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Drowned Voices and Destinies: Social Stigma against women in India

The Mahabharata is arguably one of the most vigorous exploitation of women where the maltreatment done to them was inevitable. One of the most problematic and complex issues in it that need to be addressed is the ideal of Dharma.

‘Hinduism’ says that Dharma is the religious and moral law governing individual conduct and one of the four ends of life to be followed according to one’s status, class and stature in life. But the contradictions that lie in it are the very basis of humanity. Dharma says that duty is more important than rights and that if one upholds one’s dharma, then the universe will remain in harmony and the wrong can never be the victor (“Yato dharma tato jayaha”) but if humans are denied what they were meant to be born with, how can it lead to Dharma?

In such a warped scenario, does ‘Shanti’ refer to a complete lull or a silence rather than stillness if it comes at the cost of somebody’s rights? I believe that Dharma or the idea of a moral binding comes from within us and if that binding turns into the cause of unnecessary destruction then we need to question the very source where the Dharma is arising from. What differentiates humans from the rest in this world is the fact that while we can respect our place in the order that was created, we also have the required intellect to question ourselves in that order.



The Sabha Pravan or the Book of Assembly in the Mahabharata begins with the need to proclaim Yudhistira as the emperor by performing the Rajasuya Yagya. The need for this is unclear because by this time, Yudhistira neither has enough credentials nor the ultimate desire to be the suzerain. The Panchala kingdom was obtained by marrying Draupadi and the five brothers were satisfied with living in a forest before that. The duties of an emperor entailed not only the protection of his peoples but also eschewing war at all costs. Yudhistira fails at doing both of these things. The war that could have been prevented by Yudhistira alone leads to the ultimate question of why the war was necessary. The dereliction of his duty as a king and as a husband leads to the conditions where his wife was forcefully stripped, that day a woman was denied her share of the right to dignity and respect which she deserved. The lovely Draupadi, her long hair that was stroked by war heroes and loosened during lovemaking gets pulled violently by Dushasana. She gets taunted by Dushasana to add another husband to the slew.

This disrobing incident is considered so inauspicious that sometimes it is omitted altogether from festivals and even the mainstream media. The obfuscation of justice which needs to be highlighted time and again gets suppressed. The deep contrast lies in the fact that there is the grave need for her to be protected by brother (Krishna, who has been tied a rakhi by her according to stories) at all costs but she is of no value to the husbands. Krishna promises to save her when the ‘time comes’. Why was her molestation predestined?

The vulnerability that stems from her ‘deviant’ sexuality (“Tell the woman with five husbands to come here immediately” – Duryodhana) results in her morality being questioned. She gets stopped by Gandhari from cursing the entire assembly because a woman has to protect the honour of her family and the nation. She cannot curse them. Had she cursed them, she would have been provided with a voice stronger than she is ‘supposed’ to have had. Her disrobing that is said to culminate in the war of Kurukshetra, is a cumulative result of the choices people make in the epic. One tends accept the war as being predestined but rather than calling Draupadi the predestined cause of the war, one needs to question the destiny which made her that cause and stripped her of the will that is so essential to any human being.

The disrobing scene in Mahabharata shows Draupadi as being ‘de-classed’ and stripped of her dignity as a queen. Mahasveta Devi in her short story Draupadi deconstructs this idea to assert that it is her very class that makes her the target of Senanayak’s exploitation. Both the stories assert how a woman’s gender is exploited to ‘punish’ her. Draupadi is a queen who is desired for her beauty and kingdom. Yet she has to bear her molestation because she is a woman. Dopdi is not apprehended because she is woman. She is not apprehended because she is a Naxal leader. But she is apprehended and molested because she dares to do what she does in spite of being a woman.

Other than the difference of the period during which both the texts were written, what tells us about the movement in time is the fact that while Draupadi’s anger was suppressed by the honour she had to uphold for her family, Dopdi is successful in asserting that there is no honour left for anybody; the community or the society when a woman is brutally seized and gangraped. Mahasveta Devi depicts this in a poignant concluding scene when Dopdi goes to Senanayak start naked exhibiting the bites on her breasts and the dried up blood on her pubic hair to reflect a picture of his own atrocity before him. One can feel actual terror in his eyes as opposed to the sheer lack of remorse shown by every one of the Purus in The Mahabharata. She was the joined wife of the five Pandavas and could be proclaimed a ‘harlot’. Thus it “wasn’t wrong to bring her clothed or unclothed into the assembly.”

When Dushasana pulls at her sari, the whole idea of maintaining Dharma comes into being and gets exhibited in the form of infinite clothing that Krishna imparts her when she prays to him.

Though there are implicit commonalities between the historical Draupadi and Dopdi, I can somehow see Dopdi in a brighter, more heroic light as a woman who refused to be ‘rescued’ by a patriarchal leadership or any godlike presence. Thus the modern account by Mahasveta Devi gets called revolutionary while the great Indian tradition of upholding the Dharma in this vast Universe somewhere suppresses the voice of the woman for whom the great battle was supposed to be fought. The deep-set desire for revenge and boiling rage has to be contained, if not hidden behind the duties of a wife, queen and mother.

The Book of Women or the Striparvan in The Mahabharata looks at the aftermath of the war, the dead bodies of the soldiers with vivid images of jackals, hyenas and vultures in the battlefield. All the elders like Bhishma and Drona along with the younger princes like Dhristadyumna and Abhimanyu get killed. The tears of the widows of the warriors ‘wash death away’ which is the focus of the Shantiparvan that follows. So, Vyasa in the Book of Women shows how the upholding of Dharma comes at the cost of violence, grief and at some level, grave injustice. Draupadi’s destiny held that ‘the dark one (krishna)’ would lead to the destruction of the kshatriya dynasty. The incarnation of the goddess Sri, the ideal wife, the ideal woman had to pay for her perfection by being blamed for arousing the Kauravas. As Sri, she represented the godly wife of a good king but the question that arises is that as a woman and the incarnation of a goddess at that; was the sole purpose of her existence the destruction of an entire clan? One might never know if it had anything to do with the fact that she was a woman but one needs to focus on why the establishment of Dharma entails the banishment of dignity, justice and peace.

The peace that follows the Dharmic order comes at the cost of thousands of lives and unexplainable sorrow. This not only belittles a person and the respect that they are entitled to but in a way renders it meaningless. If individuals and their feelings are meaningless in this world, then what meaning does Dharma hold? Yes, belittling of a person is important for humans to realize their status and their position in nature, but natural inequalities should not become the basis for unnatural discrimination along with cosmic faith that society uses to implicate someone without any offense.

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