There is a reason why our civilization looks at Mahabharata for guidance. Every situation in Mahabharata is rich with shining elements of thought that shed light on the resolution of complex situations – even after a few thousand years later.
Mahabharata achieves it in multiple ways. Characters stand as timeless metaphors. Situations throw challenges that ring familiar to our lives today. Conversations explore fundamentals that are relevant at all times.
There is more to it. Instead of providing solutions to problems, Mahabharata presents ways and means of approaching a problem along with fundamental principles.
The mesmerizing nature of those principles and the striking nature of those approaches have captured the imagination of Bharateeya Parampara for millennia. Draupadi’s marriage to the Pandavas is one such story.
The laborious way in which the elders decide whether Draupadi should marry one of the Pandavas or all of them is insightful. The story itself is quite familiar. It is quite cryptic in the Northern Recensions but elaborate in the Southern Recensions. After Arjuna wins the Matsya-yantra contest, the Kshatriya princes attack the Pandavas.
However, Arjuna and Bhima defeat all of them comprehensively. The Pandavas and Draupadi leave hastily towards the house of the potter where Pandavas stayed when they arrived from Ekachakranagara to Panchalanagara.
Kunti was quite worried that the Pandavas had not returned back from their seeking of Bhiksha for the day. Ever since she returned to Hastinapura from the Shatashrunga mountains, Kunti was perennially bothered about the safety of Pandavas. Dhritarashtra and her sons were not to be trusted.
The Rakshasas were always a source of trouble. In that moment of anxiety, the Pandavas entered. Bhimasena and Arjuna knew that Kunti would be waiting for them in anticipation of the daily bhiksha.
What they brought for the day was always respectfully presented to Kunti – a way of being devoted to their mother in every act of theirs. Bheema and Arjuna entered the house with a cry “Oh Mother, look at the Bhiksha that we have brought for you today!”.
Being in her own world, Kunti was relieved that they had returned and were safe. She let her guard down, let out a sigh of relief, and exclaimed “Take your Bhiksha equally” and came out to meet her children, hoping to move towards her routine. Alas – that was not to be.
The moment she saw Draupadi, Kunti realized the complexity her response resulted in. But then, Kunti was such a devout Dharmic lady – she had never uttered a word that was not true. For her to continue to be so, the Pandavas had to marry Draupadi. If that were Adharma, Kunti’s words would go untrue and her Vrata would be destroyed. Kunti was deeply worried.
Draupadi, on the contrary, was unmindful of any of this. She had garlanded a man who had won the Swayamvara fair and square. She was convinced of the valor of the man who had won her.
Kunti sought a resolution from the great Dharmaraja – who else. Her words were not to go untrue. Pandavas were not to go in the path of Adharma. The great daughter of Drupada was not to suffer the consequence of an Adharmic act.
Yudhishthira, though, was still thinking in terms of the Swayamvara. It was Arjuna who won Draupadi and it was he who should marry her. Arjuna, on the other hand, was keen that Yudhisthira had to marry first, Bheema next, and so on.
This apart, Kunti’s words were to be respected. Finally, Drupada was to be convinced of Draupadi’s well being as well. He left it to Yudhisthira to resolve the matter in a way that pleased all concerned. At that moment, Draupadi gently looked at each of the Pandavas to get a glimpse of their persona.
The Pandavas for the first time saw Draupadi and met her eyes in person. They have swept away with her beauty. After a brief, the Pandavas came back to their senses and the reality around them.
They glanced at each other and realized that each was struck by the divine spirit and beauty of Draupadi. The quintessential Manmatha had struck at their hearts – with his flower arrows, of course.
Yudhisthira perceived reality. He was also reminded of Sage Vyasa’s words when he narrated the story of Draupadi on the way to Dakshina Panchala. Vyasa had urged the Pandavas to marry Draupadi.
Vyasa’s divine words had already created a space within the Pandavas into which it was not difficult for Manmatha Deva to place his flowery arrows. “The great lady shall be the wife of all of us” – declared Yudhishthira. The Pandavas silently assimilated the reality of Yudhisthira’s words.
In the meanwhile, Srikrishna came along with Balarama with the minimal intention of ascertaining that they were the Pandavas. He bowed to Yudhishthira and Kunti, exchanged words of comfort with everybody, and left with the same speed as he arrived. Dhrishtadyumna was secretly watching all the proceedings.
After Srikrishna left, the Pandavas ate their usual Bhiksha which they had received through their visits to the households in the morning, and slept on the ground. Draupadi continued to be at her ease in spite of her unexpected earthly reality. Dhrushtadyumna left for the palace when all were in deep sleep, to report to his father.
Drupada was in anticipation of comforting words. He was worried if his daughter had wed any unworthy even though the possibility was remote, given the nature of the contest. But, was that somehow Arjuna who won Draupadi?
Drupada had never lost hope in spite of what he heard of the Varanavata. Nevertheless, he was eager to know the kula, gotra, varna of the person who Draupadi had garlanded at the Swayamvara.
