Friday, 21 March 2014

Epic Women from the Epics

We also invite authors to write guest article for our blog. Below is one of them.

Epic Women from the Epics

Today’s world is changing. Today there are women in the workforce. Yet, we find that they are often limited to, or restricted to certain roles and functions. At home we find that the girl child is making sacrifices for her brothers all the time. In society we find that women are being marginalized – ignored at best, and ill treated at worst.

The human resource is made up of both men and women. Each of them brings a specific set of skills and attributes. In today’s world both are important. As the business challenges become increasingly complex, many skills are becoming more crucial. Of these one of the important skills is the skill of being intuitive – which is actually an amalgam of many other skills.  

Women by nature are intuitive. They are nurturers and are sensitive. They can “sense” many things which men cannot see. They can be effective in avoiding confrontation. They are naturally collaborative.

The Indian psyche is embedded with the presence of the Epics – the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Even the non- believers in the “divinity” have been exposed to the stories and the rituals. Somewhere deep down in every Indian soul there is a little remnant of the mythology – either in the names they carry, or the stories they were told, or the rituals they see and sometimes participate, in the answers they give their counterparts from other countries and faith.

These Epics are to be consumed at different levels. At one level they may be a reflection of society in those times, at another they are an indicator of what should or should not be. At entirely another level, they are symbolic and lend a completely different dimension to our understanding of life.

In the Epics we come across many women characters, each complex and  different. But of them some stand out – for their powerful stance, their crucial roles and the exemplary strength they displayed. In fact, there is even a couplet dedicated to the “Panch Kanya” Five women, whose names if chanted everyday destroy all inauspciousness (the Panch Kanya are – Ahalya, Draupadi, Tara, Seeta and Mandodari.

Each of these women are endowed with special qualities, incredible strength and beauty and are put in extremely trying circumstances. And it is these women to teach us a lot.

Of course the circumstances and trials may be different, yet there is a lesson to be learnt. The reaction to each trial and tribulation in life can be emulated. The emotions are the same, the feelings are similar.  The background varies, but they are all in the background of the same canvas of close relationships.

We may use the example of one powerful woman from the Epic of Mahabharata.

