The tribal Bheels have a Mahabharata version of their own, episodes of which are narrated or sung during their festivals, usually accompanied by music and sometimes with dance – a captivating version that never fails to thrill, one of the secrets of its allure being its truly enchanting folktale-like quality. This article tries to understand an episode from it, on its own and in relation to Vyasa’s epic.
Draupadi is having her siesta one beautiful afternoon in Hastinapura. Her maids gently comb her hair as she sleeps. As they do so, a single hair from her golden tresses breaks off and comes lose. The maids are terrified and look at one another, their eyes full of terror. They fear for what would happen when Draupadi awakens and sees what has happened. Eventually they decide to hang the hair from the window, perhaps hoping the wind will carry it away.
And the wind sees the strand of hair and decides to play a prank. Storm after storm rush towards Hastinapura. The single hair dangling from the royal window is lifted up, carried far and dropped. But such is the weight of that hair that the earth is not able to bear it and splits open, giving way, and the hair floats down right into Patala where the king of serpents and the lord of the netherworlds, Vasuki Naga , has been asleep for twelve years and his queens, the Padma Naginis , are fanning him. As the strand of hair falls on the chest of the mighty king of Patala, unable to wear its weight Vasuki’s chest begins to quake and he wakes up in a shock. He picks up the hair and studies it – it is a woman’s hair. He springs up and going to the seventh chamber in the basement, opens it.
The queens realize Vasuki is planning to visit the earth. They gather around him and ask him where he is going and he tells them he is going to the earth in search of the woman with golden hair. The Padma Naginis tell him not to get entangled with a woman who does not belong to him, that is a dangerous path, he will be committing a sin. They tell him each of them would keep him with her for twelve years in her bed and pleasure him. He tells them not to worry and promises he would just have a look at the woman with golden hear and would be back. Vasudi does the sixteen sringaras, and the queens move around him wailing aloud.
Vasuki mounts his horse, whips it, a dust-storm rises up as the horse takes off whinnying mightily towards the earth. They are now in a meadow on the earth. Vasuki pulls the reins of the horse and wonder where to go now. On a hunch, he decides to go westward. The horse flies like the wind. Soon large cities appear.
The king of Patala searches for the queen with golden hair in the markets of these cities. Eventually he reaches a lake on the outskirts of a city, decides to rest there for a while and dismounts. He is unable to rest, though – for in his mind is the queen with the golden hair. [It is a queen, and as such another man’s wife, he is searching for, and not a princess.] As he stands there, on the bank of the lake, searching far with his eyes, he sees yet another city in the distance: Hastinapura. He mounts his horse again, whips it and the horse starts fleeing. The bird of good omen calls and the king’s heart is filled with joy. In the royal gardens of Hastinapura, he ties the horse under a champa tree and gives it fresh grass. Then, whip in his hand, he starts merrily walking towards the cloud palace.
Draupadi is now sitting on a swing. The rays of the sun fall on her hair through the window. The light is reflected by Draupadi’s golden hair, and it blinds Vasuki for a moment. Such is his joy there are goosebumps all over his body. His feet quicken.
Draupadi sees him and thinks a guest has lost his way and is coming towards the queen’s apartments instead of going to the royal assembly. She sends her maids to show him the way. He ignores their directions, pushes them away roughly and proceeds towards Draupadi undaunted.
Seeing him approaching, Draupadi gets up to go to the inner chambers. But before she can do so, Vasuki swings the whip and lashes it at Draupadi’s thin waste. Draupadi runs, falls down, her scarf moves off her head and Vasuki realizes this is the woman he has been looking for. He rushes towards her and falls over her. Draupadi shouts at him and asks him to get away if he wants to remain alive, for the Pandavas would kill him if they come to know of his being here. Ignoring her words, Vasuki picks her up and carries her to her bed.
Draupadi screams from the bed and Vasuki tells her he has been hungry for her for days. Her fury has no effect on him. Instead, he orders her to warm water for his bath. After the water is heated, she bathes him. He then asks her to prepare a thirty-two course meal for him. She does so and then serves the meal in gold plates and, while he remains reclining on the bed, feeds him, placing the food with her hands in his mouth. As she feeds him, she wonders who this obstinate man is. The meal over, she again tells him to hurry away. He tells her that when a man comes, he does not go away like that; as for him, he plans to spend the night there.
