Saturday 4 May 2013

Can you Compare Today’s Rape Victims to Draupadi?

Can you Compare Today’s Rape Victims to Draupadi?

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 04 May, 2013

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

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In recent times, there has been a tendency in India to invoke the name of Draupadi, the unfortunate heroine from the Hindu epic Mahabharata, in a variety of contexts.  Satirists and cartoonists often liken the nation (India) to Draupadi herself, with politicians stripping her of everything through scams.  Mother India, as Draupadi, beseeches the Prime Minister for help; as Dhritarashtra was in the epic, Manmohan Singh is silent at this injustice.  Others, outraged by the several recent incidences of rapes of women in India, compare the plight of the rape victims to that of Draupadi being disrobed in the assembly during the game of dice.

How valid are these comparisons?  What was the status of women at the time of the Mahabharata?  Was Draupadi really the model of a liberated woman who insisted on getting justice for the wrongs done to her, and succeeded?  And is the fact that women today are unable to get that kind of justice a reflection of a weakening of women’s status in Indian society, as some believe?  Were women better off in the hoary past?

To understand the answers to these questions better, let us look at some particulars of what happened to Draupadi in the Mahabharata.

The Game of Dice

The Game of Dice is an important incident in the epic Mahabharata, in which the Kauravas, jealous of the prosperity of their cousins the Pandavas, invite them to play a game of dice with them in their court at Hastinapura, in the specially-constructed assembly hall.  Shakuni, the uncle of Duryodhana, the eldest Kaurava, who will play the eldest Pandava, Yudhishthira, in the game that follows, is a master at the game.

Yudhishthira is fond of gambling but is not skilled at it.  He recognizes the dangers of playing dice, but out of politeness, cannot decline the invitation.  Yudhishthira’s mortal weakness is that once he starts playing, he cannot stop.  He is a degenerate gambler.
The Kauravas exploit this weakness of Yudhishthira.  He first loses valuables, land, jewels, and all his possessions, but still doesn’t stop playing.  Goaded on by Shakuni, Yudhishthira then gambles away his brothers, one by one, and finally himself.  When he thinks he has lost everything, then Shakuni asks him if he wants to play one last time by gambling something he has not yet gambled – his wife, Draupadi.  The desperate Yudhishthira agrees and loses Draupadi.

Draupadi’s Horror

Drunk with their success, the Kauravas decide to use this opportunity to humiliate the Pandavas.  Duryodhana asks his charioteer to summon Draupadi to the court as a slave of the Kauravas.  She is amazed at the news, and asks a legal question of the assembly: whether, Yudhishthira having lost himself, could stake his wife when he was no longer free.  Duryodhana, in response, asks the charioteer to tell Draupadi to come to the assembly and ask the question herself.  Draupadi refuses, at which point Duryodhana asks his brother Dussasana to bring Draupadi to the assembly, using force if necessary.

Draupadi, on seeing Dussasana approach her, tries to run to the female chambers of Dhritarashtra’s queen Gandhari, but Dussasana drags her by her hair and brings her to the assembly.  In the assembly Draupadi, weeping, asks her question of the elders: whether, having lost himself to Shakuni, Yudhishthira could stake Draupadi.

The Debate in the Assembly

To this, the patriarch Bhishma responds (Ganguli, Sabha Parva, p. 129): “O blessed one, morality is subtle.  I therefore am unable to decide this point that thou has put, beholding that on the one hand one that hath no wealth cannot stake the wealth belonging to others, while on the other hand wives are always under the orders and at the disposal of their lords.  Yudhishthira can abandon the whole world full of wealth, but he will never sacrifice morality.  The son of Pandu hath said, 'I am won.' Therefore, I am unable to decide this matter.  Shakuni hath not his equal among men at dice-play.  The son of Kunti still voluntarily staked with him.  The illustrious Yudhishthira doth not himself regard that Shakuni hath played with him deceitfully.  Therefore, I cannot decide this point.”

