For Love or Dharma? : Princesses in the Epics
Parameters of Conduct
It is important to note that both characters, being woman, never compromise the basic dharma of a women and wives. Fidelity, loyalty and service of the husband, are as the highest dharma always conformed to. Even though both Sita and Draupadi challenge the words and actions of their husbands and close family, they never deviate from the set parameters of subservience. Throughout the epics they are both adulated for their adherence to this conduct, they are both lectured in it by Anasuya
Birth and Marriage
Neither Sita nor Draupadi are significantly mentioned in their respective epics until their svayamvara or self marriage. It is also in the discussions surrounding their marriages that we are introduced to their remarkable births. Sita arises from the earth as her father Janaka ploughs the sacrificial field and Draupadi appears from a sacrificial fire. The implications of such births obviously gives special significance to their roles, however it is the description of Draupadi’s beauty and the announcement of an ‘incorporeal voice’ at her birth that introduces us to her complexity and purpose.
Prior to her birth, her father, king Drupada had been humiliated by Dronacarya, a childhood friend, who he insulted and lost half his kingdom to in an act of revenge. Having no means of overpowering Dronacarya, Drupada turned to the Brahmins for supernatural assistance. This resulted in a sacrifice being performed to gain a son that would in due course avenge Drupada’s insult and loss. Along with a son a daughter, unmatched in beauty, was unexpectedly born from the fire, accompanied by celestial voice declaring her purpose:
‘This dark- complexioned girl will be the first of all women, and she will be the destruction of many Kshatriyas. This slender-waisted one will, in time, accomplish the purpose of the gods, and along with her many a danger will overtake the Kauravas.’ (Ganguli, 1990, Vol.1 p. 342)
Thus beyond Drupada’s revenge plot, Draupadi (Krishna) has a greater role and one which she mysteriously shares with the other more famous Krishna: the annihilation of the earth’s burden as it exists in excessive military presence (Ganguli, 1990, Vol. 5 p. 81). Her beauty is ravishing and in combination with the voice, certainly does spell out trouble:
Her eyes were black, and large as lotus petals, her complexion was dark, and her locks were blue and curly. Her nails were beautifully convex, and bright as burnished copper; her eye-brows were fair, and bosom was deep. Indeed she resembled the veritable daughter of a celestial born among men. Her body gave out fragrance like that of a blue lotus, perceivable from a distance of a full two miles. Her beauty was such that she had no equal on earth. Like a celestial herself, she could be desired (in marriage) by a celestial, a Danava or Yaksha. (Ganguli, 1990, Vol. 1 pp. 341-342)
In contrast Sita’s story begins with little hint of what is to come. She is a young princess of extraordinary birth, won by Rama in a heroic act. There is only one brief mention of her appearance: ‘Sita, my daughter is a beautiful as a divine being’
Draupadi’s marriage contributes immensely to the narrative. As Arjuna wins her hand, a tremendous brawl breaks out between the Pandavas and the humiliated Kauravas, along with their allies. The prize princess thus adds fuel to the fire of the existing dissension, and creates an alliance between Drupada and the Pandavas, who both share the Kauravas as a common enemy. Now centre stage, Draupadi’s character is further thrown into complexity. Kunti thinking that Arjuna has returned home with alms, asks him to share whatever he has with his brothers. Her words must remain true, and as all the brothers covet the princess; Draupadi becomes the common wife of five men. Her polyandrous marriage is so out of the cultural context that it requires a supernatural rationalisation, and it becomes a source of ridicule and much of her personal suffering.
Banishment to the Forest
It is when Rama is banished to the forest that we see Sita’s character beginning to contribute to the narrative. Her loves ties with Rama, first expressed in the final verses of the Childhood Book (Bala-Kanda) are more passionately and dangerously pronounced as Rama wants to leave for his exile in the forest without her. Not getting her way Sita argues on the basis of dharma, turns to ridicule, even threatening suicide. Her anger then dissolves into painful sobs and clinging to Rama. Rama manipulated by her love (perhaps not the best thing for a future king), then agrees to take Sita.
In all, Sita’s departure to the forest with Rama is a tragedy but only in respect to the life of Rama. Sita is content to be in love, and joyful to be with her beloved.