In the meantime, the Pandava assembly is over and the sounds of people dispersing could be heard. Vasuki tells Draupadi not to worry, let her husband come. So powerful are the steps of Arjuna as he approaches that the very rooftops of the palace quake. As Arjuna enters the chamber, Vasuki jumps up from the bed and gathers Arjuna in a mighty stranglehold in his arms. The fight that ensues is terrible – it takes the two of them down to Patala, back to the earth, then to the skies. Eventually Vasuki defeats Arjuna, and sitting on his chest, ties up his hands and legs with a hair pulled out from his moustache. He then hoists him up onto a peg on the wall.
Draupadi now gets her bed ready for them. Fragrant flowers are spread on it, musk and flower essences are sprinkled. Seated on the bed, the Pandava queen and the king of Patala play a game of dice. Arjuna hanging from the peg is a witness to the game. After the game of dice, the two of them move on to another game. Draupadi and Vasuki have sex, now tenderly, now furiously, right before his eyes. Their games are now hot, now tender and poor Arjuna watches it all helplessly.
In the morning Vasuki leaves promising to come back again in the evening. Before leaving, he picks up his shining sword and cuts off the whisker with which he had bound Arjuna’s hands and feet. Arjuna falls to the ground with a thud.
Draupadi comes running to Arjuna, raises him up, consoles him and leading him to the bed, lays him down on it. She heats water and massages and bathes him. She cooks another thirty-two course meal and feeds him. Arjuna then whimpers to Draupadi that this will now be an everyday affair. “It is fine with you,” he says, “but my bones break. Oh, how I have to suffer!” He asks her to find out how to kill Vasuki from Vasuki himself and Draupadi promises to do so.
Back in Patala, Vasuki finds no more pleasure in the company of his wives or the food they serve him. He passes the day impatiently waiting for the evening. In the evening, back at Hastinapura, he finds Draupadi restlessly waiting for him. Arjuna is again tied up and hung from the peg and becomes the helpless witness to their games.
Before that however, Draupadi through a clever pretext learns from Vasuki that he is not in the least afraid of the Pandavas – the only one he fears is Karna, who belongs to the Kauravas. That night while Vasuki is asleep, she crawls into his stomach and learns the secret of his death.
The next morning after Vasuki has left, Draupadi again raises up Arjuna from the ground where he had fallen with a thud as Vasuki snapped the whisker that bound him hands and legs and lays him on the bed. She reveals the secret of killing Vasuki to Arjuna through Karna. Arjuna is reluctant to take help from Karna – that would be humiliating to him, but Draupadi convinces him that there is no other way. Agreeing, he goes and sits under a tree waiting for Karna on his way to the Kauravas. As Karna sees him and greets him, Arjuna acknowledges the greeting with his foot, raising it to receive it.
Karna flies into a fury at this insult. He asks Arjuna what his fault was to be insulted thus in the morning. And Arjuna tells him: “You, without a father! Who is your father? And you spoil my days by showing your face to me every morning. That is why I took your greeting on my ankle.”
In a rage, the tormented Karna flees to his mother, Mansa Malin  and questions her about who his father is. Initially she tells him she and the mali are his parents, but when he threatens her, she admits they are his foster parents, he is a foundling, they brought him up after they found him in a rubbish heap. She advises Karna to go to Kunti.
He goes straight to Kunti and asks her how many children she gave birth to. When Kunti says five, he threatens her too and then she admits no, she has given birth to six children and she had buried him, Karna, under a rubbish heap. Under pressure she later admits that he is the son of Soorya, the sun god. When he asks for a proof for this, she gives him an agan-pichhaura  and a ball of wax and asks him to go to Bengal and meet the rising sun there. Karna proceeds towards Bengal.
