Here is a fragment from one of the most poignant episodes of Indian history. In this incident the eternal ideals, which are the foundations of Indian culture were horrifyingly violated, but at the same time, there shone out from this episode, the blazing fire of dharma, restoring our faith and eclipsing everything else in this tragic sequence of events. Above all, it highlights the essential greatness of Indian womanhood, the echo of which can still be found in the women of today.
Dushasana went to the palace and said to her: "Draupadi! Come now, like your husbands, you too have been won over in gambling. Leave your modesty and look at Duryodhana. Come and serve us, the Kauravas."
The queen was shattered on hearing these words from her brother in law. She wiped her tears and ran in the direction of the palace where lived Duryodhana’s mother. Dushasana roared and rushing towards her, caught hold of her long, flowing hair. At that time Draupadi was in her periods and residing in her innermost chambers (according to the shastras a woman is supposed to rest away from family, social and religious duties when she is menstruating). She said to Dushasana: "You dim-wit, I am in my period and wearing only one cloth. It is improper to take me to a public place in this condition."
Draupadi immediately started praying to Bhagawan Krishna. Meanwhile Dushasana, hearing her words, starting pulling her hair even more forcefully and said: "You may be menstruating, wearing only one cloth or not wearing anything at all. Now you are our slave and will have to live according to our wishes."
Draupadi’s hair had become dishevelled by now. Because of being dragged her only cloth was also slipping. She was dying with shame but inside, like a true kshatrani (woman of the warrior race), she was burning with anger. Perhaps there can be nothing lower than this for a virtuous woman, both born and married into a high family.
In this condition did she speak slowly: "O Wicked One! In the court are sitting elders whom I revere like my own father. I do not want to go in front of them in this state. Undoubtedly my husbands will not tolerate this atrocity being perpetrated on me. Yudhishthira is always situated in dharma. I do not wish to speak of even the minuscule of his shortcomings which are nothing compared to his mountain-like qualities,." Even after being so wronged by her husbands, the great pativrata had nothing but the highest regard for them, being pretty sure that they would never do anything which would be against dharma.
Finally the great woman said: "Oh! I have not done till now what I should have done first. I should do that thing now. This wicked Dushasana dragging me made me forget it. In this court of the Kauravas, I give my pranamas (respectful greetings) to the elders present here. I am in turmoil and hence could not give my pranamas earlier; therefore, it should not be considered a breach of duty on my part."
Falling down on the floor and crying out she said: "I was only seen by other kings during my swayamvara. Other than that, nobody had seen me anywhere on any occasion. That same me has now been dragged to this public court. When I used to live in my palace, not even the wind or the Sun could lay an eye on me. That same me is now being seen by the vast multitude present in this court."
"I am the daughter-in-law of this clan, almost like a daughter, and do not deserve to be tormented like this. Even then I am being subjected to this excruciating torture. What can be more wretched than a sati and pure lady like myself being brought to a public place in this manner? I have heard that women who follow dharma were never brought before a public court. But here, in this court of the Kauravas, this eternal dharma has been violated. How can I, the wife of the Pandavas, sister of Dhrishtdyumna and sakhi of Lord Krishna be brought forth like this in the assembly of kings?"
There ensued then, a long discussion on the nuances of dharma in that court full of kings, in between of which the great-grandfather Bhishma said: "The fact that even in this great state of suffering you are still looking at dharma is but befitting to your high character."
Suddenly, a howling wolf entered into the sanctified area where Duryodhana used to conduct his daily Agnihotra sacrifice. This ill-omen plus the wise counsel given by his chief-minister Vidura, prompted Dhritrashtra, the father of Duryodhana and paternal uncle of the Pandavas to say: "O dim-witted Duryodhana!, even though living you are as good as dead. O mannerless one! you have brought into this exalted gathering a lady of our own clan and that too the dharma-patni of the Pandavas and then you speak to her in this low manner."
So saying, wanting to save his kin from destruction and desiring the well-being of his clan, Dhritrashtra addressed Draupadi: "Dear daughter!, you are the best amongst my daughters-in-law and also a follower of dharma. Take any wish you want from me."
The virtuous Draupadi replied: "O Great King!, if you want to grant me a wish, I ask that my husband Yudhishthira, who is a follower of dharma, be released from his servitude, so that my sons are not referred to as dasa-putras (sons of slaves) by others.
Dhritrashtra said: "So be it. Now I grant you another wish. Ask for whatever you want."