For Draupadi it is not quite so simple and anything but a love story. On the contrary her banishment is consequence of an act of foolishness on the part of Yudhisthira, the eldest of the Pandavas. After Yudhisthira has lost all his possession, including his brothers, in a gambling match with the Kauravas, he wagered Draupadi and lost. Dishevelled and inappropriately dressed due to her menstruation, Draupadi is dragged by the hair before the Kaurava assembly and pronounced a maidservant. Humiliated and insulted, she pleads for true justice from the elders in the assembly, expressing her full willingness to comply. Instead they remain silent and Draupadi becomes as if a plaything in the hands of fate, suffering and unprotected, as everyone, including her husbands are powerless to protect her. In her vulnerability and appeal for justice, Draupadi sets herself aside from all of the men in the assembly.
We find the same with Sita when later in the Ramayana she is rejected by Rama and appeals, most vulnerably for true justice. Rama the great victor having just won the war and now headed for the royal throne relegates his love for Sita to a lower position than his sovereign duty. As a result of the kingly dharma, love and justice apparently become inconsequential. The feminine nature is portrayed in both cases as if transcendent and sincere. Its tone is gravitating, sombre and cuts through the male world of power and ego. This conscientious appeal or demand for truth, in contrast with all deliberations and hypothesis on dharma, is definitely a unique characteristic of these women. Throughout the entire court scene Draupadi, maintains a level of conduct and speech, which impresses Dhrtarastra, the Kaurava king who in finality offers her adulation and numerous boons. Draupadi speaks in a ‘faint voice’ while giving great respect to the elders. But it is within those faint words of Draupadi that her vengeance makes its appearance, a characteristic that becomes her dominant trait:
O wretch! O thou of cruel deeds, drag me not so. Uncover me not so. The princes (my lords) will not pardon thee even if thou hast the gods themselves with Indra as thy allies.’ (Ganguli, 1990, Vol.2 p. 128)
Draupadi combines ‘modesty and anger’ (Ganguli, 1990, Vol.2 p.129) such that her glance inflames her powerless husbands. Bhima, Yudhisthira’s younger brother, of great physical strength and little courtly sophistication, unable to contain himself, vows to avenge Draupadi’s humiliation by drinking the blood of Duhsasana and breaking the thigh of Duryodhana. Supernatural intervention, through the provision of endless cloth and the evil omens, comes to Draupadi’s aid, not her powerful husbands. When the King, afraid of the omens, and respectful of Draupadi’s conduct offers her three boons, she accepts only two for fear of avarice and as appropriate to Ksatriya conduct. With these she frees her husbands’ along with their weapons. This humiliation and ruthless exposure of Draupadi, is again fuel to the fire of conflict which now threatens ‘universal destruction’. (Ganguli, 1990, Vol.2, p. 126).
Having survived one gambling match Yudhisthira succumbs to a second. He again looses, and in consequence the Pandavas are banished to the forest for a thirteen year exile. On leaving for the forest, the Pandavas make vows to slaughter the sons of Dhrtarastra, which conclude in the words of Nakula: ‘Soon enough shall I, at the command of Yudhisthira and remembering the wrongs to Draupadi make the earth destitute of the sons of Dhrtarastra.’ (Ganguli, 1990, Vol. 2, p. 149). With this, avenging Draupadi’s insult becomes securely the basis of the narrative and will remains so until the capture of Asvatthaman, after the war.
Life in the Forest
As Sita walks into the forest, she remains no more than the loving wife of Rama, who got her way. As Draupadi walks, her life is striven with complexity and anguish. Her every step is now one closer to the annihilation of the rulers of the earth.
Amidst the royal assembly Draupadi was soft spoken, but not in the forest amongst her immediate family. Here she is critical and outspoken. When Krishna, her affectionate friend and refuge, visits she addresses him in ‘angry accents’ (Ganguli, 1990, Vol 2, p. 30). She reiterates what happened to her and condemns her husbands’ openly for failing to act. In final sobs she does not spare Krishna and thus insights him to action:
Husbands, or sons, or friends, or brothers, or father, have I none! Nor have I thee, O thou slayer of Madhu, for ye all, beholding me treated so cruelly by inferior foes, sit still unmoved! My grief at Karna’s ridicule is incapable of being assuaged! On these grounds I deserve to be ever protected by thee, O kesava, viz. Our relationship, thy respect (for me), our friendship, and thy lordship (over me).’ (Ganguli, 1990, Vol. 2, Vana Parva p.33)
In response Krishna guarantees his full support, the death of all her aggressors, and that she will be the ‘queen of kings’. Arjuna now confirms Krishna pledge and Dhrstadyumna, her brother, announces who will kill each of the Kauravas.
