Why Panch Kanya or the ‘Five Virgins’ stand for varying paradigms of feminism

Draupadi, Panchkanya

Women have traditionally been considered as the weaker sex all over the world. Not only in India but even in Europe and U.S. women have historically been limited by the definitions provided by society as well as the men in their lives. Dr Vineet Aggarwal, explores perspectives on Shakti worship in India and the power of Panch Kanya.

However, not all ancient societies have been inimical to the rights of women and a refreshingly different view is presented by the goddess cults of European paganism and Shakti worship in India. This article however, focuses on the glorified feminine principle not in an otherworldly form, rather as real living and breathing women who populate the two epics – Mahabharat and Ramayan.

Pancha kanya demonstrate varying paradigms of feminism, transcending the boundaries between the past and present.

The Panch Kanya is a group of ‘Five Virgins’ who are idolized and remembered as role models of womanhood. Before someone starts getting judgmental about the importance of their ‘virginity’, let me clarify right at the outset, that none of these women were actually virgins in the literal sense of the term. Let us first know who they are

Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara, Mandodari tatha
Pancha-Kanya smaren nityam, mahapatak naashaka.

Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara and Mandodari,
Invoking daily the virgins five,
Destroys the greatest sins.

As you would have noticed from the names mentioned in the above Sanskrit verse, all these women are married, a few even more than once – Ahalya, the first lady mentioned in the shloka, is cursed by her husband for infidelity. Kunti, the widowed mother of Pandavs, sires children not through her husband but through three different gods. Tara and Mandodari both from the Ramayan, end up marrying their respective deceased husband’s brothers. And as for Draupadi, I am sure everyone has heard of the peculiar polyandrous arrangement she ends up sharing with her five husbands.

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What then, we may ask, is the significance of their being listed as virgins? Perhaps, if we analyze their lives, we may get an answer to this question.

Ahalya’s story is not as straightforward as mere wrongful transference of anger from the criminal to the victim. She was created by Brahma as the most beautiful woman, and Indra, her partner in ‘crime’, was actually one of the prime contenders for her hand before Maharishi Gautam beat him using a slight technicality. When the dejected suitor finally finds his chance, Ahalya is believed to have realized the deception. She not only defies the limits set on her by a patriarchal society to foray into the dangerous territory of adultery, but also has the grace to admit her mistake and bravely bear the abuse hurled by her spouse who is upset with the events.

 Kunti possessed a deep understanding of what drove the world of men

Even if we assume her innocence, still her inclusion in the list gives us the first real insight into the way ancients perceived the concept of guilt. Unlike the popular version, Ahalya is not turned into a stone in the Valmiki Ramayan, rather Gautam rishi leaves her alone to deal with her guilt. She is redeemed when Shri Raam comes and touches her feet (yes, he touches her feet and not the other way round) and also calls her ‘blameless and inviolate’, thereby further revealing to the reader how the social understanding of morality differed in ancient times.

Quite opposite to Ahalya’s case is that of Kunti from Mahabharat. She is obliged to bear sons to Indra, Vayu and Yamraj because her own husband Pandu had been cursed to die if he indulged in copulation. For the sake of continuation of their bloodline, she agrees to her husband’s suggestion and obtains Arjun, Bheem and Yuddhishthir as a result of these boons. While she undertakes this exercise to fulfill her prescribed duty to the Kuru clan, Kunti is not new to such divine union. She has in fact indulged in it earlier with Sun-god Surya that resulted in the birth of the ill-fated Karna. So, here we have a woman who is not only curious about pre-marital sex, but has also borne sons through people other than her husband.

Unlike the depiction in television mythologicals, Kunti possessed a deep understanding of what drove the world of men. She orders Bheem to kill the demon Bakasur in order to fulfill his Kshatriya dharma and protect the residents of the village they had taken shelter in. Another time, she stops him from killing the demoness Hidimbi and advises him to marry her instead. Again, when Arjuna wins Draupadi, it is Kunti, who recognizes the potential that the younger woman’s arrival had to cause a rift between the brothers and instructs them to share her responsibility. A widow who had been driven out from her own kingdom, she recognizes the power that the matrimonial alliance with King Drupad’s daughter would provide her sons.

