Rishi Galava was a desperate man. And he had no one but himself to blame. He had insisted that his guru and father, Vishwamitra, accept some guru dakshina even though Vishwamitra had wanted none. Annoyed by his persistence, Vishwamitra imperiously demanded 800 steeds, white as moonlight, with one side of one ear dark as night. Where would he, Galava, a poor brahmin, go looking for creatures that might be found only in the heavens?
Urged by his friend, Garuda, Galava visited the court of Yayati. At one time, Yayati had been famed for his wealth and charity but that time was past. He had neither the steeds nor the wealth to acquire them. But his pride remained. His was a house whence none returned empty-handed.
‘I have but one treasure’, he said to Galava. ‘My daughter Madhavi, whose beauty tempts even the gods. Surely trading her to any wealthy king would fetch you your 800 steeds?’
Thus Madhavi was sent with Galava. Out of filial piety she said nothing to challenge her father.
Madhavi and Galava visited the court of King Hayarshva. Unsurprisingly, the king took one look at Madhavi and began breathing hard. His eyes travelled up and down her form taking in the bounteous breasts and rounded buttocks. He stared hard at her firm thighs lasciviously, imagining the deep cleft they hid. Galava knew the fish had bitten and raced to reel it in.
‘Give me 800 horses of the finest breed, King! The colour of moonlight, with one side of one ear dark as night. For that price you may possess Madhavi.’
Still drooling, Hayarshva replied, ‘I do own such horses, but alas only 200. Therefore let me have this maiden only till such time as I beget a son of her.’
Madhavi had watched this exchange detached, as if it were an ancient tennis match of no great consequence. Galava caught her eye, his frustration at falling short of the required number horses apparent on his face.
So Madhavi offered almost casually, ‘I have a boon, Gentle Sage, that every time I give birth, I’m able to regain my virginity. We could accept the king’s generous offer and once I have presented him with an offspring, you can trade me to another king for more horses and so on till you have your 800. That being my suggestion, I await your consideration.’
Did Galava pause for a second at the young girl’s chilling statement? We don’t know for he quickly accepted the King’s offer and left the court without Madhavi.
He returned a year or so later after Madhavi had borne a son and led her to the court of the next king who too kept Madhavi for a year or so till she bore him a son for the fair price of 200 horses of the finest breed, the colour of moonlight with one side of one ear dark as night.
And then on to the court of the third king where the barter was conducted one more time.
Then things came to a screeching halt. Turned out, there were only 600 such horses on earth. Galava, nearly within grasping distance of the finish line, was reduced to despair once more.
Once again, looking directly into the Galava’s eyes, Madhavi spoke, ‘Why don’t you lead me and these 6 hundred horses to your Guru? Perhaps he will agree that an offspring by me would equal the remaining 200 horses.’
And so Galava and Madhavi and the 600 horses went to Vishwamitra’s ashram. Galava began apologetically his tale of hardship but Vishwamitra interrupted joyously, ‘Why didn’t you bring this maiden to me in the first place? I could have had 4 children of her in lieu of your guru dakshina!’
And so Madhavi stayed a year or more with Rishi Vishwamitra and bore him a fine son.
Having accomplished what he had set to do Galava, with great relief and gratitude, returned Madhavi to her parental home.
Soon Yayati, as all good fathers are wont to do, arranged a swayamwar for Madhavi. A daughter that meritorious and obedient should have a say in the choice of her husband. Drawn by tales of Madhavi’s legendary beauty and fertility , kings and nobles travelled from far and wide hoping to get lucky. A hush fell in the hall as Madhavi entered with a garland in her hand. She walked in, her eyes downcast, her beauty luminous. And she walked on, leaving the hall, the palace, the city gates till she reached the edge of the forest. There she turned, bowed to her father, and turning back to face the forest, flung the garland at the trees and entered the forest, never to be ever seen by the human eye again.
It is said she became the deity of the forest, Van-devi, protecting all wild things within.
This is one of the most vile stories I have ever heard. It never sat comfortably within me all those years ago, nor did it recently when I revisited it. It was not Madhavi’s unquestioning submission, because we’ve seen that before, in Sri Rama. Nor the abusive commodification of a woman, that’s our lot in life … but the insistent, repeating trope of a woman regaining her virginity. We’ve seen it in the case of Draupadi, too; she who went from husband to husband ‘reflowering’ each time, so to speak. This spoke to me of the underlying patriarchal theme of our Great Myths. Virginity was the sexual currency of woman.
But the Puranas, the ancient stories, are layered, I should have known that. You have to dig in and dig deep. And wait and pray they reveal the deepest secrets.
What does regaining one’s virginity entail? You regrow a hymen. But do you forget the entire sexual experience? Someone’s tenderness, or cruelty, the pleasure, the pain, the soft sighs and the high highs? Is it like short-term memory loss with a side order of hymenoplasty?
