The “Magic Suggestiveness”

of Pancha Kanya


An exploration into some aspects of classical Indian feminism

by Dr (Mrs.) Ralla Guha Niyogi 

The matriarchal culture forms part of the heritage of women in India. Indian women have traditionally been regarded as powerful entities, the source of life and energy. The concept of marriage as generally involving men’s control over women, may be traced back to the myths of Jyeshtha, later called A-Lakshmi, who is deadly, bringing misfortune and calamity; and the goddess Kali who is stopped in her bloodthirsty rampage of indiscriminate killing by Shiva, her husband, who lies down before her. In another form, she is Lakshmi the auspicious, benevolent and obedient to her husband Vishnu. Jyeshtha emerges before Lakshmi, just as the Asuras and Titans precede theDevas and Greek gods. While Jyeshtha, having no husband has to be propitiated, Kali, in her terrible form, and Lakshmi, in her docility, are both controlled by the husband, though significantly, Shiva controls Kali by being subordinate to her. Thus, though it was marriage that transformed “the goddess’s dangerous power into benevolence”,[1] the power of women was traditionally seen as dangerous, and mysterious, since they had the power to engender new life, though paradoxically, women in the West were also regarded as “weak and in need of protection”.[2]  Modern feminist writers assert that “Women in India have always been able to draw upon a stock of cultural [and mythological] imagery which represents women not as weak and passive but as endowed with power and energy”.[3] Kumari Jayawardena[4] challenges the concept that feminism originated in North America and Europe, asserting that “women in Third World countries have developed their own endogenous feminist movements with their own specific goals”.[5]

Significantly, two versatile male writers, Valmiki and Vyasa, provide us with magnificent instances of classical Indian feminism in the epics Ramayana andMahabharata, that arouse the admiration of the twenty-first century reader, for some of the epic women confront and deal with challenges in their public and personal lives with remarkable energy, intelligence and freedom of spirit. Notably, all Indian texts dealing with Shakti are written by male sages, the solitary exception being Vak Ambhrini’s Devi Sukta in Rig Veda, where she celebrates herself as the primal creatrix, thus strongly asserting her femininity. The feminist belief that “Men have to constrain women not because [women] are too weak … but because their power is too great”[6] in fact reinstates this ancient Indian concept regarding the power of women. Modern feminists like Adrienne Rich asserts that men are afraid of “women’s powers of reproduction and motherhood, and want to control them.”[7] The patriarchal culture of both the Indian and Western worlds evolved different ways in controlling the power of women. It is in the light of these traditions of an existent matriarchal culture of India that we must view the Pancha Kanya or ‘Five Virgins’ of Indian epics, for they stand out in the assertion of their essential femininity and wisdom, reinforcing their individuality within the confines of marriage in an essentially patriarchal society.

Pancha Kanya: The Five Virgins of Indian Epics is a deeply engrossing and scholarly study by Pradip Bhattacharya[8]. The book analyses the personalities and actions of five outstanding maidens, who are regarded by the Ahinik Sutravali aspratah smaraniya : ‘to be invoked at dawn’, in order to destroy one’s greatest failings :

Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara, Mandodari tatha/
Pancha – Kanya smarennityam mahapataka nashaka
// [9]
Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara and Mandodari
Invoking daily the virgins five
Destroys the greatest failings
,” [PK, P.11].

In his work, the author not only studies the lives and actions of these women, but relates them to modern concepts of feminism and psychology, thus displaying “a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; [for] the historical sense compels a man to write … with a feeling that … the whole literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order”.[10] In his study, the author raises pertinent questions – why were these women, all of whom either had extra-marital affairs or more than one husband, referred to as ‘virgin’ or Kanya and why at all have they been considered to have redemptive qualities, thereby being revered as the Pancha Kanya? The answers lie in the ancient concepts of morality and feminism – a woman could simultaneously be considered ‘fallen’ and ‘virtuous’ at the same time, and could be regarded as ‘one-in-herself’, an autonomous entity, as Dr. M. Esther Harding observes [PK, p. 64]. Furthermore, the author carefully interprets the term ‘Kanya as having deeper connotations than merely its etymological meaning[11] of a very young, unmarried girl :

