Urvashi (Sanskrit: उर्वशी, romanized: Urvaśī) is an apsara (celestial nymph) in Hindu mythology. She is considered to be the most beautiful of all the apsaras and an expert dancer. Urvashi is mentioned in many Vedic and Puranic scriptures of Hinduism.
The Sanskrit name "Urvaśī" can have multiple meanings. It is derived from roots—uru and aś. Some believe that the name has non-Aryan origin.
According to the scripture Devi Bhagavata Purana, the apsara is known as Urvashi because she is born from the uru—'thigh'—of the divine-sage Narayan. Indologist Monier Monier-Williams proposes a different etymology in which the name means 'widely pervasive' and he suggests that in its first appearances in Vedic texts Urvashi was a personification of dawn.
Urvashi is the only apsara to be specially named in the Rigveda (c. 1500–1100 BCE). A dialogue between her and her husband Pururavas is mentioned in Rigveda Mandala 10. In the dialogue, Pururavas requests Urvashi not to leave him. The legend of Urvashi is retold and expanded in many later Hindu scriptures, including the Shatapatha Brahmana, Brihaddevata, Mahabharata, Ramayana, Harivamsa, Vayu Purana, Vishnu Purana, Matsya Purana, Bhagavata Purana, Devi-Bhagavata Purana, Padma Purana and Skanda Purana.
Urvashi has been dramatized and adapted by many poets and authors. Many scholars state that her most popular appearance is in the drama Vikramorvashiyam by the Sanskrit poet Kalidasa (fl. 4th–5th century CE). Indian author and freedom fighter Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) has also written a poem about Urvashi.
Urvashi's birth is narrated in the Devi-Bhagavata Purana. In the legend, the brothers Nara and Narayana are performing penance to please the creator god Brahma, but this makes Indra (the king of the devas) insecure about his throne and he does not want the sage to acquire divine powers. As a result, he creates multiple illusions to break their penance, but all of his tricks fails. Finally, he orders the apsaras of his court, including Rambha, Menaka and Tilottama, to go to Nara-Narayana and distract them through seduction.
Accompanied by love god Kama and lust goddess Rati, the apsaras go to Nara-Narayana and start to dance seductively in front of them. However, the sages remain unaffected by this and decide to break the pride of the apsaras. Narayana slaps his thigh, from which Urvashi emerges. Her beauty leaves Indra’s apsaras matchless and they become ashamed of their evil act. Nara and Narayana ensure Indra that they wouldn't take his throne and gift Urvashi to him. She occupied the place of pride in Indra’s court.
Once Urvashi and Pururavas, founder of the lunar dynasty, fell in love with each other. Pururavas asked her to become his wife, but she agreed on three or two conditions. The most retold conditions are that Pururavas would protect Urvashi's pet sheep and they would never see one another naked (apart from lovemaking).
Pururavas agreed with the conditions and they lived happily. Indra started missing Urvashi and he created circumstances where the conditions were broken. First, he sent some Gandharvas to kidnap the sheep, when the couple was making love. When Urvashi heard her pets' cries, she scolded Pururavas for not keeping his promise. Hearing her harsh words, Pururavas forgot that he was naked and ran after the sheep. Just then, Indra flashed lightings and Urvashi saw her husband naked. After the events, Urvashi returned to heaven and left Pururavas heartbroken. Urvashi used to come on earth and bore Pururavas many children, but they were not completely reunited.
Their love story is found in the Rigveda and Shatapatha Brahmana too. Kalidasa's drama Vikramōrvaśīyam is about their love story with variations from the original texts.
Urvashi is said to be the "mother" of the Vedic sages—Vasishtha and Agastya. There are multiple accounts of this legend. In the Rigveda, the gods Varuna and Mitra perform a yajna (fire-sacrifice), where Urvashi arrives in front of them. After seeing her, they become sexually aroused and ejaculate their semen into a pitcher from which Vasishtha and Agastya are born. Similar accounts of this story appears in the Brihaddevata, Matsya Purana and other scriptures.
In a different version is found in some later text, Mitra and Varuna are in one body when they see Urvashi on a seashore. After embracing her, the gods separate themselves into two bodies. Varuna desires to have union with Urvashi and goes to her with his wish. Though Urvashi is attracted to him, she rejects him and instead has a union with Mitra, whom she has already promised. To satisfy his lust, Varuna has seminal flow, and the seed is transferred into a pot. After union, Mitra's semen fells from Urvashi's womb onto the earth and it also transferred into the same pot. After few days, the twins, Vashishtha and Agastya, are born. The Devi Bhagavata Purana retells the story with some variations. In this text, the sage Mitravaruna is aroused by Urvashi, and after the birth of Vasishtha and Agastya, she is cursed by him.
In some texts, Urvashi is said to have caused the birth of the sage Rishyashringa. In the Mahabharata, Urvashi is enjoying herself on the banks of a river, when Vibhandaka, son of Kashyapa, sees her. He becomes enchanted by her beauty and has seminal emission. His semen comes in contact with a doe (a cursed apsara in some versions) which impregnates her and she later gives birth to Rishyashringa.
She is also mentioned in the Mahabharata, as the celestial dancer of Indra's palace. When Arjuna had come for obtaining weapons from his father Indra, his eyes fell upon Urvaśī. Indra seeing this sent Chitrasena to address Urvasi to wait upon Arjuna. Hearing the virtues of Arjuna, Urvasi was filled with desire. At twilight, she reached Arjuna's abode. As soon as Arjuna saw that beauty at night in her room in beautiful attire, from fear, respect, modesty, and shyness he saluted her with closed eyes. She told Arjuna everything and also of her heart desire. But Arjuna refused, as considering her to his superior of old, and said that she was like his mother because of her past marriage to Pururavas. In wrath, she cursed Arjuna for destitute of manhood and scorned as a eunuch for a year. This curse helped Arjuna during his Agyatvās.