Bad husbands? Oh, those have always been around

Sans the Sacred

We have all heard the cliché that Sita and Draupadi caused the greatest wars of their time by being, well, simply by being. Scholars have filled libraries holding the women of the epics to a microscope. Today, I turn the eyepiece to the men. After all, the epics, especially the Mahabharata, are long sagas bristling with bad husbands.

Let’s start, of course, with Yudhishthira, who likes giving things away in dice, but not as much as he likes giving moral sermons to unsuspecting bystanders. We all know of the debacle of the dice game where he stakes Draupadi and then keeps a saintly silence while she is humiliated in the royal assembly. His other distinctions include (probably) starting the trend of mansplaining, such as when he enlightens Draupadi on the virtues of forgiveness, even as she tells him to give up his escapism and fight for his rights.

Yudhishthira’s good judgement once again shows itself during the period the Pandavas are incognito, and Kichaka, a powerful man in the court of Virata, repeatedly assaults Draupadi. Yudhishthira suggests that she stay silent, lest their real identities as the Pandavas be exposed. Draupadi, frustrated beyond measure at Yudhishthira’s passivity, rushes to Bhima in tears. Bhima, startled out of his sleep, enquires why Draupadi is upset, and is treated to one of the most heartfelt lines of the Mahabharata: “How can a woman who is married to Yudhishthira be anything but miserable?”

Yudhishthira’s good sense does not desert him even in the face of death. He keeps trudging onward as Draupadi falls to her death on the treacherous slopes of the Himalayas, and explains to Bhima that Draupadi fell down because she had a soft corner for Arjuna, instead of treating all her husbands equally.

The next character in question: Nala, whose tale is told to Yudhishthira during one of those moral sermons he enjoys so much. Nala has the good fortune of marrying Damayanti, who chooses him, a mere man, as her husband, rejecting many gods who were vying for her hand. Nala, on the other hand, manages to get possessed by the evil Kali, leading to a chain of unfortunate events where he loses his kingdom and is exiled with Damayanti. While she is asleep, he decides she is better off without him, and abandons her in the forest, after stealing half her clothes to cover his own modesty. When Damayanti orchestrates another svayamvara to lure Nala back, he does come, mighty aggrieved that she was going to marry again.

Offenders of a lower degree are many, and found in multitudes in the short tales scattered across the epic. Consider Dushyanta, who pretends that he does not know Shakuntala at all when she arrives at his court, their son by her side, to claim her rights as his wife. In the epic, Dushyanta does not even have the excuse of a curse or a lost ring to explain away his bad memory, since both those are Kalidasa’s innovations.

This is already a long list of offences, and I have not even touched upon the other Pandava brothers yet. But I should probably turn the eyepiece somewhere else now. After all, Yudhishtira does tell us to forgive and forget.

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