Draupadi, the Woman : Epitome of Feminity and Feminism
“Draupadi has five husbands – but she has none –
She had five sons – and was never a mother …
The pandavas have given Draupadi …
No joy, no sense of victory
No honour as wife
No respect as mother –
Only the status of a Queen …
But they all have gone
And I’m left with a lifeless jewel
And an empty crown …
My baffled motherhood
Wrings its hands and strives to weep”.
A long poem “Kurukshetra”, written by Amreeta Syam, conveys this angst of Panchali (Draupadi), born unasked for by her father, bereft of brothers and sons and her beloved sakha (friend) Krishna.
Draupadi was a heroic princess of the Hindu epic of Mahabharata. One who was firm and a woman with an unbending will. The Proud and angry heroine of the epic Mahabharata, Draupadi has remained an enigmatic woman of substance.
Draupadi was the daughter of Drupad, the king of Panchala, and the wife and queen of the five great Pandavas, renowned alike for her loveliness and her granite will. Volcanic, she reduced her enemies to the ashes. This fiery princess bent on vengeance could be compassionate and generous, too. Draupadi had developed the strength to bear the trials of life. She had resolved firmly not to harm the good people, and not to bend before the wicked. Draupadi was a woman, but she became as famous as the heroic Pandavas because of such determination. Her personality was one of lightning and thunder. This unforgettable heroine is in no way less than Bheema or Arjuna in strength and spirit, valour and virtue. Her story is a saga of suffering and disgrace but she took everything in her stride and vanquished each one of the perpetrators of her humiliation and agony. Draupadi finds her five husbands discarding her repeatedly: each takes at least one more wife; she never gets Arjuna to herself for he marries Ulupi, Chitrangada and has Subhadra as his favourite. Yudhishthira pledges her like chattel at a game of dice; and finally, they leave her to die alone on the roadside like a pauper, utterly rikta – drained in every sense.
Draupadi, meaning daughter of Drupad, was known by several other names as well. As the princess of the kingdom of Panchal she was known as Panchali. As the grand daughter of Prushata she was known as Parsati. [ Draupadi is ayonija, not born of woman. ][*] Draupadi is born of fire and therefore, often referred to as Yagnyaseni. She is also called Krishnaa because she was copper skinned, fiery eyed and had long, black hair. She was gifted with blue-lotus fragrance wafting for a full krosha (2 miles) and hence was called Yojanagandha (she whose fragrance can be felt for miles). [ Draupadi alone enjoys the unique relationship of sakhi (female-friend) with her sakha (male-friend) Krishna. She was a true virgin, and has a mind of her very own. ][*]
EMERGENCE OF DRAUPADI
FROM THE HOLY PYRE
For many years Drupad, king of Panchal, had no children. So, to have children he performed tapas (rigorous rituals); he thought only of God day and night and prayed to Him. God blessed him, and two children were born out of the haven fire lit by Drupad to fulfill his determination of vengeance against Dronacharya, his enemy, through his death. The first to emerge out of the holy pyre was a son, called Dhrishtadyumna, and the second, a daughter called Draupadi. Thus Draupadi was born from the fire of vengefulness, anger and passion. Actually she arrives as a bonus because Drupad was performing the yajna for obtaining a son who would take revenge on Drona and had not asked for a daughter at all. Draupadi springs from the fire full grown, in the bloom of her youth, from the yajna vedi – the holy pyre – not requiring a human womb, ignoring the absence of Drupad’s queen who was unable to respond to the priest’s summons because her toilet was incomplete.
Draupadi was extremely beautiful, intelligent and virtuous woman, with her body smelling like a fresh bloom lotus. There are few women in Hindu mythology who were aggressive and who spoke their mind in a world of men. Draupadi was one of them. She is considered by many as the first feminist of Indian mythology. At the time of her birth, a celestial voice had proclaimed: “This unparalleled beauty has taken birth to uproot the Kauravas and establish the rule of religion”. The circumstances leading to her birth began to take shape while her father was yet young.
Drupad was the prince of Panchal. His father King Prushta sent him to the hermitage of sage Agnivesh for his education. There Drupad got acquainted with a brahmin, Drona, the son of sage Bharadwaj. In a moment of camaraderie Drupad swore that they would equally share whatever the two owned. Both went their different ways after completing their education.
In due course Drupad became the king of Panchal. But life was not good to Drona and he was steeped in poverty. In despair he turned to Drupad, in hope for help, based on the promise once made by Drupad. However, Drupad insulted Drona and told him that friendship took place only between equals and he could help Drona only if he came begging for alms, instead of quoting the promise of Drupad based on friendship. Drona left but the insult festered in his soul, waiting for an appropriate time to burst out.
