The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are full of references to holy sages with great spiritual powers. The system of penance was based on creating a reserve of energy within. Sacrifice was said to build instinctive energy. Indulgence was believed to spend it. It entailed controlling emotions, denial of sensory pleasures and restricting primary drives like thirst, hunger and sex. Brahmacharya or celibacy was revered. It was believed that sexual denial conserved the body’s physical energy that could be converted to spiritual power.
How Indra tried to sabotage the sages’ penance
If one failed to control his emotions and sensory impulses, the energy reserve could be lost. This is what Indra the king of the Devas wanted. Whenever a saint’s spiritual energy reached above mortal levels, Indra appeared. Indra often devised schemes to disturb the spiritual balance and drain the accumulated spiritual power. To some, he sent celestial nymphs. Vishwamitra cohabited with Menaka and forgot about his penance.
For Kapil Muni, Indra tied the Ashwamedh Yajna’s horse beside the meditating sage and when the sons of Sagar accused the sage of stealing, he lost his temper and burnt them to ashes. The loss of temper also resulted in loss of spiritual power.
While some sages lived in total celibacy, there were some who married and lived a life of controlled desires. In their quest for spiritual uplift, these mendicants often exercised intermittent celibacy vows.
They had ritual duties for various fire sacrifices for which they travelled for long periods, leaving their young wives in the hermitage alone or with their young disciples. It was a frugal life of hard labour and long periods of sexual starvation for their wives.
Beheaded for her desires
Sage Jamadagni got married to princess Renuka because her father feared Jamadagni’s wrath. Renuka moved from the luxurious life of the palace to the hermitage. She walked miles to fill pitchers of water. One day, as she filled her pitchers, she noticed some Gandharvas, the celestial musicians, frolicking in the water. They soon made erotic love to their mates.
Renuka felt a rush of desire and she dropped her pitchers. Jamadagni did not get water for his rituals and demanded to know the reason. Renuka confessed. Jamadagni was enraged and accused his wife of harbouring adulterous thoughts. He ordered his son Parashuram to behead her.
Cursed for giving in to temptation
Rishi Gautama was away and Indra dressed like him and approached his wife Ahalya, the most beautiful woman among mortals. Thinking it was her husband, Ahalya did not resist his touch and made passionate love with him. Gautama returned and cursed Indra that a thousand vaginas would grow on his body. He cursed Ahalya to turn into a rock and remain so till a chaste man touched her. The legends of Renuka and Ahalya travelled far and became parables.
Related reading: The story of Ahalya and Indra: Was it really adultery?
Spurned by a younger man
Rishi Veda travelled out of his retreat and his wife entered her fertile period in his absence. She requested his student Uttanka to honour her desire and cohabit. Uttanka politely turned her away. Veda returned to and came to know of his student’s loyalty. He blessed him. The spurned wife, however, nursed a grudge and punished him by demanding a tough gurudakshina (teacher’s fees).
Violated for her own ‘protection’
There is another very interesting story in the Anushasana Parva of the Mahabharata, where Bheeshma from his bed of arrows teaches dharma to Yudhisthir:
Rishi Devsharma was away and Indra entered his hermitage with intent to court Devsharma’s wife Ruchi. Veda Vyasa has described the woman as blessed with voluptuous curves, rotund hips and ample breasts. She had eyes like lotus petal and full lips. The shlokas hint at her being full of desire and susceptible to the amorous advances of Indra, if not encouraging.
Vipula, the young disciple of Devsharma, anticipated the danger and feared an Ahalya or Renuka like fate for Ruchi. He wanted to protect her from the immoral and irresistible Indra. Her sexuality was attenuated by the miraculous yoga (union) of his body into hers. (The shlokas describe Vipula’s static body seated but his spiritual body embracing Ruchi’s in the erotic sites.) Surprised and aroused, Ruchi choked and was not able to speak or greet Indra. Instead she admonished him for being there. Indra felt embarrassed and left.
Related reading: A practical guide to Tantra
Devsharma forgave Vipula for intimately touching his wife, since Vipula’s intent was noble. He managed to save fecund Ruchi from being seduced. By holding off Indra, he also forestalled Devsharma’s grief and rage. He maintained his teacher’s emotional balance and hence his spiritual powers.
- Paushya Parva, Adi Parva, Adhyay 3 Shloka 82-89. Māhābhāratā. Gita Press. 2003.
- Anushasana Parva, Adhyay 41 Shloka 1-18. Māhābhāratā. Gita Press. 2003.
- [Canto 30]. Śrīmadvālmīkīya Rāmāyaṇa. Gita Press. 1998.