I stare down from the stars
Wonder where the story changed course
Being portrayed as cause of the wars
When I was jeered at and humiliated by force?
Being shared by five men was written in my fate
I was not loved and wed, but a prize for their skill
I never felt belonged was just served on a plate
A plate you could pass on when you had your fill
The Mahabharata is a mythology of epic proportions that would come to shape a way of life for centuries to come. Often overlooked though is the story of a woman who was more than just a pawn in the hands of her masters: Draupadi.
In the portrayal of characters in this epic, the role of women in society was set in stone and there was little room for rebellion. The obedient daughter, the dutiful wife, and the self-sacrificing mother – these were all clothes a girl had to quickly learn to don, no matter the fit. Draupadi existed in the story in the background where a woman’s role was to meekly serve her husband. There was no question of women’s equality with men. In this age of the Kingdoms, a Queen was seldom sought after beyond her role as a spawn-bearing machine of virtue and beauty. It is here that Panchaali (as Draupadi was called, being the Princess of Panchaal) made her entrance.
Draupadi was born of a fire ritual, unwanted and unasked for. Her beauty was equated with that of a goddess. She spent her former years recognised only for her looks, while her brother, who was born of the same fire, was taught the arts of war and statesmanship. But she took every opportunity she could to learn the arts, master politics, and comprehend books beyond her years. Day after day she was dismissed as being just a pretty face, something many women today can identify with.
Taking on the challenge of being the wife of five husbands, she faced disdain, shame, and mockery at the hands of the kingdoms to the extent of being called the kingdom’s prostitute.
She was not only proud but clever. Cleverness is a quality that is often construed as cunningness in a woman, but Draupadi used her husbands’ love for her to her advantage and gained their respect, advising them on political matters and having her opinions fervently adhered to. She steadily gained their favour, eventually superseding the opinion of even their revered mother. Step by step, she began to gather power in ruling the lands.
Women are often faced with the tremendous task of manipulating the patriarchy in order to gain any sort of control or power within its rigid structures. This is what Draupadi had to do to gain clout within the deeply patriarchal family of the Pandavas. Even though women are forced to manipulate these structures or walk around them, this very “manipulation” is seen as a cunning and wicked quality in a woman who is diverting from her natural role. But it is merely women demanding the same amount of power that a man has been naturally granted, within the oppressive structure of patriarchy. Women have to not only demand a share in the cake, but make it themselves, too. We constantly see women being “put in their place”, facing double the hurdles to gain the same amount of respect and power as their male counterparts.
A central idea to the story is Draupadi having five husbands – it’s one of the things everybody remembers her for. Yet we hardly hear Draupadi’s voice in the story as to how she feels about this. Was she okay with it? Did it trouble her? We just have to interpret the answers from her behaviour, but we will never know how she truly felt about having to be a “virgin” and “pure” for each husband while being “passed on” from one to the other. This idea of a woman’s virginity being tied up to her morality is one that is imposed even today in courts, families, and institutions.
Draupadi was touted as the cause of the war. The story is a telling example of how a woman’s beauty, one created and structured (quite literally, here) by the males of the society, is blamed as the cause of all unvirtuous behaviour. Her beauty, over which she had no control, was shown as a vice that caused the great battle of Kurukshethra, taking away all responsibility from the kings themselves. Women’s beauty has always seen as a cause for all things immoral – from being the cause of wars in history to being the central reason for fights between Bollywood heroes to “win over” the woman.
But what Draupadi is remembered for is not the fierce, intelligent woman that she was but the woman who was disrobed at the great hall and had to be saved by Krishna. Most people who have not read the Mahabharata in its completeness (a large population) identify her character with just this part of the story. Casting her into the role of a damsel in distress who needs saving is a betrayal to the fierceness of her soul. It is for us to remember that she was not a pretty doll passed on from one man’s house to another, but a woman who swore revenge and sought justice in all her endeavours. She spoke up for herself in full awareness of the consequences of such boldness and wittily explained the ideas of right and wrong to the kings when she was wronged. The role of quiet suffering and submission is one she rejected.
