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Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The dilemma of Draupadī’s disrobing

Did Yudhihira have the right to stake his lawfully wedded wife after he had lost himself first in the game of dice?

There is no shortage of dilemmas in the Mahābhārata, the most famous being that of Arjuna as he faces kith and kin on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. As Matilal points out, ad hoc solutions were found for most dilemmas in the epic itself. The resolutions came from preceptors, elders or a higher authority (e.g. Kṛṣṇa, Vyāsa). Sometimes, they were justified as dhārmic, and on occasion even un-dhārmic.

However, one exceptional dilemma remains unresolved, a question unanswered even today. Did Yudhiṣṭhira have the right to stake Draupadī in the “friendly" game of dice after he had lost himself? And was she therefore slave to the Kauravas? Not a single variant, retelling, reworking or representation resolves this dilemma presented in the earliest instance of the dice game.

Popular tradition demonizes Śakuni and blames Duryodhana. Karna is mysteriously overlooked in the blame game, his role in the disrobing of Draupadī continues to be unknown to large parts of the lay audience even today.

Criticism of Yudhiṣṭhira’s addiction, the silence or equivocation of the Kuru elders in the sabha and the inaction of Draupadī’s husbands at her ill treatment causes indignation, but the censure is barely commensurate with the burden of guilt they might bear.

What factors (or lack thereof) facilitated the staking of Draupadī, her proposed slave status and subsequent mistreatment? Namely, Yudhiṣṭhira’s failure as a husband, the inaction of the Kuru elders, the impotence of her husbands and the absence of Kṛṣṇa and Vyāsa from the scene.

No back story was created to justify the horrors Draupadī endured; neither did a ṛṣi intervene at the time or curse her in the past.

Draupadī posed the ultimate dhārmasaṅkaṭa issuing from the treatment of a lawfully wedded wife. Yudhiṣṭhira—authority on dhārma, dhārma incarnate, son of Dharma—responds to his wife’s question in the gambling hall with catatonic silence. He says nothing, good or bad (sadhu asādhu va).

A resolution would have called for a paradigm shift in Indian social thought. Evidently, the author[s] of the Mahābhārata (and redactors to date) were not prepared for that. Though they clearly wished, it appears, to raise the question. Yet, the question was repeatedly sidestepped and remains unanswered even today.

Yudhiṣṭhira’s failure as a husband

Yudhiṣṭhira’s weakness for dice is well documented in the epic (e.g. 2.44.1, The Critical Edition of Mahabharata). He chooses to come to the game despite agreeing with Vidura that gambling is the cause of quarrel (2.52.10) and hearing that Vidura has tried his best to prevent the game (kṛtaś ca yatno ’sya mayā nivāraṇe 2.52.11).

Aware that the hall will be full of dangerous players who will use tricks (mahābhayāḥ kitavāḥ saṃniviṣṭā; māyopadhā devitāro ’tra santi 2.52.14), and that Śakuni is not just skilled at dice, but could defeat him by playing foul, (śakune maiva no jaiṣīr amārgeṇa nṛśaṃsavat 2.53.3), he still comes to the game. He even observes that Śakuni playing in place of Duryodhana was unfair (2.53.16).

Śakuni gives him the option of backing out of the game (vinivartasva 2.53.12), but Yudhiṣṭhira plays nevertheless, due to his fondness for dice, but also due to his vow of never backing down once challenged.

His reaction to the first loss is that he wishes to play a thousand fold! (2.54.1) After losing 10 consecutive stakes, his gambling bluster is unabated. Goaded by Śakuni, he continues, saying that his wealth is incalculable (asaṃkhyeyam). In nine further straight losses, he stakes more riches, his kingdom, his brothers and then himself.

Upon Śakuni’s suggestion that Draupadī be staked, without a moment’s hesitation Yudhiṣṭhira does so. Not one person, peer or elder in the sabhā stops him, though their consternation and disapproval is clear to see (2.58.38-40).

It should be pointed out at this stage that Nala, who was also excessively fond of gambling, lost everything in a dice game, but did not stake his wife. After 19 consecutive losses, Yudhiṣṭhira could well have seen the writing on the wall and prevented Draupadī’s ignominy.

Nor was this the only time that he passively watched and prevented his brother(s) from acting to protect and avenge Draupadī. In the 13th year of their exile, which was to be spent in disguise, for fear of being recognized, when Draupadī is ill-treated, he refrains from acting.

