Apropos Epic Women: East & West

The combined issues Nos. 1-2, 3-4, volume XXXIV, 1992 of the Journal of the Asiatic Society, carry a well-researched paper by Sister Mary Alice Hughes entitled "Epic Women: East and West—A Study with special reference to the Mahabharata and Gaelic Heroic Literature." A few points need to be made in connection with certain statements in this paper in order to set the record straight and provide some additional information of relevance.
On p. 49, in the last paragraph, Hughes refers to "two complete English translations" belonging to the 1890s but mentions only the first, that of Kishori Mohan Ganguli. The other is the only other complete verse -by -verse rendering in English till date, by Manmatha Nath Dutt [Elysium Press, Calcutta], a work spread over ten years [1895-1905] where Ganguli's took eight [1888-1896]. Hughes also fails to note that Ganguli turns "objectionable" passages into Latin! Dutt, more rigid, wholly omits whatever might offend the prevailing Victorian sensibility. Neither, therefore, is truly a complete translation. Dr. J.A.B. van Buitenen's follows the Critical Edition, thereby omitting large chunks of what is popularly accepted as the Mahabharata text, and is aimed wholly at the Western audience because of which such jarring translations as "baron" and "chivalry" vitiate the work. Professor P. Lal’s verse-by-verse transcreation is the only one that does not omit anything and is by far the most readable. Unfortunately, it is not yet finished after 300 monthly fascicules.
On p. 50, Hughes refers to "The ten volume bi-lingual edition of the Mahabharata translated into Bengali by Sitaramdas Omkarnath" and repeats this in footnote 79. This is an error of the same type as referring to the P.C. Ray English translation of the epic instead of acknowledging the real translator, Kishori Mohan Ganguli. The journalAryshastra Hughes refers to was founded by Sitaramdas Omkarnath, one of the renowned holy men of this century, but he had nothing to do with the translation. Each parva has been translated by a particular Sanskrit scholar whose name is given on the flyleaf of that parva and at its end.
The description of the status of women in the Mahabharata on page 68 depends solely on Apte instead of turning to the text of the epic which presents a very different picture of their life. Bhishma narrates to progeny-hungry Satyavati the story of Mamata and Brihaspati which provides a fascinating insight into the social mores prevalent in the pre-epic limes [cf. my Themes & Structure in the Mahabharata. Dasgupta & Co., Calcutta. 1989].  It shows a society where it was permissible, among Brahmins at least, for the younger brother to engage in coitus with his elder brother's wife. Mamata does not oppose Brihaspati's desires because it is against dharma, but only because she is already pregnant by his elder brother and "Your semen should not be wasted" (Adi Parva, 103. 12]. She does not resist physically when he insists, which shows that he has the right to have intercourse with her. Mamata merely points out the drawback and submits. Both Dirghatama and Dhritarashtra, thus sown by Brahmins in wombs of women who do not desire them, are born blind.
Among Kshatriya women, it appears to have been the accepted practice to beget sons by Brahmins. After Parashurama eradicates all Kshatriya men, their widows continue the race by being impregnated by Brahmins. Saradandayani stands where four roads meet until a Brahmin passer-by impregnates her. King Bali sent his Sudeshna wife to Dirghatama as Madayanti, wife of Saudasa Kalmashpada, is sent by her husband to Vashishtha. Ambika and Ambalika are forced by their mother-in-law Satyavati to accept Vyasa. Yayati gives away his daughter Madhavi to Galava and she becomes a unique instance of a woman used by three different kings and the Kshatriya-turned-Brahmin Vishvamitra to obtain a son each from her. Kunti and Madri are remarkable exceptions because they are the only two Kshatriya women to have children not by Brahmins but by gods (though that itself remains a question mark, as we shall see).
The treatment meted out to Dirghatama by his wife shows the freedom women enjoyed. Disgusted with his public indulgence in "the practices of the cow-race" (Adi Parva, 104, 241), she refuses to took after the blind sage, scorns his advice to take him to the Kshatriyas who will pay well for his progenitive powers to provide their dynasties with virile sons, and has her sons throw him into the river. That is when Dirghatama lays down the first commandment restricting the freedom of women, prescribing that every woman must be faithful to one man throughout her life and even after his death must not seek union with another man. Any transgressor, he pronounces, shall be counted corrupted [Adi parva, 104.31-32].
Another valuable insight into the ancient customs is provided by Pandu when, for persuading Kunti to have sons by other men, he relates to her that in the past women were not restricted indoors, nor were they dependant on male family members, but moved around freely, enjoying themselves as they wished, having intercourse with any man they liked from the age of puberty. Pandu specifically says, "They were unfaithful to their husbands and yet were not held sinful", for that was the accepted custom of those days (Adi parva, 122.4-5]. Pandu adds the information that the greatest sages praise this tradition, that "the new custom is very recent" [122.8] and, most significantly, that "the northern Kurus still practise it" [122.7]. That is the precedent Yudhishthira refers to when he counters Drupada's objections to all five brothers marrying his daughter with the declaration that in this they follow the practice of their ancestors [Adi parva, 197.28].