In time, Drona was appointed the instructor in warfare to the royal princes of Hastinapur, the sons of Pandu and Dhritarashtra. However, time could not douse the flames of revenge still burning within him. As gurudakshina (fees that were due to an instructor, after the students’ education was complete) he asked the princes to get Drupad to him as a prisoner. The princes being skilled in the art of warfare successfully brought King Drupad bound in chains to Drona. The brahmin laughingly said to the king, “Once you had promised me half your wealth, but had refused to redeem the pledge. Today I own all your wealth, but I will honor our childhood bond, I will give half to you and let bygones be bygones.”
But Drupad was not willing to let bygones to bygones. It was now his turn to nurse the insult. He was too old himself to take revenge. None of his three sons, Shikhandi, Satyajit and Vikra, were skilled enough to defeat Drona. In order to obtain such an offspring he requested sage Yaja to conduct a sacrifice. Yaja was assisted by his younger brother Upayaja (some text say that Yaja assisted Upayaja) and hence two offerings were prepared. From his first offspring to the sacrificial fire a full-grown son emerged, armed with a sword and a bow. He was Drishtadyumna, destined to slay Drona. From the second offering a full-grown daughter emerged, whose dazzle blinded the eye. She was Draupadi. When Draupadi emerged from the fire there was an oracle that she would side with God against the evil Kauravas.
[ Draupadi is the only instance we come across in epic mythology of a sati becoming a kanya. It is stated that in an earlier birth as Nalayani (also named Indrasena), she was married to Maudgalya, an irascible sage afflicted with leprosy. She was so utterly devoted to her abusive husband that when a finger of his, dropped into their meal, she took it out and calmly ate the rice without revulsion. Pleased by this, Maudgalya offered her a boon, and she asked him to make love to her in five lovely forms. As she was insatiable, Maudgalya got fed up and became an ascetic. When she remonstrated and insisted that he continue their love-life, he cursed her to be reborn and have five husbands to satisfy her lust. Thereupon she practiced severe penance and pleased Lord Shiva with her prayers. He granted a boon to her. Nalayani said that she wanted a husband and to ensure that her request was heard, she repeated it five times in all. Shiva then said that in her next life she would have five husbands. She obtained the boon of regaining virginity after being with each husband. ][*] Thus, by asserting her womanhood and refusing to accept a life of blind subservience to her husband, Nalayani, the sati, was transformed into Yajnaseni, the kanya. Some sources have a slightly different narration. Draupadi made her request only once but she added a long list of qualities that she wanted in her husband. Lord Shiva said that it would be impossible to find one man with all these qualities. Hence she would have five husbands in her next life. All of them together would posses the qualities she had enumerated. [ According to Brahmavaivarta Purana, she is the reincarnation of the maya Sita (shadow Sita – wife of Lord Rama, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, and hero of Ramayana) who, in turn, was Vedavati, reborn after molestation at Ravana’s hands, and would become the “Lakshmi of the Indras” ][*] (one of the forms of Goddess Lakshmi, eternal consort of Lord Vishnu) in heaven.
Draupadi and Lord Krishna shared a very special relationship. As is known to admirers of the great epic poem Mahabharata, Draupadi always considered Lord Krishna as her Sakha or beloved friend and Krishna addressed her as Sakhi, this as symbolic of the platonic love existing between the fiery Draupadi and the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, Krishna. Draupadi is the instrument of Lord Krishna. Using her, he realized his mega-plan of annihilating the evil Kauravas. The choice of Draupadi as the instrument, which caused his actions, explains the special place she had in his scheme of things, Draupadi was put through severe tests in her life. The only true friend, who validated her persona and came to her rescue each time she found herself in dire circumstances, was Krishna, whose divine presence she experienced constantly in her life.
SWAYAMVARA OF DRAUPADI
It was the Swayamvara (a ritual in which the princess was allowed to choose her groom from amongst a group of contenders) of Draupadi, the princess of unequalled beauty, where the Kings and Princes gathered in hundreds, each eager to marry the princess. King Drupad, father of Draupadi arranged a contest. At the center of the hall a mechanical device was erected; on it was placed a revolving object in the shape of a fish. The reflection of this revolving fish could be seen in the water below. A very heavy bow was kept nearby. Any one who desired the hand of Draupadi in marriage had to lift the huge bow, bend it and tie the bowstring, then, looking at the reflection, he had to take aim with five arrows and bring down the rotating fish. Such a one would be a hero worthy of Draupadi’s hand. Many of the assembled kings retreated, as soon as they heard of this contest. The hundreds of princes who had come to marry Draupadi were all beaten.