I began to remember. My trip, a decade ago, to the temple of Kanya Kumari; an ancient deity, older than time. The Eternal Maiden stands alone. She knows no consort or partner. Yet she is worshipped as a fertility goddess.
The Sanskrit word for maiden is Kanya and while ‘virginal’ is one of the qualities of the Kanya, virgin or virginity, and its sexual connotation is a far-fetched translation that comes to us from puritanical interpretations. Virginity is not a much celebrated quality in our stories. But it is mentioned twice or thrice and that needed to be understood.
I looked up Kanya for its etymology and up popped the Panchkanya Shloka to be said by all chaste women every morning.
ahalyā draupadī kunti tārā mandodarī tathā ।
pañcakanyāḥ smarennityaṃ mahāpātakanāśinīḥ ॥
The worship of the 5 Kanyas, Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara and Mandodari will destroy all failings.
Finally, jackpot! While all the 5 women had led uncommon lives of great highs and abyssal lows, that was not the only commonality. Extraordinary women, yes. Chaste, um, no. And yet women are exhorted to worship them!
Ahalya indulged in a quickie with Indra out of, wait for it, sheer curiosity, while the husband Rishi Gautama was away. Draupadi, fire-born, had five husbands, which was unusual even for that time. She is even called a common prostitute in open court. Kunti begot sons from four gods. Three times on being urged by her own husband, but the first time as a young single girl, to flex her power of summoning gods to satisfy her carnal desires. We see Tara using her potent sexuality first as the wife of Sugriva, and when he is banished by Vali she becomes consort to Vali and upon his death, it is in Tara’s arms that Sugriva forgets his promise to help the bereft Rama. She was so wise and well versed in the art of politics that the dying Vali addresses Tara as a tapasvini. Mandodari begins her life as a frog and saves the lives of two rishis who, in gratitude, transform her into a beautiful maiden. She is said to have had premarital sex with Vali, before being abducted by Ravana. In her incomparable wisdom she advises Ravanva to return Sita. And upon Ravana’s death, for the sake of Lanka, she weds Vibhishana, his younger brother.
All Kanyas and no virgins.
These are rare, powerful heroines who rise above the roles they play, that of widow, wife, mother, queen to be true to themselves. They play the hand that is dealt to them,ever rising above. Detached and in control. There is not an ounce of self-pity to be found in them though they aren’t averse to shedding a dramatic tear to good effect. They aren’t wracked by guilt or shame for the unconventional lives they lead. They use every tool available to them to twist the hand to fate into giving them what they seek. For this they paid a heavy price. Kunti never knew love or comfort or security, Draupadi was literally and figuratively hauled through the coals for her beauty and her unconventional choices; so were Ahalya, Mandodari and Tara. But to sublimate, compromise, adjust, settle down are anathema to the Kanya.
Lately, Kunti gets replaced by Sita, in the Panchakanya shloka. But this makes no sense. We know Sita is an embodiment of chastity. Her chastity is explicit and unquestionable. She is a better fit among the Panch Satis – Sati, Savitri, Sita, Damayanti and Arundhati. These women sublimated themselves to the role they played – the dutiful chaste wife.
Pradip Bhattacharya in his book, Pancha-Kanya: the Five Virgins of Indian Epics says,
…. can be seen in Shaivya, wife of Harishchandra.[] She does not utter a word when Vishvamitra drives her out of her kingdom, be-labouring her with a stick because she is too exhausted to move swiftly (VII. 29). She herself suggests to Harishchandra that since she has fulfilled her function by presenting him with a son, he should sell her to pay Vishvamitra what he requires (VIII. 30-31). When the Brahmana to whom she is sold drags her by the hair, she remains silent (VIII. 56). This is precisely the conduct of a sati who utterly wipes out her own self and lives only in, through and for her husband. The kanya’s personality, on the other hand, blazes forth quite independent of her spouse and her offspring. She seeks to fulfil herself regardless of social and family norms.
And so I began to understand Madhavi. Her boon of being ever-virgin came from within her. Her purity was never defiled by the touch of a disrespectful hand. And duty done, she left it all to return to the forest, to be one among other wild things, who lived freely.
Ahalya was turned to stone by Gautama for her transgression; cursed to a rigorous penance of a 1000 years till such time as Sri Rama would visit the ashram and His Presence free her. In some tellings Rama is said to have placed his foot on her head and the stone cracks open and she is freed from her petrification. Valmiki however tells us that Rama and Lakshmana fall at the feet of the stone kanya and their respect and humility thaws her and she emerges, ever radiant.
Untethered, unyoked, unploughed. We are Ahalya, who’s very name means virginal. If we don’t enquire from time to time of the health of the our inner ahalya, then we lose that wild side of us, that which is our true nature, to all the roles we play. We become stony, silent and bitter, on the self imposed penance of shutting down the untrammelled and incorrigible. And what a loss that would be, to lose the purest part of us, the Kanya.
You know why so many of us love this 1977 single by BillyJoel? Take a look at the lyrics, tell me if he’s not singing about a Kanya 🙂