A Memo about Women in Mahabharata

This article will look at some inspirational women from the Mahabharata, who have broken away from stereotypical roles.

A recent controversy has erupted in Google with an employee writing an internal memo against gender diversity and equality. Its now known as the anti-diversity memo. This memo was 10 pages long and has been going viral on social media. Google has fired the employee and the VP of Diversity, Integrity and Governance has issued a statement on Google’s commitment towards diversity and inclusion.

To summarise, the memo by the employee had brought out the differences in capabilities and preferences of men and women, which did not go well amongst other employees in the organization. The memo had things like “Women prefer jobs in artistic or social areas… Extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness…they exhibit higher level of stress and anxiety” etc. The letter looked very stereotyped though its intention was to highlight how biases exist and how they can be removed. The internet is debating if the views expressed were right or wrong.

In this context, it will be relevant to look at some inspirational women from the Mahabharata, who have broken away from these stereotypes. Indian history is replete with stories of great women, right from the Rishikas to modern CEOs. However, the women in the Mahabharata bring a unique dimension by being at the center of important turning points in the history of the Kuru lineage. This article is not a rebuttal to the memo but throws light on the multi dimensional capabilities of women through some classic examples.

The memo by the Google employee mentions how women prefer artistic jobs to typical professional ones. The letter added that women find it difficult to reach top leadership positions because of their attitude and lack of drive.

In the Draupadi-Satyabama-Samvada parva of the Vana Parva of the Mahabharata, there is an interesting conversation between Satyabama and Draupadi during the exile of the Pandavas. Satyabama, the wife of Krishna, with love and curiosity enquires how Draupadi manages to keep the Pandavas devoted to her. She asks whether Draupadi has been successful through vows, or incantations, or beauty, or any specific medicaments. Draupadi, a woman of high self-esteem, is a bit angered at Satyabama’s enquiry. She elaborates on her daily activities that she performs with utmost devotion and care. Here are some of the things she lists:

  • Serving with an attitude that is free from jealousy, wrath and greed
  • Bathing, eating and sleeping only after her husbands and their attendants have done them.
  • Keeping household articles and food clean and in an orderly manner
  • Not indulging much in pleasure
  • Personally attending to and offering food first to the Eight thousand brahmanas, eight thousand Snataka brahmanas, ten thousand Yatis
  • Caring for and knowing personally the hundred thousand maids of the Pandavas. Knowing their talents and personal lives
  • Setting the rules and managing the hundred thousands horses and elephants that used to accompany Yudhisthira when he set out on any expedition
  • Knowing the personal stories of the maids, servants, horsemen, shepherds and all the people involved with the royal affairs
  • Being the only one who knew the exact income and expenditure of the royal treasury

Through these, did Draupadi earn the respect and devotion of the Pandavas. Hearing this, Satyabama apologizes for the inappropriate question.

This conversation beautifully brings out the multidimensionality of activities that Draupadi performed. Her role was not just limited to stereotypical household activities, but combined complex activities of the kingdom. This shows her superior physical, emotional and cognitive capabilities.

The memo says that women find it harder to negotiate for salary or rises and in general have poor negotiation capabilities. This is something the Mahabharata will never agree. Several women in the Mahabharata including Satyavati and Ganga have been strong and tough negotiators.

Draupadi Frees her Husbands

When Yudhisthira had staked his brother and then Draupadi, a messenger was sent to Draupadi to summon her to the Kuru court. Though enraged, she had the strength to ask the right questions: “ask that gambler present in the assembly, whom he hath lost first, himself, or me. Ascertaining this, come hither, and then take me with thee”. She also put forth this question in the Sabha and questioned the silence of all the elders present there. At the end of the unfortunate incident of vastraharana, looking at the rage of Draupadi and the other Pandavas, Dhritarashtra offered to give a boon to Draupadi. Draupadi asked for the freedom of Yudhisthira. When offered a second boon, she demanded the freedom of the other Pandavas. When offered a third boon, Draupadi refused to demand anything as she considered it greed to ask for more than what was needed. Draupadi had the strength and will, in spite of the harsh treatment that she was subject to, to reason out properly and do what was needed.

Amba’s Austerity

Amba is a great example of how women can take a resolve and accomplish it despite obstacles. Amba was the daughter of the Raja of Kasi. She and her sisters were brought by Bhishma’s power. They were under tremendous pressure to marry Vichitravirya. Ambika and Ambalika agreed but Amba made it clear that since she had chosen the King of Shauba as her husband and it was not fair to ask her to marry Vichtravirya. Rejected by King of Shauba and unable to marry Bhishma or anyone, Amba was dejected initially. But she resolved to settle the matter. It is said of her that “entering a cluster of retreats practised austerities, that were beyond human powers (of endurance). Without food, emaciated, dry, with matted-locks and begrimed with filth, for six months she lived on air only, and stood unmoved like a street-post. And that lady, possessed of wealth of asceticism, foregoing all food in consequence of the fast she kept, passed a whole year after this, standing in the waters of the Yamuna. Endued with great wrath, she passed the next whole year standing on her front toes and having eaten only one fallen leaf (of a tree). And thus for twelve years, she made the heavens hot by her austerities.”. She got a boon from Rudra that she would attain the form of a man and slay Bhishma. She was reborn as Shikandin, the daughter of Drupada and then became a man to accomplish her mission. She played a significant role in the slaying of Bhishma in the battle.

