kiskiKAHANI (the Ramayana Project)

300 Ramayanas and Counting . . .
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Three hundred Ramayanas

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of the Thousand Eyes.

 

Since then, the divine Ancestors

eat these castrated rams

and Indra has the testicles

of the beast through the power

of great Gautama’s tapas.

 

Come then, Rama, to the ashram

of the holy sage and save Ahalya

who has the beauty of a goddess.’

Raghava heard Visvamitra’s words

 

and followed him into the ashram

with Laksmana: there he saw

Ahalya, shining with an inner light

earned through her penances,

 

blazing yet hidden from the eyes

of passers-by, even gods and anti-gods.

(Sastrigal and Sastri 1958, kanda 1, sargas 47-8; translated by David Shulman and AK Ramanujan)

 

The Ahalya episode: Kampan

They came to many-towered Mithila

and stood outside the fortress.

On the towers were many flags.

 

There, high on an open field,

stood a black rock

that was once Ahalya,

 

the great sage’s wife who fell

because she lost her chastity,

the mark of marriage in a house. [Verse 547]

 

Rama’s eyes fell on the rock,

the dust of his feet

wafted on it.

 

Like one unconscious

coming to,

cutting through ignorance,

 

changing his dark carcass

for true form

as he reaches the Lord’s feet,

 

so did she stand alive

formed and coloured

again as she once was. [548]

 

Rama then asks Visvamitra why this lovely woman had been turned to stone. Visvamitra replies:

 

‘Listen. Once Indra,

Lord of the Diamond Axe,

waited on the absence

 

of Gautama, a sage all spirit,

 

meaning to reach out

for the lovely breast

of doe-eyed Ahalya, his wife. [551]

 

Hurt by love’s arrows,

hurt by the look in her eyes

that pierced him like a spear, Indra

writhed and cast about

for stratagems;

 

one day, overwhelmed

and mindless, he isolated

the sage; and sneaked

into the hermitage

wearing the exact body of Gautama

 

whose heart knew no falsehoods. [552]

 

Sneaking in, he joined Ahalya;

coupled, they drank deep

of the clear new wine

of first night weddings;

 

and she knew.

 

Yet unable

to put aside what was not hers,

she dallied in her joy,

but the sage did not tarry,

he came back, a very Siva

with three eyes in his head. [553]

 

Gautama, who used no arrows

from bows, could use more inescapable

powers of curse and blessing.

 

When he arrived, Ahalya stood there,

stunned, bearing the shame of a deed

that will not end in this endless world.

 

Indra shook in terror,

started to move away

in the likeness of a cat. [554]

 

Eyes dropping fire, Gautama

saw what was done,

and his words flew

like the burning arrows

at your hand:

 

“May you be covered

by the vaginas

of a thousand women!”

In the twinkle of an eye

they came and covered him. [555]

 

Covered with shame,

laughing stock of the world,

Indra left.

 

The sage turned

to his tender wife

and cursed:

 

“O bought woman!

May you turn to stone!”

and she fell at once

 

a rough thing

of black rock. [556]

 

Yet as she fell she begged:

“To bear and forgive wrongs

is also the way of elders.

O Siva-like lord of mine,

set some limit to your curse!”

 

So he said: “Rama

will come, wearing garlands that bring

the hum of bees with them.

When the dust of his feet falls on you,

you will be released from the body of stone.” [557]

 

The immortals looked at their king

and came down at once to Gautama

in a delegation led by Brahma

and begged of Gautama to relent.

 

Gautama’s mind had changed

and cooled. He changed

the marks on Indra to a thousand eyes

and the gods went back to their worlds

while she lay there, a thing of stone. [558]

 

That was the way it was.

From now on, no more misery,

only release, for all things

in this world.

 

O cloud-dark lord

 

who battled with that ogress,

black as soot, I saw there

the virtue of your hands

and here the virtue of your feet.’ [559]5

 

Let me rapidly suggest a few differences between the two tellings. In Valmiki, Indra seduces a willing Ahalya. In Kampan, Ahalya realises she is doing wrong but cannot let go of the forbidden joy; the poem has also suggested earlier that her sage-husband is all spirit, details which together add a certain psychological subtlety to the seduction. Indra tries to steal away in the shape of a cat, clearly a folklore motif (also found, for example, in the Kathasaritsagara, an eleventh century Sanskrit compendium of folk tales; see Tawney 1927). He is cursed with a thousand vaginas which are later changed into eyes and Ahalya is changed into frigid stone. The poetic justice wreaked on both offenders is fitted to their wrongdoing. Indra bears the mark of what he lusted for while Ahalya is rendered incapable of responding to anything. These motifs, not found in Valmiki, are attested in South Indian folklore and other southern Rama stories, inscriptions and earlier Tamil poems as well as in non-Tamil sources. Kampan, here and elsewhere, not only makes full use of his predecessor Valmiki’s materials but folds in many regional folk traditions. It is often through him that they then become part of other Ramayanas.

In technique, Kampan is also more dramatic than Valmiki. Rama’s feet transmute the black stone into Ahalya first; only afterwards is her story told. The black stone standing on a high place, waiting for Rama, is itself a very effective, vivid symbol. Ahalya’s revival, her waking from cold stone to fleshly human warmth, becomes an occasion for a moving bhakti (devotional) meditation on the soul waking to its form in god.

Finally, the Ahalya episode is related to previous episodes in the poem such as that in which Rama destroys the demoness Tataka. There he was the destroyer of evil, the bringer of sterility and the ashes of death to his enemies. Here, as the reviver of Ahalya, he is a cloud-dark god of fertility. Throughout Kampan’s poem, Rama is a Tamil hero, a generous giver and a ruthless destroyer of foes. And the bhakti vision makes the release of Ahalya from her rock-bound sin a paradigm of Rama’s incarnatory mission to release all souls from world-bound misery.

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