Pandu also tells Pritha the story of Shvetaketu, son of Uddalaka, who is outraged when, in his father's presence, his mother is taken away by a Brahmin. Uddalaka explains to his son that this is the Sanatana Dharma, that is, the established social norm; that women of all four castes are free to have sexual relations with any men, "and the men, they are like bulls" [Adi parva, 122,13-14]. Dirghatama was, obviously, one of these bullish men, as was Brihaspati. Shvetaketu, like Dirghatama, brings about a radical change in social norms by prescribing monogamy, with the difference that he makes it equally applicable to both husband and wife. This textual evidence goes counter to Hughes' supposition that the same degree of fidelity was not expected from the husbands [p.65]. Hughes is not correct in presuming that it was considered improper for a younger brother to marry before his elder. It is Bhima who is the first among the five brothers to get married, with the eldest Yudhishthira still single. And this takes place at the explicit urging of his mother Kunti. Conveniently, Kunti and Yudhishthira forget this precedent set by them when Arjuna arrives with Draupadi.
Hughes is not right in saying that Kunti is unaware of what Arjuna has brought home [page 80]. The epic states in the Adi parva, 190.29 that at the first signs of resentment on part of the suitors at Draupadi garlanding the mendicant Arjuna, Yudhishthira and the twins slipped away without a word to their battling brothers Bhima and Arjuna, leaving them to face the fury of the assembled kings by themselves! It is only Bhima and Arjuna who bring Draupadi to the potter's house, with Yudhishthira already within [for in shloka 193 we find Kunti taking Draupadi to Yudhishthira]. It is, therefore, no "chance" remark on Kunti's part, but a carefully thought out strategy for ensuring that the adamantine unity of the five brothers forged by her is not split because of sexual jealousy. As Kunti retreats into the background, she ensures that she is replaced by a single pivot for the five-spoked wheel of the Pandava destiny: Draupadi. She, like Yudhishthira, had noticed that when the brothers looked at Draupadi "each had her in his heart" [Adi parva, 193,12]. That common bond is made even more secure subsequently by Narada's plan to secure exclusive privacy for each brother by turn with her. Vyasa, while advising them to leave Ekachakra, had told Kunti that Draupadi had been given the boon of having five husbands. That hint was enough for far-sighted, sagacious Kunti. That is why we do not find Kunti suggesting even once that her "chance" words ought not to be taken literally. She repeatedly expresses anxiety to Yudhishthira (who has preceded Arjuna, Bhima and Draupadi to the potter's hut and is definitely party to the strategy Kunti has thought out) that her words must not be proved false. She reiterates this before Vyasa after he arrives in Drupada's palace. Vyasa promptly provides two myths to set Drupada's scruples at rest.
In the relationship between Kunti and Pandu, the freedom of choice available to the woman is quite clear. All of Pandu's hectoring and citing of precedents fails. It is only when he joins his palms in abject prayer and pleads with her that Kunti agrees to obtain children as he desires. Even then, she does not agree to go to a Brahmin as he wants, but announces her power to summon any god. Where Pandu prescribes, every time, which god Kunti must have intercourse with, it is an interestingly different story with his favourite Madri. Pandu does not approach her to beget children by other men because he is not sure that it would be to her liking (this is what he tells her when she approaches him to obtain for her the mantra from Kunti). He not only persuades Kunti to share her mantra with Madri, but leaves the choice of the god wholly to her! Understandably. Kunti feels outsmarted and has no hesitation in refusing to oblige Pandu when he asks her to give Madri another chance, for she fears that her co-wife will get more sons than she has [Adi Parva, 124.26].
Kunti also turns down Pandu peremptorily when he asks for a fourth son from her, pointing out the prevalent social norm: "The wise do not sanction a fourth conception even in crisis. The woman having intercourse with four men has loose morals. She having intercourse with five is a prostitute" [Adi Parva, 123.83]. The statement is profoundly ironic, because actually Kunti has had intercourse with four persons—Surya, Dharma, Vayu, Indra—if we accept that she "never had the chance to see his [Pandu's] face radiant in intercourse" as she tells Madri over their husband's corpse [Adi Parva, 125.23].
It is also significant that she refuses Pandu's fourth request because of the norm of stopping with three men. If truly gods had fathered the sons, why should this norm have been felt to be applicable by her? This social norm, however, was thrown to the winds in Draupadi's case who is made by her mother-in-law to take for all life the burden of living as wife to five men where Kunti herself had to bear merely temporary sexual encounters with four. And this lashes back with searing force at all of them through the mouth of none other than Pritha's own first-born, Karna, who calls Draupadi a prostitute in the royal assembly-hall for consorting with five men.
