The agitation over Padmavati is only partly about history, but mainly about honour. Dishonour is not an option for many, even unto death.
The Queen of Chittor, history’s heroine and the protagonist of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film, has been the subject of much debate and controversy, not to mention threats of dire consequences or even death to those responsible for it. It behoves, therefore, to try to understand the uproar.
Let me, however, clarify at the outset that what follows is not a retelling of the story. In fact, it is not even an exercise in mere re-interpretation. Instead, I would like to offer a hermeneutical methodology or meta-interpretation — how to make sense of Indian stories, especially such stories of incredible courage or sacrifice.
The key is to see these stories, after Frederick Jameson, as allegories, not just national, but civilisational allegories. In other words, Padmavati is not only an Indian story; that would be rather obvious. For there are countless such Indian stories. After all, India is the original home of stories, the veritable Kathasaritasagara. I would argue, in fact, that Padmavati is not an ordinary, but quintessential Indian story. It is the story of India itself. I shall try to demonstrate this in my essay.
Let us try to find out what, keeping this in mind, the Padmavati dispute is really about.
Was Padmavati a historical figure? We don’t know for sure. But what is pretty much uncontested is that Alauddin Khilji did lay siege to Chittorgarh, capturing it in 1303, after eight months of stubborn endurance by the Guhila Rajput ruler Ratan Singh. The earliest account of this military feat is Amir Khusrau’s Khaza’in ul-Futuh. Khusrau, one of the founders of Hindavi literature, better known today for his Sufi songs dedicated to Nizamuddin Auliya, was Khilji’s courtier. What is more, he actually accompanied the sultan on this campaign.
In Khusrau’s account, there is no mention of Padmini, nor of the terrible jauhar, mass immolation, committed by her and the ladies of the fort before it fell into Khilji’s hands. What Khusrau does state is that 30,000 Hindus were “cut down like dry grass” on Khilji’s order. Would Khusrau not have written about Padmini or the jauhar led by her? We cannot be sure, but he does mention that during Khilji’s earlier conquest of Ranthambore, the ladies of that fort performed jauhar rather than be taken as sexual prey to Khilji’s marauding hordes.
Whence springs the legend of Padmini then? The answer is from Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s Padmavat, an Avadhi epic. The poem was composed in 1540, nearly 250 years after the siege of Chittor. Jayasi, moreover, lived in what is today’s Uttar Pradesh, not in Rajasthan. So how did he come to know this story? The likely answer is that he combined the legend of Padmini, which was already prevalent and popular, with known literary antecedents. He, of course, added his own imagination to make the story rich and powerful. Jayasi’s Padmini does commit jauhar to repel Khilji.
The whole story, like the Illiad and the Ramayana, is really one of a conquest which links woman to territory. Padmini, like Helen of Troy and the abducted Sita of Ayodhya, is the trigger of Khilji’s imperial lust not just for a woman, but for territory, and the spoils of war. It would seem that Bhansali’s Padmavati, which most of its supporters or opponents have not yet seen, is based on Jayasi’s fictional rendering. Why then should it bother us so much, threatening to tear apart the social fabric?
The reason is that Padmavati is not about history or Rajput pride or Hindu anxiety or glorification of sati. It is really about splendid, if not solitary, exemplars of resistance. The Muslim conquest of India was as brutal as it was bloody. It also involved temple-breaking, large-scale loot, decimation, enslavement of subdued populations, and, yes, predatory sexual violence and captivity. No attempt to whitewash this history or mitigate its trauma will succeed.
I say this not to ask for retributive corrections or revenge histories; that would be absurd and unfortunate. The wrongs of history cannot be righted by present politics or academics. Itihas, as both legend and history, instead, calls for deep, contextual understanding, combined with corrective self-reflection, so that the errors of the past are not perpetuated into an uncertain future. If I were to slightly tweak what Vishwa Adluri said, “we seek salvation not in, but out of history”. When it comes to Padmini, the legend is more important than history; Padmini quickly escaped from history to be immortalised in legend.
Padmini, like Rana Pratap, who was also from Chittor, symbolises resistance to the Muslim conquest of India. Why are such stories important? Because they show that one part of the Hindu psyche remained undefeated and unvanquished. Indeed, throughout the 800 or so years of Muslim rule, there were always pockets of resistance, some like Chittor, Vijaynagar, the Marathas and Sikh empires, quite glorious and successful. What obtained in India is thus quite different from the other territories of Islamic conquest, whether Arabia, Iran, Africa, Central or South East Asia. In all these places, there are hardly any accounts of such resistance, let alone of jauhar. Padmini is worshipped to this day because she symbolises that die-hard refusal to submit to the evils of greater power.
