Our epic heroines are eloquent. Very eloquent. And assertive. Very assertive. And fearless.
Take Sita, for instance. When Rama informs her that he is leaving for the jungle for fourteen years obeying the orders of his father and she should stay back in Ayodhya serving his parents, Sita does not remain quiet and agree to fulfill his wishes, saying his wish was her command. Instead she expresses trenchantly her deep anguish at being left behind and argues and pleads to be taken with him. She tells him in no uncertain terms her place is with him and not in Ayodhya and she has decided to go with him, nothing in the world can stop her.
“What ludicrous words you speak, Rama! How they reduce me to a worthless woman! And do you think they are fit for a noble prince like you to speak? You, a brave prince, so well educated, a master of mighty weapons? Your words are so shameful that they are not fit to be heard.”
That is how Sita begins her response to Rama’s instruction to stay back in Ayodhya. Sita has been deeply hurt by what he has said and it is her wounded love that speaks through her fury, as the Ramayana makes very clear here.
Sita promises Rama she would be no trouble to him in the jungle. She would serve him constantly, living with him a life of celibacy there. The roots and fruits of the jungle would be enough food for her. “If I am with you, hell is no hell for me, even if it lasts a hundred years or even thousands. And if I am not with you, heaven holds no joys for me,” she tells him. She assures him she would be walking ahead of him in the jungle – so that she could crush under her feet the knife-edged blades of grass and the sharp stones on the way and make his way smooth for him.
What we find here in Sita is a woman possessed by consuming love for her man and the agony of that love, the torment of being separated from her loved one, sets each word Sita speaks aflame. There is a long dispute between Sita and Rama here, running into four full chapters of the Valmiki Ramayana, and eventually when Sita is not able to persuade Rama to take her with him in spite of all she has said, she attacks him, questioning his manhood itself, calling him a woman in a man’s body. She tells him, “I wonder, Rama, if my father King Janaka understood when he got you as a son-in-law that he was really getting only a woman in the body of a man.” And then after more words of anguish and torment, of protest and fury, of frustration, Sita breaks down and collapsing against Rama, holding tightly on to him, wails aloud inconsolably. Her pain was that of a wounded animal, pierced by a thousand poisoned arrows. Tears drop like crystals from her beautiful eyes, and those tears seem endless. It is only then that Rama relents and agrees to take her with him. He tells her that she was born to live in the jungle with him and then says, “Your determination to come with me has changed my mind – I have now made up my mind to take you with me to Dandakaranya.”
It is the eloquence of Sita that changes Rama’s mind. It is the eloquence of her pleadings, the eloquence of her fiery words, the eloquence of her tears, the eloquence of her anguish that persuades Rama to eventually agree to take her with him almost against his will, although he does says here he was only testing her when he said no to her earlier.
We find Sita expressing the same eloquence when Rama rejects her at the end of the war with Ravana, humiliating her, insulting her in the cruelest possible way by telling her she was now free to go where she liked, the ten directions were open to her, and she could give her heart now to whoever she wished, Bharata, Lakshmana, Shatrughna, Sugreeva or even Vibheeshana and go and live with any of them, or anyone else for that matter.
Sita tells Rama that his words are not fit to be spoken by the cheapest of men to the trashiest of women. She vehemently defends her chastity and character, painting the helplessness of a woman in eloquent words, and then, totally broken by Rama’s rejection and shaming of her, asks Lakshmana to prepare a funeral pyre for her, telling him that was the medicine for her sorrows, she does not want to live tainted by false accusations . It is this pyre that she jumps into with Rama’s name on her lips, with her love for him filling her heart.
Sita is eloquent. Very eloquent. And assertive. Very assertive. And fearless.
Let us now take a look at another epic heroine of ours, this time from the Mahabharata: Shakuntala, the ancestress of the Bharatas, another splendid woman who has held this land in her spell for the last several millennia.
Like Sita, she too is rejected by her husband and humiliated by him. If Sita was shamed by her husband in the presence of her brother-in-law Lakshmana to whom she was a mother and a goddess rolled into one, in the presence of two kings, Sugreeva and Vibheeshana, and in the presence of an assembly of thousands of Vanara, Riksha and Rakshasa warriors, Shakuntala was shamed by her husband in the middle of a royal assembly, in the presence of royal priests, ministers, advisors and other courtiers. If Rama asks Sita to give her heart to whoever she wishes, Bharata, Shatrughna, Lakshmana, Sugreeva or the lord of the Rakshasas, Dushyanta calls his wife a whore, mother of a bastard child born of shameless lust.
Vile ascetic, he calls her, completely denying any knowledge of a marriage with her.