Besides that, however, it reveals how independent Kunti and Madri were in taking their decisions about crucial matters. In Madri's short life, this is seen in her getting her husband to obtain for her the childbearing boon, and in outsmarting her co-wife in obtaining twin sons at one go. In Kunti's case, this begins with her testing out the mantra on Surya, the abandoning of her first-born, the choosing of Pandu in her svayamvara, and then is seen at considerable length in the lives of the Pandavas. It is she who is alert to the significance of Vidura’s message to Yudhishthira in coded language and realises that it hints at the inflammable house-of-lac. Again, it is Kunti who plans out their escape so that none will suspect that they have not been consumed in the flames. She plies a Nishada woman and her five sons with liquor into a drunken stupor so that they are burnt alive. It is Kunti who takes each critical decision: about Bhima marrying Hidimba so that they obtain allies in that fashion; in sending Bhima against the ogre Baka to earn the gratitude of the common man; and, above all, the fateful decision about Draupadi. There is no doubt that the decision to visit the Panchala court was with the intention of winning Draupadi to cement an alliance with the traditional enemies of Hastinapura, because Kunti blesses her daughter-in-law with the words: "May you be queen of the Kuru kingdom."
After retreating into the background after Draupadi’s entry into her sons’ lives, Kunti suddenly re-emerges to occupy centre-stage on three occasions, acting with decisive force to influence the course of events. First, to inspire her sons to fight for their kingdom and vindicate their wife's honour. Second, to acknowledge her shame to Karna, effectively blunting the edge of his anti-Pandava impetus and extracting from him the assurance of the security of her five sons. Finally, to leave her victorious sons and accompany Dhritarashtra and Gandhari into the forest instead of enjoying the kingdom. Her reply to Bhima's anguished query as to why she had urged them to wade into this river of blood if she was going to leave them is a revealing insight into the remarkable nature of this greatest of Vyasa's heroines. Kunti says that she had inspired them to fight so that they did not suffer oppression at their relatives' hands. But, having glutted herself with happiness during her husband's rule (which itself is ironic because of Pandu's exceptionally brief tenure as king), she has no desire to enjoy a kingdom won by her sons. Neither their tears, nor the entreaties of Dhritarashtra succeed in getting her to change her mind. She dies seated calmly as a forest-fire engulfs her, calm of mind, all passion spent.
In a peculiar way, Kunti and Draupadi, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, show parallels in their lives. Besides the fact of being shared by more than one man, there is the sharing of the anguish of never having for oneself the life-partner of one's choice. Kunti had chosen Pandu among all the assembled royalty as her heart's sovereign. Almost immediately thereafter, she had to share his affection with Madri, whom Bhishma gratuitously introduced into their lives. It seems from Kunti's remark to Madri she had lost her husband to her co-wife. With Draupadi, it is the inability to have Arjuna for her own, as poignantly voiced in the Vana parva after he has left to obtain celestial weapons. Even earlier, her abhimana is clearly revealed in her reaction to his return to Indraprastha with Subhadra to whom he has given his heart, besides having acquired Ulupi and Chitrangada as wives during his "brahmacharya exile"! Lastly, if Draupadi is fire-born, Kunti's is a death-in-fire.
Kunti's actions are, indeed, quite unconventional and wholly autonomous, starting with her first pregnancy. She has that rare capacity to surprise us which is the hallmark of great leaders [cf. my "Leadership in the Mahabharata", in Proceedings of the 3rd Shankara National Conference on “Leadership in the Shastras”, Vivekananda Nidhi, December 1991, Calcutta]. Even more than her grandmother-in-law Satyavati, Kunti is a virgin in the Jungian sense. Both Satyavati and Kunti were gifted boons of retaining their virgin status even after giving birth to sons. This state of virginity refers not just to a Physical condition, but to an inner state of being which remains untrammelled by any slavish dependence on a particular man. Madri presents the exact opposite of this, the married woman who is dependant on what others think because of which she does what she may not actually approve, such as giving in to Pandu's lustful approaches against her better judgment, resulting in his death. "She is not one-in-herself but acts as female counterpart or syzygy to some male", points out Dr. M. Esther Harding in Woman's Mysteries [Rider, 1971, p. 125]. On the other hand, she continues, "the woman who is psychologically virgin is not dependent in this way. She is what she is because that is what she is ... (she is) one-in-herself (and) does what she does not because of any desire to please, not to be liked or to be approved, even by herself . . . but because what she does is true. Her actions may, indeed, be unconventional" (ibid. p. 126}. How truly Kunti exemplifies this in all the crucial decisions concerning her sons and in the ultimate choice at her life's very end, when all that she seemed to have aimed for had been achieved!
Hughes has not noted the abrupt decline in the status of woman that takes place as Draupadi replaces Kunti as the central female figure in the epic with the Sabha parva. It begins with her silent acceptance of the enormity of being shared by five brothers in marriage, as though she were an insentient object (one may argue, of course, that it shows us that she is capable, without making a fuss, of taking extraordinary decisions). It is later brought home most nakedly in all its coarseness through the words used by Yudhishthira to describe the value of the "stake" he ultimately pledges:

