Urvashi and Pururavas
In the Hindu religion there are many Gods and Goddesses. In order to teach Hindu followers about these deities, stories are used; similar to the parables familiar to Christians and many other faiths. Often in Hindu parables, Gods interact with humans and the stories contain themes, conflicts and ultimately resolutions to which Hindu practitioners may empathise and relate to everyday life in the form of life lessons. This is one such parable.
It is the story of the apasara Urvashi.
Urvashi was returning to heaven just before dawn with the other apsaras, when she was abducted by a demon. Pururava saw this and chased the demon on his chariot and freed Urvashi from his clutches. The brief period their bodies touched changed their lives forever. For the first time Urvasi experienced the warm flesh of a mortal, for the first time she heard blood pounding in veins and for the first time she heard the inhalation and exhalation of breath. Pururavas had seen Urvashi in Indra’s court before and to actually be close to the most beautiful woman in heaven exhilarated him. Pururava left Urvashi with her friends but when they parted each was madly in love with the other but unsure whether the love was being reciprocated.
Urvashi was a female deity in a human man’s world and in keeping with the tradition of the times expected the man to make the first move. Pururavas on the other hand, feared rejection because he did not expect the pride of heaven to come and live with a mortal, and hence did not approach Urvashi. So both pined for each other. Urvashi was giving a dance performance in which she was portraying Vishnu’s consort, Lakshmi. Her concentration was with Pururavas and she called out her lover’s name instead of saying “Vishnu”. Her teacher, the sage Bharat, got offended and cursed Urvashi. “You will get to live with the person you are thinking about,” he said, “And you will also give birth to his son. But you will have to choose between the father and son, because the day they see each other you will have to leave them both and return to heaven.”
The curse actually emboldened Urvashi. She wasn’t even thinking about children, she was sure to get her love. She sent a friend to earth to find out about Pururava. The friend located the king in the garden of Gandhmadan (meaning intoxicating fragrance), whining away for his ladylove. The stage was set. Urvashi left heaven and went to the waiting arms of Pururava.
Pururavas was a married man. His wife was Aushiniri. They did not have any children and as was the custom of the time, the wife was blamed for this. So when Pururavas met Urvashi he was already distanced from his wife and hence was more easily drawn towards the apsara.
He decided to live with Urvashi in the forest of Gandhmadan. He arranged for all princely comforts there as also for running the affairs of state. They spent the time in love, in discourse; Urvashi sang and danced for Pururavas; the king was content to have her with him. For Urvashi this was a unique opportunity to live with mortals and to experience their joys and sufferings, while Pururavas reveled in the fact that the pride of heaven and Indra's favourite was his and his alone. In fact the only discordant note in their ethereal music was the argument whether the Gods are more fortunate or mortals.
An epic has been written on this debate by the famous Hindi poet, Dinkar, a passage from which bears translation. Urvashi is praising the fire that burns in the souls of mortals.
"Till there is fire in the soul, the universe is your friend. Your chariot flies in the heavens and with the clouds does play. Till there is fire in the soul, the ocean looks up to you And its infinite wealth and treasure at your feet does lay. The fierce lion passes by; the dense forests give way, Even the towering mountain peaks bow down before you. Till there is fire in the soul, great Indra pays his respects And beautiful Urvashi descends to the earth for you."
But where there are givers there will be lovers' tiffs and Urvashi and Pururavas are said to have had their share. Once Urvashi and Pururava were walking along the bank of a stream in animated conversation. Pururavas noticed a maiden knee deep in water washing clothes and for a second his concentration faltered. Urvashi went into a fit of jealous rage and ran away. So maddened was she that she stepped into Kartikeya's grove. Kartikeya is the God of War and women were forbidden to enter his grove and if they did so they would be turned into a creeper. This was the fate Urvashi met. For many months Pururava searched for Urvashi. He prayed to the Gods for their favour. He recounted the numerous times he had fought shoulder to shoulder with them in their incessant war against the Demons. Kartikeya relented and gave Pururavas a crimson jewel and asked him to rub a particular creeper in his grove with it. When the king did so Urvashi was freed.
By now everyone, including Aushiniri had accepted Urvashi as the king's consort. There was no need for them to stay at Gandhmadan. The two went to the capital city of their kingdom and continued to enjoy each other's company as before. In all Urvashi and Pururava spent sixteen years together. The gem with which Pururava had freed Urvashi in Kartikeya's grove was Urvashi's favourite. One day a raven snatched it from the hands of Urvashi's maid. Pururava raised his bow but before he could fire an arrow someone else hit the bird and it fell into the palace courtyard. The arrow was retrieved and given to the king. It was the custom that each arrow bore the name of its owner and this arrow said Ayu the son of Pururavas and Urvashi.
It had so happened that Urvashi had desired to bear a child, so without Pururavas' knowledge she had conceived and given birth to his son. The incident at Kartikeya's grove was a ploy by the Gods to give Urvashi time for bearing the child. The reason for the secrecy lay in the curse sage Bharat had given Urvashi many years earlier. "You will have to choose between your son or your lover, for the day the two meet you will have to return to heaven." The lover in Urvashi had yet not been satisfied so she had left the newborn child in sage Chyavan's hermitage in the care of his wife Satyavati.
Sage Chyavan explained everything to the astounded king. The time had come for Ayu to meet Pururavas, but unfortunately the same time necessitated the departure of Urvashi. Pururava crowned Ayu as King and left for Gandhmadan, where he had spent memorable seasons with the apsara. But the story does not end here. The Demons attacked Heaven and with Pururava's help the Gods succeeded in driving them away. In return Indra allowed Urvashi to go back to Gandhmadan where she spent many more years with Pururava and bore him many more sons.
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- A Dictionary of Hindu Mythology & Religion by John Dowson