At the wounds inflicted by the man to whom she had given her heart and surrendered her body thirteen years ago [the Mahabharata version is different from Kalidasa’s where it is a pregnant Shakuntala who comes to Dushyanta’s court], Shakuntala turns an enraged snake. If her words are still civil, it is only because even in the middle of her rage she does not lose her culture and upbringing, or the love she had long borne for this man in her heart. In spite of that, though, they are never the wailings of a helpless woman. Her words are ever full of power, never sad whimpering. She shows absolutely no fear, she is not in awe of the mighty ruler of men. Her ire at his unbelievable behavior comes out freely through her words.
“You know me, great king,” she says. “And yet you shamelessly say you do not, showing no culture, no cultivation.” And she reminds him no action of man is hidden, nor any thoughts in his heart. “Man sins,” she tells him, “and thinks no one knows that. This is foolishness, for the gods see both his virtuous and sinful acts, as does the Supreme Self who resides in all beings. The sun, the moon, air, fire, space, earth, water, one’s own heart, the lord of death, day, night, the two twilights and dharma – nothing is hidden from these.”
Mahabharata’s Shakuntala is not Kalidasa’s vulnerable, helpless ashram maiden, the ethereal, ephemeral woman, but a woman of flesh and blood, a woman who is kin to earth and the night.
She reminds Dushyanta she deserves to be honored by him, to be offered worship – as a wife who comes to your home the first time does. Archaarhaam na archayasi maam – I deserve homage from you, and yet you do not offer me that.
This is indeed a woman who knows her rights speaking, a woman who knows her place as a man’s beloved and as the mother of his children. She reminds him a wife is not a plaything for man – she is an equal half of his being, she is his best friend, the source of his dharma, prosperity and happiness, and for the man who wants to cross over the ocean of samsara, she is the greatest vessel too. Woman is the sacred ground, she reminds him, where man is reborn as his own son. Even an all-powerful sage cannot bring forth offspring without a woman, she tells him. And, gathering unto herself all the dignity of womanhood, she warns him – “I stand here begging you for justice. Ignore me, Dushyanta, and your head shall explode in a thousand shards”. She is willing to go back to the ashram, but she wants Dushyanta to recognize their son, accept him.
Dushyanta does not relent. Instead, his attack grows still more virulent, still more venomous. He calls her mother Menaka hard-hearted and merciless, a whore, and her father a kshatriya greedy for brahminhood, a pitiless slave to lust. “And you, their child – why do you stand here and address me so disgracefully like a whore? Don’t you have any shame at all that you stand before me here, you immoral ascetic, and speak these words. Get you lost now!”
Shakuntala does not lose her cool even at this, though her words are razor-sharp.
She tells him he has no business to condemn her pedigree – it definitely is far superior to his any day since she is the child of a sage like Vishwamitra and a celestial apsara like Menaka. She apologizes in advance, telling her words are going to be harsh and then she tells him the ugliest man thinks he is beautiful until he looks at the mirror. The difference between a fool and the wise man is that the fool chooses evil from a mixture of good and bad, whereas the wise man chooses what is good. And she tells him better it is to construct a pond than a well, better it is to offer a sacrifice to the gods than to dig a hundred ponds, better it is to bring into the world a son than to conduct a hundred sacrifices – but truth is superior to a hundred sons. Truth, she reminds him, is superior to a thousand ashwamedha sacrifices; the study of all the Vedas, bathing in every sacred teertha in the world, even these may not be equal to the truth.
“Oh king,” she tells him, “truth is the Supreme Brahman, truth is the highest vow, the greatest asceticism. Don’t you abandon that truth. Make it your constant companion.” And she informs him she is going away, he is not fit for her, seeing that he clings to lies, does not trust her. Before leaving, she has one last thing to tell him: Her son does not need his kingdom, that is not what has brought her to him. As for the kingdom, her son will rule over the entire land surrounded by the oceans on all sides, with the Himalayas as its crown, even without his help.
Shakuntala is eloquent. Very eloquent. And assertive. Very assertive. And fearless.
The gods interfere here on Shakuntala’s behalf and declare her Dushyanta’s wife and Sarvadamana his son, suggesting he be named Bharata now; from his name this land of ours gets the name Bharatavarsha.
It is not just Sita and Shakuntala that are eloquent, and assertive. Take practically any epic heroine of ours, and you will find she is assertive and eloquent. But perhaps the most assertive and eloquent of them all, at least as is commonly perceived, is Draupadi, the heroine of the Mahabharata.
