The men play dice and wage wars in Mahabharata , as anywhere else ; but it is the women who wield power and influence. It is the women who take decisions , direct the course of events and decide the fate of men and their generations to follow. The women are the true leaders of the Epic The three women in particular who wielded power in more than one form were Sathyavathi the dusky fragrant fisher girl who became the queen , Pritha the fair maiden who reluctantly became the mother of five sons and Krishnaa , daughter of the fire , Druapadi. The Epic is interwoven with their remarkable sagacity in exercise of their power and leadership. Some say the Epic , in a way , is a study in use and abuse of power.
These women displayed that the truly powerful do not cling to power. They knew when and how to wield it but also, even more important, to when not to use it
She was called Parshati , Panchali , Draupadi , Shri , Yajnaseni … but she was Krishnaa the dusky princess evoking fragrance of the blue lotus (nīlotpala-sugandhinī) . She sprang out of the sacrificial fire , resplendent and glowing as a tower of blaze , full grown and in the bloom of her youth ; not requiring the matrix of human womb.
She was to be a kritya, an avenging fury to wreck vengeance on the foes of her father Yagnasena Drupada – the king of the Somaka-s, one of the five tribes of the Panchala-s – though he had not asked for her. Fire was her nature. She was fearless , endowed with a single-minded determination as a piercing jet of flame . She lived with a fire burning in her soul , all her life.
Shyama padma palashakshi ; Neela kunchita murdhaja; Manysama vigraham kritva ; Saksath amara varnini; Nilotpala samoghandho ; Yasaha proshat pravayati; Ya bibharti param rupam; Yasyah nastyo pama bhuvi
The tales of flame like beauty of the enchanting princess of Panchala blessed with every auspicious feature (sarva-lakṣaṇa-saṃpannā) glowing like a brilliant diamond (vaiḍūrya-maṇi-saṃnibhā) ; of her rivetingly lovely dark looks (nilotpala-dala-shyamam), of her captivating blue lotus fragrance (nīlotpala-sugandhinī) spread like forest fire far and wide. It set aflame the hearts of countless princes (puruṣendrāṇāṃ cittapramathinī). Even Vyasa a sage , went into a rapture describing her extraordinary beauty. It was the only time he described his heroine in such detail.
“Eye-ravishing Panchali, black-and-smiling-eyed… Shining coppery carved nails, Soft eye-lashes, Swelling breasts Shapely thighs… Neither short nor tall, neither dark nor pale, with wavy dark-blue hair, eyes like autumn-lotus leaves (padmāyatākṣī), fragrant like the lotus…extraordinarily accomplished, soft-spoken and gentle… Her sweat-bathed (sasvedaṃ) face is lovely, like the blue-lotus (ābhāti padmavat vaktraṃ), like the jasmine (Mallika) ; slim-waisted like the middle of the sacred Vedi (vedimadhyād aninditā), long-haired(dīrghakeśī), pink-lipped (tāmrākṣī), and smooth-skinned. In her presence, the tree leaves stilled for a moment; and, the fires flared but silently . She indeed is a dream incarnated of gods and men alike.”
drupadasya kule kanyā vedimadhyād aninditā , nātihrasvā na mahatī nīlotpala-sugandhinī, padmāyatākṣī suśroṇī asitāyatamūrdhaj, sarva-lakṣaṇa-saṃpannā vaiḍūrya-maṇi-saṃnibhā, pañcānāṃ puruṣendrāṇāṃ cittapramathinī rahaḥ
ābhāti padmavat vaktraṃ sasvedaṃ mallika ca, vedīmadhyā dīrghakeśī tāmrākṣī nātiromaśā,
And among the princes who thirsted her lustily, were the Kuru princes of Hastinapur . She was unwilling to give herself easily even to a worthy one. She insisted on being declared a Veerya-Shulka , a bride to be won by the worthiest and the best in a contest of strength , valor and dexterity in archery which combined in itself skill , grace and strength of mind.
