Monday, April 26, 2010

Draupadi, the undaunted spirit!

I don't think I've given so much thought to The Mahabharata after I outgrew the fascination for Nitish Bharadwaj who played Lord Krishna in that tele-serial.

I always liked The Ramayana though. Or at least as a child when I heard the stories of Rama, it was always with an admiration that I looked up to the prince-God who was such an obedient son, an ideal husband and a very nice brother. I even remember an ad (was it a contraceptive ad, I can't recollect) where the to-be-bride is blessed by elderly women to have a husband who is like Ram, who has a brother like Lakshman and mother like Kaushalya (with lyrics something to this effect Jiske ho Lakshman se bhai jiski Kaushalya si mai...)

But now, almost a couple of decades later, I started looking at The Mahabharata in a different perspective. For no specific rhyme or reason! And the first thing that caught my attention is the etching of the female characters, the prominent ones especially.

A hint at the idea of equality - however subtle it might be - is another concept that I couldn't miss in my not-so-thorough examination. Not once did I feel that the character of Draupadi was treated any different from the character of Krishna. I almost felt like the author said it in so many words that if Krishna can have more than one wives, so can Draupadi. Now that's what I call equality.

Of course, the subtlety or the cover-up is more for the sake of unwilling, grudging, unapproving readers who're rather averse and intolerant towards the idea of a woman having more than one husband. So, I don't think we can blame the author for blaming it on the mother-in-law (but of course!!!) who asks her sons to divide whatever they got equally among themselves. But still, at one level, the Maharshi has to give up the pretense and try to show Draupadi in a good light, and prove her to be as much a pativrata as Gandhari (who chooses to remain blindfolded for the sake of her blind husband). Especially in the episode with Keechaka in the Virata Parva.

At one point, I even wondered if Gandhari would have been better off not being blindfolded so she could give her husband good advice and guide him in the right direction instead of the routine "following in husband-God's footsteps". But I'm not questioning Gandhari's convictions here. It's Draupadi that I sympathize with more (and often pity too). To me, the biggest condemnation of her character stems from the fact that no so-called 'sane' couple would name their daughter Draupadi or Panchali. Beats me totally!

I strongly believe that despite some story about Draupadi's previous birth justifying her marriage to five men, her character had never been properly understood or absolved. Supposedly, Draupadi in her previous birth wishes to marry Lord Shiva but ends up committing suicide as Shiva says her wish cannot be fulfilled in this birth. But in her desperation to get her wish granted, she asks for 'pati pati pati pati pati' five times in a row when God, overjoyed with her severe penance, appears in front of her. Her boon is granted, but she'd have to be re-born as Draupadi. I don't remember where and when I read the story but I found it utterly ridiculous when I realized, with shock, the attempt to attribute chastity to a woman with five husbands!

I partly understand Draupadi's plight, her sense of justice, convictions, confusion, struggle. I admire her fight to prove herself in a male-dominated world... and also sympathize with her character totally but...

BUT... call it double standards or whatever, I don't think even I'd dare to think of naming my daughter after her, or rechristen myself Draupadi!! Sorry Mrs Panchali but I can do only so much as writing a blog post about you, and pay you a literal literary tribute, BUT nothing more! Thank you very much!

This post is dedicated to the undaunted and indefatigable spirit of Draupadi aka Panchali who has endured more s*%# than Sita aka Janaki, the pativrata ...

4 comments:

the works of my mind said...

Good one!! I completely agree with you. What I fail to understand is that why God ( lord shiva in this case) who is omnipresent and omnipotent fails to understand that Draupadi said pati five times only out of frustration and not because she wanted as many husbands. My doubt is , if god cannot understand us , then who will or who can.

Usha said...

lol, washing your hands off with a post, eh? That won't do. We need to fight for the wrongs done to Draupadi and Sita. BTW, Draupadi used to be a rather popular name among Sindhis. I used to know more than one woman with that name. I'd never name my child after either of them cos they are the most wronged women and the most glorified victims in our culture!Also, I think the crazy Shiva tale must've been introduced to you through the ubiquitous Amar Chitra Katha.

memories said...

@the works: I totally agree with you on god not understanding us... though I'm not really a feminist (per the feminist rules), the general opinion I hear is that 'God is a man too'. On a serious note, quite a few men I know understand women better than the women themselves do :)
@Usha: There you go... must be Amar Chitra Katha then!! wronged and glorified victims, eh? but I agree with you about naming daughters after Sita as well though many ppl seem to think otherwise.

the_unexamined_life said...

polyandry is a well known form of human marriage and its traces or 'social fossils' can be found in almost all human societies. Within 20th century South Asia it has been reported from Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, Sri Lanka, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Sikkim, Uttaranchal, Himachal, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu. There are 19th century evidences for its presence in what is today Punjab, Haryana, Afghanistan, Sindh. Apart from that it has been reported from China, Mongolia, Central Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.

So the evidence of polyandry in Mahabharata is merely the recording of what must have been a very common practice at that time. It has taken over two millennia of embarrassed self-censorship to remove other examples from our oral history, aka mythology.

Here are some random articles on polyandry which i found with google 1. http://www.lankalibrary.com/rit/ekage.htm

2. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/ch02.htm

3. http://www.jstor.org/pss/2740108

Finally, you should read this book, Polyandry in Ancient India where the author, Sarva Daman Singh argues well the point, "Protestations of disapproval notwithstanding, polyandry is a fact of life in the Mahabharata. That both Brahmanas and Ksatriyas practice it, remains incontrovertible".

This collection of articles on polyandry is not half as good (or rigorous) but still gives an idea of the issue in present day India.