Hellenic history tells us that the incredibly beautiful Phryne, one of the most renowned courtesans of ancient Greece, was openly disrobed in an assembly of elder statesmen sitting in judgment upon her. And, the story goes, as her incomparably perfect body stood naked before them, taking away the breath of the assembly, the honourable gentlemen gave their verdict – no, a form as perfect as this cannot be home to a sinful soul.
Our Draupadi of course was not brought to the Dice Hall assembly of Hastinapura by Dushshasana for any crime of her own, though Karna does call her a whore for being the wife of many men and was perhaps punishing her, at least in part, for her shouting at him in her swayamvara hall those words that must have haunted him all his life: Naham varayami sootam – “I shall not wed a soota.” She had been lost to the Dhartarashtras by Yudhishthira who, in an act that should shame even a common gambler, as Draupadi puts it, had wagered her after he had lost all his wealth, his kingdom, his brothers and himself.
In the Dice Hall, which had been constructed specifically for this game of dice, Karna tells Vikarna and the kings present in the assembly that it has been ordained by the gods that a woman can have only one husband but Draupadi is subject to many men [anekavashaga] and for that reason is certainly a whore [bandhakeeti vinishchita]. He then adds that the Pandavas and Draupadi had lost their right to own anything since they have become their slaves – even the clothes they wore did not belong to them. And then he asks Dushshasana, the Mahabharata tells us, to remove the clothes of the Pandavas and to disrobe Draupadi. And Dushshasana proceeds to do just that. And to add horror to the incident, Draupadi was having her periods when this incident takes place and was wearing a single piece of cloth as was the custom in those days. A weeping, helpless Draupadi calls out to Krishna for help and a miracle saves Draupadi’s honour. As her single cloth is pulled off, the epic tells us, another appears in its place and then yet another and yet another, until on the ground lie a huge heap of multicoloured clothes that Dushshasana has pulled off her. As the assembly of kings applaud and shout in wonder at the miracle, a fuming Bheema takes the vow to tear open in war Dushshasana’s chest and drink his blood, and an exhausted and shamed Dushshasana collapses on the ground.
This enduring picture of horror and humiliation of a woman is undoubtedly one of the most shameful acts narrated by the epic full of shameful acts committed by men on other men, women and children, and has become one of the central images of the Mahabharata. It is difficult to imagine the epic without that haunting scene. Imagining the Mahabharata without the stripping of Draupadi is like imagining the Ramayana without Rama’s exile to the forest, without Sita’s agni-pravesha.
And yet in a recent posting on the online Mahabharata Study Group [a Yahoo! Group moderated by Dr A Harindranath], reputed Mahabharata scholar Pradip Bhattacharya, IAS, contends that the disrobing perhaps never took place, that it was perhaps not a part of the original text of the Mahabharata, that it was a later addition to the epic.
In support of his stand Mr Bhattacharya points out that in the Udyoga Parva of the Mahabharata while both Drauapdi and Krishna refer to her appeal to him from the Dice Hall, neither of them mentions the stripping.
“…when they meet for the first time in exile,” says Mr Bhattacharya, “Draupadi specifically mentions being dragged by her hair, but does not mention any pulling at her garment (3.12.61-63, 121). Krishna responds that had he been present he would have prevented the fraudulent dice game. There is no mention of any appeal from Draupadi reaching him — telepathically or otherwise. Whenever Yudhishthira recounts the sufferings they have undergone, it is Draupadi being pulled by her hair that he mentions, never any attempt to strip her. When Krishna and Yudhishthira mention to Sanjaya the atrocities suffered, it is not mentioned (5.29.40; 31.16), nor when Krishna speaks to Yudhishthira before the peace-embassy (5.73.18-19). Draupadi herself, furious at everyone favouring peace, lists her sufferings but does not mention any stripping (5.82. 25-26). Kunti, listing her sorrows to Krishna, mentions five times Draupadi being dragged into the court in a single garment, but does not mention any stripping (5.90.50-51, 57, 82, 86; 5.137). Krishna, in his embassy to the Kauravas, mentions Draupadi being dragged into court but there is no reference to any stripping (5.95.59). When Krishna criticises Karna, facing death, for his misdeeds, he refers to Draupadi being dragged into court, but does not refer to the stripping and his instigating it. Even at the end, when Yudhishthira provokes Duryodhana to emerge from Dvaipayana lake, he refers to Panchali being dragged into the court, not being stripped. Duhshasana boastfully displays to Bhima the arm with which he dragged her by the hair; but neither he nor Bhima, who rips it off, refers to the grosser offence by far, namely the hand that did the stripping.”
