Apsaras – The Captivating Nymphs of Hindu Mythology

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This article by Manisha Sarade

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The Hindu mythology is jam-packed with stories of how a woman’s beauty changes the course of time and turns the outcome into another direction altogether. These divine nymphs are known as ‘apsaras’ in the Hindu texts. They are performers in the court of the Dev King Indra and there are numerous stories where the Devs and the Gods have, with the help of these women and their beauty, turned critical situations into their own favour. Apsaras have been a consistent part of Hinduism, having an insightful presence in Vedic literature. The commonality lies in the fact that these beautiful creations were females with captivating powers and immense dedication to their creators.

The Rigveda mentions these Apsaras as aquatic nymphs. Atharvaveda introduces Apsaras as the inhabitants of the waters. It discusses their heavenly association with the stars, clouds and rain. The Satapatha Brahmana Samhita often describes Apsaras as transforming themselves into a kind of a marine bird. The Apsaras are seen in close contact with the woods and the wet. The Atharvaveda puts forward that the Apsaras are fond of the dice game and create the basis to bring in fortune at the dice play. They are also feared as causing mental void. There are two types of Apsaras - Aloukika (worldly) and Daivika (Divine). 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.

39" The Irresistible Daivika Apsara In Brass | Handmade | Made In India

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.

A Young Lady, Perhaps Menaka, Playing with Balls

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.

Another famed tale is that of Urvashi. Once Indra sent all of his apasras to hault the severe tapasya of Nara-Narayan (twin brother incarnation of Lord Vishnu) to prevent them from becoming more powerful. The brothers were angered upon witnessing the apsaras who came to destroy their penance. Nara-Narayan patted their thighs and then was born a beautiful woman called Urvashi. Urvashi was the most beautiful amongst all women on earth as well as on heaven. Apasras saw Urvashi and ran away to heaven in shame. Indra upon knowing the situation apologized to the twin brothers and was eventually forgiven and Urvashi was sent to heaven.

Apsara (A Sculpture Inspired by Khajuraho)

The story of Mohini is no less popular in the world of Apsaras. Mohini was the female form of Lord Vishnu and was known for her extreme beauty. There are two main stories associated with Mohini – As per the mentions in the texts when the Asuras and Devas were fighting for Amrit and the Asuras ended up taking up the Amrit for themselves to gain immortality then Vishnu took the form of Mohini and seduced the Asuras which resulted the Asuras to give Amrit to Mohini and she started to distribute the it amongst the Devas. Then a demon Rahu Ketu changed form and tried to get Amrit which angered Lord Vishnu and he slew the head of the demon and the demon’s head was named Ketu and his body as Rahu. There is another story where a demon called Bhasmasur gained a boon from Lord Shiva that he will be able to burn anybody to ashes by placing his hand over the head of the person. Bhasmasur then saw Mother Parvati and decided to marry her and therefore went after Lord Shiva to burn him down. Vishnu then took the form of Mohini to help Shiva and seduced Bhasmasur. Bhasmasur wanted to marry Mohini to which Mohini said to agree only if Bhasmasur imitates her dance moves. After months of efforts Mohini tricked Bhasmasur into touching his own head through a dance move which turned the demon into ashes.

Rambha is equally popular in mythology of apsaras. Rambha is said to have originated during the churning of the ocean of milk. She was regarded to be the Queen of Apsaras. Vishwamitra once engaged in Tapasya for a thousand years, after which Lord Brahma granted him the title of ‘Maharishi’. But Vishwamitra was not satisfied by this, as he wanted to be a ‘Brahmarishi’ so that he would be Vasishtha’s equal. So, he engaged in another thousand years of Tapasya, which was so intense that it caused disruption in the three worlds. So, Indra told the Apsara Rambha to tempt Vishwamitra away from his Tapasya. Vishwamitra was indeed distracted by Rambha, but then he cursed her to turn to stone for thousand years.

The Beauteous Apsara, Muse Of The Gandharvas

Then comes the story of Tilottama. Tilottama is the famous Apsara who saved the world from the rampaging Asura brothers Sunda and Upasunda, often associated with sin and materialism. The Demigods were attacked by these brothers and were thrown out of their celestial city. Lord Indra and the other Demigods sent the Apsara Tilottama to distract them. Both the Asuras desperately wanted to possess her. Tilottama desired for the strongest partner and demanded them to show their strength on each other. The brothers didn’t want to lose her and got involved in an aggressive match. At the end, the brothers ended up killing each other at the feet of Tilottama.

Apsaras have been referred in ancient stories and legends as well as in the fairy tales. They are variously described as fairies, angels, nymphs and sirens. There are many Apsaras related to Puranas, epics and legends. In Mahabharata, 45 Apsaras are referred. Sage Kashyapa, who has many wives, is considered as father of many celestial races. The demi-gods are born from his wife Aditi and demons come from his other wife Diti. While the Bhagavata Purana states that Apsaras were born from Kashyapa and Muni, it is in the Mahabharata, Pradha is mentioned as Apsaras’ mother. In other ancient legends, it is said that the Apsaras came out during the churning of the sea.

Key Takeaways

  • Apsaras are beautiful, supernatural female beings who are known for their enchanting dance and music. They are often depicted as having a youthful and alluring appearance.

  • In Hindu mythology, apsaras are associated with the god Indra, who is said to have created them to dance and sing for the entertainment of the gods and to distract demons from their meditative practices.

  • Apsaras are also associated with the god Vishnu and are said to have appeared during his incarnations on earth, such as in the story of the churning of the ocean of milk.

  • There are many different types of apsaras, each with their own unique qualities and characteristics. Some of the most famous apsaras include Menaka, Rambha, and Urvashi.

  • Apsaras are often depicted in Hindu art and literature, and their beauty and grace continue to captivate people today.

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