Being a Kanya has nothing to do with the physical status of ‘virgo intacta’ or sexual experience … The boon of virginity is not just a physical condition but refers to an inner state of the psyche that remains untrammeled by any slavish dependence on another, on a particular man. She is ‘one-in-herself ’, an integrated personality, [PK, p.63]

This impeccable analysis connects the ancient implication of the word to the concept of new feminism that swept over Europe and America in the late 1960s, and the feminism of the pre-twentieth century writers of the inter-war years, when it was felt that:

… if one is a woman, one is often surprised by a sudden splitting off of consciousness … when, from being the natural inheritor of [a] civilization, she becomes on the contrary, outside of it, alien and critical.[12]

This intellectual individualism and spirit of independence that form a crucial part of modern feminism was present in the personalities of the Kanyas of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and the author has imparted new insights into their motives and actions, so that in his study, “writing, the production of meaning, becomes the site of both challenge and otherness rather than (as in more traditional approaches) simply yielding the themes and representation of female oppression”[13]. He brings about an effective fusion of the past and the present in his dexterous analysis of feminine psychology based on the psychoanalytical theories of C.G. Jung and Emma Jung as he scrutinizes the limitless possibilities in the feminine psyche, which often cannot be repressed by an essentially patriarchal society. 

The author believes that the verse quoted in Ahinik Sutravali, having “come down the centuries, …. cannot be dismissed as a meaningless conundrum”. [PK, p. 18]. He anticipates the confusion in many minds regarding the meanings of the words Kanyaand Sati. Drawing a clear distinction between the two terms, he explicates that a Satior a pativrata, like the docile Hindu goddess Lakshmi, is a chaste woman, married to only one man, submitting herself to his wishes and directives. The term is traditionally implied to the Pancha Sati, that is “Sati, Sita, Savitri, Arundhati and Damayanti; or Sita, Savitri, Anasuya, Arundhati and Lopamudra (or Sulochana, Indrajit’s wife.)” [PK, p. 15]. On the contrary, the personality of the Kanya is far more complex, being a combination of the Anima and the Animus, as C.G. Jung analyzed :

The Anima represents the feminine aspects of the male psyche, e.g. gentleness, tenderness, patience, receptiveness, closeness to nature [and] readiness to forgive … The Animus is the male side of a female psyche : assertiveness, the will to control and take charge [and a] fighting spirit … [PK, p.20-21][14]

These qualities are found simultaneously in the five Kanyas and in the modern Indian woman too, for the latter faces innumerable challenges and often has to transcend the confines of her gender in order to discover and assert her own identity in an ever changing, technologically advancing society, where she has to be assertive and “take charge”. The author’s study, though focusing on the epic Kanyas, is thus truly woman-centered, original and intellectually coherent. His reference to Jung’s Anima and Animus lends contemporareity to the study of these epic women, for as Helene Cixous states :

We can no more talk about ‘woman’ than about ‘man’ without getting caught up in an ideological theater where the multiplication of representations, images, reflections, myths [and] identifications constantly transforms … [and] alters each person’s imaginary order ….Men or women [are] complex … beings. Admitting the component of the other sex makes them at once much richer, plural, strong ...[15]

The author, by relating the past with the present, displays “a sense of the timeless and … of the temporal together …. [which] makes a writer traditional … [and] most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporareity”.[16]  His study reveals information drawn from historical and contemporary sources, personal correspondences, references to Greek and Indian mythology, and modern feminist and psychoanalytic theories. He displays great fluidity of style, as he moves back and forth in time, successfully capturing the essence of the narrative structure of an epic, depicting “time as part of a cosmic cycle”[17] – a fact which Vyasa had reiterated many times in the Mahabharata. His inquiry, or quest into the lives of the fiveKanyas is thus “woman – centered … considering the possibility of the existence of a female culture within the general culture shared by men and women”. Modern feminist writing recognizes the necessity of taking into consideration an account of “female experience over time [including] the development of feminist consciousness as an essential aspect of women’s past,” [18] and an aspect of this contemporary feminist theory is revealed in the author’s study of the five Kanyas.