So, we must understand the difference between Padmini and Padmavati — the historical figure and character in the epic. Though both are related, with the latter based on the former, they are not identical. As to the historical Padmini, unfortunately we know little; she was, as we have seen, soon apotheosised into folklore after the purported jauhar of her martyrdom. Indeed, it was these stories of Padmini’s great sacrifice sung by bards that probably inspired Jayasi.
But that still does not explain why this Muslim Sufi poet, who lived 200 years after the tragic siege of Chittor, chose to write about it. Why did he make it his main theme? I believe that he did so because he too thought he was telling the story of India, the India that he knew and loved. Padmavat, we must acknowledge, is an epic of Hindu-Muslim synthesis and comingling. If anything, it is more Hindu than Muslim. Because it is not simply a tale of Islamist domination and conquest, which was a well-established genre by the time of Jayasi. Nor is it written in Persian, the court language of Muslim rulers, but in Avadhi, the people’s language. In fact, the Padmavat, written about 80 years before what is arguably the most important mediaeval North Indian text, the Tulsi Ramayan, becomes its precursor, readying the vernacular for epic exertions.
Jayasi follows Hindu invocatory and narrative traditions; his epic is steeped in Hindu mythology and metaphor, beginning in Kailash, with a supplication to Shiva. He, moreover, follows Hindu aesthetic and spiritual traditions, chiefly the Kamashastra and the Nath parampara. Dr Anand Kumar, who is working on a new verse translation, believes that Jayasi was an initiated Nath Yogi, though also Chisti Sufi. In that sense, he is a forerunner to the current Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath. The Nath Yogis, like the tantriks, siddhas, alchemists, daoists, and kabbalists before them, sought physical immortality, a quest that has been revived in recent times by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, though it is not fashionable to talk about it, or, at least, to take it literally.
Padmavat is thus also an esoteric yogic manual, explaining the mysteries of the horizontal and vertical axes of transformation, contained in the ancient symbols of both the cross and the swastika. Ida (left, feminine, som) and Pingala (right, masculine, agni) represent the two hemispheres of the brain, or reason and passion respectively. Between these poles and balancing them is the sushumna, the central subtle nadi, the channel of ascension of the coiled kundalini shakti from the muladhara to the sahasrara. This is the riddle that Sigmund Freud rediscovered and solved in his psychoanalysis — Id and Superego, with the Ego playing the balancing role. In tantra yoga, when the kundalini reaches the sahasrara, the practitioner attains immortality. But really the underlying structure of synthesis involves the abolishing of duality. Duality is death; non-duality, advaita, is immortality.
In a brief essay, it is be impossible to explain this symbolism in Padmavat fully. But the whole story is set in motion by the search for Padmini, the perfect or the superior type of woman, who is thus described in the Kamashastra text Anangaranga:
“She, in whom the following signs and symptoms appear, is called Padmini, or Lotus-woman. Her face is pleasing as the full moon; her body, well clothed with flesh, is soft as the shiras or mustard-flower; her skin is fine, tender and fair as the yellow lotus, never dark-coloured, though resembling, in the effervescence and purple light of her youth, the cloud about to burst. Her eyes are bright and beautiful as the orbs of the fawn, well-cut, and with reddish corners. Her bosom is hard, full and high; her neck is goodly shaped as the conch-shell, so delicate that the saliva can be seen through it; her nose is straight and lovely, and three folds of wrinkles cross her middle, about the umbilical region. Her yoni resembles the open lotus-bud, and her love-seed (kama-salila, the water of life) is perfumed like the lily which has newly burst. She walks with swanlike gait, and her voice is low and musical as the note of the kokila bird; she delights in white raiment, in fine jewels, and in rich dresses. She eats little, sleeps lightly and, being as respectable and religious as she is clever and courteous, she is ever anxious to worship the gods, and to enjoy the conversation of the learned.”
Such, then, is the Padmini, the perfect “lotus-woman.” Interestingly, Kalyana Malla, the author of Anangaranga had a Muslim (Lodi) patron. Moreover, Padmini corresponds to sayujya-mukti, the highest state that comes about from merging with the essence of the Lord (or ultimate reality). In this “erotic” text, all the women, whether Padmini, Hastini, Shankhani, Chitrini, represent various types of mukti or liberation from human suffering. So wonderfully woman-, life-, and sex-positive are these texts.