The very first time we hear Draupadi’s words in the epic, they are so assertive that there is an absolute finality to what she says. She speaks just four words there –naham [na aham] varayami sootam, I shall not wed a soota: it is her swayamvara that is going on and she is not expected to talk at length in the middle of it. But in spite of that, the finality in her words shakes us, as it must have shaken the audience that listened to those words. The man to whom those words were addressed has just been described by the Mahabharata in the very previous verse as atyagnisomarka, transcending in his glory fire, the sun and the moon, and as arkaputra – son of the Sun God. But those words cast such a dark shadow on him that he would never in his life be able to come out of it. It would be under the shadow cast by those words that years later he would commit the most heinous act of his in many other ways very noble life by asking Dushshasana to disrobe Draupadi in the dice hall of Hastinapura, calling her a whore who gave herself to five men. And still later, when he meets with his death, I am sure he was still haunted by those words, for among the reasons Krishna gives Arjuna when he asks him to shoot Karna dead mercilessly against the rules of chivalrous battle, perhaps the most important was that order he gave Dushshasana.
We see Draupadi’s assertive, eloquent, powerful speech on what could possibly be the most humiliating day of her life – in the dice hall where she was brought dragged by her hair when she was in her monthly period and hence wearing a single bloodstained cloth. Yudhishthira sat there dumb like a moron, perhaps unable to digest the enormity of what had just happened, of what he had just done. He had lost in the game of dice the endless wealth that kings had waited at his gate in miles long queues to bring to him during the rajasooya sacrifice. Duryodhana, whom he had made in charge of receiving the gifts felt his arms aching from just receiving the gifts, so unceasingly had the gifts come. There were gifts from every part of the land, and besides, gifts from all civilized world outside, including the Yavanas, Romakas, Chinas, Shakas and the Vikings. Boundless quantities of gold, jewels and gems. Endless numbers of elephants, camels, horses, cows and sheep. Weapons, chariots, cloths, wool, fur. Slaves in their thousands from several kings, all decked in gold.
He had lost it all. He had lost his entire kingdom. He had lost his four brothers and made slaves of them to people who hated them from the deepest abysses of their hearts, lost and enslaved himself, and then had wagered and lost his wife, the common wife of the brothers, to the Kauravas. He had enslaved her to them – to the very people to whom perhaps winning a kingdom would not have given a tiny amount of the pleasure they got from getting her as a slave.
She is dragged from the inner apartments where she was staying, dragged by her hair right into the dice hall where sat all her husbands, all the Kuru elders, all the Kaurava princes and invited guests. And there, in the middle of all that was being done to her, she still has the presence of mind and courage to assert herself. She stops Dushshasana right in the middle while he was dragging her through the hall to take her to the inner apartments of the Kauravas as asked by Karna and says, “Alas! I haven’t yet done what I should have done before anything else. Forgive me, for I was helpless as I was being dragged about by Dushshasana. I now pay my regards to all the Kurus in this assembly of the Kurus. And kindly do not hold this against me as an omission, that I did not do what I should have done.”
The power of her sarcasm is searing. Here is this proud woman, a princess every bit, daughter of one of the mightiest kings of the day, a queen herself the like of whom has never been born in this land nor will ever be, a magnificent woman unsurpassed in splendor, who has never entered an assembly of men except that one time during her swayamvara, now brought, dragged by her hair, into an royal assembly of the mightiest of men of the day, where sit such living legends as Bheeshma and Drona, and her own husbands. She is in her monthly period, wearing a single piece of cloth as custom required, and that cloth is bloodstained. An attempt has been made to disrobe her in the middle of the assembly, she has been called a whore repeatedly, she is a slave to her greatest enemies, like her husbands too have become, and a man has bared his thigh inviting her to come into his lap, she has been asked to select any of her enemies as her man or men now and give herself to him or to them, since a slave is not bound by the rules that safeguard a freewoman, and now she is being dragged about in the assembly in an attempt to take her to the inner apartments of her enemies, there to broom and sweep the grounds as a slave along with other slaves. In the middle of all this, she does not lose her presence of mind, doesn’t lose her voice, doesn’t lose her command over herself and lashes out at the men in the assembly through her sarcasm, each word from her lips whipping them mercilessly, inflicting wounds that will never be healed so long as they live.
That is assertiveness. That is the power of words. That is eloquence.
Draupadi is eloquent. Draupadi is assertive. Draupadi is fearless.
Let’s now take another occasion from Draupadi’s life.
The second game of dice is over. Her husband has once again lost everything he possessed. They are now living in the forest, bound to complete a twelve-year period there, followed by a year of life incognito. The princess of Virata, the sister of Dhristadyumna, the queen of Indraprastha, the wife of the Pandavas, has begun her wanderings from one jungle to another, her heart full of unspeakable grief, of fire that thirsts to consume the entire world. And Krishna comes there – the one man in the world whom she calls her sakha, the only man in the world who has the right to call her his sakhi, her only equal in the mighty epic, her namesake.