The first Kanya, Ahalya, in Valmiki’s epic Ramayana is the wife of the ascetic Gautama. She is described as a woman of flawless beauty, a virgin, and ayonija sambhava – not born of woman, but created by Brahma. Indra, lord of the gods, disguising himself as Gautama, approaches her, craving sexual union with her. The incident recalls a version of the Greek myth in which Paris supposedly assumed the form of Menelaus to seduce Helen, who is also half-divine, being the daughter of Zeus. Though Ahalya sees through Indra’s disguise, she makes a conscious, independent choice to satiate her curiosity by achieving an unusual union with an immortal being. Gautama discovers Ahalya’s transgression, curses Indra, and condemns his wife to perform penance until she becomes “lobhamohavivarjita, (moha, the result of Kama, desire, and lobha, greed, the itch to savor a different type of sexual experience)”. It is only after she has purified herself by “offering hospitality to Rama [that] she, fairest of all (varavarnini) would be redeemed to rejoin him”. [PK, p. 19]. Valmiki’s Ramayana, unlike other versions of the myth, does not describe Ahalya as being turned into stone, nor does Rama touch the stone-Ahalya with his foot, to restore her into a woman of flesh and blood. The author’s independent research reveals that Ahalya being turned to stone is the Katha-Sarit-Sagara version, expressing the male backlash of a largely patriarchal society [PK, p.23]. Valmiki’s Ahalya, like the heroine of Aparna Sen’s remarkable twentieth century Bengali film, Paroma undergoes, “not an actual physical transformation, but “a psychological trauma [involving a] ‘freezing’[of] the emotions… making her socially into a non-person”. When Rama and Lakshmana socially recognize her by touching her feet in salutation, her “self-respect and status in society [is restored] so that she truly live[s] again”, [PK., p. 23].[19]  The fact that she is regarded by the Prince of Ayodhya as “blameless and inviolate” shows that the ancient concepts of virginity or morality were quite different from that of subsequent ages. Thus, the goddesses Ishtar and Aphrodite, too, were regarded as virgins, though later they were considered ‘immoral’. Ahalya, the foremost of the five Kanyas projects the essence of feminism by independently and willingly undertaking a daring act by yielding to herkutuhala or curiosity and thereby she transcends the limits or confines of her gender, asserting in the process, her strong individuality. It is this “dangerous” power of self-assertion in Ahalya that is sought to be curbed by her husband, Gautama.

Ahalya’s consequent acceptance of Gautama’s wrath and her acquiescence to his sentence of temporary segregation from society may be regarded as her awareness and acceptance of existing societal norms and traditions. Thus, she may not be regarded as a “failed Kanya” as the author asks – on the contrary, she exhibits the equivocal position of women in India, portraying “a more complex and perpetual negotiation taking place between women’s culture and general culture”[20]. As Gerda Lerner states :

Women live their social existence within the general culture and, whenever they are confined by patriarchal restraint or segregation into separateness (which always has subordination as its purpose), they transform this restraint into complementarity (asserting the importance of woman’s function, even its ‘superiority’) and redefine it. Thus, women live a duality – as members of the general culture and as partakers of women’s culture.[21]

Ahalya is perhaps one of the earliest known exponents of “women’s culture” in a largely patriarchal society. Her kutuhala also leads to a partial fulfillment of the feminine jouissance, a word which to Helene Cixous denotes intense, rapturous pleasure present in women, and which Luce Irigaray interprets as a combination of the corporeal and the celestial. Significantly, Ahalya’s act differs from Irigaray’s interpretation as she seeks merely a corporeal union with a celestial being, but she nevertheless displays a variation of Irigaray’s concept of jouissance, for her union with Indra excludes any yearning for motherhood. Jouissance or ananda, in this case, reinstates a woman’s existence as an individual, feminine entity, and she is looked upon as such by her lover :

The female jouissance would [ascribe] to women freedom and a kind of mobility or fluidity … It would be possible only if women have their …. own jouissance, which they could feel …. , and undertake the upward journey necessary for their survival.[22]

Ahalya’s independence of spirit and her desire for union with Indra may be regarded as an instance of women’s need “ to move freely [around] … an axis which grounds them in the earth and connects them to the heavens”[23]. Gautama’s wrath at his wife’s transgression reiterates women’s “lingering status” as the “secondary sex” in Indian society which prevails even today, prompting modern intellectuals to “figure out a way to change [this] dominant [patriarchal] culture”.[24] Ahalya thus emerges as “a metaphor for patriarchy, exploitation and society’s double standards. In the trap of modernity – science and progress … women… are expected to be superwomen.”25 Rabindranath Tagore’s poem on Ahalya, short stories, television programmes, various Bharatnatyam performances on Ahalya’s life and Dr. Pratibha Ray’s Oriya novel Mahamoha which won the Sahitya Academy Award, describing Ahalya’s journey from transgression to transcendence, continue to reinforce the essence of dynamic femininity that this first Kanya represents, which makes her pratah-smaraniya.

