When Draupadi, wife of the Pandavas, is brought before the court of elders and
humiliated by the Kauravas, a violation of dharma occurs that is ultimately remediated
with the killings of Duryodhana and Duhsasana by Bhīma. In the Mahabharata- a Hindu
epic-the preservation of a woman’s sanctity is non-negotiable, and any violators of that
principle are bound to face dire consequences. Although whether or not the legitimacy of
Duryodhana winning Draupadi (and consequentially his ownership of her) is supported
by dharma is unclear, it’s irrelevant: his befouling of her feminine purity blatantly goes
against dharma, thereby sealing his fate.
Dharma, having no exact translation in English, can sometimes be difficult to
define. It is a divinely prescribed path of action for any given living being, with each
being’s dharma differing from others and many parts of dharma being determined by
social class (xviii). For example, despite the many atrocities that Duryodhana commits on
the battlefield and elsewhere, he is still granted entrance into heaven “by following the
Ksatriya dharma, a king who was never afraid even when the danger was great” (p. 780).
However, this does not mean that individual dharmas are exclusive to one
another. There are a few actions that are universally adharmic such as brahmanicide
and, most relevantly, the desecration of a woman’s sanctity. The former is evidenced by
Indra’s killing of the Brahman demon Vritra in the tenth section of the Udyoga Parva
(Book Five). “All beings [are] much pleased” with this seemingly dharmic action of
Indra slaying his evil foe, but it doesn’t matter: because Vritra was a Brahmin, Indra
seriously violates dharma and is “overpowered by the sin of brahmanicide” (Book V,
Section X). Although what dharma is may not always be clear, the reactions and actions
of gods such as Yama and Krishna are seen as the manifestation of dharma and good
indicators for judging an action as dharmic and adharmic. Once dharma is violated
through adharmic action, it is thrown out of balance and eventually corrected (xx).
Krishna’s actions in scenes revolving around this controversy, along with indicators
within the text reveal that a universal dharma is violated and subsequently remediated
apropos to Draupadi’s treatment.
A close reading of the text supports the sanctity of Draupadi’s femininity.
Yudhisthira describes her as having “kindliness and perfect beauty…of such consummate
virtue” (2.59, 34), and when she is wagered “a cry of horror from the elders of the court”
(2.59, 38), indicating that her being put in a position of vulnerability is abominable. In
particular, though, Draupadi’s hair is symbolic of her purity: it’s described as being “long
and jet-black [and] wavy” (2.60, 22). This description provides clear imagery with
powerful significance: the descriptors of long length, bold color, and natural style
indicate a state of non-interference. The...