The scale tilts towards the courtesan

The ascetic is astounded — she has moved the Ganga with her power

Published - August 17, 2017 04:48 pm IST

Growing up, I was familiar with the stories of women like Savitri, who were chaste, loyal and sacrificed everything for their families and husbands — cultural and traditional models to be venerated. But our lore of myths and stories conceal other stories — stories that offer different norms and ideals, and yet in our last generations we have pushed these stories under the carpet; some of these stories are uncomfortable to tell our children, or even, to tell ourselves.

I came across one of these stories a few years back, in an anthology of world myths, a tale that it was claimed to have originated in India — but I had never come across such a story in my childhood. In this story, on the banks of the river Ganga, a lowly courtesan, named Bindumati, challenges a powerful yogi, who claims that truth is nothing without action.

Great Truth

Bindumati claims that truth, by itself, is powerful enough to turn the waters of the Ganges backwards — and to prove her claims, recites mantras — and the river, starts to flow in reverse. The King, watching this feat, is astounded — astounded that a courtesan, a prostitute, a woman who lives outside the bounds of proper society, has so much power. What is the source of her power?

Bindumati replies that she lives by the Great Truth — that she treats all those who come to her equally, without distinction, whether they be princes or servants, tradesmen or thieves. There’s a similar thread to a play by the great king, innovator and architect, Mahendravarman Pallava, who elevated the dramatical farce to an art form. Despite being a builder and patron of the great temples in Kanchipuram and Mahabalipuram, Mahendravarman had an iconoclastic streak; both plays that are attributed to him are an attack on the religious conventions of his time.

In one play, Bhagavadajjuka, an ascetic exchanges souls with a courtesan who has just died; and it is in this exchange that the true nature of both can be discerned. The courtesan’s nature, now cast in the body of an ascetic, shines forth — she is generous, open of heart and desperately concerned for those whom she loves. In contrast, the ascetic, now in the body of the courtesan, is revealed by this contrast to be vain, pompous and condescending.

The doctrine of non-attachment has been interpreted to mean to be non-attached to the senses and sensuousness; but this is misleading, the playwright seems to suggest, one can be attached to the mind, to knowledge, to doctrine; and this, too, can lead to ignorance.

The play ends with both the ascetic and the courtesan being returned to their original bodies, and Yama’s agent, who had come to pronounce death on the courtesan, realises that he has made a mistake — and she is restored to life.

The writer is the author of ‘The Mahabharatha - A Child’s View,’ ‘Sita’s Ramayana’ and ‘The Missing Queen’

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