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40 "Be The Elder One"

We Indians are argumentative. Or so says Amartya Sen. Indeed, we love to debate about
issues that may or may not have any worldly bearing on us. And the great epics of
Mahabharata and Ramayana put together is not just a mine, but a zig-zag, cross-referenced labyrinth of tunnels - an unending abyss that provides as an eternal source for such debates.

Are the epics history or myths? Are they both?

Did the story of Rama and Sita from Mahabharata get retold as a separate epic in its own right at later times?

Was Duryodhana right in asking for the throne? Were Pandavas the rightful heirs, considering that Pandu was not their biological father?

Was it right on the part of Rama to destroy the entire Rakshasa race just to win back his wife? And then having won her back, how did he ask her to leave him and go alone in the forest?

The inquiries are never-ending, and the characters - Ah! ... They provide such fodder for rumination!

Out of the many characters in the epic of Mahabharata, two stand out distinctly - chiefly for the poignant personal sagas attached to them and the perennial ethos woven in them - these are the two great characters of Draupadi and Karna.

Out of these, Karna seems to be getting special attention these days as the champion of the supressed - I am not sure I subscribe to that, and that is a subject for a later day post.

But consider the other one - Draupadi. KrishnaPanchali. Yagyaseni! ... The fire-born daughter of King Drupada has always been considered the maha nayika - great heroine - of the epic. She is such a wonderful enigma! ... Consider the following -

How did Draupadi remain faithful to her husbands, all five together? Did she really love Arjuna more, because of which she fell down before reaching heaven?

What was her reaction when mother Kunti asked Draupadi's newly-wed husband Arjuna - who had recently won her bravely with an amazing archery feat - to share her with his brothers?

What was her relation with Lord Krishna? Did Krishna actually come to her rescue during the events at the Hastinapur court when she was being disrobed in public? Or was it Dhritarashtra who could not stand it anymore and put an end to the proceedings?

When Draupadi asked whether Yudhisthir has the right to lose her in the game when he had lost himself first, did it not strike anyone - and one means absolutely anyone among those present - that these are mere formalities, procedural inquiries - and the real issue at hand is that a royal woman is being disrobed in public?

What was her reaction when Bhima killed Dussasana and supposedly drank his blood so that he can satisfy the promise he had given her?

What made her laugh and taunt at Duryodhana as 'the blind's son' when he accidentally
slipped and fell in the Maya sabha at Indraprastha?

There are so many questions about Draupadi that it makes her one of the most fascinating
and multi-layered personas in the epic.

One such raging debate (now largely abandoned since people  have generally found debating related to epics and myths a little bourguise) is what Draupadi meant when she uttered these famous last words to Bhima *:

"Bhima, be the elder [brother] in the next life"

She certainly did not mean 'her' brother. I think she had a perfectly satisfactory brother-sister relationship in her life with her actual elder brother Dhrishtadyunma - the man who was borne out of fire by King Drupada of Panchal, with the sole purpose of taking revenge - which he actually did effectively for his father King Drupada on Day 15 of the Great War by cutting off Drona's head.

By the by, Dhrishtadyunma also handled the Pandava side as its commander-in-chief for all
days of the war and did a splendid job at that, with the help of Bhima, Satyaki and Ghatotkach. So he was a great brother any sister would be proud to have.

And I do not think she had any brotherly feelings for Bhima anyway. Bhima was her savior, and although she may have loved Arjuna more than the others, Bhima had always been her protector, her true companion who ensured that she does not get hurt or pain.

So when Draupadi told Bhima to be the elder brother, it was most likely meant to be the eldest of the Pandavas. And one wonders --- wouldn't Arjuna be a better choice? After all, Arjuna was Krishna's choice for a friend. Yudhishthir also says that Draupadi loved Arjuna more than other brothers. So why Bhima then?

For this, you need to look closely from Draupadi's point of view. Bhima was her protector.
Bhima was the one who avenged her disrobing by killing all one hundred of Kaurava brothers, including Dussasana, and Duryodhana the eldest too. He also protected her from Keechaka in the house of the Viratas during their agyatvaas (last year of exile when the Pandavas had to hide their true identity).

So it is natural that Draupadi would feel that if the decision making was in the hands of Bhima, it would have been better for her and for everyone. Bhima always went by what his elder brother said - as the custom demands. But had he been the elder, he would not have played dice and thrown away his kingdom twice.

Also, nowadays it is fashionable to portray Bhima as a rustic fool and a hot-headed alpha male, always hungry for food and fight. But in reality, Bhima was self-sustained, smart, powerful and independent. In most cases, he followed his heart, apart from following his mother Kunti and elder brother Yudhishthir.

Maybe Draupadi was right. But who knows, if Bhima was the elder, fate would have found yet another way of getting rid of all the pompous kings and princes! ... And maybe we would be reading a completely different Mahabharata, in a completely different world!

- Shreekant
06 December 2011

* - As given in 'Yuganta' - an excellent compilation of essays by Iravati Karve


DEEKAY said…
Gr8 post, but i have 1 question. You say Lord Rama destroyed the entire Rakshasa Race then how come he appointed Vibisana the King of Lanka?

Btw loved your thoughts regarding Draupadi and Bheema......:-)

Thanks for your comment. When I said 'entire rakshasa race', it was more poetic than actual. He did spare a few rakshasas and indeed, got Vibhishana to rule what remained. In is said that he rules the island of Lanka even today :). See my earlier post on Vibhishana.

As regards the wiping out of the entire rakshasa race, please check out one of my earliest posts ("Endings of the Four Yugas", 2008). Maybe you will get some more food for thought.

Yatin Diwakar said…
And maybe we would be reading a completely different Mahabharata, in a completely different world!
and maybe we are reading it right now. or maybe its taking place as we live here.
multi-verse, circular time, those posts on time were like going through the total perspective vortex!
this is what i call a proper mindf***