That was the reason she rejected Karna of low birth even while he was trying to enter the contest at the Swayamvara . That pain and humiliation burned deep into his soul searing his self esteem. It was like a raw wound that never would heal. Karna later in his life did not let go a slightest opportunity to hurt and humiliate Draupadi. It was her impulsive decision on that fateful day that sowed the seeds for revenge and outrage mounted on her by the Kaurava clan at their court years later.
The outrage of her modesty and the humiliation meted out to her proved to be the nemesis of the Kauravas . Avenging the grievous injury to her honor became a major premise for the war that ended in death and destruction of millions. Yajnaseni , the one born from out of fire, offered her entire being as a flaming sacrifice in that holocaust presided by Krishna . No wonder Draupadi is worshiped even to this day in South India as a personification of Shakthi.
As she ‘ advanced gently and bashfully with a white floral garland in her lovely hands and a sweet smile on her coral-bright lips ‘ she instantly fell in love with that adorable youth of proud bearing , looking fearless and handsome as he emerged out of the crowd of Brahmanas squatted in the far corner of the hall. She was delighted when as he shot down the target with remarkable skill , grace and accuracy.
When it came to light that he was none other than Arjuna, the Pandava prince , she was bemused and she smiled within herself in slight amusement at the irony of fate. She , until then, was on look out for a youth strong and courageous enough to defeat Arjuna who humbled her father just to please his teacher. Now , she just had fallen in love with one that she loved to hate. The fire that just entered into her snubbed out the old fire that was fading away.
The Epic does not discuss Draupadi’s state of mind when asked to be locked in a polyandrous marriage with five brothers. She would perhaps have objected had she so desired. She chose to be silent for whatever reason.
“Then one by one they glanced at Draupadi. Lovely Krsna looked at them. They looked at each other.”
“…So full of respect and affection, the Pandavas all cast their eyes upon the princess of Panchala. And the princess of Panchala also looked at them all. And casting their glances on the illustrious Krishna, those princes looked at one another. And , taking their seats, they began to think of Draupadi alone.
Indeed, after those princes of immeasurable energy had looked at Draupadi, the God of Desire invaded their hearts and continued to crush all their senses. As the lavishing beauty of Panchali who had been modeled by the Creator himself, was superior to that of all other women on earth, it could captivate the heart of every creature.
And Yudhishthira, the son of Kunti, beholding his younger brothers, understood what was passing in their minds. And that bull among men immediately recollected the words of Krishna-Dwaipayana. And the king, then, from fear of a division amongst the brothers, addressing all of them, said, ‘The auspicious Draupadi shall be the common wife of us all.’
The sons of Pandu, then, hearing those words of their eldest brother, began to revolve them in their minds in great cheerfulness”.
[ Much has been written and discussed about Draupadi’s marriage to five husbands. As said; the Epic does not explicitly disclose Draupadi’s state of mind and her views on the question when asked to be locked in a polyandrous marriage with five brothers. She would perhaps have objected had she so desired. She , however, chose to be silent for whatever reason.
Draupadi’s polyandry wedding/s was definitely a strange and a startling feature of the then Mahabharata society. In the long list of the Pandava- ancestors there was no instance of polyandry. Draupadi’s marriage with five brothers did not, therefore, take place in accordance with the then prevailing custom or its old tradition. But, it came about as an extraordinary and an exceptional event. Later in the Epic, her adversaries miss no opportunity to taunt, ridicule and humiliate her for being the wife of many men.
