Apr 2, 2011

Panchakanyas: Truly virgins?

In Nepal, it is very common to worship Panchakanyas or five young girls in any auspicious occasion. But most of us do not know that these five young girls are supposed to represent five original Panchakanyas of Hindu myths: Ahalya, Tara, Mandodari, Kunti and Draupadi. Why were these five women chosen to be worshipped as Panchakanya? Are they all virgins, as the world kanya implies? Kanya can also mean a girl, is there anything common about their girlhood? Curiously, none of these females are virgins, or even young girls. They are all mature women. The only thing common to them all is the fact that they had physical relations with more than one man. Ahalya had a single intercourse with Indra, what would be called a one night stand today. Tara, wife of the Vanara Bali, married her husband’s brother Sugreeva after the death of Bali. Mandodari, wife of Ravan, did the same thing: she married her husband’s brother and arch enemy Vibhishana after the war ended. Kunti begat sons by four different males, none of whom was her husband. Draupadi as we all know was married to five men at the same time.

It is not surprising that these women are worshipped: almost everyone mentioned in Hindu scriptures is worshipped, otherwise how would we reach the count of 33 crore gods? What is surprising is that these women are worshipped as kanyas, when the word kanya explicitly means a virgin. All of the above women are married. They could have been worshipped as wives, or mothers, or as women, which would cover all their qualities. But no, these women with multiple partners are worshipped for their sexual purity, because the word kanya covers only virginity. This intriguing dilemma gives rise to the question: if women with multiple partners were worshipped for their purity, what is the significance of female virginity in our religion? Are we over estimating its value in traditional society? We are consistently told that our scriptures paint a picture of “pure and virtuous” femininity: women have intimate relations with only one man. In real life, our mothers, grandmothers and most other women in living memory have lived such virtuous lives. We assume that they are following the rules set by Hindu scriptures. And in fact, the rules to explain their conduct are highly visible: the laws of Manu. Manu had famously said that a woman must always be subservient to a male at any point in life; first to her father, then to her husband, and then to her son. But what of the divergent stories that explicitly contradict Manu’s patriarchal morality? We assume Manu’s rules have always held sway, but the stories of Panchakanya say otherwise. Are we wrongly interpreting our religious principles?

In reality, the principles of Hinduism are often not as strictly moral as we assume. They encompass a wide range of moralities. The Panchakanyas were able to negotiate their personal relations with more than one man and be worshipped on top of it. This contradiction was possible because in the scriptures, we see that rules regarding marriage and relations were often fluid and made up on the spot. For example, polyandry was never common in Hindu society, even in Kunti’s times, but Kunti makes up a rule on the spot: you must obey your mother, even if it means committing polyandry. These rules can easily be broken or modified.

It seems as if traditionally, Hinduism gives you the choice of doing whatever you want, as long as you can justify your actions with proper arguments. The Panchakanyas also had convincing arguments for their actions: Ahalya was deceived, Tara and Mandodari wanted to stabilize their kingdoms, Kunti’s husband asked her for children, and Draupadi was bound by Pandavas’ promises to their mothers. But acceptance of these arguments rests on the norms of prevailing societies. For example, these arguments would not be valid in today’s patriarchal society, though many other baffling examples similar to the Panchakanyas are strewn all over stories from classical times. Stories exist of women like Satyavati and many others who had multiple relationships and yet were highly respected in society. This reveals a rather more lenient construction of society than we would expect of early Hinduism, as the prevailing image is that early Hinduism was strictly patriarchal.

We don’t know at what point this leniency started changing and society became fixed in Manu’s mold, resulting in the strict patriarchy that we have today. The rules of Manu are still alive because they benefit the high class males at the top of the patriarchal pyramid, those who are powerful enough to enforce rules. Enforcement is strict and definite. For example, today if a woman were to cite the maverick lives of Panchakanyas and disobey traditional rules of marriage, she would be socially outcast despite the presence of highly respected polygamous women in scriptures. In contrast, it is traditionally considered moral to cite Manu, who is widely respected as the first lawgiver. There are few temples dedicated to any one of the Panchakanyas. Only women who fit into Manu’s mold are worshipped: faithful women like Sita, Sati, Savitri and the likes.

Hence in my views, it is useless to say that our culture has been patriarchal from times immemorial. Patriarchy seems to have been the fashion only for the past millennia or so. Moreover, it is worthless to cite mythological stories as a justification for patriarchal tradition, because all types of stories exist, and selection of stories that are passed on to younger generations is biased. Besides, we have just seen that the practices of Hinduism are more interpretative than literal, so there is no need to take either of these rules word by word. When we want to know which rules to follow in real life, we should not evaluate them by literal standards of contemporary morality. We need to ask whether or not they oppress any member of the society, and whether or not they promote good behavior. Manu’s laws are definitely oppressive, but on the other hand, polygamous women were worshipped for their virginity, which is confusing to a woman who just wants to live a normal married life. Adopting either of these rules literally could be very deleterious for society. But just the fact that the principles of Hinduism cover both extremes is a relief. As our society becomes more accepting, in the future we will discard the extremes of patriarchy without going to the other extreme, and hopefully every person can follow the rules that fit them without being socially outcast. The diversity of these rules gives some hope to us Hindus unlike many other religions that have strict principles and little acceptance of diversity.

P.S. The question of why these women are worshiped as virgins has baffled many scholars.

I found many explanations, and here is one I like, if you want further information on this subject




Sulochan said...


Govinda Raj Bhattarai said...

But there are other works and values they intertexually emhasise the this deeprooted traditon of Panchakanya Your interpretation gives one facet of the truth There are others to thulnaanee It has taken the shape of myth and deeply rooted in the psyche in one's mind

sewa said...

thank you for comments buwa, so glad that you read it.
I will try to look for other inter textual emphases.
My point is that there may be many interpretations, and each one is valid, but while the patriarchal interpretation has authenticity, this one is hidden and derided.

Anonymous said...

Those who never retract their opinions love themselves more than they love the truth.

Devi said...

I like the stance you took.And your material has lot of potential for seeing the facts in the past. I think Religion is a way of practicing life. And ever since, Male were given more power and suppressed Women by all means and sense. In my opinion whatever one does should be at least self-justifiable and at most would be having social acceptance.

sewa said...

thanks for appreciating devi :)

Anonymous said...

both tara and mandodari were worse than prostitutes for having sex with the murderers of their husbands

sewa said...

hey mister, they had no options!

Assertive Forgiveness said...

It is amazing that the tradition of this country respects Draupadi as one of the five most virtuous women of the past. The people who included her among the five great women of history must have been extraordinarily intelligent. The fact that she was the common wife of five Pandavas was known to them, and that is what makes their evaluation of Draupadi tremendously significant.
For them, it did not matter whether love was confined to one or many; the real question was whether or not one had love. They knew that if really there was love, it could flow endlessly in any number of channels; it could not be controlled and manipulated.
It was symbolic to say that Draupadi had five husbands; it meant that one could love five, fifty, five hundred thousand people at the same time. There is no end to love’s power and capacity."
*** OSHO *** Krishna The Man And His Philosophy - # 11

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