Ganga Fulfills Duty

The memo adds that women show higher levels of neuroticism and low tolerance to stress. The women in the Mahabharata demonstrate a blend of emotion and level-headedness. They exhibit well-balanced emotions and adopt a very humane approach to dealing with situations. Maa Ganga, in order to fulfill the responsibility of liberating the Vasus, made her demand clear to Shantanu that her actions were not to be questioned. She set afloat seven of her children in spite of bearing them in her womb. She placed duty and responsibility above her motherly emotion. When stopped by Shantanu, she had to leave him as per their agreement. She took care of Bhishma and ensured that he would receive the best of education in his formative years.

Satyavati’s Pragmatic Approach

Again, the memo claims that women are more open to feelings than ideas. Satyavati can be seen as a very practical woman. It is easy for one to jump to a conclusion that she was a selfish woman. But the more we read about her, the more pragmatic she appears. She had two children, Chitrangada and Vichitravirya through Shantanu. Chitrangada died early in his life and Vichitravirya too succumbed to a disease. With the onus of making a decision on the future of the Kuru lineage, she was open to the idea of asking Vyasa (her son through Rishi Parasara)  to beget children though ambika and ambalika. Towards the end of her life, she quietly recedes into the forest and leaves her body.

There are inherent differences in the capabilities of men and women and there is also a need to protect and nurture these positive differences, but both men and women from time immemorial have demonstrated that they can step out of stereotypical roles comfortably and Mahabharata brings this message home again and again.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

Smrithi Adinarayanan is the Co-Founder of Anaadi Foundation, a social organization offering programs based on Indian principles. Several of Anaadi Foundation’s programs are based on the Ithihasa especially the Mahabharata. Smrithi can be reached at [email protected]
  • Muradi

    I would like to leave here some words of opinion– mainly my ‘own’, but obviously and largely cued and conditioned by, and cohabiting with, ‘conventional’ and ‘collected’ wisdom. Need I say, I reserve the as-plain-as-the-nose-on-my-face right to ‘expand’ on these, anyhow anywhere anytime later:

    1. Sexual categorization, like any other categorization, is a convenience, cleverness and constructiveness of coexisting in coaction, concord, comfort, caliber and certainty. It is certainly not (to be) running counter to its conation, compass or capacity.

    2. Categories are usually, if not mostly/always, non-mutually-exclusive. They have emerged and evolved to effect and ensure alliance, accommodation and abidance by inspiring diversity, distinction and defense, while maintaining equality, esteem and essentiality. Context, convention and commonality should guide any consensus, conciliaton or chastenment in conflicts of interests, clashes of rights or contraventions of rules.

    3. To illustrate, let us ‘play’ categorizing everybody– not women (= by sex) alone– by “prefer… artistic or social areas”, “Extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness” and “exhibit higher level of stress and anxiety”, as this article alludes to the controversial Google (ex-)employee anti-diversity memo. To simplify, out of these let us pick “Extraversion”, which fairly agreeably includes/implies others as well. Let us employ here a little heuristic and inductive reasoning (= apply insight as well as attention to particular groups of situations, spot a pattern and try a verifiable decision) to corroborate what we started with.

    4. Just consider these terms with their connotations: extrAVERT/extrOVERT/ambivert*/contrOVERT(verb), intrOVERT/intrAVERT*, introversion/intraversion*/extroversion/extraversion*/controversion and controversy/introversy*/extroversy*: simply forget the grammar or diction, and the starred(*) items are purely coined words anyway: (i) anybody– intro, extro or contro– could ‘avert’ &/or harbor aversion, (ii) anyone could be overt, and could controvert (= deny/argue), (iii) controversies could arise among absolutely any group(s), whichever could controvert anything, and (iv) coexistence with concurrence demands, and indeed demonstrates, being alone together, not poking explicitly another’s ‘privacy sphere’, waiting for another to ‘recharge’, recognizing the ‘covert’, ‘overt’ and ‘controvert’ parts, moments and patterns of another person’s personality– to cut it short, living with another and liking the whole of it. It’s all self-evident, you see? Such a plain heuristic and induction. QED!

    3. Neutralizing, eg, gender and race, movements reflect repercussions of changing times, including accompanying socioeconomic and technoscientific developments. To begin with, it is a complex situation where some might need, many others might heed, and the rest might impede, these changes. But, overall, one commonly evident mechanism in operation is that a black-or-white-only, smaller stuff gets to puff out showing up many more gray-scaled elements, if not directly a fuller-color, clearer picture.

    4. I got inspiration from many blogs, particularly those trying ‘IN THEIR OWN WAYS’ to analyze words, eg, “extrovert or extravert”, “extrovert vs introvert” “introvert/extrovert subcategories”, among many others, and gained impetus to my present comment.

  • Remo

    It is easy to take utopian positions. But women have a biological reality to fulfill, which is procreation and nurturing our offspring. I am not talking about looking after the husband/s like Draupadi. Who is best placed to look after our offspring? So definitely we will not give full heart to our jobs.

  • Jitendra Desai

    Good response to Google.

  • Subha

    These women are more like exceptions than the norm.. Even these women have dealt more with humans than things.. they were all into relationship management like knowing maids in person… thats what the memo states

  • Vamsi Krishna

    well written.