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What women wanted

Indian Mythology 6 Comments

Published in Sunday Midday 13 Dec 2009

In most tales from Hindu lore, women played the role of nymphs and housewives and goddesses associated with fertility. But from time to time one comes upon tales of women who had otherworldly aspirations.

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad tells the story of Gargi whose sharp mind and tongue irritated many sages. Janaka, king of Videha, dissatisfied with esoteric rituals, invited sages from all over the land to his kingdom and offered cows with gold plated horns to anyone who helped him understand the true nature of the cosmos. Rishis, siddhis, yogis, all men attended the debate. Yagnavalkya dominated the conference with his view that perceived reality is not the absolute truth and that yoga is the real yagna. During the proceedings, a woman walked naked into Janaka’s court and introduced herself as Gargi. While all men looked at her body, it was with her mind that the woman astounded the assembled scholars. She asked Yagnavalkya on what is the foundation of water, the principle of life. ‘Wind,’ replied Yagnavalaya. And of wind? ‘Space.’ And of space? ‘Gandharvas?’ And of gandharvas? ‘The moon.’ And of the moons? ‘The sun.’ And of the sun? . ‘The stars.’ And of the stars? ‘The gods.’ And of the gods? ‘Indra.’ And of Indra? ‘Prajapati.’ And of Prajapati? ‘Brahman.’ And of Brahman? Exasperated by these unending questions, Yagnavalkya asked Gargi not to ask too many question on that which is unfathomable lest her head fall off. Gargi smiled and declared that Yagnavalkya was the wisest sage in the assembly.

The Mahabharata tells us of women whose approach to life was so philosophical even when faced with death. Gautami’s son died of a snake-bite. A hunter caught the snake and brought it to Gautami. ‘Let it go. Killing it will not get my son back. Serpents bite and people die. Such is the way of samsara,’ she said.

The Mahabharata also tells the tale of an ascetic woman Shandili who did not appreciate being treated as a sex-object. Shandili was a pious woman who lived an ascetic’s life atop Mount Rishabha. One day Suparna, the divine falcon-god, saw her and entertained the thought of carrying her away. Instantly his golden wings dropped off. Suparana came crashing to the ground and begged Shandili to forgive him as he did not seek to molest her. Shandili forgave him and restored his wings.

In medieval times, one hears of Mira, the Rajput princess from North India, who refused to acknowledge her husband as her true lord. When he died, she did not burn herself on his funeral pyre, as tradition demanded of her. Instead she danced on the streets of Mathura and Vrindavana singing praises of her divine lord Krishna.

In South India, the daughter of a priest named Andal did not get married because her heart belonged to Krishna, her heavenly beloved. A woman’s spiritual prowess scared off men for they were used to seeing women as objects of worldly pleasure.

The Tamil Periya Puranam speaks of one Punidavati who lived in the village of Karaikal with her husband Paramadatta, a seafaring merchant. She was so devoted to Shiva that the lord bestowed upon her magical powers. Her ability to conjure sweet mangoes by merely wishing for them, scared her husband who, after his next voyage, did not return home. Instead, he went to the city of Madurai, married another woman and raised a family with her. When Punidavati learnt why her husband had left her, she realized she had no more use of her beautiful body. By the grace of Shiva, she transformed herself into a crone, with shriveled breasts and gaunt features so that no man could look upon her with eyes of desire. Thus she was free to devote herself to her lord. She became renowned as Karaikal Ammaiyar, the matriarch of Karaikal.

It is interesting to note that Karaikal Ammaiyar rejects her body before she begins her pursuit of spirituality. She does not want to be attractive. She knows that an attractive body will result in the unwarranted attention of men and distract her from her path. She does not for a moment feel that an attractive and loving man could tempt her away. She has full confidence that she will not lose control but she clearly lacks confidence in the men around her. Says a lot about the male gaze in medieval times.


  • V.Ganesh

    Dear devdutt g.,

    “she clearly lacks confidence in the men around her”

    Karaikal Ammaiyar – She was very devout and especially careful to entertain all devotees of Lord Shiva that came to her door. One day, her husband received from some persons who had come to him on business, a present of two mangoes of a very superior kind, which he sent home to his wife. Soon after-wards, a holy devotee arrived at the house as a mendicant guest. She had nothing ready to offer him except some boiled rice. She offered him boiled rice and as there was no other side dish, she gave him one of the mangoes. At noon, her husband returned and took his meal with the other mango. He was so pleased with the mango that he told his wife to give him the second mango of the two that he gave to her, His wife was perplexed, as she had already given the other mango to the mendicant. Immediately she offered fervent prayers to God, who never deserts those who serve Him. God heard her prayers and straightaway a mango was found in her hands. She served it to her husband.