The second Kanya, Tara, wife of Vali, emerges as a woman of exceptional wisdom, self-assurance and foresight. She advises her husband not to accept his brother Sugriva’s challenge, a warning Vali ignores, suspicious of Tara’s relationship with his brother. He realizes his mistake only after Sugriva, with help from Rama, fatally wounds him, and, prior to his death, he advises his brother to trust in Tara’s knowledge and instinctive wisdom. After Vali’s death, Tara controls the fleeing soldiers of her kingdom, and fearlessly confronts Rama, Prince of Ayodhya, displaying admirable courage, demanding that he kill her too, as he had killed her husband,. Her powerful speech recalls Hecabe’s confronting of Odysseus when the latter comes to sacrifice her daughter Polyxena :

The strong ought not to use their strength
To do what is not right; when they are fortunate
They should not think Fortune will always favor them.
… kill me with [Polyxena]; so both Earth and the dead soul
Who claims this blood – offering, shall gain a double draught.[26]

Tara, however, is placated by Rama, and following his advice, she becomes Sugriva’s companion. Her intrinsic femininity surfaces, when later, she gently chides the angry Lakshmana for criticizing Sugriva’s overwhelming lust for her. By defending Sugriva, she “displays her superb ability to … intervene in a crisis. Thus she acts as Sugriva’s shield … [and] by her intrepid actions … saves the kingdom and her son from ruin”[PK, pp. 29, 31]. She not only consolidates her own position, but that of her son Angad’s as well, portraying a combination of the Anima and Animus in the bold decisions she takes in her private and public life, simultaneously displaying her instinctive feminine charm when she confronts Lakshmana. She reinforces the image of the woman as companion and protector - a quality often assigned to the male in subsequent ages. She represents the immense capabilities and potential that resides within the feminine psyche.

The third Kanya, Mandodari, wife of Ravana, the king of Lanka, resembles Tara in her wisdom and intelligent assessment of her husband’s character as well as of the changing political situation in her kingdom. The author refers to a startling fact recorded in the Adbhut Ramayana, canto 8 [PK, p.36], where Ravana gives Mandodari a pot of ascetics’ blood for safekeeping, warning her not to drink from it, as it contained poison. Angered by Ravana’s many transgressions, Mandodari disobeys him and drinks from the pot, becoming consequently pregnant. She deserts her new-born infant in a field, where Janaka finds it, naming the child Sita. This may account for Hanuman in Sundara Kanda of the epic, mistaking Mandodari for Sita. 

Like Tara, Mandodari begs Ravana to make peace with Rama, rebuking him for kidnapping Sita, warning him that Sita’s presence in Lanka would spell doom for their kingdom. She displays a superb self-assurance and dignity in her assertion that “Maithili [Sita] was neither superior, nor equal to me in birth, beauty and nobility. Yet you, perverted by lust, did not realize that”. [PK, p. 32]. However, she remains loyal to her husband and her kingdom, neither walking away from her marriage, like Ibsen’s Nora, nor giving way to uncontrolled anger and passion like Medea who faces a similar transgression by her husband Jason :

“Oh! Oh! What misery, what wretchedness!
What shall I do ? if only I were dead!
Death take [Jason] … and perish his whole kingdom”

Medea’s comment : “We were born women – useless for honest purposes, but in all kinds of evil skilled practitioners”[27] and her consequent destructive acts, draw into sharp contrast the powerful dignity and calm majesty with which Mandodari accepts and handles Ravana’s vices. After the deaths of her husband and sons in the war with Rama, she wisely accepts Rama’s advice and marries her brother-in-law, thereby consolidating her own position and maintaining harmony in her kingdom. Notably, despite Mandodari’s ‘impurity’ in giving birth to a child that was not her husband’s, and her second marriage to Vibhishana, her brother-in-law, she is celebrated as auspicious because of her independence of spirit and wisdom.

