Friday 20 September 2019

In Ahalya's Awakening, Kavita Kané questions the penalty for infidelity, and its significance in Indian mythology

History was about to repeat itself. The newly appointed Indra, king of the heavens, desired his queen Indrani. Nahusha, king of the Aila dynasty, coveted Sachi, wife of the former Indra Shakra. He was compelled to renounce his throne after a horrifying curse, leading to his downfall. It rendered him powerless, turned his body into a thousand vulvas, and his throne remained forever insecure. "She is the wife of another, you cannot have her," Rishi Brihaspati reasoned with the new king, but Indra was adamant. "I can and I shall," he stated when a soft voice said, "Don’t."

Menaka, the ethereal apsara, had glided into the courtroom to warn Nahusha of the toll his intransigence would invite, not only from the king, but also from Indralok, as it had happened once before. To him, she narrated the story of Ahalya.

Thus begins Kavita Kané's mythological tale of the first of the five virgins or panchkanya — archetypes of female chastity in Indian mythology — revered for her purity, yet condemned on account of her infidelity. Ahalya's Awakening, as the author notes, traces the paradox of its eponymous protagonist, who is "deemed promiscuous", and yet, is seen as a symbol of chastity.

Cover of Kavita Kané's latest work of mythological fiction, Ahalya's Awakening.
In the book, Ahalya's story takes off from her infancy, right up to the point where she blossoms into her extraordinary beauty and intelligence, after a childhood spent under the wings of sages Vashisht and Bharadwaj. This is followed by her subsequent departure to Rishi Gautam’s ashram. Yearning for an identity independent of her physicality, here, she vows to become a learned rishika, and immerses herself in the study of scriptures and Vedas.

Kané's sixth book, not unlike her previous works, sketches the lives of mythological characters that play their part on the fringes of a greater, more significant story, but whose silent struggles epitomise extraordinary strength and resilience. The former journalist’s sublime portrayals of these lesser-known women of the epics flavour the cannon of mythological literature with the spice of an alternative perspective: one that offers a study of womanhood and of women whose lives underwent dramatic upheavals as a direct consequence of the actions of more prominent heroes and heroines.

In the same vein, "there is very little on Ahalya," Kané suggests, and "more on the impact and implication of this episode mentioned in the Ramayana."

Ahalya’s Awakening then, is also distinctive, for it launches into a story that is twice removed. Contrary to the author's earlier works, such as The Fisher Queen’s Dynasty (2017) — which recounts the belligerence and ambition of Satyavati that would culminate in the Mahabharata — the protagonist of her 2019 work is not related to the principle characters of the epics and appears only briefly in Ram’s journey to the kingdom of Mithila.

Of Ahalya, the author says: "She is an enigma, almost a silent woman, known essentially for her seduction by Indra, her curse by her husband Rishi Gautam for infidelity, and her liberation from that curse by Ram."

Ahalya, wife of Rishi Gautam, the first among the panchakanya or the five virgins in Indian mythology as depicted by Raja Ravi Varma. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Kané adds that ironically, despite being a rather revered figure, Ahalya is also among the most doubted characters in mythology. In spite of being a complex woman, she is rarely ever perceived as one. "Rather she seems a mute, voiceless spectator of her own trials and tribulations," the author says.

But her novel puts these qualms to rest. "I have shown her as a human with her human flaws, mistakes and courage to carry out her decisions," she states.

According to the Brahma Purana, Ahalya, the one without ugliness, was brought to life by the creator of the universe, Brahma himself. The most beautiful woman in the entire world, she was married to the much older sage, Gautam. Later, seduced by Indra in the guise of her husband, she succumbed to his advances and was cursed into living as a stone. She was to remain completely invisible, until one day Ram’s feet brushed against her form, and her ascetic brilliance, attained through years of penance, became perceptible to the world.

However, the thread that intrigued the author is to be found in Jinasena's Harivamsha Purana, which suggests that Ahalaya — the one whose name also means an infertile land — was in fact a Puru princess, and not a divine creation of Brahma. Accordingly, she attributes to Ahalya two doting parents — King Mudgal and his queen, Nalayani, the daughter of Nala and Damayanti, and a twin brother, prince Divodas.

Ahalya’s episode in the Ramayana centres on the motif of punishment for infidelity and seduction, that foretells Sita's banishment from Ayodhya, brought about by a washerman's comment on her character. Ahalya's story also appears much before the story of her grandparents, particularly Nala (with a weakness for gambling), who first finds reference in the Mahabharata.

In Kané's rendition, the king of Indralok is consumed with desire for Ahalya. When the strain of marriage affects his duties, and causes sage Gautam and Ahalya to drift apart, Indra further discovers a want and loneliness in Ahalya that ultimately provokes him into disguising himself as Gautam. Ahalya falls into his arms knowingly, giving in to the charms of the man who has been in hot pursuit of her ever since their eyes met for the first time long ago in a palace courtyard.

Enraged at this infidelity, Rishi Gautam curses them both.

Indra descending from the heavens to meet Ahalya as depicted in Raja Ravi Varma's Indravalokan. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Kané's Ahalya submits herself to her stone-like existence. A perfidious woman, abandoned by her husband and children, and subjected to the jibes of society, she falls into deep meditation, turning her thoughts inwards.

One day, years after Ram liberates her from the curse, Ahalya finds a worried Sita in her ashram, looking for her young boys. Subtly wound into the fabric of the story is a dialogue imagined between the two "most visible victims of patriarchy, both condemned by society." In that instance, Sita, forsaken by her husband-king, and Ahalya, infamous for her sin, find comfort in each other and their common sufferings.

"That’s the reason these ancient stories still appeal to us," Kané points out, "– of the contemporary man, contemporary woman in contemporary times. Of Man with his follies and flaws — they are telling us stories of ourselves. The status and subordination has come through down the ages, through social times, through changed perspectives."

Kané imbues resolute strength in Urmila — Laxman's sultry enchantress — in Sita's Sister, and in the timorous Urvi from Karna's Wife; on her Ahalya and Satyavati, she bestows the qualities of courage and power. She also endows Ahalya with the temerity to commit a transgression, and then accept its consequences. She empowers her with the ability to comprehend human desire, coupled with spiritual awakening.

Ahalya's Awakening brings a short episode of Hindu mythology into the spotlight, highlighting its relevance in a modern society caught in similar tussles of adultery, loyalty, divorce and patriarchy.

(Source: FirstPost)

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