Mahabharata: the longest epic ever written. Often it is deduced to be merely the story of the Kurukshetra war between Pandavas and Kauravas whose spark was ignited by the Dyut Sabha at Hastinapur where Draupadi, the Queen of Aryavarta and the wife of the Pandavas had been attempted to be disrobed by her brother-in-laws. But was that the cause of this entire massive destruction? No. The story of Mahabharata traces back up to Bharata although we are familiar with the version beginning with the era of the Kuru king Shantanu. Mahabharata is not only a story of the valour of men in the battlefield but about the women in it who had been fighting rigorously facing stigma and challenges still posing brave to obstacles that came their way.
Satyavati was the wife of Shantanu. She was a common fisherwoman before this marriage and also had a son with sage Parashara by the name Vyasa. Satyavati was a very powerful character. After the demise of Shantanu, she took over the kingdom until the heir of the throne, that is her son Vichitravirya came of age. Her other son Chitrangada had been killed during a hunt and now it was her along with her Stepson Devavrata Bhisma whom Shantanu had with his first wife Ganga. Day and night she persevered for the well-being of Hastinapur, to maintain its glory in the absence of the king. She was no short of a ruler herself but the patriarchy of the age wouldn’t allow women to rule directly but still she was powerful. She asked Bhisma to get her son married to the Kashi princess Amba, Ambika, Ambalika and the latter two princesses had no objection to the alliance. When Vichitravirya died without conceiving any children with his wives, she appointed her son Vyasa to come and help the Queens have children through Niyoga where if the husband dies without any heir, a wise sage can help the wife of the deceased conceive children. She tried her best to always keep the kingdom together but with Pandu’s death everything seemed to be falling apart and she left the palace to a life of exile but had left her mark on the kingdom.
Speaking of the Kashi princesses, what had happened to the eldest of them Amba who didn’t agree to Pthe alliance with prince Vichitravirya? As the story goes, Amba was already in love with King Salva and had decided to marry him in the Swayamvara. But after Bhisma defeated Salva everybody considered it appropriate for her to go to Hastinapur. When in Hastinapur she told her story she was permitted to return to Salva who in turn didn’t accept her for his ‘ego’. Now she was accepted in either of the places. Amba blamed Bhisma for the injustice done to her and sought help from his teacher Bhagwan Parashuram. When the battle between the titans went fruitless, Lord Shiva turned up. He gave Amba a boon that if ever she was picked to fulfill a noble cause she would be the reason for Bhisma’s death. So with the fire of revenge in her heart she took her life and was reborn as Shikhandi to the king of Panchala, Drupad. She later entered the battlefield as a trans-man for women had been banished from the war and Bhisma gave up his weapons which paved the frontiers of the Pandavas’ victory.
Coming back to Ambika and Ambalika. They had two sons: Dhritarashtra who was born and blind and Pandu who was pale as snow. There was also a maid who had conceived a son with Vyasa and he was Vidur. Dhritarashtra was born blind so finding him an ideal match was tough. But he did so anyway and did it forcefully. He approached the kingdom of Gandhar whose princess Gandhari had the boon of a hundred sons granted to her by Lord Shiva. He asked for her hand for Dhritarashtra and when they refused at first he waged war on them and imprisoned king Subala and his sons. Later, Gandhari married Dhritarashtra and also took a lifelong oath of blindfolding herself. When she was pregnant, she didn’t deliver for 2 years and everyone was very concerned but her husband was fuming with rage. Added to that Pandu’s wife Kunti had given birth to Yuddhisthir through Yama Raja. Dhritarashtra wanting to teach a ‘lesson’ to Gandhari conceived a child with her maidservant Sukhda. Gandhari slammed her womb at this infidelity and she delivered a lifeless loaf of meat. Later, Vyasa informed them that it was the source from where her children would be born and he gave the children their human form. After Karna is killed in the war, Duryodhan gets concerned for his safety. Gandhari comes to know how she can save him. She opened her blindfold and helped Duryodhan transform his body into Vajra but he was left with some weak organs. He too died and she had no more sons alive. During Yuddhisthira’s coronation she cursed Krishna that the entire Yadav vansh will be destroyed which he accepted as a blessing.