This is followed by a protest from Vikarna, one of Duryodhana’s younger brothers, who states his viewpoint that because of Draupadi’s objection that Yudhishthira was no longer a free man when he staked Draupadi, as well as a second point that Draupadi did not belong to Yudhishthira alone, being the common wife of all the brothers, and so could not be staked by Yudhishthira alone.

The matter is finally settled by Karna, who states that since Yudhishthira had lost all his possessions to Shakuni, he had already lost Draupadi, whether or not he staked her explicitly.  He further states that even the clothes on the Pandavas and on Draupadi belong to the Kauravas, and if the Kauravas order it, the Pandavas should remove them.  He asks Dussasana to remove Draupadi’s robes as well.  The Pandavas do not object to any of this, but remove their own upper garments in response.  Dussasana proceeds to remove Draupadi’s single robe in which she is dressed.

What is supposed to have happened, according to the epic, is that as Dussasana tried to remove Draupadi’s robe, new robes kept magically appearing and he was unable to disrobe her because she was praying to Lord Krishna to help and he gave her divine help.  (What actually happened might have been much worse for Draupadi; but we will never know, since history is written by the victors, and the Pandavas, understandably, would not have wanted history to record events that portrayed an indignity to their wife any worse than this.)

Nevertheless, let us take the events as they are recorded, and see what they tell us about the society of those days.

The Status of Women in the Society of the Mahabharata

Note that in all these debates in the assembly, no one (including Draupadi) asks whether a husband has any right to gamble away his wife!  Even the wise Bhishma, who knows the Law (Dharma) better than anyone else, says that “wives are always under the orders and at the disposal of their lords.”  

Draupadi’s own argument is not whether Yudhishthira has any right to stake her, but rather the technical point of whether, having lost himself, he could stake her.  Karna’s argument also appears to have force according to the rules of the day (for no one disputes it) – that if Yudhishthira had lost everything he owned, including himself and his brothers, his wife is automatically lost, being counted as one of his possessions.

Look at poor Draupadi’s plight.  Having been lost by her husband in a game of dice, she had absolutely no legal recourse.  Dussasana, who disrobed her in the assembly, and perhaps worse too, would have been guilty of no crime under the laws of those days, because he was only doing all this with a slave of his, and slaves had no rights.  They belonged to their master, who could do what they pleased with their slaves.  (Remember the abuses meted out to black women during the period of slavery in American history – their owners regularly used them for sex when they wanted it.)

Yudhishthira the Just

The real criminal in this entire episode, and the real reason for all the heartburn and the eventual war in the Mahabharata, is not Duryodhana, Dussasana, or Karna; for they only behaved as a master was allowed to behave with his slaves in those days; but the degenerate gambler husband, Yudhishthira, who doomed his wife to a life of slavery (even if, fortunately, only for a short period) because of his addiction to gambling.  But here is the rub: this act of abandoning his wife to such cruel people is not even considered an offense by the gods of those days. 

In the final chapter of the Mahabharata, the five Pandavas and Draupadi attempt to ascend directly to heaven in human form.  Yudhishthira is the only one who succeeds, the others having fallen and died in the journey as a consequence of their various imperfections; but even he has to spend a sixteenth portion of a day in hell as a penalty for his sins – but the sins do not include abandoning his wife in the game of dice.  The only sin that is counted against Yudhishthira is his having lied on the battlefield about Aswatthama, his preceptor Drona’s son, having died.  

The abandonment of one’s wife is considered to be insignificant, an offense so minor that it pales in comparison with uttering a lie.  In his assembly reply to Draupadi, even Bhishma doesn’t fault Yudhishthira’s morality for staking his wife – instead he praises Yudhishthira for his “morality.”  Abandoning your wife did not affect your moral standing in those days.

Married to Five Men - Willingly?