It is significant that the Mahari Devdasis, who are regarded as ‘virtuous’ even though they are ‘fallen’ women, are compared to the five Kanyas especially Tara and Mandodari, by Dr. Ratna Roy in her paper, “The portrayal of Pancha Kanyas in Guru Pankaj Charan Das’s Odissi Dance Drama”.[28]  The Pancha Kanyas may be taken to be representative of the essential femininity of the Indian woman – compassionate, tender and acquiescent on the one hand, while being strong and self-assured on the other hand, able to take practical and independent decisions in a constantly changing, turbulent society. This accounts for the sustained appeal of the Kanyas to the twenty-first century woman.

Strikingly, as the author points out, all five Kanyas are motherless, Ahalya, Tara and Mandodari being ayonijasambhava, not born of woman; Kunti, being an adopted child of Kuntibhoja, misses the companionship of her mother from infancy, and Draupadi appears mysteriously, full-grown, from a sacrificial fire. The mystery surrounding the creation of Ahalya, Tara, Mandodari and Draupadi and the motherlessness of all five women as well as that of Satyavati, Kunti’s grandmother-in-law, reinforce their independence of spirit and ingenuity, and remarkably, their individual transgressions do not in any way impair the purity of their spirit. Indeed “the Epic women broadcast a message that … credits a … woman with a sense of her own vivid potential and worth”.[29] They were not like “tender creepers” dependent on “the man in their lives, whether he be father, husband or guide … [they] had such vigor and life in them that they were like multi-stemmed “bodhi” trees, spreading … their nurturing attention over [their actions and relationships].[30]

Notably, while being motherless, each Kanya is herself a mother. This is an important quality in the concept of Indian feminism, for in India :

The ideal woman …. is the mother …. The word woman calls up to the mind of the Hindu, motherhood; … To the ordinary man in India, the whole force of womanhood is concentrated in motherhood …. In an Indian home, the mother rules.[31]

Indeed, Kunti, “the archetype of the Single Mother” [PK, P.63] in Vyasa’s epicMahabharata, provides perhaps one of the earliest instances of the modern concept of “other mothering”[32] for she cares for Madri’s sons Nakula and Sahadeva, who are not her blood relations, a fact which reinforces her as a powerful mother-figure. She emerges as a strong guiding force in the lives of the five Pandavas, tirelessly striving to restore to them their lost kingdom. As an unmarried princess, she yields to the temptation of testing Durvasa’s boon and when Surya, the Sun-God, appears before her she capitulates to his demand for sexual union on condition that her ‘virginity’ or purity of spirit will be reinstated and that her son would resemble him. Later, married to the impotent Pandu, she uses her boon to give him three sons through three different ‘gods’[33] – taking resort to the ancient, socially accepted custom of Niyoga which was used to propagate the family line. Her purity of spirit, despite these extra-marital relationships, remains inviolate, and she is revered and loved by the Pandavas who obey her every command, including her advice that all five brothers should wed Draupadi. This concept of Indian motherhood has filtered down the ages to modern times, and the term ‘mother’ :

[is not] coupled with anything connected with the flesh. The name has been called holy once and forever,… [which] no lust can ever approach, no carnality ever come near…. That is the ideal in India.[34]

Kunti displays admirable self-control, strength of mind and independence of spirit in refusing to submit herself to further relationships with other ‘gods’ to give Pandu more sons. She is remarkably akin to her mother-in-law Satyavati, who expresses her intrinsic femininity when she agrees to the demands of the sage Parashara for sexual union on condition that her ‘virginity’ would remain intact, that she would lose her fishy odor, and be blessed with eternal youth, like Helen, and that her illegitimate son Vyasa, would be a renowned man.

The qualities that Satyavati depicts are those of a true Kanya as well, yet, curiously, her name is not mentioned among those who may be ‘invoked at dawn’. Satyavati’s liberated feminism in making no further emotional demands on Parashara, makes her emerge as a strikingly mature individual, despite the fact that she has just reached puberty, and is of low-birth, being a fisherman’s daughter. She later marries Santanu, King of Hastinapura, on condition that her heirs would inherit the kingdom instead of her stepson, Devavrata. Later, when Vichitravirya dies without an heir, she unhesitatingly commands Vyasa to impregnate Vichitravirya’s widows in accordance with the custom of Niyoga. Thus the Kuru dynasty is replaced by the Nishada race propagated through Satyavati and Vyasa.

