The apsara who seduces the sage is a common trope in Hindu mythology and can be considered together with the narrative in which a divine woman seduces a king. Whoever the woman, her time on earth is short for she must return to the heavens once she has achieved her purpose — either breaking an ascetic’s penance or, producing sons for a king.

The story of Menaka and Vishwamitra is perhaps the best known of the apsara-sage stories. It is simple enough, perhaps even paradigmatic, creating the trope rather than sustaining it. Indra is worried about the intensity of Vishwamitra’s ascetic practice as it would give the sage enormous powers. He sends Menaka to seduce him and nullify his penance.

Menaka enters the forest where Vishwamitra is absorbed in his penance and transforms it into a beautiful garden. Then, Vayu blows by and lifts Menaka’s garments. Vishwamitra opens his eyes to see an exquisitely beautiful woman, almost naked, standing before him in a lush and lovely garden. Of course, he drops his ascetic practice and makes love to her.

Soon, a child is born to them, a girl, and Menaka returns to heaven, leaving her lover and her daughter behind. Vishwamitra abandons the child in a patch of reeds where she is cared for by birds. The sage Kanva finds her and takes her home, naming her Shakuntala after the birds that had looked after her.

In another more elaborate version of the story, Menaka unexpectedly falls in love with Vishwamitra. She tells him the truth — that she was sent to seduce him in order to destroy his penance. Vishwamitra is outraged and though he loves her too, curses her to be forever separated from him and their child. A heart-broken Menaka goes away, never to return.

Menaka is a pathetic figure in the second story, the one who draws and holds our sympathy. She loses the man she loves and her daughter because she made the mistake of falling in love. But the curse is an interesting one — if Vishwamitra loved her, he should also be devastated by their separation. However, whether or not he was in love with Menaka, whether or not she went back to heaven of her own accord, Vishwamitra’s ascetic life continues as before. He has no attachments, no more distractions, he can resume his quest for power. If Menaka did not fall in love with him, we can assume that her life, too, continues as before in Indra’s court. We might think that she abandoned her child of her own free will, being an apsara and not an ordinary woman.

The semiotics of the apsara are interesting — forever young, forever beautiful, never attached, always willing to seduce, even willing to bear children, if she must. She is the ultimate male fantasy, a sexually idealised woman whose promiscuity has no consequences.

A variant of this fantasy are the women who constantly get their virginity back — their male partners can take pleasure in both their social and sexual restoration.

The writer works with myth, epic and the story traditions of the sub-continent

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