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Draupadi is perhaps the most enigmatic of all the five Kanyas. Born fully grown out of a Yagnya that her father had organized to obtain a son, she is prophesied by the priests to cause of annihilation of Kurus. Compelled by her mother-in-law’s directive, she balances her polyandrous relationship with finesse, giving all of them equal attention. For those who believe that her having five husbands shows how women were exploited in ancient times, let me tell you that polyandry existed in many parts of the country until very recent times. What polygamy means to a man, polyandry does to a woman and there was just about as much exploitation in one arrangement as in the other. In fact Draupadi’s example is not a solitary one and Mahabharat mentions the prevalence of this custom in the kingdom of Mahishmati.

Nevertheless, this association with more than one husband does result in Draupadi’s humiliation in the Kuru court by men who feel threatened by her independence. But even in such a situation, the lady does not accept any criticism and instead mocks the men in the court for their inability to safeguard the honor of a woman. Here is someone who is not only unapologetic about her conjugal relationship with more than one man but also possesses the gumption to challenge the kings of the land. That the god-incarnate Krishna himself comes to her rescue and even sends his wife Satyabhama to take instructions from her, is a proof of his support for her unconventional situation.

In contrast to these more popular characters are the next two Kanyas from the Ramayan. Tara is the wife of Vali, the Vanar king who ruled from Kishkindha. In the original Valmiki Ramayan, she comes across as a woman of extraordinary foresight. She advises her husband not to accept the challenge that led to his ultimate death but he refuses to listen. When Vali is on his death-bed, he advises his brother to trust Tara’s knowledge and she ultimately ends up marrying her husband’s younger brother. She also saves Sugreev later from Lakshman’s wrath with her brilliant tact and diplomacy, cementing her own position in the kingdom, and paving the way for Angad, her son from Vali, to be crowned the king-in-waiting.

Mandodari is the wife of Ravan, who also advises her husband to make peace with Shri Raam. She knoiws she is stuck with a serial rapist and doesn’t shy away from even rebuking Ravan at his wanton display of lust in abducting Sita and warns him that her presence in Lanka would spell doom for their kingdom. Just like Tara, she too ends up marrying her husband’s younger brother Vibhishan, thereby preventing a civil war in her kingdom and retaining her own status. An extraordinary woman who stands out in her defiance of the baser aspects of a patriarchal society.

To me, these Pancha kanya demonstrate varying paradigms of feminism, transcending the boundaries between the past and present. They defy social norms at times and accept them at others but only when it suits their own sensibilities. Being a ‘virgin’ or a paragon of womanhood, has nothing to do with their sexual innocence, rather it points to their non-dependence on the men around them as well as the society.

Ahalya knows that her own abandonment by her husband is nothing in comparison to the curse he had hurled on Indra – of getting covered in a thousand vaginas. She knows she is guilty and spends her time waiting for redemption while on the other hand Draupadi, with her untied hair that she has vowed to wash with Dushansan’s blood, pushes her husbands into the Mahabharat War to avenge her own insult.

Queen Tara wields the real influence in the court of Kishkindha with both Vali and Sugreev. Mandodari repeatedly warns her unfaithful husband to mend his ways and when he doesn’t, she chooses to marry the more loyal and cultured Vibhishan. Kunti is not just an ideal mother but also the quintessential ‘step-mother’ who takes care of Madri’s sons Nakul and Sahdev more than her own children. All these women wear their sexual experiences on the proverbial sleeve instead of keeping them a secret.

The ‘Five Virgins’ are worshiped in morning prayers by devout Hindus even today showing us that all is not yet lost. Perhaps what we need is a proper understanding of the spirit behind citing these examples as the ideal ones. Let us hope the so called modern society stops judging not just women but all people on their sexual choices and grants each individual the right to take their own decisions irrespective of their gender, marital status or sexuality.

Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara, Mandodari tatha
Pancha-Kanya smaren nityam, mahapatak naashaka!

 Dr. Vineet Aggarwal lives and works in Mumbai and is the author of popular online blog ‘Decode Hindu Mythology’ and the books ‘Vishwamitra’ and ‘The Legend of Parshu-Raam’. His literary repertoire covers topics from politics to poetry and travel to terrorism but his favorite genre remains the amalgamation of science with religion.