Interestingly, both Satyavati and Kunti, in their decision to propagate their dynasties through men who are not their husbands, anticipate Bergson’s theory of creative evolution and the views of Schopenhauer, Nietszche and Samuel Butler on selective breeding. Bernard Shaw’s concept of the creative energy or Life Force being crucially significant to the development of the race and his radical conclusion that there need not be a necessary link between sentiments, love, marriage and reproduction, were instinctively followed by these two epic women, whose liberal feminism did indeed attain the transcendental levels that Schopenhauer analyses in The Metaphysics of the Love of the Sexes (1844). Don Juan’s observation that Ana would have “replenished the earth more effectively if she had chosen twelve different husbands for her twelve children”[35], echoes Kunti’s acceptance of Pandu’s selection of different fathers for her three sons, each being an embodiment of his respective father’s virtues. The Life Force indeed works in Kunti for a specific purpose, and no doubt Jack Tanner would have been full of admiration for Kunti’s conceptualization of the Life Force within her, had he known of her remarkable actions!

Driven out from her own kingdom, Kunti forges a matrimonial alliance with the powerful Panchala king, Drupad, Draupadi’s father– and this ultimately prompts Dhritarashtra to recall the Pandavas and accede to them half the kingdom. She befriends Vidura, the son of Vyasa and Ambika’s maid, and he remains her life-long advisor and protector. Her strong desire for survival and her protective ‘mother-instinct’ prompts her to engineer the deaths of the drunk Nishada mother and her five sons in the House-of-Lac in order to ensure the safety of the Pandavas. She teaches her sons important kingly duties, by insisting that Bhima face the ogre Baka, thus protecting the Brahmin who had given them shelter, saying “It is a king’s duty to protect/even the Shudra if the Shudra/ seeks protection”. [PK, p. 56] She acts, thus, as the guardian and advisor of the Pandavas and displays a ‘masculine’ strength of purpose. Like Thetis who had been indirectly responsible for the death of her son Achilles, by leaving his heel vulnerable, Kunti leaves Karna, her first-born son, vulnerable by making him promise not to kill any Pandava other than Arjuna, thus making him emotionally weak through his knowledge that he was fighting against his brothers - a fact that the Pandavas were unaware of. Thus “Kunti’s maturity and foresight [and her ability] … to arrive at swift decisions that benefit both society and her children, set her apart and above all characters in the epic, except perhaps Krishna.” [PK, p.57]. All her actions, however, are self-effacing, for she decides to retire to the forest, renouncing the kingdom that she had helped her sons to win from the Kauravas. In this, she is unique in being the only Kanya to thus renounce the worldly luxuries of her kingdom. In her, we find a striking balance of the Anima and Animus, and the operation of the Life Force, which attains sublime levels. Kunti thus emerges as a unique woman, full of grace, dignity and power, exercising commendable physical restraint in the face of Pandu’s insatiable demands to use Durvasa’s boon and beget more sons; yet she is not life-denying, but instead, glows with a transcendental spirituality, displaying Helene Cixous’s espousal that masculinity and femininity may exist simultaneously within a single individual. Her independence of spirit may indeed inspire modern Indian women not to regard themselves as “dolls and objects of indulgence”, but rather to be “comrades in common service with their husbands”[36], as Mahatma Gandhi, one of the greatest upholders of women’s rights, advocated.

What Oscar Wilde exclaims about Helen is equally applicable to Draupadi, the brilliantly depicted fifth and last Kanya :

For surely it was thou, who, like a star
Didst lure the Old World’s chivalry and might
Into the clamorous crimson waves of war![37]

