The first great turning point of the Mahabharata occurs in Book 2 of the epic. It’s a famous scene, where the protagonists, the Pandavas, have just shockingly — and perhaps shadily, some suspect — lost a series of gambling bets. The blunder has peeled away every single one of their kingly possessions, including their shared wife, Draupadi, who must now belong to the victorious Kauravas. It is in the wake of this final transfer that the epic sees one of its most harrowing injustices.
Duhshasana, one of the Kauravas, drags Draupadi into the assembly hall by her single, long braid. It’s a thick braid, a queen’s, springing free of its tie by the force of rough hands. I imagine Draupadi’s body following her head violently, unnaturally bent, as Duhshasana yanks her this way and that. Scathing insults fall around her like a firestorm. Duhshasana takes a hold of Draupadi’s single-cloth garment, sullied by menstrual blood, and begins to disrobe her. The entire assembly erupts in chaotic dissent. When even the Pandavas do nothing, as if from the bottom of an abyss with no semblance of hope, Draupadi shuts her eyes in my mind and prays silently to the single figure in the assembly hall who can intervene. Save me, Krishna, savior of the world. Don’t you see that I am drowning?
After what feels like an eternity, a smile falls from divinity to the earth. Duhshasana keeps pulling, but Draupadi’s sari becomes miraculously infinite. A heap of cloth swells in the middle of the assembly hall. The Kauravas are perplexed by this, but thickheaded as they are painted in the stories of my childhood, they spend no time thinking about it and move on, dishing out a 13-year exile sentence to the Pandavas. And the epic, rolling like a magnificent river containing every imaginable beauty and pollution, continues on.
You can probably imagine how much theological significance this story takes on in devotional
Hindu traditions. It reaffirms the centrality and constancy of divinity—when all the world is dead to you, you realize that God has been there all along, and out pours raw surrender. My mom used to tell me that until I had learned to humble myself, I wouldn’t be able to pray like Draupadi had. Certainly, Draupadi’s prayer felt very different from the terse requests I submitted to the sky from under my breath—please don’t rain, I’m almost home—but I thought about Draupadi often. And the story isn’t just about how to pray. It is also about Krishna’s status in the Mahabharata as a golden figure who peeks from behind the clouds and watches over those who love him, always. Krishna signifies a divinity who can, and will, bend the laws of the universe to make a way for those who have none. I have never really seen the bottom of an abyss. But I cherish this moment of the Mahabharata because it reminds me that if ever I do, there is a way out.
A few months ago, I learned that Book 2 of the Mahabharata in its critical edition doesn’t exactly match my imagination. The events in the assembly hall have all of the clouds but none of the sun. Draupadi is indeed lost to dice. She is cruelly assaulted. She does not pray. Krishna is not present in the hall. There is an unending sari, but the implication is that the potency of Draupadi’s own virtue preserves her dignity. And directly following her humiliation is yet another round of dice, to which her husbands agree once again.
I was not expecting to be so affected by this news. There is plenty of literature about the instability of an “original” in premodern South Asian texts. But the critical edition is considered about the closest we can get to a single node out of which later recensions develop. In an effort that takes years, scholars gather hundreds of the oldest manuscripts of a text—the Mahabharata in this case—and read them together, dating them, figuring out the overlap, noting the divergences, deciding what the most likely reading is. Much of making a critical edition can be working with barely legible palm leaves. So when one is finally put together, and even further translated from Sanskrit into English, and Draupadi’s prayer is not in it, I am inclined to wonder where it came from in the first place.
And wonder I did. Superficial research reveals that Draupadi’s prayer most likely comes from a Southern Indian devotional recension of the Mahabharata. The fact that it has permeated much of Hindu spiritual consciousness is reassuring, certainly, but it doesn’t get around the fact that the genre of the Mahabharata is sometimes known—once again, not without debate—as itihasa. Itihasa means “so it was,” or “so it happened.” It’s ordinarily translated as “history.” So, did Draupadi pray or not? The question is not merely theological; for some it is historical.
