Struggle of the matriarchs

Aditi Garg

Queens of Mahabharata
Kavita A. Sharma.
Rupa. Pages 126. Rs 150.

Queens of MahabharataBehind every successful man, there is a woman. Even though the age-old adage holds true for many, there is no dearth of believers who think that the opposite is more appropriate. Many would rather believe that the female bastion is more likely to be the cause of downfall.

Love them or loath them, you just cannot ignore them. History has witnessed that woman have changed the course of empires. Be it Cleopatra, Rani Laxmi Bai, Helen of Troy or the more contemporary Condolezza Rice, Queen Elizabeth or Sonia Gandhi, they have all had a big impact on the way history is written. Whether they chose to be subtle or in your face, they captured our imaginations and won a place for themselves in a male-dominated society.

The Mahabharata has more to claim for its fame than just being the longest epic in the world. It also claims that there is no situation that can arise and has not been mentioned in it. It breaks away from the mould of The Ramayana, which celebrates the ideal father, son, brother, mother and wife. It shows human nature at its truest.

Kavita A. Sharma, the author of Queens of Mahabharata, delves deeper into the epic that most of us know only through the serial that halted every activity for an hour. She is Principal of the prestigious Hindu College in Delhi. Her earlier books, Byronís PlaysóA Reassessment and Ongoing Journey: Indian Migration to Canada have also been highly acclaimed. She claims that although The Mahabharata may give the outward appearance of being a story of power struggle between brothers and their sons, the women run the show as much as, if not more than, their male counterparts.

We embrace The Mahabharata as our very own epic, but its reach spreads to as far as Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Reunion Islands and Fiji. All these places have assimilated their versions of folklore into it. When you look harder at the female characters of the epic, you realise that not just Draupadi, but many more women bring about changes that in one way or the other effect the course of the war.

Kavita explores the various facets of the characters spawning from Satyavati and Amba to Gandhari and Kunti, Draupadi, Madri, Ulupi, Chitrangada, Hidimba, etc. What begins as a predominantly patriarchal drama suddenly becomes replete with strong female characters. They are constantly on the lookout for opportunity to grab the throne and hence, the scuttle to produce the first son. In the ensuing power play, they resort to any means that can bring them closer to their end.

Manipulation, scheming and compromise are all part of the game. She explains through examples how women would go to any length, even give up their life to be able to take revenge in their next life by making use of boons acquired by engaging in ascetic practices. She also brings up the topic of Draupadiís marriage to the Pandavas, which is generally thought to be the result of Kunti misjudging her sonís words. She puts it across as a well thought out move that would enable them to get closer to their goal.

The author points out that the duties of the chaste wife are harped upon all over the text. Even though strict guidelines are laid down to demonstrate the duties of an ideal housewife, it also gives them liberal rights. According to her, The Mahabharata states that if a chaste wife deviates, the fault is the husbandís. On reading Kavitaís book, we come to know various lesser-known facts like fire walking is associated with the cult of Draupadi. She also uses simple narrative to explain the finer nuances of the epic. Even the people who are not well versed with Mahabharata would have no difficulty in understanding the various situations and characters.