neither short nor tall, neither dark nor pale, 
with wavy dark-blue hair, eyes like autumn-lotus leaves,
fragrant like the lotus, perfect as Lakshmi herself in grace and beauty,
extraordinarily accomplished, soft-spoken and gentle, 
the ideal wife for the pursuit of Dharma, Artha and Karma.
She is the last to sleep, the first to wake, 
even earlier than the early-rising cowherds and shepherds.
Her sweat-bathed face is lovely like the lotus, like the jasmine; 
slim-waisted like the middle of the sacred vedi; 
long-haired, pink-lipped, smooth-skinned. (Sabha, 65.33-37)

Here Draupadi is hardly anything more than a chattel being staked. Her individual rights as an independent human being have been suddenly wiped out, indeed as though they never existed. She challenges this presumption itself and the very conception of Dharma of the Kuru elders in a situation where it would have been quite normal for any woman to collapse in hysterics. It is worthwhile for us to attend to her words [Sabha parva, 67.38-40,47]:

It is wrong, most wrong
to drag me in my period before the Kuru heroes.
But none here finds it wrong. Oh the shame of it! 
If all these great Kuru heroes find nothing wrong here, 
then the dharma of the Bharatas is dead, 
the dharma of the Kshatriyas is dead. 
Drona, Bhisma, Vidura,
and the great monarch have lost their greatness-else
why are they silent? . . There is no sabha without elders,
no elders without dharma; there is no dharma without truth,
no truth without honesty.
(The P. Lal transcreation)

When even this fails to move Bhishma beyond "Dharma is very subtle", Draupadi makes a last attempt to arouse the soporific manhood of the Kuru Court watched over by Bhishma:

Never before have we heard of
a wife forced to stand before a sabha. The Kurus have broken
that ancient rule . . . Something must be very .wrong
if the Kurus let their innocent daughter-in-law
suffer in this way! . .Where is your sense of dharma? (ibid., 69.6,8)

It is her repeated challenge to Bhishma that elicits that most revealing statement from him after he has initially sought to skirt the issue with "Dharma is very subtle, very confusing": "What a strong man says often becomes the only dharma. A weak man may have dharma on his side, but who listens to him? To tell you the truth, I do not know what to say" (Sabha Parva. 69.15-161). In other words, since the Dhartarashtras have won the dice-game, whatever they say and do is dharma, the accepted norm of conduct. Yet, he voices a meaningless approval of her stance which is significant in that it represents what was the ideal of feminine conduct in society while, simultaneously, condemning the inaction of the elders in the assembly hall:

Your conduct now, O Panchali,
is worthy of you- though you suffer, you appeal to
the truths of Dharma. Our elders, learned-in-dharma,
Drona and others sit here with lowered eyes like dead men
with life-breaths gone. (ibid. 69.19-20)

It is revealing that explicit condemnation, disgust at the proceedings and warning are voiced ultimately not by the Kshatriya patriarch Bhishma, protector of Hastinapura, but
by the son of a half-caste sage and a nameless servant-maid, Vidura:

Now they insult a woman. Nobility is dead
The Kauravas conspire sinfully . . .
Dharma violated in a sabha destroys the sabha . . . Kurus,
do not abandon dharma. (ibid., 71.19.20)

