When love is big enough to forgive a lapse

Soma kidnapped Tara, who succumbed to his charms. She was returned pregnant to Brihaspati, who had fought to get her back.

Published: 21st November 2022 12:46 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st November 2022 12:46 AM   |  A+A-


Many years ago, I went to Damascus for the two-thousandth anniversary of Saint Paul’s conversion to Christianity, “on the road to Damascus”. The phrase denotes a great transformative moment in a person’s life. For instance, we could probably say that Sri Krishna’s moment was when he took the “road to Mathura”, leaving Vrindavan and his rustic life behind forever.

Out in Damascus, I chanced to spend an evening listening to Father Gregory. He was a Russian Orthodox priest who had come from Moscow for the event and spoke English. He loved his calling as a priest and was illumined with a sense of service. He disclosed that he was sometimes torn between priestly advice and his sympathy as a fellow human being. It seemed many Russian ladies would pour out their hearts in the confession box. Their husbands were fond of drinking and beat them up. So the wives had affairs but “only for a little love and comfort, Father” they wept. Speaking frankly to me, the stranger from another culture, Father Gregory said he prescribed the prayers of atonement but also felt deeply sorry for the women. “What is the Indian view of such a situation?” he asked.

This made me think. I saw that we had widely differing options in scripture. The best-known choice was rejection and banishment, even if triggered by gossip, as in the tragic case of Sri Rama and Devi Sita. But as to that, scholars say that the Uttara Kandam in which Rama banishes Sita was not by Valmiki at all but was a prakshipta or add-on by someone else. Valmiki’s Ramayana officially ends with the homecoming and the coronation at the end of the sixth book, the Yuddha Kandam. It is immediately followed by the Phalashruti, or the benefits of listening to the tale, which comes after a conclusion.

The Uttara Kandam, the putative seventh book, upholds the patriarchal licence that allowed men many partners but had rigid rules for women. On the other hand, we had an equally famous case of polyandry, that of Draupadi. Some social groups in India still practice polyandry, whereby a woman marries several brothers, as with the Jaunsar-Bawar community in Uttarakhand.

But these were legal in the eyes of society. What about women in scripture who had extramarital liaisons? How did their husbands react? Two stories come to mind. One, from the Srimad Bhagavatam, is that of Tara, the wife of Brihaspati. Brihaspati was the preceptor of the devas. Sri Krishna says in the Gita, “Among priests, I am Brihaspati.” Such was his excellence. Soma, the Moon, kidnapped Tara, who succumbed to his charms. She was returned pregnant to Brihaspati, who had fought to get her back. Brihaspati loved Tara so much that he accepted the child, whom he named ‘Budha’, the wise one. Budha, the planet Mercury, rules Wednesday, which is called ‘Budhan’ or ‘Budhwar’ after him.

The other story is just as remarkable. It is that of Ahalya and Gautama, first found in Valmiki’s Ramayana. Ahalya or Ahilya, the beautiful and dearly beloved wife of Rishi Gautama, was seduced by Indra, who came to her in the guise of her husband when he was away. But Gautama came back just when Indra was about to leave. Indra panicked, turned into a cat, and disappeared.

“What was that?” asked Gautama. “Majjara,” said Ahalya. ‘Majjara’ meant cat, but if broken up as ‘ma jara’, it meant ‘my lover’. So, she avoided lying outright. Gautama was not a great rishi for nothing. His insight told him what had happened. Furious, he cursed Indra to lose his manhood. Gautama decided to buy time and go away to meditate and calm down. But what was he to do with Ahalya, meanwhile? How could he leave her alone and unprotected? What if someone else accosted her in her single state?

The crux of the tale is the deep relationship between Ahalya and Gautama. Ahalya is respected despite her lapse from the stern moral code that “nice women don’t”. Moreover, Valmiki’s Rama does not do what he is depicted doing by later storytellers, that is, placing his foot on Ahalya. Not only was the Prince of Ayodhya too respectful towards women to do that, but also, Ahalya was not turned to stone by Gautama but made “invisible among the ashes, living on air”. Ahalya loved her husband very much and missed him unbearably. She spent several lonely years of repentance praying to Lord Shiva and Devi Parvati and tending unseen to her garden. Its beauty caught Rama’s eye when passing by with Rishi Vishwamitra and Lakshmana on the road to Mithila. She regained her form when Rama set foot in her hermitage. Gautama reappeared then, and they lived happily ever after.

This well-known story has attracted much commentary, but the camps are divided. Some say it was not Ahalya’s fault, while others say that she knew what she was doing. A third camp avers that her invisibility more than made up for it, and after all, she was redeemed and respected by none other than Sri Rama, who touched her feet when she materialised. Indeed, she is honoured as one of the ‘Panchakanya’ or five good women, with Savitri, Kunti, Mandodari and Vali’s wife, Tara. India’s best-ever queen, the brave, just and pious Rani Ahilyabai Holkar (1725–1795) was named after her.

As to what modern India thinks, Justice D Y Chandrachud, the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, previously ruled that adultery by a married woman, being an issue of family law, should be decriminalised. In 2018, he overturned his own father’s verdict on the issue. By doing so, he was in line with the rishis Brihaspati and Gautama.

As social media would say, “It’s complicated”. I most certainly don’t support adultery in anyone, man or woman. But it’s interesting to observe that whether in scripture or in the humane leanings of a priest and a judge, it is an honourable choice for partners to forgive.

Renuka Narayanan




Disclaimer : We respect your thoughts and views! But we need to be judicious while moderating your comments. All the comments will be moderated by the newindianexpress.com editorial. Abstain from posting comments that are obscene, defamatory or inflammatory, and do not indulge in personal attacks. Try to avoid outside hyperlinks inside the comment. Help us delete comments that do not follow these guidelines.

The views expressed in comments published on newindianexpress.com are those of the comment writers alone. They do not represent the views or opinions of newindianexpress.com or its staff, nor do they represent the views or opinions of The New Indian Express Group, or any entity of, or affiliated with, The New Indian Express Group. newindianexpress.com reserves the right to take any or all comments down at any time.

flipboard facebook twitter whatsapp