One should also remember the way Draupadi was married off to the five brothers.  At the swayamvara of Draupadi, it was Arjuna who executed the difficult feat set for the winner who would take Draupadi as a wife.  When they came home, Yudhishthira said to his mother, “Look, mother, what alms we have gotten today!”  And their mother, Kunti, who had not seen Draupadi with the brothers, simply said, “Whatever it is, share it equally among yourselves.”  A casual comment like that, said in ignorance, was treated as an order, and the five brothers decided to wed Draupadi together.  

In the entire discussion that follows with Draupadi’s father, Drupada, not once does anyone ask Draupadi if she has an opinion about the matter – that she was to be shared by five men.  There is an extensive discussion on whether five brothers marrying one woman would be committing a sin, and when Drupada is relieved of that concern, he gives his assent to the wedding.  Whether Draupadi cares about her body being shared is no one’s concern.  

(I should add here that Satya Chaitanya has argued, reasonably convincingly, that Draupadi’s silence during this entire episode is completely at odds with her generally vocal and assertive nature elsewhere in the epic, and suggests that Vyasa whitewashed some portions of the epic to remove content that would have been unacceptable to the society of his times, such as Draupadi’s objections to this arrangement.)

In addition to having to physically compromise herself in this way, poor Draupadi also has to be the butt of offensive taunts, such as the one Karna throws at her in the assembly after she has been gambled away: “The gods have ordained only one husband for one woman.  This Draupadi, however, hath many husbands.  Therefore, certain it is that she is an unchaste woman.  To bring her, therefore, into this assembly attired though she be in one piece of cloth – even to uncover her is not at all an act that may cause surprise.”  Draupadi pays for the foolishness of her husbands who trap her in this unconventional marriage that is not fully accepted even in their society – by men who were therefore duty-bound to protect her – but whose failure to do so is not counted as a sin or a failure in the epic.


So, while it is easy to talk about the gang rape victims in India and compare them to Draupadi, remember that in the age of Draupadi, women had no rights.  They were treated as chattel to be used at their fathers’ and husbands’ whims.  At least, in today’s India, women have some rights, and they don’t belong to their husbands.

Violence occurs today as well against women, but at least it is regarded as a crime.  Even if Dussasana had raped Draupadi in the assembly hall, the nobles assembled in the court wouldn’t have even filed their society’s equivalent of an FIR. 

After all, she was their slave.

But, in the end, though, Draupadi did have the last laugh.  Bhima tore out Dussasana’s heart in the great battle, tore out his arms that had dragged Draupadi by the hair, drank the blood from Dussasana’s still-beating heart, broke Duryodhana’s thighs and killed him. 

Those who insulted Draupadi paid for the insults with their lives.  Draupadi may not have had legal recourse for the insults done to her, but most rape victims today would be delighted if they could get that kind of revenge on the men who raped them.  One could argue that the FIRs they file against their rapists aren’t worth the paper they are written on, and they would any day trade them for a good old eye-for-an-eye, the way Draupadi handed it to Dussasana and Duryodhana.

But then, you need a husband like Bhima.  Any qualified volunteers?


Ganguli, K.M., The Mahabharata – Translated into English Prose from the Original Sanskrit Text, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2002 (Original Publication 1883-1896).  Online at


I would like to thank my wife, Sandhya, for reading a draft of this article and giving valuable comments that, in my estimation, have helped improve this article.


  1. First, wonderfully concluded! The comparative analysis is very convincing and well thought through. A word of concern. If your analysis is taken in part (leaving behind the very apt conclusion), then today's overly enthusiastic modern day intellectuals will use this angle to talk ill about the epics and extend their pseudo intelligence to ridicule our past and our Gods.

    1. Thanks, Koushik!

      Dhananjay has commented on my article as well as your comment, so I am addressing both in my response to his comment - please see that as well!

  2. Kumar, I am somewhat confused by your article. The metaphor of a helpless Draupadi appealing to a moralizing but essentially impotent establishment is a powerful and entirely apt image.

    However, I am not sure if anyone actually makes the argument that this episode shows Draupadi as a liberated woman or that the status of women then was much better than today. If someone did make such a claim, I would first ask them to present arguments why they think this to be the case, instead of going into a rebuttal.

