here pauses to give us a description of the perfection of male beauty and unless we are familiar with Indian mythology, we expect him to be the match for Sandhya – the perfect male and the perfect female.
As the prajapatis and the mind-born sons of Brahma look on, their curiosity awakened, the new being, from whom wafts a heady fragrance, looks at Brahma, bows to him and asks him what his function is, what he should do – remember the creation of the universe has just begun and is still in the initial stages. He requests Brahma to assign to him any work befitting him. The Creator does not say anything for a while – he is himself taken aback by the majesty of the awesome things that are happening. Then, mastering himself, overcoming the awe he is feeling, he speaks to this male being, giving him a bow and five flower arrows, telling him to continue the process of creation with the help of his superb body and the five arrows, bewitching men and women. Brahma assures him that neither the gods, nor the gandharvas or kinnaras, nor the yakshas, nagas, rakshasas, pishachas, asuras, daityas, vidyadharas or human beings will be able to resist him. Nor will birds, beasts, worms, fish, insects or anything else that breathes.
Well, he adds by way of concluding, why to say more, neither I, nor Vishnu or Shiva will be beyond your capacity to influence. None shall be impervious to you! Sneak into the hearts of all, unseen and unknown to them, become the cause of their happiness and continue the eternal process of creation.
Brahma then blesses him: May the hearts of living beings always be the target of your arrows! May you be the giver of joy and delight to all that breathe!
This mind-born son of the Creator is given the name Manmatha, for his capacity to churn the minds of people, and Kama, because he is the most charming and beautiful of all. He is also given a couple of other names for similar reasons – Madana, Kandarpa, etc. He is again blessed: his flower arrows will be more powerful than the weapons of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. He is given omnipresence – the entire universe will be his abode, there will be no place where he has no entry and all will be subject to him – all, including plants, bushes and grass, right up to Brahmaloka, and no one anywhere shall be equal to him. He is told that the daughter of Daksha, Rati, shall be his wife.
It is now that the story takes a turn. Kama muses over all the powers and blessings he has received, picks up his bow Unmadana shaped like the eyebrow of a beautiful woman and his five flower arrows and decides something very daring: He would test his powers on Brahma himself along with the others present there. He stretches the bow fully until it forms almost a circle and places the arrows on it. A sweet, fragrant wind starts bowing and, as he lets go and the flowers hit Brahma, the prajapatis and the ten mind-born sons of brahma, every one of them becomes erotically enchanted. Unable to take their eyes away from Sandhya, they keep looking at her and as they do so, powerful desire for her arises in their minds and fills their bodies with sexual craving – they all lust for her deeply, the lust engendering sexual reactions in their bodies and making them perspire.
Kama doesn’t spare Sandhya either – she too is hit by his arrows. And as Brahma looks at her his mind and body filled with lust for her, from her body are born the forty-nine sentiments [bhavas] as well as haughty indifference, tempting talk, cajolery, coquettish gestures and other havas. Also born of her are the sixty-four arts.
Sandhya too, pierced by the arrows of kama, starts exhibiting feminine behaviours under sexual desire – sidelong glances, smiles, giggles, shyness, embarrassment, light tremor of the body, restive eyes, and so on. With those gestures, Sandhya’s desirability multiples and she becomes enticing beyond words. In the words of the Kalika Purana, she becomes irresistibly charming like a heavenly river filled with fine, golden ripples.
As Brahma looks at Sandhya, herself a victim of Kama and filled with sexual longing, expressing that longing in her looks, gestures, stance and glances, expressing it through her entire body, her sexually awake body is covered by perspiration.
Seeing his effect on Brahma, the prajapatis and the manasaputras as well as on Sandhya, Kama concludes: Yes, I am capable of performing the job the Creator has allotted to me.
It is at this moment that Shiva appears in the skies above them and looking at them laughs at them ridiculing them. “Brahma,” he asks, “how come you get sexually excited seeing your own daughter? Certainly very inappropriate for someone who follows the Vedic way! One should treat one’s daughter-in-law exactly as one treats one’s mother; and one should treat one’s daughter exactly as he treats his daughter-in-law – this is the Vedic way of life, expressed in words that came out of your own mouth. How is it that just because of Kama you have forgotten all that? What holds the world up together is firmness of the mind – and you have lost that firmness because of something as insignificant as Kama. And how have the great ascetics who spend all their time in meditation fallen and started lusting for a woman? How has some silly guy like Kama, who has just got his work allotted to him by you, who has no sense of the right time and the right place, made you victims of his arrow? Shame! Shame on you all!”
