Why is Draupadi blamed for the Mahabharata war?

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Draupadi is the most prominent female character in the Mahabharata. Her given name at birth is Krishnaa, but since she is the daughter of Drupada she is called Draupadi. She is also known as Panchali – or the ‘daughter of Panchala’.

Draupadi is often considered the primary reason for the destruction of the Kuru dynasty. She takes birth as a grown young woman in a sacrifice performed by Drupada, in which the king asks for a ‘weapon’ with which the Kurus can be defeated.

In this post, we will answer the question: Why is Draupadi blamed for the Mahabharata war?

The incident of Draupadi’s disrobing at the dice game is the pivotal moment that launches all of the Pandavas’ hate. Draupadi insists on revenge and war throughout their exile even when the Pandavas consider peace. The war is fought with the intention of delivering vengeance to Draupadi. Therefore, she is considered most responsible for the Mahabharata war.

(For answers to all Draupadi-related questions, see Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered.)

Why do wars happen?

While this post is not a meditation on war, we can put together a quick-and-dirty list of why wars happen between any two groups of people at any time. Here are the main reasons:

  • Revenge. One group wants to avenge past wrongs of the other group. As power shifts from one to the other and back again, these conflicts can last multiple generations. The human capacity for grudge-bearing is legendary.
  • Ambition. One particular kingdom may be driven by a quest for great power and fame. A king’s status is often closely linked to how big his dominion is. Many kings in history have sought to expand their rule for this simple reason.

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 15: The Rajasuya.)

  • Scarce resources. Occasionally, two groups of people find themselves quarrelling over a single, scarce resource. This can be a freshwater lake, a mine, a piece of fertile land etc.
  • Greed. One group wants to have ‘everything’ for themselves – even at the cost of the quality of life of other kingdoms’ citizens.
  • Envy. One group believes that another group has many more desirable possessions than they do. In order to appropriate these, the first group declares war. Or it marginalizes the second group in some way, instigating the victims to ‘rebel’.

While the above list is not exhaustive, it broadly covers the main causes of human conflict. In the Mahabharata, we see ambition (Yudhishthir becoming emperor), revenge (the Pandavas seeking to avenge Draupadi’s humiliation) and envy (Duryodhana admitting to it after returning from Yudhishthir’s Rajasuya).

What is wealth in the Mahabharata?

In the society that the Mahabharata describes, wealth is often said to be composed of four things:

  • Land – because it allows you to build dwellings and cultivate food
  • Gold – because with it you can participate in commerce and trade
  • Cattle – because it allows you to plough your land and to feed your family with milk products
  • Women – because they are the only ones capable of propagating the human race.

Each of the above four aspects are equally important for wealth – both personal and public. Of these, women fall into a special category because they are also human. They have agency – of thought, of expression, to life – but they also need to be protected and guarded against usurpers.

It is the duty of the man – according to the ethos of the time – to protect and guard his wealth. That includes all four of the above, besides anything else that may spark envy in others.

Coming to Draupadi

Like all women of her time, Draupadi does not have any freedom in any big decisions. Her role is necessarily reactive – meaning someone else does something that affects her, and she has to make choices on how to react to the provocation.

For example:

  • Draupadi’s destiny – as a woman who will destroy the Kuru race – is not self-chosen. It is assigned to her by a divine voice at her birth. That divine voice, it must be said, is male.
  • The idea that she should marry five men is also made for her by the men around her: Yudhishthir, Vyasa, Drupada and Dhrishtadyumna.

(Suggested: Why did Draupadi marry five Pandavas?)

  • She does not get a say in whether the Pandavas should or should not accept the invitation to the dice game designed by Shakuni and Duryodhana.
  • She is not even present in the room when Yudhishthir – the man who is entrusted with her protection – pledges her as an object in the game. (To be fair to Yudhishthir, he does this under some duress.)
  • Later, she is chased by lustful men like Kichaka and Jayadratha. She does nothing to attract this attention. These men go out of their way to try and bend her to their will.

The extent of Draupadi’s freedom is in how she reacts to these stimuli. On the one hand, she can be docile. She can submit like meek calf to everything that is thrown at her. On the other, she can be fiercely protective of her own rights.

Draupadi chooses the latter. When she is dragged to the hall by her hair, she asks the assembly to judge whether her rights had been eroded by Yudhishthir’s actions. When she is desired by Jayadratha and Kichaka, she resists their advances desperately, and even warns them that the Pandavas may kill them.

Is Draupadi at fault?

An argument can be built that Draupadi is at ‘fault’ here for being feisty and assertive.

If only Draupadi had been meek, this point of view suggests, if only she had fallen to her knees and begged Duryodhana, if only she had been able to quell the fire of vengeance in her heart, the Kurukshetra war may not have come to pass.

There is some merit to this: after all, Draupadi does take it upon herself to keep reminding her husbands of the enormity of her suffering, and of the vows they had taken at the dice game to avenge her humiliation.

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 19: The Pandavas in Exile.)

But calling the entire war Draupadi’s fault is also nonsensical. Much of the responsibility for Kurukshetra needs to be laid at the feet of the men fighting the war: Bhishma, Duryodhana, Krishna, Yudhishthir, Drupada and so on.

Men of ambition. Men of greed. Men of envy.

Draupadi is not even part of the council that meets at the wedding of Uttara and Abhimanyu to discuss whether or not war should be fought. Of the many voices we hear at this time – some speaking in favour, some against – Draupadi’s is not one.

Then why is she blamed?

Mostly because it is convenient to do so.

It is a long-held tradition among men who fight a war to blame everything else but their own personal failings for their behaviour. ‘Look,’ they say, ‘why should they have so much more gold than we do?’ Instead of: ‘I am jealous because they have earned more wealth than I have, so now I will steal it from them.’

Similarly, it is not uncommon to blame a woman’s beauty or her nature for a war. Famously, Helen of Sparta is said to possess the ‘face that launched a thousand ships’ and to have caused the siege of Troy.

(In reality, after Helen and Paris escape together from Sparta, several non-violent choices were open to both the Greeks and the Trojans. Only after these talks have failed did the war become an eventuality.)

The Mahabharata uses a similar tactic to place the entire responsibility of the war at one of its stakes. Stakes can be won and lost by many means; war is merely the last resort.

Conclusion

Draupadi is often named the single most reason for the Mahabharata war. But in truth, she is only a minor player in a complex game of geopolitics involving power, wealth and internecine quarrel.

Though the ostensible reason for the war is to ‘win back Draupadi’s honour’, it is actually more about the Pandavas winning back their lost kingdom from their wicked first cousins.

Draupadi just happens to be in the way.

Further Reading

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Enjoy!