While the “heroes” of this story remain Arjuna and Krishna, Draupadi was the one who swore to bathe her hair in the blood of her enemies, upon whose single word the kingdom marched into the battlefield, and for whom Indraprastha was built. She completes the untold story.
The grand story of Bharat is told from the narration of male sages, about a war between men to rule a kingdom. Viewing these narratives from the perspective of the female characters in these stories is a necessity that stems from centuries of their dismissal as mere props in a larger play. Retelling myths is a way recentering women into the narratives, especially given that these stories are told by a male narrator and the female perspective is very small, if at all existent. When myths are retold by women, it places the reader at the perspective of the marginalised woman. Talking from the margins allows for intimate details to shine through – the emotional processes, the physical constrictions, and the political implications, which were all hidden till then.
The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni creates a world of and for Panchaali: it traces her life from the beginning in the fire to the very end. In Panchaali’s voice, the book shows us her relationship with her father, her betrothal to her husbands, her role in the Mahabharata, her complex relationship with Krishna, and her deep attraction to a stranger. It is Draupadi’s version of the Mahabharata. It breaks through the barrier of a woman who was conveniently set aside as a background process.
By doing so, Divakaruni breaks down the normative patriarchy inherent in the Mahabharata, and it is important to do so because it lets us reconcile tradition with feminism. It shows us that even in tradition that is deeply prejudiced, there is room for movement and change. More importantly, it shows women as sexual beings who are not punished for their sexuality, who yield it to their advantage despite the patriarchy. It gives the female character agency in the proceedings of the story, something that was absent before. It shows the suffering imposed by these oppressive structures, but the possibility of protest. It helps us reconcile current feminist sensibilities with tradition.
To truly understand the Mahabharata, therefore, would require one to truly understand Draupadi. These epics are used in the India we know today to create movements: Mahatma Gandhi recast the role of Sita in the Ramayana to convince women to join the movement; the Mahabharata is followed by various cultures for its various values, most importantly the idea of dharma; by right-wing Hindutva movements to create a Hindu state. These examples show the extent to which the epic has an influence on day-to-day lives and in creating a sense of self and nationalist identity. It has the potential to create powerful symbols that people can look to for support in times of oppression. When these symbolic figureheads have always been occupied by men, to place a strong woman like Draupadi on that pedestal is to give women someone to relate to. To insert oneself into the thick textured context of something so powerful is to create a figure, a symbol that women can identify with.
The story of Draupadi is not one that was written thousands of years ago, it is one that is being written even today. Stories of women still carrying their father’s names as part of their own, of women who have to repatch their hymens to please their spouses, of women whose appearances are pitted against them if they are too beautiful/not considered beautiful enough, of children told to pick their roles in the world as soon as they are born, and of all those babies discarded as unwanted for being born to the wrong sex.
If at any point you could identify with something Draupadi went through, then you know the importance of her story being told. And to all those women who have been told to behave as per their culture, I tell you, be Draupadi.
Agreed! Though, I would add that long before Divakaruni, Irawati karve explored this in her work, Yuganta, where she not only explores draupadi’s charachter and circumstances as a woman but also those of the other female charachters, like Gandhari, Kunti. She also looks at the historicity of the epic, because, as you rightly point out, it is used by many as historical retelling rather than fiction. Do read it.
I loved the Palace of Illusions. Retelling myths to keep them current can be an important tool.
But the thing about retellings are that they’re just that – “re-tellings”. The Palace of Illusions for example invents material out of whole cloth to put Draupadi at the centre.
This is not a problem to the people for whom the only exposure to the Mahabharata is the retelling. They will grow up with a positive female figure.
But those in the know, those who have access to the originals, will know that Draupadi was not the hero we expected her to be. Very very far from it. And that truth will severely counteract the good work of the reteller.
I think it is important for us to be aware of and understand the original epics, and learn why they shouldn’t be sources of morality and influence. That way we can destroy the hold they have on the public psyche; retelling them, even with the best intentions, will only serve to reinforce it.
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