Thursday, January 10, 2013

Share it amongst yourselves!

“Share it amongst yourselves!” – A mother orders her five sons; with least realization, that this order would change the course of history of an entire nation. Along with history, this would also change the perception and mindset of people (especially men) towards women over generations and for centuries to come. This order, which came from a woman, made a princess a single wife of five warrior brothers. The mother, obviously, is Kunti, the Rakhi Gulzar of Mahabharata, and the five brothers are her five sons (post her marriage to the Kuru King – Pandu). The woman being commoditized by this order is the dark yet radiant beauty, Draupadi, the daughter of the King of Panchal, Dhrupad.

It so happened, that King Dhrupad had organized a swayamvar for his daughter Draupadi and had invited warriors from all over the country to participate (priests were allowed too, though nobody expected them to win in front of the famed warriors of the nation). In this contest, the one who would pierce the eye of the model of a fish rotating on the ceiling by looking into its reflection in the water below would win the Draupadi as his wife. Every man in the arena desired, yet only few could lift the bow, even few could string it but only one could actually hit the target. This “one” was none other than the famed archer, Arjun, the third son of Kunti and the favourite student of Drona. During this period, the Pandav princes were wandering through forests, disguised as priests. They sustained on alms that they gathered during the day.

The epic Mahabharata, which is 99.75% full of serious episodes and heart wrenching descriptions, has very less scope for humour. But poor Pandavs, of course being unaware of that, playfully told their mother that they were back with the day’s alms, alluding at Draupadi. Our dear Rakhi, almost in a reflex, ordered the five brothers to share it amongst themselves. The rest is history! Draupadi had to marry the five brothers and stay with each one for a year; starting with Yudhishthir, and repeating the cycle every five years. The same Draupadi became the queen of Indraprastha and led a life of luxury for years in the Palace of Indraprastha. The same Draupadi gave birth to five sons of the five Pandavs during this period. The same Draupadi was gambled in a treacherous game of dice and was lost. The same Draupadi was pulled with her hair and dragged to the court in one piece. The same Draupadi was disrobed in the court in front of her five husbands and elders of the family.

Vyas surely wanted to explore many aspects of the human character by putting such an intricate character into the epic. Draupadi’s entry is at the time when the seeds of war are being sown in the politics of Hastinapur. Her entry into the Kuru household serves as timely rain that would help the seeds grow into a giant tree that would shower its fruits in the form of blood on the land of Kurukshetra. If it was not for Krishna, one would always consider the Kurukshetra war only a war for Draupadi’s vengeance and not a war for Dharma.

Though some versions say that Draupadi was a “free gift” that emerged from the sacrificial fire, along with her brother, others state that Dhrupad had demanded a daughter too who would marry into the Kuru household and bring it to ashes. (The TV saga queen of modern times, Ekta Kapoor, seems to have taken motivation for her vamps from the King of Panchal!) Whatever may be the true case, Draupadi did marry into the Kuru household and it did turn into ashes. But is she to be blamed for this entirely? I have my doubts.

What would one call a father who offers his daughter in marriage to the best archer, just because, he is the best archer? (This is like declaring all the IIT and IIM pass-outs of the country as the most eligible bachelors and asking only for your CVs.) It was not that Draupadi was forced to marry any winner against her will. She did reject Karna (because he was a charioteer’s son or because Krishna suggested her to do so is for one to wonder) who was a king and gave chance to a Brahmin (…in disguise, Arjun). But does it still justify Dhrupad’s act of making his daughter the trophy of a contest? (The condition was ultimately set by him, not Draupadi). And does the best archer prove to be the best husband? On reading the epic one would rather say, he proves to be the worst!

Note: Though he was defeated by Arjun, Dhrupad developed an extreme liking for his archery skills and designed a contest that, in his opinion, only Arjun could win.

Is sharing such a big virtue? So big, that a woman can be commoditized for its sake? That she can be compared to alms and distributed among brothers equally?

Kunti did put sharing in high regard. Maybe, for her sharing things was equivalent to sharing people (she had shared with Madari her sterile and celibate husband - Pandu and her boons for conceiving sons). But, did this give her the authority to decide on Draupadi’s part whether she was willing to be shared? Agreed, that she ordered out of ignorance and later expressed her repentance on making that statement, but what stopped her from taking her statement back? Was she the Salman Khan of Wanted who could not go back on her commitment? Or maybe, she did not want Draupadi to have a higher moral ground than her in the family - I have conceived sons from four, you conceive from five at least! Maybe, the saas-bahu ego clashes existed even then.

It is suggested that Kunti had seen the liking for Draupadi in the eyes of the five brothers and she feared that her marriage to only Arjun could create rift between the brothers. To avoid a conflict, she ordered them to share Draupadi. (Look sons, here is a wedding cake, cut it into five pieces). Perhaps, this was one of the reasons why even Yudhishthir did not protest against it as one would expect the epitome of righteousness to. The world would see him following his mother’s orders while he would actually be living his biggest fantasy.

