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Mahabharata revisited – Draupadi’s Insult Part I

Introducing a new series of write-ups , a series on the learning from the Mahabharata, a personal perspective , named Mahabharata Revisited. A Disclaimer- my assumption is most of you know the basic story and characters in the epic, as I will be picking up incidents at random from this story. The Mahabharata is one of the greatest epics in human history, it is more than an epic, I believe it is the psychological profile of humanity. Every character in the story has a big presence and impact and each character is justified in their actions and emotions based on their perspectives.

I grew up like any other 90’s kid in India, watching the Ramayana and Mahabharata as televised shows broadcasted every Sunday. At that point in life, it was a mere soap opera with graphics that fascinated the imagination of a child. Most of my life I looked at it as a story, an entertainment, and trust me it is full of that. It has all the twists and turns, romance, violence, injustice, family feud, revenge, the great war and of course the words of God himself as the Bhagavad Gita which is embedded into the Mahabharata.

As I grew up and my spiritual curiosity and yearning developed, the Mahabharata was televised again on India media, this time with advanced graphics of the 2010’s and the production team had involved thinkers and mythologists early on, the casting and dialogues were superbly done. This encouraged me to look at the Mahabharata beyond the surface level story of injustice and justice. I began looking at each incident in the story, trying to find how that relates to me as an individual and what I can learn from these characters. The story is so bizarre and challenges even today’s social norms and hence when we look at it as a story, we feel whoever wrote it must have had a warped sense of reality. If you try to understand it with mere intellect and we humans do not have a great one, it will remain a bizarre story always making us wonder why the characters acted the way they did.

I do not claim to have understood it, it may take me lifetimes, but I believe I have been able to look at in different perspective and have drawn parallels in my own life that helped me through some tough times and I know will help me going forward in the many tough times I am yet to face. I wanted to share this with you in the hopes that a few of you might benefit. None of our culture or mythology was for entertainment, in each work of scripture there is deep hidden wisdom on how to lead life and how to move towards the singular goal of realizing our highest potential. The perspectives I have drawn are not purely spiritual, these are practical ways of thinking that can be game changers and the series will evolve as I evolve in life. The assumption is that you are aware of the story and characters in the Mahabharata, I will try to re-introduce them but may not spend too much time, as just describing each and every character will take hours, remember these are not mere characters these are human personalities that still exist in some way or form in us, these are psyches and the myriad human emotions and that is what is so fascinating about them, they are still relevant even after 3000 years and will continue to be relevant until humans and societies exist. I would suggest learning a bit about the outline of the story and key characters before you proceed. Another disclaimer, this is purely my personal take, so please read, try to see if it resonates and fits, and if it does that is awesome, if it does not then let it go, no harm done, I do not intend to hurt anyone’s religious beliefs or sentiments. This is purely my personal interpretation of the great scripture.

OK so no now that we have some basic rules out of the way, I welcome you to embark on this journey with me. Let us start with the pivotal moment in the epic, the great injustice that shocks the world and lights the fire for the great war of Mahabharata, the insult of the empress Draupadi in a king’s court by her own extended family members, the helplessness of those who wanted to help her and her despair and disbelief that no one does anything to help her, in the end she accepts her fate and surrenders completely to Lord Krishna and he does save her dignity. Her husband’s cousins plot against them and invite them for a game of dice, her husband loses everything and then they coax him in a twisted sense to bet his own brothers and his own wife on this game and he loses them all. So Draupadi is dragged into this court by her hair as she is now a slave to the cousin brothers, and the eldest of them all, Duryodhana commands her to sit naked on his thigh in front of the court. Imagine the betrayal and the shock, she is disgusted at her husband who bet her in a game as if she was an object, her own father-in -law, i.e the husband’s uncle is the king in that court, her extended relatives and all present in the court are powerful, intelligent, law-abiding and kind people expect the tricksters and yet as per the rule of the land they refuse to act and try to save her, instead they stand and cry. They are bound by the rules or dharma and religion and refuse to break their own personal oath for the greater good. She debates with them all, she uses her knowledge and intellect to argue, she pleads and she cries and, in the end, she accepts her fate and surrenders to the Lord. She closes her eyes and folds her hands in prayer and lets the cousin pull her robes, then the miracle happens and the Lord saves her dignity. She is not disrobed but the entire court is disrobed. 