Indeed, among epic women Draupadi stands alone. Can we imagine any other heroine who would face being stripped and grossly insulted as a prostitute in a royal court with her five husbands remaining mute onlookers; then be abducted in the forest by her cousin-in-law Jayadratha and suffer her husband forgiving him; this followed by public molestation in Virata's court with her husband actually reprimanding her for creating a scene; be carried off to be burnt alive with Kichaka's corpse; and then, when the long sought-for war of vengeance appears inevitable, to hear her husbands tell Krishna to sue for peace? Would any other woman have borne all this and remained sane? This is not all. The worst is yet to come with the decimation of all her five sons by Ashvatthama. If Gandhari is left son-less in her defeat, so is the victorious Draupadi. Only Kunti ends her life as she had begun it—a queen with five sons intact, losing only Karna, the shame of her maidenhood removed from her life by death itself.
Hughes does not bring out the supreme tragedy of Draupadi's life. She does become Empress of Hastinapura, but what does she have left at the very end? As she stumbles and falls on the Himalayan heights, not one of her five husbands stops to help her up; not one stays back to keep her company; none has a word of sympathy for her except Bhima and even he frames it as a question to Yudhishthira instead of addressing her. And the crowning insult is Yudhishthira's comment that she fell because of her partiality for Arjuna. That comment only serves to expose his hidden envy of Arjuna, who alone had truly won Draupadi in the test of skill, but neither of them ever got each other wholly.
Self-born, full grown, rising out of the sacred flames of the sacrifice, like Athene emerging cap-a-pie from the head of Zeus, Yajnaseni leaves the world all alone, five-husbanded yet with no husband, nathavati anathavat. It is only then that we realise that this remarkable woman did not ever ask anything for herself. It is as though she were profoundly aware that she was an instrument for bringing about the end of an era and an ancient dharma so that a new age could take birth. Being so aware, she seems to have offered up her entire being, her whole life, as a flaming sacrifice in that holocaust of which Krishna was the presiding deity as well as its motivating force and major protagonist.
On page 89 Hughes refers to "the Draupadi-harana of the Mahabharata"'. It is not clear to what episode she is referring. Is it to Jayadratha's abortive attempt to abduct her? There is no other harana episode concerning Draupadi.
One cannot agree with Hughes’ statement on page 91 that Kunti's words to the Pandavas lack the inflammatory quality of Draupadi's. The tongue-lashing Vidula gives Sanjaya, as narrated by Kunti, is directed at her own sons by implication. Moreover, she asks Krishna to tell them: "Can anything be more humiliating than that your mother, friendless and alone, should have to eat others' food?…Redeem your family honour. Do not watch your merits waste away. Flare up, even if briefly, like kindling. Do not smoulder away in billowing fireless smoke" (Udyoga Parva, 132.32-34; 133.14). To these twin spurs to egg them on, Kunti adds the culminating motivation, upbraiding her sons in no uncertain terms, to arouse their hibernating manhood:

The princess of Panchala followed all dharmas,
yet, in your presence they mocked her-how can you ever
forgive this insult? The kingdom lost did not hurt me,
the defeat at dice did not hurt me; the exile of my sons
did not hurt me so much as the humiliation of Draupadi
weeping in the sabha as they mocked her.    
Nothing more painful than that insult.
(Ibid. Udyoga parva, 137.16-18)

Apart from Kunti and Draupadi, the epic gives us a number of remarkable women who are not mentioned by Hughes. Satyavati is one whom Hughes overlooks. She literally takes Hastinapura by storm and ensures that it is her blood that runs through its rulers. Like her grand daughter-in-law Kunti, she has a pre-marital son born out of wedlock. But, unlike the Kshatriya princess Kunti, the dasa Satyavati is not averse to acknowledging this son openly. Like Kunti, again, she gracefully retires to the forest after the dynasty has been established. In her success in ensuring that she gets what she wants she reminds us of some other powerful feminine figures of the epic: Devayani, Sarmishtha, Savitri. Like Shakuntala, Satyavati too has an apsara for her mother and a king for father, and like her ancestress insists, before giving in to the amorous advances of the infatuated king (Dushyanta/Shantanu), that it must be her son who will succeed to the throne. It is Satyavati who is responsible for the chronicle of the Dynasty of Puru becoming the biography of the descendants of a fisher-maid. Thereby, she is a revolutionary figure who upsets the entire mystique of royalty. After all, she is the first woman to establish a low-caste, actually a sudra, dynasty in the heartland of the country long before Mahapadma Nanda came on the Pataliputra scene.
Of the direct ancestors of the lunar dynasty, the Brahmin girl Devayani remains unforgettable for the imperious confidence with which she grasps the hand of king Yayati, will not take no for an answer, and successfully forges an inter-caste marriage, possibly the first such in the epic. She even succeeds in turning the Asura-princess into her maidservant, but loses Yayati to Sarmishtha's blandishments and the kingdom slips out of her progeny's hands to Puru, her rival's son.
Equally memorable is Shakuntala whose immortal celebration of a wife's role needs to be stressed because it stands unique in epic literature. She tells boorish Dushyanta (Sambhava parva, 74.40-50):