    As you have clearly pointed out, the episode only shows that in that society women had no rights whatsoever, it was perfectly OK not to ask their consent before marrying them or giving them away as property, and that depriving them of such courtesies did not count against you in the big court up there.

    Your conclusion says the Kauravas got what they deserved. That is the factual ending of the story, and is no different from the ending of countless Hindi movies where the bad guys get a similar violent comeuppance. So what is the point? It was not clear to me if such form of punishment is what you were advocating. In any case, it does not say anything about the status of women, only about the criminal justice system.

    Coming to Koushik's comment, he is worried about some of us speaking ill of the epics. Mahabharata is a story, whether factual or fictional, still a story. How can one speak ill of a story? But I can certainly speak ill of the society that it depicts. And I will...Kumar's concluding observations notwithstanding. I do not judge historical individuals by the conventions of modern society, but I certainly would compare old conventions with new conventions, and judge which ones in my view are the superior ones.

    1. Dhananjay: I am trying to establish the validity of the metaphor. On the surface, this is a powerful and apt metaphor. It is certain that the popular image of Draupadi makes people believe this is an appropriate metaphor. While it has pull, I want people to consider whether the metaphor is really appropriate. Let me be more explicit.

      In the Mahabharata, the "establishment," as you put it, consists of Dhritarashtra, Bhishma, Drona, and Kripa - the elders, who are being compared to Manmohan Singh, Sonia, etc. - or if you will, Indian society, the Supreme Court, what you will. One of the IMPORTANT DIFFERENCES I wanted to highlight between modern victims of violence and Draupadi is that in the story of Draupadi, the establishment was REALLY impotent - in other words, there was no legal way they could intervene. What happened was considered to be a foolish mistake by Yudhishthira and nothing more - Draupadi was merely facing the consequences of Yudhishthira's addiction to gambling. On the contrary, in today's world, the establishment is quite capable of taking action; it is simply the will that is not there. The laws are out there clearly stating that what is done to these women victims is a crime (unlike in Draupadi's case) - it is simply the lack of a moral will to act, as in the case of the policemen in Delhi who tried to give Rs. 2000 as a bribe to the parents of that 5-year old girl who was raped so they would not file an FIR. There was so much debate in India about whether to sanction the death penalty for rapists, without a clear realization of where the problem lies. The problem does not lie in inadequate punishment, but in the enforcement of that punishment. What use would a death penalty be if the police station refuses to even file an FIR?

      No, I am not advocating such a form of punishment for today's rapists. I was merely pointing out that in the epic, as in any Hindi movie (as you point out), the ending is calculated (it may have happened that way in reality as well) to bring joy to people who feel for Draupadi. My point is that, as in Hindi movies, you aren't going to have a hero (Bhima in this case) beat up and kill the bad guys in real life. So while things were bad for women in those days, there was a fairytale ending in this epic. In today's reality, there are no fairytale endings. The criminal justice system is broken - in the past, too, you could argue it was broken, except that according to the laws of those days, there was no crime committed against the woman in the first place, because their rights were so limited. So you could argue that viewed within the laws of those days, Bhishma, Drona, and Kripa did nothing wrong in being unresponsive to Draupadi. You cannot say the same thing for Sheila Dixit or Manmohan Singh.

      Continued in next response (character limit)...

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. (continued from previous response to Dhananjay and Koushik):

      And yes, coming to Koushik's comment, and your comment on it: It is a story, yes, but one can comment on the morals exhibited in the story. For instance, many would find fault with the character of Rama in the Ramayana who questioned his wife's Sita's chastity (there are arguments/counter-arguments/interpretations on what that actually meant, but I won't go into that here.) That is a criticism of the behavior of a character in the epic.

      Similarly, one could criticize (and I will) Yudhishthira's behavior in the Mahabharata, of abandoning his wife. In my mind, there is NO EXCUSE for that. You could say that I am speaking ill of Yudhishthira. Maybe that is what Koushik means by speaking ill of the epic. I have two responses to this.