Draupadi said: "As a second wish I ask that the other four Pandavas also be granted freedom and be released from their servitude."
Dhritrashtra replied: "So be it. Now ask for a third boon. I feel that you deserve more than two boons."
Draupadi’s reply to this offer shows the supreme character of this virtuous lady. She said: "Bhagwan! Greed is the destroyer of dharma. I do not desire a third boon; and in any case I am not entitled to ask for three boons. According to the dharmasastras, a vaishya can ask for one boon, a kshatriya woman two boons, a kshatriya man three and a brahmin a 100 boons. Respected King!, my husbands had gotten into deep trouble because of losing themselves in the game of dice. Now they are through it. Hereafter, they can achieve their well-being through their own efforts by performing punya-karma (hence I do not want any more boons)."
Not once did the great Draupadi think of asking for punishment for Duryodhana and his brothers. She wanted revenge, but not as a favor. It was now the sacred duty of her husbands to avenge her humiliation. Her conduct prompted even Karna, the sworn enemy of the Pandavas to remark: "Of all the women I have heard of, not one of them stands in comparison to the great Draupadi." (Mahabharata Sabha Parva, Chapters 67-71).
Draupadi was as forgiving as mother earth herself. At the end of the Mahabharata war, when countless warriors from both the Pandava and Kaurava side had perished, and Bhima had broken Duryodhana’s thigh with his mace, then Ashwatthama, a brahmin and the son of their guru Dronacharya, thinking that it would please Duryodhana, in order to end the lineage of the Pandavas went ahead and murdered all the sleeping children of Draupadi. This ghastly act was criticised even by Duryodhana. Draupadi was distraught on hearing the news. Arjuna promised to her: "Draupadi! I will wipe your tears only when I will cut down the head of that low brahmin and present it to you so that you can have your bath after stepping on his head once the last rites of your sons have been performed. So saying he set out in search of his guru’s son Ashwatthama. The latter, who was already distressed at his own cowardly act, when he saw Arjuna approaching him, ran off to save his life. After a prolonged battle Arjuna defeated him and tied him up, much like a sacrificial animal is tied to a post in Vedic sacrifices.
Just then Arjuna saw his dear friend Bhagawan Krishna approaching him. The Lord said in anger: "Arjuna! It will not be correct to pardon this fallen brahmin. Kill him. He has killed innocent children sleeping in the night. His death will be beneficial for him also, since if he continues like this he will commit more sins and fall into hell." Lord Krishna wanted to test Arjuna’s commitment to dharma that is why he prompted him to act in this manner. However, even though Ashwatthama had murdered his children, the great Arjuna did not feel like killing him.
The two friends then went over to their camp and handed Ashwatthama over to Draupadi who was grieving for her sons. Draupadi saw Ashwatthama being brought to her like an animal tied with ropes. Because of his lowly act his head was faced downwards. Seeing the condition of their guru’s son, Draupadi’s soft heart was filled with compassion and she did namaskara to Ashwatthama who, just a few hours back, had caused her grievous harm. She could not tolerate their guru-putra being tied up in this manner and said to Arjuna: "Leave him, leave him. He is a brahmin and worthy of our worship. You learned the skill of archery and attained mastery in the use of weapons only through the grace of your guru Dronacharya. That same guru is now standing before you in the form his son. His mother, who is still alive, is much attached to him. You are a knower of dharma. It does not befit you to harm your guru’s family, which is worthy of receiving your respect and worship.Their mother should not cry, like I have at the death of my children. Those out of control kings, who earn the wrath of brahmins by their violent deeds, are burned down along with their families by the fiery wrath of the same brahmins."
Draupadi’s words were in accordance with dharma. There was no deception or hypocrisy, rather they were full of compassion and equanimity. Thus her words were welcomed by all who were present and Ashwatthama was spared his life, but banished from the kingdom forever. (Shrimad Bhagavatam 1.7)
Conclusion: We find in Draupadi the primordial expression of forbearance and forgiveness, two essential features of a dharma. In India, a married woman is an institution in herself, inviolable because of the sacredness of her commitment. Truly, history is relevant to the extent that it offers us lessons to be learnt, providing us role-models to be followed. In this sense it is itihasas like Ramayana and Mahabharata which offer us eternally relevant role-models, who inspire us to inculcate ever-lasting values, thus giving a comforting and narrative continuity to our lives, which otherwise would have perplexed us with uncertainty.