Hearing these words of Shiva, Brahma becomes doubly ashamed and his body becomes covered with perspiration again, this time out of embarrassment. He masters himself and holds himself back, though a moment ago, filled with lust, he was about to grab Sandhya in his arms.
From Bramha’s perspiration, says the Kalika Purana, are born the pitarah/pitrs – the manes. And from the perspiration of Daksha, who has a hard time controlling his sexual arousal, is born Rati, the goddess of sexual love and beauty, the slim wasted, slender, irresistible goddess of the golden hue, whom he gives to Kama as his wife.
To end the story, Brahma becomes infuriated with Kama for making him lust for his own daughter and curses him that he would be burned to ashes by Shiva. Later, when Kama explains he was just testing the powers Brahma had said he has, and begs forgiveness, the Creator forgives him and tells him that he will regain his body when Shiva takes a wife.
As far as the Kalika Purana is concerned, the story of Sandhya ends here. However, the Shiva Purana which tells exactly the same story of Sandhya, even using identical vocabulary, imageries and metaphors in its Rudra Samhita section, continues her story from here. The Purana tells us that after Shiva and Brahma leave the place, Sandhya muses over the incidents that have happened. Her own father was tempted by her, her brothers – the prajapatis and the mind-born sons of Brahma – too were tempted by her, shot by the arrows of Kama. Not only that, because of the arrows he had shot at her, she too had become erotically excited and had started behaving in sexually suggestive ways. True, Kama has reaped the fruits of his actions in the form of the curse he received from Brahma, but she too had committed the grave sin of lusting for her own father and her brothers. She decides to perform the expiatory rites prescribed by the Vedas for such a sin – ending one’s body by entering a sacrificial fire. She decides to do that, but before that she would do one thing for the good of the world. She had felt sexual feelings from the very moment of her birth – she was just born when all these things happened. Hence she would perform extreme penance so that no new born will have sexual feelings. Eroticism, sexuality, should come to all only on maturity. After achieving that goal, she would give up this body of hers that had tempted her father and brothers and in which she had felt sexual arousal for her father and brothers.
She realizes she is inspired to meditate and purify herself by the sight of Shiva that she had had as he appeared before them all.
With these noble thoughts, Sandhya goes to the foot of the mountain Chandrabhaga in the Himalayas and prepares to meditate and do tapas there. Brahma sends his son Vasishtha to her so that he can instruct her in meditation and tapas, telling him that she considers the temptation she felt for them as her first death – the real death – and now she wants to make her death complete by abandoning her present body so that she can be reborn in a fresh, unstained body. Brahma asks Vasishtha to assume a different body so that Sandhya would not embarrassed by his sight – she had sexually desired him earlier.
When Vasishtha sees her, Sandhya is sitting on the bank of the Himalayan lake Brihal-lolita, near Mt. Chandrabhaga. Seeing him, now appearing as an ascetic, Sandhya bows deeply to him and responding to his questions tells him she is Sandhya, she is blessed by his sight, and she has come there to perform tapas but does not know how to do it. Vasishtha asks her to meditate upon Shiva – focus her attention on him, worship him using a mantra he gives her. She does it for so long that her matter hair growing down from her head covers her entire body, leaving her face bare, making her look like a frost covered lotus in the words of Shiva Purana. When Shiva appears before her and offers her boons, she tells him her first boon would be that no one should have sexual feelings right from birth. She also requests that the man who would become her husband should be an intimate friend of hers and any man other than her husband who looks at her lustfully should become impotent. These boons are granted by a highly pleased Shiva who declares her free from all stains from her past. Eventually she burns her body in the sacrificial fire of Rishi Medhatithi and is reborn from it as Arundhati and marries Vasishtha.
Vasishtha and Arundhati have since then been the highest example for marital love and fidelity and the ideal couple in every imaginable way. A ritual that is still performed in Hindu marriages is called Arundhati darshana, seeing Arundhati: immediately after marriage, the newly married couple standing close to each other and holding hands takes a look at the early morning sky for a view of Arundhati, today seen as part of a constellation.
Thus Sandhya who begins as the embodiment of female splendour and is used by Kama to tempt her own father and brothers ends up as a symbol of not only beauty but also loyalty, unswerving fidelity, perfect love, total commitment and all other qualities that make married life worth living. She also enjoys the total love of her man – Vasishtha’s love for Arundhati is the most complete love a man can have for his woman.
