Cherchez la femme could well describe the mainspring of action of the world’s greatest epics: the topless towers of Ilium burnt because of the abduction of Helen; golden Lanka went up in flames because of the abduction of Sita; millions of women were widowed because Draupadi was molested. The gambling match episode in the Sabha Parva of the Mahabharata is stamped indelibly on public memory not so much because Shakuni, playing for Duryodhana, cheated the Pandavas of their entire possessions but because of a horripilating incident that remains unique in literature: their common wife, Queen Draupadi, being dragged into public view by Duryodhana’s orders and sought to be stripped by Duhsasana at Karna’s behest (Sabha Parva 61). The logic Karna advances is that the gods ordained only one husband for a woman while Draupadi is bound to many and is, therefore, a bandhaki(prostitute). Therefore, there is nothing wrong in bringing a public woman, whether clad in a single cloth or naked, into the assembly hall. It is Karna who asks Duhsasana to strip the Pandavas and Draupadi of their garments. Hearing this, the Pandavas cast off their uttariya (upper garments). Duhsasana began to pull at Draupadi’s single cloth in the midst of the assembly hall, with everyone watching. She was saved in this perilous extremity when Krishna covered her with an unending stream of cloth.
This is an important issue because the Critical Edition rejects the celebrated passage as an interpolation. The editor, F. Edgerton, feels that “cosmic justice” is implied. The text, as presented here, has neither any prayer by Draupadi to Krishna, nor any explanation of the miracle of endless replacement of garments. This is how the text reads (II.61):
“40. Then Duhsasana, O king, forcibly pulled off Draupadi’s garment in the middle of the assembly, and began to strip her.
41. But whenever one of Draupadi’s garments was removed, O king, another similar garment repeatedly appeared.
42. Then there rose a mighty roar of approval—a terrible roar from all the kings watching the greatest wonder in the world.”
In the variant recensions, Draupadi calls out to Govinda, Krishna and “Gopijanapriya”, the last epithet being an indication of a post-Harivamsa addition by a poet familiar with Krishna’s childhood dalliance with the milkmaids of Vrindavana. In the vulgate, Krishna springs up from his bed in Dvaraka and rushes on foot, deeply moved by Draupadi’s appeal. This recurs when she, faced with Durvasa’s demand for food in the forest, invokes Krishna. Referring to these passages, Sukthankar comments: “They undoubtedly represent a later phase of Krishna worship.”
The first question is about what Draupadi was wearing. When she was dragged from the inner apartments, Draupadi appealed to Duhsasana (II.60.25) to refrain as she was draped in just a single cloth (ekañco vaso) and was menstruating. Duhsasana’s responded that whether she be menstruating, wearing a single cloth (ekambara) or none (vivasana), she was their prize and their slave, so her dress would have be that befitting a slave (60.27). She urges him not to undress her (vivastra, 60.30). There is a reference to half of her cloth slipping (patitardhavastra 60.28) but also specifically of her upper cloth (uttariya) slipping when she is dragged into the assembly hall (60.47).
There is a hint about how Draupadi is saved in verse 544* in the appendices of the Critical Edition, which might be the oldest interpolation: “Yajñaseni cried out for rescue to Krishna, Vishnu, Hari and Nara. Then Dharma, hidden, the magnanimous, covered her with a multitude of garments.” This is repeated in 553*: “Thereupon hundreds of garments of many colours and whites appeared, O lord, due to the protection of Dharma.” This refers back to II.60.13 where, when summoned to the assembly hall, Draupadi reflects, “In this world dharma is alone supreme. Protecting, he will provide peace.”
The enigmatic statement gives rise to many speculations, one of which possibly led to the interpolated passage bringing in Krishna. However, we recall that the god Dharma is reincarnated as Vidura, who is the first to protest against the dice-game and the summoning of Draupadi. Does he clothe her? Or shall we imagine ‘dharma’ as referring to the outraged sensibilities of the assembled audience who throw off their upper garments to cover Draupadi? Finally, as Duhsasana tires, evil omens erupt as jackals howl and asses bray, moving Dhritarashtra to intervene.
In the course of his examination of this episode, Hiltebeitel devotes considerable energy to establish that Krishna’s intervention to protect Draupadi’s modesty is part of the original text. Hiltebeitel marshals circumstantial evidence by way of two later references from the Udyoga Parva in which both Draupadi (V.80.26) and Krishna (V.58.21) refer to her appeal, “O Govinda”, for rescue. However, while doing so he admits that neither mentions the stripping. Why, then, should Krishna have intervened with the miraculous provision of garments if Draupadi was not being stripped?
