Marginalization versus Empowerment in the Mahabharata

Ralla Guha Niyogi, Basanti Devi College, Kolkata, India

The Mahabharata contains themes that are highly relevant to the contemporary society and culture. According to James Fitzgerald, the Mahabharata may be regarded as a narrative of marginality, “the Veda of women and sudras” (185). Much of the dilemma faced by these deprived groups is reflected in the epic, and I aim to analyze the deeds of some of the epic characters in the light of the issue. Also, how some of these characters belonging to the peripheral sections emerge as powerful individuals is another concern of the paper.

Three recent postcolonial literary texts, namely, The Mahabharata: The Complete Adi Parva, Pancha Kanya: The Five Virgins of Indian Epics—A Quest in Search of Meaning and Narrative Art in the Mahabharata: The Adi Parva is of special interest in the context as they contain notable perceptions and analyses of marginalization and empowerment in ancient Indian society. Postcolonial feminist readings on the actions and responses of the mythical, epic women in the Mahabharata approve of the matriarchal culture prevailed in ancient India. Indian women have traditionally been regarded as powerful entities, the source of life and energy. Both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata relate instances of outstanding women who demonstrate striking features of femininity that enable them to overcome their marginalized status.

Chief among outstanding epic women are the Pancha Kanya or the five virgins. The Ahinik Sutravali regards the Pancha Kanya as pratah smaraniya [to be invoked at dawn] in order to destroy one’s greatest failings: “Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara, Mandodari tatha/Pancha-Kanya smarennityam mahapataka nashaka” (502) [“Ahalya, Draupadi, Kunti, Tara and Mandodari—/Invoking daily the virgins five/Destroys the greatest failings”] (Bhattacharya, Panch Kanya 11). The Pancha Kanya are different from the Sapta Sati, namely Sati, Sita, Savitri, Arundhati, Anasuya, Lopamudra (or Sulochana, Indrajit’s wife) and Damayanti who, like the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, represent a chaste woman married to only one man and submitting herself to his wishes and directives. On the contrary, the personality of the Kanya is far more complex, being a combination of the Anima and the Animus, as C.G. Jung analyzed:

“The Anima represents the feminine aspects of the male psyche, e.g. gentleness, tenderness, patience, receptiveness, closeness to nature [and] readiness to forgive. . . . The Animus is the male side of a female psyche: assertiveness, the will to control and take charge, [and a] fighting spirit.” (qtd. in Bhattacharya, Pancha Kanya 20-21)

These qualities are found simultaneously in the five kanyas for they individually display masculine and feminine characteristics within the literary and, to a certain extent, the social milieu of ancient India. Questions are often raised as to why these women who either had extramarital affairs or more than one husband are referred to as kanyas or virgins, and why they have been considered to have redemptive qualities, thereby being revered as the Pancha Kanyas. The answers to these questions lie in the ancient concepts of morality and femininity according to which a woman could simultaneously be considered “fallen” and “virtuous,” and could be regarded as “one-in-herself” or an autonomous entity, as observes Harding (103). Furthermore, the term kanya has deeper connotations than its mere etymological meaning of a very young, unmarried girl1:

“Being a Kanya has nothing to do with the physical status of ‘virgo intacta’ or sexual experience. . . . The boon of virginity is not just a physical condition but refers to an inner state of the psyche that remains untrammeled by any slavish dependence on another, on a particular man.” (Bhattacharya, Pancha Kanya 63)

Epic women in the Mahabharata like Satyavati, Kunti and Draupadi present this modern concept of strikingly individualistic feminine consciousness or “female culture” that, as Gerda Lerner states, exists within the “general culture” of men and women:

“Women live their social existence within the general culture and, whenever they are confined by patriarchal restraint or segregation into separateness (which always has subordination as its purpose), they transform this restraint into complementarity (asserting the importance of woman’s function, even its ‘superiority’) and redefine it. Thus, women live a duality—as members of the general culture and as partakers of women’s culture.” (qtd. in Showalter 346)

Kate Millett similarly states that gender distinctions concurrently imply differences in behavior between men and women and cultural differences: “[M]ale and female are really two cultures and their life experiences are utterly different” (31). Gender-related issues pertaining to ancient South Asian society were addressed for the first time in The Position of Women in Hindu Civilisation by A. S. Altekar where the author asserted that women in ancient India were more respected than their contemporaries in ancient Greece and Rome. “Women once enjoyed considerable freedom and privileges in spheres of family, religion and public life; but as centuries rolled on, the situation went on changing adversely (335). However, this idyllic picture of women in the Vedic age has since been questioned by later critics who feel that this “Altekarian paradigm,” while “influenc[ing] and even dominat[ing] historical writing,” “virtually crippled the emergence of a more analytically rigorous study of gender relations in ancient India” (Chakravarti 80), for there was “an abrupt decline in the status of woman” which took place as soon as Draupadi replaced Kunti as the central female character in the epic (Bhattacharya, “Epic Women” 73).