Maybe it doesn’t need to matter whether Draupadi actually prayed or not. The truth of her prayer lives and breathes in the fact that I love that story and think about it often. And, this is only a relatively minor discrepancy. Over my years at Harvard studying religion and literature, I have come across baskets upon baskets of stories that I know, slightly altered—altered because they are told in a different language, to a different audience, with a different ending, or with different characters. It turns out that Shakuntala’s curse is actually an invention of the poet Kalidasa. There is a version of the Mahabharata that ends the story with the glorious war victory as opposed to the bleak mountain trek at the end of the traditional Mahabharata. There is a poetic composition about how Parvati wins Shiva with her asceticism, but in the flavor of a love story. And then, there are hundreds of Ramayanas—a play adaptation of the Ramayana where Rama does not send Sita to the forest and instead they live together happily ever after, one where Ravana, the antagonist, is the hero, ones in several Indian regional languages, and even Cambodian ones, Buddhist ones, and Jain ones. In fact, there are a whole host of books about this very phenomenon of multiplicity in South Asian literary culture.
What does it all mean, except that the South Asian tradition of stories, an oral and written concoction of colossal epics and fleeting folktales and everything in between, is so diverse so as to be difficult to categorize and explain? I think it means quite a bit more than that. I think it points toward the way contradiction hangs together in this tradition in a way that is endlessly surprising. Like Draupadi’s braid, stories that contradict each other are woven together to create a single fabric, one whose cohesiveness actually relies on its divisions. The South Asian storytelling tradition, one could say, is still alive because sometimes Rama is the hero and sometimes he is not. It sounds like a series of fun plot-twists, but really it is a profound reflection of human consciousness. Sometimes we are heroes, and sometimes we are not.
But that is not at all what we as South Asians are taught. It is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. There is something very beautiful about the consonance of a single thread. In an epic full of ambiguous dilemmas, a clean causal chain starting with a prayer and ending in a rescue is narratively therapeutic. The fact that Krishna heeds Draupadi’s prayer is also morally instructive, a useful example for those learning what it might mean to pray, and what a relationship to divinity might look like. However, the implications of childhood lessons in which people fall neatly into categories of good and bad, or in which stories have definitive beginnings and endings and morals, are not lost on me. In abandoning the rich multiplicity of the South Asian literary tradition, we breed false certainty where there could instead be humility and openness. After all, a child who expects to emulate every action of a role model considered categorically good, or a child who is taught that to be good means to make no mistakes, is bound to be disappointed. We go on, relishing the beauty of our individual, independent strands—Rama, who is unquestionably the ideal man, Shiva, who is unquestionably the supreme divinity—never pausing to realize that sometimes perfect boundaries collapse a little. Sometimes Rama is desperate in grief, and sometimes Vishnu spills over into Shiva’s mythology and challenges him. It was only after I had read books written by academics—who are often not South Asian at all—that I learned this.
I implore my fellow South Asians, whether in the diaspora or not, to recognize that the next time you are struck over the head by the literary or philosophical beauty of a South Asian story, savor it. Think about what it might mean for your life, how you might choose to interpret or retell it. Save it in a cookie jar, where you can easily access it later. And then, turn around. Think about how you might have read the story if you were not yourself. Or turn the story over, and inside out. Search for alternatives, where the plot is changed, where the characters have skeletons in their closets that you didn’t know about, or where divinity materializes unexpectedly. Realize, then, that maybe that version of the story, the one that happens in an alternate universe, is probably beloved to your next-door neighbor. You may prefer another version, but she tells this one as a bedtime story to her grandchildren for reasons that ring with a veracity unknown to you. Don’t, I ask, wait for an academic to come along with a tidbit of information that could turn your world upside down. Discover the tradition for yourself, so you will know how resiliently diverse it and its value systems are.
So, what does it mean for me, that Draupadi didn’t pray? Back in the assembly hall, now one from which Krishna is absent, I think about how such a miracle would only transpire in a world that is cosmically just. The world of the Mahabharata can let slide the follies of gambling, even when they are disastrous, but it will not tolerate a violent affront made to a woman like Draupadi. That is simply not the order of things. I learn, now, that perhaps this alternate version of the story I know so well also holds an important perspective for me—that even though the world I inhabit is not rampant with mythic wonders, it tends toward justice.
What does that mean for history in South Asia, or truth? If opposites can simultaneously be true, what does meaning look like at all? Undoubtedly, the question is not for me to answer. But perhaps these questions urge us to return to the imagery of Draupadi’s braid, and to think of it as a representation of reality held together by strands that are variant, even paradoxical. Truth cannot be a singular detail. Truth comprises the dusty, shadowed side of the moon, and the emanating ripples in a pond, the parts we don’t know and the parts we unconsciously generate. The voices in our community are representations of nothing less than the miracle of this fact.
Pranati Parikh is a member of the Class of 2021 at Harvard College.
Graphic: Judson Moore / Unsplash