Panchakanya – The Five Pillars of Chaste Feminine Divinity

Pancha Kanya

Women have taken many central roles in Hindu Dharma, be it as birthers, nurturers, instigators of wars, and propagators of knowledge and gossip as well. The world started with Adi Shakti the one true pure form of energy, and femininity has evolved since. Hindus worship Shakti, and Devi and idolize her presence. One such group of amazing femininity is the Panchakanya.

It is believed that nature manifests itself in five forms: earth, water, fire, wind, and sky. Each Kanya is born of one of these elements, and these five elements of nature formed the essence of their characters.

Who are the PanchaKanya?

Pancha Kanya

अहिल्या, तारा, मंदोदरी, कुंती दृापदी स्मरणं, नित्यं, महापातक नाशनाम.

ahalyā draupadī sītā tārā mandodarī tathā ।
pañcakanyāḥ smarennityaṃ mahāpātakanāśinīm ॥
Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara, and Mandodari

Meaning: Daily remembering the five maidens great, Ahalya, Draupadi, Seetha, Tara, and Mandodari Will destroy the greatest sins.

The Panchakanyas are Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita (Kunti), Tara and Mandodari.  Ramayana portrays Ahalya, Tara, Mandodari, and Sita, while Draupadi and Kunti are from the Mahabharata. Sita and Kunti are often replaced by each other according to people’s beliefs.

The Pañcakanyā are revered as consummate women and celibate wives in one view. Simply put all five of them were born in Kanya Rashi or the constellation of Virgo. The word ‘Kanya’ is used to denote a woman who is a ‘Virgin’. So these 5 women are considered as the group of Eternal Virgins despite being married. Virgin women were supposed to have the great powers of ‘Tapa’. So all these women, despite being married, had the same if not more, power of Tapa.

Panchakanya is the one who owned their virginity and could revive it. This power owing to their Chastity among them was majorly the result of leading a pious, rightful, and responsible life in thought, in word, and in action thereby the purest and most sincere of conduct even in the most challenging of times.

So pure that even through the fire they could pass unharmed. Such exemplary lives have only been portrayed by five women and hence they’re remembered for it. Here are the five women (Panchakanya) who evoked such traits:

Ahalya – The most beautiful women

Ahalya by Raja Ravi Varma (1848–1906)

The Bala Kanda of the Ramayana mentions that Lord Brahma molds her out of pure creative energy. Brahma created Ahalya out of the water as the most beautiful woman in order to break the pride of Urvashi, the foremost celestial nymph. Brahma places her in the care of Gautama until she reaches puberty.

When that time arrives, the sage returns Ahalya to Brahma, who, impressed by Gautama’s sexual restraint and asceticism, bestows her upon him. Indra, who believes that the best women are meant for him, resents Ahalya’s marriage to the forest-dwelling ascetic.

In another tale, it is said Ahalya is created from the ashes of the sacrificial fire by the Saptarishi (seven seers) and gifted to sage Gautama.

The king of the gods, Indra, was infatuated with her beauty and comes disguised as Gautama when the sage was away and requested physical relationships. In some versions, Ahalya sees through his disguise but still complies out of “curiosity” and because her husband would neglect his matrimonial duties. In later versions, Ahalya falls prey to Indra’s trickery and does not recognize him.

In all narratives, Ahalya and Indra are cursed by Gautama. Gautama then curses Ahalya to remain invisible to all beings for thousands of years, fast by subsisting only on air, suffering and sleeping in ashes, and being tormented by guilt. Nevertheless, he assures her that her sin will be expiated once she extends her hospitality to Lord Rama, who will visit the ashram.

Thereafter, Gautama abandons the ashram and goes to the Himalayas to practice asceticism. Indra was cursed to be castrated or be covered by a thousand vulvae that ultimately turn into a thousand eyes.

The Ayodhya prince Rama, his brother Lakshmana and their guru, the sage Vishvamitra pass Gautama’s desolate ashram while traveling to King Janaka’s court in Mithila. As they near the ashram, Vishvamitra recounts the tale of Ahalya’s curse and instructs Rama to save Ahalya. Ahalya is said to have been touched by Rama’s feet and rises from her stone state to human form and goes to her abode, Gautama’s hermitage.

