Arkaprabha Majumdar, Kolkata: The story of Ahalya is a very curious one. Just like many of the other stories which have been turned inside-out, without proper verification from the original source; in order to present a very modernised and politically-nuanced version of it to the readers, this story too has its own share of editing. For an average Bengali, the very first thing which comes to mind when the name Ahalya is uttered is a feeling of injustice. A constant feeling of frustration runs in the minds of those who have been fed the modern-day interpretation, about why Indra and a very eminent Rishi, Rishi Gautama, had to throw Ahalya into such a predicament wherein she was absolutely faultless. A very evident result of this sort of dreadful misinterpretation is a prominent blemish on the name of Gautama Rishi among mediocre “bheto” (a pejorative for ‘average monotonicity’) Bengalis – who have lost the intellect to fathom the gravity and magnitude of a Rishi.
This comes as a surprise to the people who have actually read the Ramayana. Not a retelling of it, or a modern rendering, or anything resembling a semi-frivolous study. Those are not the correct materials needed to understand the Ramayana in the way it is meant to be understood. We must always remember that spiritual literature is different from secular literature. Spiritual literature and its manifold characters cannot be analyzed the same way we tend to analyze secular ones. The events of a spiritually-loaded text are events which have a second, sometimes even a third meaning – in increasing order of metaphysical subtlety. For that we need the aid of other Shastras, which include, the Upanishads, the Vedanta Sutras, the Yoga Sutras, the Tantra Shastras etc. Another point to be noted in this immediate context is that in secular literature, usually understanding it requires no other aid. But in spiritual ones, two physically and visually different genres – for example, Itihasa and Upanishad – are linked to the very core. The events of an Itihasa are always in accordance with the principles of Dharma and the underlying metaphysical reality. And therefore, to correctly understand them, we need a prior concept of Upanishadic and Tantrik wisdom embedded in our minds.
However, coming back to the main point, we have concluded that a proper study of the Ramayana can reveal, with crystal clarity, the facts which have been lost in modern presentation. For instance, in the 19th verse of the 48th Sarga (chapter) of the Bala Kanda of Valmiki Ramayanam, it is directly and unambiguously mentioned that Ahalya was aware of Indra coming in the guise of her husband Rishi Gautama, yet gave in to temptation and proceeded with the act.
It would be wise to throw in a word of notice at this point. We are looking at events from the standpoint of the Valmiki Ramayana, and not any other version, like Ramcharitmanas or Krittibashi Ramayana etc.
Now, when Indra was done with the act, he tried to escape as quickly as he could, in order to avoid any contact with Gautama. But his plan went in vain, as Gautama was just on his way back to the hermitage. Just one gaze from Gautama, brimming with the sheer force of asceticism, was enough to freeze the blood in Indra’s veins. The curse which was uttered by Gautama in the Valmiki Ramayana, is unknown to many. People generally know that he was cursed to have a thousand vulvae on his body, which later transformed into a thousand eyes. But Valmiki mentions that Gautama had cursed him to be infecund, and then and there Indra’s testicles dropped off. However, it must be mentioned here that the Padma Purana integrates the two curses by saying that Gautama cursed Indra to have both of the aforementioned afflictions.
At this point, the narrative takes an interesting turn. Gautama does not curse Ahalya to become a stone in Valmiki Ramayana. Instead the curse is much milder in comparison to being transformed into a stone. He declared that Ahalya be invisible to people for thousands of years, living on air, sleeping on ashes, till the valiant and invincible son of King Dasharatha passes by, who will be solely responsible for the liberation of Ahalya. For that reason Ram is known as Ahalyoddharaka. Ages later, when Ram depurates Ahalya of her curse, Rishi Gautama also arrives at this point in order to accept her and continue their asceticism together.
The crux of the story still does not become clear to people, who believe that it makes no difference in the fact that Gautama had acted tactlessly and impulsively. Rishi Gautama was a perfectly purified being, with full omniscience. He did not have to rely on the glimpse of an escaping Indra, in order to know what had happened. He merely used this incident as a ploy, in order to make Ram, the avatara of Lord Vishnu, step into his humble hermitage and bestow full blessings on Ahalya. It is true that Ahalya had willingly engaged in sexual conduct with Indra, unlike the ignorance she is commonly portrayed to have possessed in the matter. Instead, she should have rebuked Indra for such a vile act and proved herself worthy to be the wife of a great Rishi. On the contrary she sided with Indra in the matter. Hence if a curse is due, it is not unjust. Even under such circumstances, we see that instead of punishing her, Gautama has actually given her more favours than usual. Absolution from the hands of the Lord Himself, is a fortune envied by even the most illustrous of ascetics. Gautama makes Ahalya achieve it without even a strenous effort.
