Feminism in Vysa’s Mahabharatha
By Pradeep Bhattacharya
“O woman! In our hours of ease
Uncertain, coy, and hard to please,
When pain and anguish wring the brow,
A ministering angel thou!”
This paradigm of the feminine Walter Scott drew and its eastern counterpoint of woman as ever false and fickle are both countered very powerfully by Vyasa in the heroines he portrays. In that sense he is astonishingly modern in his pro-feminism.
Shaoli Mitra’s remarkable one-woman performances of two plays she wrote on Vyasa’s women Nathavati Anathavat and Katha Amrita Saman – were a watershed in epic studies. Scholars took up Vyasa’s female characters, even though most were not familiar with Mitra’s work. Following a national seminar in Kolkata on the Pancha Kanya of Indian epics, Kavita Sharma wrote Queens of the Mahabharata (Satyavati, Amba, Gandhari, Kunti, Draupadi, Ulupi, Chitrangada, Alli, Pavazhakoddi, Monnliyal, also touching on Duhsala and Shakuni’s wife, and the anchorites Sandili and Sulabha). Then Chaturvedi Badrinath, followed up his study of the Mahabharata as an enquiry into the human condition with an exploration of twelve women of the epic (Shakuntala, a nameless housewife, Urvashi, Devayani, Savitri, Damayanti, Sulabha, Suvarchala, Uttara Disha, Madhavi, Kapoti, Satyavati, and Draupadi) focusing on the question of truth. By leaving Gandhari and Kunti out, both speakers of dharma, his analysis remains incomplete. Now, after his book on Karna as a Sanskrit epic hero, Kevin McGrath of Harvard University has produced a painstaking examination of how Kunti, Gandhari, Damayanti, Savitri, Amba and Shakuntala function in the Mahabharata as “a true mirror for princes”, intervening at critical junctures of the narrative to take it forward by proclaiming the true dharma of rulers.
McGrath sees the archetypal Indian feminine as both positive and negative, associated with prosperity and destruction, as Shakti (power, ability and energy) and Prakriti (nature, material world). Surely, this is not unique to the Indian feminine psyche, but common to world mythology at large where goddesses and heroines frequently represent both aspects. His point is well taken that motherless Draupadi and Sita emerging from natural forces (fire and earth) are not successfully protected because of the nature of their origin. But are they not fatherless too? What is the implication of that?
McGrath makes an important contribution in bringing out the importance of the matrilineal in the epic, though the term appears to be a misnomer. It should mean succession of mothers by daughters, but that is not what McGrath’s proposition shows.
He argues that following Parashurama’s genocide of Kshatriyas, their women conceived through Brahmins, so the Varna continued in the matrilineal. The Pandavas’ births through a male other than the husband create an oblique genealogical shift. Despite Manu’s prohibition against marrying into the father’s or mother’s clans, Krishna advises a cross-cousin (Bhraatrivya) marriage for Arjuna who marries the daughter of his mother’s brother Vasudeva. This is typical of cultures where the matrilineal is to be sustained. It is Krishna, not Arjuna, who performs Abhimanyu’s coming-of-age rituals (1.213.64). Significantly, Arjuna obtains Yudhishthira’s consent first as the marriage has huge political implications. It is not a liaison as with Ulupi and Chitrangada. McGrath fails to note that Chitrangada’s son did not inherit Hastinapura despite being the only surviving son of the Pandavas. By the matrilineal code Babhruvahana had to take his maternal grandfather’s throne.
The displacement of eldest sons that McGrath mentions as a recurrent motif was pointed out two decades ago by me as beginning right from Yayati. A corollary is the lateral shift in descent along the matrilineal after Bhishma (the last to connect to the eponymous Bharata) through Ambalika and Vyasa begetting Pandu and Kunti and Dharma producing Yudhishthira, ending with Karna. The importance of diagonal relationships between the mother’s brother and her sons is stressed when Krishna, Dhrishtadyumna and Dhrishtaketu become guardians of their nephews (Subhadra’s and Draupadi’s sons) and sister (Karenumati). During the period of matrilineal predominance strife prevails between sons of a matrilineal (Pandavas) and those of the patriline (Kauravas). The male line assumes control once again through Arjuna. Vyasa— with a fish grandmother and fisher-girl mother—has Duryodhana as his last descendant, whose final refuge is a lake. The symbolism is worth exploring.