ARJUNA WINS THE CONTEST AT
THE SWAYAMVARA OF DRAUPADI
Both Krishna and Draupadi appear for the first time together in the Swayamvara Sabha and make decisive interventions. It is Panchali’s categorical refusal – wholly unexpected – to accept Karna as a suitor that alters the entire complexion of that assembly, and indeed, the course of the epic itself. The affront to Karna sows the seeds of the assault on her in the dice-game. Pandavas in disguise of brahmins came to the Swayambhara Sabha, and Arjuna won Draupadi by piercing with arrow, the eye of a moving fish on a high pole. Other than Pandavas, kings and princes became very angry and it is her Sakha-to-be, Krishna, who steps in to put an end to the skirmish between the furious kings and the disguised Pandavas.
The Pandavas and Draupadi returned home from the Swayamvara hall. The princess who had not seen the midday sun, had to walk miles in the sweltering heat to reach her new home. Arjuna announced to his mother that he had brought home a prize that he so skillfully won. When Kunti (mother of Pandavas) heard this without seeing them, she asked them to share whatever they had brought among themselves. This was how she daily greeted them in order to ensure they remain united. Keeping their mother’s word, they divided Draupadi amongst themselves as if she were an object. It is true that Arjuna was able to receive Draupadi’s hand by completing a difficult and skillful task, but she was not a prize that he won because it was Draupadi’s Swayamvara; she had the right to choose her husband. Arjuna proved himself worthy, Draupadi herself made the true decision. She could have married Karna who could have also performed the same task, but she denied him permission to participate. In certain ways therefore, Arjuna degraded Draupadi by claiming her as a prize and his elder brother, Yudhishtira, further insulted her by carrying out their mother’s wish by treating her as if she were an object won in a contest.
The five Pandavas were regarded as handsome and gallant and they definitely would not have had a problem wedding women of high birth and beauty, yet they all chose to be the husband to the fair Draupadi. She was a victim of circumstances and had no control over the situation when she was told that she had to marry five men at the same time. She was expected to love all her husbands equally, which indeed is a difficult thing to do. She was afraid of the kind of sexual commitment she was being asked to make. She placed her worry in a less explicit manner before Krishna. “How am I to divide myself physically and emotionally between five husbands?” Lord Krishna told Draupadi to spend one year with each husband. During that period the rest of her husbands will not have any sexual contact with her. They will be forbidden to enter the chamber in which Draupadi and the husband-of-the-year are spending intimate moments. If one does so, even accidentally, he would be exiled for twelve years. Thus Draupadi became the common consort of the five Pandavas.
Her conjugal life was strictly regimented, requiring tremendous self-control. All her sentiments and emotions needed a great deal of adjustment when she changed her lifestyle for each husband accordingly. It would not be too difficult to realize the tremendous responsibility that she had to bear as a wife of the five heroes who led a stormy life. Despite the difficulties she emerged as one of the most respected women in the epic story. She bravely accepted this challenge to her womanhood, shouldered the task and brought it to a fruitful conclusion. In due course Draupadi had five sons, one from each of her husbands. Prativindhya was the son of Yudhishtir, Srutasoma of Bhima, Srutakirti of Arjun, Satanika of Nakul, and Srutakarma of Sahadev.
Draupadi was living not only in a polyandrous relationship, but a polygamous one as well because the Pandava brothers had other wives. Bhima was already married to the demoness Hidimba. Arjun married several princesses after his marriage to Draupadi, including Lord Krishna’s sister Subhadra. Whereas the other princesses stayed in their fathers’ kingdoms, Subhadra came to Indraprastha to live with him. After the deaths of Shishupala and Jarasandha, Nakul and Sahadev married their daughters as a token of friendship. Draupadi managed this delicate relationship harmoniously. But she had not forgotten the reason of her birth and was biding her time.
Draupadi’s unparalleled beauty and intelligence becomes the cause of her misery. She is charmed by Arjuna, the winner of the archery contest, set for her hand but she is bundled off by her father as the bride of all the five Pandavas on the advice of sage Vyasa. Her cruel fate divides her as a possession among five husbands and cuts up her personality.
Draupadi spends a year with each of her husbands in turn. She is denied fullness of married life with Arjuna whom she loves with all her heart. She is born out of the sacrificial fire (yajna) and called “Yajnaseni”; true to this appellation she burns with men’s ill-treatment and she is also the reason of others burning on account of her reactions. She is in the open assembly-hall provoked retaliatory oaths and vows.
