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Indian Epic Literature: Virata Parva and Bhagavad Gita Essay

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Draupadi, a woman of Beauty and Valor

Draupadi is one of the main characters in Virata Parva, the book of a bigger opus, Mahabharata. She was a daughter of king Drupada and a wife of five husbands – the brothers Pandavas, whose names were: Yudhisthir, Bheema, Arjun, Nakul and Sahadeva.

I would characterize her as devoted to her family, driven, sometimes avangeful and obstinate to the point of arguing with ‘gods’. This was due to her persistence in the conversation with Shiva in her previous birth, that this time she had five husbands – Shiva explained her that it was difficult to find a husband with all the fourteen listed by her qualities, but she insisted on that, and, as a result, got those fourteen qualities in five men.

In Virata Parvan she is described as an extremely beautiful woman, who could use her beauty for achieving her own purposes, though it was quite difficult for a woman at that time to achieve any goals.

During the epic period some restrictions were placed on women. One cannot say that they were of no importance at all and deprived of all rights. At least they had a right to get education. As Altekar notes, “most of the girls in the well-to do families used to be given a fair amount of education down to c. 300 B.C..”1 But the same author gives us an example of females’ rights violation, declaring that marriage was obligatory for girls at that time period: “The Mahabharata informs us that women ought never to remain unmarried in future”2, and there was a belief that a maiden could not go to heaven, if she had never been married, and “a corpse of a maiden can be burnt only after a formal marriage even after the death.”3

Chaurasia gives a very apt and thorough contrast between the position of women in India in early Vedic period and in Later Vedic or Epic period: whereas in early period “women enjoyed a great respect in society, … freely took part in outdoor activities. …had freedom of marriage”4, “the woman gradually lost her position of honour in the society. They were required to remain within the four walls of the house. They were now considered merely a plaything to please men. But there were exceptions.”5

Draupadi seems to be such an exception, though we can notice, that at least once she was also seen as a men’s plaything. The scene of her first entering the Pandavas’ house is very representative in this respect, when one of the brothers tells his mother to have a look at ‘what’ (not ‘whom’) they brought, indicating Draupadi.

But, though she was, as I said, a woman, devoted to her husbands, it is difficult to say, that she was a “submissive acquiescence to the whims” of her husbands, as Sutherland describes another heroin of Indian epic, Sita.6 Draupadi, on the contrary, is often aggressive, and sometimes even when speaking to her husbands, like in the episode when she saw that her husbands were not taking up the cudgels for her, when she was offended.

She is a manifestation of female heroism – she is not afraid to speak before the king and express her anger, demanding of him to punish her and her husbands’ enemy, who sent them to an exile. And finally she manages to make her husbands and other people to avenge. She also shows courage and strength of spirit at the face of various tribulations, like when she lost all her sons. This is the most difficult trial for any woman, but still she does not lose her heart and has no rest, till the justice has been restored.

If even in that time a woman could have courage to stand against injustice, it, certainly, means that nowadays women have even greater opportunities of displaying their best qualities, with valor among them.

Bhagavad Gita: the Possibility of Salvation by means of the Way of Works

Bhagavad Gita, representing one of the most significant sacred Hindu texts, the ‘sermon’ of Krishna, is another book of the bigger opus, Mahabharata. It is a philosophical dialogue between the Lord Krishna and the Pandava prince Arjuna, in which Krishna explains him ethical matters, the nature of God, the way of salvation.

Basharat declares that, “salvation, for the Hindu, can be achieved in one of three ways: the way of works, the way of knowledge, or the way of devotion.”7 The Bhagavad Gita presents the possibility of salvation by means of one of them – through the way of works or the path of Karma Yoga. “Yoga means “union” and Karma means “action”, thus karma yoga means acting in a way which brings us into union with the Divine.”8 But not all kinds of actions can bring a person to the salvation, only those actions that are consecrated – in other words your motivation and contemplation about the things you do mean a lot, you should do all simple things of life with great love and “experience life as precious rather than mediocre.”9

This sermon of Krishna is not just a distracting speculation or some piece of religious theory that is not connected to the other parts of the Mahabharata, as it can seem to be. It fits in the general context and responds to the urgent need of one of the main characters of this epic. It helps confused prince Arjuna to solve his dilemma. He did not know what to do: to fight in a war between kinsmen, or not.