Having reached there, as the sun rises up in the east, Karna covers it up with the agan-pichhaura. Soorya tries to free himself from the agan-pichhaura and failing, asks him who he is and why he has stopped his rays. Karma tells him he is his son come to meet him. Soorya asks him to free him but Karna wants Soorya to promise him that he would meet him face to face. Soorya promises, on condition that Karna passes a test to prove that he is really his son. The freed sun attacks Karna with a thousand blazing rays. The rays pass through him without harming him. Karna has won the test, Soorya acknowledges him, and the father and the son meet affectionately.
Karna asks Soorya to give him his weapon so that he could teach the Pandavas a lesson and punish Arjuna for his insult. Soorya advises him patience and gives him an agan-katari, a fire dagger, asking him to keep it in the wax scabbard given to him by his mother and not to take it out except in dire necessity. The dagger, says the sun god, is dangerous and if it is taken out without a real need, the earth would split, the nine hundred thousand stars would burn down to ashes, and so would the gods in heaven, the gods in the netherworlds, the forests with all their trees and bushes, and even the winds along with all the water on the earth.
As a happy Karna returns towards Hastinapura with sprightly steps, Draupadi sees him from afar. She hurries to him, stops him on the way, and tells him why Arjuna has insulted him – she tells him of Vasuki’s atrocities and the terrible misery he has reduced her and Arjuna to. She tells him that Vasuki would be coming as soon as the sun reaches the west. “He will tie the horse to the champa tree and then come to my chamber. He will tie up your brother Arjuna’s hands and legs with a hair of his moustache and hang him up from a tall peg on the wall, and then he will have his pleasure with me the whole night.” They are dying because of Vasuki’s atrocities, she tells him, and then adds that he alone can save them now. Karna’s anger is now directed at Vasuki and he promises to do what she desires.
That evening Vasuki comes as usual again. After tying up his horse under the champa, he proceeds to Draupadi’s palace, swinging his whip merrily. He ties up Arjuna as usual and hangs him up from the peg, from where he watches with unblinking eyes as the king of patala takes his pleasure by enjoying Draupadi all night. As he leaves the next morning, Draupadi tells him she is one life with him, there is no hero on the earth like him, she can’t live a moment without him and if he must leave now, he should, but he must promise to hurry back in the evening without delay. Vasuki promises this and goes away, his heart filled with Draupadi’s loving words.
Strolling through the Pandavas’ garden the next morning, Karna comes across Vasuki’s horse. He takes out Soorya’s fire dagger from its wax scabbard and places it before the horse. Every limb of the horse is burnt. As Vasuki approaches, Karna places the agan-katar before him and Vasuki falls down on the ground. Karna burns up eight of the nine hoods of Vasuki. As his body catches fire, Vasuki joins his hands in supplication and begs for his life, promising Karna never to come that way again. Karma is moved by the begging and lets off the now single-hooded Vasuki.
The story of the rape of Draupadi by the serpent king Vasuki is a completely new addition by the Bheels to the Mahabharata – there is nothing like that in Vyasa’s epic. The nearest there is, is Keechaka’s attempt to molest her. Jayadratha abducts her once, too, with evil intentions on her, while the Pandavas were living in the jungle. Another time Jatasura succeeds in carrying her off, with the idea of ravishing her. But in all those cases, the men were defeated, and in the case of Keechaka and Jatasura, killed, before they could succeed in their intentions. But what the Bheel Bharata describes in this episode is a case in which Vasuki succeeds in having sex with Draupadi for several consecutive nights.
Looking at it from the standpoint of the Mahabharata, the first question that naturally arises in our mind is why this scandalous story has been added to the Bheel epic. The story not only paints a very poor picture of Arjuna, it also depicts Draupadi as a woman subjected to sexual ravishing. She thus loses, by traditional Indian standards, the right to be called a sati or a pativrata, a chaste wife, since she has had sex outside marriage. Traditional Indian culture considers that a woman loses her chastity by merely thinking sexually about a man other than her husband. Why do the Bheels then add this story to the epic?
While no conclusive answer is possible, several could be speculated.
