Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Urvasi Myth

by Prabhaker Acharya

This paper examines Prof. D. D. Kosambi’s analysis of the Urvasi legend in the Rgveda. The purpose is to draw attention to some of the qualities that made him one of our leading thinkers.

The distinguishing feature of Prof. D. D. Kosambi’s work – in history, anthropology, archaeology, numismatics or mathematics – was his passionate involvement with his subject. Passion, precision, and brilliant flights of imaginative reasoning - these are some of the qualities that made him one of the intellectual giants of his time. All these qualities are much in evidence in his treatment of the Urvasi legend.

Kosambi was intrigued and fascinated by a passage in the Rgveda, a dialogue between Urvasi and Pururavas, which he found “totally foreign in appearance to anything else in the Rgveda.” He published a paper on it in 1951, transliterating the whole passage – all eighteen verses – into Roman script, and also giving a literal prose translation and a commentary. Ten years later, this became ‘Urvasi and Pururavas’, the second chapter of his monumental work, Myth and Reality.

The chapter begins with a summary of Vikramorvasiyam: “One of Kalidasa’s finest plays, Vikramorvasiyam, has for its theme the love, separations, and final reunion of King Pururavas…and the nymph Urvasi. The apsaras, on her way to heaven, is abducted by the demon Kesi, from whose clutches the mortal king rescues her. This led to their falling in love… She is recalled to heaven, to act the part of Laksmi in a play staged before Indra. But the divine stage-director Bharata sentences her to assume human form for mispronouncing Visnu’s name Purusottama as Pururavas. The curse is no great burden, as it enables her to mate with Pururavas, but the course of their true love is interrupted again and again. The heroine is turned into a vine, because of an unwitting transgression… But she is changed back and restored to her husband by a charmed jewel. The jewel is stolen by a bird of prey; the bird is shot dead by an arrow bearing a legend which tells the king that Urvasi has borne him a son. This means another reunion, which would be terminated by Urvasi’s restoration to heaven; but Indra, having a war on his hands, allows her to remain on earth till her husband’s death.” Though Kosambi says that “this crude analysis of a beautiful play by one of the world’s great poets and India’s great dramatist does no justice to the consummate skill with which the theme is handled,” it is, in fact, a brilliant summary of a very complex plot.

But Kosambi’s chief interest is in the theme of the play, the Urvasi legend, which he traces back to our oldest extant records, Satapatha Brahmana and the Rgveda. The dialogue in the Rgveda begins abruptly, with Pururavas’s pleading: “Alas, O wife, desist from your intentions. O dreadful one, let us discourse together. If our chants remain unuttered, they will bear no fruit for distant days.” Urvasi replies, “What shall I do with these discourses of yours? I have gone over like the first of the Usas. O Pururavas, go back to your destiny; I am as hard to catch as the wind.” But Pururavas speaks of his “heroic determination,” and of moving “like an arrow to a target.” A third voice – obviously a chorus – speaks of their union. Then Urvasi says: “Thrice a day didst thou ram me with thy member, and impregnated me unwilling as I was. Pururavas, I yielded to thy desires; O hero, then wert thou king of my body”. Pururavas says: “She flashed like falling lightning, bringing me the craved waters – from the water was born a noble lad. May Urvasi grant long life.”

But there is a change in the situation now. Urvasi says: “I, the initiate, warned you on that very day. Thou didst not listen to me, why dost thou now speak like an innocent?” When Pururavas pleads that his son will yearn for his father and shed tears, she says, “he will not cry, heedful of my sacred office…Go to thy destiny, thou fool, thou canst not reach me.”

Pururavas raves at first, “there is no friendship with womenfolk, their hearts are the hearts of hyenas”, and then calms down: “I, the best of men, submit to the atmosphere-filling, sky-crossing Urvasi. May the blessings of good deeds be thine; turn back, my heart is heated (with fear).” Urvasi says: “Thus speak these gods to thee, son of Ila: inasmuch as thou art now doomed to death, thy offspring will offer sacrifice to the gods, but thou thyself rejoice in heaven.”

