The Enigma that is Draupadi

The Enigma that is Draupadi
Manoj Das

How much does the mind of today understand even the character of Draupadi is a question.

What is amazing, the transcreator of a currently best-selling (by Indian standards) edition of the Mahabharata detects three reasons that obliged Krishna to intervene when Duhshasana tried to disrobe her in the Kaurava court and they are: Draupadi is related to Krishna; she had once “bandaged” Krishna’s wound tearing a part of her “expensive dress” and thirdly both Krishna and Draupadi were self-born, the latter being an emanation of Shakti.

It would appear as if Krishna owned a godown of cloth and he just needed some arguments to come to the help of a relative in distress. Perhaps in a way it is symptomatic of the so-called intellectual state of India that the transcreator does not go anywhere near the essence of the incident—that it was the Divine’s response to a devotee when everything else, all the expected human help, had failed her!

If the character of Draupadi has been a great source of strength to some, to most it has been merely intriguing, though fascinating. She is the lady with five husbands. This is the aspect of her life that readily comes to the minds of those who have known about her either through one of the numerous versions of the Mahabharata retold, or through a ballad or a folk or a stage play, or through references to her in different works. It is, however, impossible to appreciate the character of Draupadi without trying to dwell in the milieu the epic portrays, without continuously remembering the raison d’etre of her incarnation.

Draupadi is teja eva tu kevalam, the flaming puissance incarnate, as the old king Dhritarashtra describes her. There cannot be a Mahabharata without Draupadi. The epic grandeur of the work, the élan vital of its dramatic development, would collapse without Draupadi’s humiliation and her determination for vengeance; its spiritual significance would be much reduced if it is deprived of the message that emerges from Draupadi’s traumatic experience – that the only true protection lies in the Divine’s Grace; the human supports are unpredictable; everyone can fail a person in a moment of crisis – and none will lack in some respectable pretext for his failure. But only the Divine does not fail one if one turns to him entirely.

Most of the episodes in the epics can be viewed at least from two planes, popular and subtle. At the popular plane of looking at matters, Draupadi is won by Arjuna, but she marries all the five brothers because their mother, Kunti, has unwittingly said that whatever prize Arjuna had won must belong to all the five. Evidently, in the age of the Mahabharata, the position of the mother was unique. The character of Gandhari, the unfortunate mother of the Kauravas, and those of Kunti and Satyavati convincingly demonstrate that the institution of motherhood merited the respect it was given. And there were auspicious moments when instructions and words uttered by a father or a mother or a master had to be literally followed. For, however illogical they might sound on the surface, the utterances were believed to have originated from some higher inspiration.

But this is only the surface justification for the unusual marital status imposed on Darupadi. What must be remembered is the genesis of Draupadi. She is no human being, though she dwells in a human form. She is even different from the other two great female characters in our epic lore, Savitri and Sita. Though godly emanations, Savitri and Sita both grew up following the process chalked out for mortals. But Draupadi emerged from a Yajna, already Samadhyama – a maiden – in response to a specific prayer by King Drupad of Panchala. She was born with a certain power and a certain mission, ostensibly to destroy Drona, but really to destroy the Kauravas who were under Drona’s protection.

Thus she was no woman to be judged by human standards, nor were the Pandava brothers, her husbands, human beings in any ordinary sense. They were emanations of gods, invoked by their mothers, all different aspects of the king of gods, Indra, one in essence.

In their human incarnation they had assumed different characteristics, though complementary to one another. But in order to constitute a force greater than the evil confronting them and humanity, they must be kept united, continuously reminded of their mission. This crucial task fell to Draupadi’s lot. The Pandavas were conscious of the extraordinary nature of Draupadi and they owed an unbroken allegiance to her, born out of a spontaneous faith. She used this allegiance to fulfill her mission. At the end of their exile when the Pandavas decide to send Krishna as their emissary to the Kauravas, Yudhisthira, Bhima and Arjuna are all prepared for a compromise. But when Krishna meets Draupadi, her decisive words are: “Damn Arjuna’s archery and Bhima’s strength, O Krishna, how do they forget that Duryodhana is still alive?”