Some versions also mention that she was turned into a dry stream and that she would be condoned for her guilt when eventually the stream starts flowing and joins the river Gautami (Godavari). Indra was cursed to be castrated or be covered by a thousand vulvae that ultimately turn into a thousand eyes after much pleading.

Tara – Wife of King Bali

Tara - Wife of Bali
Tara by Raja Ravi Varma (1848–1906)

Tara was the wife of the monkey king Bali who was presumed dead after a battle with a demon after which she married his twin brother Sugriva according to the custom of the time. The lack of a description of formal marriage suggests that Tara’s relationship with Sugriva is neither widow re-marriage nor polyandry, but simply appropriation by Sugriva.

In the references to the coronation of Sugriva as king, Angada is also described as the heir-apparent crown prince, while Tara is mentioned as Sugriva’s wife. The Adhyatma Ramayana declares that Sugriva acquires Tara.

It turns out that Balai isn’t killed in reality. When Bali returned, he was livid and abducted Sugriva’s first wife, Ruma, as revenge. As battle lines between the brothers were drawn, wise Tara counseled her first husband to return Ruma to his brother.

Tara said Sugriva had not snatched her but married her legitimately only because Bali’s death had been confirmed. Tara, the mother of Bali’s son Angad, finally managed to wrest a promise from him that he would not kill his own brother.

The brothers fought a duel in which Bali was killed by Sugriva’s mentor Rama. Sugriva was crowned king of the kingdom of Kishkindha. As dowager queen, Tara diplomatically left the question of the ascension of her son to the throne for his stepfather to resolve. She knew well that the guilt-ridden Uncle Sugriva would not deny her son his right to the throne.

In his dying breath, Bali reconciles with Sugriva and instructs him to follow Tara’s wise counsel in all matters.

While all was well with Sugriva and his lustful nature got the best of him, he eventually ignored his promise to Rama to help him win Sita back. Lakshaman was livid to find Sugriva had backtracked on his words. He entered Sugriva’s personal chambers to bring his wrath on the king but Queen Tara very diplomatically pacified the prince.

The Ramayana narrates:

Tara says that Sugriva is mindful that through Rama, Sugriva has gained the kingship, of Ruma and herself. She defends Sugriva saying that even great sage Vishwamitra was tempted by pleasure, Sugriva—a mere forest-dwelling monkey—is fatigued by his past hardships and is relaxing, but not partaking in carnal pleasures. Tara informs Sugriva that Vali told her that Ravana is a mighty king with several rakshasas in his service. She reminds Lakshmana that without an ally like Sugriva, Rama cannot defeat such a powerful foe. Tara informs him that Sugriva has summoned all monkey commanders and troops to the capital.

Thus she was instrumental in saving the king from the wrath of the Lakshmana and brought coherence to the Rama camp to fight the great war to avenge Sita.

Mandodari – Wife of King Ravana

Mandodari Giving Alms at Temple – Art by Raja Ravi Varma

Mandodari is the daughter of Mayasura, the king of the Asuras, who are god-like demons. He rescued a beautiful girl child from the well. He and his, wife, Hema, adopted her and named her Mandodari. She was taught aspects of architecture by King Mayasura.

He taught Mandodari about the various landforms of Bharatvarsh which were Swarga (heavenly plateaus), Bhoomi (plains), and Patala (underworld). When she turned fifteen, he started involving her in his projects and eventually met Ravana when he came to seek her counsel.

Valmiki’s Ramayana describes Mandodari as a very beautiful, pious, and noblewoman whose appearance once led Hanuman to mistake her for Sita. She was known to be extremely patient with Ravana’s attitude towards women, but always questioned his actions and rebuked his choices.

Mandodari’s purpose in the epic is to show how even though she stood behind Ravana because of duty, she did not condone his actions or go along with them. When Ravana kidnapped Sita, Mandodari was the first one to tell him that he must repent and take Sita back to Rama, or face dire consequences.

She was also said to be humiliated by Rama’s aides while Ravan performed yagna. In order to disrupt the penance, Angad grabbed Mandodari by her hair to the court, much like Dushasana had dragged Draupadi in the Mahabharata. Mandodari, begged her husband, “Look at how they’re treating your wife, Ravana. Won’t you set aside your grudge and your ego to even save me?” Enraged, Ravana abandoned his yajna and struck Angada with his sword, abruptly ending his yajna.