Further, referring to early works based on the Mahabharata, Mr Bhattacharya points out that “in Bhasa's plays Dutavakyam and Dutaghatotkacam (c. 4th century B.C.), there is no reference to the stripping”, though both refer to Draupadi being caught by her hair.
In the Shalya Parva of the Mahabharata, though, there is a solitary reference to Draupadi being made naked in the assembly, says Mr Bhattacharya, quoting Dr John D. Smith who points this out. [In the Gita Press edition, this is Shalya 59.10.] Also, that in the Shiva Purana, a later work, there is a reference to the stream of garments coming to Draupadi [III.19.63-66]. However, “none of the Puranas – not even the bhakti-cult’s Bhagavata – nor the Harivamsha refer to the stripping.” The Devi Bhagavata, says Mr Bhattacharya, even when it refers twice to Draupadi being dragged by her hair does not refer to the stripping.
Mr Bhattacharya concludes his argument by saying that “The internal and external evidence, therefore, indicate that the incident of stripping that has so powerfully ruled the popular imagination and featured on stage, paintings, films and television, was not part of the original text but was added by one or more highly competent redactors.”
I found Mr Bhattacharya’s arguments convincing and the evidence provided plenty. However, the disrobing incident is so central to the epic as it has existed in the popular imagination for ages that I felt compelled to look into the text once again to find out what exactly the Mahabharata chapters dealing with the game of dice themselves say about this. Do these chapters give us more evidence supporting the stand that the disrobing episode is a later addition to the text? Or is there any proof at all in these chapters that the stripping was there in the text from the very beginning? What I did was to look closely into the part of the Sabha Parva dealing with the dice game and its aftermath – Chapters 59 to 81 in the Gita Press edition.
Though the dice game itself begins in Chapter 60, Draupadi is brought to the Dice Hall only in the 67th chapter. Shloka 35 of this chapter mentions the slipping off of half of Draupadi's cloth [patitardhavastra]. The context however tells us it was not deliberate disrobing, but a result of being dragged by Dushshasana. Two shlokas later, in shloka 37, Draupadi asks Dushshasana not to disrobe her, not to drag her –ma ma vivastram kuru, ma vikarsheeh. Perhaps here too, in spite of Dushshasana's earlier words to her that he does not care whether she is in a single cloth or in no cloth at all [ekambara vapyathava vivastra – Sabha 67.34], the disrobing Draupadi is talking about seems to be accidental. Subsequently the last shloka of the chapter mentions that her uttareeya had slipped – since Draupadi is wearing a single piece of cloth, this has to be the upper part of that cloth. Here again it does not look like deliberate disrobing.
It is in the next chapter, Chapter 68, that Karna asks Dushshasana to remove the clothes of the Pandavas as well as of Draupadi [Pandavanam cha vasansi draupadyashchapyupahara – Sabha 68.38]. The next shloka tells us that in response to Karna's words, the Pandavas removed their uttareeyas, and the next shloka, that Dushshasana took hold of Draupadi's cloth and started pulling at it by force [Tato dushshasano rajan draupadya vasanam balat sabhamadhye samakshipya vyapakrashtum prachakrame – Sabha 68.40]. The next several shlokas deal with Draupadi calling out to Krishna and her being saved. The scene ends with Bheema taking the vow to tear open Dushshasana's chest and drink his blood [Sabha 68/53].