These dynamics of marginalization and empowerment of women as well as those born in low caste or who were uneducated in ancient Indian society are present noticeably in the Mahabharata. For example, Vyasa, the mythical composer of the Mahabharata, himself belonged to the marginalized community—being the dark-skinned illegitimate son of Satyavati, the daughter of a fisherman of the Nishada race. Another instance of social exclusion may be witnessed in the character of Satyavati (also called Kali for having black complexion) herself. Satyavati agrees to the demands of the sage Parashara for sexual union on condition that her virginity would remain intact, that she would lose her fishy odor and be blessed with eternal youth like Helen (the most beautiful woman in Greek mythology), and that her illegitimate son Vyasa would be a renowned man (Bhattacharya, Narrative Art 127). Satyavati later marries Santanu, the King of Hastinapura, on condition that her heirs would inherit the kingdom instead of her stepson Devavrata (Bhism). Afterward, when Vichitravirya, the younger son from Santanu and Satyavati, dies without an heir, she unhesitatingly commands her illegitimate son Vyasa to impregnate Vichitravirya’s widows in accordance with the Niyoga (an ancient, socially accepted custom used to proliferate the family line in which a woman whose husband had died or could not have a child would take the help of another man in bearing a child). Thus the aristocratic Kuru dynasty is replaced by the Nishada race propagated through Satyavati and Vyasa. Satyavati transcends the limitations of her birth as a low-caste woman and displays exceptional shrewdness, keen sense of diplomacy and political acumen to emerge triumphant over the ruling Kurus to secure for herself and her descendants the right to the throne of Hastinapura.

While Satyavati’s action of introducing the Nishada race into the highest echelons of Brahmanical society in the epic is an example of how the subaltern community infiltrates the ruling class, her granddaughter-in-law Kunti on more than one occasion may be seen exploiting the community. For example, she ruthlessly engineers the deaths of the five Nishadas and their mother in the Lakshagriha (House of Lac) in order to save herself and the Pandavas from the conspiracy of the Kauravas: “[A] tribal woman of the Nishadas/Came to the house of lac and/Was burnt alive with her five sons” (Lal, The Mahabharata 143). Another example of cruelty towards the tribes is found in the myth surrounding the brave Ekalavya who willingly cut off his thumb as per the demands of his so-called guru Dronacharya who feared that the tribal enthusiast would supersede his favorite prince-disciple Arjuna as an archer. Bhima’s son Ghatotkacha, born of Shalakatankati (known as the Rakshasa Hidimba), is similarly sacrificed by Kunti and the Pandavas in the Kurukshetra War. Kunti displays admirable foresight in commanding her son Bhima to beget a son by Hidimba who is infatuated with him (Bhattacharya, Narrative Art 268). Ghatotkacha’s formidable presence in the combat with Karna forces the latter to use his infallible javelin, Shakti (gifted by Indra) on the young and otherwise invincible Rakshasa, who thus sacrifices himself to save Arjuna for whom Karna had been reserving his terrifying weapon. Again, in Vanaparva, Rakshasas are projected as villains when they try to protect their territory and are killed by Bhima while they attempt to abduct Draupadi. Throughout the epic, tribal people are controlled and exploited by the regal ones, and remain either literally or symbolically on the fringes of the Vedic society.

Such supremacy is exercised within the royal family as well at multiple levels. When Vyasa reveals to Satyavati that his sons by Vichitravirya’s widows Ambika and Ambalika would be born blind (Dhritarashtra) and sickly (Pandu) respectively, Satyavati, in desperation, commands him to impregnate Ambika again. The latter takes recourse to a subterfuge and sends in her maid-servant in her place resulting into the birth of Vidura. Being of low birth, Vidura is unfit to be the King of Hastinapur and instead remains the wise counselor of Dhritarashtra and the Pandavas. Vidura is thus deprived of his right to kingship due to his marginalized status. As Vidura becomes the chief advisor to the King of Hastinapura, Karna—regarded as the son of a charioteer—is the intellectual resource for Duryodhana. Karna is in actuality the son of Kunti and Surya, the sun-god. As an unmarried princess, Kunti yields to the temptation of testing Durvasa’s boon which provided her with the powers to summon any god she wished. When Surya appears before her she capitulates to his demands for sexual union on condition that her virginity or purity of spirit will be reinstated and that her son would resemble him. Karna, however, is marginalized at birth, being cast away by Kunti. Like Thetis who had been indirectly responsible for the death of her son Achilles for leaving his heel vulnerable, Kunti later leaves Karna, her first-born son, vulnerable by making him promise not to kill any Pandava except Arjuna. She thus finds him emotionally weak with the knowledge that he will be fighting against his brothers in the Kurukshetra war—a fact that the Pandavas were unaware of. Buddhadeb Basu’s modern verse-drama, Pratham Partha displays an evocative treatment of Karna’s mental agony at his own marginalised status while he envisages the inevitability of combat with Arjuna in the forthcoming war. More, married to the impotent Pandu, Kunti uses her boon again to give him three sons by three different gods via Niyoga.

