My previous article had introduced you to the Panch-kanya or Five Virgins of Hindu mythology, stressing on the fact that none of these women are virgins in the sense that we understand the word today. This article further explores the extra-ordinary life of one of these women, who is also perhaps, the most interesting of them all.

The absolute aplomb with which Draupadi handles her marital life is certainly worth marvelling at

You may know of Draupadi as the woman who had five husbands but there are many remarkable aspects of her life that perhaps you have never come across. Like Sita, the heroine of Ramayan, even Draupadi, who can be easily considered the main female protagonist in Mahabharat, was ‘Ayonija’, implying that she wasn’t born from a normal vaginal delivery. While Sita had been found in the field by Janak, the latter had emerged fully grown from the sacred fires of a Yagnya that King Drupad had organized to obtain a son.

Draupadi herself is mentioned in the Mahabharat as the reincarnation of the queen of heavens, Shachi

When she materialized from the flames, the entire sacrificial arena was filled with the fragrance of blue-lotuses. Seeing her alluring dusky complexion, the officiating priests named her Krishnaa (with a longer ‘a’ sound than Krishna), the dark one. Emerging from the Yagnya kund she was called Yagnyaseni, being the daughter of Drupad she was addressed as Draupadi, and since she was the princess of the kingdom of Panchal, she was also referred to as Panchali.

It wasn’t just her sudden appearance that was noteworthy, but also the purpose of her birth. As her shadowy and scintillating frame emerged from the flames, a divine voice was heard to proclaim that she would become the reason for the annihilation of the Kuru Dynasty. Drupad, who had performed the Yagnya with a specific aim to obtain a son to avenge his defeat by the Kurus, was more than happy to have obtained her as well.

Kavita Kane on Women in Mythology

Draupadi is no ordinary woman. Nothing from her birth, to marriage, to her death is ordinary. She is a woman way ahead of her times

From the moment she was born, the Panchal king had harbored the dream of giving her hand in marriage to Arjun, arguably the best warrior in Bharatvarsha. Almost everybody knows how Arjun, even while living in the disguise of a mendicant, fulfilled the stringent conditions set for Draupadi’s Swayamvar to win her hand. However, not many realize that the very reason for those rigorous stipulations was to ensure that only Arjun could fulfill them.

After returning from the Swayamvar with his lovely wife and brothers who were also living as hermits, the Pandav prince perhaps childishly addressed his mother with the words, “See mother what we have brought!” Their mother Kunti, assuming that what the brothers had brought for her were the daily alms, she asked them to share whatever they had received that day equally amongst them. However absurd it may sound, the five princes, who followed every word said by their mother to the letter, end up accepting Draupadi as their wife.

Many people think this incidence showed how the fate of women was decided by men in ancient India but nothing could be farther from the truth. First, it was the words of another woman – Draupadi’s mother-in-law Kunti – that led to this situation. Secondly, the custom of polyandry was an accepted part of the society in those days.

The Mahabharat specifically mentions it to be a particularly favorite custom of the women in Mahishmati (not the Bahubali one), the capital of Avanti. Even in the text called Yog Vasishth, an immortal bird who has seen six incarnations of Parshu-Raam, eleven of Shri Raam and a hundred Buddhas, has a conversation with Brahmarishi Vasishth about the time when women were free to have multiple partners like men.

While the ancients accepted deviations from monogamous relationships as matter-of-fact, it is us, the denizens of so called ‘modern’ society that frown upon them when we hear of such instances. To satisfy the censure of the puritans, Ved-Vyas, the knower of past, present and future, and the compiler of Mahabharat, holds a conference with Drupad and other distinguished people of Panchal and informs them about the past lives of Pandavs as well as Yagnyaseni.

Draupadi, being the fierce and free-spirited women that she was, contests this decision though. She is not ready to give in to it just because her father and elders are convinced of the logic. It is only when her friend Krishna reminds her of her previous birth that she finally says yes. She had been a hermit girl called Nalayani who had prayed to Shiva to grant her a husband with certain desired qualities. Shiva, pleased with her devotion, told her that no single man possessed all those qualities. But she was resolute in her wish so the Lord gives in to her demand by telling her that she would get more than one husband to fulfill her requirement!