Yudhisthira’s proposal asking for Draupadi as the wife of all the five brothers came as rude shock to Drupada, Draupadi’s father; and it almost felled him. He cried out it in anguish: it is such an unheard of adharma and is totally against the normal the codes of behaviour (lokadharma viruddham). Yet, Yudhisthira attempts to clear Drupada’s bewilderment by lamely citing Vedic instances of Marisha-Varkshi (vārkṣī hy eṣā varā kanyā: a girl raised by the trees) mother of Daksha married to the ten Prachetas brothers; and of Jatila (nee Gautami) the spouse of seven sages. Drupada is now more confused because those instances were ancient and not many had heard of those. Then, sage Vyasa the biological father of Pandu (who was the de jure father of the Pandavas) steps in and convinces Drupada. Vyasa succeeds in his attempt, not by reason or logic, but by narrating events from Draupadi’s previous birth/s. Drupada nonplussed, gives in, helplessly.
In the same episode, Sage Vyasa, in an attempt to convince the beleaguered Drupada, narrates the story of the most beautiful and virtuous Bhaumāśvī, the daughter of King Sibi of great fame and immense valor. Bhaumāśvī, the best and most auspicious among women, gifted with a sweet voice, melodious as the notes of the Veena. At her Svayamvara, the five valorous sons of the great King Nitantu (Salveya, Srutasena, Surasena, Tindusara and Atisara), bulls among kings, endowed with all good qualities and famous wielders of the bow, all fell desperately in love with the most enchanting Bhaumāśvi.
Ultimately, the five brothers married her, And, Bhaumāśvi as their common wife bore five most heroic sons. And, their descendants gained fame as: Salveyaas, Surasenas, Srutasenas, Tindusaras and Atisaras
In this manner, listen Oh Great King, Bhaumasvi, celebrated on earth as the most virtuous woman became the common wife for five of Kings.
In the same manner, your daughter of divine form, the blameless Parshati, Krishnaa is destined to be the wife of five Pandavas.
etān naitantavān pañca śaibyā cātra svayaṃvare
avāpa sā patīn vīrān bhaumāśvī manujādhipān
vīṇeva madhurārāvā gāndhārasvaramūrcchitā
uttamā sarvanārīṇāṃ bhaumāśvī hy abhavat tadā
Vyasyā naitantavāḥ pañca patayaḥ kṣatriyarṣabhāḥ
babhūvuḥ pṛthivīpālāḥ sarvaiḥ samuditā guṇaiḥ
As regards Kunti, it surely does not seem to have been a slip-of tongue when she asked her sons to share whatever they brought home. Was Kunti really not aware her son won a bride? Was she merely talking of alms her sons brought home? I am not sure Kunti was so gullible.
As mentioned in the post on Kunti, it was a part of her strategy to keep the brothers united and not torn asunder by envy and lust.
Adi Parva (190.29) mentions that Yudhisthira along with the twins slipped out of the Swayamvara as melee set-in when Arjuna , in disguise , won Draupadi. They were already back home by the time the other two brothers along with the newly-won bride Draupadi presented themselves at the door steps. Yudhisthira, by then, would surely have reported to Kunti what transpired at the Swayamvara. While he and the twins were reporting to her , she would have noticed the sparkle and desire in their eyes too. Was that the reason of her charade, asking the brothers to share whatever they had bought home? Though Yudhisthira lamely explains to Drupada that they were honouring the wish of their mother and they were following the custom of their ancestors; Vyasa comments “each had her in his heart”(Adi Parva 193.12)
Kunti showed no signs of regret of her “slip-of-tongue”. She urged Drupada “I fear my words will become as pointless as lies. And if that happens, will I not be tainted with untruth?” What that decision of Kunti did to the Brothers and how that bonded the six together becomes explicit later in the Epic.]
(At the Bibliothèque Nationale de France , in Paris, France)
Draupadi did accomplish that astonishing task of being happily married to five men , remarkably well. Her success was so complete that even Satyabhama, intrigued, desired to share the secret of her success . After performing her duty of presenting each of her husbands with a son , it is said , Draupadi distanced herself from her husbands and each of them took other wives. That in a way signifies Draupadi and her blue lotus like attitude. She lived amidst sensuality that surrounded her but was not contaminated by it. That is the reason Draupadi having five husbands is considered a paragon of chastity , a Kanya.