Arriving in Dvaitavana, Draupadi censures Yudhisthira for failing to act. As a Ksatriya, she expects him to feel anger at what has happened; she grieves the situation of her husbands’; and blames Yudhisthira passivity for it. Quoting proverbs and ancient stories, she sees no case for forgiveness:
I grieve, O Bharat, that thy wrath doth not blaze up...Why do, O king dost thou pardon the foe...Therefore, O king, thou shouldst not extend forgiveness to foe. Indeed, with thy energy, without doubt, thou, mayst slay them all! (Ganguli, 1990, Vol.2, Vana Parva, p.57)
Although Yudhisthira responds elaborately in defence of his position, Draupadi remains single mind un-swayed by his arguments.
In comparison to vengeful and out spoken Draupadi; Sita is a pacifist by nature and soft spoken to her husband. Other than considering it ‘worthy’ of Rama to kill Ravana and save her, Sita does not seek revenge or see violence as a solution. Considering Rama’s commitment to slaying demons in the forest, Sita offers him some gentle advice. The author has made very clear Sita’s almost pathetic tone in approach to her husband; whom she covers with praise and offers words for his mere reflection.
‘I am reminding you of this tale not because I presume to instruct you but because I love and respect you... You already know all there is to be known in the three worlds about these things... I have spoken from the foolishness of being a woman. Who is capable of teaching you anything about dharma?’
Her tone is encouraged by Rama: ‘My dear you have spoken sweetly for my benefit because you love me’.
‘But the third weakness that men succumb to because of their passion, the inflicting of violence and cruelty upon other beings without reason or enmity, that weakness appears to be present in you now...It disturbs me a great deal when I see you like this...Inevitably you will be tempted to use your arrows’
Though Sita accepts that violence may be used with reason, she does not appear comfortable with the idea; rather she is obviously very cautionary. Rama appreciates her words addressing her in a clearly subordinating tone as ‘Dear girl’
Sita’s lack of vengeance can also be seen by the fact that she remains indifferent to the wrongs committed to Rama by Kaikeyi and Dasaratha (under Kaikeyi’s influence). She tells Rama that if he was to give up the kingdom and live pure-heartedly in the forest, his parents would be ‘very happy’.
When Sita is approached by Hanuman after the war, she further exhibits her pacifist side by seeking no revenge or harm upon her aggressors. In response to Hanuman offering to ‘bite of their ears and pull out their hair’ and then jump on their ‘ugly, dried up faces’ until they die; Sita chastises him blaming her past deeds as the cause of her suffering. She sees the Raksasis (her demoness captors) as helplessly carrying out the orders of Ravana; her suffering was ‘ordained’. Sita concludes:
‘The truly noble are compassionate and forgive both good and wicked people, criminals as well as those that deserve death. There is no one who has never done anything wrong! You should not even harm those who enjoy hurting others!’
Sita appears to advance her argument to now oppose violence inflicted with good reason; even those worthy of ‘death’ should be objects of forgiveness and compassion. Sita is clearly of a more ascetic temperament, whereas Draupadi is an uncompromised Ksatriya.
Insomuch as avenging the suffering of Draupadi appears to become the most significant reasoning for war, over and above regaining the kingdom; it is in the abduction of Sita that she becomes not only of significance to the narrative, but more the central concern. Both princesses have thus become clearly the main protagonists; Draupadi in her hurt, provocation and need for vengeance; and Sita in her helplessness and requirement to be saved by her love sick husband. Sita’s love, softness and inability to be separated from Rama, are now integral to the plot. However, her beauty—the cause of her abduction—which was previously only sparsely mentioned in a non-provocative and inconsequential way, is now described in the most erotic sense:
‘Who are you lovely creature, with golden skin, your yellow silk garments and your garland of lotuses as beautiful as the lotus pond itself? Your teeth are small and pearly white, your eyes are tinged a delicate pink in the corners and your pupils are a deep black. Your hips are wide and your thighs are as strong as an elephant’s trunk. Your breasts are round and full, tilted upwards and their nipples quiver. They are firm and the rest close together like the fruit of the palm tree. They are adorned by jewels and catch the eye.’
