The Epic Story of Ahalya and Its Hidden Symbolism


by Jayaram V

Summary: The life and character of Ahalya, the wife of sage Gautama, who was seduced by Indra and was cursed by her husband to turn into a stone and become invisible. Find here her story and her significance and symbolism as a female archetype virtue and frailty in Hinduism.

Ahalya (Sanskrit: अहल्या, IAST: Ahalyā) also known as Ahilya, was the wife of sage Gautama. Her story exemplifies the life and character of a high-caste, chaste, Hindu woman, whose life went from bad to worse due to her actions and those of the men in her life. She represents a composite personality which cannot easily be fitted into a traditional role model of a pious, dutiful wife. Etymologically, ahalya means the unplowed or untainted or the one who possess great beauty and virtue. In Hindu popular lore she represents a very atypical and complex character as the wife of a pious and venerable sage who fell from the heights of purity and chastity into the depths of sin.

It is difficult to ascertain whether she is a victim of her own sinful actions and vulnerabilities or the unjust acts of a lustful god and a self-righteous husband who was blinded by his own, egoistic anger. Whoever may be at fault, her story reminds us of the fact that women suffered from many social disabilities in the Vedic society. Traditionally and historically their suffering as well as their salvation largely depended upon the judgment, character and conduct of men, and upon the laws and the code of conduct which they devised and enforced upon them to control them and protect them as the self-appointed guardians of Dharma and women's virtue.

The different versions of her story point to the effort made by the ancient scholars to resolve the rather discordant story of an adulterous affair involving a chaste woman with impeccable reputation and character and a pious husband who was too preoccupied with his own spiritual practice and austerities to pay attention to his forlorn wife. Some of them however felt that her adulterous behavior and her meek acceptance of the punishment meted out to her should serve as a grim warning to all devout women to be vary of the spiritual harm and the suffering which might arise from human passions and lustful actions.

According to several Hindu scriptures Ahalya was seduced by Indra (the lord of the gods' heaven) who had an eye upon her for a long time. As a consequence, she was cursed by her husband for infidelity, and was eventually liberated from the curse by Lord Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu and the main character of the epic Ramayana. The Brahmanas such as the Jaiminiya Brahmana, Sadvimsha Brahmana Shatapatha Brahmana and Taittiriya Brahmana (apart from Latyayana and Drahyayana Grihyasutras) are the earliest scriptures which allude to her relationship with Indra, invoking the latter as the "lover of Ahalya.” Due to the multiple accounts of the same story, it is difficult to determine whether she was at fault, or Indra was at fault or both were at fault.

The story is repeated with several variations in different versions of the Ramayana and several Hindu Puranas, apart from vernacular literature, dance dramas, plays and other renditions. In the traditional versions, the story of Ahalya is narrated to elevate and exemplify the divine character of Lord Rama and his compassionate actions. In many modern versions of the story, it is narrated from the gender perspective to point to the unequal and unjust treatment of women in traditional Hindu society.

According to the texts, Ahalya was created by Brahma either from water or from the burnt ashes of a sacrificial fire as the most beautiful of all women, and was married to Gautama who was much older than her, much to the displeasure of Indra who desired her from the beginning as Brahma made her to be more beautiful and sensuous than Urvashi, a damsel in Indra's court. In the earliest versions, when Indra approached her disguised as her husband, she saw through his disguise but still accepted his advances out of curiosity.

Later sources absolve her of her guilt, suggesting that she was tricked by Indra’s guile and fell for his advances. In one version, Indra sought the help of the moon, who disguised as a cock crowed at midnight. Thinking that it was time for morning ablutions, Gautama went out, and Indra using the opportunity went in the disguise of Gautama and seduced her.

In both narratives, her short affair with Indra enraged her husband when he came to know about it and cursed them both. The nature of the curse varies from text to text. In one version, Gautama cursed her to become invisible and atone for her sins through severe penances, and in another he cursed her to become a stone and wait for her redemption. He cursed Indra too to carry his shame everywhere, with a thousand openings or eyes in his body. In the Brahma Purana, she was cursed to become a dried up stream or rivulet and redeem herself by joining the river Gautami or Godavari.

In all the versions, the curse was lifted by Lord Rama when he visited the desolate ashram (hermitage) of Gautama and came to know about her pitiable story through Vishvamitra. In the version where she was turned into a stone, the touch of Rama’s feet redeemed her and returned her to her previous form. He also helped her reconcile with her estranged husband and son. The version where she was cursed to become a stone and atone for her sins and guilt is more popular in public memory.

Ahalya’s status in Hindu tradition

Traditionally, Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita, Tara and Mandodari are remembered as the five chaste maidens (panchakanyas) or female archetypes of virginity, purity, chastity and femininity. These women are also known for the suffering they went through due to the injustices and insults heaped upon them by their husbands and other men in their lives, although they possessed incorruptible character, loyalty and integrity. Hence, it is believed that remembering their very names absolve people of their sins. Some versions include Kunti, rather than Sita in the list and suggest that they represent not chastity but the fallibility of women since each of them had a relationship with one or more men in their lives other than their husbands. They are contrasted with other five women of great integrity and character namely Sati, Sita, Savitri, Damayanti and Arundhati.

Symbolism of Ahalya's story

The symbolism of Ahalya's story is briefly summarized in the following table, followed by a brief explanation of the symbolism of each character.

AhalyaVirgin body, unplowed land
IndraFickle Mind
Gautama - HusbandEgo
Gautama - SageDiscriminating Intelligence
RamaEternal Self

Symbolically, Ahalya represents the human body of a young initiate or maiden who has taken the vow of celibacy as the unplowed (untainted) field (kshetra) of Nature, while Lord Rama is the Self or the soul who acts as the owner (kshetrajna) of that field. As the creation of Brahma, made of flesh and blood, the 23 tattvas and the triple gunas, the body (the unplowed field) is vulnerable to the passions and temptations of the sensuous mind, aided and abetted by the senses (indriyas).

As the lord of the senses, Indra represents the fickle mind which can arouse the body with sexual passion and make it impure with sinful thoughts and desire-ridden actions. As his name suggests, Gautama (the bearer of radiant light) represents the illuminating, higher mind or discerning intelligence (buddhi) in his exalted state as the sage, and the ego or the self-sense in his worldly role as the husband.

When the body succumbs to the sexual passions and temptations of the mind and senses (Indra) in the momentary absence of discriminating intelligence (Gautama), it loses its purity and chastity and falls into sinful ways. For that one has to atone for a long time, repenting and guarding oneself against sinful thoughts with a restrained mind (Indra), keeping a thousand eyes (as the eyes in Indra's accursed body) upon the movements of the mind with discerning intelligence. When one succeeds in that effort, rendering the body immobile and stone-like and immune to human passions and desires through atonement and penances as in case of Ahalya, one becomes qualified for the liberating touch (Brahma-sparsha) of the Self, which is represented by the touch of Lord Rama.

Thus, the story of Ahalya is not just an ancient tale of sin and redemption. It has a deeper message and universal appeal to all of us who are engaged in the journey of life from a state of ignorance and indulgence to the state of enlightenment, tranquility and immortality through the touch of God.

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