One of them is that the purpose of the addition is to bring out the greatness of Karna. The Indian psyche has never felt comfortable with what happened to Karna and has always felt guilty about it. His abandonment, his lifelong humiliation in the name of his presumed lower caste birth by Draupadi, Bheema, Bheeshma, Drona, Kripa, Parashurama and several others, his betrayal by his own mother, the way Indra dealt with him by taking away from him his breastplate and earrings that protected his life magically, his heroic nature, his unsurpassed valour, his boundless charities, his repeated nobility in the great battle, the way he met with his death, all these have always created great sympathy for him in the hearts of the Indian masses as well as of scholars. That he did not deserve his sad lot is a universal feeling. This feeling of sympathy for Karna is stronger as we climb down the social ladder – the lower classes identify with him and suffer his sufferings with him more easily. Folk literature invariably sees him as noble – frequently as the noblest of men in the Mahabharata. Perhaps this incident in which Karna comes out as the victor where Arjuna fails miserably is one of those attempts to bring out his greatness. What he does is exactly what a hero should do in heroic legends – save the damsel in distress by killing the monster that holds her captive.
Another strong possibility is this is a tale of Draupadi’s powerful sexuality. A woman’s long, flowing hair is part of her sexual attractiveness and a universal symbol of female sexuality. Draupadi, even in the Mahabharata, is the archetypal sexual woman. There are those who argue that the entire Mahabharata war resulted from her powerful sexuality. In the Bheel Bharata, when the earth is unable to bear the weight of a single strand of Draupadi’s golden hair, and the hair floats down to Patala, it is actually her sexuality that is seeking out satisfaction in the netherworld unable to find fulfilment on the earth. Her five husbands are not enough for her. She requires someone like the mighty Vasuki, who can tie up Arjuna with a single whisker from his moustache. Beckoned by her sexuality, Vasuki leaves Patala immediately, breaking his twelve-year sleep, leaving all his beautiful queens behind. In her cloud palace, from his external actions it appears that Vasuki is the master and he is taking Draupadi by force, but in reality he is her slave, he cannot live without her, he is alive only in the moments when he is with her, his existence has only one meaning from the moment that golden hair falls on his chest – to be with her, to have sex with her. Draupadi reduces even the mighty king of Patala to her sexual slave. She is the fire into which the king of Patala flings himself ecstatically, only to be consumed by her as fire devours the moth that flings itself into it.
Popular tradition speaks repeatedly of this fiery, powerful sexuality of the fire-born Draupadi. In many popular tales, it is Krishna and Karna that satisfy her sexually because the Pandavas are no match for her.
A third possibility is Vasuki-centred. Except in the last moment when he is punished by Karna, Vasuki is portrayed in glorious terms throughout the narration. His queens attend on him continuously even when he is in a twelve-year sleep. And when he leaves in search of the woman with the golden hair, there is nothing they can do, except to beg him not to, which he ignores completely. When he comes back after spending a night with another woman, there is again nothing they could do – they do not even dare raise their voice at him. They humbly serve him a meal, which he finds fault with. A dust storm rises up as he travels to the earth on his horse. He orders Draupadi to heat water for him to have a bath and she has to do his bidding. Such is his commanding presence, that she dares not say no to him. Apart from heating water for his bath, she bathes him, then cooks a thirty-two course meal for him and feeds him with her own hands as he reclines on her bed. He is in no hurry to have his pleasure with her, though he has come from another world for it. It is not a hurried sexual act he has in mind with this queen of the powerful Pandavas but night-long sports and he will have it his own way and he will allow nothing to spoil it. After the meal he plays a game of dice with Draupadi in her bed, and it is only after that he takes her. Just as there are heated, breathless climbing ups and slow climbing downs in the dice game, in his post-dice sport with her too, they soar to heady heights and then come down, to soar up again.
Vasuki ties up the great hero Arjuna with a single hair of his moustache. But his ultimate audacity, the expression of his total lack of respect for Arjuna and regard for the mighty power of the Pandavas is that he hangs him up right there – from a peg on the wall, to witness the sexual violation of his wife, a violation that does not sound very unwilling at all on the part of Draupadi.
