A Book about 12 Women (Learning from the Mahabharata)


Maharshi Veda Vyāsa

Rishi Krishna-Dvaipāyana (meaning ‘the dark one who was born on/lived on an island’), or  Maharshi Veda Vyāsa, as he later came to be known, is credited to have authored many of our ancient texts that hold an immense significance to this date. The son of Rishi Parāsara and a fisher-woman Matsyagandha (who later became queen Satyavati, the matriarch of the Kuru clan), he is considered to be one of the seven chiranjivins (immortal beings) that are still in existence at present.

He collected, consolidated and classified the existing singular Veda of his time into the four Vedas as we know today (Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda) as well as the Brāhmanas, Aranyakas and the Upanishads.  This is what gave him the name of Veda Vyāsa (the classifier or organizer of the Veda).

Maharshi Veda Vyāsa is also the author of the epic Mahābhārata, which we classify today as an Itihāsa. The Srimad Bhagvad Gita, one of the most profound scriptures of Indian spiritual tradition, which forms a part of the Mahābhārata, is also the contribution of Maharshi Veda Vyāsa.

He is also believed to be the author of 18 major Purānas along with Vyāsa Smriti and Laghu Vyāsa Samhita. The Brahma-sūtras written by him are considered one of the most influential texts on Vedantic philosophy.

Maharshi Veda Vyāsa, indeed, was a powerful and multi-faceted personality whose contribution would keep helping the progressive evolution of the humanity. Sri Aurobindo while speaking about Vyāsa says:

“A wide searching mind, historian, statesman, orator, a deep and keen looker into ethics and conduct, a subtle and high-aiming politician, theologian and philosopher, it is not for nothing that Hindu imagination makes the name Vyasa loom so large in the history of Aryan thought and attributes to him work so important and manifold.” (CWSA, Vol. 1, pp. 322-323)


The Women of Mahābhārata

Almost everyone in India knows at least something about the Mahābhārata, whether or not they may have read any part of it in any translation or version.

But how many of us know something, I mean really know something, about the women of the Mahābhārata? Other than some well-known facts that Draupadi had five husbands, or that Kunti was the mother of Pandavas, or that Gandhari blind-folded herself for life the moment she learned that she was married off to a blind man without her knowledge, most Indians hardly know anything substantive about these women or other prominent or less-prominent women of the Mahābhārata. We know even the most prominent ones like Draupadi or Kunti in only sketches, only through popular portrayals on TV or in films or popular literature.

Most Indians have probably never even heard of Suvarchala or Sulabha or Madhvi or Uttara-Disha. We may have heard a little about Savitri, Damyanti, Devayani or Shakuntala, but then again we know them only through their caricatures. For example, we may know more about Kalidasa’s Shakuntala than the one in the Mahābhārata. How are the two different? And what does that difference tell us about the time and context in which the two stories were told? Which story holds greater truth, as being more relevant for today?

Do we know these women as teachers of mankind? As the Mahābhārata might have intended to present them to its readers.


The Book

Four years ago, when I first came across this 265-page book titled, The Women of the Mahābhārata: The Question of Truth (2008, Orient BlackSwan Publishers), I finished it completely over one weekend, from start to finish. And then re-read some chapters.

This was one of the most interesting books I had read in a while, I remember thinking. The author of this book, Chaturvedi Badrinathwas a philosopher by education and worked for many years in the Indian Administrative Services. The recipient of 2009 Sahitya Akademi Award, Chaturvedi Badrinath is well known for his monumental work titled, The Mahābhārata: An Inquiry in the Human Condition, another book I highly recommend.

In his introduction to The Women of the Mahābhārata, Badrinath writes:

In the stories through which the Mahābhārata speaks of life, women occupy a central place. In living what life brings to them, the women of the Mahābhārata show that the truth in which one must live is, however, not a simple thing: nor can there be any one absolute statement about it. Each one of them, in her own way, is a teacher to mankind as to what truth and goodness in their many dimensions are.