This description spoken to Sita by Ravana disguised as a ‘renunciant’, is certainly explicit and most surprisingly Sita is unflustered by it. In the absence of Rama and Laksmana, and approached by a lustful mendicant, she seems quite intent in offering him suitable hospitality. Similar sensual descriptions are also given by Surpanakha
With Laksmana, Sita is not soft spoken and is very insulting. Her strategy is manipulation at any cost, and her love appears to make her irrational. Draupadi although outspoken and demanding never appears to lose her sense or composure. Her demands are always disciplined by a certain decorum pertaining to Ksatriya morality and personal strength. When chastising her captor Ravana, although Sita speaks strongly she is portrayed as frightened, weak and helpless:
‘...she was trembling like a slender banana plant in a high wind’
‘Utterly helpless, she was like a tiny boat on the open seas, tossed about by storm winds. She hung her head, like a doe that was strayed from the herd and is thus surrounded by hunting hounds.’
Through the entire episode, Sita’s love and fidelity to Rama stand above all else. Separate from Rama her self-pity drives her to condemn even dharma and to consider hanging herself by her own hair; even though appearing to not have the strength character to do so. Good omens and Hanuman then appear to give her renewed hope.
Draupadi’s abduction by Jayadratha and then Kicaka are different. The situations arose not of her doing, but rather her husbands’ absence due to hunting or in the case of Kicaka, their inability to act. In contrast to a ‘banana plant in a high wind’, Draupadi is described as a ‘tigress’ being approached by a ‘jackal’ (Ganguli, 1990, Vol. 3, p. 518). When Jayadratha accompanied by six men approach her, he is described as a ‘wolf entering a lion’s den.’ (Ganguli, 1990 Vol.3, p. 520) Draupadi equates him to a ‘weak human being’ unable to frighten her. She expresses that she will take pleasure as he is ‘vanquished and dragged’ by her husbands’. While being carried away, and pursued by the Pandavas, Draupadi alerts Jayadratha of his forthcoming death and later delights in the prospects of his slaughter. (Ganguli, 1990, Vol. 3, pp. 527- 528) Draupadi thus exhibits absolute fearlessness.
Again in her abduction by Kicaka, Draupadi trembles furiously out of wrath: not fear. When accosted she throws him to the ground ‘like a tree whose roots had been cut’, just as she also did with Jayadratha. Kicked by Kicaka, she accuses her husbands of being ‘eunuchs’ and then blames their ‘oppression’ on Yudhisthira for being ‘addicted to dice’ and a ‘desperate gambler’. Bhima responding to Draupadi’s request beats Kicaka to a pulp. Seeing him dead and reduced to a ball of mangled flesh, she felt the ‘greatest delight’. There is no pacifist in Draupadi; she is a fearless, intelligent and powerful woman, quite the opposite of Sita.
Return to the Kingdom
At the end of the Great War, when those who insulted Draupadi lay dead, her purpose is served. In referring to her dilemma as expressed is her earlier supplication to Krishna, Bhima concludes her role while delivering the jewel from Asvatthaman’s head to her.
‘This gem, O amiable lady, is thine. The slayer of thy sons hath been vanquished. Rise, casting of thy sorrow, and recollect the duties of a Kshatriya lady. O thou of black eyes, when Vasudeva was about to set out (from Upaplavya) on his mission of peace, thou hadst, O timid lady, said even these words unto the slayer of Madhu, ‘I have no husbands! I have no sons, nor brothers! Nor art thou alive, O Govinda, since these kings desire for peace!’ Those bitter words were addressed by thee to Krishna, that foremost person! It behoveth thee to recollect those words of thine that were so consistent with Kshatriya usages. The wretched Duryodhana, that obstacle on the way of our sovereignty, has been slain. I have quaffed the blood of the living Dussasana. We have paid off the debt we owed to our enemy. People, while talking, will not be able to censure us any longer. Having vanquished Drona’s son, we have set him free for the sake of his being a Brahmana and of the respect that should be shown to our deceased preceptor. His fame hath been destroyed, O goddess, only his body remains! He has been divested of his gem and on earth he has been reft of his weapons!’ (Ganguli, 1990, Vol.7 p. 38)
Her debt now paid, Draupadi without further vengeance, places the jewel on the head of the sovereign king Yudhisthira and gives up her ‘vow’ to see Asvatthaman killed. In this Draupadi’s role turns to mourning the dead and is relegated to the parameters of the story.
