Skip to main content

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”. 
***
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.

Comments

TRENDING

When phone tapping rumours were afloat in Gujarat among BJP leaders, IAS babus

Gordhan Zadaphia By Rajiv Shah While alerts were coming in over the last few days about a series of articles on how phones of “journalists, ministers, activists” may have been used to spy on them with the help of an Israeli project, Pegasus, finally, when I got up on Monday morning, I saw a Times of India story quoting (imagine!, we never used to do this, did just a followup in case we missed a story) the Wire, a top news portal on this providing some details, along with government reaction.

Gandhi Ashram 'redevelopment': Whither well-known Gandhi experts, Gandhians?

Sudarshan Iyengar, Ramchandra Guha Rehabilitating about 200 families, mostly Dalits, living in the Gandhi Ashram premises by offering them Rs 60 lakh in order to implement a Rs 1,200 crore project called Gandhi Ashram Memorial and Precinct Development Project reportedly to bring the Ashram into its "original shape" as Gandhi established appears to me strange, to say the least.

Gandhi Ashram eviction: Finally historian Guha speaks out; but ageing trustees are silent

By Rajiv Shah Finally, at least one expert, top historian Ramachandra Guha, has spoken out on eviction of 200 families living in the Gandhi Ashram premises. Last week, I received an email alert from a veteran academic, Ashoke Chatterjee, former director, National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, which happens to be one of the most prestigious academic institutes of India based, informing me about it. NID is one of the several top institutes founded when Jawaharlal Nehru was India’s Prime Minister.

Will Vaishnaw, close to Modi since Vajpayee days, ever be turnaround man for Railways?

By Rajiv Shah Ever since Ashwini Vaishnaw was appointed as railway minister, I was curious to know who he was and how did he come closer to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and, most important, when. Hence, I decided to talk with some Sachivalaya officials in Gujarat in order to find out if there was, if any, Gujarat (or Modi) connection.

Non-entity 6 yrs ago, Indian state turned Fr Stan into world class human rights defender

Jharkhand's Adivasi women  By Rajiv Shah A lot is being written on Father Stan Swamy, a Jesuit priest who is known more for his work for tribal rights in Jharkhand. His death at the age of 84, even when he was an under trial prisoner for his alleged involvement in the Bhima Koregaon violence three years go, has, not without reason, evoked sharp reaction, not just in India but across the world.

Home Ministry data vs Health Ministry data! Gujarat's poor sex ratio at birth data

Home minister Amit Shah, health minister Harsh Vardhan By Rajiv Shah Don’t India’s top ministries – of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) and of Home Affairs (MoHA) – tally data before releasing them? It would seem so… A few days back, I did a story in Counterview , based on an MoHA report, stating that Gujarat has the lowest sex rate at birth (SRB) at 901 girls as against 1000 births, followed by Assam (903), Madhya Pradesh (905) and Jammu & Kashmir (909), raising valid apprehensions that widescale female foeticide may be prevalent in India’s “model” State.

July 1: Observing communal harmony day in Ahmedabad, a highly segregated city

Activists at Vasant-Rajab memorial on July 1 By Rajiv Shah Celebrated as Communal Harmony Day in Ahmedabad, July 1, 2021 is remembered for the sacrifice of two friends, Vasant Rao Hegishte and Rajab Ali Lakhani, laid down their lives for the cause of communal harmony on the July 1, 1946 in the city. A memorial stands in their memory in Khandni Sheri, Jamalpur, Ahmedabad.

Gujarat cadre woman IAS official who objected to Modi remark on sleeveless blouse

By Rajiv Shah Two days back, a veteran journalist based in Patna, previously with the Times of India, Ahmedabad, phoned me up to inform me that he had a sad news: Swarnakanta Varma, a retired Gujarat cadre IAS bureaucrat, who was acting chief secretary on the dastardly Godhra train burning day, February 27, 2002, which triggered one of the worst ever communal riots in Gujarat, has passed away due to Covid. “I have been informed about this from a friend in Jaipur, where she breathed her last”, Law Kumar Mishra said.

Positive side of Vaishnaw? Ex-official insists: Give him loss making BSNL, Air India

By Rajiv Shah A senior chartered accountant, whom I have known intimately (I am not naming him, as I don’t have his permission), has forwarded me an Indian Express (IE) story (July 18), “Ashwini Vaishnaw: The man in the chair”, which, he says, “contradicts” the blog (July 17), "Will Vaishnaw, close to Modi since Vajpayee days, ever be turnaround man for Railways?" I had written a day earlier and forwarded it to many of my friends.

Muslim law board knows not: Yoga's only link with Hinduism is it evolved in India

A well-known policy analyst, who has worked as adviser to the Union finance ministry, Mohan Guruswamy, has taken strong exception to the The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), which opposed the celebration of the International Yoga Day, which falls on June 21. In an incisive Facebook post , this is what Guruswamy says: *** The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), the Muslim equivalent of the VHP, has opposed the celebration of the International Yoga day on June 21. It has been so for a few years now. It is utterly misguided, unfortunate and silly. The Board describes Yoga as a religious symbol. It is not. It is just a school of balance focused exercises - pure and simple. Like Tai Chi. They specifically cite the Surya Namaskar as offensive when it is nothing but a common sequence of asanas. Most Hindus revere the Sun as it is the giver of life and sustenance. Because of this some of Hindus set aside a portion of their daily worship for making salutations to the Sun