Her Story

Female voices in ancient Indian literature

Illustrations by
01 May 2019
Characters such as Kannaki from the Silappatikaram consider the female experience at the centre of the hero’s journey.
Characters such as Kannaki from the Silappatikaram consider the female experience at the centre of the hero’s journey.

A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, I became captivated with Hymn 130 from the Atharva Veda:

Let him be consumed with love of me

That he may think of me, and that I may never think of him

Send forth the spell, Gods! Let him be consumed with love of me.

Madden him, Maruts, madden him, madden him, madden him.

Madden him, Agni, madden him.

The reason for my absorption: it was clearly written in the voice of an infatuated young woman in the throes of a lovers’ quarrel—a voice that seemed unusual to me, rare even. Much of my engagement with ancient Indian literature has been coloured by cultural attitudes I assimilated towards such literature, which were based on a myopic understanding of a past often misconstrued as predominantly Hindu. I was fed on stories, images and comic books, such as the Amar Chitra Katha series, which seemed to project the idea that a vast amount of ancient Hindu literature, including myths and epics, were composed by rishis, or grey-haired sages. These sages, I gathered, had chosen to be celibate, but were struggling to not just deny, but be above, human passion while practising tapas—meditation in pursuit of enlightenment.

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    Samhita Arni is a writer whose novels are inspired by ancient literature. Her latest book, The Prince, is based on the Silappatikaram.

    Keywords: epics Ramayana Indian Literature
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