Published in Crest, Times of India, 6 March 2010

The idea of one woman having many husbands does make most men feel inadequate, not least her husbands. Little wonder then Draupadi is one of the most popular and controversial heroines of Hindu mythology. But she is not the only woman with many husbands. Her mother-in-law, Kunti, knew many men: four gods (Surya, Yama, Vayu and Indra) besides her husband, Pandu. But unlike Draupadi, her association with the gods was not public knowledge. It was whispered in corridors not announced in courts. And they did not really count as they were not husbands, just child-providers. The scriptures refer to other women who had many husbands: Marisha, who married the ten Prachetas brothers and Jatila who was the common wife of seven sages.

In early societies with high infant mortality rate and short lifespan, polygamy was preferred to polyandry. When a man had many wives, the family could have more children than a woman who had many husbands. This value for fertility is one of the reasons why women were usually kept away in seclusion and safety, a practice that eventually led to the throttling of women’s rights. But polyandry had benefits too – sharing a wife assured sharing of property and no division of the land.

In temples, one does see gods with many wives: Shiva with Gauri and Ganga; Vishnu with Bhoo-devi and Sri-devi; Muruga with Valli and Sena. This is either accepted matter-of-factly or simply explained away using metaphysics. But there are no images of the Goddess with multiple husbands. Usually her doorkeepers, such as Kala Bhairav and Gora Bhairava, are described as her sons or servants. The idea of the Goddess with more than one husband is unacceptable. Even suggesting it is blasphemous.

Draupadi with her five husbands and an entire epic revolving around her stirs the imagination – makes us think of things that we otherwise dare not think. Women writers who write on Draupadi flirt with the possibilities but only at a psychological level. Recently a male writer dared explore the physical aspect of Draupadi’s intimacy with her husbands. Not surprisingly this has led to outrage and protests and calls for the book to be banned.

One hears of co-wives fighting over their husband’s affection. Did the husbands fight over Draupadi? The epic does not explicitly discuss this, but the possibility of jealously tearing the brothers apart is alluded to repeatedly. The sage Narada warns the Pandava brothers of conflict that can destroy their fraternal bond. Narada suggests that they make careful bedroom arrangements to allow equal and exclusive access to each husband for a limited period of time. Any brother who enters her chamber when she is supposed to be with another husband will have to perform penance. Arjuna does stumble in once while she is in the arms of Yudhishtira and so has to go on a pilgrimage to atone for his crime. During this ‘pilgrimage’, he ends up with three more wives.

Every brother has exclusive rights to Draupadi’s chambers for a year, and then has to wait for four years for the next turn. Why one whole year? Perhaps because it gave Draupadi enough time to bear a child for that husband without any issues of paternity. As we know from the epic, she did bear each of her husbands a son, five in all.

Before she moved to the next husband, Draupadi walks through fire to regain her virginity and purity. Such rules were never placed before polygamous husbands. But Draupadi had a rule of her own for her husbands. She makes it very clear to her husbands that they cannot bring any other wife into the same house. Thus all the Pandavas have other wives but these wives stay with their parents and the Pandavas have to travel out of the city to visit their other wives in the four years that Draupadi is intimate with the other brothers. The only exception is made for Krishna’s sister, Subhadra, who marries Arjuna.

In a dialogue with Krishna’s wife, Satyabhama, Draupadi explains how she serves her husbands and satisfies all their needs and makes herself indispensable, hence very loved. Draupadi comes across as a very practical woman who knows she has to work to ensure all her husbands love her and do not feel she favors any one of them. But in the final chapter of the epic, it is made clear that of all the husbands, she favors Arjuna the most – a crime for which she is sent to hell!

Stories are often told of how Draupadi came to have five husbands. Explanations are needed for a culture desperate to explain such a discomforting practice. One story goes that in her past life she was a sage’s wife; her insatiable sexual appetite led him to curse her that in her next life she would have five husbands. Another story tells us that she asked Shiva for a husband who was noble and strong and skilled with the bow and handsome and wise. Since no single man possesses all five traits, Shiva gave her five husbands instead each with one trait.

Yet, this woman with five husbands is dragged into court and disrobed in public. She wonders why this happened to her. A folklore states that Krishna had sent the perfect husband for her – one who would love and protect her all her life and be faithful to her. His name was Karna, but she rejected him because of his low caste. So, she ended up marrying a man who shared her with his brothers and failed to protect her when she needed him the most.