Characters from cult texts like epics often become stereotypes to be admired, looked up to and followed. Draupadi from ‘The Mahabharata’ and Sita of ‘The Ramayana’ are no doubt model women who are discussed and reinterpreted in the context of the characters of modern Indian women. Looking at these women within the hierarchies of the aristocratic Indian society, it is very interesting to note how they would emerge as thinkers-a role always denied to them. At a time when the male voice was predominant, a woman’s opinion was seen as an act of transgression of her prescribed gender role. However, these two women do play very important roles to shape the politics and culture of the texts. In this article I would like to talk about Draupadi and the different ways she has been portrayed by women writers in recent times.
When Draupadi emerges out of the divine fire along with her brother, as Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni recounts in ‘The Palace of Illusions’, the king was unwilling to accept her and held out his hands “for my (her) brother alone”. This indicates her consciousness of her marginal identity within the patriarchal construct from the very beginning. As a consequence, everytime Dhai ma narrates her past, she wants to recreate an independent space where she is seen as the “Offspring of Vengeance, or the Unexpected One” as opposed to the generic “Girl Who Wasn’t Invited.” Down the ages whenever names like Draupadi, Vaidehi, Panchali, Yajnaseni have cropped up in popular imagination, it appeared that the woman’s soul craved for an identity distinct from the ones thrust upon her in relation to the name of her father, her clan and the indigenous male population that she was always identified as a part of. As the girl who was prophesied to change “the course of history” she demanded a “more heroic name”. . In Shaoli Mitra’s ‘Nathabati Anathbat’ there is a constant use of the refrain- “Married to valiant lords,/ Yet none a protector,/ Such is the fate of/ Drupad’s darling daughter” This device is used more as a sharp tool of criticism against the ‘ not-so-darling’ daughter of Drupad. She also calls her “quite peerless” implying her profound loneliness and otherisation that she was made to suffer despite being “Drupad’s cherished daughter, beloved princess”.
King Drupad gazes at his beautiful daughter and plans the Swayamvar in such a way that the Pandavs, especially Arjun are able to hit the target and win her as a trophy wife. The entire act of the kings’ gawking at her open mouthed and the reference to the older kings whose “appetite hasn’t ebbed” is extremely unsettling and demeaning for a woman that too of divine and royal origin. The descriptions of the lords who would “ come, conquer, slip on the garland, grab the bride and drag her off with him” shows their inhuman attitude towards Draupadi which reduces her to an adorned commodity ready to be sold.
In ‘The Palace of Illusions’ Karna is seen in the periphery of the Kshatriya bloodline and was denied to compete in the Swayamvar of Draupadi. Her desire for Karna- a transgression as per societal sanctity of the marriage laws- is a device in itself to question the sexist values that nurture the epic. She claims to have never been in love with any of the Pandavs, but rather yearned for Karna. She comes across as a dissident figure when she voices her high-browed opinion about marrying a low-caste, exhibiting immense strength of character in rejecting the man she was already in love with. In Irawati Karve’s ‘Yuganta’, Draupadi is merely the pawn for matrimonial alliance since the Pandavs with Arjun’s success not only ‘won’ a beautiful wife but also powerful allies. It gave them the rightful status of having a wife and a kingdom-codes that honour their Kshatriya identity and manhood.
Versions of Draupadi’s disrobing episode in popular imagination have been structured and restructured since its inception in various texts. In Nathabati Anathbat, Saoli Mitra lashes out at the hypocrisy of Yudhisthir and the entire glorified concept of unimpeachable honour and honesty associated with the Dharmaraj, when he does not refuse to participate in a dice-game that the Hindu scriptures call indecent. A woman’s voice however is always stifled in a male dominated court. So even when she logically infers that since Dharmaraj staked her after he himself had lost everything even himself, it is actually ineffectual, so that is not powerful enough to save her the humiliation. The questions that often come up in relation to Draupadi’s disrobing episode in these two texts have a similar epicentre- “Should he have staked those pawns?” Saoli Mitra critically remarks that at times the wise and the learned keep mum while the weak are tortured- “They too have been robbed of speech!” Draupadi is seen in a single piece of cloth and menstruating and is visioned as an object of lust by the entire male community Divakaruni’s Draupadi when dragged to court focuses her attention on grandfather Bheesma, critiquing the preposterousness of such a heinous act about to take place in his presence without any kind of protest from him. Karna’s unethical silence disturbs his image in her mind. Yet she chooses her dignity over prescribed norms of sexual sanctity and refuses to fall on her knees and beg for mercy. Draupadi infers that it is they and not her who “should be ashamed for shattering the bounds of decency.” Later on, she reflects that her husbands loved her but they loved their honour more and would retaliate only for the sake of heroic fame.
Thus these three texts, with their different rendering of Draupadi, helps to question the patriarchal values of the original epic. With growing awareness of women’s independence in society, such stereotypical characters need to be read and understood in a different light.