Lesson number one from this, only total acceptance of any situation and faith in a higher power can save us during times of great distress, having expectations from family, friends, well-wishers is fruitless because even if they have good intentions, they may not be always able to help you, and this pandemic is one of the examples. Families are unable to attend funerals of loved ones let alone weddings and births and other occasions. If your near one has Covid you cannot even be in the same room forget holding hands to give them support. If we accept this and completely place our faith in the higher power, not in a disappointed way that life is cruel, but in a solace that if you do not put expectations on others, they cannot disappoint you, and that the higher power will always help in some way, the source of loving, caring energy is always flowing and protecting us, but here is the clause, we need to ask it. The principle of free will is also shown in this incident, Lord Krishna did not jump in and save Draupadi the minute this court started, because we all have free will, he only interfered when she totally surrendered to him, when she was done pleading for help with those present, when she was done arguing and intellectually fighting for her cause, when she could not see any other way out and she cried out to the Lord. The learning from this is, do not wait till the last minute to involve the higher power in your plans in life, develop a relationship with it on a daily basis.

Draupadi should not be looked at as a helpless woman, change your perception of her in this situation, she represents all humans, if we get into the argument that men have always oppressed women, the crux of this perspective is lost. Find Draupadi inside you, even if you are a man, Draupadi tried with her mind, intellect, emotions to save herself from the situation, she was not an ordinary woman. She was born from the fire, she was extremely beautiful, strong willed, with an impeccable character, she conducted herself with utmost grace. She respected her elders, she nurtured her relationships, she had 5 husbands who were great warriors and she did penance to ensure she treated them all equally. She was an empress, not a queen of a small kingdom, when this incident took place, her husbands had declared ultimate power over all kingdoms and they had been accepted as the emperor and empress. This shows us that no matter how much material success, wealth, respect, security you have, no matter how pious and righteous you are, no matter if you have done everything right and followed your dharma to the T, negative and unexpected events can take place. So, when we feel why me? Why do bad things happen to good people? I did everything right etc. it is not helpful. Surrendering to the higher power in any shape or form or even the universe as a formless power whatever higher power you believe in, deliverance is only through it. We all have found ourselves at some point in life, alone and battling something that seemed unfair with no one able to help us. So, what is the learning from this all? Does it mean that all we work for is waste? You may think why should I do anything, I will only sit and pray all day, unfortunately that doesn’t help either.

We are travellers, and this journey on earth is for the evolution of our souls and evolution does not happen when things are going to be comfortable. If all the apes were content walking on all fours, humans would not have developed, necessity is the mother of invention, if there was no hardship in transporting things man would not have created the wheel. Similarly, unless we are shaken up we do not seek our true destination, and hence what is important is our perception of an incident and not the incident itself. Think about this for a while, look at this incident with Draupadi not as a woman being targeted, look at it as your inner self, in the moment it realizes that only the Lord is the true source and the true destination. Then draw parallels in your life, when did you feel like Draupadi in life? when you were facing challenges and no one seemed to help you and when you finally stopped struggling and worrying and surrendered to the higher power and miraculously you got the help you needed.

Let me share a bit of my experience. I was living alone post my divorce and I was sick with food poisoning, this led to nasty stomach ulcers. They were painful, I was really sick, no one could help me, my family could not travel, none of my friends were in the same town. I had to pick myself up, ride my bike to the clinic, get IV medication and ride back alone, this continued for 4-5 days. After coming home I would login for my office work, and I was appalled when my then team showed no empathy nor bothered to ask how I was feeling. When I recovered a bit, I went to the office and office politics reared its ugly head and I was being held responsible for something I did not do and threatened with loss of my job. That day, I felt defeated, alone and betrayed again, I reached home and I broke down. I was disappointed with my family, my friends, my colleagues, everyone and even with life. I was already going through emotional turmoil with my divorce and this all felt unwarranted. The weekend that followed, I calmed myself and surrendered, I meditated and listened to chants and read some articles and a switch went off inside me. I realized I was looking at it all wrong, I stopped blaming everyone and I changed my approach towards my work, retracting all emotion from the office politics. I realized then that the soul is truly on a journey of its own and even with good intentions people cannot always be there for you. I accepted the absence of people in my life and in a few days I felt empowered, I found emotional freedom, it added to my independent nature and the same people in office went on later to acknowledge my work. It was not easy, I had to remind myself of this perspective and hold onto it, it was not easy to forgive and yes I would get into the victim mode through the day, but I would pull my attention back to my new found perspective. That lesson is still embedded in me, it does not mean my patterns of reaction changed overnight, it does not mean I have not experienced loss, betrayal, or any of those emotions post it nor that I have reached nirvana, but my wisdom has grown, my perspective has changed. I realized how I was taking everything personally, it did propel me towards my life quest, to know more and more about spirituality and my personal dharma. 

As I share more you will see how Draupadi managed to change her perspective towards this personal insult and change it into a universal cause, not waging war for personal vengeance but for universal peace. We come to the end of this part, think over it and try to remember incidents in your life and what you think you learned. It is not about blaming others, it is about finding your role and your responsibility towards your own life. Next part we visit the pain and agony of Draupadi right after this incident, the shame and helplessness she felt and her conversation with Lord Krishna, she asks the same questions we do, why me? And it is fascinating to read what the Lord had to say.


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