Showing posts with label Dussasana. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dussasana. Show all posts

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.