Further, the characters that are dark-skinned are considered to be outside the Vedic community and therefore marginalized. Interestingly, chief among them in the epic are Satyavati, Vyasa, Krishna, Arjuna and Draupadi who play important roles in the dramatic unfolding of events in the epic’s narrative structure. Krishna, belonging to the Yadava clan, leads the marginalized forces of cowherds to rise against the Kshatriya clan of Mathura in his early youth, and overthrows and kills the tyrant ruler Kansa. Later on, he leads the five Pandavas—who are ‘outsiders’ according to Duryodhana for not being the direct descendants of Pandu—against the Kauravas . Thus, repeatedly, Krishna helps less powerful people uproot the ruling class. The reincarnation of Shri, the consort of Vishnu, Draupadi is unique in being a woman in the epic who in a previous birth had asked Shiva five times for a husband and had been destined by him to have five husbands. Thus, her marriage to the five Pandavas is given a divine sanction. Draupadi, like Durga and Athena, comes out fully grown from a yajna fire. Being a dark-skinned woman, she is doubly marginalized. However, she comes out as one of the strongest characters in the epic. What Oscar Wilde exclaims about Helen is equally applicable to Draupadi: “For surely it was thou, who, like a star/ Didst lure the Old World’s chivalry and might/ Into the clamorous crimson waves of war!” (733) Similar to Ahalya’s silent acquiescence to Gautama’s wrath, Draupadi silently accepts the five Pandavas as her husbands, perhaps recalling Maudgalya’s curse on her in a previous birth (Mani 549). She, similar to the seventeen brahmavadinis or rishikas to whom the hymns of the Rig-Veda were revealed2, later displays her exceptional intelligence, wisdom and amazing presence of mind when in the face of the intense humiliation of disrobement after being dragged by her hair into the open court she challenges the very precepts of Dharma before her elders. She is initially silent when Kunti commands all the Pandavas to marry her. This was a carefully thought out tactic of Kunti to ensure that the adamantine unity of the five brothers forged by her is not split because of sexual jealousy. As Kunti retreats into the background, she ensures that she is replaced by a single pivot for the five—the spoked wheel of the Pandava destiny, Draupadi. She, like Yudhishthira, had noticed that when the brothers looked at Draupadi “each had her in his heart” (qtd. in Bhattacharya, “Apropos”). Like Helen, she is surrounded by violence, bloodshed and war. She stands apart from other epic women in her immense psychological strength and courage which make her emerge as a sophisticated and elite woman, a fit partner for her five husbands (Patton 103-04), and displays “a profound awareness of being an instrument in bringing about the extinction of an effete epoch, so that a new age could take birth” (Bhattacharya, Panch Kanya 92). Her desire for revenge is not limited by narrow selfish interests, but, as the Sakhi (sister-friend) of Krishna, she has a far nobler aim of ultimate regeneration of society through destruction of the Kauravas. Draupadi may thus be regarded as the embodiment of Stree Shakti (women power) that triumphs over formidable obstacles to reinforce her femininity as well as individuality.

It is interesting that epic characters like Satyavati, Vyasa, Vidura, Karna, the Pandavas, Draupadi, Ekalavya, Ghatotkacha and above all Krishna stand out in the society because of their individual abilities and merit. Does the Mahabharata, then, represent an austere Brahmanical society or send us the message that human action and human achievement in ancient times were far superior to narrow social discriminations based on caste and creed? Marginalization in the epic, be it in the royal family, the upper castes or tribes, often ceases to matter in the face of outstanding merit towering personality and strength of character. This message of the Mahabharata, while pertaining to olden Indian society, is equally relevant in the postcolonial times. The epic continues to be socially and culturally pertinent in the modern age influencing and molding the evolving multiplicities of human responses and human behavior.

[Acknowledgement: Originally, the paper was presented at the International Conference on “Contemporary English Studies: Society, Culture and Language” held by Department of English, Assam University, Silchar on 6-8 March 2013.]


  1. In his Publisher’s Note in Bhattacharya’s Pancha Kanya: The Five Virgins of Indian Epics—A Quest in Search of Meaning, Professor P. Lal provides a list of sixteen kinds of unmarried girls that are mentioned in ancient Sanskrit texts, noting that kanya denotes a girl of eight.
  2. The Rig-Veda recounts the names of seventeen rishikas, women of outstanding intelligence and abilities, namely, Aparta, Devyani, Ghosha, Indrani, Jarita, Juhu, Kadru, Lopamudra, Paulomi, Romasa, Savitri, Sharanga, Shraddha, Kamayani, Urvashi, Vak-Ambhrini and Vishvavara. The Sama-Veda refers to four more women—Akrishtabhasha or Purvaschhika, Ganpayana, Nodha and Shikatanivavari or Utararchchika—all revered and held in high esteem for their wisdom and independence of spirit. They reinstated one aspect of ancient Indian feminism, namely, equality in education and public life, which proves to be a source of inspiration to modern women.


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Ralla Guha Niyogi, PhD, is an Associate Professor of English at Basanti Devi College, Kolkata, India. Her areas of specialization are the Victorian Age in general and Charles Dickens in particular, and she has published her work on the Mahabharata too. Recently, she completed a minor research project on children’s literature.


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