Similar to Ahalya’s silent acquiescence to Gautama’s wrath, Draupadi silently accepts the five Pandavas as her husbands, perhaps recalling Maudgalya’s curse on her in a previous birth. [PK, p.90]. Polyandry, though not common, was accepted in Vedic society, but Draupadi is unique for her purity of spirit or ‘virginity’ which is indestructible. Similar to the seventeen rishikas or brahmavadinis [38] to whom the hymns of the Rig Veda were revealed, Draupadi later displays her exceptional intelligence, wisdom and amazing presence of mind when, in the face of the intense humiliation of disrobement after being dragged by her hair into open court, she challenges the very precepts of Dharma as she conceived it, before her elders. Draupadi’s initial silence and subsequent assertiveness recalls Lopamudra’s initial acquiescence to the sage Agastya and her consequent self-assurance in firmly demanding that he deck her in royal splendor if he wants a son by her. Similar to the Goddess Kali, Draupadi is revengeful and bloodthirsty, tirelessly urging her husbands to avenge her humiliation. Like Helen, she is surrounded by violence, bloodshed and war. She stands apart from other epic women in her immense psychological strength and courage which make her emerge as a sophisticated and elite woman, a fit partner for her five husbands. What John Stuart Mill advocated in 1909 as the ideal of marriage, dismayed as he was at the ‘subjection’ of Victorian women, was practiced by Draupadi and the Pandavas centuries earlier. Mill observed that :

[An ideal marriage involves] two persons of cultivated faculties, identical in opinions and purposes, between whom there exists the best kind of equality [and] … reciprocal superiority … so that each can enjoy the luxury of looking up to the other and can have alternately the pleasure of leading and of being led in the path of development. …This and this only, is the ideal of marriage,… any other notion of it are relics of primitive barbarism.[39]

Likewise, Draupadi, as a Kanya, regally and independently asserts her individuality, emerging as an outstanding symbol of Indian femininity and displays “ a profound awareness of being an instrument in bringing about the extinction of an effete epoch, so that a new age could take birth”. [PK, p. 92]. Her desire for revenge is not only limited by narrow selfish interests, but, as the Sakhi of Krishna, she has a far nobler aim of ultimate regeneration of society, through destruction of the corrupt Kauravas. In this ability to transcend her ego in order to achieve a higher goal through wisdom and ultimate serenity of spirit, she emerges as one of the most outstanding women figures in classical mythology. In Mahasweta Devi’s story Draupadi (1981) the tribal woman Dopdi’s refusal to succumb to male domination reflects the epic heroine’s strength of mind and determination to rise above oppression and humiliation in an essentially patriarchal society. Draupadi is the embodiment of Stree Shakti that triumphs over formidable obstacles to reinforce her femininity and individuality. 

Indeed the Pancha Kanyas collectively emerge as embodiments of Stree Shakti – a source of energy in women; they represent “the ideals of Indian women in the past who played important roles in … education, administration, public welfare, social reform, creative arts, and academic pursuits.[40] The author, through his insightful analysis of the redemptive qualities of the Pancha kanyas, has revealed them to be one of the intrinsic reasons why the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have remained :

the cherished heritage of the whole Hindu world for the last several thousands of years … form [ing] the basis of [Indians’] thoughts and of their moral and ethical ideas … [The epics] are the two encyclopedias of the ancient Aryan life and wisdom, portraying an ideal civilization which humanity has yet to aspire after.[41]

The Pancha kanyas are thus often worshipped by Indians and are worthy of emulation by the twenty first century woman, who may find many similarities with the epic women as she struggles to find her own identity and niche in an ever changing. competitive, and increasingly complex modern society. The Pancha Kanyassymbolize Shakti, the universal feminine power or creative energy which, according to “one essential tenet of Hinduism … is believed to represent the primeval creative principle underlying the cosmos. [They represent] the energizing force of all divinity, of every being and everything.”[42] The author’s emphasis then, is on the spiritual purity of the Kanyas which may be considered to be an intrinsic part of their feminism: they act because it is the true and right thing to do in personal and public life, integrating “successfully the masculine in the feminine, without one overwhelming the other”. [PK, p. 115]. They thus retain the essence of their femininity, instead of becoming ‘manly’ or ‘men’, as Luce Irigaray warns may happen in modern women’s pursuit of feminism, for “whatever equality means, it does not mean becoming like men but to challenge the foundation of the [patriarchal] social and cultural order,”[43] as Draupadi does while questioning her elders in the royal court. Despite great sorrows and loss, the five Kanyas are ‘calm of mind, all passion spent’, towering over most of the other characters of the epics in their quiet dignity and mature acceptance of human tragedy around them. The Pancha Kanyas thus indeed project redemptive qualities, encouraging the modern woman to draw upon her latent reserves of strength, independently asserting her innate power or Shakti in her quest for emotional, physical and spiritual freedom in both private and public life, molding societal and cultural traditions that are aimed to stifle her femininity, and thereby reasserting her ‘virtue’ or ‘virginity’ of spirit. In this, the five Kanyas transcend the confines of their age and become metaphors for universal femininity, showing that many of the values that they lived by are applicable even today, for truly :