Many people know the five Pandavs as children sired by different gods. But they were in fact various expansions of Indra. Markandeya Purana mentions that Yamraj himself deposited a portion of Indra’s potency into Kunti from which was created Yuddhishthir. Vayu Dev deposited Indra’s radiance to result in the mighty Bheem while Indra himself gave away half of his ‘Shakti’ to Kunti resulting in the birth of Arjun. Similarly, the Ashwini Kumars deposited Indra’s virility into Madri, and the twins Nakul and Sahadev were born.

Notice that none of them have a normal birth just like Draupadi who had emerged from Agni. Draupadi herself is mentioned in the Mahabharat as the reincarnation of the queen of heavens, Shachi, also considered the goddess of retribution. Considering that the entire purpose of Drauapdi’s emergence from the Yagnya was revenge, this point rather neatly fits in with the entire narrative.

While the epics have a wonderful Karmic way to explain the happenings we might find strange, personally, I wouldn’t think any less of Draupadi even if the events of the past had not taken place. The absolute aplomb with which she handles her marital life is certainly worth marvelling at. She would spend one whole year with one of the brothers with no other Pandav allowed access to her intimacy during that time. The success with which Draupadi manages her relationship with five men, each of whom, in spite of marrying other women still respects her as his principal wife, is something that would be hard to achieve even in today’s age of open relationships!

But even when pampered by her husbands, she is not dependent on them in any way. When they fail her in the royal court of Hastinapur, she does not hesitate to berate each of them along with the blind king of the land

She wasn’t their maid, pandering to their demands or doing their bidding, she was their adored queen, and each one of them was eager to fulfill every single wish of hers. With her wit and beauty, Draupadi had turned a situation that could have become awkward or even acrimonious, into a harmony that kept the brothers bound to each other through her.

But even when pampered by her husbands, she is not dependent on them in any way. When they fail her in the royal court of Hastinapur, she does not hesitate to berate each of them along with the blind king of the land, Dhritrashtra, whose sons are molesting her after defeating her husbands in a game of dice. She curses the society that allows a woman to be degraded thus because of a game and convincingly argues her case till she has made every single man present there apologize to her.

Quite predictably, that is not enough to quench her vengeance. She vows to keep her hair open till she has washed them with the blood of Dushasan, the Kaurav brother who tried to disrobe her, and makes sure her husbands remember the ignominy she had faced because of their inaction. Just before the Great War when Pandavs decide to give peace a last chance, she is appalled at the thought that she would not get her revenge and doesn’t hesitate to even chastise Krishna with the following words – “I have no husbands! I have no sons, nor brothers! Nor art thou alive, O Govinda, since the king desires for peace!” Truly, a woman who would not rest till she has achieved what she desires.

next time you hear someone ridicule her by reducing her narrative to that of a woman with multiple husbands, do tell them, she was a woman forged in fire

It is also noteworthy that when the Pandavs finally abdicate the throne and start their journey to the Himalayas, it is only Draupadi who goes with them, not any of their other wives. It is only Draupadi who attains heaven along with them in their last journey, while the other royal ladies live on in the pomp and glory of Hastinapur.

Clearly, Draupadi is no ordinary woman. Nothing from her birth, to marriage, to her death is ordinary. She is a woman way ahead of her times – a free-spirited, focused and well managed woman whom probably no one can dare to emulate even today. So next time you hear someone ridicule her by reducing her narrative to that of a woman with multiple husbands, do tell them, she was a woman forged in fire, the likes of whom they would probably never see in their lifetime.

Dr. Vineet Aggarwal lives and works in Mumbai and is the author of popular online blog ‘Decode Hindu Mythology’ and the books ‘Vishwamitra’ and ‘The Legend of Parshu-Raam’. His literary repertoire covers topics from politics to poetry and travel to terrorism but his favorite genre remains the amalgamation of science with religion.
Views are the author’s own