That does not mean she grew disinterested in the family affairs. No, she continued to be a very trusted and a vital member of the extended family; and functioned as a sort of effective manager interested in its welfare but not obsessed with its possession. . Draupadi while advising Satyabhāmā on the ways of managing the household mentions that the complete account of income and expenditure of her husbands was in her grasp and she alone knew the extent of their wealth; she kept track of what each of the many maids attending on Yudhishthira was doing; and she took particular care to discuss with her husbands the decisions they took on various important issues. She even mentions that Kunti and herself (Draupadi) were consulted on most issues (MBh. 3.222. 38 – 41).
It is rather sad that there is not much discussion in the Epic about the motherhood of Draupadi . Her husbands could neither offer the respect and honor that a woman should have as a wife and as a mother; nor could they protect her as a wife should be. All that they succeeded was in making her into a queen.
Draupadi was a victim of her extraordinary beauty that inflamed the desire in the hearts of men. She seemed to attract violence; and, she and wrecked vengeance thereafter. On each of such occasions, she fought the outrage with matchless courage , assurance , skill and presence of mind. She was veritably a goddess of war.
After the second dice game , instead of meekly obeying Yudhistira’s summons , she had the sagacity to send back a query that challenged the very concept of Dharma and the basis of their conduct towards her. Draupadi threw a question at Duryodhana ‘Have you won yourself? Or myself? How do you presume that one husband is authorized to stake the wife while she has four other husbands? Moreover, according to Sastras , the deeds of a king who is in a miserable state due to over indulgence in hunting , drinking , gambling and hankering after women are not lawfully binding . Hence how could the Kauravas own Panchali? I am a free woman by all means. ”
Draupadi lashed out at the Kuru clan. She demanded to know – how could Yudhishthira, having lost himself, stake her at all? It was question that none of the elders learned in Dharma who sat there “with lowered eyes like dead men with life-breaths gone” could dare answer. It was so difficult a question that even Bhishma, the recognized authority on Dharma, when pointedly challenged by Draupadi, confessed his inability to decide the issue – ” 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).
”I am unable to answer your question because Dharma is subtle”, he says (na dharmasaukshmyat subhage vivektum śaknomi te prasnam imam yathavat).
Dharma is subtle (sukshmam) because its essence is concealed in a dark cavern (dharmasya tattvam nihitath guhaayaam).
And , the end of that sordidly disgraceful episode , Draupadi had the courage , the presence of mind and the wit to plant a parting kick at those assembled . In words dipped in sarcasm and indignity she departed punning on “duty ”:
“ One duty remains, which I must now do. Dragged by this mighty hero, I nearly forgot, I was so confused. Sirs, I bow to all of you, all my elders and superiors. Forgive me for not doing so earlier. It was not all my fault, gentlemen of the Sabha.” (Sabha Parva: 02,060.043)
āhūya rājā kuśalaiḥ sabhāyāṃ; duṣṭātmabhir naikṛtikair anāryaiḥ dyūtapriyair nātikṛtaprayatnaḥ;
” It is sad; in this vast assembly here , there are no elders in the true sense (na sā sabhā yatra na santi vṛddhā) . The so called elders are unable say what is Dharma (* na te vṛddhā ye na vadanti dharmam). There is neither Dharma nor Truth here (nāsau dharmo yatra na satyam asti). And, whatever that is here is just blind, dumb and lame (na tat satyaṃ yac chalenānuviddham) – Sbh Parva : 02.060.045
As she rescued her hapless husbands from slavery , even the embittered Karna could not help exclaiming in admiration that none of the world’s renowned beautiful women had accomplished such a feat (yā naḥ śrutā manuṣyeṣu striyo rūpeṇa saṃmatāḥ): like a boat she has rescued her husbands who were drowning in a sea of sorrows – pāñcālī pāṇḍuputrāṇāṃ naur eṣā pāragābhavat (Sabha Parva: 2.64.3).
