Everything does pass, and we can endure and we can survive!! – Rahul Dravid
In retelling a legend over centuries, some of the details do go awry. It is not a big deal, if the substance of the story is retained and the moral is rightly conveyed, as discussed here. Certain stories placed in the beginning of an epic do not seem to have any significance at the time of narration but have immense significance later on.
The legend of Ahalya is one whose significance is not immensely stressed in many discourses and one in which much of the substance has been lost in the retelling. Legend goes that Sage Gautama and his wife Ahalya were living in a hermitage. Smitten by Ahalya’s beauty, Indra seduces her in the guise of Sage Gautama and she submits to his seduction. The real sage catches them red-handed, curses Indra to have a thousand eyes and turns his wife into stone. She begs her husband for mercy and he relents saying that when Rama comes and touches her (she is a stone) with his feet, she will regain her form and join him (Sage Gautama). So Ahalya turned into a stone and waited there until Viswamitra brought Rama there en route to Mithila. As Rama’s feet touched the stone, Ahalya regained her form, blessed Rama and went on to join her husband.
I remember reading a poem in school called ‘Kevat Ki Chaah’, in which a boatman expresses his desire to wash Rama’s feet. When Rama wanted to cross a river during his vanvas, he asks a boatman if he would help them to cross it. The boatman refuses saying that he has heard of Rama’s exploits of turning a stone into a woman, that the boat is his livelihood and if it were to turn into a woman, what would he and his family then do? Hence the boatman says, “Allow me to wash your feet so that all the dust is removed and then I will row you across the river.” Rama understands the boatman’s heart and allows the boatman to wash his feet. They then cross the river.
The dust in Rama’s feet is said to have enough power to turn a stone into a woman. Well, if all the stone that Rama trod on became women, umpteen women would have been produced during the course of his 14 year vanvas!! The poets of the Bhakti Age dramatized the legend of Ahalya in order to extol the greatness of Rama. This is fine, but to do away with the rest of the concepts that the Ahalya episode conveys is not correct. Let us see the real Ahalya episode as written by Valmiki and the morals that it conveys.
Viswamitra, Rama, Lakshmana and other Rishis reached the outskirts of Mithila where Rama spotted a deserted Ashrama. He enquires to Viswamitra as to who it belongs to. In reply, Viswamitra tells him the story of Ahalya.
Sage Gautama and his consort, Ahalya were living in an ashrama on the outskirts of Mithila, many years ago. Ahalya was exceedingly beautiful. On seeing her form, Indra wanted to experience her physically. Hence, he appeared before Ahalya when Sage Gautama was away.
तस्य अन्तरम् विदित्वा तु सहस्राक्षः शची पतिः |
मुनि वेष धरो भूत्वा अहल्याम् इदम् अब्रवीत् || १-४८-१७
“On knowing the meantime of Gautama’s availability at hermitage, Indra, the husband of Sachi Devi and the Thousand-eyed god wearing the guise of sage Gautama and becoming such a sage, approached Ahalya and said this to her. [1-48-17]
Note that the author clearly calls Indra ‘The Thousand-eyed God’ before Sage Gautama curses him. So, Gautama didn’t curse Indra to have a thousand eyes. The curse that Gautama gave Indra was something different. We will see that later in this blog.
Indra approaches Ahalya and asks her to have intercourse with him.
ऋतु कालम् प्रतीक्षन्ते न अर्थिनः सुसमाहिते |
संगमम् तु अहम् इच्छामि त्वया सह सुमध्यमे || १-४८-१८
‘Oh, Ahalya, Brahma crafted you so well that all your limbs are symmetrically conjoined, so who in the universe will not yearn to have intercourse with you… and on seeing your slender waist and thickset hips I wish to copulate with you now itself… and let there be no fear of safe period or unsafe period for I do not wish to have any progeny of mine from you…
We see here that the invitation is a very open one.
मुनि वेषम् सहस्राक्षम् विज्ञाय रघुनंदन |
मतिम् चकार दुर्मेधा देव राज कुतूहलात् || १-४८-१९
“Oh, Rama, the legatee of Raghu, though knowing him as the Thousand-eyed Indra in the guise of her husband Gautama, she is inclined to have intercourse ill-advisedly, only to satisfy the impassion of the King of Gods. [1-48-19]
Ahalya responds to Indra’s invitation, well knowing that he is Indra in the guise of her husband. She does not repent for the act immediately as can be seen from her dialogue with Indra, after the act.
