Apsaras – Divine Nymphs – Indian Mythology


The Apsaras are celestial nymphs, the dancers in the court of Indra, the king of the Devas. All of them are extremely beautiful and skilled in both dance and music. They occur in persian mythology also, but there, they are water nymphs (apam=water), and are closely associated with ApamNapat.
They are many in number, and the most famous are Rambha, Menaka, Urvashi, Tilottama and Ghritachi. Other nymphs who are mentioned in the Puranas are: Mishrakesi, Vapu, Viprachitti, Purvachitti, Sahajanya, Karnika, Punjikasthala, Viswachi, Rithisthala, Umlocha, Pramlocha, Swayamprabha,Janapadi, and Adrika. For Tilottama and Urvashi, the story of their origins is available, but the others are believed to have sprung forth from the ocean-of-milk when it was churned by the Devas and Asuras.
They are closely associated with the Gandharvas, who are the celestial musicians. Some of the Apsaras are paired with a Gandharva, such as Tumburu with Rambha, and Menaka with Vishvavasu. But the relationship is temporary and is not a marriage tie.
In addition to entertaining at Indra’s court, they are often sent by him to disrupt the penance of sages, for Indra lives in perpetual fear that his position would be usurped by some sage by his ascetic merit. Sometimes, the nymph would succeed in seducing the sage and achieve her mission, at other times, she would merely incur the wrath of the sage, who would curse her. In the former case, the children (almost always female), born of such a union would be abandoned, and would be brought up by foster parents. Satyavati and Shakuntala are such children, born respectively to Adrika and Menaka.
If the Apsara were to fail in her mission, the sage would curse her, typically to be turned into stone or some lower animal, with the proviso that after the lapse of a certain amount of time, or upon the occurance of a particular event, they would regain the original form and would return to heaven.
One of the main tasks of these nymphs is to sport with those men who had attained heaven by virtue of their ascetic merit or by the merit of their good deeds. They are eternal virgins, and the constant “sporting” has no effect on their youth or beauty. This can be best illustrated by quoting Urvashi’s speech to Arjuna in [Maha:3.46]:
“O son of the chief of the celestials, we Apsaras are free and unconfined in our choice. It behoveth thee not, therefore, to esteem me as thy superior. The sons and grandsons of Puru’s race, that have come hither in consequence of ascetic merit do all sport with us, without incurring any sin. We have no husband, no sons, indeed, no relations.”
Sometimes, a sage who would happen to see the scantily clad form of these nymphs, would ejaculate spontaneously. From his vital fluid a child would usually be born. Most of these children were male. To my knowledge, Kripi is the only woman born this way. Some of the male children who were born this way are: Drona (Bharadwaja/Ghritachi), Shuka (Vyasa/Ghritachi), Rishyashringa (Vibhandaka/Urvashi), Kripa (Saradwat/Janapadi).

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