Ambiguity on virginity

Extract from Devdutt Pattanaik’s latest book ‘7 Secrets of the Goddess’ (Westland)

A young girl, Kanya-kumari, meaning one who is a virgin, invokes Shiva and expresses her desire to be his wife. Shiva agrees. But the devas are not pleased with this news. As long as Kanya-kumari is without husband and children, she has the power to kill demons. Her power unused in marriage and motherhood will also prevent the sea from overwhelming the land. So they go out of their way to disrupt this wedding. They tell Kanya-kumari that to ensure the marriage is a happy one she has to marry at sunrise the following day. But Shiva lives far away in the north on Mount Kailas; he must be asked to set forth immediately and travel through the night. Shiva agrees to travel fast, eager to meet his bride, while Kanya-kumari spends the night preparing the wedding feast, adorning herself with cosmetics and jewellery. In the middle of the night, the devas take the form of roosters and start to crow. Shiva thinks the sun is about to rise and that he will not make it to the wedding on time. So he turns around, disappointed. When the sun really does rise, there is no sign of Shiva. A heartbroken Kanya-kumari breaks all the pots containing the wedding feast: the pulses and grains turn into the colourful sand that one finds near the southern tip of India. She washes away her cosmetics in the sea: that is why the sea is multi-coloured there. She stands on the southern tip, killing demons, preventing the sea from overwhelming the land and, like a divine beacon, enabling fishermen to battle tempestuous seas and come home safe to their wives.

Cover of the book, 7 Secrets of the Goddess

This story displays an ambiguous relationship with domestication. At one level, we want God to be domesticated (he must be householder, not a hermit), and at another level, we do not want the Goddess to be completely domesticated (she must stay forest, not become field). Typically cultures use rules and laws (niti) and traditional codes of conduct (riti) to stifle freedom for the larger good. But this can destroy creativity and innovation and even introspection. It can amplify our sense of entrapment. So it is important to retain the wildness of nature, which offers the promise of freedom.

This is why in the Shiva Purana and in the Devi Purana, the devas often prevent Parvati from bearing Shiva’s child herself; they would rather that Shiva’s seed be germinated in multiple wombs. Parvati, or Gauri, is not mother in the conventional sense of the term. She is foster mother of Kartikeya, and she creates Ganesha using the paste with which she anoints her body. Neither is born through her womb. This may not make literal sense, but it makes a whole lot of symbolic sense.

This rejection of complete domestication is symbolically communicated through the unbound hair of Durga. Traditionally, well-combed and bound hair indicates domestication. But Durga, dressed in bridal finery, sports unbound hair. She thus stands on the edge, between nature and culture, acknowledging our fear of lawless freedom as well as lawful entrapment.

The author writes and lectures on relevance of mythology in modern times, and can be reached at
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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