अथ अब्रवीत् सुरश्रेष्ठम् कृतार्थेन अंतरात्मना |
कृतार्था अस्मि सुरश्रेष्ठ गच्छ शीघ्रम् इतः प्रभो || १-४८-२०
आत्मानम् माम् च देवेश सर्वदा रक्ष गौतमात् |
“She felt fulfilled in her heart of hearts and then she said this to that best god Indra, ‘I am gratified in complying with your wish, oh, best of gods, get going oh, lord, from here quickly, oh, ruler of gods, always safeguard yourself and me from Sage Gautama.’ Thus, Ahalya said to Indra. [1-48-20, 21a]
She knows that her husband will be angry and will curse her and she asks Indra to guard himself and her from Sage Gautama.
मम रूपम् समास्थाय कृतवान् असि दुर्मते |
अकर्तव्यम् इदम् यस्मात् विफलः त्वम् भविष्यति || १-४८-२७
” ‘Oh, dirty-minded Indra, taking hold of my form you have effectuated this unacceptable deed, whereby you shall become infecund.’ Thus, Gautama cursed Indra. [1-48-27]
The curse that Gautama gives Indra is that Indra will become infertile. Upon receiving the curse, The Ramayana says that Indra’s testicles fell off.
Then Gautama turns to Ahalya and says
तथा शप्त्वा च वै शक्रम् भार्याम् अपि च शप्तवान् |
इह वर्ष सहस्राणि बहूनि निवषिस्यसि || १-४८-२९
वायु भक्षा निराहारा तप्यन्ती भस्म शायिनी |
अदृश्या सर्व भूतानाम् आश्रमे अस्मिन् वषिस्यसि || १-४८-३०
“On cursing Indra thus the sage cursed even his wife saying, ‘you shall tarry here for many thousands of years to come without food and consuming air alone, and unseen by all beings you shall live on in this hermitage while contritely recumbent in dust. [1-48-29, 30]
Gautama doesn’t turn Ahalya into a stone! He has only cursed her to be in the hermitage unseen by others without food and most importantly, in repentance of the act which she performed. Simply put, this translates to ‘Lie in dust without food and think about the wrong that you have committed.’ Parents say this to children who commit grave mistakes. Governments put people in solitary confinement and provide sparing resources in order to make people repent for shameful acts. That is exactly what Gautama did!
Further, Gautama adds to his wife –
तस्य आतिथ्येन दुर्वृत्ते लोभ मोह विवर्जिता |
मत् सकाशे मुदा युक्ता स्वम् वपुः धारयिष्यसि || १-४८-३२
” ‘On your welcoming Rama, oh, ill-behaved woman, you will be divested of your greed and craze in which you lingered so far, and then you will assume your own body and then you can be in my proximity, rejoicingly.’ Thus, Sage Gautama cursed his wife Ahalya. [1-48-32]
He tells her that once she divests herself of her greed and repents for her act sufficiently, she can join him happily and that they can live together then. He also tells her that all these things will happen when Rama of the Raghu race comes to the hermitage. Sages of those days had a lot of forethought.
When Viswamitra completes the story, he asks Rama to relieve Ahalya from her curse. Rama enters the Ashrama with Lakshmana, keeping Viswamitra ahead of them. In the ashrama, he sees a glorious Ahalya, free of carnal desires, looking like the ritual fire itself.
