With Ahalya, Koral Dasgupta’s interpretation of Hindu philosophy points to undaunted women, sacred relation with nature

Aarushi Agrawal
·7-min read

For as long as stories have existed, they have been interpreted in different ways, understood through different perspectives, and held up as examples of different ideals. Mythology has undergone the same diversification, perhaps with a much greater intensity, "because we try to find influence and inspiration in a force that's larger than us," author Koral Dasgupta tells Firstpost. It is to this already rich dialogue around Hindu philosophy that she is adding Ahalya, her interpretation of the mythological tale, and the first of her five-part Sati Series.

Cover of Ahalya by Koral Dasgupta. Photo courtesy Pan Macmillan India
Cover of Ahalya by Koral Dasgupta. Photo courtesy Pan Macmillan India

Cover of Ahalya by Koral Dasgupta. Photo courtesy Pan Macmillan India

As a starting point, Dasgupta's choice of women for the series was in concordance with a Sanskrit prayer:

Ahalya Draupadi Kunti Tara Mandodari Tatha panchakanya smaranityam mahapataka nashanam

Which, Dasgupta informs, translates to:

"Contemplating ever the virgins five €" Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara and Mandodari Destroys the greatest sins."

All five women have had multiple partners, yet scholars have translated the term panch kanyas as five virgins. In them trying to understand the underlying concept that's been translated into English as 'virgin,' Dasgupta finds a description of the mind. "Today in our feminist debate we're talking about fertility of the mind over virginity of the body. It's about your consent. So, the same thing was being said in this ancient text." She understands these five women as characters who are not merely their bodies, but who have a hold on themselves and take their decisions. "That's the reason they're called virgins. Because their mind is pure, they had reasons for the decisions they took, and they win against their society." This agency, however, is something that "patriarchy has been happy to neglect," instead feeding society ideas that "philosophy has not spoken about".

While these stories remain the same, the interpretations, resulting in different versions and retellings, and travelling through art and culture, reveal changing mindsets and politics through time. "In Hindu mythology, the more you read, the more you'll find that nobody has tried to shove morals down your throat," she says. "Everything has been hinted at and left up to those who are reading and interpreting [these stories]. Wisdom can be used in a positive way and a negative way."

Dasgupta's Ahalya then is clear in its goal €" not straying much from the basic storyline, instead focused on presenting her interpretation of the story. In popular imagination, Ahalya is crafted by Brahma to be the most beautiful woman, and married to the sage Gautam Maharishi, who later curses her because she indulges in a physical relationship with Indra, finally finding liberation from the curse in the Ramayana, through Vishnu's Rama avatar. Writing in first person, Dasgupta gives Ahalya a voice, crafting a woman who revels in her sensuous view of the world, and exults in love and contentedness even as the curse slowly takes effect.

In keeping with the idea of recontextualising the panch kanyas through a modern, feminist sensibility, the name for the series is also in cognizance of Dasgupta's interpretation of 'sati' as a trait these women shared, again challenging the patriarchal understanding.

The intrigue of the word lies in the long road it has traversed. "In literature and storytelling, it was explained that women are not strong enough to handle certain things. And once they were convinced that they were not [strong enough], that's when power was used so those who tried to debate could be silenced," says Dasgupta about early interpretations. "Controlling a woman made sense for a lot of bodies. Calling them the weaker sex made sense for others to assume greater power." Over time, as more versions of the Mahabharata and Ramayana emerged, the Sati story, which is "not there in the original" came about. Eventually, the idea evolved into the concept of panch sati, grouping together five women €" not the same as the panch kanyas €" who were interpreted as those who obey, and bow down to the wishes of, their husbands. "Why was the term panch sati even coined? In the retelling, it was the idea that if you listen to your husband, you're a better woman than others. So, you can understand where this concept has come from."

Dasgupta, in explaining her own interpretation, points out that "Hindu philosophy has never restricted itself to bodily descriptions. It has always spoken about a much vaster area." And with sati too, she points instead to strength and purity of mind. "I see sati in a person's self-confidence and clarity of thought." It is, she explains, the quality of following one's own dharma or ideas of right and wrong, without being swayed or carried away by other's opinions. It is a person who knows where they've come from and remains who they are despite the influences that come their way.

While the panch kanyas and panch satis belong to different traditions and constitute different women, Dasgupta's series, as she explains in her note to readers, follows the idea that "philosophically they merge because both are representations of truth." Both concepts allude to a personal truth for which the women are only answerable to themselves, irrespective of societal judgment, and this is the idea she's highlighting through her series.

Grasping these conceptual nuances didn't take as much research as one might expect, since the foundation was laid down in her childhood, when she spent every holiday rereading much-beloved Bengali translations of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and now, only reference work was required to build the frame of Ahalya.

Besides the treatment of women, the phenomenon of Hindu philosophy losing its essence when translated into practice is also amply evident in society's relationship with environment. "Hindu philosophy has always worshipped nature," says Dasgupta. But in the process of organised religion ritualising and implementing these ideals, "we have messed it up big time," says Dasgupta about the fear-induced, 'if you don't do this then this will happen' mindset.

An ecocritical reading of Ahalya reveals the exploration of an ancient connection with nature that's sacred, intimate, and as we are in the midst of an environmental emergency, vital to reconcile with today. The book makes natural elements as much a character as the protagonist, evidenced, for instance, in this passage:

At those unearthly hours, when the moon still shone bright, I ventured out wearing the Mist as my shawl. Mandakini looked majestic. Flowing in vigour, she welcomed me with the eternal music of her waves flirting with the pebbles lying in her depths. The riverbank seemed encrusted in silver. As my shadow fell on the river, the water sprang up in ecstasy and dropped back like a small child attempting to run with unprepared feet. On nights when the moon observed its fortnightly leave, the fireflies came rushing in hoards to light up my path with their glowing phosphorous.

"All the gods and goddesses you see are actually forms of nature," she says. As storytelling evolved, the characters that made up the historical, nature-worshipping imagination started being given names, representing different aspects of nature: Varuna is water, Surya is the sun, Brihaspati is the planet Jupiter, and so on. The 33 crore deities that constitute Hinduism are also then deeply intertwined, recalling the environmental balance the world is lacking today. "When you see Surya, the sun god, you find elements of Indra. And Indra is illusion or the conscience. And then Krishna is the subconscious, so they're two sides of the same coin," she explains.

These aspects of nature are also "the 33 crore dimensions of your mind," painting individuals as microcosms of the nature we co-exist with.

"All these things are extremely and deeply metaphorical."

And as she began work on the Sati Series, starting with Ahalya, it's her fascination with mythology, its metaphorical and lyrical language, complexity of characters, mystery, and underlying mystic that she kept in mind. Mythology, she adds, intrigues because it reflects intrinsic emotions, attracts every age group, and points to a togetherness in the living world.

"It's very strongly there in my subconscious."

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