Approaching Krishna, Draupadi asks him: “How could your sakhi, the wife of the Pandavas, Dhrishtadyumna’s sister be dragged into a royal assembly as I was done? I was in my period, I was wearing a single piece of cloth, my cloth was bloodstained, deep in anguish I was shaking all over, and I was hauled by force into the assembly of the Kurus. Those sinners, evils sons of Dhritarashtra, they laughed seeing me there, in the middle of that royal assembly, in the midst of kings, drenched in my own menstrual blood. While the sons of Pandu were still alive, while the Panchalas were still alive, while the Vrishnis were still alive, they wanted to enjoy me as a slave is enjoyed. Remember this, Krishna, by dharma I am the daughter-in-law of both Bheeshma and Dhritarashtra, and yet I was made a slave by force. Shame upon the Pandavas, Krishna! Shame upon these mighty men so valorous in war, that they sat watching their lawful wife, me, their dharmapatni, being dragged about in the court. Shame on the strength of Bheemasena! Shame on Partha’s Gandeeva! Fie upon them that they sat enduring my ill-treatment! Fie upon Bheemasena’s strength! Fie upon Partha’s valour! Fie upon them if Duryodhana lives even for another instant!”
And then Draupadi, wailing aloud inconsolably in the jungle, wailing again and again, forlorn, heart-broken, desolate, disconsolate, her heart sinking with the grief of her boundless sorrow, tells Krishna: “No, Krishna, I have neither husbands, nor sons, nor relatives. I have no brothers, I have no father, nor have I even you! Because, Krishna, you all ignore how I was outraged in that assembly, as if that grief does not touch your heart. I can never forget for a moment how Karna laughed at me, seeing my plight then. Remember Krishna, you had the responsibility to protect me ever for four reasons: because you are related to me, because I am an honorable woman, because you are my friend, and because you are capable of doing it.”
Draupadi here is eloquence itself, she is assertiveness itself, she is power itself.
And she displays the same eloquence, the same assertiveness, the same power again and again, every single time there is a crisis in her life.
It was in the Kamyaka forest that Jayadratha places that outrageous proposal before her – leave the Pandavas, be his wife, be the queen of Sindhu and Sauveera and enjoy the pleasures of life with him. Draupadi understands his intentions – he plans to abduct her if she did not go with him on her own. Her face turns red with anger, her eyes become inflamed, her brows bend in fury, as she tells Duryodhana’s brother-in-law that men of quality respect others who deserve respect even if they live in a jungle, and only men who are like dogs speak as he has spoken. “Fool,” she tells him, “when the bamboo, the banana plant and reeds that grow on riverbanks put forth flowers, it is not for their good but for their destruction. When the female crab becomes pregnant, her death is near. And you – when you try to abduct me, you are inviting your own death.” Draupadi’s words here are full of valor, and reflects her trust in her husbands, in Krishna and her other relatives. She does not waver even for once in the presence of the mighty king of Sauvira who has come prepared with his men to make her his own.
Similarly, when Keechaka makes her life difficult during her stay as Sairandhri in the palace of Virata, her words to Bheema are both long and eloquent. She wakes him up from sleep, in the words of the Mahabharata, as a lioness wakes up a lion sleeping in the jungle. Her voice is sweet as that of the veena even in her anger and speaking in that voice she tells her husband, “Wake up, wake up, Bheema. Don’t lie there like one dead. It is only a dead man’s wife that a sinner touches and still stays alive.” She then narrates all that she has been through, all that they have all been through, and asks him to act. Such is the rage awakened in Bheema by her sufferings and her words that when Bheema subsequently kills Keechaka, he is not content with merely killing him. He turns Keechaka’s body into a ball of flesh – in the vehemence of his wrath, he pushes Keechaka’s arms and legs into his body, burying them in it.
Krishna is ready to leave for Hastinapura on his mission of peace, taking Yudhishthira’s message that the Pandavas would settle for just five villages because they want peace more than anything else. Even the irrepressible Bheema is now for peace – and Draupadi feels totally let down, betrayed by all. Once more she takes the situation in her own hands, and speaks from the depths of her grief, moving Krishna.
“Nothing would come out of sama, conciliation with the Kauravas, Krishna, nor from dana, charity to them. Kindness to them is useless. With men not open to conciliation or charity there is only one way if you want to protect your life: danda, violence, use of force. And, Krishna, those who know dharma understand that it is as much a sin not punish those who deserve punishment as to punish those who do not deserve it.”