Note: It is said that in her previous life, Draupadi had asked a husband who would be righteous, powerful, the best archer, beautiful / handsome and patient. Shiva offered her five husbands, each with one of the above mentioned qualities since one man could not have all these qualities. These, however, appear more as excuses to justify the ironical situation of Draupadi created by Kunti’s order.

As if all that had happened before was less and Draupadi deserved still more. Already wronged by her mother-in-law, it was now her turn to be wronged by her husbands. (MS Word raised an objection when I used husbands instead of husband in this sentence. Perhaps, even Word does not approve of Draupadi’s situation that resulted from Kunti’s statement.)

Duryodhan had invited Yudhishthir to a game of gamble which he could not say no to. Shakuni promised Duryodhan that he would win each and every possession of Yudhishthir as Shakuni could never be defeated in dice. From staking his personal possessions to his chariot, from slaves to mistresses, Yudhishthir finally staked everything he had, including Indraprastha. Hold on, there is still more to come. He then staked his brothers one by one and lost each time. He then staked himself and lost again. And then something happened that would raise a question on Yudhishthir’s integrity and stain his reputation forever. He staked Draupadi. (How right was he in staking Draupadi and how wrong, is a different debate and I should take it sometime later.) 

Duryodhan, who had always envied the successful and loved-by-all Pandavs had also hated Draupadi as she had once called him blind son of a blind father, when he had fallen inside an illusionary water-pond in her palace. It was his day to avenge all the insult and insecurity he had ever gone through because of the Pandavs and their wife. He ordered for Draupadi to be dragged to the court and stripped naked in front of the kings and family. The five husbands, the elders of the family and the noblemen present in the court could do nothing more than gritting their teeth.

Note: In her time of crisis, it was Krishna who came to Draupadi's rescue and covered her with a celestial cloth while Dushasan was disrobing her. 

Was Draupadi actually Yudhishthir’s property that could be gambled away? If yes, did he have any right to put her at stake as he had already lost himself? If no, then how did he have any right to gamble her in the first place? These questions were raised in the court by her and the most venerable sages of that time were dumbfounded when asked to answer this. They still haunt every individual when he reads this epic.

But it does not end here! If for the time being, we assume, Yudhishthir had the right and he actually put Draupadi at stake and lost her (though it was Arjun who won her in the Swayamvar), was what followed after that justified? Just because Draupadi became his slave, did it give Duryodhan the right to offend and humiliate her limitlessly? Did a statement like, “Blind father, blind son!” touch such levels of discourteous behavior that to avenge it Draupadi had to be disrobed in public? If we say yes, then are we not inadvertently celebrating the animal within the men who avenge their unfulfilled love or minor insults through heinous crimes like molestation and rapes? Karna unabashedly blurted in the court that a woman who sleeps with five husbands is a whore and deserves no respect. If this were true, would Karna support Kunti’s similar humiliation too (who was married to Pandu but gave birth two four sons from four different gods?), especially on knowing that she was his mother? Does knowledge of somebody’s personal life (howsoever screwed it is) give one the right to violate the already unfortunate’s fundamental rights? I see it as an episode where Draupadi was wronged not only by her husbands, but also by her in-laws, uncles, the entire Kshatriya community; in fact, the entire society.

Note: Karna does repent his decision later and admits that out of over-confidence of the moment and irritation of getting rejected at Draupadi's swayamvar, he had misbehaved. But the damage had been done, and Draupadi did pay a price for it!

When one reads the story of Draupadi, one is indeed filled with surprise, concern and sympathy for her. Post the public humiliation episode, she spends thirteen years in exile longing for revenge. After the war, Bheem does avenge her humiliation but this comes at a loss her five sons and million others.

One wonders why a woman, who was born a princess, was immaculately beautiful and followed the orders of her elders religiously suffered this terrible fate. Was it her unparalleled sensuality that created troubles for her time and again? Did Vyas want to tell us that the desirable qualities of pulchritude if possessed in excess can also go against us? Did he want to direct our attention towards the deterioration of women's status in the society and that it happens not only because men dominate but also because the older women inadvertently create situations that females of future generations have to pay for (like Kunti creates for Draupadi)? Or did he just want us to realize that even the best of people might suffer the worst things for no fault of theirs? 

Did he want to bring to light the coward reticence of our so-called society that sets huge ideals but does little for the helpless at the hour of need? Had Draupadi not been a shared wife, would her fate have been different? If yes, then does this not mean that the evil Duryodhan inside every criminal only seeks an excuse to validate his howsoever ghastly actions against women? These are again some questions that Mahabharata poses with no clear answers. One can just wonder and introspect. But one thing is pretty well-known and I am sure Asaram would agree with it. At the time of getting disrobed, Draupadi did address Dushasan as her brother-in-law. He still went ahead. And he went ahead unashamedly!

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