Dhrishtadyumna recounted everything that he saw to Drupada along with his conclusion “from their conversations, behavior, and the weapons they wielded – they seemed Kshatriyas. They could be the Pandavas – we had learned that they escaped from the Laksha house at Varanavata”.
This was natural music to Drupada’s years. He at once sent learned Purohitas to meet the Pandavas and enquire about the essentials. He explicitly instructed the Purohitas to indulge in the conversation if they were the Pandavas – which they faithfully executed. Yudhishthira wondered if Drupada should be concerned about their identity after Arjuna won Draupadi rightfully in the Swayamvara.
Drupada in the meanwhile sent another messenger inviting all of them to the Palace for lunch and then a formal marriage ceremony. While the Pandavas prepared themselves to leave, the Purohitas left ahead and updated Drupada. The Pandavas reached and from their conduct, it was clear to Drupada that they were Kshatriyas. His close confidants were certain that they were the Pandavas.
Eventually, Drupada could not resist and sought from them directly if they were Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras, or the very Devas themselves. Yudhishthira decided to break the ice and clarify in the end that they were Kshatriyas, what more – they were the Bharatavanshi Pandavas themselves.
Finally, Drupada’s dream and seeking of the divine had come true. He honored them and made arrangements for them to spend some days in the palace at leisure.
After a few days, he broached the topic of when he could arrange the formal marriage of Arjuna with Draupadi. Yudhisthira calmly said that he would be marrying Draupadi first.
Drupada was taken aback for a moment! Recovering soon he said that he was fine with any one of the Pandavas marrying Draupadi. Yudhishthira’s subsequent response came as a shock to Drupada.
Of course, what transpired subsequently remains one of the most important moments in the Bharateeya Parampara. Apart from its dramatic nature, it contains an important metaphor and thought process of great relevance and one that requires reflective assimilation.
“Oh, King – All the five of us shall marry Draupadi. Our mother has wished thus. None of us is married. Arjuna won Draupadi in the Swayamvara. We are bound by a Niyama that whatever comes through any of us, all the five of us shall receive it as our own. We cannot abandon this Niyama. Hence, please let Draupadi be the Dharmapatni of all of us – one after the other”.
Drupada was taken back. He was not prepared for such a proposal. He expressed his displeasure sighting an absence of precedence. “Yudhishitra, an act that is not in practice (AchAra), neither in the tradition (saMpradAya), not recommended by the Vedas, one against the order of the world – hence this will be a Paapa. Hence, Yudhishthira must not even encourage this.
Why did your mind even move in this way?”. What Dharmaraja said was not only to resolve the problem at hand. It remains an important framework of thought in Bharatavarsha to negotiate complex change as well.
“Oh King – Dharma is very subtle,” said Dharmaraja, “It is not easy to grasp its subtle nature. Neither is it easy to see its path very clearly. Rest be assured that we always follow the path of the great men of the past and the present. O King – Know that I have never uttered a lie. My tongue is such that it is incapable of making a lie.
My mind is such that it can never tend towards an act of Paapa. Neither can it agree to one. If my mind has to agree to something it ought to be according to Dharma. Our mother has uttered that all five of us must receive the Bhiksha and my mind has agreed with it. Hence, Drupada, it is according to Dharma that you offer Draupadi in marriage to all five of us.
You ought not to waver in this”. Yudhisthira was firm and clear in his mind. However, Drupada could not bring himself to accept this yet. He left it to Dhrishtadyumna, Yudhisthira, and Kunti to find a resolution and retired for the moment.
Right at that time, Veda Vyasa made his divine entry. The great men, along with Kunti and Draupadi, were pleased to receive the Maharshi and honored him befittingly. Once he rose to his seat, Drupada, with great hopes for a resolution, sought clarity from Vyasa on the matter.
“Can a pious lady of Arya Dharma take many men as husbands?”. Vyasa knew and had arrived for this purpose. “Drupada, it does indeed seem that this is against the Vedas and order of the world. This is a deep matter. But before we set ourselves further, I would like to hear from each of you”.
Drupada repeated. “Neither in practice nor in tradition, not according to the order of the world, seemingly against the Vedas. This seems an act of Paapa. I have never seen or heard this. None of our ancestors have ever practiced this.
We are capable of discretion in the following of Dharma. We must not perform an act of Adharma. I am very doubtful if a lady marrying many men is according to Dharma”. Drupada was uncertain but leaned towards disagreeing with the proposal as he was full of concern.
Dhristradyumna was far more vocal in his concern. How could one imagine a man approaching a lady who is also his elder brother’s wife – wondered Dhristadyumna. “We are not capable of deciding the Dharma-Adharma of this act. I cannot agree to this wholeheartedly” declared Dhrishtadyumna.
Yudhishtira remained as certain and resolute as ever. “My tongue has never turned to tell a lie. My mind and intelligence are incapable of moving towards an act of Adharma. The moment my mind agreed to this – I was certain that this act too was Dharma.