It is of special interest to this discussion that in his vow Bheema does not specifically mention any particular act of Dushshasana – neither his dragging Draupadi by her hair and bringing her into the Sabha nor the attempt to disrobe her. Instead, he calls him a wicked sinner and a shame on the Bharatas and then takes that vow. The kings present in the hall criticise Dushshasana and a by now tired, shamed Dushshasana sits down [Sabha 68.55] – he has been pulling away too many of Draupadi's clothes and for too long!
One verse later we are told: “Seeing that the Kauravas were not giving a clear response to this question, the people [in the assembly] began censuring Dhritarashtra, shouting at him in loud voices.” [Sabha 68.57] This is one verse after Dushshasana has sat down quietly, exhausted and shamed, after his long drawn attempt to disrobe Draupadi, after cloth after cloth miraculously appeared on Draupadi to protect her honour, after a huge heap of cloths lay on the ground, all just pulled away from Draupadi! Where is the wonder in the voice of the people at the miracle? Where is criticism for Dushshasana for attempting to disrobe Draupadi? Where is criticism for Karna for asking Dushshasana to do it? All we find in these words of the assembled kings is an urgency that her question should be answered, a despair that it has not been answered yet. Clearly nothing of such momentous importance as an attempt to disrobe this bride of the Bharatas in that assembly of kings has happened. Dhritarashtra is censured because the Kauravas have not yet answered Draupadi’s question as to whether she is a slave or not. He is not censured for his son’s attempt to disrobe a menstruating woman in the assembly. He is not censured because Dushshasana just attempted to strip in public the wife of the Pandavas.
And then Vidura begins speaking. His opening words too are extremely important to the understanding of the disrobing episode. This is what he says: "Draupadi having asked her question is weeping like an orphan. You are not answering her question. Dharma is being injured here." [Draupadi prashnamuktvaivam roraveeti hyanathavat; na cha vibroota tam prashnam sabhya dharmo’tra peedyate – Sabha 68.59]
In Vidura's words too, spoken immediately after the disrobing, there is no reference to the disrobing, there is no horror at what is supposed to have just happened! Nor does he refer to it in his subsequent speech that follows. He does not condemn that shocking act. He does not refer to the miracle of Draupadi's honour being saved. Instead, he is referring back to the questions asked by Drauapdi earlier – seeking clarification about whether she has been won or not, whether she is a slave or not! Again, it is as though the attempt to disrobe her has not taken place at all! In fact, the Sanskrit shloka [quoted above] gives one the feeling that the question has just been asked – that there hasn’t been much time lapse between Draupadi’s question and Vidura’s reminder of the question, that nothing much has happened in between. Meaning, again, that the incident of stripping hasn’t taken place at all.
Vidura tells a story explaining how important it is for the assembly to answer Draupadi's question. Still no one responds. Then Karna asks Dushshasana to take Draupadi to the Kaurava residences. Karna makes no reference to the miracle that is supposed to have just happened before his eyes! Dushshasana once again begins dragging Draupadi. And Drauapdi says she hasn't yet done something that she should have done earlier – paying her respects to the Kuru elders. She says they should not hold this against her, she could not do it earlier because she was terrified as Dushshasana was dragging her by force [vihvalasmi krtanena karshata balina balat– Sabha 69.1].
She does not refer to the attempted disrobing!
In the next chapter, a furious Bheema declares had Yudhishthira not been his [and his brothers'] master, no one who touched Draupadi's hair would have remained alive [Sabha 70.14]. Again it is Draupadi being dragged by her hair that Bheema is speaking of – there is no mention of the attempted disrobing!
In the next chapter, Vidura upbraids the Dhartarashtras. He criticizes the game of dice they played, or at least the way it was played, and refers to `the dispute about a woman in the assembly'. What he refers to is a vivada, an oral dispute [vivadadhvam– 71.17] – about whether Draupadi is a slave or not.