When Kīcaka tries to seduce her, she runs to where Yudhiṣṭhira is. Kīcaka grabs her by the hair and while Yudhiṣṭhira looks on, throws her to the ground and kicks her (4.15.7). Bhīma who wishes to protect her is prevented by Yudhiṣṭhira from taking any action (4.15.12). Enraged, she says she is “the virtuous wife of men who are all too lenient in this respect. Among those whose leader is a gambler... here, anyone might abuse (kick) them".

After the sabhā episode, after Yudhiṣṭhira lets her abductor Jayadratha off lightly and then Kīcaka’s assault, Draupadī seems quite justified in lamenting that her husbands are eunuchs (4.15.21-22).

Draupadī’s unanswered question

Once she is lost in the game of dice (2.58.43), Duryodhana immediately asks for her to be brought and wishes her to be with the serving girls and sweep the chamber (saṃmārjatāṃ veśma … saha dāsībhir… 2.59.1).

Upon being summoned, her first reaction is disbelief that her husband, a king no less, can stake his wife and she says Yudhiṣṭhira must have been stupefied in his intoxication for the game (…mūḍho rājā dyūtamadena matta… 2.60.5).

She sends the summoner back to the sabhā to ask Yudhiṣṭhira, that gambler, who he had lost first—himself or her (sabhāyāṃ gatvā kitavaṃ pṛccha kiṃ nu pūrvaṃ parājaiṣīr ātmānaṃ māṃ nu … 2.60.7).

Once conveyed in the sabhā, the question is addressed 16 times from various angles while Yudhiṣṭhira stays still, as if he has lost his senses, not replying with words either good or bad (2.60.9).

This is a strange reaction from the son of Dharma. The question unfolds into a profound legal and spiritual riddle… “Does a king own his wife like other property? What is a ‘self’ that one can wager it, or another’s after one has bet and lost one’s own?"

The inaction of Kuru elders

The menstruating Draupadī is dragged into the sabhā by her hair, weeping, bleeding, clad in a single garment. She berates the elders of the Kuru lineage and says “Shame!" (dhig astu) that the transgression of dhārma has been ignored. That there is no substance left in Bhīṣma, Droṇa and Vidura that this gross transgression (imam ugram adhārmam) is “not seen" (na lakṣyante) by them (2.60.33-34).

Bhīṣma, the family’s main legal expert, says he cannot answer her question due to the subtle nature of dhārma (dhārmasaukṣmyāt … te praśnam yathāvat vivaktuṃ na śaknomi 2.60.40) His analysis is that one without property cannot stake the property of others; but women are always the property of their husbands.

He further confirms that Yudhiṣṭhira would never lie, and that he did say that he has been won; that he had played voluntarily with Śakuni who he knew was unparalleled in dice and he, Yudhiṣṭhira, did not think that Śakuni had cheated (2.60.41-42).

The main arguments for and against come from Karṇa, and Vikarṇa, the youngest brother of Duryodhana. Upon seeing elders and teachers like Bhīṣma, Vidura, Droṇa, Kṛpa and Dhṛtarāṣṭra silent or unable to resolve the question, Vikarṇa appeals to the kings assembled in the sabhā (61.13-14).

He proposes that Draupadī, who belongs to all the Pāṇḍavas (not to Yudhiṣṭhira alone), has not been won (na vijitām). The son of Pāṇḍu deeply addicted and egged on by gamblers staked her (2.61.23-24).

This incenses Karṇa who counters his argument by saying that Draupadī has been won righteously (dhārmeṇa vijitāṃ 2.61.28). The eldest Pāṇḍava had staked everything he possessed (sarvasva) and Draupadī was included in that (abhy antarā ca sarvasve Draupadī 2.61.31.32). Further, he refutes Vikarṇa’s point about her being irreproachable (aniniditā).

It has been ordained by the gods (devair vihitaḥ) that women must have only one husband, and she, submitting herself to more than one, is surely a prostitute (bandhakī 2.61.35).

To Vikarṇa’s point that bringing her into the sabhā in one garment was not conforming to dhārma (adhārmeṇa), Karṇa responds in a manner most uncalled for, saying there is nothing remarkable about her being brought in one garment, or even if she was naked.

He reiterates that Śakuni has won by righteous means all the Pāṇḍava’s wealth, including her, and tells Duḥśāsana to strip the Pāṇḍavas and Draupadī of their garments. The miraculous event whereby her modesty is protected leads to an uproar in the hall.

The assembled kings censure Dhṛtarāṣṭra, saying the Kauravas do not answer (Draupadī’s) question (2.61.50). Vidura then appeals strongly for the question to be answered, and Draupadī again asks (2.62.13) if she has been won.

