Book: Pancha Kanya: The Five Virgins of Indian Epics. A Quest in Search of Meaning.
By Pradip Bhattacharya Kolkata: Writer's Workshop, 2005.
Pradip Bhattacharya's Pancha Kanya: The Five Virgins of Indian Epics, published by the Writer's Workshop and introduced by his mentor, Professor P. Lal, as an 'exploration' 'done with scholarship, sensitivity, and idealism and that uncommon quality called commonsense' (10), is anything but a simple analysis.
It is unique as the first elaborate study of the two epics seen through the lens of a popular exhortation, whose source is elusive. It also posits a feminist perspective in the male-dominated literary world of South Asia. Bhattacharya incorporates unorthodox scholarship in conjunction with orthodox scholarship, with the text poised at the cutting edge of Internet research.
The book opens with an assertion that an ancient exhortation,
'Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara and Mandodari
Invoking daily the virgins five/Destroys the greatest failings' (11),
is relevant in today's global world. The first chapter, 'Pancha Kanya: A Quest in Meaning,' travels through internet research, e-mailed reader responses, performances, and even corporation reports such as the Panchakanya Group in
Nepal. It teases the concept of 'kany' versus 'sati,' explores all of the variations to the exhortation, and concludes with the necessity of delving into the subject 'in the context of the powerful wave of feminism sweeping in from the West' (18).
It is this feminist 'eye' that sets Bhattacharya's analysis apart from most academic scholarship. Ahaly' in V'lm⁄ki's 'di (B'la) K'nda is not an innocent victim, as her later incarnations in various texts purport her to be. Bhattacharya delves into the Uttarak'nda, Mah'bh'rata version, Brahm' Pur'na, 'iva Pur'na, and Kath'sarits'gar. He even explores Pratibha Ray's novel Mah'moha (1997) and Anita Ratnam's dance composition, as well as the television Ahalya, for modern relevance.
The chapter concludes with a womanist twist to the 'quest in meaning': 'In the
unique type of sexual encounter with non-husbands that is neither rape nor adultery lies the key to the mystery of the five 'virgin' maidens' (26).
The next two chapters deal with T'r' from the V'nara race and Mandodar⁄ from
332 / International Journal of Hindu Studies 10, 3 (2006) the R'k'asa race. In 'Tara,' Bhattacharya elaborates upon T'r's sagacity and political acumen, while in 'Mandodari' he extrapolates the inconclusive mythologies of her origin as well as modern interpretations. He finally concludes, 'Tara and Mandodari are parallels. Both offer sound advice to their husbands who recklessly reject it and suffer the ultimate consequence. Then, both deliberately accept as their spouse the younger brother-in-law responsible for the deaths of their husbands. Thereby, they are able to keep the kingdoms strong and prosperous as allies of
Ayodhya, and continue to have a say in governance' (38).
The analysis of the characters of non-'ryan T'r' and Mandodar⁄ as strategists, politicians, visionaries, and no simple helpmates to their male consorts is brilliant and convincing.
In the following chapter, after an initial detour of five pages, when Bhattacharya
arrives at Kunti's characterization, he displays his ability to 'twist the plot' and
throw the reader off-center while making him or her a partner in this 'quest for
meaning.' He methodically proves that Kunti was a strategist who made the
alliances for her sons, who machinated Draupadi's marriage with all five, who
ruthlessly had the Nisadha woman and her sons killed, and who disabled Karna.
With a typical Bhattacharya twist he also plants a seed in the readers' minds that Dharma could be Vidura and that Kunti may have had four men rather than four gods as her partners'the work continues to be 'a quest in meaning' and fodder for the feminist.
In Draupadi, Bhattacharya finds a woman who is not inferior to her mother-in-law in her machinations. Draupadi is also no Sit'she is a kany', not a pativrat', a sexually independent woman, 'the goddess of the common people' (103; citing Prema Nandakumar). Through quotes from Mallika Sarabhai (Draupadi in Peter Brooks' Mahabharata) and literary citations, Bhattacharya concludes 'Draupadi's character speaks powerfully to oppressed womanhood today' (105).
The analyses again center around the duo as powerful females, as creators of their own destinies, independent of any male partners.
Bhattacharya summarizes the qualities of a kany', as he unpeels layer after layer and draws parallels between these five women. The most significant question is reiterated, a woman's sexuality vis-'-vis her morality, necessitating the issue of a paradigm shift, 'sanitizing' the kany's into satis in later patriarchal literature (113).
However, there is no piece of ivory without a crack ('tak ada gading yang tak retak'Indonesian). Bhattacharya's Jungian depth-psychology analysis opens up a Pandora's box that will probably necessitate another chapter in a future reincarnation of this encyclopedic text.
This slim volume is packed with information, references, and data, stemming from the ancient texts to modern revisitations in literature and performance studies. It is invaluable in its tested appeal for both undergraduate students and scholars. It is concise yet exhaustive. It is diverse as opposed to monolithic in its imaging of South Asian womanhood. And, finally, it engages a dialogue between past literature and present scholarship.