The ancient scriptures introduced a concept called “Sati” to analyse the social and psychological character of women from the Indian mythological history. This concept is about staying faithful to the husbands with mind heart body and soul, and leading a life renouncing all greed or ambitions that could make a woman seek pleasure or happiness beyond her man!
“Sati” was never a decision or a choice; it didn’t come with feelings of deprivation. It was meant to be a state of mind, a natural way of being where a woman submits her soul to her husband! Indian mythology celebrates the presence of “Pancha-Sati” or “Pancha-Kanya” within the complicated narrations of the two epics, describing them as “pati-vrata!” The Pancha-Sati includes Ahalya, Kunti, Draupadi, Mandodari and Tara. The irony is, all these five women have had physical connections with more than one man. But those physical contacts happened either with the consent of their husbands or in ignorance when the women were fooled to believe that the “other man” was their husband!
The Sati status thus tries to drive home a philosophy which states even when the other men touched these women, they were not touched! Their minds and souls were faithful to their men, though their temporary, mortal bodies were used, either in deceit or to fulfil a The Sati concept tries to salute, in its own conservative way, the strange devotion of women towards their husbands and an unrelenting emotional strength to retain the affection even when husbands were weak and unfair!
With rising consciousness and education, when the brain apparently tries to justify actions or emotions, you might choose to call this a foolish submission where the self respect of a woman is left in the open to be bruised and mishandled. But that is subject to personal judgement. In the epics, women have always been defined by unconditionality and the men by their indisputable authority secured with individual and collective interpretations of fairness or Dharma! Women thus, were Godly, while the men were more Human.
Ahalya, for example, was devoted to Maharishi Gautam because she didn’t know another way of life! She served her husband with affection and truth because that’s what was meant to be. If fairness is what you are looking for in this story, then how innocent or justified was it for Brahma to create an exceptionally beautiful woman and then hand her over to a sage who was no comparison to her either in looks or in vitality! Maharishi Gautam is said to have raised her upon Brahma’s instructions, but didn’t reportedly lust for her till she became his wife. Brahma uniting Ahalya and Gautam is just another celestial mischief where destiny leaves you with something undeserving and then how you adapt to the situation defines your character.
Do you stay happy with it or you fall prey to temptations? Do you work towards making it better with your efforts or you steal? Do you have the strength to choose permanence over a temporary happiness?
Life is an accumulation of extreme forces working together. Good with bad, fair with unfair, beauty with ugliness, faith with deceit, and so on. Ahalya’s transformation into a stone is metaphorical journey representing ill-placed humour of life which makes the wheels turn to make you experience the complete whole. Hence the physical transformation of a beautiful woman into a stone is actually the state of experiencing indifference instead of lust as tenderness gets replaced by roughness! Indra was merely a catalyst here, a bridge for her to travel to the other extreme. From a sheltered existence she is now out in the open. Then she was mobile, but there were boundaries she couldn’t cross. The rock faces no such boundaries, but it can’t move. Such is the irony of life. You change forms and modify to give yourself a better existence.
But everything comes for a cost which often makes your attempts futile and turn your initiatives into an useless fulfillment, something that you may not have exactly wanted! You loose in exact proportion of what you gain.
Coming back to Ahalya, the lore says when Rama touched her she became curse-free. Basically what she gained was neutrality! The extremes were nullified. Rama is the only human and mortal form of Vishnu or Krishna, the Supreme Being. He is capable of seeing through the truth because you cannot hide anything from him. He gets to identify the rock as well, and that is Ahalya’s liberation for being recognised in
her real spirits, not necessarily a re-transformation. It is perception that defines the world. Being perceived as the tender, virtuous woman instead of a lifeless rock was Ahalya’s freedom.
Strangely, this spiritual freedom was not something that her husband could bestow upon her. When Ahalya was with Gautam, the rishi may not have treated her as anything beyond a rock! Think of it, had he treated the beautiful woman as a human being, he wouldn’t have misunderstood or punished her at all. So the must hyped transformation of Ahalya too was a metaphorical reference and the only person who suffered the punishment for being unfair in the entire episode was Maharishi Gautam himself, who lost a lovely wife to his vain ego!
Are you still wondering when shall I talk about Sujoy Ghosh’s adaptation of Ahalya? Well, some other time may be.