“Draupadi Svayamvara Katha” is a reproduction of sections 186-201 of Lal’s “The Complete Adi Parva,” pages 961-1030. The smooth grace of the easy-flowing free verse makes the experience of reading a pleasure. Added to the elegant poetry is his sensitive transcreation that persuades the reader to read on. Consider the passage describing Draupadi’s garlanding of Arjuna:
Nothing more needs to be said about the quality of the transcreation. It is left to the reader to experience it himself. But the point is, can “Draupadi Svayamvara” be included in the Katha series? It certainly does not belong to the genre of other Kathas like Nala-Damayanti, Savitri-Satyavan, Mandapala, Vashishtha-Vishvamitra, Shakuntala, etc. A “Katha” is a stand-alone story, a tale within the main-frame tale, usually told to substantiate a point made by the speaker. Its absence would not impede the main story-line. Though Draupadi’s svayamvara is an important constituent of the main story, it is not a Katha. Without it the continuity of the epic would be impaired.
“smiling she came towards Kunti’s son
with a garland of white flowers.
And those who had seen her
repeatedly, saw her again
as if never seen before:
without smiling, she seemed to smile;
she radiated feeling; her way of walking
was a way of speaking. ” (1:190:30-32)
Pradip Bhattacharya’s (PB) Introduction is an asset to the publication. He provides an extremely rich background enhancing the pleasure of reading the main text. It contains a vivid description of some contemporary social norms and traditions-- information which was always there but somehow had escaped our attention and much that is new, culled from various ancient works like the Manusmriti, various Puranas and different versions of the epic, supplementing and enriching our existing knowledge, enhancing our understanding of the proceedings in the main text.
The introduction tells us of the gradual decline of the Brahmin community from the exalted position they once enjoyed in society. The kings who used to rush to them in respectful obeisance, more or less disregarded them now. There were exceptions but they were not the rule. A Brahmin staying in a potter’s house was not a social indiscretion.
The text describes another interesting social rite, “Draupadi joyfully followed him, / holding on to his deer-skin.” PB provides the background: a prescription in the “Manusmriti” that the Shudra bride is to hold on to the garment of her higher caste husband. Draupadi, though not a Shudra, follows this norm taking Arjuna in disguise to be a Brahmin. One wonders if the prevalent custom of tying the cloth-ends of the bride and bridegroom while the bride follows the husband flows from this ritual.
The subservience of women to men in epic society is also brought out clearly. Even Draupadi, the fiery heroine of the epic, is quite a helpless puppet – she cannot choose a husband though it is her bridegroom-choice-ceremony. Yudhishthira takes all the decisions. She remains silent throughout after her momentary flash of defiance in rejecting Karna. Not for nothing did EW Hopkins observe that in the Mahabharata period, “…woman in general is but chattel and receives only the respect due from a sensible man to potential valuable property” (“Position of the ruling caste in ancient India”, p.331). At the same time, the woman as mother, “the greatest among gurus,” is held in high esteem by Yudhishthira. He cannot allow her to be branded a liar. It is interesting that in earlier times a woman was free to have sexual relations with any man. Shvetaketu bound her down with the bond of monogamous marriage.
The polyandry-polygamy debate is of interest. Though Drupada disapproves of the proposal of Draupadi’s polyandrous marriage, Vyasa, while agreeing that the system was no longer current, points out that such alliances were not unknown in the past, narrating two stories of Yama’s sacrifice and the five Indras and Shiva’s boon of five husbands to the Rishi’s daughter. PB provides the Vishnu Purana story of Varkshi-Marisha as a supplement to Yudhishthira’s argument quoting the precedence of Jatila and Varkshi. He also tells us that the Markandeya Purana made Draupadi an incarnation of Shachi, Indra’s wife, instead of Lakshmi as in Vyasa’s story. In addition he tells us two stories of Draupadi’s previous birth. The first one is where she is born as Nalayani-Indrasena-Mudgalani, wife of sage Mudgala, mentioned in the Rig Veda as a war-like woman. The other story is from a southern recension of the epic where she appears as Bhaumashvi married to five sons of King Nitantu and reborn again as Nalayani-Indrasena who gets married to the leprous sage, Maudgalya. The sage curses the insatiable Indrasena to be reborn and have five husbands. PB expands the coverage by mentioning Sukumarika from the Jain “Nayadhammakahao” who is later reborn as Draupadi. According to Brahmavaivarta Purana, he informs us farther, she is the reincarnation of the shadow-Sita who was Vedavati reborn after molestation at Ravana’s hands and would become the Lakshmi of the fourteen Mahendras of whom five incarnated as the Pandavas. PB goes on to inform us that in Himachal Pradesh where the Pandavas were born and brought up, polyandry was a social custom which is current even today. His reference to the marital hymns of the Rig Veda, Atharva Veda and Sayana’s explanation provides interesting reading. All this data provide a glimpse into Draupadi’s past and help the reader to appreciate one of the most complex characters in the epic.
PB underlines some little known facts from the text. The famous lie in Drona Parva was not the only one Yudhishthira ever uttered. Here is another when he tells Drupada. “I am still unmarried. So is Bhimasena.” Bhima was already married to Hidimba and had a son by her. In the story of the five Indras, Shiva goes to Vishnu with the plan of the five Indras being sent to the mortal world as the five Pandavas. Vishnu approves and plucks two hairs from his head, one black and one white, to be reborn as Krishna and Balarama, obviously to help the Pandavas.
Even though it is not a Katha, it was indeed a pleasure going through the delightful poetry of Lal and the highly enlightening introduction by Bhattacharya.
P. Lal, Draupadi Svayamvara Katha, Writers Workshop, Kolkata, 2009, pages 81, Rs. 150 (Hardback Limited Edition) and Rs. 100 (Flexiback Limited Edition)