ददर्श च महाभागाम् तपसा द्योतित प्रभाम् |
लोकैः अपि समागंय दुर्निरीक्ष्याम् सुर असुरैः || १-४९-१३
प्रयत्नात् निर्मिताम् धात्रा दिव्याम् मायामयीम् इव |
धूमेन अभिपरीत अंगीम् दीप्ताअम् अग्नि सिखाम् इव || १-४९-१४
स तुषार आवृताम् स अभ्राम् पूर्ण चन्द्र प्रभाम् इव |
मध्ये अंभसो दुराधर्षाम् दीप्ताम् सूर्य प्रभाम् इव || १-४९-१५
She whose splendour is brightened by her ascesis, at whom it is impossible to raise an eye for a stare either for gods, or for demons, or for the worldly beings on coming close to her, whom the Creator has contrived with careful contemplation as an angelic and a completely phantasmal entity, who is like the befogged and beclouded moonshine of a full moon as she is hitherto enshrouded by the dried up leaves and dust, who is like an unwatchable sunshine mirrored in and glowing from the midst of water, for she is hitherto in the midst of denounce, and whose limbs are like the tongues of a flaring fire around which fumes are cloaking, as she is hitherto practising an utmost ascesis subsisting on air alone, which ascesis alone made her like a flaring Ritual Fire, and Rama has seen such a highly glorious Ahalya. [1-49-13, 14, 15]
सस् हि गौतम वाक्येन दुर्निरीक्ष्या बभूव ह |
त्रयाणाम् अपि लोकानाम् यावत् रामस्य दर्शनम् |१-४९-१६
Ahalya is indeed indiscernible to all the three worlds by the very word of Gautama until the manifestation of Rama. [1-49-16a, b]
शापस्य अन्तम् उपागंय तेषाम् दर्शनम् आगता ||
राघवौ तु ततः तस्याः पादौ जगृहतुः मुदा | १-४९-१७
On reaching the end of curse she came into the view of Raghavas, and they too gladly touched her feet in reverence. [1-49-16c, 17a]
साधु साधु इति देवाः ताम् अहल्याम् समपूजयन् |
तपो बल विशुद्ध अंगीम् गौतमस्य वश अनुगाम् || १-४९-२०
Gods have collectively reverenced her, whose limbs are depurated by the asset of her ascesis which is performed as a devotee of Gautama remaining in his directives, saying ‘Gracious! Goodness!’ [1-49-20]
गौतमो अपि महातेजा अहल्या सहितः सुखी |
रामम् संपूज्य विधिवत् तपः तेपे महातपाः || १-४९-२१
Even that great-resplendent Gautama is heartened when he reunited with Ahalya after a long, long a time, and that sage customarily reverenced Rama for actualising his solemn utterance, and that great-ascetic Gautama continued his ascesis together with Ahalya. [1-49-21]
The important thing to note in this episode is that no matter how heinous the crime or sin committed, if one repents for it from the heart sufficiently, one if freed of the guilt and then can continue to live a normal life. An ascetic of the stature of Gautama accepted a wife who had intentionally given herself up to another man, for carnal pleasures, after she regretted her act and performed her penances. Remorse is one of the toughest emotions. Normal human tendency is to defend one’s act, to hide behind excuses; it takes immense effort to accept one’s wrong doings, to repent for it and to perform the penance required to gain the acceptance of the one who has been wronged. When one performs such a penance, it is only fair that the victim forgives and accepts the guilty and maintains relationships as before. Gautama accepts Ahalya with happiness, not unconvincingly. The Ahalya episode is a great lesson on morality and forgiveness.
It is not just a matter of personal opinion. It is not as though Gautama wanted to accept Ahalya and hence issued a revocable curse. Let us see how Sage Gautama’s eldest son, Shatananda (King Janaka’s chief preceptor at Mithila) and others at Janaka’s court reacted to Sage Gautama having first cursed and later accepted Ahalya.
After the Ahalya episode, Viswamitra proceeds to Mithila with Rama, Lakshmana and other sages. King Janaka respectfully and warmly receives them and enquires Viswamitra as to who the two boys are. Viswamitra tells Janaka who Rama and Lakshmana are and also informs Janaka and his august court about their journey so far. He tells everyone that Ahalya and Sage Gautama have been reunited and pauses. Shataananda, the eldest son of Gautama and Ahalya is overwhelmed with joy on listening to this.
तस्य तत् वचनम् श्रुत्वा विश्वामित्रस्य धीमतः |
हृष्ट रोमा महातेजाः शताअनन्दो महातपाः || १-५१-१
गौतमस्य सुतो ज्येष्ठः तपसा द्योतित प्रभः |
राम संदर्शनात् एव परम् विस्मयम् आगतः || १-५१-२
On hearing that sentence of that intellectual sage Vishvamitra, the highly refulgent and the great ascetic Shataananda is overjoyed, and Sage Shataananda, the eldest son of Sage Gautama, and whose radiance is brightened by his own ascesis is highly amazed just on seeing Rama. [1-51-1, 2]
अपि ते मुनि शार्दूल मम माता यशस्विनी |
दर्शिता राज पुत्राय तपो दीर्घम् उपागता || १-५१-४
“Oh, tigerly saint Vishvamitra, you have revealed my glorious mother Ahalya who meted out a marathon ascesis to the princes – Really! [1-51-4]
अपि रामे महातेजो मम माता यशस्विनी |
वन्यैः उपाहरत् पूजाम् पूजा अर्हे सर्व देहिनाम् || १-५१-५
“And the highly resplendent and celebrated mother of mine worshipped Rama, who is worthy of worship by every corporeal being, with forest produce, is it so! [1-51-5]
अपि रामाय कथितम् यथा वृत्तम् पुरातनम् |
मम मातुः महातेजो दैवेन दुरनुष्ठितम् || १-५१-६
“Oh, great-resplendent Vishvamitra, you have narrated to Rama about the maltreatment of my mother by the Providence as has happened anciently, isn’t it![1-51-6]
Sage Shataananda says that his mother is glorious and that her penance has been a marathon one. He also feels that his mother has been maltreated.
