Ahalya means ‘without deformation’. In beauty, She surpasses all other ladies of her times. Ahalya was the first creation of Lord Brahma, the ‘manaseeka putri’ and sister of the Krittikas. According to mythology, Brahma kept condition that whoever surrounds the three worlds first shall marry Ahalya. Indra wanted to marry and uses all his magical powers but sage Narada reports that Rishi Gautama, Indra’s teacher, had completed the circle first. This also has a Puranic backdrop in that Gautama did not make that astral trip after all. What he did was to go round a cow in his hermitage while it was giving birth. According to the Vedas, the cow at the time of giving birth is equivalent to the three worlds, thus Narada reports that Gautama has fulfilled the conditions to take the hands of Ahalya in marriage. Moral – it is good to know the finer points in the Vedas.
Indra was not to give up, he had been sexually aroused. One day when Gautama was away, Indra enters the hermitage and began protesting his passionate love for Ahalys. She was flattered by this and was about to succumb. Gautama returned to see the pair and cursed Indra to be branded with marks of yoni. However the better part of him makes him realise that Indra’s crime was one of intention rather than commission. Thus ‘thousand marks of disgrace’ was transformed to a thousand eyes.
Indra was also not to be deterred in his overpowering desire for Ahalya. His unholy desire was growing. Even the moon connives as Indra takes the form of a rooster and crowed at midnight. Gautama is thus lured to go out of his house in order to perform his sandhyavadana prayers. Indra then assumed the form of the sage and took his place in bed. Legends have it that Ahalya was aware of Indra’s disguise. There was a terrible age gap between Gautama and Ahalya also and terrible missing gap in their physical love-life. Thus she was not deceived by the impersonation but vain of her beauty and proud that it has won the love of the macho Indra, the God of the Gods. Thus she lost her sense of judgment.
Meanwhile as Gautama stepped into the waters, the holy Ganga warns him of Indra’s ploy. This time Gautama returned too late. Ahalya helped Indra to complete their love-making and hurried him through the door to avoid a terrible peril. While Indra was fleeing in guilty panic, he bumped against the angry rishi. Now, pretence was hopeless before the all-seeing wisdom of Gautama rishi. Despite his abject supplication, Indra was cursed to be lost of all manhood and be an eunuch. He returned in ignominious shame but was rescued by the Gods and forgiven by performing a sacrifice.
Ahalya was cursed to become a stone. Some state this to be a pillar of white salt. The rishi said: 'Living on air, you shall stay here, unseen by anyone. After a long time, Dasaratha's son will pass this way. When he sets foot in this ashrama, you will be freed from the curse. Welcome him as a guest. You will then recover your lost virtue and get back your own beauty.' The sage then left his violated ashrama for Himalayas to engage himself in austerities there."
Very many years later, after a day's stay in the City of Visala, the sage Viswamitra and his party left for Mithila. On the way, not far from Mithila, they saw a beautiful ashrama which seemed untenanted. Rama asked Viswamitra: "Whose is this ashrama with ancient trees? Why does such a beautiful abode stand deserted?" The sage explains circumstances leading to Ahalya’s and the ashrama’s curse and said to Rama: "Let us enter the ashrama. You will bring redemption to Ahalya and rekindle the light in her as the sage promised."
And they went into the ashrama. As Rama set foot in the ashrama, the curse was lifted and Ahalya stood before them in all her beauty. Having lain concealed behind leaves and creepers and kept her vow for many years, she now shone, says the poet Kambar, in Rama's presence, like the moon emerging from the clouds, like a flame issuing from smoke and like the sun's reflection in rippling water.
Rama and Lakshmana touched the feet of the sage's wife made pure by penance. She welcomed the divine princes with all the customary rites of hospitality. A shower of flowers descended from the heavens as Ahalya, cleansed of sin, shone like a goddess. Simultaneously the sage Gautama is reborn and returned to the ashrama and received his repentant and purified wife back to his affection. There are other versions with different twists.
METHAPORS IN THE SCRIPTURES: Why did Valmiki drag Ahalya into the Ramayana. Each is free to explore this according to one’s own conjectures and conceptions. Ahalya’s story may a metaphorical a mere retelling of the life of many a women portrayed as a bereaved feminine personality with varied shades of conflict, pain, ephemeral happiness, dreams and aspirations. It is both macro and micro levels of existence of women. Every human being is bound to pass through temporary transformation in the great drama of life.
Nevertheless, even while the transformation goes on, she is the same personality in the inner recesses of her existence. Many a women ‘stone’ their hearts for reasons best known to them. Ahalya’s waiting for Lord Rama for salvation symbolises the liberation from bondages that is the ultimate aim of human existence. In the real world, would there be a Sri Rama to redeem a ‘stoned’ woman? If and when the redeemer appears, or as Gautama returns to accept Ahalya, does he do so as a shield or a sword, is a thoughtful question for women.
‘Patita pavana Seeta Ram’ implies Rama is the ‘saviour of the most fallen’. By redeeming or resurrecting a Ahalya who had fallen below moral standards, is Valimiki implying that the Ahalya slot was added to justify or juxtaposed to Sri Rama sending Sita for the agni test and prove herself? But then Sita had to undergo a test to establish her morality credentials. The test indeed glorified her greatness but Ahalya there was no test; just Gautama’s punishment and Rama’s redemption. Moreover Sita was in enemy territory facing Ravana’s convincing advances and temptations but held to her high morals.
The same is not true with Ahalya, in her youthful needs and in the hands of a non-performing husband she gives in to an active Indra. That too is conjecture so we will just say under-performing and the pain that goes with it. Entre acta, the sexually active Indra and the rest is story already told. What could be Valmiki’s aim to add this comparison? Stretching the mind, one could say karma-pala and the Lord’s mercy is shown to each according to his or her karma. A doctor does not prescribe the same medicine to all the patients, does he?
Swami Perumayinar explained it in the 70’s in terms of ‘aghalya’ and aghal vilakku and the need for Light. That is going too much into Tamil words so let us see the metaphorical explanation to the Ahalya story in terms of agriculture. Ahalya, ‘a-hal-ya’ in Sanskrit also means un-plow-able. Does Ahalya represent Gautama’s infertile or unarable land instead of playing the role of a real-life wife with biological needs? Indra is the God of Rains and we have here Gautama’s fields and his hermitage becoming barren and requiring Indra’s rains.
It is also said that Ahalya turned into a pillar of salt instead of a rock. When excess water dries due to droughts, the extra salts on the surface become whitish in colour. Some commentators state that Ahalya was cursed to a salt pillar. Land with salt on the topsoil is unfit for agriculture – the land is ahalya. The pillar of salt could symbolise Ahalya’s union with Indra, the bliss with the Rain God to restore the land (or her) back to fertility. ‘Thupaarku thoovum malai’ is the Tamil phrase emphasising rain. Rama’s touching and reviving the salt pillar could also be symbolic of rebirthing of Ahalya meaning sprouting of life. Was Rama fulfilling his duty of preservation of life by touching the ‘barren’ lady symbolising land to become life and nature’s starts sprouting and Ahalya reverted to a life-giving Goddess? In the passion mode of prakriti, for land to be arable it has to be ploughed and for that one needs the rain or else alternative water sources! Everything happens according to karma-phala as Rama plays His role as Ishvara. Hari Om