It is possible that this episode is an attempt to portray the might of a serpent. As in several other parts of India, serpent legends abound in areas where Doongri Bheel is spoken and in the neighboring areas of mainstream Rajasthani culture. [Vijaydan Detha, the eminent folklorist from Rajasthan, has several snake stories in his huge collection of retellings of Rajasthani folklore published in ten volumes. The tenth volume alone has ten such stories, including two in which serpents assume human form and have sexual relations with women.] In all these serpent tales snakes talk and they are capable of assuming human form, or any other form they desire. They are endowed with enormous powers and own immense wealth – their pits are underground palaces paved with precious stones, where diamonds and pearls are stored in quantities that dwarf the treasures of mighty emperors. It is possible that this tale is at least partly a creation of a culture that venerates snakes and is in awe of their might.
In the Mahabharata we find humour when the mighty Bheema is reduced to nothing by Hanuman – popular narrations of the Mahabharata celebrate the narration of this story which thrills audiences everywhere. There is something very titillating in seeing the discomfiture of the powerful reduced to humility. The high and mighty then come down to our world, to our life, where humiliation and defeat are everyday realities. Arjuna’s discomfiture, his unspeakable humiliation, in spite of the sympathies it arises, is humour. He hangs from that peg, hands and legs tied by a single whisker, and is forced to watch his wife having sex with another man, where the wife appears to be no less eager a participant than the man is. And in the morning, as Vasuki leaves after nightlong revelry before his eyes, the whisker is cut and Arjuna falls down on the ground – with a thud, says the narration. And it is not the rape of his wife that worries him, but the physical pain of hanging from the peg and the fall. No doubt this is coarse human, but it is humour that the Bheel audiences would enjoy uproariously.
Interestingly, apart from the coarseness of the forced voyeurism, the whole affair between Draupadi and Vasuki is described in glowing terms. As Vasuki first sights the cloud palace of Draupadi in Hastinapura, the bird of good omens speaks – it is as though the composer of the text fully approves of the adultery that is going to happen. Vasuki’s first sight of Draupadi is again described in literally glowing terms. Draupadi is sitting in her cloud palace, swinging gently on a swing. As sunlight is reflected by Draupadi’s golden hear, such is its brilliance that for a moment Vasuki is blinded. The ecstatic joy of the experience raises goosebumps all over Vasuki. The scene of their lovemaking later follows every prescription in Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra for the nobleman’s lovemaking – the beautiful, accomplished female partner, the right ambience filled with fragrance, the delicious meal, the games and conversation that follow and then the lovemaking – exactly as in the Ganga-Shantanu episode of the Bheel Bharata. Perhaps the man who challenges the high and mighty has full Bheel sympathies with him.
There are other possible reasons for the addition of this episode to the Bheel Bharata but leaving them apart, let us move on to some other areas.
As in most other episodes of the Bheel Bharata, here too the folktale quality of the story dominates over its epic quality. For instance, people are there when they are needed, things are there when they are needed and when not in need, they cease to exist, as in an infant’s reality. Draupadi’s maids are there when they are needed, and when not in need, they just cease to exist. All meals are thirty-two course meals. And Draupadi cooks them personally, serves them to Vasuki personally, for the maids are no more needed and they have disappeared from the tale, only to appear when they are needed again. People follow the same routine, day after day, night after night. The way Draupadi learns the secret of her monster-lover’s death is typical of folktales – whether the monster is the one who is holding the damsel prisoner in a dark cave or the magician with supernatural powers. Or, as is the case here, someone who comes and forces himself upon another man’s wife night after night. First Draupadi makes Vasuki believe that she truly loves him and makes him reveal part of the secret. Then, as he sleeps at night, she creeps into his belly and learns the rest of the secret from here – for it is in peoples bellies that secrets are held in fairytales, not in their heads. This folk nature of the story is found in the magical powers of the fire dagger and its scabbard too. The fire dagger the flames emanating from which can devour the universe with its mountains and oceans and the nine hundred thousand stars in the sky is protected by a scabbard made of wax!