अपि कौशिक भद्रम् ते गुरुणा मम संगता |
माता मम मुनिश्रेष्ठ राम संदर्शनात् इतः || १-५१-७
“Oh, the best sage Kaushika, you be safe, my mother is reunited with my father on beholding and giving hospitality to Rama – Really! [1-51-7]
Here we see the happiness of a son who is glad to hear that his parents have reunited after long. How well Valmiki has understood people’s minds!
अपि मे गुरुणा रामः पूजितः कुशिकात्मज |
इह आगतो महातेजाः पूजाम् प्राप्य महात्मनः || १-५१-८
“Oh, Kaushika, my father came to my mother’s place from Himalayas! Has the great resplendent father of mine worshipped Rama because the redemption of my mother is per the kindness of Rama! Has this great-souled Rama reverenced that great resplendent father of mine by according a redemption, ahalyaa daana, the endowment of Ahalya to her husband. [1-51-8]
अपि शांतेन मनसा गुरुः मे कुशिकात्मज |
इह आगतेन रामेण पूजितेन अभिवादितः || १-५१-९
“Oh, Kaushika, on his arrival at my mother’s place whether this reverential Rama reverenced my father with a pacified heart without becoming contumelious!” Thus sage Shataananda exclaimed at the marvel occurred through Rama. [1-51-9]
Shataananda is extremely glad that his father has not been scornful or insulting of his mother and has accepted her with a pacified heart. He thinks it to be a marvel. Sage Gautama displays great character in having forgiven his wife after she performed the required propitiation, though others in society may not do the same.
न अतिक्रान्तम् मुनिश्रेष्ठ यत् कर्तव्यम् कृतम् मया |
संगता मुनिना पत्नी भार्गवेण इव रेणुका || १-५१-११
“I have done whatever good is to be done and nothing is left undone, and the wife of the sage, namely Ahalya, is reunited with her husband sage Gautama, as with Renuka who was reunited with sage Jamagani, the descendent of Bhrigu.” So said Vishvamitra. [1-51-11]
These lines are a creation of genius. Dwelling on and talking about such issues only creates more confusion and unnecessary debate. Viswamitra finishes off the whole episode by saying that he has done all that needs to be done and that there is nothing else to be done on the matter. After this, no one speaks about Ahalya or Sage Gautama. King Janaka or the members of his court do not say anything on the matter, as it is personal to Shataananda. He alone speaks on it and the matter is discussed only between Viswamitra and Shataananda. Shataananda rounds off the whole thing by blessing Rama that all his deeds will be successful.
स्वागतम् ते नरश्रेष्ठ दिष्ट्या प्राप्तो असि राघव |
विश्वामित्रम् पुरस्कृत्य महर्षिम् अपराजितम् || १-५१-१३
“Hail to thee! Oh, best one among men Rama, your arrival is a godsend, not only to Mithila but to entire humanity, and oh, Raghava, as an undefeatable great-sage Vishvamitra spearheads you, so shall your mission be undefeatable, thus hail to thee! [1-51-13]
We have seen the actual story of Ahalya as written by Valmiki. One must respect the changed versions of the story as well, but never lose the substance of the original. The story of Ahalya is one of human emotions and it is intended to convey the concept of remorse and acceptance into society after remorse. Men and women must learn to set high moral standards for themselves, the toughness of going through remorse as well as the value of forgiveness.
The Ahalya episode is one of the master strokes of Valmiki. He has strategically placed the episode before Rama’s wedding to Sita, before most of the key happenings in The Ramayana. Probably, this was one of the earliest lessons in forgiveness for Rama. Throughout his life, Rama demonstrated the ability to forgive people who repented for their crimes. In the Yuddha Kanda, Rama says that he will forgive even Ravana, if Ravana feels sorry for having abducted Sita and vows to return Sita to him. Perhaps this is why Rama made Sita undergo the Agni Pareeksha upon her return to shut people talking ill of Sita’s character.
I believe that the Ahalya episode was intended to be a lesson to Rama in another sense as well. Viswamitra, the all-knowing sage, perhaps foresaw Rama banishing Sita to the forest later in her life. I think that he would have conducted the Ahalya episode as he thought that Rama would remember this episode when the time came. Alas! Having united Ahalya with Sage Gautama, how could Rama send Sita to the forest, when she was purity incarnate? I don’t know, I am still searching for the answer.