Bhīṣma says even great-souled Brahmins are unable to follow the course of dhārma, and he is unable to answer her question with certainty on account of its subtlety, its impenetrability and its gravity (sūkṣmatvād gahanatvāc ca…gauravāt 2.62.16). He deflects the question to Yudhiṣṭhira, who remains silent.

On much goading by Duryodhana, Arjuna finally speaks up and puts the ball back in the court of all the Kurus—he affirms that Yudhiṣṭhira was indeed their lord and within his rights to stake them (his brothers), but once he had lost himself, whose lord was he? This the Kurus should know (2.63.21).

At this point, every one hears inauspicious sounds—a jackal (gomāyuḥ) screamed during the agnihotra, asses brayed back and on from all around (samantataḥ) birds cried (63.22-23). Gāndhārī and Vidura intervene and Dhṛtarāṣṭra brings the episode to an end.

Draupadī’s ordeal not explained by a curse or a back story

Ancient Indian literature, epics especially, abound with karmic consequences to explain the inexplicable. Sometimes, events are a result of actions from a previous birth, and sometimes in this very birth, but unknown to the protagonist or observer. Often, it is the curse of an irate sage.

Seemingly cruel acts, unexplained horrors, deeply painful experiences are rationalized as being the result of a previous transgression. The fact that the author(s) and redactors of the Sabhāparvan thought it unnecessary to create such a rationalization for Draupadī’s mistreatment merits consideration.

The dictum “somebody composed this, and did so for a reason" should never be forgotten. It could be that they did not want to dilute the “evilness" of Duryodhana and his allies. It could just as well be that they wished for Draupadī’s predicament to be treated in and of itself in complete starkness.

No reason is given for her ill treatment other than the events of the day—the foolish addiction of her husband and the impotence of her protectors (husbands and elders). The event is all the more shocking because it is not explained away.

King Śaṃtanu’s horror at seeing his wife drown seven of their male offspring has a set of complicated back stories which made the act perfectly understandable. The rebirth of the Vasus also explains the course of Bhīṣma’s life, his wisdom, his obedience to his father and his celibacy (1.93). The birth of the god Dharma from a śūdra womb is explained by the story of Aṇi Māṇḍavya (1.101.1-28).

The travails of Daśaratha, dying in grief, separated from his favourite son, are shown to be a result of a curse from his youth when he mistakenly killed Śravaṇa Kumāra (Rāmāyaṇa 2.57.10 – 2.58.46).

Back stories are created to justify the un-dhārmic polyandrous marriage of Draupadī to the five Pāṇḍava brothers. Her father is uncomfortable with this arrangement, and Vyāsa arrives to explain the cause of the marriage. He admits that the practice is obsolete, being opposed to Vedic injunction and ordinary usage (dhārma vipralabdhe, lokavedavirodhake 1.88.6).

However, in this particular case, the marriage conforms to dhārma due to the back story of the five Indras (1.189.1-40). As if the polyandrous marriage needed further justification, Vyāsa relates the story of the chaste daughter of a ṛṣi who, though good looking, did not have a husband. By the boon of Śaṃkara, she is blessed with five, as she addressed him with the plea five times (1.189.41-49).

Epic authors made an effort to explain the inexplicable, and they went to great lengths particularly to show how an un-dhārmic act conformed to dhārma. If this was not done in the case of Draupadī’s treatment in the game of dice, one possible explanation is they wanted successive audiences to be deeply affected and to discuss it threadbare. This they achieved successfully—evidence the fact that it is being revisited and debated even today.

The absence of Kṛṣṇa and Vyāsa

At key junctures in the Mahābhārata, two Kṛṣṇas—Vāsudeva and Dvaipāyana—appear to direct the plot, most often by resolving knotty issues. Vyāsa moves in and out of the epic narrative both as author and character, with the prescience and mysterious ways of God. Kṛṣṇa, of course, the epic knows as an avatāra of Viṣṇu.

Above we saw an example of how Vyāsa gives a stamp of approval to the polyandrous marriage of Draupadī even though admitting that the practice was neither sanctioned by the Veda, nor in use. In fact he appears 41 times in the epic, mostly to counsel people. It is extremely pertinent that he missed the dice game. He could easily have settled the question by making an appearance.

Likewise Kṛṣṇa, who made the time to attend Draupadī’s svayamvara where he had no role other than that of an observer (1.187.8), does not come to the dice game. Given his omniscience and omnipotence, surely he would have been able to anticipate events, and come to prevent them if he chose to.

