You can find the Ramayana text in the Indian houses, but rarely the Mahabharata, and perhaps rightly so. Although it is liable to induce conflict just by the propagation of ideas inherent in it, the fact that the text focuses on deep social issues that people would rather ignore than address cannot be denied.
Take, for instance, one of the most critical scenes of Draupadi’s disrobing. Here, I find it crucial to mention that Draupadi (the daughter of Drupad, king of Panchala) was also named Krishnaa because of her dark complexion. However, in cinematic adaptations, she is often portrayed as highly fair and beautiful.
While Mahabharata is considered a saga of hatred, bloodshed, and war, it is also a poignant reminder of the injustices meted out on Draupadi throughout the saga.
The pivotal movement in Mahabharata is, undoubtedly, the game of dice – arranged by Prince Duryodhana after having been rendered humiliated at the Pandavas’ palace of illusions. Compelled by moral obligation, though unwilling, Yudhisthira concedes to gambling and, one by one loses all his possessions to the deceitful Shakuni. In the end, he stakes Draupadi and loses her too.
When Pratikamin is sent to bring Draupadi to the court, she refuses to go. To Pratikamin, she first says, “What prince is there who playeth staking his wife? The king was certainly intoxicated with dice,” and after knowing what had transpired, questions the legality of the right of Yudhisthira to place her at stake and whether or not he had lost himself first? To Draupadi’s question, there is no response from the king or the elders.
Following the riotous silence in the court, the evil Duryodhana orders his brother Dushasana to seize Draupadi. Distressed, Draupadi runs away from him, and he, ‘roaring in anger, ’ runs after her, taking her by her locks. The waves sprinkled with water sanctified with mantras in the great Rajasuya sacrifice were being forcibly seized, disregarding the prowess of the Pandavas.
Though she had five husbands and, in consequence, five protectors, Draupadi is dragged to the court by Dushasana, who was making her tremble like ‘the banana plant in a storm.’ None of her husbands rescued her when she looked helplessly at them. Then, to the horror of everybody present, Duryodhana orders Dushasana to disrobe Draupadi.
Bhimasena tried to protest, but he was bound by ties of virtue and the reverence that is due to the eldest brother. He pronounces that had the ‘high-souled king Yudhishthira the just’ not been his brother and his lord, he would have never forgiven Kauravas for this misconduct and that Yudhishthira was, after all, ‘the lord of all our religious and ascetic merits, the lord of even our lives.’
Upon realizing that her husbands were unable and unwilling to come to her rescue, Draupadi prayed to Krishna to protect her. Krishna answered her prayer and brought about a miracle that shocked everyone in the court. As Dushasana kept pulling her sari, it got extended and saved Draupadi from being stripped naked.
Oblivious of her surroundings, Draupadi continued to pray to Krishna, a mixture of anger and humiliation gnawing on her. On the other hand, Dushasana, exhausted by the vain pursuit, gave up his effort and fell to the ground. This way, Krishna protected Draupadi from being humiliated in front of the entire congregation of elders.
Feminist scholars have highlighted the gendered power dynamics and how the construction of feminine honor and purity have been tied to a woman’s body. Violating the female body (here, through public stripping) not only signifies a loss of recognition of the individual but also of the family or clan to which she belongs.
In Mahabharata, too, Draupadi's disrobing was a deliberate act of humiliation and subjugation by the Kauravas towards the Pandavas, intended to assert their power and control over them. The kings that were there, on hearing Vidura’s advice, answered not a word, yet Karna alone spoke unto Dussasana, telling him, “Take away this serving-woman Krishna into the inner apartments.”
Thereupon, Dussasana began to drag before all the spectators the helpless and modest Draupadi, trembling and crying piteously unto the Pandavas, her lords, and lamenting the despicable treatment she had been subjected to:
“What can be more distressing to me, that though high-born and chaste, I should be compelled to enter this public court? Where is that virtue for which these kings were noted? It had been heard that the kings of ancient days never brought their wedded wives into the public court.”
Draupadi’s question echoes in the ears of the nobility in the assembly. Her words are not just a plea of a humiliated and helpless woman whose integrity has been put at stake but also a challenge to the knowledge of right and wrong of the kings and a question of the protection of those who find themselves unprotected in such a system.
The incident is perhaps more relevant in today’s times than it was when the text was written. In India, heinous crimes continue against women while the onlookers remain silent amid cruelty.
A magical force cannot be expected to save all these victims from being subjected to dishonor; instead, it is the dying humanity that has to be awakened- to make this world a bearable, if not perfectly comfortable, place for the women of our society.
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