I have, for the sake of brevity and clarity, dropped a few lines, and added a couple of comments, making, perhaps, the passage less baffling than it actually is. The passage did baffle all later writers and commentators. The Satapatha Brahmana tried to make sense out of it by giving it a ‘setting’. In this episode Urvasi loves Pururavas but accepts him as her husband on the condition that she should never see him naked. She lives with him for a long time and is with child by him. The Gandharvas, who want her back, contrive a situation where Pururavas’s nakedness is revealed to her by a flash of lightening. She leaves him. As he is wandering distraught near a lake, Urvasi, swimming there in the form of a swan with other nymphs, sees him. She reveals herself to him, and then follows a dialogue very similar to the passage in the Rgveda.

The modern commentators of the passage, Kosambi feels, have nothing much to offer by way of explanation. To Keith the hymn was simply about “one of those alliances of nymphs and men, which are common in all literature.” The trouble with this, says Kosambi, is that it explains nothing. If the legend is common, and primitive, it has to have some fairly deep significance. What is that significance? Geldner, whose main service was a painstaking report on the principal versions of the story, still had no proper explanation of the original legend to offer. Oldenburg and some others thought that the passage was obscure because some prose passage was missing. Max Muller had a very simple formula. To him ‘Urvasi loves Pururavas’ meant ‘the sun rises’; ‘Urvasi sees Pururavas naked’ meant ‘the dawn is gone’; and so on. Though Kosambi values Muller’s substantial contribution to Indic philology, he has only contempt for this kind of “fatuous equivalence”. A healthy irreverence for established ‘authorities’ is one of Kosambi’s strengths. He is often blamed for his irreverent attitude to the Vedas. What he has is love, not reverence. Reverence does not open doors. Love does.

What is Kosambi’s explanation? It is a simple but startling one. He says that it “derives from as literal a reading as possible, with the ambiguities left unresolved till the end, and then determined - as far as possible – by taking the sense of the whole” – surely a sensible thing to do. He thinks that Pururavas is to be sacrificed after begetting a son from Urvasi; in the dialogue he pleads with her, in vain, to spare his life. What we have here, according to Kosambi, is a primitive ritual, a fertility myth, well-known to anthropologists. The Goddess of fertility or mother-goddess was represented by her priestess. A man was chosen to be her husband for a year, and then sacrificed. The ritual, a primitive one, must have become obsolete during the Vedic times but the myth survived. (The passage is a perfect example of a myth, because an ancient Greek definition of myth is ‘the things which are spoken in rituals acts’.)

So the Urvasi passage can be seen as a dialogue between the priestess and her husband, to be used in a liturgical play. What is missing is perhaps stage-direction for the mime, and not some prose narrative. So Kosambi’s conclusion is that Kalidasa’s play is very naturally based upon the oldest of plays.

Before arriving at this conclusion, and after, Kosambi gives us a plethora of information, explanations and insights that are simply mind-boggling in their range and depth. His comments on Kalidasa’s other plays, for example, are perceptive – especially the off-the-cuff remark that in Sakuntala the Urvasi myth is neatly reversed, the mortal king rejecting the apsaras-born Sakuntala. But perhaps the most heavily loaded – and fascinating – part of this chapter is the one where he identifies Urvasi with Usas, the goddess of dawn, and explores the position of Usas as a mother-goddess. Why is this goddess of dawn so prominent in the Rgveda? There are twenty-one complete hymns dedicated to her. But she lost her importance after Indra vanquished her and she fled in fright, leaving her wagon smashed to bits on the river Vipas. “Indra”, says Kosambi “is the young god, one whose birth is mentioned several times, and who takes the lead…because of his prowess in battle. In fact, he reflects the typical Aryan tribal war-chieftain, irresistible in strife after getting drunk on Soma.” Usas, on the other hand, is an ancient goddess. What happens is “a clash of cults, that of the old mother-goddess being crushed on the river Beas by the new war-god of the patriarchal invaders, Indra.”

But the cult survived, and got assimilated in the new order. It even gave birth, according to Kosambi, to two Brahmin clans, the Vasisthas and the Agastyas. The flight of imaginative reasoning with which Kosambi reconciles the multiple account of Vasistha’s birth in the Rgveda is admirable. Vasistha was born of the apsaras; he was culled by the gods from a lotus pond; he was born from the seed of Mitra and Varuna poured into a kumbha. All this is reconciled when it is realized that the apsaras is a water goddess (like the Nereids) and the “kumbha is itself the mother-goddess”. Kosambi points out that the Katha-sarit-sagara equates the kumbha or ghata explicitly to the uterus; and of how the Navaratri fertility festival to all mother-goddesses begins on the first of Asvin with ghatastapana, the installing of a fertility jar. The kumbha as a representation of a mother goddess still survives in many south Indian festivals. Kosambi gives a detailed account of the Karaga at Bangalore, the special annual fertility rite of the Tigalas, as an example.