A wife is a man's half,
A wife is a man's closest friend:
A wife is Dharma, Artha and Karma,
A wife is Moksha too . . .
A sweet-speaking wife is a companion in happy times:
A wife is like a father on religious occasions; 
A wife is like a mother in illness and sorrow. 
The wife is a means to a man's salvation . . . 
Happiness, joy, virtue, everything depends on her.

When this fails to stir him, Shakuntala upbraids him in words which provide proof of the remarkable force of character in Vyasa's epic women:

My birth, Dushyanta,
is nobler than yours. You walk on earth,
I roam the sky. A pig delights in filth
even in a flower garden; 
a wicked man finds evil 
even where there's good. 
If you and falsehood unite,
if you disbelieve me. I will go, 
now, by myself. [ibid. 74. 82, 83, 89, 106]

She leaves, confidently prophesying the inevitable succession of her son Bharata to the throne even without Dushyanta's help. Such is the finely tempered steel of her character.
As for Savitri, whose adamantine will won back her husband's life literally from the hands of death, and Damayanti who weathered all sorrows and skilfully sought out her husband from the midst of abject misery—both are epic heroines who ought to have been discussed by Hughes in her paper.
Yet another obvious omission is Amba, whose implacable will to be avenged on Bhishma reminds us of the Greek Erinyes as she relentlessly hunts him down from one birth through another. Her role in the epic is crucial, for without Amba there would have been no victory for the Pandavas, as it was Bhishma who stood between them and victory with Shantanu's boon of death-only-at-will.
On page 77, Hughes claims that Sita recited to their sons their father's story. This is not correct. Lava and Kusa were taught the story of Rama by Valmiki and since their singing it at the Ashvamedha sacrifice, all singers of tales have been named kusilava.
On page 74, Hughes states that on one has ever suggested that either Homer or Virgil was a women. No less a person than Robert Graves, the great poet and novelist, suggested precisely this in his novel Homer's Daughter arguing that the author of the Odyssey was a woman, viz., the princess Nausica.
In terms of Dumezil’s tri-functionality, the first function relates to the priestly class, with the performance of rituals. In that context, Hughes is mistaken in assigning Astaka, Visvamitra's son by Madhavi, to the third function (p.3). As a celebrated performer of sacrifices, Astaka actually belongs to the first function.
It is difficult to agree with Hughes in seeing in Draupadi a doublet of the Madhavi myth simply on account of their many-husbanding. Madhavi cannot be said to be a pre-figuring of Draupadi because she is bartered to provide kings with sons as a means of defraying Galava's debt of guru-dakshina. After the birth of each son, she does not retain any link with his father and is in no sense a wife to him, nor even a mother nursing the infant and bringing him up to manhood. She immediately re-attains virgin status and is taken to the next king by Galava. The emphasis is constantly on her function as a bringer-forth of men-children only. In this her true doublet is not Draupadi, who is pre-eminently the wife cleaving to her five husbands unto death, but perhaps Kunti. Kunti, too, has temporary liaisons with four persons—Surya, Dharma, Vayu and Indra—for the sole purpose of obtaining male progeny. The difference is that all along she remains the wife of a fifth person, the Kshatriya Pandu, and the four others are gods. Furthermore, Vyasa's emphasis is on Kunti's role as mother in bringing-up five fatherless boys in a viciously hostile court. Madhavi's wholly detached attitude to her sons is reminiscent of the behaviour of the celestial nymphs, the apsaras Urvashi with Ayu and Menaka with Shakuntala.
Dumezil's analysis of the five Pandavas as representing the three function runs into serious difficulty when we realise that the aspect of fertility/fecundity, the third function, which he attributes to the twins Nakula and Sahadeva is not supported by any evidence in the epic. The Mahabharata, on the other hand, is a pitiless expose of the wasteland created by the Kurukshetra War in which the victors are like Milton's serpent who "instead of gust, chewed bitter ashes". Consequently, this is where Draupadi is akin to Deirdre. Both are the cause of the wholesale destruction and both are mothers who are not only left without any children, but are themselves the cause of annihilating an entire race of warriors. Their flaming beauty leaves only ashes behind, on rejuvenated greening   of the country. Amreeta Syam's long poem "Kurukshetra" (writers workshop, 1992) is an excellent portrayal of this aspect of Draupadi. To amend Hughes' statement, it is not only Deirdre, but also Draupadi who is "a sterile Sri" (p.25). Again, it is not Kunti who can be said to share with Deirdre the epithet "sorrowful one" simply on account of having given birth to illegitimate Karna (p. 27). It is Draupadi whose life is a long series of sufferings: saddled with the ignominy of a polyandrous alliance; grossly insulted in open court; exiled; abducted while in exile; abused again in exile; left without father, kith and kin and sons at the end of the war; abandoned by her five husbands as she falls helpless in the Himalayas.
Furthermore, Hughes' annotation on p. 8, note 1, that Draupadi resembles Krishna in being born without parents, is wholly mistaken, for Krishna's parents are Vasudeva and Devaki.
To take Hughes argument regarding Draupadi representing the tri functional capacity of royal power (p. 22) further, one could argue that the astonishing about-face of the Pandavas in the Svargarohana parva in callously leaving her behind in her last extremity, in complete contrast to their overwhelming concern whenever she has been abused, would represent their having given up their royal sovereignty which was embodied in its triple functions in her.
There is an obvious comparison with Thetis throwing away her seven children (p.33) which Hughes does not point out. The Mahabharata gives us a perplexing portrait of another river goddess who calmly drowns, one after another, seven of her sons, born to her of a mortal as in the case of Thetis: Ganga. Both Thetis and Ganga abandon their husbands, who have kept silent through seven murders, when they intervene on the eighth occasion. In both cases, this remarkable eighth son, Devavrata/Achilles, is the greatest of heroes of that time. 