As we can easily see, the two women have hardly anything common between them except that they are both young and beautiful and the first women created. One is created in anger and in order to punish man, for what was no fault of man, the creator’s heart full of vengeance and fury, whereas the other is born of meditative calmness, serenity, joyfulness, the festive feeling that is the result of meditation. Sandhya is also self-born, not intentionally created; she just emerges from the Creator’s heart, as all highest creation does, in what is called the flow state, in what China calls wu-wei and India calls akarma, the state of effortless efficiency in action with no actor/doer being present, actions originating from the highest dimension of existence, as a manifestation of the creativity that is inherent in pure existence-consciousness-bliss. She is born of egolessness, from the state of self-transcendence that meditation takes us to, as all that is best in existence is, unlike Pandora who is a creation of Zeus’ wounded ego. Since bliss is the source of Sandhya’s origin, her essence is blissfulness, what India calls ananda. There is absolutely not one thing negative about Sandhya.
Whereas except that she is beautiful, desirable and can become the mother of his children – a huge thing indeed, of course – there is not one thing positive about Pandora. The way Greek mythology describes it, the joy she promises is a trap. Her true promise is what she is born to do to man – fill his heart and home with hatred and jealousy, with competitiveness and rivalry with others, with anger and jealousy, with lust, grief and sorrow, with fear, anxiety, discontent, greed, envy, cruelty, rage and the hundred other negative emotions. She would make man hate man, make man kill man for her sake, would transform what was heaven into hell. Pan-dora, all-gift, is not a gift at all, but a pestilential curse.
Sandhya excites men sexually, fills their hearts and body with lust, even forbidden lust, but that is not her fault. It is because of Kama, the god of desire, love, lust – because of the arrows Kama shoots at men. And she is as much a victim of Kama as the men are. And when she has excited men with incestuous desire for her, she feels guilty about it, feels repugnance for herself, and deciding to atone for it, sets out immediately on a journey to purify herself through meditation and penance. In an act of atonement for what she considers her sin – even though we can see she has committed no sin – she wants to abandon the very body which tempted them, in which she herself felt desire for them. She then takes another birth, this time as the very embodiment of chastity, loyalty, conjugal devotion and what Krishna in the Gita calls dharma-aviruddha kama, desire that does not go against dharma, righteousness, the common good.
She does another amazing thing. Before abandoning the body in which she feels she has sinned and done something repugnant, as the Shiva Purana which continues her story tells us, she would spend years praying to God, meditating upon Shiva, and when he appears, ask him as her first boon: that no newborn would feel the sexual urge, sexuality would awaken only years later, when the child has grown up.
I want to add one more thing here, a beautiful thing that her story tells us: the way to self-mastery, to mastery over unbridled sexuality as well as over everything else, is consciousness, what the western world today calls mindfulness. In fact that is the only path to self-mastery, which all of us need everywhere, at all times, the absence of which leads us to excesses and to horrible crimes, news about which the media fills us every morning as we sit down to watch the news on TV. Shiva in Indian culture stands for consciousness, awakened consciousness, pure consciousness – the chit/chid of sat-chid-ananda. It is his sight that awakens Brahma, the prajapatis and the mind-born sons of brahma from the darkness of blind lust. Again, it is his sight that awakens Sandhya. The antidote for Kama’s arrows is Shiva, consciousness, conscious living, awakened living, mindful living. The Shiva Sutra, a brilliant Kashmiri Sanskrit text tells: trisu chaturtha? tailavad asechya?, a sutra that asks us to bring in the fourth state, consciousness, into our other states – waking, dream, and sleep. This is the highest spiritual path and the only way worth living, and that is what Sandhya teaches us through her own practice.
To conclude, Pandora is woman as a punishment to man, as a curse, created in anger, to destroy, whereas Sandhya is a result of meditativeness, an expression of God’s creativity, divine creativity, sacred creativeness, a manifestation of creative sacredness in female form. She is an expression of the beauty that is within God – sundaram – finding expression in feminine form.
These two stories about the first woman speak of two completely different perceptions of woman: India speaks of her as irresistibly beautiful and essentially sacred, a blessing upon mankind. Whereas for ancient Greece she was a curse, a punishment, someone who sows seeds of hell on earth.