She now tells Krishna that out of faith in him, she is once again speaking of things she has already spoken of earlier. She asks him if there is another woman like her on the earth: “Daughter of King Drupada, risen up from the middle of a sacrificial fire, sister of Dhrishtadyumna, your dear friend, Krishna, the daughter-in-law of the Ajameedhas, of the great Pandu, the queen of the five sons of Pandu who are like five Indras in their glory, mother of five heroic sons, all maharathis who are to you as Abhimanyu is – that me, dragged by my hair to the middle of the Kaurava assembly as the sons of Pandu sat watching, while you were still alive. While the sons of Pandu were alive, while the Panchalas were alive, while the Vrishnis were alive, I became a slave to black-hearted men and had to stand in the middle of a royal assembly. You, Krishna, are the only one I remembered in my heart then, cried out to for protection, while my husbands sat quietly, without taking any action.”
Once again she rejects Arjuna’s Gandeeva and Bheema’s strength, calling shame upon them, if Duryodhana is allowed to live another moment. And she tells Krishna if she deserves his kindness, then he should bring out the fury of his anger on the sons of Dhritarashtra without reservation. Having said this, she walks towards Krishna, takes the ends of her long, dark, thick, beautiful, curly lose hair in her hand and holding it up to Krishna, her eyes streaming with inconsolable tears, she tells him as he talks of piece with the sons of Dhritarashtra, he should not for a moment forget her hair that Dushshasana took in his hands and by which he dragged her into the assembly of the Kurus. And she tells him if Bheema and Arjuna desires for peace like two cowards, then her aged father would battle for her, along with his mighty sons, and so would her five fearless sons, with Abhimanyu to lead them from the front. And she tells him, “It has been thirteen years now since I have been waiting, this all consuming fire of wrath, of vengeance, forever aflame in my heart. My heart, Krishna, will know no peace unless my eyes behold Dushshasana’s dark arm lying in the dust severed from his body and bathed in his blood.”
Krishna promises her that the Himalayas might move from their place, the earth may explode in a hundred pieces, the sky might come down with all its stars, but his words shall not go wrong. “I promise you, Krishnaa, stop your tears. Soon you shall see your husbands back in their glory, their enemies dead.”
Draupadi is eloquent, assertive throughout. She speaks when the occasion calls for speech, and when she speaks her words are full of power.
And yet we find that on one occasion she is silent. Completely, utterly silent. Without speaking a single word. In spite of the fact that the occasion is of great significance to her. In the hours and days following her swayamvara, while the Pandava brothers, Kunti, her own brother Dhrishtadyumna, her father Drupada and Sage Vyasa decide her strange marriage with five men, for which she would forever be called a whore by her enemies. The most momentous decision about her life is being taken, taken in such a shocking way, contrary to all conventions, and she is being pushed into a life which the whole world calls one of sin, her brother expresses shock at it, her father is dumbfounded when he hears of it the first time, and yet Draupadi is silent. The assertive, eloquent, powerful, Draupadi, the mistress of herself at all times and under all circumstances, Draupadi who had spoken in her swayamvara with such decisiveness, such finality in her words that she shall not wed a soota, is utterly, completely silent here.
She had just garlanded that incredibly handsome Brahmin youth who had done the impossible, giving herself to him. He and his brother had defended with unbelievable skill and valor as the entire assembly of the invited kings turned on them, furious at the bride being given away to a Brahmin instead of to one of them, to a kshatriya. As they take her out of the swayamvara hall, she follows them, walking behind them.
Shock after shock awaits her now. The two youths she thought were Brahmins, though it looked impossible that they could be Brahmins, take her to a potter’s house. There they announce delightedly to their mother who is inside the house, “Look, mother, we have brought the alms.” And their mother answers from inside “Have it, all of you share it.” It is then that their mother sees her and says, “Alas! What have I said now?”
That was a small mistake, Draupadi would have thought. Nothing more than something to laugh at and forget about. The lady had said something unwittingly, she should correct herself now. But it turns out to be much more than that. For the next thing that happens is that Kunti takes her by her hand and leads her to Yudhishthira, who is already there, and tells him, “Look, oh king, at what I have done. This maiden is the daughter of King Drupada and your brothers brought and offered her to me. Mistaking it was some alms they have brought, I answered them appropriately, saying ‘Share and enjoy it among yourselves’. Tell me, Best of the Kurus, how may it be that my words do not become false? Tell me how this daughter of the king of Panchala will not be tainted by sin, how she will not have to wander repeatedly through lower births?”
By now who they are must have become clear to Draupadi. The mother had addressed the man as king and he looks every inch a king. That combined with the skill and valor of the two youths in the swayamvara hall leaves no doubt that these men are kshatriyas. And the mother herself looked every inch a kshatrani. Well, there is actually no need for these surmises – the lady has just addressed her son as the best of the Kurus – kuroonam rshabha, the bull among the Kurus. He is a Kuru king or at least a Kuru prince.
