In Hindu myth, the apsaras are beautiful heavenly nymphs, superb dancers who adorn the court of Indra, king of the celestials. At least 45 names are known to us. The elite cadre includes Urvashi, Menaka, Rambha, Tilottama and Gritachi (the brainy one). Some lesser lights mentioned in the Puranas are Mishrakesi (Ms Streaked Hair), Vapu, Viprachitti, Purvachitti, Sahajanya, Karnika, Punjikasthala, Viswachi, Rithisthala, Umlocha, Pramlocha, Swayamprabha, Janapadi, and Adrika. While stories exist about the origins of Urvashi and Tilottama, the rest are said to have emerged as trophy girls from the Kshirsagar Manthan (the Churning of the Milk Ocean) by the Asuras and Devas to get at amrita, the nectar of immortality. Mahalakshmi herself is believed to have come up from the Kshirsagar’s treasure chambers.
Apsaras are natural collaborators with the Gandharvas, who are Indra’s heavenly musicians. Some are even paired with them, like Rambha with horse-head Tumburu and Menaka with Vishvavasu. But this is not a marriage tie, nor is an apsara ever ‘defiled’ by men, since she is an ‘eternal virgin’. Besides dancing for the gods, apsaras were often sent by Indra to spoil the tapasya (accumulated merit of penance) of sages whose mental powers caused Indra’s heaven to shake. When the apsara seduced the sage, the children of such unions were always sent to human foster homes, like in the case of Satyavati (the Pandavas’ great-grandmother). And Shakuntala (born of Vishwamitra and Menaka, later wife of King Dushyant and mother of Bharata, from whom we take our country’s name, Bharat).
A sage’s curse usually turned an apsara to stone or into a minor animal, but after a specified period, some foretold event would liberate her and send her back to Indralok. Sometimes, a sage who happened to see a scantily-clad apsara flitting by would ejaculate spontaneously and a child would be born. Kripi, twin of Kripacharya in the Mahabharata, seems the only girl born this way, while the boys were many and mighty. Shukacharya, born of Vyasa and Ghritachi; Drona, of Bharadwaja and Ghritachi; Rishyasringa of Vibhandaka and Urvashi (the ‘purest-known soul of his time’ who conducted the son-asking sacrifice for the birth of Sri Rama) and Kripa of Saradwat and Janapadi.
Besides the honey trap, an apsara’s job description included being an escort service: to ‘sport’ with men who made it to heaven either by asectic merit or by being very good. But since they were eternal virgins, the shastras say with evident satisfaction, that this particular task did not mar their youthfulness or beauty. As Urvashi tells Arjuna in the Mahabharata (3:46): “O son of Indra, we apsaras are free and unconfined in our choice. So do not think of me as your superior. All your ancestors who reached heaven by ascetic merit have sported with me, without incurring any sin. We have no husband, son, nor any relations.”
Urvashi appears first in the first ever book, the Rig Veda. Her affair with the mortal king Pururavas was not a mission for Indra but love at first sight. His first wife could not bear children and so his lineage continued through the son borne by Urvashi. Generations later, when Arjuna visited heaven to help Indra fight a battle, Urvashi was told to “take good care of him.” She invited him to her room but he refused to bed his ‘ancestress’. Urvashi tried explaining that apsaras were no such thing, but Arjuna couldn’t accept the idea. Annoyed at his holier-than-thou scruples, Urvashi cursed him to become a eunuch for a whole earthly year, an apsara cursing for a change. That’s how Arjuna became Brihannala the eunuch in the Pandavas’ thirteenth year of exile. —RN