In ancient India, women occupied a very important position, in fact a superior position to men. It is a culture whose only words for strength and power are feminine – “Shakti” means “power” and “strength”. All male power comes from the feminine. Literary evidence suggests that kings and towns were destroyed because a single woman was wronged by the state. For example, Valmiki’s Ramayana teaches us that Ravana and his entire clan was wiped out because he abducted Sita. Ved Vyasa’s Mahabharatha teaches us that all the Kauravas were killed because they humiliated Draupadi in public. Draupadi is presented as having a very impressive brilliant and strong personality and is projected as the primary cause of the battle of Kurukshetra.
After Draupadi married the five princes, the Pandavas, their mother Kunti and Draupadi returned to their kingdom, being then ruled by their uncle, Dhritarashtra. The kingdom was split into two, Indrapastha and Hastinapur, to avoid conflicts between the Pandavas and Kauravas. The Pandavas made the city of Indraprastha their capital. The palace at Indrapastha was constructed by the architect demon, Moy. The palace was heavenly and was replete with all kinds of wonderful illusory architecture.
Once they thought of performing the great sacrifice (yagna) of Rajsuya. A huge and wonderful hall was constructed The beauty, grandeur and decoration of the assembly hall for the Yagna made a visitor speechless with wonder. Lord Krishna personally supervised the performance of the Rajsuya Sacrifice. The Kauravas has no mind to see the splendour of their cousins. Still they also attended. Unfortunately Duryodhana was put to shame there. In the new palace he took a pond for polished floor and fell into the water. Draupadi laughed at this. Further on he saw the floor shining wih high polish and thought it was a pond; so he lifted up his clothing that it may not get wet. Again there were waves of laughter. At that moment, Draupadi laughed at Duryodhana, saying “son of a blind would be blind himself”. Some versions of Mahabharata do not support this, though it does mention the hearty laugh. These insulting moments pierced Duryodhana deep within him. Nevertheless, because of this insult and the envy within him, of the Pandavas’ luxury, Duryodhana decided to humble them and hence proposed them to play a game of dice.
GAME OF DICE BETWEEN
PANDAVAS AND KAURAVAS
Yudhishthira was very fond of gambling (game of dice). But he was no expert. Shakuni, maternal uncle of Kauravas, was a very experienced player. Yudhishthira went on losing. He offered his chariots, horses and elephants as stakes and lost them; and eventually he lost his kingdom, Indraprastha, as well. Finally he and his four brothers became the slaves of the Kaurava king. He lost Draupadi also in this gamble. The Kauravas having won, Duryodhana ordered that Draupadi be dragged into the court. The Pandavas bent their heads in shame. Yudhishthira now knew what an unjust action he was guilty of. But it was now too late and regret was of no use. When Draupadi heard this news she was dazed. But instead of meekly obeying her husband Yudhishthira , she sent back a query which none could answer. She questioned her husband Yudhishthira, if he had pledged her before or after he had lost himself in the gamble. She argued that if he had pledged himself first, he had no right over her as he was already a slave. She later challenged the game as illegal as she argued, that Duryodhan, a Kaurava, had not placed his brothers and wife as a matching stake. Mahabharata tells us how the assembly started to hiss loudly when Yudhishthira staked Draupadi. Plausibly the ownership of the wife by the husband was recognized but not respected in society. The Ramayana preaches that there is no greater gift for a man than his wife. But the phrase gift to a man gives the impression that the wife is merely an object to provide happiness for the man.
DISROBING OF DRAUPADI
BY DUHSSHASANA (VASTRAHARANA)
Duryodhan ordered Dusshasana to drag Draupadi by her hair to the royal court before the great assembly of people and then to disrobe her completely. Karna calling her a public woman whose being clothed or naked is immaterial. Draupadi looked at all elders in the court – Dhritarashtra, Bheeshma, Drona, Kripa and Vidura – with her eyes shouting for help. But all elders were silent. The subjects were stunned. Her husbands sat with their heads bowed. Draupadi had a marvelous blend of intensity that suits kshatriyas and forgiveness that fits devotees. She was very intelligent and knowledgeable. She had a brilliant mind, was utterly “one-in-herself” and did not hesitate in reprimanding the Kuru elders for countenancing wickedness. When Dusshasana was dragging her by the hair to the court, she ridiculed him to show his prowess against her husbands. She also boldly reprimanded the elders present in the court and appealed to them to do justice. She cried out to her silent husbands. But nobody came for help. Finding no response, with quicksilver presence of mind she seizes upon a social ritual to wrest some moments of respite from pillaging hands.