Moreover, when they meet for the first time in exile, Draupadi specifically mentions being dragged by her hair, but does not mention any pulling at her garment (III.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 regarding the stripping reaching him—telepathically or otherwise. Whenever Yudhishthira recounts the sufferings they have undergone, it is always 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 (V.29.40 and 31.16), nor when Krishna speaks to Yudhishthira before the peace-embassy (V.73.18-19). Even when Draupadi herself, furious at everyone favouring peace, lists her sufferings, she does not mention what should have been the climactic outrage of stripping (V.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 (V.90.50-51, 57, 82, 86 and V.137). Krishna, in his embassy to the Kauravas, mentions Draupadi being dragged into court, but there is no reference to disrobing (V.95.59). When Duhsasana boastfully displays to Bhima the arm by which he dragged Draupadi by the hair, neither he nor Bhima, who rips it off, refers to the grosser offence by far. When Krishna criticises Karna, facing death for his misdeeds, he refers to menstruating, single-cloth-clad Draupadi being summoned to the assembly hall, but does not refer to any stripping and his instigating it, which ought to have been counted as the most heinous offence he had to answer for. Even at the end, when Yudhishthira provokes Duryodhana to emerge from Dvaipayana lake, he refers to Draupadi being verbally abused and dragged (karshanena), but says not a word about her being stripped (IX.30.187*).
Professor Satya Chaitanya points out that in the Sabha Parva 72.20 Dhritarashtra tells Sañjaya that the Brahmins did not perform the sandhya rituals on the day of the dice game, furious at Draupadi being pulled about (parikarshane). Later, in the Vana parva, Sañjaya repeats his master’s word parikarsha to describe the outrage suffered by Draupadi with no reference to disrobing.
There is, however, a solitary confirmation of Hiltebeitel’s stance, which he has missed out. This occurs in IX.58.10. Dr. John D. Smith has pointed out that as “Bhima is gloating after fulfilling his vow to overthrow Duryodhana and tread on his head” he says,
“Those who brought the menstruating Draupadi and who made her naked (avastram) in the assembly—see those Dhartarashtras slain in battle by the Pandavas because of the torture on Yajñaseni.”
Smith admits that, “it is strange that Bhima says this at this point and does not say anything similar after fulfilling the more relevant vow against Duhshasana. But again, this is what the text actually says.” Yet, in the earlier verse (58.4) Bhima only refers to Draupadi being brought into the assembly hall clad in a single cloth (Draupadimekavasasam) and mocked. A good instance of the editors of the Critical Edition nodding?
Besides this, earlier on in the same parva (IX.4.16-17), Duryodhana tells Kripacharya that there is no point seeking peace because, “Wearing a single cloth and covered in dust, dark Draupadi was wronged by Duhshasana in the middle of assembly hall under the eyes of the entire world. Even today the Pandavas still remember how she was naked (vivasanam) and wretched (dinam); those enemy-destroyers cannot be turned from war.” This is the only instance of Duryodhana referring to Draupadi being stripped. However, other manuscripts have vimanasa instead of vivasana.
None of the Puranas—not even the bhakti-cult’s Bhagavata, nor Harivamsa—refer to the stripping. In the Devi Bhagavata Purana, which adds significant material to the Pandava story, Janamejaya only refers to Draupadi being dragged by her hair by Duhsasana twice (IV.1.36 and 17.38) while using the word dharshita, violated (IV.1.38), to describe what Kichaka did to her—an interesting sidelight that warrants study.
If we look to the earliest post-Mahabharata evidence, we find that in Bhasa’s playsDutavakyam and Dutaghatotkacam (c. 4th century B.C.) there is no reference to the stripping. In the former, Duryodhana displays to Krishna a vivid painting of the dice-game showing Draupadi keshambarakarshanam (Draupadi dragged by the hair and garment” (I.7), while in sloka 18 Krishna says, “it is the scene of Draupadi’s hair being violated (keshadharshanam)”. In the latter, Ghatotkacha upbraids Duryodhana saying, “Nor do Rakshasas ever touch the brother’s wife on the head” (I.43).
The Shiva Purana (III.19.63-66) presents a later concoction regarding the episode: the stream of garments was the result of a boon given, once again, by Durvasa because Draupadi had torn a portion of her garment to cover the sage when his loin-cloth was carried away in the Gañga. Satya Chaitanya has pointed out that theJaiminiya Ashvamedhaparva, again a late work (c. 10th century A.D.), carries a reference to the disrobing:
“Around midnight one day, in Hastinapura, Yudhishthira thinks of Krishna who is in Dvaraka 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 (in their hours of need) earlier too. She mentions here two occasions when this has happened. One, when he came and saved them from Durvasa. And the other, when he appeared ‘in the form of clothes in the assembly’ (vastrarupi sabhamadhye).”—2.62
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.