Draupadi: A Feminist


In this article, I would like to introduce you to a remarkable and immensely interesting female character from one of the greatest magnum opuses of all times – Mahabharata. Her name is Draupadi, and she was the wife of the five Pandava princes in the outstanding epic, Mahabharata.

In my earlier article, I provided a glimpse of the inclination amongst most Indians and especially traditionalists to prefer Sita over Draupadi because of the former’s compliant disposition. In this article, the reasons for such preference will become comprehensible.

Mahabharata is considered an epic in English literature. However, in Indian tradition, it is regarded as a grand historical narrative. Mahabharata is in fact a record of human beings who lived in a particular period of time in history. And interestingly, every character in Mahabharata is depicted with their different frailties. No character in this legendary narration is portrayed as all good or as all bad.

Mahabharata is an intricately knitted saga of a bloody war and noble thoughts, vengeance and repentance, incredible courage and cowardice, guile and principles, an all consuming hatred and fiery love, and especially of recurring victory and defeat. The character of Draupadi is continuously shaped by this emotional roller coaster and adverse situations.

Draupadi, like Athena, emerges from a sacrificial fire, called yajna in Indian tradition, as a fully grown and extremely beautiful woman. It is believed that Draupadi’s beauty enthralled all men as her beauty surpassed that of all other women. She is the adopted daughter of King Drupada and was married to Arjuna (the third amongst the Pandava brothers) in a svayamvara (a contest in which the most eligible man marries the princess after proving himself by performing some extraordinary feat).

Although Arjuna wins the contest, Draupadi has to marry all five Pandava brothers. Yes, Draupadi had to enter into a polyandrous arrangement, even though she fell in love with Arjuna in the Svayamvara. The tale of Mahabharata is intricately woven in the lives of every Indian, irrespective of his or her religion. I believe almost every Indian knows about the story of Mahabharata in general if not in detail. Interestingly and surprisingly, this polyandrous arrangement has never been disdained or questioned by a society which is always ready to attack a woman’s sexuality.

The polyandrous arrangement into which Draupadi becomes entangled was bestowed on her by fate and she did not enter into it by her own free will. It was Kunti’s (Pandava’s mother) wish as well as an expedient decision based on the realization that a fall out amongst the five brothers over possession of Draupadi could not be completely ruled out. Moreover, at that time, according to the rules of Vedas, if a younger brother got married before his older brother, this was considered a sin.

Regardless of the logic, Draupadi is a bold and righteous woman, who accepts polyandry and skillfully, as well as devotedly, manages to keep a balance between her five husbands.

Even though Draupadi maintains the appearance of a good wife, she is not a conventional wife in any sense.

What is remarkable about Draupadi is her fearlessness and determination to confront anyone for the right cause. The era is which Draupadi lived demanded unwavering submission and devotion to one’s husband. There was hardly any scope for women to question or defy their husband’s will or decision. But Draupadi is a brave woman who speaks her mind at a time when women would suffer silently rather than voice their opinions. She not only expresses her opinion but also questions her husband as well as other men over injustice and wrongful actions. Her courage and confidence are the result of her education. In that era, a woman getting an education was not only a luxury, but in fact, unheard of.

The most interesting episode that brings out the true character of Draupadi as a feminist is during the famous but fateful game of dice between her husband, Yudhisthira and the Kauravas. In this game of dice, her husband puts Draupadi up as a bet and loses her. She is dragged into the assembly by one of the Kauravas, who then proceeds to strip the garments from her body. It is believed that her modesty was saved by supernatural intervention.

However, Draupadi does not concede to the horrendous humiliation she suffered in that assembly. Instead she vents out her anger and disappointment with her husband and the elderly men sitting in the assembly by questioning their knowledge of rightful and respectful conduct. She does not plea for help but fights for her rights after her enslaved husband loses her in a game of dice and can do nothing to save her from humiliation.

It is laudable that she stands up for herself and speaks out against the male-perpetrated injustices in a court presided over by the most powerful kings of that time. She, along with her husbands, are sent to fourteen years of exile by the Kauravas. All through these years in exile, Draupadi continues to encourage her husbands to act like warriors and take revenge on the Kauravas. She never forgives her perpetrators and waits for an opportunity to punish them.

Such a disposition was uncommon for a woman at that period of time. She was a radical and a woman who refused to bow before injustice perpetrated by men on women. Shouldn’t she be regarded as a feminist? And perhaps that is the reason why she is seldom the female character who is used as an example in our Indian society.


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Cover-Draupadi Cover-Draupadi T.sujatha CC BY-SA 3.0