In the Mahabharata, we do not know when exactly Karna learns who his parents are. When Krishna talks to him about this on the eve of the war, trying to persuade him to join the Pandavas, Karna informs him that he already knows the story and tells him the story of his birth from Kunti and Soorya by adding details Krishna hasn’t revealed to him, thus proving he already knows it. As long back as in the arena where the Kuru princes display their skills at the end of their studies, there is an incident in which Karna looks at Soorya when he is humiliated on the basis caste as the son of a Soota. Again, when Draupadi declares during her swayamvara that she will not marry a Soota, he looks at Soorya. But on both these occasions, we cannot be sure whether he looks at the sun because he knows the sun god is his father or because he is a devotee of the sun god. In the Bheel Bharata, we have a very clear occasion when he learns who his parents are. Humiliated by Arjuna, he rushes to his mother, who directs him to Kunti. It is from Kunti that he learns that she is his mother and that Soorya is his father.
Draupadi’s attitude towards Vasuki is ambiguous throughout the narration. No doubt she gets him punished through Karna and Vasuki loses eight of his nine hoods. But in spite of that, we are not really sure whether Draupadi’s words of admiration and love to Vasuki are not genuine. As we saw earlier, Vasuki is truly magnificent here and Draupadi’s sexuality is legendary in folk literature. He is described as a forceful and highly accomplished lover, a true match for the fire-born woman. It is not as a raped woman that Draupadi comes across, but as a very willing partner.
The Bheel Draupadi is an awe-inspiring woman. She is a dain  with unbelievable powers and in the celestial hierarchy, has a position higher than that of God himself. In the nights when the nine hundred thousand gods hold their assembly in her honour, God sits on a silver throne and waits for her arrival. She comes, riding a lion, holding a lamp in one hand and swinging a sword in the other. As she comes near, God gets up from his silver throne to receive her and she sits on her golden throne. It is then that celebrations begin.
This mighty Draupadi does not use any of her magical powers against Vasuki. Perhaps the reason is that she does not want to. As we have seen, she does not even offer token resistance, except for that initial attempt to run away at the approach of the stranger.
The truly pathetic person in the whole episode is Arjuna. Except that one battle he offers Vasuki at the beginning, his heroism is entirely missing in the story. There is no mention of his offering any resistance to Vasuki on the subsequent days he visits Draupadi. He is routinely tied up every day, more like a pet animal who is a nuisance in the bedroom where the couple make love than as the great hero of the Mahabharata, and released in the morning. He does not react as he should to his wife’s rape by another man. After he falls on the ground when Vasuki releases him, he behaves as though he is the more wronged one, not Draupadi, as though what was done to her does not really count, what counts is not that his wife was raped but that he was beaten in a battle and tied up. In this scene he looks, and is treated by Draupadi, like a child who has been hurt while playing, or has had a fight with a friend, and has come back to his mother weeping.
In the Bheel Bharata, incidentally, there is only one true hero – Abhimanyu, whom the Bheels call Balo Emant, the Audacious Child. Karna is heroic, so is Bheema. Apart from this story, Arjuna is heroic too, though in a different way, more like the hero of a Vikramaditya tale, his expertise confined mostly to conquering women, who fall more for his handsomeness and fame than for his valour. But there is not a bone that is not heroic in young Abhimanyu.
Also, in the Bheel Bharata there is no Madri. As Kunti says in this episode of the epic, Nakula and Sahadeva too are born to her, like the other Pandavas. She gives birth to six children here, unlike in the Mahabharata where only four children are hers.
This study is based on Bheel Bharatha, by Dr Bhagavandas Patel, who spent four years among the Doongri Bheels studying the epic that is an oral tradition among them and thus making an invaluable contribution to literature in general, and folk literature and Mahabharata study in particular. The book has been translated into Hindi by Dr Mridula Parik and published by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi. Though I have called the epic Bheel ‘Bharata’ throughout, the Bheel name is Bharath [th pronounced as in ratha, meaning chariot], which is a neuter word in Doongri Bheel, and means war, clearly derived from (Maha)bharata.
 naga – in mythology and folktales, the nagas appear as snakes with human characters and supernatural powers.
They were in all probability a powerful race of people who once lived and spread over much of India.
 nagini – a female naga.
 malin – wife of mali, a common gardener.
 agan – agni, fire.
 dain - witch, though here she is a benign witch and not an evil one.