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future.
Time the destroyer is time the preserver
…. the future can only be built upon the past.[44]

In his ‘quest in search of meaning’ of the Pancha Kanyas the author encourages in the reader a spirit of inquiry, and leaves much of his observations to the interpretation of the reader, thus making the latter an active and creative participant in the development of his analysis. This style recalls the phenomenological theory of art, for as Laurence Sterne remarks in Tristram Shandy :

….No author who understands the just boundaries of decorum and good breeding, would presume to think all. The truest respect which you can pay to the readers’ understanding is… to leave him something to imagine…For my own part, I am eternally paying him compliments of this kind, and do all that lies in my power to keep his imagination as busy as my own.[45]

Pancha Kanya may therefore be taken to be “neither completely text, nor completely reader, but a combination or merger of the two,”[46] and the unwritten part of the text, through implication and interpretation, is instrumental in initiating a text-reader interaction, which is the essence of literature. In this way, the author invests his text with a ‘magic suggestiveness’[47]  which appeals to the reader’s imagination, imparting to the work a dynamic quality.’

Panchakanya imparts a new dimension to post-colonial intellectual literature in English, in which the author relates historical and mythological facts to contemporary literature, theatre and modern feminist and psychoanalytic theories, thereby bringing out the richness of Indian feminism and cultural heritage. The liberal feminism or ‘female culture’ of the Pancha kanyas and their spiritual transcendence make them a source of inspiration to modern women. Living in a society where aberrations from the traditional idea of chastity, though uncommon, were accepted, the five ‘virgins’ of Indian epics emerge as powerful figures, and may be taken to be torch-bearers of modern feminist ideas.[48] They anticipate the modern necessity of women to ‘repossess’ their bodies and minds, for :

we need to imagine a world in which every woman is the presiding genius of her own [mind and] body. In such a world, women will truly create new life, bringing forth not only children (if and as we choose) but the visions, and the thinking, necessary to sustain, console, and alter human existence – a new relationship to the universe”.[49]

The Pancha kanyas through their lives and actions, anticipate many such modern paradigms of feminism, thus transcending the limitations of time and gender, and ultimately display the triumph of the atman or the human spirit. Furthermore, they represent a combination of matriarchal myths. It must be remembered that myths may not be a reflection of historical reality, but provide a conceptual framework reflecting ideas that had social approval. The myth surrounding the Kanyas represent a struggle over concepts and their interpretation within an existing social framework, for the “persistence of the female power principle symbolizes the continued visibility of the power of women as part of the cultural heritage.”[50]  The Kanyas may thereby be seen as metaphorical entities, and their experiences emerge as not purely individual, but crucially linked to the existing social structure. Though the idea of female subservience paradoxically reinforces the male attempts to repress the power of women, the Kanyas triumph over these attempts, reaching the summit of social hierarchy, by exercising their femininity, fixity of purpose and determination to achieve their goals within the existing hierarchical order. Herein lies their redemptiveness, and these mythical entities emerge as examples of paradigmatic feminisms, providing new insights into contemporary ideas concerning gender relations and modern feminist theories.



More by :  Dr. Ralla Guha Niyogi

Top | Hinduism

Views: 3434      Comments: 3

Comment i learn this from our nanda sir after reading this feel happy

22-Feb-2015 10:21 AM

Comment this is totally new for me and useful as my subject demands me to read Indian philosophy along with western philosophy.

07-Nov-2011 23:38 PM

Comment Ihad long been obsessed with confusion as to how these 'pancha kanyas' who are either pre-wed mother or having extra marital affairs can be regarded as SATI. But here the author has very nicely dealt with the issue.My sincere Thanks go to the author.

Chandi Charan Banerjee
20-Apr-2011 09:38 AM

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