Yājñasenī (2): Beautiful women and lusty men

Publicity poster for the latest TV series based on Mahābhārata, with Pooja Sharma in the role of Draupadi.
Pratibha Ray writes in her introduction that she was inspired to write the book after a real life experience. A woman she knew, whose name was also Kṛṣṇā (Draupadi's real name, "Draupadi" is a patronymic) returned to her parents' house after being deserted by her abusive drunkard husband. At first her well-wishers hoped she would be able to remarry, but the backward looking family and community of which she was a part would not allow it. So she went to Germany where a brother was living, got into a college and there fell in love with and married another man. This action on her part was condemned by many of her relatives, one of whom (a man, obviously) made the statement, "So just like her namesake Kṛṣṇā in the Mahābhārata was not satisfied with having five husbands, and still lusted for Krishna and even Karna, so she is not satisfied with just one husband. Where will it end?"

Pratibha Ray was insulted, she recounts, not so much for the sake of her acquaintance, as in this dark age it is to be expected that there will always be narrow-minded people making nasty comments, but more for the original Draupadi, whose story she felt had been completely misunderstood and misrepresented in this man's statement. It was then that she decided to paint a sympathetic portrait of Draupadi, one meant to highlight the challenges of womanhood that her life illustrates, and her contribution to dharma. For the central theme and purpose of the Mahābhārata is understanding dharma.

Raya states that Draupadi's love for Krishna is "spiritual love," using the English to translate dehātīta-prema-sambandha, "a relation of love that transcends the body" and sakhā-sakhī-sambandha,"relation of friend to friend." She says that Krishna is the central character in the Mahābhārata, and the portrayal of her relation to Krishna is an interesting one, to which I shall return.

In my obsession with Vrindavan, I have never given all that much attention to the Mahābhārata, nor to the Krishna of Dwaraka, but it should be remembered that this is the "original Krishna" in purely chronological terms. This is Vāsudeva, the friend of Arjuna, the protector of the Pandavas and of Draupadi, the speaker of the Gita. So there are rasas here that are in need of investigation. We do not really have examples of friendship (sakhya-rasa) as such between men and women in Rupa Goswami's tradition.
Pratibha Ray in her youth.

But the principal theme of the book, to which we will return again and again, and which Raya states immediately in the introduction is that Draupadi, like beautiful women throughout history, was objectified, repeatedly insulted and humiliated by lusty men (kāmāndha-puruṣa). Nevertheless, her humiliations were unequaled, for in her situation -- having five husbands -- she was repeatedly treated as nothing better than a prostitute; after all, if she slept with five men, what was to stop her from sleeping with every other man who desired her?

And this is indeed the principal theme that is repeated throughout the story. Boiled down to its essence, the role or dharma of kshatriyas is to protect womanhood.

Raya indicates that in nearly every case her story is based on the original Mahābhārata, but that she has also drawn on Sarala Das's Oriya version of the epic, as well as taking some creative license of her own. On a few occasions, I found myself running to the original to check up on a particular narration and discovered some of these original interpretations, many of which seem to have been added to highlight Draupadi's compassionate nature. But I did not and cannot make an in-depth analysis of these variants, though I may have occasion to mention one or two when I went and looked it up. I am not a scholar of the epic, nor have I looked into the scholarship that the flurry of modern versions of Draupadi's story in Indian literature, film or television has excited. So whatever I say here is going to be impressionistic rather than scholarly.

It should be noted in passing that though Vyasadeva's Mahābhārata is an imposing book with supposedly 100,000 verses, the main themes, i.e., the story of the Pandavas and Kauravas and the events leading up to the Kurukshetra battle are dispensed with in the first few parvas. The same is true here: Pratibha Raya is concerned primarily with the main drama seen from Draupadi's point of view and not the hundreds of peripheral substories or lengthy didactic interludes. And it is no doubt reasonable to say that the story itself is the essence of the Mahābhārata; in other words, the intent of the epic should be sought in the story itself rather than in its many additions and interpolations.

In that vein, I have often thought that the Mahābhārata abounds with tantalizing symbols, which I cannot profess to have found analyzed satisfactorily, though no doubt someone somewhere has made an attempt. The number five has numerous correlations, most tempting one being, of course, the five senses which surround the mind. Making a correlation of the mind to the feminine, the senses to the masculine, would in itself be an extremely evocative and thought-provoking concept. Draupadi's ability to keep all her five husbands happy could be seen, in general terms, as having this meaning.

Indeed, in one section later in the book, there is a conversation between Krishna's wife Satyabhama (the only one of the 16,108 who makes an appearance) and Draupadi, where the former laments that she is unable to manage Krishna, and how does Draupadi manage to keep five husbands under control and willing to please her at every turn? The answer she gives will probably not be pleasing to feminists, who will find the traditional answers of satī strī-dharma inadequate, but that is another area in which Pratibha Raya's angle of vision is interesting. The issue throughout is the protection of woman; like a Helen of Troy, or like Sita Devi, a woman is the cause of war. Draupadi 's humiliation is the central event that pushes the plot of the Mahābhārata.

On another level, each of the five brothers is described as a different personality. This might be seen as a metaphor for the woman's range in dealing with various aspects of a man's character. Yudhishthir is peace-loving, fixed on duty, detached to the point of indifference. But Draupadi saves her worst criticisms for him, for his failure to carry out justice in order to avoid conflict or simply to "follow the rules." Bhima is somewhat crude and uncouth, outspoken and unforgiving when wronged, but dependable as an aggressive and vindictive protector. Arjuna is the one Draupadi really loves: he is not only a hero, but a poet and lover of the arts; but he is often absent, too absorbed in his work of mastering the martial arts. Somewhat afraid of love and the five husbands situation in which he finds himself. Nakula loves astrology and music, while Sahadeva is especially devoted to animals, cows and horses above all. They are secondary characters for the most part.

Draupadi arising from the sacrificial fire.
Of the occasions when Draupadi is insulted, the worst is no doubt the famous scene where Duhshasan drags her by the hair into the all-male court. She is menstruating and so dressed in a single piece of cloth, but in front of her five husbands, whose heads are hanging in shame, he pulls on her cloth. Though her purity and her prayers save her at that moment, Bhima cries out that he will not rest until he has drunk Duhshasan's blood and Draupadi herself says she will not braid her hair again until she has bathed in it. So, in effect, it is the humiliation of Draupadi that stands at the very center of the epic.

And these humiliations are repeated. Not only by the Kauravas themselves, all of whom have a deep seated resentment towards the Pandavas because of Arjuna's victory at Draupadi's svayaṁvara, but because she is one of the symbols of their rivals' superiority and opulence.
I will end here today and try to continue tomorrow. Please forgive the somewhat disjointed presentation. Radhe Shyam.


dr. jaya said…
Very good devotional book, read its Hindi translation 15 yrs ago .. recommend to all Divine lovers .. Radhe ..
Anonymous said…
... most beautiful and clear introduction... thank you so much.

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