Indian nymphs

The Indian term is Apsaras-, or less often ApsarL The name was taken, rightly or wrongly, to contain ap- 'water', and this association is sometimes apparent, as in a verse where the samudriya Apsarasah, the Apsarases of the vat, represent the waters ritually mixed with the Soma.13 Outside the Rigveda they are represented as frequenting forest lakes, rivers, trees, and mountains (cf. AV 4. 37. 4; 14. 2. 9; TS 3. 4. 8. 4; MBh. 1. 16. 2, 111. 6; 3. 107. 10). They love to sing, dance, and play (SB 11. 6. 1; MBh. 1. 114. 43, 49; 2. 4. 31, 7. 21, etc.). They have swings in the branches of trees (AV 4. 37. 5, al.).

They are of outstanding beauty (SB 13. 4. 3. 7 f.); women in the epic are praised as being 'as beautiful as an Apsaras' (MBh. 1. 96. 3, 100. 23). They are accordingly very attractive to men. Indra sends them to tempt ascetics whose power he fears (1. 65. 21 ff., 120. 5 ff.; 5. 9. 9 ff.). Sometimes the mere sight of one makes a holy man ejaculate. On encountering a lovely woman a hero is liable to ask, 'Are you a goddess ... or perhaps an Apsaras?' (1. 92. 31, cf. 142. 4; 3. 248. 10; 4. 8. 13). But they are to be feared, being liable to cause mental derangement. They are manomuhah, 'mind-bewildering' (AV 2. 2. 5); 'it is the Gandharva and the Apsarases who madden him who is mad' (TS 3. 4. 8. 4).

They do occasionally have liaisons with mortals, and some royal and priestly families traced their descent from such unions. The Bharatas, for example, were descended from the Apsaras Sakuntala. The most famous legend of a marriage between a mortal king and an Apsaras is the story of Pururavas and Urvasi. This involved the folk-tale motif that the unequal syzygy could only last so long as the mortal partner observed a taboo, which

13 RV 9. 78. 3, cf. AV 2. 2. 3. There is a remarkable parallel in the Greek elegist Euenus (fr. 2. 3), who with reference to the proportionate mixing of wine and water says that Bacchus 'loves being mixed as fourth with three Nymphs'. On the Apsarases in general cf. Macdonell (1898), 134 f.; Oldenberg (1917), 254-7; Oberlies (1998), 229 n. 384.

he was eventually induced to break. Pururavas was not to let his wife see him naked, but the jealous Gandharvas tricked him into doing so.14

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