The women of the Mahābhārata are incarnate in the women of today. To read the stories of their relationships is to read the stories of our relationships. They demand from the men of today the same reflection on their perceptions, attitudes, and pretensions too, as they did from the men in their lives, and equally often from other men full of pretensions, even if they were kings and sages. But to create literature is not a political programme, although that is exactly what was made out in this century especially — literature as an instrument of political idea-logy. Whatever may be the measure of justice in that claim, it is now perfectly clear that political ideology ensures the death of literature; for it conceals on principle the truth that truth is anekanta, many-sided, and never one-dimensional. (emphasis mine)

Often when stories from the Mahābhārata or Rāmāyana are re-told by most ‘modern’ or ‘post-modern’ writers, there is a tendency to interpret or read these stories in the light of presently fashionable intellectual theories, or popular literary fads with superheroes and fantasy.

And when it comes to the stories about any of the women in these epics, you have your usual ‘feminism’ and ‘patriarchy’ stuff which twists everything to such an extent that the story is often lost in all the interpretation of the re-teller. If at all the re-told story somehow escapes the critical lens of a post-modern feminist reading, it may be over-analysed using the present-day notions of conventional morality or a de-contextualised ethical standard that privileges one side of the truth over many other possible sides.

This is where I find Badrinath’s book refreshingly different as well as remarkably authentic and honest in its approach and voice. To quote again from his introduction:

Thus, a human situation and its story has not only several levels but can also be read differently by different persons and even by the same person differently at different times in his or her life. That is why I have not interpreted, nor analysed, any of the women of the Mahābhārata I have assembled here. What they are saying, the context in which they are saying it, and what they are as human beings, are perfectly clear and require no interpretation, especially if we keep in mind the method the Mahābhārata consistently employs in its inquiry into the human condition. That method itself suggests interpretation, of which there can be more than one.


Furthermore, every human story could have ended differently than how it actually did. In being a most systematic philosophic inquiry into the human condition, the Mahābhārata does not see the meaning of a story in the way it ends. The particular end of a story is not the whole of its meaning. (emphasis mine)

Doesn’t this introduction entice you to read the stories that are assembled in this book? I am sure it does! Especially if you are interested in knowing more about what the stories of the women of the Mahābhārata have to tell us about ourselves, our lives, our stories, our relationships, our quest for truth and meaning.


Role Models for All Times

In an insightful book review, titled Role Models for All Times, the well-known scholar and highly accomplished author Dr. Prema Nandkumar writes:

They have never been far away from us, Savitri, Draupadi, Damayanti and others of their kind. Of course, a veil had fallen between them and the English-educated Indian for a while. Fortunately, before any lasting damage was done, the Indian intellectual went back to the sources and helped the coming generations draw close to the classical heroines. Romesh Chunder Dutt, Subramania Bharati, T.P. Kailasam; by now Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings had also begun to tease the imagination of writers all over India.


After the 1950s the ‘new’ critics took over and feminists bent their eye-brows in irritation at the “Sita-Savitri syndrome” that was keeping Indian womanhood in thrall. No seminar on feminism was free of hot exchanges over the “lakshman rekha” and Indian patriarchy.


As the 20th century was drawing to a close, once again there was a change in perception. With the complete text of the two epics available in literal translations, getting back to the original brought innumerable surprises. Well, Savitri never “tricked” Yama; there was no “rekha” drawn by Lakshmana; nor was there any ring in the tale of Shakuntala. As early as 1899, Sri Aurobindo found that basically the Hindu myths were “straight and sheer.”


It is by reading them in the original setting that we can draw strength from the manner in which Damayanti announced a ruse-swayamvara, the calm with which Savitri questioned Yama, and the derisive way Shakuntala firmly rejected Dushyanta. Critics are increasingly realising that these heroines raise us to higher planes of consciousness. Chaturvedi Badrinath’s 12 women prove that one can live in truth with complete dignity and become a role model for all time.

Why to Read this Book?

In India, the word ‘shakti’ is often used to speak of women. But what does this word really mean?

In a very simple way, Sri Aurobindo once defined shakti as “the female principle in Nature which is at the root of all action” (CWSA, 13:27-28). This Shakti is a force that moves all and acts in all, the universal Energy, the Conscious-Power.

