Sage Vyasa's Mahabharata offers enormous material for innumerable studies from ever so many angles. His treatment of women, for instance. So many treatises have been written and yet the subject remains inexhaustible. Kevin McGrath studies some of the man-womanly heroines (he calls them ‘women heroes') and the inter-linkage of nature with their lives — besides, of course, their sexuality and contemporary presence in the feminist discourse, a sure passport to library shelves.
Stri sees woman mainly as wife, daughter-in-law, and mother. How does a Vyasan woman become a wife? ‘Swayamvara' is a favourite method for a Kshatriya girl but time and again it becomes her undoing. Often it is a Draupadi who ends up with five husbands or an Amba who gets none. Not surprisingly, Draupadi gets an entire section for herself. She was born to endure a variety of sorrows in the famous contexts like the Sabha, the forest, the Virata court, and the Kurukshetra.
McGrath's telling, entwined with Sanskrit quotes, leaves no important component unsaid; so we have the main Mahabharata tale in miniature. The author rightly says that Draupadi is “a figure of paramount suffering”. But then, by inserting a false note, namely “her sexuality and its potence — for she maintains five husbands”, he brings down the hero-woman to the level of a common courtesan.
Management of words in contexts is a problem with the author, as when he refers to Ulupi as “inhuman” (obviously he means she is a serpent) or “wife's co-wife”. But no matter. He is well read and understands the living spaces of the Mahabharata in Indian culture: “Unlike most of the other epics in the world today which are frozen, insofar as their textual corpus has become fixed and has remained unchanged for centuries if not millennia, the Mahabharata in contemporary India exists not simply as a permanent, critically edited object of literature, it also functions as a scripture, supplying a ritual and mythical ground for modern Hindu religion — particularly in north India — and it is thoroughly multiform in its living non-written manifestations.”
The Mahabharata remains a pan-Indian scripture and continues to be the inspiration for new creations in art and literature. From this legend of ‘women heroes', McGrath brings before us, among others, Savitri, Kunti, Damayanti and Amba. An insightful section is devoted to women who speak the dharmic truth, however harsh it may sound in the circumstances. Gandhari is a perfect example; she is always against Duryodhana's ways that portend the destruction of the clan. “… Duryodhana's wish for war has destroyed all affection that his mother possesses for him; a situation which according to conventional kinship patterns would normally be unthinkable. Gandhari has placed dharma before affection.”
Such is the glory and the good of the Indian feminine that they never take the easy way out. If it is a question of Kshatriya honour, then according to Kunti, the answer is dandaniti, a legitimate use of violence. All this and more, but what touches the deepest chords in us is the scenario of women “striking their breasts” lamenting the death of their menfolk. A scene flashed through visual media even today when there is a major communal clash involving loss of lives.
McGrath winds up his argument with a return to the sexuality of women, quoting the unnamed stri: “sexual passion binds even strong women.” No wonder the Intimidated Man has ruled that “women do not deserve independence.” Soon we are drawn into the world of Shiva who is “followed by a thousand women,” as also polyandry practised in the Punjab and among the Toda tribe.
The book itself closes on the basic good heart of the Mahabharathan women as they admire Krishna when he enters Hastinapura as an ambassador, for he is bringing peace, not war. Remember, he does open his famous speech with samah syat, may there be peace!