Perhaps one of the most jarring episodes of the Mahābhārata, the disrobing of Draupadī has been etched to my mind since my first introduction to the epic. The story of the Mahābhārata’s fire-born heroine goes as follows: the empress Draupadī, an incarnation of the celestial Śrī, is violently dragged to the royal court after her husbands, the Pāṇḍavas, are enslaved through deceit. Draupadī is tearful, menstruating, and the Pāṇḍavas’ offenders, the Kauravas, attempt to enslave her. However, she fiercely debates them and proclaims her freedom. Enraged by her rebuttal, the Kauravas decide to disrobe her. When they mercilessly begin to pull her clothing, Draupadī’s garment endlessly unfolds, and she remains clothed — by what is presumed to be the grace of Lord Kṛṣṇa.
My fascination with Draupadī first began as awe of the female endurance she embodies. As a woman myself, I deeply identified with her pains, and found our sufferings to mirror each other. In my reflections, my being melded with her character, whom I felt connected to through the thread of shared female experience. I found comfort in her triumph. As I continued mulling over her story, I became inexplicably moved by the imposing testament of devotion that is showcased in her tale; in most renditions of the Mahābhārata, Draupadī, while being abused, earnestly prays to her dearest friend, confidant, and God, Kṛṣṇa, who, out of boundless compassion, answers to her calls and envelops her in his grace. It is a touching picture: as the men of the court hang their heads in shame, bound in silence and inaction by their royal vows, Draupadī, deserted by all, is shielded by her devotion to Kṛṣṇa — and her devotion is enough.
However, my greatest personal and transformational shift has occurred when, with my beloved guru’s guidance, I was able to deconstruct the tale of Draupadī’s anguish in order to delve deeper into the teaching encased in it. Before doing so, there was slight anxiousness in my heart: there was self-doubt, and there were questions; Draupadī had been ‘saved’ through her devotion, but would I be? Would I be saveable or worthy?
Indeed, my mistake had been not delving deeper into the teaching encased in Draupadī’s anguish by remaining stuck at the level of storytelling. The liberating conclusion I have reached is that, in truth, whether the empress’s garment endlessly expanded or not is irrelevant. The teaching veiled in Draupadī’s disrobing is that she was untouchable because she was internally free. The horror she was subjected to did not shake her internal freedom, nor did it dismantle her devotion. Throughout it all, she was rooted in her love for Kṛṣṇa, and immersed in her independent power. As she says in a recent rendition: “You cannot make me your slave because I do not allow it. Independence lies within me; it is not a piece of clothing you can snatch.” All along, the question was not whether I would have been saved; it was whether I could unearth Draupadī’s fearlessness in myself.
The Mahābhārata’s fire-born heroine has taught me that freedom lies within me. It is not given to me by others, and it cannot be taken from me. My freedom is married to my devotion, and my heart holds the keys to both.
This article has been published in the second volume of Śabda Magazine.