Again he does not refer to the disrobing!
Also, as the cries of jackals and donkeys and birds fill the air, Gandhari, along with Vidura, requests Dhritarashtra to interfere. Which means she was present there. It is very unlikely that this powerful, assertive, outspoken, fearless woman would have remained silent if an attempt had been made to disrobe Draupadi in her presence. She certainly was not afraid of Duryodhana, her son, even assuming the others kept quiet because of fear for him. Dhritarashtra responds to Gandhari and rebukes Duryodhana – it is for his evil words that he is scolded – for his evil, impolite speech to a woman in the assembly of the Kuru elders, and that too to Draupadi, the righteous wife of the Pandavas [sabhayam kurupungavanam striyam samabhashasi durvineeta visheshato draupadeem dharmapatneem – Sabha 71.25].
Dhritarashtra does not refer to the disrobing either!
In the next chapter, Bheema again refers to Draupadi being forcefully touched – to her being touched [daranam abhimarshanat – Sabha 72], not to the attempted disrobing. Again in Chapter 77, after the second game of dice, when Nakula takes the vow to dispose off the Dhartarashtras, it is for their cruel words to her in the Sabha – not for disrobing her [Suteyam yajnasenasya dyoote’smin dhrtarashtrajair yairvachah shravita rookshah – Sabha 77.43]. In shloka 79.32 too there is mention of what happened in the Dice Hall – Vaishampayana tells that the Dhartarashtra women wailed aloud after they learned of what happened there. Draupadi's going [i.e., being taken] there and being dragged about are referred to – but not the disrobing.
In all the chapters here dealing with the Dice Hall, nowhere is there any reference to the attempt to disrobe Draupadi except in the shlokas describing it themselves! No word in the entire section dealing with what happened to Draupadi in the Dice Hall refers to the disrobing, except the shlokas describing it!
Finally, when Draupadi takes leave of Kunti before she leaves for the 12 year forest life, her single cloth is mentioned as stained with blood [shonitaktaikavasana –Sabha 79.9], something repeated by Vidura while he describes to Dhritarashtra how the Pandava's left for the jungle [shonitenaktavasana – Sabha 80.19]. In this context the word rajaswala is mentioned, referring to her periods at this time, something that has been referred to throughout. Later we are told she was heavily bleeding at that time. Clearly the blood is menstrual blood. While it is possible that Draupadi changed her cloth since her disrobing and the new cloth too got stained by blood, I believe it is more likely that she was wearing the same cloth on her way to the jungle as she was wearing that morning. Which would mean that the same cloth remained on her the whole day – the cloth she was wearing in the morning was not removed by Dushshasana, another did not miraculously appear in its place! And no disrobing took place in the Dice Hall!
I believe this is far more than enough proof. But I decided to look still further. And I found that the last chapter of Sabha Parva too contains material very relevant to our discussion.
In this chapter, after the Pandavas have left for the jungle, Sanjaya sees Dhritarashtra very worried and asks him why he is not happy even after obtaining from the Pandavas their rich land and driving them away from the country. And Dhritarashtra tells him people who have the Pandavas as their enemies cannot afford not to be unhappy. Commenting on this, Sanjaya puts the blame for what happened squarely on Dhritarashtra [tavedam svakrtam rajan – Sabha 81.5] and then recounts the events that happened in the assembly on that day. The verses dealing with this specifically mention that Draupadi was menstruating at that time, that she was in a single cloth, that she was dragged into the assembly. The verses talk about Draupadi’s feelings at seeing the enslaved Pandavas. And then Sanjaya says that in the assembly Duryodhana and Karna spoke to her bitter, cruel words, following which he concludes his words by saying that he sees all this as ominous.
“All this” – Sanjaya uses those words at the end of his speech. He is summing up the events that happened in the Dice Hall, recounting each important event. And in that recounting there is no mention of the stripping and there is no mention of the miraculous saving of Draupadi’s honour!
