Awakening With Ahalya

Ahalya’s Awakening. Kavita Kane

Kavita Kane writes like an expert Sanskritist. She seems to have read stories and scriptures with an eye that is rarely trained to grasp metaphors and meanings hidden in the heavily coded Sanskrit texts. But here she is, analyzing and reinterpreting Ahalya, the most beautiful woman to have ever been born on earth. Her beauty seemed to be her disability since what remained hidden inside of her exterior demeanour was a sharp brain that could and would equal, if not surpass the best of Rishis of her times. Hence, she was born a scholar destined to study deeper into the higher order of things. Yet, she was to be married, for marriage was a must. The family privilege that could have helped her to excel in her studies, pay the expenses for her education, invest in a gurukul of her own, somehow became determined to get her married. Indra was her prime suitor.

Ahalya marries Gautam to escape Indra. The marriage ends up her being turned into stone. The Ahalya myth is not patriarchal because Gautam punishes Ahalya, it is patriarchal because of the way a woman’s sexuality is constructed and then imposed upon her. Since in a world, dominated by masculinity and defined to secure that domination, a woman’s beauty and her sexual desires are used to obtain her a man. The act of being acceptable to a man is what not only constructs a woman’s sexuality but also insinuates the desire in her. According to the author, a woman’s eagerness for being accepted kindles her sexual passions. This is what happened to Ahalya; eager to be accepted by Gautam, she awakens into sexual desire. This is her first awakening.

Ahalya would have never married; but compelled to marry, she tries to balance marriage with her vocation, chooses a rishi as her consort and falls into the structure of the family which is founded upon the submission of the wife to the husband. In this role of a submissive wife, her body, or the seat of beauty, which is what attracted men to her, is awakened into sexual desire upon which she becomes the typical nagging wife. Pushed into a subservient role of a woman who must “attend” to the needs of a man, she becomes the stereotype wife material, making demands on her husband. Ahalya for whom the mind was above the body is now an inverse of herself, the body becomes paramount over her brains.

Ironically, Gautam was attracted to her because of her beauty, never noticing her brains because of her gender. This places Indra and Gautam on the same plane, and only later in her life does she realize that if all men are for her body, then why not choose the one who satisfies her body better? She accepts that she was attracted to Indra all along and goes along with him. This is her second awakening.

Her choosing Gautam was to buy freedom for her scholarship by trucking her body. Unfortunately for her, neither was satisfied. Was she to marry Indra, she may have had a better deal because Indra was not himself balancing the body and the mind; he was all of body and perhaps, he could have left some space for her to be the Ahalya who she wanted to become? But Gautam was balancing the body and the mind as Ahalya was and soon he decided to favour his meditation over lovemaking. To walk off into meditation leaving everything else, was a privilege of a man; the woman because of her role of a homemaker, was incarcerated indoors from which she could never have a choice. The balance of vocation and work, according to the author is an impossible task and hence the balance which both Ahalya and Gautam imagined would be the case, ruined the marriage. This was her third awakening.

Then the woman, to be free in her mind, needs a room of her own. That room is her retreat, and this she can only obtain if she turns into a stone. The stone is useful for her, for it is the stone’s lifelessness that protects the woman inside it from being open to male desires. The woman’s unfreedom is the man’s lust, that is her greatest danger. However, Ahalya finds her peace inside the stone; if not a wife, then she is also denied for being a mother, a daughter, a friend and what is even more important, a teacher. The curse of becoming the stone is to be deprived of humanity and any form of visible presence for the world if she is to pursue her studies. The myth of Ahalya warns women not to touch books nor to develop her brains for then, she may have to forego her humanity, a humaneness that is permitted as far as the man wants, a humaneness that is confined to only what the man desires of the woman. This is Ahalya’s final awakening.

Kavita Kane clarifies that Gautam is not the jealous husband whose male ego is threatened by Ahalya making love to Indra; instead, he is hurt by Ahalya’s own defilement, her fallenness at giving in to lust. Her lust has diminished her, and this time, both her brains and her beauty. While he was with her, he divided her into two, taking her beauty for himself and leaving her alone with her brains. But now, as he catches her “red handed” in making love to Indra, she needs to become a whole again. What is better than a being turned into a stone to preserve her wholeness?

The author stops here with Gautam reconciled and Ahalya peaceful. But we see the desperate soul of Ahalya, a woman whose existence is construed only in terms of sexual desire, her desire for men and the men’s desires for her. Hence, she secures herself against it; but with her sexuality also evaporates her many sensualities, like taste for good food, ears for good music, feet for graceful dance, nose for the fragrances and the touch of the per deer or of children, or the feel of the cool breeze on the skin. The stone, by making a woman’s body into only a site for the satisfaction of the male desire, also ensures that a woman can have no other senses like taste, smell, sound, visuals and feeling; the stone is the hijab. This is my awakening after reading the book.

In this novel, the author makes a good case for polyandry. Gautam says that polyandry is best suited for women who are too good and multi-talented. She may find a partner each for each of her attributes. Polygamy should ideally be the mirror of polyandry and not what it is, marriage as conquest and expansion. If spinsterhood is not a choice for women and marriage is indispensable, then the Hindu wisdom says that polyandry may be the best option. In either case, the woman’s sexuality is left unaddressed and that she may be a person in her own right is waylaid. The man can be self sufficient as we find in the idea of the Ardhanariswar, but that a woman too could be somewhat of a man is denigrated as Sikhandi, the guy who is not quite the guy. Adds up to say that gender means woman only, the male is gender neutral.

Reader may also refer to the novella, Dui Bon by Rabindranath Tagore.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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