The swayamvar of Draupadi

Consent is the essence of the #MeToo campaign. At the core of the campaign is the entirely just and legitimate demand that a woman’s right to say ‘No’ or ‘Yes’ must be respected in all situations, that she should have the freedom to take her own decisions, and that she should not be forced to do anything against her will. In short, a woman should be accepted by the society as an independent, free and empowered individual, who can fully take care of herself. Unfortunately, this does not match with the existing social reality. One wonders if misogyny is deeply rooted in our religious, cultural and literary traditions and is an integral part of the social system and its ideology, known as patriarchy.

After prescribing that a girl is guarded by her father, a young woman by her husband and an old woman by her son, Manusmriti unequivocally declares that na stree svatantrayam arhati —“a woman does not deserve freedom”. It is obvious that the lawgiver is merely codifying a social attitude that has evolved over many centuries while, at the same time, also upholding it as an eternal social norm.

Manusmriti’s prescriptions may be known to only a learned few but their essence has percolated deep down so as to become common wisdom. However, our epics –Ramayana and Mahabharata – are very widely known all over the country and almost everybody is familiar with their main story and characters. Women have been consistently denied choice and their consent is never sought for anything. It is another matter that women themselves have internalised patriarchal values and treat other women accordingly. Draupadi’s is a case in point.

Her Swayamvara (choosing one’s husband) was itself a sham as she had no say in deciding about the condition of the Swayamvara: that only that archer whose arrow will pierce the eye of a rotating fish will be eligible to marry her. Although Arjuna had won the contest, his mother Kunti made Draupadi the wife of her other four sons too without her consent as all of them were lusting after her. She was publicly humiliated by her accidental husband Yudhishthira who staked her and lost in a game of dice. When an attempt to disrobe her was made at the Kaurava court and Karna and Duryodhana used vulgar language and gestures, calling her a “prostitute”, nobody rose in her defence. When she raised a point of law, even wise men like Bhishma and Vidura kept quiet. When the Pandavas were living in exile, Duryodhana’s brother-in-law Jayadratha tried to rape her. In all these shameful episodes, the guilty men did not attract any stigma and remained as respectable as ever.

Sita is the best-known example of how patriarchy treats a woman. It was not her but her foster father Janaka who had decided the condition for winning the Swayamvara contest. When Rama was exiled, she too went with him because she was his ardhangini (better half)

The story of Madhavi that occurs in the Udyoga Parva of the Mahabharata, is particularly heart-rending as she is turned into a sex-object. When sage Vishwamitra’s disciple Galava kept on insisting on offering guru-dakshina, Vishvamitra asked him to offer eight hundred horses of the finest breed whose body was white and one side of their ears of a dark colour. Galava went to King Yayati who, without listening to his demand, promised to meet it. When he heard the demand, he said he had no such horses and asked Galava to take his extremely beautiful daughter Madhavi to other kings and procure the horses.

And, kings Haryashva, Divodasa and Ushinara kept her with them, produced sons and returned her to Galava, each giving two hundred horses to him. He was still two hundred horses short. So Vishwamitra himself kept Madhavi with him, produced sons and released Galava from his debt. Then, Madhavi was returned to Yayati who held a Swayamvara for her. Here, for the first time, she was given the freedom to choose. And, she chose the life of renunciation and quietly walked out of the Swayamvara without saying a word. None of these men were ever indicted of any wrong-doings.

Sita is the best-known example of how patriarchy treats a woman. It was not her but her foster father Janaka who had decided the condition for winning the Swayamvara contest. When Rama was exiled, she too went with him because she was his ardhangini (better half). As Lakshman was not exiled and himself chose to accompany Rama, he did not allow his wife Urmila to come with him. After killing Ravana, Rama told Sita in front of everybody that he had defeated the Rakshasas only to avenge the insult that Ravana had heaped on him by abducting his wife, not to get Sita back and she was free to go anywhere she liked. Then he asked her to go through agnipariksha to prove her chastity. What worse insult a woman could suffer publicly! And, then, Rama abandoned a pregnant Sita in a forest full of wild animals at night. She could have died, had sage Valmiki not met her by chance. Little wonder that abandoning an innocent wife is not frowned upon even today.

None of the men who mistreated women was ever punished. The punishment was reserved for Ravan’s sister Suparnakha who gave expression to her sexuality and told Rama that she fancied him. Her nose and ears were cut off.

Is our present very different from our past?