During the years of exile , Jayadratha an ally of the Kauravas , was devoured by lust as he came across Draupadi in Kamyaka Vana “Leaning against a kadamba tree, holding on to a branch with an upraised hand, her upper garment displaced, she flashes like lightning against clouds or like the flame of a lamp quivering in the night-breeze.” As he grabbed at her , she did not helplessly shriek , lament and cringe as a damsel in distress; instead she kicked the aggressor hard sending him reeling to the ground. She took control of Jayadratha’s chariot and calmly asked a nearby priest to report the incident to her husbands.
Kichaka tormented and kicked her in the court of Virata in presence of Yudhistira who advised her not to create a scene and to quietly go away. She realized that it was only Bhima who could rescue her and avenge her. Vyasa describes in a playful loving narration how she warmed up to Bhima , aroused his love for her and set him up for a fight with Kichaka, who was infatuated with her (sairandhryā kīcakaḥ kāmamohitaḥ) .
She finds Bhima at night in his cook’s quarters , twines herself round him as a creeper entwines a massive Shala tree on the banks of the Gomati; as the bride of the sleeping king of beasts clasps him in a dense forest; as an elephant-cow embraces a huge tusker. And as Bhima awakes in Panchali’s arms, she sings into his ears, in a Veena like tone pitched at the Gandhara note, the third in the octave (vīṇeva madhurābhāṣā gāndhāraṃ sādhu mūrcchitā). She narrates her misfortunes and her torments. She wails to Bhima “Any woman married to Yudhishthira would be afflicted with many griefs….What does Yudhishthira do? He plays dice…Look at Arjuna… A hero with earrings!” You indeed are my true hero , she coos, I will consume poison and die in your arms , Bhima. She covers his face with her palms chapped and scarred in queen’s service. Mighty Bhima melts like early morning dew at the first light. “Wolf-waisted foe-crushing Bhima covered his face with the delicate, chapped hands of his wife, And , he burst into tears.” (Virata Parva: 4.16 ) . And , That settled the fate of Kichaka.
Throughout the thirteen years of exile, Draupadi did not let her husbands forget how she was outraged and how they were deceitfully deprived of their kingdom. After the years of exile and the year of incognito , when she learnt that her husbands were suing for peace, she was angry and smoldering with rage like a volcano about to erupt. She thundered that she shall tie her loose hair only when bathed in the blood the villain who dared to pull it. When Krishna visited her , she poured out her heart to him , holding up her serpent-like thick glossy hair and with tearful eyes urged Krishna to recall those tresses when he negotiated for peace with the kauravas. She exhorted that he was bound fourfold to protect her: “For four reasons, Krishna, you are bound to protect me ever: I’m related, I’m renowned, I’m your sakhi and you rule over all.” (Vana Parva 10.127). In case even he did not care to help her, she declared that her five sons led by Abhimanyu and her old father and brothers would avenge her .
Krishna could scarcely say no to her. He promised to annihilate her tormentors “Consider those you disfavor As already dead!… The Himavant hills may move, the Earth shatter In a hundred pieces, heaven collapse; My promise stands… You will see your enemies killed.” (Udyoga Parva: 82.45, 48)
Death danced its naked Tandava as never before. Hundreds of thousands perished every day in the eighteen-day war. Brothers killed brothers, fathers killed sons, uncles butchered nephews and nephews slew uncles, masters and disciples did away with each other. And strangers massacred strangers. The wails of mothers, daughters, sisters, wives and children rent the skies. Jackals and vultures tore apart the slain men and carcass of animals. Ghouls and cannibals danced in devilish delight and feasted on the slaughtered.
The worst was yet to come, Ashvatthama heinously slaughtered Draupadi’s sons and brothers while they were asleep. Even at that most agonizing and heartbreaking moment Draupadi had not lost the sense of life , humanity and compassion. When Ashvatthama was brought before her , bound in ropes as an animal , and all were thirsting for his blood , Draupadi had the nobility of heart to ask her husbands to let him go .“I know how much it hurts to loose sons . I cannot bear to see that vriddha matha , the aged mother of Ashvatthama , endure the agony and grief of loosing her only son in her old age. Let him go for the sake of his old mother. Let her not cry as I do now.” she said .