Padmini, therefore, refers not only to a specific historic queen, but the ideal type of woman. She also signifies physical, ultimately spiritual, perfection — whoever unites with her will attain immortality. Here’s where the political angle of Jayasi’s story attains prominence. When we read the text as national allegory, we see the Hindu Rajputs as disunited; they fight each other and are therefore weak. An abused and disgraced Brahmin minister in Ratan Singh’s court takes his revenge by defecting to Alauddin Khilji’s court. It is he who, having overheard from the parrot Hiraman, of the fabulous and unearthly beauty of Padmini, plants the idea of ravishing her in the sultan’s head. In the end, two Rajput brothers-in-arms fight over Padmini, both dying in the process. The great fort of Chittor is about to fall to Khilji. The queen, along with the ladies of the court, mass-immolate in the terrifying act of jauhar.
An empty, charred fort, still smelling of burning human flesh, falls into Khilji’s hands. Jayasi mocks him: the Sultan has only the stones and bricks of the ruined citadel to convert to Islam.
So, here’s the moral of the story: no one gets Padmini in the end. Neither the legitimate, but incompetent spouse, who cannot understand her true value, let alone defend her. Nor the pillaging and plundering conqueror. The fort, itself a symbol of Padmini’s virtue and maidenhead, falls, but the queen does not surrender. She prefers death over dishonour. Another princess, who has been offered as booty to Khilji by a neighbouring Rajput king, is at first married to one of his sons, then handed out to others as a sexual trophy.
In contrast, Padmini is the medieval version of Sati, the ancient spouse of Shiva, who jumped into her father’s yagna rather than submit to him. Daksha was often portrayed as a figure of lust, with a ram’s head. Why was his yajna so intolerable to sati that she destroyed it by jumping into it? Her husband then carried the charred remains of her body all over India, till Vishnu cut off bits of them. Wherever these body parts fell became a Shakti Peeth.
The other great exemplar of India, as the phrase Sati-Savitri suggests, is Savitri, the saviour, the symbol of light and higher consciousness, Tat Savitur Varenyam…hence the pair Sati-Savitri, which we trivialise and mock these days, but which actually represents the dyad of Bharat Shakti as martyr or saviour. Between these two is the whole range of happy spouses, equal partners or in many cases, more than equal, in both kama and artha on the one hand, and dharma and moksha on the other. Of these, Radha Rani is the supreme, as paramour of god.
I would suggest that all these Devis and heroines are archetypes of Mother India herself. Bharat Mata, whom Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya taught us to worship. In Anandamath he gave us a new mantra, Vande Mataram. Sri Aurobindo took it a step farther in Bhavani Mandir by speaking of Bhavani Bharati and Bharat Shakti.
So…Now let’s try to tie up the loose ends.
Why are we so upset over even an imagined slight to Padmini? That is because we cannot tolerate the rape of Mother India by any foreign conqueror or sexual predator, even if such a narrative is justified by an alien theology of imperialism or substantiated by our unfortunate history.
Just as in real life, many a Draupadi might have been disrobed or worse, as the atrocity to Nirbhaya shows, in our great Mahabharata, Vyasa did not permit such a disruption of the moral order. He literally introduced deus ex machina, the unending sari of our heroine, by the grace of Sri Krishna himself. So also in Jayasi’s epic, as in the traditions of bardolatry which he drew on, such an insult to Padmini was never shown, nor can it be tolerated today, even in the name of freedom of expression.
Bharat Shakti, Bharat Mata, Mother India — in her ideal type — will always prefer death to dishonour. Indeed, that is why despite centuries of Islamic onslaught and relentless oppression, Hindu India was not completely subdued.
There were a million Padminis who preferred death over rape and dishonour. There were a million Rana Prataps who ate grass and slept on rocks in the jungles than accept the vassalage of a foreign power.
Both Padmini and Rana Pratap were the swarajya warriors of India.
We have seen the same saga of courage and sacrifice played out over and over again, right up to our own times. India was not, is not, will not be conquered; she is immortal because she will always prefer death to dishonour.
That is why I would argue that the agitation over Padmavati is only partly about history, but mainly about honour. Dishonour is not an option, even unto death, at least for some of us.
That is why Padmavati is not just an Indian story, but the story of India. That is why Padmini, as the symbol of resistance unto death, cannot be compromised or diluted. At least the people of India will not take very kindly to it.
This is an edited version of the author’s presentation at the Indic Thoughts Festival, Goa, 18 December 2017.
The author is Professor of English at JNU. His latest publications include The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi (Penguin Random House, 2015), Cultural Politics in Modern India: Postcolonial Prospects, Colourful Cosmopolitanism, Global Proximities (Routledge, 2016), and Transit Passenger/Passageiro em Transito (University of Sao Paolo Press, 2016).