Sexual Harassment in the Mahābhārata

The disrobing of Draupadi, a miniature of the Basohli School, attributed to Nainsukh, c.1765
 Wikimedia Commons (Jameel Centre)

Sexual harassment is an unfortunate reality in many societies, and this fact is also reflected in literature too.  In the story of Śakuntalā, originally in the Mahābhārata, Śakuntalā becomes pregnant by Duryodhana who then initially refuses to acknowledge that he is the father.  In the Rāmāyaṇa, too, Sītā chooses to accompany her husband Rāma into exile and her vulnerability leads to her being kidnapped by Rāvaṇa who attempts to seduce her.

The situation of Draupadī in the Mahābhārata is also difficult, and she is she is forced to do whatever she can to protect herself from serious sexual harassment on multiple occasions.  There is of course the famous episode in the assembly, where Duryodhana attempts to publicly undress her, depicted above, which I have discussed elsewhere.  Another episode is when Jayadratha, the Sindhu king, abducts her.  Finally, as I will discuss in this article, Draupadī is also a victim of attempted sexual harassment during the stay at the court of King Virāṭa.  When the Pāṇḍavas are forced to live incognito for one year there, they assume various incognito personas, with Draupadī seeking employment as a maid to Queen Sudeṣṇā.

Indeed, the Pāṇḍavas are already ‘fearful of Duryodhana’ as they embark on their year of living incognito, and Draupadī is ‘distressed’.  There is, too, the difficulty of adjusting to their newly reduced social status.  The advice given to them by Dhaumya on how to interact with the king is rather disheartening and only serves to reinforce the fact that they have never yet had to live in a state of submission to some higher authority.  Although they have lived as kings, they have seemingly not until now considered the lived experience and the qualities of character that are necessary in those who attend upon the king.

Cheerful, strong, valiant,
Always attached like a shadow,
Truth-speaking, gentle, self-restrained,
You should live in that royal palace.

But you should be the first to leap up
When there is any errand to be done.
Saying ‘Can I do it?’,
You should live in that royal palace.

[Mahābhārata Virāṭa Parvan, Chapter 4, verses 37-38; my own translation]

Although it is certainly a strain for the five Pāṇḍava brothers to undergo this ordeal, for Draupadī , as a woman, the perils are even greater.  She presents herself at the palace as a maid to get work attending to the queen, but Queen Sudeṣṇā has some misgivings –

I would gladly welcome you if I were not concerned
That the king might fall for you with his whole heart
See the women in the royal family
And those in my apartments
They are watching you affectionately.
What man wouldn’t be infatuated with you?

[Mahābhārata Virāṭa Parvan, Chapter 8, verses 20-21; my own translation]

However, Draupadī is able to reassure the queen as follows –

Dear lady, I have five youthful gandharva husbands.
Neither Virāṭa nor anyone else may have me.
The sons of a certain Gandharva king with great courage,
They protect me against this, so it is difficult to mess with me.

[Mahābhārata Virāṭa Parvan, Chapter 8, verses 27-28; my own translation]

Here, she recognizes that she is vulnerable to sexual harassment and attempts to protect herself in the only way that is in her power to do so.  In fact, she actually does experience a disturbing campaign of sexual harassment from Kīcaka, the brother of Queen Sudeṣṇā and the commander of the army.  Initially, Kīcaka attempts to chat up Draupadī as follows –

“… O thou of fair eye-brows, thy eyes are beautiful and large like lotus-petals. Thy speech also, O thou of beautiful limbs, resembles the notes of the cuckoo. … Both thy bosoms, so beautiful and well-developed and endued with unrivalled gracefulness and deep and well-rounded and without any space between them, are certainly worthy of being decked with garlands of gold. … The flaming fire of desire, fierce as a forest conflagration, and fanned by the hope my heart cherisheth of a union with thee is consuming me intensely. O thou of exceeding beauty quench thou that flaming fire kindled by Manmatha. Union with thee is a rain-charged cloud, and the surrender of thy person is the shower that the cloud may drop…”