The Panchalas and the Kurus are related, King Pandu was a very close friend of her father Drupada, she had heard rumors that Kunti and the Pandava children had escaped the attempt on their lives at Varanavata and were safe and in hiding, the swayamvara was, at least in part, and the test in particular, arranged with the hope that the Pandavas would come out of their hiding and Arjuna, the best archer of the day, would win the test and wed her. Besides, all the Kuru princes would be known to her – Duryodhana and Dushshasana were there at the swayamvara, so that left little doubt about who the young man addressed as the best of the Kurus was.
Which meant the youth who had won her at the swayamvara could be none other than Arjuna, the one she had hoped to marry all along.
Draupadi should have expressed her feelings of joy in words now. She does not. She remains silent.
Of course she has every right to remain silent at this stage. She is a young, fresh bride, just brought here from the swayamvara. Modesty would require that she remained silent. She could just hold her joy in her heart – perhaps that would be the right thing for a dignified Indian princess to do under the circumstances.
Draupadi has at this stage no way of knowing a lot of other factors involved. For instance, it is not likely she knew that Yudhishthira and the twins had got up from the swayamvara hall soon after Arjuna won her – exactly as the protest of the other kings in the assembly became loud and aggressive against Draupadi being given to a Brahmin youth, seeing them growing violent. They had already come to the potter’s house where they were putting up for the time being. It is not in the least likely that Yudhishthira hadn’t given the news of Arjuna winning Draupadi to his mother. It was such important news, they had come to Kampilya specifically for this purpose, that morning they had left home specifically for this purpose, and the whole Kamplilya was celebrating her swayamvara on that day, even strangers could have talked about nothing else on that day. Also, Yudhishthira’s hopes of winning the kingdom back depended on it, in fact their staying alive depended on it, unless they were willing to continue living in hiding. No, it is not in the least likely that Yudhishthira had not given the news to Kunti. Unless of course we believe that Yudhishthira was so annoyed with Arjuna winning Draupadi, whom he too desired, that he sat down sulking in a corner of the potter’s hut. Well, as a matter of fact, even if he had sat down sulking, his mother would have asked him why he was sulking, what had happened at the swayamvara, did someone else win Draupadi?
Kunti definitely knew that Arjuna had won Draupadi and would be coming with her soon, along with Bheema.
But since Draupadi could not even have suspected at this stage that Kunti knew about this and that when she told Arjuna and Bheema to share the bhiksha equally [among the five brothers] she was not really speaking from ignorance or a misunderstanding, it is perhaps natural that she does not speak at this stage, continues her modest silence, though she must definitely have wondered in her heart what sin Kunti was talking about, what sin she was just to commit for which she would have to wander from birth to birth in lower yonis, among lower species.
In response to her plea to her eldest son, Yudhishthira pacifies Kunti and asks Arjuna to light a fire immediately and marry Draupadi formally as it is he who has won her. And Arjuna replies that would not be correct since his elder brothers are not married [perhaps Bheema’s marriage with Hidimba does not count since she is a mere Rakshasi]; first Yudhishthira should marry, then Bheema, then he himself and then the twins, that’s how it should be. And then he tells him they are all, including Draupadi, under his command and he should do what is right and the best for all, including the Panchalas. He repeats again they are all under his command.
Fine so far. Draupadi would perhaps have thought her marriage would take place only after Yudhishthira’s and Bheema’s have taken place, her marriage with Arjuna would have wait until then.
At this stage, says the Mahabharata, all the Pandava brothers looked at Draupadi and they all lusted so strongly for her that their senses ceased to function.
Yudhishthira makes up his mind now – for, apart from seeing the lust in the eyes of his brothers and knowing his own desire for her, he also remembered what Vyasa had told them: that the princess of Panchala was destined to be their common bride.
He announces his decision now – all the five brothers together shall marry her. She shall be their common wife.
Yudhishthira’s solution must have been a complete shock to her. This was unheard of. A man marrying many women was common. But this – this was outrageous! This was horrid and hideous!
Immediately following Vyasa’s strange words, Kunti and the Pandava brothers must have discussed it all among themselves. No one leaves such a prophecy un-discussed. Especially not a family as close knit as that of Kunti and her sons. In the time it took them to reach from Ekachakra to Kampilya, they must have discussed it repeatedly. They must have reached a decision among themselves. Yudhishthira’s current words, and Kunti’s earlier words asking the brother’s to ‘share and enjoy the bhiksha’ must all have been an outcome of those discussions.
But Draupadi had no way of knowing of all this. She must have been utterly taken aback by what had just been spoken. This should have made her speak. Made her protest. Made her scream. But she does not scream. She does not protest. She does not speak a word.