She is the daughter of one of the most powerful kings in Aryavartha – Drupada. She is also called Agni jyotsna (the light of the fire) or Krsnaa Draupadi (the dark complexioned one) or Yajnaseni (born of the sacred fire). She later is known as Sairendri (the versatile maid servant - hairstylist).
She is married to not one but five of  the most influential kings in Aryavartha – the Pandavas. Yet she suffers untold miseries and rises above them. An example that birth is an incident, and does not define your future.
Polyandry (one woman with many husbands) was not common in those times. Yet, she is put in circumstances which force her to accept five husbands. There is an interesting story about why this happens. Apparently, in her earlier birth as Nalayani (daughter of Nala and Damayanti) she prayed to Lord Shiva asking for a husband with 14 qualities. Lord Shiva was pleased with her devotion but conceded that it would be difficult to find one husband with all these qualities. When she did not relent, Shiva agreed to grant her the wish in her next lifetime and said that as it was not possible to have all these qualities in one person, she shall have 5 husbands!! (shows that we should be careful in what we aspire for!! She certainly ended up with more than she bargained for!!)
Fiery, feisty, and devoted to her father and later her husbands, she is beautiful and intelligent. She is dark, endowed with enchanting bodily fragrance and rivetingly lovely. She is well versed in the art of war and the court. She is a capable administrator and fine judge of persons. She replaces Kunti as the nave of the Pandava-wheel, and also acts as the axle for the Panchala-Pandava-Yadava chariot.
Marriages had a great role to play later in the war when alliances become necessary and there was complete polarisation of Aryavartha (the entire region of the Asian subcontinent was considered to be Aryavartha – the land of the Aryans – all of who lived by similar tenets of social behaviour, respect for the Vedas and learning etc)
Initially her father (Drupada) wants Krishna to marry his daughter, as he believes that Krishna was a master strategist and could create circumstances to put Draupadi at the top of the royal hegemony. But Krishna refuses the alliance. Draupadi manages to prevent the sourness of this refusal by forging another alliance—of a friendship and brother-sister relationship with Krishna. Krishna is then bound by “dharma” to support the aspirations and growth of Draupadi.
Wholly unconventional she accepts the challenge of having five husbands. Without falling into a rut of self doubt or self pity, she manages to convert even this challenge into a personal triumph, thru her choices.
 She is the instrument of Drupada’s vengeance on the Kauravas, but to it is added her own personal vindication.
Yudhishtira agrees to a game of dice with his cousin – Duryodhana. And contrary to norms at that time, wagers not only property, but himself and his brothers and loses them to Duryodhana. But when the villain is winning, he is on a roll!! He suggests that even Draupadi (their wife) should be wagered and helpless Yudhishtira wagers his (and his brother’s) wife and loses her. What follows after that can be considered a defining moment of the Epic, as well as one of the foundations of the war which follows much later.  
Duryodhana demands that Draupadi should be brought to the court. Dushyasana drags her into court. On being told of her fate, in a situation where any other woman would have collapsed in hysterics, Draupadi displays her immense understanding of the tenets of Dharma and courtly behaviour.
 She questions the upholders of Dharma, whether her husband lost her before or after he wagered himself. If it was after he lost himself as a bet, then he technically could not wager anything else, as he is not an owner anymore. If he wagered his wife before himself, then it was wrong, because he had sworn before the sacred fire that he would protect her from all hardships by putting himself first before trouble. So either way he could not put her as a wager. (apparently even in those times, men considered women to be their “property” which they owned)
The game of dice (a symbolism for gambling) is a vicious game of cunning, deceit, and shame. It can bring no value to anyone – king or ordinary man. And highlighting this aspect within an Epic shows the social responsibility of those times.
Duryodhana, drunk with power and the euphoria of winning, demands that as the Pandavas are now his slaves, they should be dressed accordingly – that is they should not wear any clothing on the upper half of the body. He thought this applies to Draupadi as well and wanted to disrobe her. This aspect displays that in that society apparently slavery was prevalent, and slaves were treated like cattle – with no respect or decorum.
Imagine a woman, inherently strong, who has an influential and powerful father and extraordinarily brave brother, five powerful husbands, but none to protect her – another example, that ultimately, what matters is yourself and your destiny. She prays to Krishna, who blesses her with unending clothing. Of course there are versions of this – the original Epic talks of the intervention of “Dharma” – which could mean either Bhishma, or Vidura, Vikarna, or Sanity. And there is another version that Gandhari (the wife of Dhritarashtra) intervened and prevailed on all to restore Dharma.
Incidentally there is a small story as to why Krishna decided to save Draupadi’s modesty by blessing her with never ending clothing ( why did he not chose to strike the perpetrators dead?)
Apparently, when Krishna slayed Shishupala, his finger began to bleed on handling the Sudarshana Chakra. Immediately, Draupadi tore off a piece of her sari and tied up the wound. Krishna then promised to repay her with protection of each strand of her clothing. It is said that the Raksha Bandhan festival is also associated with this event.
Draupadi was kidnapped by Jayadratha, who she first tries to physically overcome (she is a strong woman), but when that fails, she uses her skills of communication, to strike fear into him – extolling the virtues of her husbands, who would certainly pursue and kill him for kidnapping her. She uses these delaying tactics, describing at length the troubles he would be inviting by kidnapping her. Her eloquent description of the strength of each of her husbands strikes fear into the heart of Jayadratha, who is more than willing to return her to her husbands.
Draupadi’s suffering is almost unimaginable. Though a queen, humiliated in the court of Hastinapura, molested publicly in the court of Virata by Keechaka, asked to “not make a scene” by her husband – Yudhishtira, any lesser mortal would have gone insane. 
To add insult to injury, her husbands want to forgive the perpetrators of the crimes!
But yet, she remains loyal to them, keeps them united, and yet ensures that the spirit of revenge does not die. Her character remains fiery and controlled. She is the uniting and motivating force behind her husbands.
She is a great communicator too. When Krishna is going as a peace negotiator to avoid war, she manages to convey her hurt and sadness. While she does not seek war, she certainly seeks revenge for all the wrongs done to her. She is so skilful in her communication, that an excited Krishna, who is going on a peace mission exclaims:
 “Consider those you disfavour as already dead ! The Himavant hills may move, the earth shatter in a hundred pieces, the  heavens may  collapse; But my promise stands. You will see your enemies killed”
She is astute enough to know when to use the powers of her unrivalled charms and intellect to achieve her ends. She is courteous, and concerned. After the war, she devotedly serves Gandhari even though her sons caused her so much suffering.
Draupadi is also an empathetic mother. After Abhimanyu’s death, she consoled his grieving widow, Uttara, by reminding her of the cause for which Abhimanyu gave his life. She encouraged  Uttara to gather her strength for the sake of her and Abhimanyu’s child, whom she was carrying at the time.  And yet, she herself was mourning – she lost all her 5 sons in the war.
Yet, she is still a human being and a woman. After the war, when the Pandavas begin their journey to Kailas, she is the first one to fall. Bhima asks Yudhishtira why Draupadi, who served all the brothers so well, put up with so many trials and tribulations and the loss of her beloved sons, was the first to die? Yudhistira replies  “Yes, Draupadi was blameless in all that she did, she was very virtous, but yet she was just a little partial in her love to Arjuna, which was her undoing”

Draupadi was a multifaceted personality: she could be fiery and angry when the situation called for it, but she still had a compassionate nature. She encouraged people to face life with the same inner strength that she did.

She was constantly guiding, uniting, communicating and leading the Pandavas on the path of Dharma – Duty.

Truly she was an EPIC woman, who shall continue to be a role model for all womanhood for times immemorial.

Today, when we read the story of Mahabharata we can empathise with Draupadi’s character. We find that women today face the same challenges – working in a “man’s world”, facing bias, both at home and the work place, yet, if we look deep within, we can find the same resilience and strength she displayed.

I am sure most women can identify with and learn from this wonderful character.

By  CA Roopa Venkatesh

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