[Mahābhārata Virāṭa Parvan, Chapter 13, part; trans. K.M. Ganguly]

Even more troubling, when Draupadī attempts to politely dissuade him, he discusses the matter with his sister, Queen Sudeṣṇā, who disturbingly agrees to assist him in his sexually aggressive intentions against Draupadī with the following advice –

Get some food and alcoholic drinks together for the holidays.
Then I will send her over to you to fetch the drinks
Once she arrives there, take her to a solitary place where you won’t be disturbed.
You can seduce her there and so perhaps you may have your way with her.

[Mahābhārata Virāṭa Parvan, Chapter 15, verses 5-6; my own translation]

By any account, Draupadī’s lot in this episode and others has been a difficult one.  As she also does elsewhere, at this point, she takes the opportunity to lament her condition –

In what way is she not miserable who has Yudhiṣṭhira as her husband?
Knowing all my suffering, how can you even ask about it?

How about that time the messenger called me a slave
And destroyed me in the Hall of Assembly?

What daughter of a king could live like me,
With extreme suffering, other than [me,] Draupadī?

And who could endure being a forest-dweller
Violated by the wicked Sindhu king?

Who besides me could go on living after being kicked by the wicked Kīcaka
Right in front of the Matsya king?

And being tormented by many such forms of pain,
I don’t know what the point of my life is.

[Mahābhārata Virāṭa Parvan, Chapter 17, verses 1-6; my own translation]

However, it is Bhīma who is able to urge her to be patient because the time to take their revenge has not yet come.  By plotting with Bhīma, however, Draupadī is able to formulate a plan to deal with the specific problem of Kīcaka as follows.  The next time Kīcaka approaches her, when it is almost impossible to obstruct him, she instead says to him –

‘Do thou, when it is dark, go to the dancing-hall erected by the king of the Matsyas where the girls dance during the day, repairing to their respective homes at night. The Gandharvas do not know that place. We shall then without doubt, escape all censure.’

[Mahābhārata Virāṭa Parvan, Chapter 21, part; trans. K.M. Ganguly]

However, it is actually Bhīma, disguised in woman’s clothing, who is waiting there to meet Kīcaka –

Bhīma got there first that night and sat down in his disguise.

He waited unseen for Kīcaka like a lion waits for a deer.

And Kīcaka too went there, driven by his desire.

Eager to see Draupadī at the dancing-hall at that time.

Reaching out towards [Bhīma, representing] his death, lying there on the bed,

Who was burning up with anger at the assault on Draupadī.

And, deluded by desire, Kīcaka approached him,

His mind stirred up with joy and excitement.

[Mahābhārata Virāṭa Parvan, Chapter 21, verses 38-39, 42-43; my own translation]

The episode does not end well for Kīcaka –

With strength, Kīcaka kicked Bhīma onto the floor.
Then Bhīma leapt up forcefully, like a snake
They both fought together maddened by their strength.
The two powerful figures continued attacking each other through the night
That magnificent building shook again and again
As the two mighty figures roared with rage at one another.

The hugely powerful Bhīma grabbed Kīcaka and roared
Like a tiger seizing a great beast ready to tear it apart
Like Śiva, he took hold of each part of that body,
His feet, hands, head and neck, as if dealing with an animal,
And pounded together all the limbs into one giant ball of flesh.
Then the powerful Bhīma showed it to Draupadī.

[Mahābhārata Virāṭa Parvan, Chapter 21, verses 50-53; 58-60; my own translation]

However, was it unremitting suffering and hardship for Draupadī and the Pāṇḍavas during this entire year?  Was it a constant struggle for them to suppress their true identities?  Or were there some pleasant moments also and perhaps a liberation from the routines of their normal lives?  In a future article, I will look at some ways in which there could perhaps have been some positive experiences or unexpected benefits from this year spent living incognito.

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