      One is that blind acceptance of the purported actions of divinities cannot reinforce religion in people's minds. If people have a problem with the behavior of a mythical character, no matter how exalted, it is best to debate it, otherwise one is merely suppressing and covering up cracks in one's faith. Secondly, Yudhishthira is not divine. In fact, one of the nice things about the Mahabharata is that with the exception of Krishna, all the characters are very human. Krishna is the only one who is portrayed as divine. To criticize the behavior of Yudhishthira cannot be perceived as the criticism of a deity by any stretch of the imagination.

      Dhananjay, I fully agree with the rest of your last paragraph. I will only add to that George Santayana's immortal statement: "Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it."

  3. Kumar,

    This is an excellent analysis. I especially like the way you treat the epic as recorded history, with all the biases and flaws of historical record.

    You have analysed one aspect of the epic with regard to today's times, which is feminism and the status of women. I can't help thinking this is also intertwined with casteism. After all, at the contest where Draupadi was won, Karna attempted to compete, and it is entirely possible that he could have matched Arjuna's feat. However, Draupadi spoke out and said she would not marry a low-born person, forcing him to withdraw from the contest. From the standpoint of our times, this was nothing short of casteist discrimination, and one could view her subsequent sufferings as retribution. But even within the confines of the epic itself, she was mistaken about Karna's caste, and had she stayed silent, she might have been his wife instead. And if Karna had subsequently been 'outed' as the eldest Pandava, he might have been the unquestioned king and Draupadi might have been his queen, with no other husbands to share her. The entire Mahabharata might have taken a different turn if Draupadi had not expressed her casteist prejudice at that fateful juncture.

    1. Ganesh,

      To be fair to Draupadi, the mores of the days of the Mahabharata were very strict when it came to inter-caste marriages. Draupadi cannot be faulted if she wanted to protect herself. It is easy to view her situation in today's day and age, when marrying a person of a different caste can be considered by many a noble act - why, indeed, the MP government gives each marriage between a low caste person and a high-caste person Rs. 75,000. But in those days people paid a price for indulging in stunts like these. View Karna's own plight. He was (mistakenly) regarded as a Suta - an offspring of a Kshatriya father and a Brahmana mother - and therefore lower than either. Why would Draupadi, a Kshatriya maiden, want to willingly marry a Suta like Karna, and doom her offspring to an even lower social status? As the case of Karna showed, wealth, kingship, and demonstrated valour still did not buy you the respect in those days that birth alone did. So let's cut Draupadi some slack.

      And Karna would never have been outed. The only person who could have outed him was Kunti. Who would have believed him even if he stated the truth of his birth? It would be his word, the word of a low-born Suta, against that of a Kshatriya queen. No contest. And Kunti was way too selfish to out him.

    2. Oh, and thanks for your compliment, Ganesh!

  4. I also disagree with Koushik above. No epic is above criticism, and we should not be so culturally insecure about criticism. There is a lot to criticise in Indian civilisation. Let us take the opportunity to take criticism constructively and build a better society. Circling the wagons does us no favours, and only reinforces our image as a thin-skinned people with much to be thin-skinned about.

    1. Completely agree with your comment. Thanks for stating it in print. We can only change and improve if we open ourselves and our foundations to examination and criticism.

  5. 5 "valiant" husbands! And yet that was her plight! What good is Dharma without "Pati Dharma"?!

  6. I really wonder how ignorant you are to write such crap...

    1. Draupadi was also attracted to the pandavas. She is described as being cheerful after her marriage was decided with the pandavas.

    2. Yes kidnap and rape was legal at the time, but that does not mean that society had no respect for women. How do you conclude that rape is a crime... In fact many of the so-called rape victims in the epic enjoyed the rape.

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  7. Yes i am totally agreed with this article and i just want say that this article is very nice and very informative article.I will make sure to be reading your blog more. You made a good point but I can't help but wonder, what about the other side? !!!!!!THANKS!!!!!! TRAHER - Порно


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