Aryaa: An Anthology of Vedic Women. Shivakumar G V (Ed.) Notion Press. 2023. Pages 374. Rs 398.
One of the hallmarks of great classics is the numerous times they are retold, across media and platforms, across time.
The longer a classic survives, the more it gets scrutinised by future generations, and the more the legends and characters undergo harsh tests of time — one of those tests is to be denigrated and derided for not conforming to the value systems of more modern eras.
Characters go through litmus tests of modern values, to see if they hold up in the era where new values have turned the old society’s foundations upside down.
We tire of our old stories, their rhetoric of our glorious past, we resent being told that the past is a source of guidance while our own lives in the present seem daunting.
And so, we start to pick them apart to show up the platitudes our parents and grandparents raised us with. We are determined to point out the flaws, even to the point of blaming the collective past for today's miseries. Or simply to make a point that it was not all rainbows and unicorns.
True humanity is felt in the depths of its lack, we say, and so we look for failures — evidence of how our ancestors failed us, even if it is only to prove they were just as human as us and definitely nothing more.
Nevertheless, these tests are part of a natural cycle.
People go from being in awe of legends of yore to dismissing them as ‘just bedtime stories’, to ranting against their psychological hold over us, resenting the archetypes they have imprinted within the present-day society until deep scrutiny and resentment give rise to a new layer of understanding and reconciliation.
A true classic survives not just one cycle but emerges on the other side of many such cycles of tests.
We know this because we are witnesses to classics from our tradition, thousands of years old, still being put to the test and they still return in newer forms leaving a deeper imprint on our minds each time.
When I saw a tweet by Shivakumar G V, the curator of the anthology, Aryaa: An Anthology of Vedic Women, announcing the book, I was curious to see if there was anything new that the book could explore, anything different from all that has been said already.
The book is a collection of 10 stories from the Vedic times, reimagined by 10 authors into short stories.
I expected the characters to be the popular Draupadi and Kunti, central characters dominating and shaping huge parts of the epic Mahabharata and certainly anticipated Gargi and Maitreyi, intellectual giants who have left a permanent imprint on the history of this land, even though we know so little about their lives.
This was the other point of my curiosity — what new details of their lives could we reimagine and how would they enrich our views of these women?
Refreshingly, it is not Draupadi or Kunti, but some interesting and often ignored women — like Ulupi, Chitrangada, Subhadra and Satyavati that take centre stage.
The most significant highlight of the collection, for me, is the way the characters and stories are arranged in the sequence of narration.
The series begins with Rohini Gupta’s Chitrangada, the warrior princess who had to choose between her calling to pick up arms in defence of her kingdom, and marriage that would demand her to leave her old father with no heir to the throne.
As the only daughter, whose destiny would decide the future of her father’s kingdom, she had to make life decisions with clear judgment and precision.
Then, we explore the painful ordeal of Damayanti, through the narration of Manjula Tekal, as she evaluates her own life decisions and why she found herself abandoned and distraught and what she could have done differently.
Through intense reflection on the past and the future, she must make a decision again, whether to trust the love of her life after all that she had been through. The strength of Damayanti is not blind faith in love, but her ability to hold space for her grief and loss, to look at the past with clarity, to allow space for doubt and worry, and to navigate to the place of conviction.
Next comes Shakuntala, whose story is etched in folklore through the powerful retelling by Kalidasa.
While Kalidasa’s story highlights the romance between Dushyanta and Shakuntala, the trials and tests of love the innocent woman from a hermitage endures at the hands of fate and a powerful king, Prasad Kulkarni explores the inner strength of Shakuntala to bring out her courage, conviction and compassion — all the traits she imparted to her son, who went on to become one of the greatest kings of our history, whose name this land carries to this day.
Subhadra’s tale, in Bharathi V’s words, took me by surprise. I was not sure what I expected, but Subhadra only features in our minds in divine connection to her brothers, Krishna and Balarama and her legendary husband Arjuna.
This story is poignant, filled with the sense of tremendous loss that no human can endure in a lifetime, in the face of the devastation the Mahabharata war brought.
In the middle of this tragedy stands Subhadra, a woman of unimaginable ability not only to deal with her own grief but to empathise and hold space for the grief of her husband and even for others in the family, carrying on the mantle of raising a new generation of kings, even as everyone else decided they had borne enough of life’s burdens.
Madhavi is perhaps the most complex of all the women in this collection, possibly because we know very little about her motivation and desires.