Despite Ravana’s faults, Mandodari loved him and was proud of his strength. She was aware of Ravana’s weakness towards women. A righteous woman, Mandodari tried to lead Ravana to righteousness, but Ravana ignored her advice. She even advised him not to subdue the Navagraha, the nine celestial beings that govern one’s destiny, and not to seduce Vedavati, who would be reborn as Sita and cause the destruction of Ravana.

Draupadi – Wife of Pandavas

Draupadi and Sudeshna
Draupadi and Sudeshna, Wife of King Virata

Draupadi is also referred to as Panchali (meaning one from the kingdom of Panchala), Yajnaseni (meaning one born from a Yajna or fire-sacrifice), Mahabhaaratii (great wife of the five descendants of Bharata), and Sairandhri (an expert maid, her assumed name during her second exile in which she worked as Virat kingdom’s queen Sudeshna’s hair-stylist).

Panchali is the Dharma Pathini of the Pancha Pandavas. The concept behind her marrying five people is that she is the Shakthi Roopa of the five devas, Dharma – Yudhishthira, Vayu – Bheema, IndraArjun, Nakul, and Sahadev – Ashwini Kumaras.

One of the pivotal causes of the Mahabharata war was the incident in Indraprastha where Draupadi ridiculed and insulted Duryodhana when he fell into a water pool. Draupadi joked “Andhasya Putra Andhaha” meaning “a blind man’s (referring to Dhritrashtra) son is blind!

No woman ever faced the trials and tribulations that Draupadi faced in her life. Even after being born out of the fire to Drupada, even if she had heroic husbands, she had to undergo Vastra harana, exile, and Agnata. Post-war she was faced to watch her entire clan being killed. Yet she bore all these without a complaint withers against her Husband or anybody. All she cared about was her worship of Lord Krishna.

Kunti – Mother of Pandavas and Karna

Kunti – Art by Abdur Rahman Chughtai

She is one true Matriarch of the Saga of Mahabharata. Kunti or Pritha was the daughter of Shurasena and the foster daughter of his cousin Kuntibhoja. She is the sister of Vasudeva. She was married to King Pandu of Hastinapur and was the mother of Karna and the first three Pandava brothers Yudhishthira, Bhima, and Arjuna. She was the paternal aunt of Krishna, Balarama, and Subhadra. She was the stepmother or foster mother of Nakula and Sahadeva.

Kunti’s marital life was also unusual. Having chosen Pandu as her husband in a Svayamvara ceremony, she never had a child with Pandu. Her husband had received a curse from the sage Kimdama that he would die on having intercourse with his wife because he had shot the sage with an arrow when he was united with his wife in the guise of a deer.

Deeply hurt by the turn of events, Pandu decided to retire to the forest and live a life of renunciation. Kunti accompanied him. She invoked her boons for herself and Madri and had 3 children of her own and two for Madri. Pandu dies unable to abstain.

Kunti returned to Hastinapura with her five children to live under the care of Bhishma and Dhritarashtra. The following years were marked with a mixture of joys and sorrows for Kunti and the Pandavas. The joys of the palace that the Pandava children enjoyed while growing up under the watchful eyes of Bhishma were soon marred by the jealousy of the Kauravas.

If they narrowly escaped a plot to have them burnt alive in a house of lac and managed to enjoy the glories of the newly founded city of Indraprastha, with its magical court created by Maya. Kunti was never really blinded by rage or behaved in a thoughtless or unreasonable fashion. She faced troubles bravely and she wanted her children to do the same.

She prevents Bhima from killing the demoness Hidimbi and advises him to marry her and beget a son, Ghatotkacha. She instructs her children to take care of the common people and orders Bhima to kill the demon Bakasura. When Pandavas are sent to a 12-year exile when defeated in a game of dice by the Kauravas, Kunti stays in Vidura’s refuge.

When an epic war between the Pandavas and Kauravas is to ensue, Kunti reveals to Karna – now a Kaurava general – about being his mother and gets him to promise her that he will not kill any other Pandava, except Arjuna. After the war, in which the Kauravas and Karna were killed, Kunti with the parents of the Kauravas left for the forest and spent the rest of her life in prayer. She was killed in a forest fire.