Feminine Mythique History & Culture

The disrobing of Draupadi

One of the most searing moments in our mythology has to be the vastraharana, the disrobing of Draupadi in the Kaurava court. Even before Duhshasana starts to tear off her clothes, she has been manhandled, dragged into court in a blood-stained garment, pulled by her hair and insulted by Duryodhana and Karna. All this while the elders of her family watch in stupefied silence. Her emasculated husbands mutter and rumble in anger, but none of them can lift a finger to help her, bound as they are by dharma, the dharma of their new status as slaves. We know that Draupadi prays to Krishna and is able to salvage the last fragments of her dignity. Her garment becomes endless — yards and yards of fabric appear miraculously and defeat Duhshasana’s lascivious intentions. Draupadi never stands fully naked in that public, fundamentally male space.

Perhaps what we don’t all know is that the verse about Draupadi praying to Krishna and his divine intervention on her behalf, appears outside the main text of the critical edition of the Sanskrit Mahabharata, produced over five decades and after more than one thousand manuscripts were consulted and collated. When a verse or a set of verses appears outside the main text, it means that it/they did not appear in every single manuscript that was used to create the critical edition. And so we realise that the Krishna verses in this episode appear in many but not all the extant manuscripts of the text.

Recurring image

Recently, in the Victoria Memorial Museum in Kolkata, I happened upon a small and entirely trivial exhibition of Krishna images that had been pulled out of the Museum’s vaults. They covered eras and styles randomly, none of the paintings breathtaking or even remarkable in any way. But there was a recurring image entitled ‘vastraharana.’ It did not depict Draupadi’s disrobing, it revelled in the moment when Krishna steals the clothes of the gopis and hangs them on the trees by the river where they are bathing. He hides as he watches the women, enjoying first, the pleasure they take in the water and later, their distress as they realise that they will have to reveal their naked bodies if they are to fetch their clothes that lie so close and yet, just out of reach.

Both the incidents where women’s clothes are taken away from them (Draupadi in the Kaurava assembly and the gopis by the river), are labelled vastraharana. In each case, we assume that resonant, violent abstract noun refers to the women’s moment of shame when they might be naked in public. It was on that crowded Sunday morning at the Victoria Memorial that I remembered that the root hr in Sanskrit (which gives us harana) has a host of meanings, some contradictory, as they range from ‘rob’ to ‘remove’ to ‘fetch’ and ‘offer.’ And for the first time, I thought that naming Draupadi’s humiliation vastraharana might not have been about her. It might be about the male god who offered her a garment without end.

Arshia Sattar works with myth, epic and the story traditions of the sub-continent.

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2021 10:53:23 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-vastraharana-episode-could-be-interpreted-as-being-more-about-krishna-than-draupadi/article17475240.ece

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