He hesitated so much, because he had to fight against some of his relatives and mentors, but, on the other hand, they were wrong. So, he asks Krishna to explain, what would be the right thing to do, and Krishna answers him that it was his path – a path of actions, and that his duty was to lead this just war and conquer those, who acted against Dharma or against justice. This sermon convinces Arjuna, and he accomplishes the purpose of his life in obedience to Krishna – he begins fighting against the enemy’s army. Thus, the sermon Bhagavad Gita becomes a turning point in this war between Kauravas and Pandavas. With Arjuna’s engagement the army of Krishna’s servants win.

The whole book of Bhagavad Gita is understood by many Hindus and scholars an allegory, and, thus, applicable not only Arjuna, but to all people. In that allegory Krishna presents a Brahman, a Hindu priest, Arjuna’s chariot where Krishna read him this sermon is a body of any person, and Arjuna is an allegory of a human’s soul. Thus, this part of epic not only fits in a literary masterpiece of the Epic period, called the Mahabharata, as its indispensable part, but also fits in the whole system of Hindu belief and ethics, influencing the everyday life of ordinary people in India.

Short Identifications

Sthayi-bhava and rasa

A rasa is an essential mental state. The state of permanent mood is also called Sthayi-Bhava. First there were listed only eight Rasas, associating with the corresponding number of feelings or emotions. They are: love, fury, laughter, compassion, disgust, horror, heroic mood, amazement. Further peace, parental love, spiritual devotion were added.

Soka and sloka

The sloka meter is the commonest Sanskrit meter. Mishra declares that “it was born out of the poet’s expression of grief or soka”10. Soka is a deep feeling. It is often a state of a person, who lost someone or something dear to him.

Virata Parvan is a book about the 13th year of exile of the five Pandavas and their wife, Drauoadi. The first scene of that book takes place at the court of king Virata. All of them got some positions at the court. After Keechaka, the commander of Virata, lusts for Draupadi, one of her husbands kills the offender. It leads to war, which eventually was won by Arjuna and his comrades.

Gupta Dynasty

The first representative of the dynasty was Maharaja Sri Gupta. The period of their reign is called ‘Golden Age of India’. It is marked by many inventions and development in literature and other spheres. It is a widespread view that the early Indian epics were written during this period. The Gupta Empire disintegrated due to attacks of Hephthalite Empire in the fifth century B.C.

Bibliography

Altekar, Anant Sadashiv. The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization: From Prehistoric Times to the Present Day. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1956.

Basharat, Tahira. “University of the Punjab. Web.

Chaurasia, Radhey Shyam. History of Ancient India: Earliest Times to 1000 A. D.. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers & Dist, 2002.

Mishra, Vijay. Devotional Poetics and the Indian Sublime: Lacan’s Return to Freud. Albany: SUNY Press, 1998.

“Sermon: .” The Unitarian Church of Sharon, MA. Web.

Sutherland, Sally J. “Sita and Draupadi: Aggressive Behavior and Female-Role models in the Sanskrit Epics.” South & Southeast Asian Studies University of California Berkeley. Web.

Footnotes

  1. Anant Sadashiv Altekar, The Position of Women in Hindu Civilization: From Prehistoric Times to the Present Day (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1956), 5.
  2. Ibid., 33.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Radhey Shyam Chaurasia, History of Ancient India: Earliest Times to 1000 A. D. (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers & Dist, 2002), 44.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Sally J. Sutherland. “Sita and Draupadi: Aggressive Behavior and Female-Role models in the Sanskrit Epics.” South & Southeast Asian Studies University of California, Berkeley. Web.
  7. Tahira Basharat. “Hinduism And Concept Of Salvation.” University of the Punjab. Web.
  8. “Sermon: “The Bhagavad Gita: The Path of Consecrated Action”,” The Unitarian Church of Sharon, MA. Web.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Vijay Mishra, Devotional Poetics and the Indian Sublime: Lacan’s Return to Freud (Albany: SUNY Press, 1998), 184.
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IvyPanda. "Indian Epic Literature: Virata Parva and Bhagavad Gita." January 30, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/indian-epic-literature-virata-parva-and-bhagavad-gita/.

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