While analysing the phenomenon of the fateful birth of one who will destroy the dynasty, Hughes cites Oedipus and Deirdre (p.39) but unaccountably leaves out the case of Alexandros/Paris whose birth was presaged by the image of a flaming torch and on the advice of soothsayers he was abandoned and brought up by shepherds. When he was recognised during a contest in Troy, his doting parents refused to have him slain, defying the prophecy, as Dhritarashtra refuses to give up Duryodhana. It is Paris who, Duryodhana-like, brings about the destruction of an entire generation of warriors.
In supporting Yudhishthira's simplistic exclamation, "If we had been united with Karna there is nothing that we could not have attained and this war need never have been fought" (p. 43) Hughes reveals a surprising naivety. The whole point of Vyasa's remarkable epic-structure is to bring out the clash of different types of dharma. Karna's grossly limited dharma is one of blind adherence to his benefactor regardless of the ethics of Duryodhana's actions. Bluntly, he tells Krishna that if the throne were offered to him by Yudhishthira, he would immediately surrender it to Duryodhana who, he knows, is evil. Hence, he begs Krishna not to tell the Pandavas of their uterine relationship. Yudhishthira's response, quoted by Hughes, is an immature sentimental effusion typical of him for which Krishna berates him on more than one occasion. The Pandavas would not have been benefited at all had this relationship been exposed earlier. Actually, they would have been condemned to the perpetual slavery of the Kauravas, with Karna leading them in serving Duryodhana! It might well be that, noticing Karna's unquestioning submission to Duryodhana, the remarkably perspicacious Kunti realised that he would not provide her other sons with the leadership to win back their heritage. That is why she made the heroic choice of keeping the secret despite the tremendous anguish it caused her, and ultimately chose to face the agony of being upbraided by her sons on this account. She deliberately chose the greater good, that of establishing a new kingdom founded on dharma under her nephew Krishna's leadership by the Pandavas, to the evil of not acknowledging her son Kara who had chosen to join the forces of adharma. To describe this choice as "blotting her record as a mother" (p. 43) is surely unjustified.
Hughes reference to Kunti's "choice of fathers for her sons" (p. 46) is a misreading of the epic. It is part of Kunti's tragedy that she is not even given the freedom to choose the fathers for her sons. On each of the three occasions it is Pandu who prescribes which god she is to summon. On the other hand, where Madri is concerned Pandu is surprisingly considerate and leaves the choice completely to her. Obviously, Madri was his favourite!
In her survey of the recreation of epic characters in the vernacular, Hughes mentions Tagore's silence regarding Draupadi while discussing the Kunti-Karna encounter. This portrait has to be placed in the perspective of subsequent representation of the scene by Shivaji Sawant (in his epic novel Mrityunjaya), Buddhadeb Bose (in his poetic drama "Pratham Partha"), Jatindramohan Bagchi (in his poem on Karna), Ramdhari Singh Dinkar (in his semi-epic Rashmi-rathi), Prabhat Kumar Ghosh (in his novelKarna), Ramkumar Bhramar (in his novel Adhikar), S. Raman (in his verse play onKarna), P. Lal (in his long poem "The Man of Dharma and the Rasa of Silence") and Rahi Masoom Reza (in the Mahabharata TV Film Script, vol. 7). Of these, the most important is Buddhadeb Bose's interpretation. He reverses the sequence of Vyasa by having Kunti meet Karna before Krishna comes, and introduces Draupadi who carefully tries to sense if she can influence Karna in staying aloof in the war. Bose's Kunti explains to Karna that she had not acknowledged him during the tournament because fratricidal strife was not inevitable then as it has become now. She also offers him Draupadi, at which Karna retorts that he was unable to win Draupadi by himself only because Kunti had not acknowledged his paternity, that he will not share Draupadi with anyone, and refuses to accept anything he has not won by his own prowess. There is no pledge by Karna not to slay Arjuna, only a request by Kunti that he come to her after the war as her son, regardless of Draupadi and the kingdom. Karna responds that for him Kunti will always remain a lovely dream. Krishna appears at the end after Kunti and Draupadi have left, having failed in their mission. His meeting with Karna ends memorably with Karna glorying in the realisation that behind the facade of Arjuna it will be Krishna who is his true opponent, and that it is a vindication of his heroic prowess that this Krishna, whom some callPurushottama, will stoop to scheme to ensure his death.
Hughes mentions the gargantuan Peter Brook dramatisation of the epic only in passing (pp. 100-101). While she pithily makes the point that this was not a revival of Attic theatre, she fails to tackle the central issue that whatever else it might have been—pre-eminently a superb five-finger exercise—it was certainly not Vyasa's Mahabharata. The tragedy of the intellectual elite of India lies in its celebration of Brook's effort as carrying the true message of the epic for modern times. On the other hand, Hughes fails to take into account the brilliant TV Film Script of the epic penned by a Muslim, the late Rahi Masoom Reza, which is a far more authentic representation of the ethos of Vyasa with its profound lessons for all humanity that shine clearly through the garish overlay of the Hindi film-world conventions, [cf. my article on the Peter Brook film in Vyasa's Mahabharata: Creative Insights ed. P. Lal. writers WORKSHOP, 1992.]
Hughes does less than justice to Saoli Mitra's magnificent tour de force regarding Draupadi, Nathabati Anathabat which portrays the other epic women: Satyavati, Kunti, Gandhari. These have been given considerable attention in two studies by S. K. Sen and myself in Vyasa's Mahabharata: Creative Insights Vol. 1 ed. P. Lal {writers workshop, 1992) to demonstrate how she brings alive the past for the present precisely in order to fulfil that need, which Hughes speaks of at the end of her study: that we may learn not to repeat the perverse placing of personal greed over public good that brought about the cataclysmic end of an era, and build a wholesome future for the coming generations.


