An Idea Eternal: The Billion Interpretations of Draupadi
Her character was shaped on the anvil of dharma by kings and rishis, executed by lesser men, honed by desire, and cheated by her own
A child, she was born from the womb of fire. A woman, she was a pawn in the larger political sweepstakes of Aryavarta. A wife, she legitimised the idea of polyandry. A queen, she embraced poverty. An empress, she was humiliated beyond belief. An expert in the nuances of ethics, she challenged the son of Dharma.
A mother, she lost all her children. And at the end of a tumultuous journey, all she had was a fall — from grace and a cliff — to a solitary death.
Above all, as one of the most complex and intense characters in India’s greatest epic, the Mahabharata, Draupadi — daughter to the powerful king Drupada, sister to general Dhristhadhymnya, wife to the formidable Pandavas, friend to Lord Krishna — is even today undergoing interpretations and interpolations. The fire she was born to continues to burn. It scorched her, it scalds us, it will continue to singe India. She will attract writers who will judge her. And in the process of judging, they will be judged.
Released late January, Saiswaroopa Iyer’s Draupadi: The Tale of an Empress is the latest among several adventurers who have explored the character over the years. To Iyer, Draupadi symbolises iccha shakti, dignity, poise and inspiration. Earlier, and among the best retellings of Sri Krishna’s life, KM Munshi’s 1962 seven-volume but incomplete Krishnavatara shows her to be a strong yet perplexed woman seeking the world’s best archer as her husband, within palace intrigue and Aryavarta politics. In his 2010 Telugu book, Draupadi, Yarlagadda Lakshmi Prasad explores, among several other things, her sexuality.
In his 2009 The Difficulty of Being Good, Gurcharan Das’s Draupadi, following her humiliation and the subsequent banishment of the Pandavas, engages with the eternal questions of good and evil: “Why be good,” she asks Yudhishthira. In his 1992 layered analysis of the great text, The Lore of the Mahabharata, Amalesh Bhattacharya situates her uniquely: “Damayanti and Sita were like the unvacillating flame of a lamp, while in Draupadi prevailed the forceful fiery flame of sacrifice.” In her 1968 Yuganta, Iravati Karve captures her poignant life: “Two words keep recurring in reference to Draupadi — nathavati anathavat, “having husbands, but like a widow”.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s 2008 masterpiece, The Palace of Illusions, gives us a peek into the intimate world of Draupadi. Moving to the next level, Paramahansa Yogananda, while examining the characters of the Mahabharata from a spiritual window in God Talks with Arjuna, sees Draupadi as the kula kundalini, the force binding the chakras. Elevated to the status of a goddess, there are 408 Draupadi temples in India, notes Alf Hiltebeitel in The Cult of Draupadi.
From a goddess worshipped to a subaltern exploited, we meet an indomitable Draupadi in Mahasweta Devi’s Breast Stories. After several rounds of rape and torture, when the Jharkhand tribal woman ‘Dopdi’, suspected of being a terrorist, finally comes out to meet Burra Sahib Senanayak, she refuses clothes and wears her nakedness as a symbol of defiance, her bloodied body as a weapon. “There isn’t a man here that I should be ashamed of. Draupadi pushes Senanayak with her two mangled breasts, and for the first time Senanayak is afraid to stand before an unarmed target, terribly afraid.” Five millennia earlier, we saw this fright in the blind eyes of King Dhritarashtra after she was disrobed. We saw this fear in the heart of Queen Gandhari, who shuddered for the lives of her sons. We saw this impotence of one of the greatest warriors, Bhishma, who hid behind reciting texts but lost his dharma. We saw the city of Hastinapur tremble with terror. This strength, this dazzling brilliance, this unshakable equanimity in the middle of anger and shame, this fire. This is Draupadi.
She is a body as well as a soul, a character as well as its evolution. She is at ease discussing statecraft with Bhima and Arjuna, as she is holding forth on the craft of managing five husbands with Krishna’s wife Satyabhama. She jealously keeps the other wives of her husbands away, but makes space for Arjuna’s wife Subhadra. She manages her mother-in-law Kunti — experienced in private polyandry — and her husbands in public polyamorous relationships seamlessly. This is Draupadi.
She will continue to be blamed for the destruction of kshatriyas, the cause of the Great War. For Draupadi, beauty was her crime, intelligence her undoing. Today, we see new scenes of the same play being enacted in the lives of some of the most beautiful, the most accomplished, the most powerful women, the same Draupadis. And yet, we see several of them break out of male dominance through grit. This is Draupadi.
Not for Draupadi the predictability of intimacy or dependability of relationships. Even her bed was a serial 12-month sojourn with a new Pandava, who would return once every five years. Howsoever sexually liberating it may sound, this was no orgy; sexual urges were boxed within the confines of dharma. Draupadi’s body kept the five Pandavas together even if her heart was irreversibly mortgaged to Arjuna. Her character was beaten into shape on the anvil of dharma by kings and rishis, executed by lesser men, honed by desire, and cheated by her own. This is Draupadi.
A fire that cannot be extinguished, a character that cannot die, a force that energises as well as destabilises, a woman seeking perfection in the world of men, Draupadi is a journey. She is a river of molten lava, constantly burning new pathways to gender, transcending time, space and societies. She is a character that has not been moulded by the warm-loving hands of a potter but chiselled into shape by the cold-hard knocks of a sculptor.
Whether this strong woman will get redemption is what writers will be compelled to explore. Not one, not hundred, not thousand. There is a Draupadi beating in the hearts of a billion Indians. An idea eternal, this is Draupadi.
Gautam Chikermane is vice-president at Observer Research Foundation and author of Tunnel of Varanavat
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