In response to Sanjaya’s blunt speech, Dhritarashtra admits that Draupadi’s pain-filled, fury-filled eyes could have burnt the whole earth and wonders if any of his sons would now remain alive. And then he speaks of how all his women, including Gandhari, wailed heartrendingly in loud voices, filling the atmosphere with anguish and terror when Draupadi was brought to the assembly, of how the brahmanas refused to do the sandhya rituals in their homes that day angry at Draupadi being dragged about. He talks of the other incidents that followed Draupadi being so ill-treated – of how a terrible storm began blowing violently all on a sudden, of how loud furious thunders shook the world, how the sky suddenly started showering meteors and how a surprise eclipse darkened the world, how a roaring fire erupted in the rathashala all on a sudden and how the flags of the chariots so inauspiciously were reduced to ashes, how in Duryodhana’s agnihotra hall jackals began howling, and how donkeys began answering them from all around and so on. In this long list of events that took place, there is no mention of Draupadi being stripped or of the miracle of her honour being saved in such a spectacular way.
The twelfth chapter of the Vanaparva is an unusually long one, with one hundred and thirty-six verses in it. This chapter in which, among other things, Draupadi tells Krishna about her sufferings in the Dice Hall, there is plenty of space for her to express her bitter grief at length. Here in very moving, unforgettable words Draupadi speaks of what happened on that day. Among the things she mentions are things that normally women do not talk about when they talk to men – but such is the burden of woe she carries in her heart that Draupadi tells Krishna how heavily she was bleeding on that day and how seeing this the Dhartarashtras laughed heartily at her discomfiture and humiliation in that assembly [Rajnam madhye sabhayam tu rajasatiparipluta drshtva cha mam dhartarashtra prahasan papachetasah – Vana 12.63]. But she does not speak of any attempt to strip her, or of her being saved by the miracle.
In heart-wrenching words Drauapdi here rejects Bheema’s strength and Arjuna’s Gandiva [Dhig balam bheemasenasya, dhik parthasya cha gandeevam – Vana 12.67], for neither could protect her on that day. Then later, an inconsolably wailing Draupadi tells Krishna: “I have no husbands, no sons, no relations. I have no brothers, no father. And I do not have even you, Krishna” [Naiva me patayas santi, na putra na cha bandhavah; na bhrataro naiva cha pita, naiva tvam madhusoodana – Vana 12.125]. It is doubtful if Draupadi ever spoke words more difficult to speak, words more painful to her. And it is doubtful if there are anywhere in world literature words more painful for us to hear.
But here again Draupadi, though she speaks of being dragged about, does not speak of being stripped in the assembly.
Also, she implies that Krishna too failed her – he did not do anything to save her, just as Bheema or Arjuna or her other husbands did nothing to save her.
Draupadi does not thank Krishna for saving her honour in the Dice Hall through the miracle. Nor does Krishna remind her “But I saved you that day, Draupadi, by supplying an endless stream of cloths!” For, Krishna hadn’t appeared in the dice hall to save Draupadi, hadn’t caused any miracle to save her on that day. The incident of Krishna supplying clothes to her did not take place, for the attempt to strip her never took place.
There are scores of other occasions in the Mahabharata where the incidents of the Dice Hall on that day are mentioned, but none of them refers to the stripping of Draupadi. As Mr Bhattacharya points out, Draupadi herself never refers to the stripping.
The conclusion is clear. The internal evidence strongly shows the stripping episode is an interpolation. The only exception is that one mention in Shalya 59.10 where Bheema talks of the revenge on the Kauravas who disrobed Draupadi in the assembly.
