Women in Mahabharata

–A review of Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee’s book ‘The Palace of Illusions’–

‘Everything is created and destroyed by women’–a popular proverb pointing to the instances in history where a woman’s actions have been responsible for the fall or rise of the biggest of races. But we seldom get to know how the women characters actually felt. Were they merely pawns in the hands of men or did they assert their will to change destiny? ‘The Palace of Illusions’ is a journey in the quest to unravel the answer. It is an intriguing and thoroughly absorbing account of ‘Mahabharata’ by Draupadi.

‘Wait for a man to avenge your honour, and you will wait forever’- these words uttered by Shikhandi reveal that the book is not an ode to Draupadi alone. Rather, it tells the story of women living in a world dominated by men and of the hardships they face. They were made to live under an illusion, where even the marital alliances often were nothing but ways to maintain political peace and order.

A strong-willed rebel and a feminist of her era, Draupadi, the protagonist and narrator, is weighed down by her rage and vengeance. She has always been considered as the impetus for the Mahabharata that massacred mankind, and is called a kritya. But she was called a kritya for what? For always being hushed because she was a girl? For being vengeful for the misery she suffered? Chitra Banerjee challenges this notion in her book, bringing to light aspects of the tale that have never been considered before – a woman’s emotions, the dynamics of her various relationships and the roles she plays in realizing the inevitable fate of thousands of people. What’s striking about the author’s approach is the concept that Draupadi, as the central character, brings to light a radical view of gender consciousness in the understanding of the mythology. As the book progresses, Draupadi’s many traits surface and the most powerful, enigmatic woman of the great epic Mahabharata, appears as an ordinary woman with her own share of imperfections and shortcomings. The fact that the novel actually revolves around a character so distressed, is an ode to Draupadi’s untold endurance and audacity.

The true purpose of the book, it seems, is to make the readers think about How often we question the indifferent ethic towards women through our epic? Draupadi’s vengeance for her humiliation has been regarded as the impetus for the war, but aren’t Yudhishthira and other characters equally, if not more, to blame? Yudhishthira as a husband staked her, Duryodhana and Dussashana being brother-in-laws humiliated her, and Bhima was the one who retaliated and took the vow to kill his cousins. They all are the doers, so why and how can the responsibility then be Draupadi’s supposed thirst for vengeance? Draupadi’s retaliation deposes her from being an ideal character, but the question that arises here is: why are the mannerisms of the rulers, kings, Pandavas and Kauravas never questioned in Mahabharata? Many questions like these serve as the ground to analyse the underlying theme of feminism.

The story is interwoven with the remarkable sagacity of other women in exercise of their power and leadership. Kunti managed to raise her sons singlehandedly and keeps them loyal to each other.  Kunti is one of the characters who had to sacrifice a lot. She had to give up her first born, Karna, because she did not want to bring shame to her family; she had to watch him being killed by his own younger brother when he was in his most helpless state. Gandhari, mother of Kauravas, repeatedly exhorted her sons to follow dharma and make peace with the Pandavas when her husband kindled in them a feeling of vengeance and hatred. Hidimba, a rather unacknowledged heroine of the epic, displayed extreme courage and loyalty. She was never given the respect and place a daughter in law deserves. She was abandoned after a son was born to her. Her son was also not honored like a prince but was only used as cannon fodder to fight and die.  These women proved that the truly powerful do not cling to power.

Their unassailable belief in themselves and their power as women—even though shaken many times in the story—is re-enforcing for each one of us today.

– Malvika Verma 

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