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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Comment THE FACTS AS IT WERE....disputed by the author of this essay DR PRADIP BHATTACHARYA on the narration of sister MARY ALICE HUGHES in her book...'THE EPIC WOMEN;EAST AND WEST' BRINGS FOURTH astonishing facts of life of the women progenators during epic times.....the social mores;the practice of having many husbands to procreate one;s progeny for reasons of continuing the legacy of rule by legal succsession unfolds rather attenuating circumstances by hook or crook means to achieve results......the fact that kunti retired to the forest with her husband pandu only to return with five sons of dubious parentage cleverly attributed to gods......is one observation made by DR RAJESH KOCCHAR in his book VEDIC TIMES is also significant in the backdrop of what pradip bhattacharya reveals in his critical commentary. the question here is was it an accepted practice in those times to have sex with anyone and everyone on the pretext of wanting to have successors...? this is a mute question. one wonders whether the very idea of prostitution as a profession arose from this practice of the past..... brahmins with all their talk of renunciation and ascetic pretentions were audaciously polygamous and more so a kind of sanctioned womanizers. then why the hell we raise a hue and cry on such issues today in a world full of adultrous relations.when actually it has been handed down to us by our so-called past, there seems to be a hell of a lot of feigned pretention of sanctity and probity which for all i know is downright corrupt and unnecessarily sacrosanct.what leaves me totally stunned is the fact of moral profligacy inactual practice as against the dictates of moral imperative preached throughout the length and breadth of the epic by no less a person than VEDA VYASA who himself indulged in sexual orgies of the times giving it all kinds of shastric sanction,as they were the very people to do so in the rarified field of ethics and morality.

26-Nov-2014 18:50 PM

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