Saiswaroopa Iyer the author of Draupadi: The Tale of An Empress revisits Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa’s Draupadi and talks about her three crucial choices which shaped the course of the epic Mahabharata.

The fiery heroine of India’s immortal epic Mahabharata needs no introduction. An enigma right from her birth through her marriage, Draupadi is a woman who continues to inspire awe irrespective time of the times that we exist in. One can’t help being intrigued by her charisma.

As interpretations and reimaginations went on, the fire of Veda Vyasa’s Draupadi stopped being visible to the many blurry eyed interpreters and storytellers. The worst disservice to Draupadi’s stature is relegating her to just a wronged woman forced into polyandry or a helpless lover pining for Karna (Seriously? Of all the men around her, she would pine for him?) Or worst, as some dishevelled hair flaunting vengeful whiner.

The worst disservice to Draupadi’s stature is relegating her to just a wronged woman forced into polyandry or a helpless lover pining for Karna.

It is painful because all the three interpretations of her character would only make the Draupadi of Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa scoff in sheer contempt at the unimaginative twists given to her story. Rather, she may also feel ashamed at the weaklings that we have become or feel outraged at the content being generated and peddled in her name. In these times where playing victim at the drop of a pin is common, where trending hashtags is considered activism, there is much more of a need to revisit the Draupadi of Krishna Dwaipayana and imbibe some of her courage and clarity of thought. And by doing so, we the women of this century would be doing ourselves a favour.

Saiswaroopa Iyer
Draupadi The Tale of an Empress by Saiswaroopa Iyer, Rupa Books

Here are three of the many choices she made. Crucial ones that defined the course of Mahabharata.

Wife of the five sons of Pandu

When the prevailing social order required a wife to be faithful to one husband, Draupadi’s unusual choice is a courageous challenge to the oppressive forces that threatened her family.

The demand by Kunti, at the face of it, does sound ridiculous. Far away from the norms of the day (or any day!). Only those who had a deep insight into the troubles faced by the widow of King Pandu could see the reason behind that intriguing demand. Draupadi, had she wanted to, could have rejected the very alliance. A cursory reading of The Mahabharata would tell us that the sons of Pandu would not resort to any petty retribution had she rejected them all. But as the princess of Panchala, she was aware of the crucial role her wedlock would play in shaping the future of not just the two royal families, but also of the prevailing macro political conditions and the unique power and responsibility she would wield over the land as the bride of the five brothers. As the wife, she would keep them together. As the bride of Yudhisthira, her very entry into the family would compel Dhritarashtra to part with a portion of the kingdom in favour of the Pandavas. (How they freed the land of Khandava from Takshaka is another story).  She went on to become the Queen of a magnificent city that she nurtured  and administered and subsequently, an empress of the entire Bharata Varsha. Given this farsight of hers, casting her as a victim of patriarchy sounds laughable. Especially when the prevailing social order required a wife to be faithful to one husband, Draupadi’s unusual choice is a courageous challenge to the oppressive forces that threatened her family.

 Turning the fortunes during the fateful game of dice

No reader of Mahabharata can remember the incident without a chill going down his/her spine. But through the whole ordeal that included a shameful assault on her body and mind, Draupadi managed to keep her head in its place. The intellectual prowess she displayed right when everyone around her lost his reason, is spellbinding. Citing from the depths of Shastras, right from the scope of a marital relationship to the doom that threatens a society where women are assaulted, Draupadi prevailed over the assembly, eventually getting the game annulled. Through the discussion, she was given the choice (though is the most derogatory manner) to choose a husband among the sons of Dhritarashtra and escape servitude. She was also told that any of her husbands could revolt against Yudhishthira and go free along with her. With an awe-striking clarity of thought, Draupadi turned down both the offers for she knew what she aimed at and would not be satisfied with anything less! Isn’t she the victor here, forcefully casted as a victim? How can we not be inspired at her calm and rooted questions that managed to put fear into the minds of all the men there?

Through the whole ordeal that included a shameful assault on her body and mind, Draupadi managed to keep her head in its place.

On a slightly unrelated note, Karna was the one who uttered the most derogatory words against her and instigated her disrobing!

Forgiving Ashvatthama – Forgive but as the victor.

For a woman who braved intrigue after intrigue including an arduous exile, risky incognito and a bloody war, even the pleasure of motherhood was denied to Draupadi due to the midnight slaughter. Despite unimaginable grief engulfing her, she forgave Ashvatthama, the murderer of her sons and brothers! Though only after making sure that he spends his access to the Brahmastra and is rendered powerless by her husbands. She proved herself to be compassionate yet not a meek pacifist. Forgiveness is a quality to be shown only from a position of strength and victory and not from weakness and defeat. A lesson that rulers and governments of all times would do well to learn from the unique combination of her strategic mind and compassionate heart.

Forgiveness is a quality to be shown only from a position of strength and victory and not from weakness and defeat.

The more we delve into the details of her life with the humility of a student and a learner, the more we stand to grasp those lessons which would empower us to face our own lives with courage and will.

An Alumnus of IIT Kharagpur and an investment professional turned writer, Saiswaroopa Iyer is the best selling author of four novels, all based on legendary female protagonists from Ancient Hindu Literature. She lives in Bangalore with her husband and daughter. The views expressed are the author’s own.

Get the best of SheThePeople delivered to your inbox - subscribe to Our Power Breakfast Newsletter. Follow us on Twitter , Instagram , Facebook and on YouTube, and stay in the know of women who are standing up, speaking out, and leading change.