    As the mango was a divine gift, it was of wonderful sweetness. Tasting it, her husband asked her how she got the mango. At first she hesitated, but at last revealed what had happened.

    Her husband did not give much credence to her words and asked her to get another mango in the same way. She went away and prayed to God and immediately she found another fruit, still lovelier, in her hands. When she carried this to her husband he took it in astonishment. But, behold! It forthwith vanished.

    Utterly confounded by these wonderful happenings, he came to the conclusion that his wife was a supernatural being whom he dared not touch with carnal thoughts, and resolved to go away from her.

    Her husband did not reveal his decision to anybody, but quietly equipped a ship in which he put in a great part of his wealth, and then, on an auspicious day, worshipping the God of the sea, with sailors and a skilful captain, set sail to another country, where he accumulated a fortune, and after some time, came back to India to another city in the Pandyan land. There he married a merchant’s daughter and lived in great luxury. A daughter was born to him. To her, he gave the name of the wife with whom he dared not live, but had great reverence.

    His friends in Karaikal, who resolved to compel him to receive his first wife again, knew his return and prosperity. Accordingly they proceeded to the new residence of the merchant, taking his saintly wife in a litter.

    When her husband heard that his first wife was staying in a grove outside the town, he proceeded with his second wife and daughter, to the place where his first wife was camping.

    Reaching there, the husband at once prostrated with profoundest reverence before her and said that he was her slave and that he was happy and prosperous through her benediction.

    His first wife Punitavatiyar became confounded by the salutation and worship and took refuge among her kinswomen, who all cried out, “why is this mad man worshipping his own wife?”

    To this Paramadatta replied that his wife is not an ordinary lady, but a supernatural being. So, he ceased to look upon her as his wife and worshipped her as their tutelary deity and also dedicated his daughter to her.

    From Beauty To Demoness
    Punitavatiyar pondered over the matter and prayed within herself to Lord Shiva to take away her beauty that she cherished up till now for the sake of her husband and give her the form and features of one of the demon-hosts (‘Bhutaganas’) who are attendants of Lord Shiva.

    That very instant, by the grace of God her flesh dried up and she became a demoness, one of Lord Shiva’s hosts. Then the Gods rained flowers on her. Heavenly minstrels sang her praises and her relatives, in fear and awe, paid her adoration and departed. So, she had now become a demoness and her abode was the wild jungle of Alangadu (forest of Banyan trees). Through inspiration from God, she sang several sacred hymns, which are preserved to the present day. Alangadu is 40 miles from Thanjavur.

    Afterwards, she got an irresistible desire to see the sacred hill of Kailas. With inconceivable speed she fled northwards till she arrived at the foot of the mountain and realizing that it was not right to climb the heavenly mountain with her feet, she threw herself down and measured the distance with her head. Uma, the consort of Lord Shiva, beheld her thus ascending and enquired her husband about the demoness.

    To this, Lord Shiva replied that the mighty demon-form was the Mother, who obtained this form by her prayers. When she drew near, Lord Shiva addressed her with the words of love calling her by the name of Mother (“Ammaiyar”), which she forever bears. As soon as she heard the word, she fell at his feet worshipping and ejaculating, “Father!”

    She worshipped Lord Shiva to grant her a boon that she should no more be born on earth and if she did, then she should be born as a devotee of the Lord who in any form, at any time, will not forget The Lord and that when the Lord performs the sacred mystic dance, she should stand beneath the Lord’s feet and sing in His praise.

    Lord Shiva granted her the boon and asked her to stay at Alangadu. Then, the sacred Mother of Karaikal returned, measuring the distance still on her head, to holy Alangadu where she beheld her God’s sacred dance and sang her renowned lyrics in His praise

  • Chinmay

    Shri V. Ganesh ji,

    Wonderful story…thanks a lot for sharing.

  • Strange! what women wanted then is no different from what women want now.

    Thanks for this insightful article, Devdutt.

  • Sujatha Merchant

    Your article is very well worded and I do like your illustration as well!

  • Thank you very much Mr.V Ganeshji for such an amazing and inspirational story. It shows the power of ‘bhakti’ / devotion.

  • bhupinder gupta

    Culprits and cruel peoples , who had done cruelities on brahma and
    saraswati , and ganga ,sita and on many goddesses and gods ,and on good peoples
    ,
    the crores and crores of peoples are being killed ,destryoed in
    such a way no one can find out , and given different shapes and made to
    bad brains and minds are made from single soul to multy humans soul
    creatures to never become humans and buried alive under earth and even
    killed into stomaches and made to toilets and throughn into hells like
    toilets

    Krishna ,rama ,shiva and others mahans ,gods, good
    were/are good peoples ,never do sins ,and indras and others were bad
    always doing sins and bad acts .why others peoples could not become
    good humans and peoples