Even if we are willing to believe the story of Draupadi’s past birth in which she was given the boon or curse of five husbands, against which she protests immediately, Draupadi had no knowledge of such a boon. She has as yet no knowledge of the other stories Vyasa would later tell Drupada justifying her marriage to the five Pandavas. All her growing up years, there has been no talk of her marrying more than one man. She should have found the decision loathsome, repulsive. Even if we accept what Karna says about the nature of women, that they by nature desire more than one man, Indian women, women everywhere in patriarchal and non-polyandrous societies, are brought up to devote their entire life to one single man. A decision of five men to marry her simultaneously is not accepted without protests – violent protests.
Draupadi remains silent. Utterly silent.
Krishna and Balarama come to visit the Pandavas in the potter’s house. They are told nothing about this strange decision.
The Pandava brothers now go for bhiksha – strangely, it is Bheema and Arjuna, who have just returned after a fierce battle with a host of kings and princes in the swayamvara hall that go for bhiksha. The bhiksha is brought. As instructed by Kunti, Draupadi serves the meal and then has her own share of it. They all sleep in a single room – the brothers lying side by side, Kunti lying at their head, and Draupadi lying at their feet.
Draupadi is silent throughout.
Learning to his great pleasure that the youth who had won Draupadi is in all probability Arjuna, his brother who defended him in the Swayamvara hall is Bheema, and the Pandava brothers and Kunti are staying in a potter’s house in the outskirts of the city, Drupada invites them to the palace. They now stay in a palace offered them by Drupada. Drupada then tells Yudhishthira that now the formal wedding of Arjuna and Draupadi should take place. And Yudhishthira tells him that all the five brothers are going to marry Draupadi together. He gives two reasons: one, his mother has already ordered this; and the brothers have among themselves a vow that any jewel they get, they shall enjoy together. And of course, Draupadi is a rare jewel meant for enjoyment. Drupada is stunned by this announcement.
We have no way of knowing whether this discussion took place in Draupadi’s presence or not. All we are told is that Drupada went with his sons to the palace where the Pandavas, Draupadi and Kunti were staying and it is there that he talked of Draupadi’s wedding with Arjuna. Probably she was present, probably she was not. In any case, there is no mention of Draupadi’s reaction to Yudhishthira’s statement that jolts Drupada.
They continue the discussion and it is then that Vyasa, by chance, arrives there. The Mahabharata tells us through Vaishampayana that it was by chance that he came there. But that statement is very suspect – Vyasa knows about the swayamvara, he has sent the Pandavas there to participate in it, he has informed the brothers that Draupadi was born to marry all five of them, and he knows that no self-respecting father or brother would agree to such a marriage of his daughter or sister.
Drupada places before Vyasa the worry that has been tormenting him as soon as the rules of hospitality allow it: how can one woman become the wife of many without causing transgressions [sankara, literally intermixing]? And Vyasa says since the matter concerns something against the Vedas and the accepted practices of the world, he would like to hear the opinions of all in the matter.
Drupada opposes it. Dhrishtadyumna asks how an elder brother could have sex with a younger brother’s wife, which would happen if Draupadi married all five of them. Yudhishthira says he never lies, never makes a moral transgression, never desires what he shouldn’t desire, and he desires this marriage, so it cannot be wrong in any way. Then he also gives the examples of Jatila and Marisha of yore, who had polyandrous marriages. He has one more reason to give: his mother has ordered it, and the mother is the highest guru above whom there is none, and therefore this marriage is the highest dharma. Kunti present there supports her son. She repeats here what she had told earlier – she is terrified of telling a lie, they should tell her how she could escape from the sin of telling a lie.
It will not be much out of place to point out that Kunti’s commitment to truth is not above questioning. She had lived with Pandu for some twenty years as his wife. In all these twenty years, Kunti hid from him the truth that she was an unwed mother. She does not reveal this to him even when he is desperate for a child and asks Kunti to beget children through other men as otherwise he would not be admitted into those worlds where only those with children could go. Pandu here lists the kind of sons that can save a man from this sad fate and one of the types on that list is a kanina son, a son born to a woman before her marriage. Still Kunti does not reveal the truth about her kanina son to Pandu. Hiding the truth is as bad as a lie, sometimes even worse. Hiding it from someone who loved her as Pandu did is definitely wicked, in spite of all the reasons Kunti had for doing so. What she had done was living a lie with him all those years, which is worse than telling a lie. Also, if she is so committed to the truth, she should have announced the truth about Karna’s birth to world at least in the arena where Bheema and others so pitilessly ridiculed him calling him a soota when he wanted to compete with Arjuna to prove the superiority of his martial skills.