McGrath is also an insightful sociologist pointing out that the exogamous movement of daughters and sisters is the primary source of kinship structure, marriage being the exchange that maintains society. Vivaha is literally leading away the bride from her father’s house. Women become initial tokens of that exchange, carrying along wealth when they shift between families. Hence the pyrrhic conflicts over women in myth and history. McGrath points out that woman acts as a gold standard against which wealth is valued. Vitta = property; vittaa = married woman. Vidura urges protecting the wife with wealth: daaraan rakshed dhanair (5.37.17). McGrath quotes Bhishma prescribing that a wife is never to be bought or sold (13.44.45), but fails to note how he contradicts this during the dice-game. Vidura makes a very important statement that reflects on Bhishma: “One who dislikes women, vanitasu dveshta, commits one of the seven cruelties, nrishamadharmah (5.43.11).” However, as Satya Chaitanya has noted, the statement is actually made by Sanatsujata whom Vidura has invoked. Bhishma is the archetypal misogynist, ruining the lives of Amba, Ambika, Ambalika, Kunti, Madri, and a silent spectator of the assault on Draupadi
Where heroes indulge in formulaic boasting and rhetoric, women speak what warriors should do. They are the knowers of dharma, of what is appropriate when, the repositories and voices of Kshatriya tradition. When McGrath states that Shakuntala is the first epic woman to declaim on the dharma of a married couple and rebuke her husband he overlooks Devayani who insists that Kacha marry her, curses him when he refuses, then forces Yayati to wed her and gets him cursed when he double-deals; also Sharmishtha who persuades Yayati that in satisfying her he is following dharma (much as Ulupi does with Arjuna). Savitri outwits Yama by power of speech, Draupadi poses a question none in the assembly-hall can answer, Kunti performs as Vidula to prescribe the Kshatriya code, Amba punishes wrongdoing. Ulupi admonishing Babhruvahana (Mcgrath erroneously calls her his mother on p. 80) parallels Kunti. McGrath should have included Kunti’s speech turning down Pandu’s abject plea for more sons. She quotes from scripture that a woman having relations with more than three men is called a harlot. Ironically, that is precisely the predicament into which she thrusts her own daughter-in-law by insisting that her chance remark “share alike” is sacrosanct. The women are not only authoritative indoors but also politically. There can be no king without a queen. Only after marrying Draupadi are the Pandavas praaptaraajyah (possess sovereignty). There is also the paradigm of a king with two wives: Pandu, Dhritarashtra (Kunti, staying back in Hastinapura during the exile, has the aura of a co-wife that is reinforced when she sleeps beside Gandhari next to Dhritarashtra in the forest) Brihadratha, Arjuna.
The radical change male society has imposed is noted by McGrath. In Uttar Pradesh women can listen to recitations of martial poems only from behind a curtain or wall, not in the audience of Ahir males. At the end of Kali yuga Markandeya says (3.188.35) marriage is not systematic but random: only self-selection, no girl is asked for or given; women are not obedient to husbands, but abuse them, favour sons and even kill husbands. The quality of marriage is a key marker for the nature of each yuga and marriage is a vital emblem for the status of the eon.
The eight types of marriage are defined by the type of exchange each involves. Problems arise with two of these: abduction (rakshasa) and secret love unsanctified by mantras (gandharva). It is curious that bridegroom-choice, svayamvara, is mentioned nowhere among the sanctioned forms. Yet, Vyasa’s heroines prominently assert their right to choose their partners [Devayani-Kacha-Yayati-Sharmishtha, Ganga-Pratipa, Shivaa-Agni, Sukanya-Ashvins-Chyavan, Saradandayani waiting at the crossroads to choose a perfected Brahmin, Kunti-Pandu, Hidimbaa-Bhima, Damayanti-Nala, Amba-Shalva]. Even Bhishma says (13.44.15) that a nubile girl should wait three years, but in the fourth should procure a husband herself. McGrath notes that in Tarnetar town of Gujarat there is an annual festival where women have the right to choose their husbands from the youths assembled in the fair. Bhishma’s rakshasa abduction cancels the gandharva process started by Amba-Shalva. Similarly, Duryodhana abducts the Kalinga princess when she ignores him in the svayamvara (12.4.10). Draupadi, like Sita, has actually no choice, being viryashulka, the prize in a contest. Yet, she does speak to assert her preference. Like the Kshatriya women of Parashurama’s time, she prefers to marry up (Arjuna is disguised as a Brahmin) but refuses to consider Karna of the charioteer caste. Curiously enough, a suta is one born of a Kshatriya mother and a Brahmin father—which is precisely what happened after Parashurama’s genocide. Therefore, all the so-called Kshatriyas thereafter are actually sutas! McGrath could have looked into this conundrum.
