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World of Mahabharata is stacked against women, today things aren't much different

Controversial American Indologist Audrey Truschke, associate professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University, Newark, in a detailed essay, “The living Mahabharata”, points to how “immorality, sexism, politics, war” in the “polychromatic Indian epic pulses with relevance to the present day”. 
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Author of “Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court” (2016), “Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King” (2017) and “The Language of History: Sanskrit Narratives of Indo-Muslim Rule” (forthcoming, 2021), the essay has been published in Aeon, a not-for profit with offices in London, Melbourne and New York.

An excerpt:

The Mahabharata condemns many of the appalling things it depicts, but one area where its response is more tepid concerns the treatment meted out to women. The story of Draupadi, the leading Pandava heroine, is the most well-known. Before the great war, her husband Yudhishthira gambles her away in a dice game, and Draupadi’s new owners, the Kauravas, strip and publicly assault her at their court. The Mahabharata condemns this event, but Draupadi’s notorious sharp tongue also undercuts the empathy many might have had for her.
After she is won at dice, Draupadi argues with her captors. First, she speaks up privately, from her quarters of the palace. Then, after being dragged into the Kauravas’ public audience hall, traditionally a male space, she advocates openly about how the situation is ‘a savage injustice’ (adharmam ugraṃ) that implicates all the elders present. Her self-assertion in a hall of men works. She convinces Dhritarashtra, the Kaurava king, to release her and eventually the rest of her family. But in a world favouring demure women, Draupadi’s willingness to speak about her suffering means that she has always carried a reputation as a shrew and a troublemaker.
Draupadi entered the Pandava family when Arjuna won her in a self-choice ceremony. In such ceremonies, the name notwithstanding, the woman is given as the prize to the victor of a contest. However, Draupadi ends up with five husbands, when Arjuna’s mother tells him – without looking over her shoulder to see that she is speaking about a female trophy rather than an inanimate one – to split his prize with his brothers. To make her words true, all five Pandavas marry Draupadi.
Nobody ever asks Draupadi if she wanted polyandry, and the question has rarely interested readers. However, the Mahabharata offers further justifications for this unusual arrangement that blame Draupadi. For instance, in a prior life, Draupadi had asked for a husband with five qualities; unable to find a man who had all of them, Shiva gave her five husbands. She should not have asked for so much.
Draupadi has never been considered a role model in mainstream Indian cultures. Some later Sanskrit and vernacular works mock her. Even today, a refrain at Hindu weddings is that the bride ought to be like Sita, the heroine of the Ramayana. Nobody ever says that a bride should be like Draupadi, unless the goal is to curse the newlywed.
Audrey Truschke
In the Mahabharata, kidnapping is also an acceptable way to compel a woman to marry. For instance, Arjuna falls in love at first sight (or perhaps in lust) with Subhadra but, unsure whether she would accept him, he abducts her. This story has been cleaned up in some modern retellings – such as the TV serial from Doordarshan (one of India’s largest public service broadcasters) – which tend to water down misogyny.
The world of the Mahabharata is stacked against women. Our world today looks distinct in its details, but some basic principles are not much different. For example, more than one person has compared Draupadi’s plight with that of ‘Nirbhaya’, the name given to the young woman mortally gang-raped in Delhi in 2012. Nirbhaya (meaning ‘fearless’) resisted her attackers, and one of the rapists later said that this resistance prompted him and his fellow assaulters to be more brutal than they would have been otherwise. Two millennia later, the corrupt ‘moral’ remains: she should not have objected to unjust treatment.

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