Gender politics in Ancient Hindu Epic Literature


Naomi Appleton is Senior Lecturer in Asian Religions in the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh. Her main research interest is the role of stories in the construction and communication of religious ideas in early India. She has worked extensively on narrative materials from Hindu, Buddhist and Jain traditions.

She tweets @JakataStories.


 

In a pivotal episode of the ancient Hindu epic Mahabharata, which was probably composed sometime in the last few centuries before the Common Era, a woman called Draupadi is dragged into a royal dicing hall. Her husband, Yudhisthira, the paragon of virtue and honour, has just staked all his possessions, his half of the kingdom, his brothers, himself and then Draupadi in a gambling match with his cruel cousin Duryodhana. He has lost everything. The blind king – Duryodhana’s father Dhritarashtra – and other senior members of the court have allowed this match to progress despite its unfairness. They remain silent and downcast as Draupadi is manhandled into the hall. Her shame is made worse by the fact that she is menstruating, and so dressed in only a single cloth. Once in the hall, Draupadi has to endure mockery from Duryodhana and his allies, including lewd remarks and even an attempt to strip her naked.

So far this is just another story of an abused woman, but what makes Draupadi really special is the way in which she responds to her abuse. First of all she rebukes her husband and asks him if he staked her only after having lost himself (which, indeed, he had) and whether in that case it was really possible to stake her. She asks the elders of the court why they have allowed such abuses to take place, and tries to get any one of them to rule on whether she really has been lost to Duryodhana. Nobody will answer her questions, and her fury is palpable. The attempt to strip her naked (at Duryodhana’s order) is prevented when her sari proves never-ending, thanks to her virtue and – in some versions – to the interventions of the god Krishna, to whom she is devoted. Eventually, ill omens force King Dhritarashtra to intervene and grant Draupadi two boons. She chooses freedom for Yudhisthira and his four brothers (who, incidentally, are also her husbands, as discussed below). That she does not ask for her own freedom reinforces her position that she has never lost it. In this whole sorry episode she proves her strength, initiative, virtue, and superior understanding of morality.

Although Draupadi succeeds in freeing her husbands from slavery, they must all endure a long forest exile before the climactic moment of the epic: a huge battle between the two sets of cousins and their allies, in which almost all the warriors of the earth are killed, and Yudhisthira emerges as the one true king. During these years of exile Draupadi suffers an abduction by a lustful king (she is rescued by her husbands, who nonetheless pardon him) and an attempted seduction by a general (who is then rather brutally killed by one of her husbands). Her suffering is met with righteous anger, and she repeatedly calls upon her husbands to protect her honour and avenge the insults she has endured. She famously looks forward to being able to wash her hair in the blood of those who tried to strip her. The war makes this possible, but also results in the death of her father, brothers, and sons. She has anything but an easy life.

But is she a dangerous woman? Very much so, both within the story and in wider Indian society, past and present.

In the context of the epic she is dangerous because her humiliation, her fury and her goading of her husbands leads to the great war that itself results in massive loss of life. She is dangerous to the elders of the court, who cannot answer her questions about morality. She is dangerous to any man who tries to importune her, who will likely end up dead. She is dangerous to wider society, as she will not keep quiet.

In addition to her independence of spirit, Draupadi is also challenging because she is married to five husbands, the Pandava brothers. This comes about in the story because the middle brother, the great warrior Arjuna, wins her hand, but when he brings her home he says to his mother, ‘Look what I won today’, and she, without seeing, tells him to share whatever it is with his brothers. Once said, this cannot be taken back, and so Draupadi marries all five of the brothers. Broader justifications that speak to past lives and the activities of gods serve to assure both other characters and us – the audience – that this is all perfectly fine.

