The Legends of the Panchakanya
The Five Virgins of Ancient India
The Panchakanya (the five virgins) are female characters in the two great epics of India, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Each of them is described as extraordinarily beautiful and virtuous. The literal meaning of 'kanya' means ‘girl’, ‘maiden’ or 'virgin'. Although the five women are all married, sometimes with multiple men, this was the word chosen to depict them instead of the word nari (woman) or sati (chaste wife), which was then questioned by scholars. However, the word was chosen because tradition says that the purity of their characters are so strong, that nothing could corrupt their spiritual powers. In fact, their very names are believed to ensure salvation and freedom from evil. It is not uncommon, therefore, for devout Hindu to recite their names each morning to remind them of the power they symbolized.
The chant is sung like this: Ahalya Draupadi Sita,Tara Mandodari tatha, Pancha kanya smarenityam, maha pataka nashanam, which means "Mediating on the merits of the five great virgins, namely Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita, Tara and Mandodari, helps destroy even the greatest of sins”
The Five Forms
The Panchakanya are Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita, Tara and Mandodari. In a lot of traditions, Sita is replaced with Kunti as the third lady of the Panchakanya. Ahalya, Tara, Mandodari and Sita are from Ramayana, while Kunti and Draupadi are from Mahabharata. Although Kunti and Sita are interchangeable, to keep the formation of the five virgins, they would never appear together as they represent the same natural element, which is earth.
Five is one of the mystical numbers according to Hindu belief. There are five ingredients prescribed for worship: wine, fish, flesh, lard and chant, corresponding to the five senses in the human body: taste, smell, sight, touch and hearing. It is also believed that nature manifests itself in five forms: earth, water, fire, wind and sky. Each kanya is born of one of these elements, and these five elements of nature formed the essence of their characters.