McGrath is mistaken in stating (p.54) that Vyasa impregnates Vichitravirya’s widows only after they have observed a vow. It is precisely because Satyavati will not wait for an heir that the niyoga is forced upon the unprepared widows and the blind Dhritarashtra and anaemic Pandu are born. He is also wrong in saying (p.63) that Vyasa was born when “a king and a fisher girl mutually agree to make love”. Vyasa was the product of the sage Parashara forcing himself on Matsyagandha midstream in the Yamuna.
Of the women, Kunti is profoundly different, overarching all others, as she alone interacts with as many as four gods. She is the ideal mother and the special love between her and Sahadeva is unique (she directs both Draupadi and Yudhishthira to take special care of him and he refuses to leave her after visiting her in the forest). Nowhere do we find a mother’s word being the decisive force as with Kunti. Gandhari has no impact on her sons. In narrating the Vidula story Kunti performs both as the mother impelling the dejected son into action and as the diffident son. Uniquely theatrical, it provides the most formal description of the warrior code free of the personal invectives of Draupadi whom she holds dearer than her sons. Kunti calls the anecdote jaya, and the son calls his mother netri, leader. She says it is a tale told to expectant women who then give birth to a warrior, as though she has done this before as a practised, traditional rite during confinement. The speech is heard by Bhishma and Drona too, who then talk to Duryodhana. McGrath overlooks the grim fact of Kunti getting a Nishada woman and her five sons drunk so that they are burnt alive in Varanavata to ensure the Pandavas’ safety. Kunti holds the family together and sustains its values and morale (15.23) despite her bitterness over maltreatment by her father and in-laws. Kim jivitaphalam mama (5.88.63), “What fruit is there to my life”, she exclaims to Krishna who responds that she is the acme of women in the world (5.88.90) ka nu simantini tvadrig lokeshva asti. However, McGrath misses the fact of Kunti being the victim of virtually a modern date-rape by Surya/Durvasa (both are “madhu pingala” in complexion and both disappear as suddenly as they had arrived). Even when he browbeats her, she, like her mother-in-law Satyavati, succeeds in ensuring that her status as kanya remains unimpaired, an attribute she shares also with her daughter-in-law Draupadi, being celebrated with her as one of the ever-remembered Pancha kanya.
Gandhari is special because of her fertility and her blinding herself so as never to surpass her husband. Her visual capacity is special—she alone has the poetic vision of the Stri Parva. However, unlike Kunti, her wrath is destructive. Mcgrath is mistaken in linking Gandhari’s abortion to the birth of Karna instead of Yudhishthira and Bhima’s. Curiously, we hear nothing about her daughters-in-law except that they are displeased with the wealth accompanying Draupadi (2.52.32). Gandhari is ever yoked to dharma and profoundly learned. She proclaims the proper policy of a ruler, urging her husband not to rescind the return of the Pandavas to Indraprastha. By ignoring her advice, bheda occurs as she had warned. She rejects her son’s bellicosity, berates her husband for allowing bheda to occur among kin and even urges that the kingdom should go to the Pandavas. Similarly, she blames Bhima for non-dharmic action in duel and drinking blood. Her rage blackens Yudhisthira’s toenails, and causes the annihilation of Yadavas. Again, she refuses to let Yudhishthira join Kunti in the forest at the end because he has to perform their obsequies. McGrath says that no one outrightly contradicts Gandhari, but Duryodhana insultingly stalks out during her reprimand in Krishna’s embassy.
Damayanti lacks Draupadi’s wrath, fury and remorselessness. Like Savitri, Damayanti is relentless in her wifely devotion and her speech is full of power, her intelligence outstanding in ferreting out her disguised husband. Despondency is deeply inherent in the lives of Vyasa’s women, as is their heroic suffering. Speech and the intelligence behind it organises the world where the heroines act. To destroy Bhishma, Amba (mother) becomes, like his mother Ganga, a river with half her body (again split in two, as Shikhandi is in death by Ashvatthama). Deprived of the world of a husband, she is neither woman, nor man (5.188.4). McGrath says only males accomplish fearful austerities to please Shiva, but Draupadi in her earlier birth, Amba and Gandhari do so. As taking up arms for revenge is a male prerogative, Amba turns male while speech remains the female prerogative as with Draupadi. Duhshala is the only instance of woman in the battlefield in an active role, successful against Arjuna. Kabi Sanjay’s medieval Bengali Mahabharata has Draupadi leading the women against the Kuru army after Abhimanyu has been slain. McGrath points out that Kunti, Draupadi and Damayanti all demonstrate a quinquepartite relation with male figures, as though mythical aspects of femininity were linked to the five elements.