What about the mother of the Pandavas, Kunti? Kunti who was married to Pandu had a quite tragic past. When she was young, Sage Durvasa gave her a boon that she would be able to bear a son to whichever god she prayed to. As a curious adolescent, she decided to try it out. She prayed to Lord Surya to appear before her to be shocked by the consequences of the visit. She had to forcefully conceive his child for he being a god was unable to understand her state of mind. She later gave birth to Karna. Young and helpless, Kunti had no other option but to leave her son. She put her in a basket and he flowed away in the river Ganga and was later adopted by Suta Adhirath, Bhisma’s charioteer. She bore this scar until Karna’s death even when he was present near her. When he was on his deathbed, she let out her secret to her sons finally lightening her lifelong burden. Later on after Pandu married Madri, he accidentally killed Maharishi Kindam who cursed him that if he established sexual relations with any woman, he would die. Pandu then along with his wives went to the forest for exile. There Kunti told him of her boon and had three sons Yuddhisthira, Bheema and Arjuna. She also helped Madri to have her twins, Nakula and Sahadeva. One day, Pandu forgot about his curse and engaged in sexual activity with Madri which resulted in his death. Madri, unable to bear the stigma of his death, gave her life as well. Now Kunti was left alone to raise five sons and she did so. Bearing all the injustices she and her sons were met with at Hastinapur she raised five supreme princes who possessed sheer talent and skill. She was indeed a remarkable and strong character.
Draupadi is undoubtedly the most prominent, strong and bold character in Mahabharata. She was born out of fire and was thus known as Yagyaseni. She also had a twin Dhristadyuma. At first she was rejected by her father and was already cursed at birth to have to bear lifelong pain and suffering. When she married Arjuna at the swayamwara she had to reject Karna for Krishna believed she had to choose the former. But she had already developed feelings for him. Nevertheless she married Arjuna who was disguised then as a Brahmin. She went with him and his brothers to their cottage in the forest where Kunti was performing a yagya. They asked her ecstatically on reaching to see what Arjuna had received in ‘daan’(charity or offering) implying ‘kanyadaan’( a ritual performed by the daughter’s parents at Hindu weddings). But Kunti without even looking at Draupadi ordered them to share amongst themselves whatever Arjuna had won. After much negotiation and rationalization with Vyasa and Krishna they concluded that this was fate. So Draupadi married the five Pandavas although she was always slightly more affectionate towards Arjuna which is totally natural. But Arjuna mostly didn’t return her affection. He married thrice after this: Princess Chitrangada of Manipur, Ulupi of Naaglok and most prominently Subhadra of Dwarka who was Krishna’s sister. Later, Draupadi was humiliated in the Kuru sabha when Dushasana attempted to disrobe her. Here there are two narratives succeeding this event. The most famous version is that Krishna saved Draupadi from being disrobed. The other version is that Draupadi had a boon from a sage that she will never run out of clothes. The latter version is said to be the one in Vyasa’s original Mahabharata but was later replaced by the former narrative during the Puranic age. During Vanavasa, Draupadi declared her love and desire for Karna to her husbands which was not met with their approval. The day before their Agyatvas began. She was abducted by Jayadrath who had always fancied her in a creepy way. During their Agyatvas, Keechak, the brother-in-law of King Virata tried to rape her but was killed by Bheema. She had to suffer the lifelong pain of men desiring her only because of her beauty while she never really did receive love from her husbands either. She is often blamed for the Kurukshetra war even though the war was destined to happen since ages in order to re-establish dharma but it is easy for people to blame women for destruction rather than take the blame on their society itself. She also bore with the death of her five sons who were killed in revenge of Duryodhan’s death by Aswatthama.
The women of Mahabharata most probably have the most poignant role in shaping its story, right from Satyavati to Draupadi. Women who rebelled, who remained strong, who fought for themselves, who did not give in and who remained till the end only for one cause: to re-establish dharma. In reality, it is still quite unclear what true dharma is or will ever be. We just know one thing for sure: it was the reason an entire generation of people of a land had to be wiped out, it was the reason that complete destruction became important and it was the reason these women suffered at every step of their life fighting with their personal and society’s dharma. It is dedicated towards restoring peace in society and whenever necessary bringing about destruction because above all the unknown dharma must thrive.