We temporarily switch the source of narration from Valmiki Ramayana, to Ramcharitmanas, in order to give validation to the point we’ve made. In the Bala Kanda of the Ramcharitmanas the curse is that of a stone. However one would like to equate the stone to that of Ahalya’s condition, which makes her virtually lifeless as a stone. But opinions may differ. After Ahalya is depurated, she makes an eulogy to Ram. The 5th verse of the eulogy, just after Doha no. 210, composed in the meter “tribhangi” goes thus: “My consort (Gautama) did well in pronouncing a curse on me, and I have deemed it the greatest favour. I have feasted my eyes on Sri Hari (Yourself), who liberates from the bondage of worldly existence. Lord Shankara deems Your sight as the only blessing worth the name.” [Ramcharitmanas – Gita Press, Gorakhpur]
When Ahalya herself deems such a curse to be beneficial for her, there is no need to raise the hype and fight for non-existent and moot beliefs based on incoherent studies of the texts.
The narrative in the Ramcharitmanas was notably inspired by the Adhyatma Ramayana, which is a part of the Brahmanda Purana. The 5th Chapter of its Bala Kanda states that Ahalya, in the form of the stone, meditated on Lord Ram after being advised by Gautama (possibly a hint of her being initiated into the Ram mantra). After Ram liberates Ahalya from her curse, she transforms into a beautiful lady and thereby follows a panengyric. She sings about Ram being the avatar of Vishnu who is the repose of the universe. The Skanda Purana explains why the form of a stone was chosen, if one were to accept it literally. It says that when Gautama arrives, Ahalya speaks the truth and confessed everything. Gautama curses her to assume the form of a stone as he believed that Ahalya had acted like a “rolling stone”, unable to differentiate between Indra’s gait and that of her husband Gautama’s.
Modern day narratives are very hasty and unresourceful in this matter. For instance, this legend is retold in a very famous Uttam Kumar movie by the name of “Bhranti Bilash”, by means of a puppet show. Over there, Ahalya is portrayed as an ill-fated woman who couldn’t recognize the wily Indra; thereby putting her in the sympathetic lens of the Bengali audience. Other versions horribly reduce the story into the weirdest proportions, far from what Valmiki had originally written. Tamil writer Yogiyar had portrayed an innocent Ahalya, who slept with Indra, and later on, when overcome with guilt, she asked her husband for a befitting punishment. One of the most significantly disturbing versions is that of Pratibha Ray’s Odia novel Mahamoha (1997). It portrays a nonconformist Ahalya as a tragic heroine, offering herself to Indra, so that he can fulfill his lust and she, her womanhood. When Gautama persuades her to lie to society by claiming to have been raped, she debates chastity and freedom of mind with him. This is unneccesary reduction of a story from the Itihasa to mere inconsequential feminism. What do we gain by making Ahalya a rebel against a Rishi? What is the need to depict a headstrong lady, if it is not subtly questioning the fashionably styled “orthodox authority” of our Shastras?
What makes the story of Ahalya so intriguing, is that Ahalya, who had intentionally consented to Indra’s amorous moves, was favoured by Gautama’s curse, which led her to be absolved by Lord Ram. It shows, that a mistake, if repented for, becomes a tool for the mercy of the Lord. In Ahalya’s case, its pertinence can be seen from the fact that her position has been elevated to a Panchakanya, a group of five, great chaste women, revered in our Shastras. A well-known verse about Ahalya runs:
ahalyA draupadi sitA tArA mandodari tathA |
pancakanyAH smarennityaM mahApAtakanASiniH ||
(Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita, Tara and Mandodari,/ One should forever remember the five women who are the destroyers of great sins.)
Ahalya is often regarded as the leader of the panchkanya due to her noble repentance, her extraordinary beauty and the fact of her being chronologically the first one. The place where Ahalya is held to have practised her penance and was liberated by Lord Ram is said to be a sacred place called Ahalya-tirtha. A tirtha is a sacred place with a shrine of a deity and a water body nearby, where pilgrims generally bathe to purify themselves. The location of the Ahalya-tirtha is disputed: Some scriptures place it on the river Godavari, others place it on Narmada. Moreover two sites are widely held to be the Ahalya-tirtha. The first one is located near the Ahalyeshvara Temple in Bhalod, on the banks of the Narmada; another is located in Darbhanga district, Bihar.
The Ahalyasthana temple in Ahalya-gram, in the same district, is dedicated to Ahalya. For the purpose of attracting woman and to be favourable among them, Matsya and Kurma Puranas recommend the worship of Ahalya in the Ahalya-tirtha. This is to be done on the day of Kamadeva, in the Hindu month of Chaitra, which is also the month on which Lord Ram was born. The Shastras mention that he who bathes in the tirtha resides in Swarga with the apsaras.