This is neither without precedence. In ancient times, Saga Gautama’s wife Jatila married the Sapta-Rishis. Varkshnee, the daughter of Sage Kandu, had married ten Rishis who were called the Prachetasas. Besides, when the Guru orders something we must do so and that is Dharma. Mother is the greatest Guru. Acting according to her words is the greatest Dharma.
I do not have a doubt that Draupadi must be an equal wife to all of us”. Kunti was firm and with a divine concern. “Maharshi, Yudhishthira is always on the path of Dharma and his opinion is my opinion.
If Draupadi does not marry the Pandavas, it amounts to my words being a lie. How do I escape from the clutches of the Paapa rising out of words of untruth”.
Vyasa comforted Kunti. “O great lady – nothing that you said will ever go lie. It is the responsibility of your children to make sure that you do not suffer the consequence of Untruth. O Drupada – be certain that Yudhisthira’s words are according to high Dharma.
I will explain the same to you in private”. He took away Drupada to the private quarters of the Palace and narrated two stories that are now famous. The first was the Pandavas being the five Indras suffering the curse of Mahadeva to take birth on earth like brothers.
Divyashree of the Swarga was to be their wife. The second story was Divyashree being born as a Rishikanya and seeking a good husband, but repeating it five times when Mahadeva appeared in front of her pleased with her penance.
As these were divine secrets and not to be uttered in front of the others, Vyasa narrated to Drupada in private and temporarily gave him the Drushti to see the Pandavas as the five Indras. Thus, convinced, Drupada gave Draupadi in marriage to the Pandavas.
This magnificent episode in the Mahabharata is full of great insights. Drupada’s concern is insightful. He presents four ways for an act to be considered Dharma. The easiest is to see if it is in the usual practice of the community.
That means it must have passed through the watchful eyes of great sages and hence Dharma. If not, it must be declared somewhere as part of the Tradition. It may be in the books or a learned sage must be aware of it. If not, it must be considered as an act of Dharma somewhere.
One could at least learn and adopt that into practice in another community. Lastly, it may not be seen anywhere, but it could be found in accordance with the principles of Dharma in the Vedas and great sages could ascertain it as such.
Drupada’s concern is that Draupadi marrying the Pandavas would not be Dharma in any of these four ways. Drupada spoke what was normal practice. Something already in a community practice means that the community has learned to perform an act without violating the cosmic order of the universe – the chief concern of Dharma.
Its relevance could just be within a limited space and time. If not, one sees whether in the larger design of the tradition – an act could be judged as Dharma. If that is not so, one could see if that is a Practice in another space and time and if that could be brought in – which requires sagely design.
Lastly, can it be derived from the philosophy, from the principles articulated in the Shruti – which really requires the greatest of the Sages. The story paints a picture of how our ancients set about deciding if an act were Dharma when one seemed like a deviation from the normal practice. The design is very relevant for all times.
Dharmaraja’s response rings another truth. If a thought came to his mind, if he accepted something as Dharma then it is Dharma. If Kunti utters something then it ought to be Dharma. At the outset, this seems autocratic and high-handed. However, Mahabharata accords this status to only Dharmaraja Yudhisthira.
It is signifying an important dimension of Dharma that is beyond the practice, maybe beyond even observable tradition. Change or deviation passes through great men and women of immense Tapashcharya. The nature of such great minds is that an act of Adharma cannot escape their scrutiny and abandonment.
Dharma is not a matter of intellectual discretion and determination but their very nature itself. This status is not accorded to anybody other than Dharmaraja in the whole of Mahabharata.
At all times, there will be such men, and change or a deviation that is acceptable to them always is according to the Dharma and will do the world a great deal of good.
Of course, upon a careful investigation, one will eventually find a reflection of that in the Shruti. It is a different matter that Dharmaraja finds precedence of the practice in ancient times – lost in the tradition but resurrectable for crucial times.
Finally, how Veda Vyasa resolves the matter points to another important concern of the Bharateeya Parampara. Significant change ought to have a Devarahasya. Significant change ought to have a very large purpose that is full of good for the world in its embryo.
Unless we find a divine purpose a significant change is not worth the immense effort or the risks associated with it. When we realize a Divine purpose, an entire community rallies around the divine purpose to materialize a significant deviation too as an act of Dharma.
Not that this Divine purpose can escape the rules of earthly life. Devashree has to take birth as a Rishikanya, perform penance to seek a husband, indulge in a humanly oversight of repetition in seeking a husband from the Divine.
The Penance, after all, cannot go waste. Thus, the Divinity must come down as an act of deviation. Human act, through penance, must seek Divinity and through that achieve an exception.
Thus, this episode is a complete treatise on Change in Mahabharata. Mahabharata is full of such situations where there is a significant bend in the river of Ruta-pravaha. At each bend, Mahabharata presents us how the Change is achieved and along with it provides us inspiration, principles, and frameworks to think of Change in our times and yet be firmly in the path of Dharma.
As an aside, we must appreciate that Veda Vyasa gave a chance for all to air their opinion before presenting his resolution. One can observe this throughout the Mahabharata.
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