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Mahabharata on TV - 2

Written on Aug 25, '14

While wondering about the Mahabharata, I was reminded of that most dramatic of episodes - Draupadi's disrobing and humiliation. I searched youtube for 'Draupadi's vastraharana' and found Rupa Ganguli's version from the 80s Mahabharata tele-serial. She was really, really good on that day! The right mix of fiery-ness and helplessness, like a proud, defiant fawn cornered by a group of hyenas. Like one would imagine the 'real' Panchali to be - very womanly, with great inner strength and dignity, a sparkling intelligence, yet fragile.

Rupa had portrayed all of that, and when the fire in her tearful eyes and tongue was lashing at the elders in the sabha-ghar, who appeared completely neutered by some remote concept of 'Dharma' - it was these elders who seemed to be naked! Grandfather Bheeshma, especially looked like he had no place to hide. He couldn't even look at Draupadi. The ever-indulgent King Dritharashtra was luckier, in that he was blind, and didn't have to avert his gaze, like the other elders were compelled to do.

The word Dharma, which (according to scholars) literally means 'to hold together' was put to test on that day. It is what you are, that determines your dharma, not some thought-up idea of what it should be. Like the dharma of water is to wet, and of fire is to burn. Once these core qualities are gone, and the definition of fire holds no more, fire ceases to be 'it' - and that is adharma (according to my limited understanding, of course).

Some on that shameful day of Draupadi's humiliation wondered about the adharma of reneging on their given word, of breaking the gambler's deal. Some thought it'd be adharma to go against the will of their elders. Some couldn't oppose their employer's will, even though they had the power to do so - because of some quaint notion of dharma. While everyone, except perhaps Vikarna and Vidur, who had passionately argued against this travesty and were displaying their essential human 'dharma', had forgotten their respective dharmas as king, grandfather, husband, and lover.

Even Bheema, the most straight-forward of the pandavas according to me, was constrained by the idea of incurring the adharma of disobeying his elder brother. Yudhishthira had 'given away' all that he thought belonged to him, when he lost in that ill-fated game of 'pasha' to the wily uncle Shakuni, including his own self, his brothers, AND Draupadi! So, in a state of confusion perhaps (which I do not really hold against Bheema, for he wasn't the tallest of intellectual towers), Bheema thought it'd be adharma to renege on that deal, an insult to Yudhisthira were he to reclaim Draupadi from the jubilant Kauravas.

He had forgotten that Draupadi, or Bheema himself, or his younger siblings, weren't the property of Yudhishthira. None is anybody's property, and that is the essential dharma - I don't own anyone, nor do anybody own me. A husband certainly doesn't own his wife, or vice versa. Slavery IS adharma! So Bheema would not have sinned, by overturning Yudhishthira's original adharma and saving Draupadi. But he was confused, and restrained by others who were equally confused, even though he did ask Sahadeva to bring fire, so that he may burn Yudhishthira's hands (which he had used to gamble away everything to Shakuni). Bheema earnestly wanted to protect Draupadi, and that was his dharma as husband of the wife in distress. But he went back on that.

According to K M Ganguli's voluminous translation (about 6000 pages of pdf, available online) Draupadi was 'in her season' on that day, and was clad in a single piece of cloth. This was how she was dragged in front of the assembly by Duryadhana's brother. He even mentions, rather graphically, of it being 'stained'. However, the subsequent events of her attempted disrobing aren't included (at least not in the translation I have read) - I wonder why. I recently re-read those parts from Rajshekhar Basu and C. Rajagopalachari's Mahabharata, which are respectively in Bengali and English. And then yesterday I watched the Rupa Ganguli portrayal - it was beautiful!

Although not as graphic as Ganguli's description, Draupadi was portrayed with a great deal of sensitivity in acting, attire, and make-up. One's heart went out to her when she found, despite earnest pleadings, that none of her husbands or the sanctimonious elders would come to her rescue. She was left to fend off the aggressor alone, perhaps not unlike a modern day woman being openly molested on the streets, as passersby hurried along averting their gazes. The difference being, those passersby would in most cases be afraid to intervene, or reluctant to get involved in the 'jhamela' as many would probably reason - while the elders in that ancient assembly, and Draupadi's husbands had the power to stop it. Yet none came forward. Kind of like cops looking the other way, when such a thing was happening in their presence. And THAT is adharma - the word was turned on its head on that day.

It was especially touching to see Krishna come to her rescue ultimately, when all hope was gone, and she raised her arms in utter submission to her dearest friend. We all know how a miracle then took place, and Duryadhana's purpose (carried out by his stuporous, tamasic brother) was defeated. But on that day, the fate of the Kauravas was indelibly written in the blood of vengeance.

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