Her life as described in the legend of Yayati is of a different time and age, and the author Madhureima Devii Dasi bridges the gaps in our understanding of Madhavi’s life path and choices, and the questions of her agency in a seemingly patriarchal narrative.
As the narrator’s contemporary values conflict with Madhavi’s traditional yet unconventional life, new questions emerge.
What if Madhavi was not a helpless victim? How could her actions seem consistent with the value system of her time, of what we know from literary evidence and also seem internally consistent with her personality?
Deepak M R’s Satyavati and Rajani Muralidhar’s Ulupi cover the middle portion of this series exploring the lives of royal women who were not destined to rule a kingdom, but through curious turns of fate had become instrumental in overseeing the younger generations with care and far-sighted vision, to ensure the lineage of rulers remained unbroken.
Satyavati’s commitment to Hastinapur and Ulupi’s dedication to the upbringing of her own son as well as Chitrangada’s, a woman who she saw as ‘cut from the same cloth’ as her, follow the same lines of strategic vision and self-belief.
Until now, the stories and the women they depict have diverse motivations and backgrounds but the common thread that weaves through the narratives is the higher calling they all responded to.
They were all women who were faced with life decisions that would enforce the first three purushartha — dharma, artha and kama.
They all stepped beyond an ordinary life to not only follow the highest purpose of their own lives but also empower the next generations to fulfil theirs.
From here, we step into the fourth purushartha: moksha.
The next two stories throw the spotlight on important episodes of the lives of Gargi and Maitreyi — two women whose greatest calling was self-realisation.
Of all the stories, I was most sceptical of these two, considering how lofty and esoteric the subject of Moksha is and that outside of their scholarship and intellectual prowess, very little of their personality has remained on the pages of history.
Celia Pillai sets the scene in the royal court of Janaka where scholars debate their understanding of Brahman. It is in this setting that she shines a light into Gargi’s mind, her own quest for the ultimate truth and her confidence in her knowledge and awareness of her limits.
What is undoubtedly a heavy subject transforms into a fascinating vignette of Gargi’s legendary debate with Yajnavalkya.
Kavita K Meegama brings more drama and internal conflicts to a similar path in Maitreyi’s life. Already leading a renunciate’s life in the forests, Maitreyi is drawn to the final step of her quest.
The question of renunciation in the life of a seeker is not an easy one to answer — Maitreyi weighs in the delicate aspects of responsibility versus attachment, seeking versus shunning, duty versus desire before she makes the most important decision of her life. The story flows gently but brings out the intensity of the dilemma beautifully.
Ranjith Radhakrishnan brings this theme to a close with his poem, Shandilyaduhita, a portrait of a woman who is only an obscure reference in the original mahakavya.
The poem flows like a ballad, setting out the ambition of the daughter of a rishi to attain svarga. Accomplished in her tapas, she falls short of the final attainment because she did not fulfil her role as a ‘householder’.
Not one to give up easily, she goes about solving this tricky test in an ingenious way, until the gods nodded in appreciation. The poem reads like a delightful fairytale and wraps up the anthology.
Every story serves as inspiration. None of the central figures is a victim of their fate or the people in their lives. They are remarkable in their calm acceptance of their destiny, without denying their grief.
These women are not driven by a sense of injustice or being wronged, they are not given to rage or anger that typically accompanies a sense of despair and helplessness.
They make decisions out of the choices life presents them, with only one goal — the path they take must serve their inner calling.
If I had to critique the book for its flaws, it is only on account of its ambition. The immense research, study and reflection of the original works come through strongly in all the stories.
Most of these stories are part of the epic Mahabharata and so merit being narrated in long-form, simply because there are too many characters and back stories to fill the reader in on.
Some of the stories seemed like they were straining under the weight of the details that a short story simply could not carry. I would love for Damayanti or Satyavati’s story, for instance, to be allowed the space of an entire novel, so as to bring out the finer details of the plot, without adding pressure to the pace of narration.
It is also a testament to the depth of Mahabharata that every story, even minor or obscure ones, has so many dimensions to explore that it warrants a full novel.
Nevertheless, every story took me on a train of reflection of my own and raised many questions, and challenged a few preconceived notions on ideals and values of past eras.
A good story does not stop at narrating events. It illuminates our own inner narratives and helps to bring clarity into our inner lives.
Each of the women in this anthology is a torchbearer and with the aid of this book, they return to the mainstream of our conscious thoughts, to throw light on our present-day dilemmas and inner conflicts through their remarkable lives.
Gowri Subramanya is a digital learning consultant, traveler, and wildlife photographer based in Bengaluru.
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