As for external evidence, that again mostly supports the view that the stripping episode is a later interpolation, as Mr Bhattacharya points out. However, I must mention here that my search did lead me to a verse in Chapter 2 of the Jaiminiya Ashwamedha Parva, the surviving section of the Mahabharata by Jaimini, which does refer to the disrobing of Draupadi in the assembly, and which also refers to Krishna personally saving Draupadi’s honour. Jaimini tells us that around midnight one day, in Hastinapura, Yudhishthira thinks of Krishna who is in Dwaraka at that time and Krishna instantly reaches Hastinapura. Draupadi who comes and greets Krishna after the others have received him says his coming like this should not surprise anyone – he has come to them like this earlier too. She mentions here two occasions when this has happened. One, when he came and saved the Pandavas from Durvasa. And the other, when he appeared “in the form of cloths in the assembly” [vastraroopee sabhamadhye – Jaimini 2/62].
This, however, need not alter our conclusion. In the face of such strong, overwhelming internal evidence that tells us that the disrobing incident is a later interpolation, I believe this verse should not be given more importance than the other occasions in later works where the disrobing is mentioned.
Moving further, I agree that whoever [I assume it is one person] interpolated the stripping to the text of the Mahabharata, though, was undoubtedly a highly competent person – very highly. A man who knew soul of drama! A man who was a master of the psychology of men and women.
Perhaps the stripping was suggested to him by what was already there in the text of the epic – Dushshasana dragging Draupadi to the hall, inside the hall and her cloth slipping away. Perhaps this suggested to him the immense dramatic possibilities of a deliberate stripping attempt. And he made unforgettable use of it, creating not only what is one of the Mahabharata’s most haunting pictures but one of the most haunting scenes in all of Indian literature. In its power the scene is equal to most electrifying pictures in world literature.
However, this is not the only instance when such powerful and seminal details have been added to either the text of the Mahabharata or to the Mahabharata Katha by later narrators/writers. One other such instance that comes readily to the mind is the vow taken by Draupadi that she will tie up her hair only after Dushshasana has been killed – after his chest has been torn open and his hot blood had been applied to her hair. Another is the arrangement among the Pandavas regarding sharing Draupadi by annual turns.
A question that rises naturally is whether we should then keep these additions in the Mahabharata – or should we bring the text back to its original `purity' by editing off these and other similar possible later additions to the text? In my opinion, that would be ridiculous. A book need not necessarily be the creation of a single author or even the work of a small group of authors who worked on it collaboratively. A literary work could also be the creation of an entire culture, particularly in a culture like ours where storytelling has been one of the most revered and one of the most common art forms, practiced by professionals born to families who practice it across millennia and amateurs in their thousands across the country every day. The Mahabharata certainly is the creation of an entire culture. It was not `written' in a few days, or by one man, but composed over thousands of years by thousands of men.
I feel the authentic version of the Mahabharata is the Mahabharata as it exists today – in all its various versions and, to use the words in which the Mahabharata Study Group describes itself, "in all its avataras". For the Mahabharata is not just a book but much, much more than that. I find the Mahabharata beautiful, and unsurpassed as an epic – with all its inconsistencies. That is how life is – full of inconsistencies and contradictions. And, after all, the Mahabharata is India's book of life. And a living book at that. It is capable of absorbing these and much more in its torrential power.
Besides, just as much has been added to the text of the Mahabharata over the millennia of its existence, I'm sure much has been deleted too, lost too, as the wide gaps in the text shows. What are we to do about these? Recreate them?
Incidentally, Gita Press’s Hindi translation mentions a number of additional times the stripping of Draupadi. One occasion is when Dhritarashtra tells Sanjaya how the brahmanas did not perform the sandhya rituals on the day of the dice game – “furious at Draupadi’s cloth being pulled away” [Sabha 81.22]. A second occasion is where Vaishampayana mentions the incidents of the day in Sabha 79. Here in the translation of shloka 32, Draupadi’s cloth being pulled away is mentioned. And a third instance is Chapter 49 of Vanaparva. Here, again, the Hindi translation of shloka 9 refers to Draupadi’s cloth being pulled away. But in all three cases I found that the Sanskrit original does not speak of the stripping. What the Sanskrit verses do is speak of Draupadi’s “parikarsha” – her being dragged about, pulled about, and not her cloth being pulled away.