Draupadi is often referred to as Nathavathi_Anathavat, perhaps to express the agony of Draupadi having five husbands but with none to protect her. She was married to five yet she was all alone , unprotected , uncared and unloved. She always had about her a certain loneliness . She once poured her heart to Krishna “No husband have I, nor son, nor brother. So much so, O Madhusudana, that even you are not mine” (Vana Parva 10.125 ) . As Shri Pradip Bhattacharya said “ Yudhishthira pledges her like chattel at dice. .. Draupadi finds her five husbands discarding her repeatedly. Each of them takes other wives . . Draupadi stands quite apart from her five husbands not one of them not even Sahadeva of whom she took care with maternal solicitude, nor her favorite Arjuna tarries by her side when she falls and lies dying on the Himalayan slopes.. Yajnaseni leaves the world all by herself, nathavati anathavat.”
There was much that was common among the three women – Sathyavathi , Kunti and Draupadi. All the three were described as dark or dusky emanating a captivating body odor .All three were also described as amorous lovers .They were the celebration of women as “sexually powerful magical beings” in the words of Naomi Wolf . They were all women of substance and leaders of men.
All the three had a will of their own, they wielded power and influence ; but each in her own manner. Sathyavathi , the Yojanaghandha was sensuous and manipulative. Kunthi treated with much respect in the Epic , was a heroic mother who did not seek anything for herself. Draupadi too did not seek anything for herself. She had to live with five men ; while Kunthi had only to endure momentary involvements . Draupadi as a wife tended to and inspired her men though in return got little or nothing . Yajnaseni the one born out of fire , offered herself as a sacrifice in the fire of life.
Kunti and her daughter-in-law Draupadi, in a strange way, endured similar pain and had more in common . Pandu among all the assembled royalty was Kunti’s chosen heart – desire (mano- kaamana). Yet, soon thereafter she had to share nay lose her husband to her co-wife, younger and bashful. Draupadi could not be Arjuna’s sole love. Not only that she had to be the wife of four others but also that Arjuna and his brothers each took many wives. The marriages of Kunti and Draupadi, to say the least, were over crowded. Finally, If Draupadi was born in fire Kunti dies in fire.
It is said , Sathyavati with the aid of Vyasa brought into being a dynasty the one branch of which was nurtured and carried forward by Kunthi while its other branch was annihilated because of Draupadi. But how fair is it blame Draupadi for the ruin that the Kauravas brought upon themselves?
There is a well-known Sanskrit stanza which exhorts the virtues of a set of five Kanyas , virgins. It says , contemplation on the virtues of these five destroys the greatest sins:
Ahalya Draupadi Kunti Tara Mandodari tatha / panchakanya smare-nityam mahapataka nashakam.
Included among the five virgins are Kunti and Draupadi. Strangely , both knew more than one man and were mothers too. Why then did our ancients address them as Kanyas? And why were they so highly regarded?
They were perhaps not referring to their bodies but to the state of their being. They did what they did , not out of desire or out of attachment . It was perhaps to suggest they were psychologically pure and untainted. They learnt to sublimate their ego to reach a higher self. They were independent women enjoying an identity of their own. The status of Kanya perhaps also referred to the way they asserted their independence.
M. Esther Harding mentions in Woman’s Mysteries [Rider, 1971, p. 125- 126] “the woman who is psychologically virgin 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 “.
M. Esther Harding again makes a telling observation : “ He does not know the difference before love and after love, before motherhood and after motherhood…Only a woman can know that and speak of that. … She must always be as her nature is. She must always be maiden and always be mother. Before every love she is a maiden, after every love she is a mother.”
Shri Pradip Bhattacharya
Prof. P Lal for his translations of Mahabharata