Pradip Bhattacharya: The Panchakanya
Ahalya Draupadi Kunti Tara Mandodari tatha
panchakanya svaranityam mahapataka nashaka
…thus run the ancient Sanskrit exhortation whose origin is untraceable. The Panchakanyas in ancient Indian epic literature are Ahalya, Tara, Mandodari, Kunti and Draupadi, three from the Ramayana, and two from the Mahabharata.
Who is a Kanya? Why are they called virgins? What is it that binds these unique figures? Dr Pradip Bhattacharya, arguably one of the greatest Mahabharata scholars of our time, took this austere hardship to unravel these mysteries, which he calls “a quest in search of meaning”.
This quest is indeed a fascinating journey. It is thoroughly academic, and encyclopaedic as well. Taking cues from Sanskrit Indian texts, Bhattacharya expands his search to architecture, contemporary literature, performing arts, and a plethora of artistic dimensions. His attention to detail, coupled with his erudition and a strong grasp of the subject makes it a compendium of excellence.
The introductory pages leave you in awe of his meticulous research, where towards the end he asks a pertinent question about the “sequence in which the names occur”. It doesn’t follow chronology. Why is Draupadi placed just after Ahalya? Why does Draupadi precede Kunti? It instantly prepares you for a deep cerebral exercise.
He explores the Panchakanya rites that exist in different parts of the Indian subcontinent, where these five “virgins” feature prominently in various theatres and plays. All these great epic characters are not “chaste” wives because either they had extra-marital relationships or more than one husband, but Bhattacharya points out that it's not the only criteria to label them as Kanyas.
Interestingly, all these women are not born from the mother's womb, apart from Kunti. In the case of Mandodari, Bhattacharya did point out that in the Kashmiri Ramayana, she is being portrayed as a fairy.
The “flawless” and “unploughed” virgin of the Ramayana, Ahalya is the wife of Rishi Gautama. In the Valmiki Ramayana, Ahalya identifies Indra, in the guise of Gautama, and enjoys an intense sexual moment. In the Adikanda, Valmiki calls her “durmedha”, who out of curiosity and act of impulse indulged herself in a sexual act. Bhattacharya has drawn a parallel with Kunti, and how out of curiosity she invoked Surya while in her teens.
The Uttarkanda of the Ramayana, however, suggests Ahalya couldn’t identify Indra and that she was duped. Exploring the concept of Carl Jung’s Anima and Animus theory, Bhattacharya has explored several Puranas, Mahabharata, Harivamsa, Raghuvamsa, Oriya Mahabharata by Sarala Das, Katha Sarita Sagara, Rama Jataka of Laos, Greek mythology, the concept of “paramour of Indra” or Ahalayai Jarah put forward by NriSingha Prasad Bhaduri, and oral traditions of the Telugu Ramayana, and more to untangle this enigmatic Kanya.
Often confused with Harischandra’s wife, Taramati, Bhattacharya’s first task was to make it clear that she is the other Tara, Vali’s wife, who later married Sugriva.
Valmiki describes Tara as “anindyavarna” - her striking beauty. Hanuman was also bowled over by her ravishing beauty. And yet, Tara stands out as someone who is intelligent and smart.
In fact, she fits the perfect archetype of Kanya. In the Ananda Ramayana, Tara curses Rama to be slain by Bali in his future birth, while Bhattacharya also points out how Rama consoles her saying Vali’s soul is immortal, as mentioned in the Adhyatma Ramayana.
The Mahabharata version of the Ram-Katha suggests that Vali and Sugriva fought over a woman. The way she calms down a raging Laxmana, citing Viswamitra’s example to save Sugriva from his wrath, only shows how quick-witted she is. She occupies a small portion in Valmiki’s epic, but her cameo is as radiant as her beauty.
Bhattacharya rightly says that it is with her that “we face a problem”.
She is the wife of the ten-headed Ravana, who is aware of his husband’s sexual escapades in the past. She warns him reportedly and shows her fiery character to influence Ravana from raping Sita.
In the Oriya Dharmakanda, it was she who stops Ravana from killing Sita when he raises the Chandrahasa sword. In various versions of the Ramayana, Mandodari is portrayed as a mother of Sita, sometimes in a bizarre way, such as in Hikayet Seri Rama.
The author also explores that area with great care and cites examples from Gunabhadra’s Uttarapurana, where she realises that Sita must be her daughter as her breasts ooze milk.
Kunti & Draupadi
The first thing that strikes here is how with ease Bhattacharya deals with the complexities of the Mahabharata - the transition is visible.
Both these women are central to the development of Vyasa’s epic - both women possess five partners, although, in the case of Kunti, the situation is a bit different.
Bhattacharya questions Durvasa’s motives and projects Kunti’s plight with deep emotions. She is the acme of womanhood and shows why Kunti’s character is a “remarkable study in womanhood”, after juxtaposing her with Satyavati. They share so many things in common, and yet they are different. In the case of Kunti, we see a resolve from her in trying to hide the secret of her pre-marital son.
Kunti doesn’t deny her daughter-in-law any say in choosing her husband, while the author draws an interesting parallel with the Nala-Damayanti story, where Damayanti is claimed by four gods.
Equally brilliant is the comparison with Madhavi, as Vyas denotes her. It could allude to her belonging to the lineage of Madhu or it could remind the readers of Madhavi, who is also a Kanya.
The final character of the Kanya series is Draupadi, and Bhattacharya has done great justice in crafting her character.
The “rajputri satyavrata” is a woman of “vengeful grief”. She resembles the blue-and-red kritya of the Rig and Atharva Vedas.
The concept of “Abhichara” has been explored, with Bhattacharya stating that Draupadi’s rites draw upon “non-shrauta” tradition, a departure from a normal sacrifice.
Panchali is different from the other Kanyas. She is the only one who has borne the brunt of physical abuse. She was physically injured in the Dyut Sabha, while several others have tried to molest her in the epic — her rage and anger drive the epic.
All these Kanyas have experienced pain, sorrow and loss. They are mere mortals, and yet they are much more than that. They have everyone surrounding them, and yet they are alone.
Bhattacharya leaves no room to add any input - it’s close to perfection. In the Kamba Ramayana, Molla Ramayana and Tamil bow-song, the story of Ahalya has been narrated only after Rama sets his foot and removes her curse. Kamban’s treatment of Ahalya could have been explored here. Likewise, there are several variations of Indra’s curse that Bhattacharya has overlooked. The Ramayana Manjari, an 11th-century text, gives a completely different version where as a punishment it says that the status of Indra will not belong to only one but will change. Henceforth, the deserving person will be called Indra.
While drawing parallels with the Mahabharata, Bhattacharya could have checked the use of “niraahaara” in the North Recension of the Ramayana, that surprisingly finds mention in the G4 (Grantha) Manuscript of the Mahabharata. That, however, would have been a different study altogether.
In the Mandodari section, Bhattacharya could have added the Kashmiri Ramayana’s poetic touch where Mandodari makes an attempt to reunite Sita with Rama.
The central attractive feature of this book is Bhattacharya’s exhaustive research and references to diverse sources - from antiquity to the modern arts. His rigorous study, especially in the Mahabharata sections, helps the reader understand the characters in a better way. He shows how the past is still relevant and puts it succinctly - “The past does indeed hold the future in its womb.”
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