Duryodhana had been vulgar enough to offer his thigh to Draupadi and Bhima had taken a vow to smash the scandalous offender’s thigh. Draupadi was to dip her hair in Duhshasana’s blood, for he had tried to disrobe her. While time seemed to have softened the Pandava brothers, it had only strengthened Draupadi’s anguish. Her humiliation had not ended with her surviving the barbaric conduct of the Kauravas. She had to meet with Jayadratha’s impudence while in the forest; worse still, she had to deal with Kichaka, the bully in Virata’s palace. It is as if Providence saw to it that she did not defeat the very purpose of her emergence by developing any mercy for the evil. Her continued anguish was the element that moulded the wills of the five heroes into a single determination. With that alone they could fulfill their mandate.

What would have happened if the Pandavas had reconciled themselves to their fate? That would have meant their compromising with falsehood, their own fall from their Swadharma – the innermost law of their being—and depriving humanity of any hope for the triumph of the just, a hope that has, through the ages, helped sustain men’s enthusiasm for taking to the path of truth as they know it.

The Mahabharata war gathered all the Indian kings on one single field, as friends and foes. It put on record the territories that constituted India, after the travels of the Pandavas through many a land had already built an idea of the concept of the nation. The war also destroyed most of the potentates who had turned greedy tyrants, ushering in a new climate of freedom.

In her role as an uncommon wife, Draupadi followed an uncommon discipline. Did the discipline require her to be equally passionate and indulgent towards all the five husbands? Not so, for she was above passion and indulgence. In her answer to a question from Satyabhama whether it was through certain rituals or hymns or magic potions that she pleased her husbands, her reply was: such methods were adopted by ordinary women with dubious motives. Her secret was her conquest of lust and egotism. This is the clue to her character.

There are Dharmas and Dharmas – different codes of conduct for beings of different levels of consciousness. As long as one is a creature of physical lust or of passionate love at the best, it is imperative that one follows a certain moral rule. This helps one to exercise control over one’s ordinarily unruly impulses, a control indispensable for one’s inner growth. But this is not the highest Dharma for all. There are beings too evolved for this or beings who do not belong to the evolutionary process at all. Draupadi falls into the rare latter category. Draupadi was a divine instrument for accomplishing a formidable task. That is why she had a special relationship with Krishna. She was his Sakhi, his intimate friend.

Draupadi is exemplary for her wit, her sense of courtesy and her dignity. When she is summoned to the court by Duryodhana after Yudhisthira has forfeited her in the infamous game of dice, she demands to know if Yudhisthira pledged her before losing himself or after. If after, he had no right to pledge her. Her question remained unanswered. She is so courteous that at a moment’s respite during Dushasana’s outrageous behaviour, she apologises to the elders for not having greeted them as soon as she entered the court. Her sense of dignity becomes evident when a nervous Dhritarastra, warned of the doom hanging over his dynasty because of Duryodhana’s sins, offers her boon after boon, but she politely refuses them after obtaining the release of Yudhisthira and the other Pandavas.

It is an insult to Draupadi and the monarch of poets, Vyasa, to believe that she burst into a peal of laughter and commented that the son of a blind man was blind, when Duryodhana, while surveying the magical castle of the Pandavas at Indraprastha, mistook a pool to be decorated floor and fell into it. Vyasa’s Draupadi cannot and does not do anything like that. The part of the epic recounting this incident may not even be an interpolation – one of many that got into the work in the course of centuries, but a careful reading would show that the poet does not show Draupadi as doing any such thing when the scene is narrated. It is Duryodhana who invents the insult while trying to poison Dhritarashtra’s mind and he invents it not even during his first report to his father, but during the second report. Had Draupadi done any such thing, we would have been informed of it by the poet when she did so.

Draupadi’s is perhaps the most daring portrayal of a female character in the literature of the world. It is a tribute to the women of India that they adore her more through their intuitive perception of the character than through a rational or social evaluation of it.

(Source: Page No.336,“Myths,Legends,Concepts and Literary Antiquities of India” by Shri Manoj Das, Published by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi.)


About Manoj Das

For thousands of men, women and children of the past two or three generations, Manoj Das has been the very synonym of light and delight, whose writings in Odia and English inspire in his countless readers faith in the purpose of life and also open up concealed horizons of confidence and compassion in humanity a dire need today.