He visits the exiled Pāṇḍavas after the event to comfort them (3.13 and 3.14). He says that he would have used force to stop the game if Duryodhana didn’t heed his words, and admits that it was on account of his absence that the Pāṇḍavas have been beset by misfortune (3.14.14).

In the Karṇaparvan, after Yudhiṣṭhira insults the Gāṇḍīva, Arjuna faces a dilemma between promise keeping and fratricide. He has taken an oath to kill anyone who insults his bow, a precious gift from Agni. He has no choice but to kill his elder brother.

Kṛṣṇa considers it pertinent to intervene, and find a solution. He relates the story of Kauśika and persuades Arjuna that even though truth telling is one of the highest virtues, saving a life is a stronger duty.

In yet another instance, after the war, Yudhiṣṭhira is very depressed and wishes to retire to the forest rather than be king (Āśvamedhikaparvan). Both Kṛṣṇa and Vyāsa go to great lengths to persuade him otherwise. As we can see, both Kṛṣṇa and Vyāsa intervene often in the narrative to resolve dilemmas. However, during the dice game, despite their power, wisdom and influence—they are both absent.

Conclusion

Here, we have looked at the intractable question posed by Draupadī after she was staked in the dice game. The issue was whether Yudhiṣṭhira had the right to stake his lawfully wedded wife after he had lost himself first in the game. With both Kṛṣṇa and Vyāsa absent and Yudhiṣṭhira silent, nobody seems to be able to resolve the dilemma.

The voices for Draupadī (Vidura and Vikarṇa) were hierarchically the weakest. The former the son of a śūdra woman, and the latter the youngest brother of Duryodhana. Although Dhṛtarāṣṭra claims often to stand by Vidura’s counsel (e.g. at 2.51.5) in this case he disregards Vidura’s words.

At 2.59.4 Vidura says clearly—na hi dāsītvam … bhavati Kṛṣṇā … anīśena hi rājñaiṣā paṇe nyasteti me matiḥ (To my mind Kṛṣṇā has not become a slave, the king offered her as a stake when he was no longer his master). And he is silenced quite rudely by Duryodhana (dhig astu kṣattāram, at 2.60.1)

The strongest case for Draupadī is presented by Vikarṇa (2.61.12-24), whose name as Hiltebeitel points out is a contrived opposite of Karṇa. Firstly, Draupadī was staked after Yudhiṣṭhira bet himself, secondly it was on the prodding of Śakuni, and thirdly the blameless (aninditā) Draupadī was common to all the Pāṇḍavas, thereby questioning Yudhiṣṭhira’s right to stake the spouse of his younger brothers.

Karṇa is incensed, berates Vikarṇa for his youth and refutes him by saying before or after is irrelevant, as Draupadī was included in Yudhiṣṭhira’s property, that he staked her audibly, and that Draupadī was no better than a prostitute for submitting to the sexual needs of more than one man; that there was nothing wrong with her being dragged to the sabhā even if she was unclad. This results in Karṇa’s command to Duḥśāsana to remove all the clothes of the Pāṇḍavas and Draupadī (2.61.31-38).

Kṛṣṇa and Vyāsa opt to remain absent from the incident. The Kuru elders and teachers choose to stay silent or to equivocate. Vidura, who speaks, is silenced rudely. Neither do the kings assembled in the sabhā raise a voice against the unfolding transgression of dhārma. Draupadī’s speech at 2.60.32-34 captures these reactions. Despite the question being raised sixteen times, it remains unanswered.

The 1988 Doordarshan TV serial, which defined the Mahābhārata for a generation of Indians, presents the episode as shameful (lajjā-janak), with Draupadī alone standing within the bounds of propriety (maryādā).

The fallout of her question is voiced by Vikarna “Answer this question—does a man have the right to stake (lose) his wife in a game of dice?... If you don’t answer this question, it will plague you in every rebirth, and you will have to be reborn again and again to answer it."

Of those present, perhaps Yudhiṣṭira was best placed to settle the matter. He was not shy speaking when he had to explain to Drupada that the polyandrous marriage to Draupadī was as per dhārma, because what he spoke is always the truth. But he says nothing, true or untrue.

Rohini Bakshi is a Sanskrit teacher and columnist. An Oxford alumna, she returned to academics after a successful career in marketing communications spanning 20 years. She has an MA in Hindu Studies with an emphasis on Sanskrit from SOAS, University of London. Founder of #SanskritAppreciationHour on Twitter, her first book, Learn Sanskrit Through Your Favourite Prayers, is now available. (Published by Juggernaut, 544 pp, Rs799).

All citations are from The Critical Edition of Mahabharata.

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