Vasistha’s birth in a kumbha, according to Kosambi, suggests that he is of non-Aryan origin. So also is the other jar-born sage, Agastya, who “nourished two colours” (ubhau varnau puposa) where the two varnas, Kosambi opines, “cannot mean two castes, but both Aryans and non-Aryans, for he belonged to both, and his hymns show clearly the character of the compromise.” Kosambi wonders whether the Agastyan penetration of the South is just a myth or a historical fact.

What about Urvasi and Pururavas? Primitive rites are never completely erased from racial memory. So Kosambi suggests that even the custom of Sati might be an inversion of the older sacrifice of the husband. He reminds us of the ancient but still recited marriage hymn from the Rgveda, which admonishes the bride: ‘a-pati-ghni-edhi,’ meaning ‘become a non-husband-killer.’ “This excellent advice,” says Kosambi “is followed up with an invocation to Indra to give her ten sons and to make her husband the eleventh. This would carry the proper meaning only in a society which had not completely forgotten that the husband was once sent to the gods in sacrifice, but never the son.” I think Kosambi has gone overboard here. The interpretation of ‘a-pati-ghni-edhi’ is Kosambi’s, and suits his thesis, but most would read it as ‘a-pat-agni-eti’, meaning, ‘may your house-fire remain burning.’ At the time when there were no matches, and a housewife’s primary duty was to guard the house-fire and keep it burning, ‘a-pat-agni-eti’ would have been an appropriate blessing for the bride.

What can one say about a book that holds such an incredible wealth of knowledge and insight? It is like a kumbha – like the one Vasistha and Agastya came from - filled to the brim with grain, but packed so tight it is difficult to take the grain out. Kosambi’s book is not an easy one to read. His brilliant, coruscating mind emits sparks of insight in every page - sparks that could have ignited the imagination of other writers, if only the book were more accessible.

Igniting the imagination. One notable instance of that is worth recording. Kosambi’s paper of 1951 inspired one Mr. Beram Saklatwala, born and educated in U.K., working as the Managing Director of Tata Ltd., London, to write a long narrative poem - in 120 decasyllabic lines - titled ‘Urvasi and Pururavas.’ I quote a single stanza from it:

Ah, love, the goddess said, “You did embrace

And take me wholly, as a living fire.

Unwilling was my body, and my face

Turned from you, yet I yielded to your desire.

Though I a goddess, you were king of all

My body’s realm, and held me in your thrall.”

The poem is a well-written one, though its Tennysonian mellifluousness is no improvement on the simple, sensuous and nascent lines of the Rgveda. But what Mr. Saklatwala says about Kosambi in his introductory remarks is worth quoting:

“I first met him when he was in England as a guest of the British Council to give a series of lectures, to which he invited me. I knew him by repute as a mathematician and therefore declined to go to the lectures…He told me that in fact his lectures were to be on the subject of Mesolithic archaeology. It was thus for the first time that I realized how broad were his interests and how complete a polymath he was. His interests were extra-ordinarily wide-ranging. When I took him to Salisbury Plain to show him the great monument of Stonehenge, I found he was familiar with all the background and all the interpretations put upon the monument by English antiquarians since the 17th Century. He was well-read in Medieval Latin texts, an authority on the punch-mark coins of Western Asia, skilled in the science of genetics. Like a latter-day Lord Bacon, he had taken all learning to be his province. He was not only learned, but a stimulator of learning in others.”

Prabhaker Acharya is the author of The Suragi Tree, published by Mapin. His second novel, Manu in Kishkindha, is ready for publication. He lives at Ambalpady, a small village near Udupi. Email:


Muraleedhara Upadhya said...

Discussion about this paper by Prabhakara Acharya at Gandhi Centre Manipal arranged by Mr K. P. Rao on 2- 7-2016.- Muraleedhara Upadhya -

Vijayalakshmi Kodati said...

I am fascinated by the explanation given by Kosambi about the fertility status during the vedic and subsequent periods. I am a fertility specialist presently taken up samskrit study as a hobby. In my endeavor to write a case study about the first test-tube baby of the vedic period, I have been gathering literature about the birth of Agastya. Kosambi's explanation makes some sense. I would like to know more if possible.