The unique central role among women is Draupadi’s: rajaputri satyavrata virapatni saputra manasvini (Sanjaya, 5.23.5) and yashasvini (glorious—an epithet reserved for male heroes). Outraged modesty marks her entry in the epic in Dhritrarashtra’s lament. She is a woman of grief like Deirdre. Like several male heroes, she is motherless and also fatherless. Like Parashurama she wreaks Kshatriya ruin. McGrath fails to investigate the unusual dark complexion she shares with great grandmother-in-law Satyavati along with her lotus fragrance. Possessed by revenge like Parashurama, she combines unearthly beauty and destruction like Ishtar, Anat or Brunnhilde. McGrath proposes that Sudeshna’s not commenting on Sairandhri having five Gandharva husbands implies polyandry was known among Gandharvas. Unfortunately, he relegates to a tentative footnote the crucial issue of her regaining status as kanya after each marriage, “(which) would appear to be a term of emotion, rather that (sic) a physiological state). Her earlier births as Vedavati, and as Indrasena-Maudgalani (Rig Veda) are not discussed as also the significance about her being called “Panchali (puppet)” in the dice-game that Hiltebeitel made in his study.
Mcgrath includes the miracle of her re-clothing because it helps his argument that only she and Kunti have this association with the supernal sphere. However, the attempted stripping has been shown to be an interpolation never referred to later. Moreover, Krishna regrets his absence during the dice-game. Further, why should she leave the city in a blood-stained single garment if the re-clothing occurred?
Draupadi is adept with right speech throughout epic, as much in liberating her husbands as in cursing Kuru women when going into exile. Hers is a uniquely acerbic tongue with mastery of invective. She is kruddha, fierce, in her speech to Krishna, revealing the wrathful, ruthless side that runs throughout the Mahabharata. In exile, the husbands place Draupadi in front and follow her. Kunti too urges that they follow Draupadi’s direction.
McGrath makes an important point in the footnote on page 132: as a trio Arjuna, Draupadi, Krishna are all dark and in this triform organisation Arjuna is active, Draupadi’s role is of gravity, all potential, Krishna’s is ambiguity, always causing the narrative to move on to another course. She claims revenge, Krishna forecasts it, Arjuna accomplishes it—all are aspects of the same force with Draupadi functioning in the primary and feminine position. However, her speech to lustful Jayadratha in the forest is overlooked. She is also the only woman to push away a rapist so forcefully that he falls (Keechaka, Jayadratha). Vidura calls Draupadi skilled in the meaning of dharma and conducting herself accordingly. She reminds her husbands the true Kshatriya dharma and it is her speech that restores the chaos of the sabha to order as all cry sadhu sadhu in the courts of the Kurus and Virata. No other woman accomplishes such public suasion. She has no qualms over proposing killing for it is dharma to slay a miscreant. Neither, we have seen in the Varanavata incident, has Kunti any compunction in killing innocent guests to save herself and her sons. McGrath overlooks the cases of Jayadratha and Ashvatthama where Draupadi relents because of the intercession of Yudhishthira and Bhima respectively. The latter case is more surprising because Ashvatthama has massacred all her sons, brothers and kin. But that too is explicable as consistent with her knowledge of dharma: the guru’s son is like the guru and therefore ought not to be killed. There is a rare instance of Draupadi enjoying herself in the Nara Narayana ashram (3.145.43). The Udyoga Parva (5.58) provides us a rare languorous image of Draupadi. The most private and revealing of her speeches is not to Arjuna, as one would expect, but to Bhima in the Virata Parva where her tone, McGrath writes, is snehat samvasajat, from love born of sexual congress (4.18.4). However, the context is different, as Satya Chaitanya points out. Here Draupadi is quoting Sudeshna who commented on Draupadi’s reactions while watching Bhima fighting wild animals and felt she was upset because of snehat samvasajat, which also means love born of staying in the same place. She is the only woman about whom another woman, Sudeshna, says that any man seeing her would fall in love.
McGrath has succeeded in proving a very important point. The Mahabharata has all along been seen as a male preserve. This study of Vyasa’s heroines shows how the male poet depicts with masterly skill the feminine in action and particularly in speech as guardians of the warrior code. The mother’s role in securing her sons’ future is a major concern, highlighted through Kunti’s success in moulding them and Gandhari’s failure. The critical role of the wife in supplementing the mother-in-law’s efforts is seen in Draupadi, again in contrast to the shadowy, nameless, Kaurava queens. However, physical destruction is not their role. Even Amba has to change sex for this. Their apotheosis is possibly seen in Kunti who, after her sons have won, retires to the forest and dies in a forest fire, calm of mind, all passion spent. So too is the solitary end of Draupadi. That is the message these epic heroines leave us with—may peace through dharma prevail.