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Issue Date:  June 16-30, 2007, Posted On: 6/22/2007

By Bal Ram Singh

In December 2005 I participated in a conference on religions and cultures in Indian civilization at the India Habitat Center in Delhi. There was a session on the concept of Panchakanyas, the five women who are revered for their courage, and enduring life with serenity. One of the presenters, Ratna Roy, who uses dance to make political statements, was from Evergreen State College in Washington, and the other two were Chitra Chaturvedi, and Pradip Bhattacharya (additional chief secretary of West Bengal and a freelance activist scholar) from Kolkata.

They had taken a very unique view of Panchakanyas in which the Panchakanyahood was described  as not limited to the five original Panchakanyas – Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara, and Mandodari, as propounded in the following shloka.

“Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara Mandodari tatha

Panchakanya smaranityam mahapataka nashaka”.

This shloka means that if one remembers these Panchakanyas, he or she will stay away from transgressions. The basis of this meaning is as elusive as the origin of the shloka itself. But that did not stop the three scholars from interpreting it to mean that Panchakanyahood means the freedom of a woman to sleep with as many men as she wishes, and certainly beyond her husband.

To get to the real meaning of the Panchakanya and the questions I had put forward to this panel at the end of their presentation, I will have to write an article other than what I want to focus here.

The story I want to address here is that of the Aril 15 Shilpa Shetty episode in Delhi during an AIDS awareness program amongst truck drivers. She was liberally kissed on stage by Hollywood actor, Richard Gere, in many topsy-turvy poses, while she kept trying to smile loudly.

What followed is history now. Effigies of Shetty and Gere were burned throughout India, and insults flew freely both ways.

It went quite far when Judge Dinesh Gupta issued a warrant against both Shettty and Gere under section 294 of Indian Penal Code that covers obscenity in public places. Indian intellectuals went in overdrive and showed healthy competition in articulating their condemnation of the judge and the backward culture of India.

People like Tavleen Singh, a self styled journalist of above the grace generation, was in full force, claiming Pradip Bhattacharya’s  Panchakanyahood. In an Indian Express column, Tavleen Singh says, “First let me say that if a kiss from Richard Gere is among  the perks of taking up the fight against AIDS, then consider me officially  registered as an activist from this moment on. Lucky old Shilpa Shetty, for getting to kiss...”

This, taken even as the lighter side her argument, suggests the kind of mindset of current Indian women Tavleen represents. She, however, went back several centuries to support her modern Panchakanya view.

She used the purported treatments of Sita and Draupadi in Indian culture to support the behavior of Shetty and Gere. People of Tavleen’s ilk have penchant to jump to the examples of Sita and Draupadi. Can you imagine what Sita (who discarded someone like Ravan with all the power, looks, wealth, and begging, like a gutter worm) might comment on Tavleen’s salivation over Richard?

Actually, there was someone similar to the proposed modern Panchakanya in Sita’s time as well (with a power to turn herself younger and more beautiful), who was a more prominent personality than our Tavleen, Ratna or Chitra — her name was Soorpanakha. We all know the history that followed her.

The culture of Sita and Draupadi took them to the forest with their husbands for years, with no complains and no desire of Marina Drive where Tavleen ventures out these days.

Tavleen is were not alone in their Panchakanyahood, an editorial in the Times of India went even further, and demanded for the judge to be prosecuted.

“If a kiss by two consenting adults is construed as immoral, then there is something seriously wrong with the interpretation of the law. In fact, the Jaipur magistrate should be pulled up for contempt of court.”

They were ready to use any and every reason to show their so-called progressive thoughts. “It is difficult to comprehend why Gupta didn’t toss out the complaint when it is well-known that courts are clogged with a huge backlog of cases.”

Did we hear anything like this when government arrested a frail Kanchi Shankaracharya on murder charges on the eve of Diwali in 2004, and not only dragged him through monkey courts but also jailed him for months despite even chiding the Supreme Court? No, of course, not. That time the tune was, “Let the law of the land take its own course.”

One sometimes wonders why Indians do such silly things? Perhaps we NRIs are at least partly responsible for these blind sheep mentality of according anything Western (even Richard Gere’s ugly obscenity) “must be good” material. If the West is good for NRIs then everything Western must be good for people living in India. Thus follows the obsession.

Paradoxically, such a display of sexually explicit stage behavior is not tolerated even in the United States. Remember the wardrobe malfunction incident of Janet Jackson three years ago. The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Michael Powell, had ordered an investigation of the incident, despite an apology from Jackson.

And, the malfunction wasn’t anywhere close to what Gere performed on stage supposedly trying to teach truck drivers against overindulgence in sex.

And, as if there is a divine plan to rub into Indian intelligentsia, there was a recent California case reported by ABC news on May 5 that  “Carl Persing was convicted Thursday of interfering with flight attendants and crew members after he and his girlfriend, Dawn Sewell, were seen “embracing, kissing and acting in a manner that made other passengers uncomfortable,” according to a criminal complaint.” 

In addition to causing all the social commotion, Richard Gere perhaps has damaged the cause of Tibet the most in this childish adventure. Perception is everything. His pretension to have learned Buddhism with Dalai Lama does not seem to have cleared his head as yet.

Gere is already banned from visiting China, he may have invited the same from India by default, unless Shilpa Shetty finds some way out by summoning some “Panchkanya experts” to the court of the Jaipur session judge to rescue him.

Bal Ram Singh is the director of the Center of Indic Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. He can be reached at


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