Is Draupadi Rarely Referenced?
After failing to show how Sita’s abduction by Ravana and her abandonment by Rama qualify as “rape” and/or “sexual assault,” Nilanjana Roy turns to Draupadi whom she characterizes as follows:
Draupadi’s story is rarely referenced, though it is powerfully told in the Mahabharata. Draupadi’s reaction, after Krishna rescues her from Dushasana’s assault while her husbands and clan elders sit by in passive silence, is not meek gratitude. She berates the men for their complicity and their refusal to defend her; instead of the shame visited on women who have been sexually assaulted, she expresses a fierce, searing anger.
She will wear her hair loose, she says, as a reminder of the insult; she does not see herself and her body as the property of the clan, least of all as the property of the husband, Yudhisthira, who has gambled her away to the Kauravas. She demands justice and is prepared to call down a war that destroys the clan in order to receive her due. It is no wonder, perhaps, that those sections of conservative India who will cite Sita’s “transgression” – her crossing of the Lakshman rekha – as the reason for women’s rape will not speak of Draupadi. Panchali, with her five husbands, her proud sense of ownership over her own body and her quest for vengeance, represents everything about women that terrifies a certain kind of Indian, who prefer to be more selective about the myths they wish to follow.
A near-accurate characterization but one that’s nonetheless arrived at and interpreted by wearing feminism-tinted glasses. But before we examine that, let’s see how Nilanjana yet again makes assumptions on our behalf when she claims that “Draupadi’s story is rarely referenced.” Let’s begin with a famous verse:
Ahalya Draupadi Sita,Tara Mandodari tatha l
Pancha kanya smarenityam, maha pataka nashanam ll
Meditating upon the names of the five holiest women,
Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita, Tara and Mandodari
Verily destroys the greatest of sins
This celebrated verse is invoked everyday, even today in rituals like worship and marriage, and names these five women as ideals of womanhood. Notice that Draupadi’s name is also included in this list. From this verse up to hundreds of renderings of the Mahabharata, the story of Draupadi—in Nilanjana’s narrow sense of viewing just one character in a vast epic—continues to be told and retold. If only Nilanjana entered the hinterlands of India, she’d be treated to hundreds of folk tellings and discourses on “Draupadi’s story” every other day. Also, we wonder why Nilanjana forgot mentioning Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s atrocious The Palace of Illusions, which is a novel-length rendering of the Mahabharata “from the perspective of a woman living in a patriarchal world.” This novel was published in 2008 and continues to be highly acclaimed, shattering Nilanjana’s claims of Draupadi’s story being “rarely referenced.” More recently, Ashok Banker has published his own version of Mahabharata, a fact that again disproves the “rarely referenced” claim of Nilanjana.
First it was Nilanjana’s factual errors about Rajatarangini and Silappadikaram, and now her false claim about Draupadi’s story being hardly referenced. Really, Nilanjana should stop assuming that her readers aren’t well-informed.
Mahabharata’s Draupadi Mangled by Feminism
What is notable in Nilanjana’s passionate description of Draupadi is the stress she lays twice on Draupadi’s “proud sense of ownership over her own body,” an aspect that comes straight from a Feminism textbook. Laying extreme emphasis on the female body is one of the key points in feminist discourse. Of the several strands of feminist discourse that deal with the female body, one happens to read thus: Men seek to control the female body because they are basically intimidated by it. As elaboration, this strand exposits that the roots of this male fear of the female body lies in sexuality, in things like the clitoris, the capacity of women to have multiple orgasms, and the supposed male insecurity that his woman’s child might be born to a different seed, and therefore the need to control it using violence if required. Thus, one of the first steps by which a woman can liberate herself from this male control is to fight—aggressively if necessary—for the ownership of her own body.
And so when you apply this theory to Draupadi, you get the readymade feminist conclusion that Nilanjana Roy gives us: Panchali, with her five husbands, her proud sense of ownership over her own body and her quest for vengeance, represents everything about women that terrifies a certain kind of Indian, who prefer to be more selective about the myths they wish to follow.
This is the reason Draupadi is subjected to extreme heroine-worship in feminist circles. Her “story” renders itself malleable to feminist theories. Additionally, unlike Sita, feminists like Nilanjana don’t need to resort to falsifying and misinterpreting the Mahabharata. Yet, despite relatively sticking to the truth, they are compelled to force-fit the story to the Theory. Nothing in the Mahabharata—or “Draupadi’s story” if you will—gives you things like the ownership of body, and certain kinds of terrified men.
Now this creates a slight problem. That same Indian who is supposedly terrified by Draupadi also deeply believes in that aforementioned verse about Tara, Draupadi, Mandodari, et al. That same Indian also worships Durga and Kali who are a billion times more terrifying than Draupadi and who never called a figure like Krishna for help. Kali doesn’t merely exhibit a “proud sense of ownership over her own body” but goes a step further: she tramples over and places one foot over the chest of her own husband, Shiva. Does this terrify and prevent those certain men from worshipping Kali?
It’s also interesting how in her zest of heroine-worshipping Draupadi, Nilanjana Roy completely glosses over the role played by various men in protecting Draupadi’s honour. Indeed, because it’s impossible to ignore the fact, Nilanjana rewards Krishna with the word “rescues.” But not a word about Bhima’s terrible oath—which he redeemed—in that selfsame assembly where Draupadi was humiliated. Not a word about how Krishna throughout the epic consoles and assures Draupadi that he will help hasten her revenge against the Kauravas. Not a word also, about how Bhima and Arjuna humiliate Jayadratha who abducts her. Not a word again about Bhima who throws caution to the wind and pounds Keechaka to death because he coveted Draupadi.
Based on this, can we reasonably conclude that Nilanjana is also guilty of committing the same error she accuses a “certain kind of men" of committing? Of preferring “to be more selective about the myths they wish to follow?”
But that’s part of the tradition. From the time of the ritual disrobing of Draupadi in Mahabharata, many men have participated in such public stripping of a woman, forming a tight circle around her, as they have cheered, jeered and leered. Most men who should have stepped in to stop have turned their eyes away, expressing their inability to do anything, leaving Draupadi to the mercy of divine powers. And all that Krishna can do is to keep adding yards to her never-ending sari, prolonging the humiliation.
The same theme: episodes of rape in India. The same skullduggery employed to trace the root cause of incidents of rape in India: Indian men rape women because they get their lessons from their epics. Of course, the content of Salil and Nilanjana’s piece is different but that’s precisely the point: the conclusion has already been arrived at in both cases.
Continued in Part 3