Feminine Mythique History & Culture

The fidelity factor

Ahalya’s story appears in a number of places in myth and epic, twice in the Valmiki Ramayana alone. Its familiar contours are that Indra was infatuated with Ahalya, the most beautiful of all women, who was married to the sage Gautama, known for the power of his austerities. Once, when Gautama was away, Indra took on his form and seduced Ahalya. When Gautama learned what had happened, he cursed both Indra and his wife. Ahalya was turned to stone, destined to stay that way until she was released from her curse by the touch of Rama’s foot.

One of the questions that haunts the story is whether or not Ahalya knew that she was being seduced by and making love to someone other than Gautama, even though the man had the physical form of her husband. The answer to this question matters because it impinges on how we might think about Ahalya — was she an innocent woman who was deceived or, was she a wanton woman who knowingly broke her conjugal vows of fidelity.

Another version of this tale appears in the Kathasaritsagara where Ahalya knows that Indra has disguised himself as Gautama in order to sleep with her. She goes to him because she is curious about the king of the gods. Gautama arrives unexpectedly and Indra quickly transforms himself into a cat.

Gautama says to Ahalya, “Who’s there?” and she answers, “majjara!” Gautama smiles and says, “I curse you to become a stone, but because you have told the truth, your curse will end when Rama touches you with his foot.”

Clever Ahalya. In Sanskrit, majjara means ‘the cat,’ whereas the same utterance in Prakrit means ‘my lover.’ Gautama punishes his wife for her infidelity but rewards her quick wit and her presence of mind by placing a time limit on her curse. In contrast, the Ramayana version of Ahalya’s story links her liberation from the curse to Rama’s divinity. But because it appears in the Bala Kanda of Valmiki’s text, the Ahalya story also provides a frame of reference for what happens to women who willingly (perhaps even eagerly), sleep with men other than their husbands.

Banished, not cursed

This is, of course, the suspicion that Sita must confront when first Rama, and then his citizens, doubt her chastity while she was Ravana’s prisoner. She proves her innocence to Rama through the trial by fire in Lanka. Later, when the people of Ayodhya gossip about his pregnant wife, Rama is compelled to send her away to the forest. Sita is not cursed as Ahalya was; she is banished. We assume that she will never be allowed to return to home and hearth. Ironically, when Rama calls her back to prove her innocence once more, it is Sita who chooses to go away forever by asking the earth to swallow her. It is Sita, who abandons the man who will not speak in her defence even though, as a god and as her husband, he knows the truth.

The writer works with myth, epic and the story traditions of the sub-continent

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Printable version | Jun 23, 2021 9:31:11 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-stories-of-ahalya-and-sita-seem-to-be-connected-by-the-chastity-issue/article17985949.ece

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