In India, we see all our goddesses as forms of shakti, each one a unique manifestation of the universal shakti, the universal conscious-force, the chit-shakti. These shakti-s are energies of the one Energy of the highest divine Being. As Sri Aurobindo reminds us, the ancient Indian mind saw that “Shiva and Kali, Brahman and Shakti are one and not two who are separable” (CWSA, 21:90).

We find another beautiful description of this inseparability, this oneness of the Brahman and His Shakti, of the Spirit and Nature, the Purusha and Prakriti, in Sri Aurobindo’s epic poem, Savitri:

There are Two who are One and play in many worlds;

In Knowledge and Ignorance they have spoken and met

And light and darkness are their eyes’ interchange;

Our pleasure and pain are their wrestle and embrace,

Our deeds, our hopes are intimate to their tale;

They are married secretly in our thought and life. (Book I, Canto IV)


In this oneness of Ishwara-Shakti, in this biune aspect of Self and Self-Power, Purusha and Prakriti, the Divine Self and Creator and the Divine Mother and Creatrix of the universe, lies the mystery of the masculine and feminine cosmic Principles whose play and interaction are necessary for all creation.

Shakti is thus the primordial cosmic energy which represents the dynamic forces that are thought to move through the entire universe. This is in essence divine feminine creative power, often referred to as ‘The Great Divine Mother’ in Indian religio-spiritual traditions.

The woman, in Indian culture, is traditionally seen as the shakti, the force and energy. This is not to say that shakti is something to be found only in women. It is the creative power, the energy present in all of us, but the nature of this energy is feminine because it is only the female who has the potential to create new beings within herself. All creation – material, intellectual, aesthetic, spiritual – all is possible only because of the shakti, the cosmic energy. Nolini Kanta Gupta describes this beautifully –

“I have within me a thing called shakti – force. My action, my inspiration, my emotion, my desire, my idea, my thought – all are being controlled by that force. The movement of my soul is the pull of that force. This force of mine within is woman named without.” (Nolini Kanta Gupta, ‘About Woman’, 1999, p. 10)

It is the spiritual vision of the biune aspect of Shiva and Shakti or Purusha and Prakriti which revealed the highest ideal given to us by our ancient sages and seers with regard to the relation between man and woman in the society.

But was this ideal ever truly translated into social practice? I recall here Sri Aurobindo’s words from The Human Cycle where he says –

“The Indian ideal of the relation between man and woman has always been governed by the symbolism of the relation between the Purusha and Prakriti (in the Veda Nri and Gna), the male and female divine Principles in the universe. Even, there is to some degree a practical correlation between the position of the female sex and this idea. In the earlier Vedic times when the female principle stood on a sort of equality with the male in the symbolic cult, though with a certain predominance for the latter, woman was as much the mate as the adjunct of man; in later times when the Prakriti has become subject in idea to the Purusha, the woman also depends entirely on the man, exists only for him and has hardly even a separate spiritual existence. In the Tantrik Shakta religion which puts the female principle highest, there is an attempt which could not get itself translated into social practice…, — to elevate woman and make her an object of profound respect and even of worship.” (CWSA, 25:8).

What factors might have prevented the complete application of the ideal in actual societal practice, and why? To what extent the ideal was in fact ever translated into practice, and how or why did the deterioration in the status of women begin to happen?

These and similar questions must be of interest to us if we wish to explore the journey of an Indian woman from ancient times to present.

A sincere student will explore various kinds of evidence – literary, epigraphic, folk traditions, etc – which point to the status of women in India over a period of time.

A sincere student of India and Indian culture will not be satisfied with applying the West-centric feminist analyses and theories to understand the place and role of the Indian woman – in the past, present and future.

A sincere student will learn to see India with Indian eyes, will learn to know India with an Indian mind, will learn to experience India with an Indian heart.

The best of the literature that a culture produces is a great way to start this seeing, knowing and experiencing. The Mahābhārata, in particular, has been spoken of as “the creation and expression not of a single individual mind, but of the mind of a nation; it is the poem of itself written by a whole people” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA 20:347). It is a significant tale, itihasa, representative throughout of the central ideas and ideals of Indian life and culture.

Doesn’t it make sense to learn about the women of the Mahābhārata if we wish to know about the Indian woman?

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