Despite these narrative justifications, Draupadi’s polyandry was clearly seen as dangerous in at least some quarters. Within the epic she is called a whore because of her multiple husbands. Her marriage to all five brothers confuses the question of whether or not Yudhisthira alone could stake her in the dicing match. Rather than increasing her obligations fivefold, her many husbands increase her power: some of the more endearing episodes involve her sweet-talking her second husband Bhima into doing things for her that her first husband Yudhisthira would likely not approve.

Draupadi’s polyandry was certainly considered dangerous by the Buddhist and Jain traditions that were growing in popularity around the beginning of the Common Era. An old Buddhist story explains that Draupadi was the epitome of a lustful woman, who even cheated on her five handsome husbands with a hunchbacked dwarf. Jain stories recount the evil deeds she is said to have performed in the past that led to her suffering as well as her polyandry. For both religious movements, Draupadi’s popularity had to be countered by stories that painted her as being firmly in the wrong.

As well as being considered dangerous within the epic, and within the society of the time of the epic’s composition, Draupadi remains a dangerous role model for Hindu women. Her independence, her willingness to berate her husbands, her elders and even God, her fury and fire, all make her a rather unlikely exemplary woman. Yet she is undeniably the heroine of the Mahabharata, and is often held up as an example of a pure woman and wife. She is worshipped as a goddess, and she is included in the mantra listing five pure women that is chanted regularly by Hindus.

Alongside Draupadi in this list is a more straightforward Hindu heroine, Sita, wife of Rama. In the Ramayana, the other major Hindu epic, composed in a similar period to the Mahabharata, Sita also suffers greatly, being abducted by a demon and then rejected by Rama on the grounds that she has lived in another man’s house. She has to undergo a trial by fire to prove her purity and is nonetheless later exiled and has to give birth to her twin sons in a forest hermitage. This suffering is despite there being no doubt in the narrative that she is completely pure. Unlike Draupadi, Sita is a submissive, devoted and virtuous wife, who never challenges the way she is treated by Rama, at least not in the classical Sanskrit version. Rama is held up as the ideal man, a perfectly just king, and a descent of the god Vishnu, and thus beyond blame despite the suffering he causes his wife.

Sita has often been held up as an exemplary Hindu wife. However, many Indians have challenged this and the associated idea that submission to one’s husband, whatever he might do to you, is the ideal way to be a good wife. An Indian lawyer even recently tried to sue Rama for his mistreatment of Sita, though he was unsuccessful ). Sita Sings the Blues, a fun cartoon freely available online, is but one in a long line of feminist versions of the Ramayana to emerge in recent years.

While feminist retellings of the Ramayana are worthwhile, Hindus need only turn to their other ancient epic poem for an alternative female role-model. Draupadi, acknowledged as a pure and virtuous woman despite her rather fiery nature, provides a very different – and, some would say, dangerous – example of wifehood. Her popularity endures, as evidenced by the viewing figures for the recent Hindi TV series of the Mahabharat on Star Plus, and their spin-off film about Draupadi.

Draupadi is thus a dangerous woman both within the Mahabharata storyline and outside the text, in the broader context of Indian portrayals of women and wives. She provides a helpful contrast to the submissive Sita of the Ramayana, and her unusual polyandry (in a narrative universe in which having several wives was normal) gives her an unlikely independence even as it leads to criticism and challenge from disapproving others. More than anything else, her determination and fiery energy inspire women to challenge injustice and demand fair treatment from their husbands.

As Papia Sengupta wrote in her blog on divorce in India, although Draupadi is over two thousand years old, she is still relevant to debates over women’s rights in India. In Sengupta’s divorce hearing the magistrate used Draupadi as an example of a woman whose independence and outspoken nature led to disaster (the great war). However, the Mahabharata repeatedly explains that the war was – in cosmic terms – a good thing, ordained by the gods and necessary in order to unburden the Earth(-goddess). Draupadi, therefore, brings about cosmic good.

Draupadi’s challenging words and actions are a danger to patriarchy, a danger to societies that would present submission and silence as feminine ideals. She should, for that reason, be celebrated.