I find it extremely difficult to believe that Kunti was really worried about ‘her words turning out to be a lie’ here. It is not an oath she has taken, it is not a vow, and by changing her words she wouldn’t be harming anyone – she would just be correcting an error she has made. If she was interested in saving Draupadi from a dire situation, if she wanted to avoid her five sons all marrying her together, she could easily have said sorry, she made a mistake, she didn’t mean it, it was all because of a misunderstanding. In fact, Krishna would go to the extent of saying that there are occasions when even a lie is superior to the truth – satyat jyeyo’nrtam vachah. [SeeKrishna: A Study in Transformational Leadership by the author]. No lie is needed here, just correcting one’s words spoken in misunderstanding. But of course Kunti had her reasons for wanting all the five brothers to marry Draupadi together.
Again, the person whom the marriage would affect more deeply than anyone else, Draupadi, does not speak here. It is not possible that she did not feel in her heart a protest against that for which she must have known she would be called a whore all her life. The feelings expressed by Dhrishtadyumna and Drupada are her feelings too. I do not think she looked upon her marriage with five men as a God-sent opportunity to satisfy her insatiable lust which her past life stories speak of. Draupadi exuded sexuality, she was irresistible to men, but nothing in the Mahabharata tells us that she was a nymphomaniac. But she doesn’t speak.
Vyasa convinces Drupada and Dhrishtadyumna that the marriage is not only all right, it is the right thing to do, it has been destined. This marriage is what has been coming for her through several past births.
The marriage is decided. One by one, beginning with Yudhishthira, the brothers marry Draupadi. The marriages take place one day each, and the nights are nuptial nights for the pair to consummate their marriage. After the first wedding, Dhaumya, the Pandava priest, appears to have walked off. But the marriages are conducted anyhow.
The eloquent Draupadi, the assertive Draupadi, the powerful Draupadi, the fearless Draupadi, does not speak a word at any stage. She is completely, utterly silent through all these. So completely silent that it is difficult to believe she is the same woman who spoke so decisively in the swayamvara hall, would later speak so assertively in the dice hall, so eloquently in the Kamyaka forest, so movingly before Krishna’s mission for peace to Hastinapura before the war.
There is something wrong somewhere. For, Draupadi does not believe in letting things happen to her. She does not believe in floating with the river. She prefers to swim, if necessary against the current. It is not her way to let her horses take her chariot where they will. She would have them take her where she wants to go. Occasionally, like all of us, she might talk of fate and destiny and things like that – but that is not she believes in. Hers is the path of purushartha, of human will and effort. She does not yield, she fights. A kshatrani, that is what she is, every least bit of her.
What I believe is that Draupadi’s words here have been erased off the epic as unpalatable. If history is written by the winners, so are epics. It is possible that during its long narrative history, much of what showed the Pandavas in a bad light has been erased off the Mahabharata. It is also possible that the Mahabharata told to Janamejaya itself was an acceptable form of the story of the Pandavas. Janamejaya was, after all, Arjuna’s great grandson.
I believe that Draupadi has been silenced in the chapters dealing with her post-swayamvara hours and days. Just as she has been deified by many to make her more acceptable. Just as she has been demonized as a bloodthirsty, nymphomaniac goddess when it was found that she could not be confined to the limits commonly allotted to women in India.
In the Bheel version of the Mahabharata*, she is a dain, a witch, and her status is greater than that of God himself. During a festival at night, we see the Bheel Draupadi arriving on a roaring lioness to join a get-together of the gods – she is the last to arrive and when she arrives, God gets up from his seat to welcome her. God is seated on a silver throne, and Draupadi takes her seat on a golden throne.
That is what we do to powerful, eloquent, assertive women. Deify them. Demonize them. Or silence them.
A careful reading of the chapters dealing with Draupadi’s swayamvara and her marriage would show they are chockfull of inconsistencies. Proof that they have been tampered with – not once, but repeatedly.
Questioning women. Rebellious women. Subversive women. Powerful women. Assertive women. Eloquent women. Passionate women. Women with unerring intuitions. Women with strong instincts. Women with irrepressible impulses. Women with lust for life. All have to be silenced. Or deified. Or demonized.
In Women and Madness**, Phyllis Chesler says there is yet another way: they could be institutionalized. Committed to lunatic asylums.
That is our cultural necessity.
And that is our greatest tragedy.
Incidentally there is another vital occasion when Draupadi is silent: before Yudhishthira’s trip to Hastinapura from his capital Indraprastha for the game of dice at the height of his glory.
And many more, when you think of it.
Note: All translations are by the author. The translations are free, rather than literal; at the same time care has been taken to see that they do not differ from the original in any significant details. Chapter and verse referred from the Gita Press editions of the Valmiki Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
* Folk versions of the Mahabharata have other stories to tell. See the author’s Bheel Mahabharata: The Rape of Draupadi. Also, the Draupadi cult of south India ascribes extreme sexual passion to her.
** Phyllis Chesler, Women and Madness, Avon, New York 1973.