With Rama’s role of sovereign monarch now secured by winning the war and completing the exile period: complexity is born for Sita. Where she now stands in relation to her lover is no simple matter. Reputation and sovereignty are now what is important for Rama; love and marital relations are relegated to a lower status. Rama clearly separates himself from his past passionate love for Sita; conquering Ravana was after all about his personal and family dignity, not her. Sita’s fidelity is also put on trial, albeit for sake of Rama’s subjects and public opinion. Sita’s response to this rejection is much akin to Draupadi’s when mistreated in the Kaurava court. Her words pierce the sophistication politics and power; they undermine Rama, calling his behaviour into question. Vulnerable Sita wants truth and justice, unmixed with all social consideration. Her speech is rational, dignified and demanding; far from her past fickle-mindedness and manipulative bearing. Her husband is bound and silent, just as the Pandavas were; offering her no aid or protection. Providence in the form of supernatural forces: the gods, come to Sita’s aid, just as in the case of Draupadi, proclaiming her purity. Rama then accepts Sita back and all live happily ever after, or at least until the next page is turned and we find that Sita remains a problem.
As I have treated the Mahabharata in its complete form without raising the question of interpolation, I must do so for the Ramayana; although quiet convinced by the unnatural turn events that take place in the epilogue (Uttarakanda). This final episode seems to focus on a question much similar to that in the Sound of Music: ‘How do you solve a problem like Maria?’ An accepted back abducted queen does not seem to sit well with the conduct of kings, therefore on the basis of derisive gossip, pregnant Sita is conveniently dropped off in the forest again. Rama places the efficient running of his kingdom in priority to Sita. However, the redactors appear to remain discontent to leave Sita in the forest. She therefore returns on the request of Rama and proves her fidelity. Still neither the kingdom nor the forest resolve the problem of pure but abducted Sita, she must again enter the earth from where she came. Then deified by Rama she always remains with Rama in Ayodhya, although absent. Although Rama suffers in Sita’s final absence and the narrative: a love story, ends in bitter disappointment, it is all in the best interest of the kingdom.
Draupadi is truly a ‘Ksatriya lady’ as she was addressed by Bhima. She is a fighter, powerful and fearless throughout her portrayed life. Amongst her close family her opinions are made uncompromisingly clear. Where she sees weakness in her husbands, she does not hesitate to point it out. Her life’s course was decided by the prophecy spoken at her birth. Her beauty, her adversity, and her dignity fuelled a cataclysmic war. Unlike Sita, she is not a playing thing in the hands of love. Draupadi is firm, feisty and rational. Her role as a protagonist and central figure is apparent from the time of her birth and consolidated in her alluring and incomparable beauty. Her role is complete with the destruction of the Kauravas and their allies, and in her final act of grace: allowing Asvatthaman to live. Her debt is paid, her husband on the throne, and thus her vengeance and purpose are fulfilled.
Though daughter of a Ksatriya king and in stark contrast with Draupadi, Sita is a pacifist, given to love and often fickle. She is portrayed as helpless, fearful, weak and vulnerable. Her rationalisation of personal adversity is metaphysical, so she does not to blame others or seek revenge. The loss of a kingdom and her royal dignity; do not matter to Sita as much as being with her beloved Rama. In the extraneous circumstance of being rejected by Rama, her simple role, character and gentle tone, are transformed into complexity, an uncompromising stance, and virtuous and commanding speech. Her role within the narrative begins with her abduction and remains more or less central until its unsatisfactory conclusion in the last book. In substance Sita is made of love, fidelity and loyalty to Rama. Perhaps what lies at the very heart of each character and defines them throughout their respective epic is for Sita her love of Rama, and for Draupadi her adherences to Ksatriya codes and conduct. Sita is quite simply the lover of Rama, whereas Draupadi’s attachment is to Ksatriya dharma.
Brockington, J. (2003). The Sanskrit Epics. In G. Flood, The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism (pp. 116- 128). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Ganguli, K. M. (1990). The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyas. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Sattar, A. (1996). The Ramayana. New Delhi: Penguin Books.
 Also known as Krishna, Panchali,
 Dharma, a word often cited as difficult to translate. It has a sense of what is good and proper, moral, honourable, sacred duty or law.
 Arjuna is one of the five Pandava brothers, the husbands of Draupadi.
 Kunti is the mother of the Pandavas.
 Duryodhana exposed his thigh to Draupadi and Duhsasana tried to disrobe her. Both are the sons of Dhrtarastra.
 As Duhsasana strips Draupadi, endless cloth to cover her body is provided by Krishna.
 Nakula is youngest of the Pandavas, along with Sahadeva, his twin.
 Asvatthaman is the son of Dronacarya, who killed Draupadi’s sons as they slept in their beds.
 ‘Jackal’ refers to Jayadratha’s son.
Copyright 2010 Gauri-das