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A Memo about the Women in the Mahabharata

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.

Draupadi’s Capabilities

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 of 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 things she lists:

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.
  1. Serv­ing with an atti­tude that is free from jeal­ousy, wrath and greed

  2. Bathing, eat­ing and sleep­ing only after her hus­bands and their atten­dants have done them.

  3. Keep­ing house­hold arti­cles and food clean and in an order­ly man­ner

  4. Not indulging to much in plea­sure

  5. Per­son­al­ly attend­ing to and offer­ing food first to the Eight thou­sand brah­manas, eight thou­sand Snata­ka brah­manas, ten thou­sand Yatis

  6. Car­ing for and know­ing per­son­al­ly the hun­dred thou­sand maids of the Pan­davas. Know­ing their tal­ents and per­son­al lives

  7. Set­ting the rules and man­ag­ing the hun­dred thou­sands hors­es and ele­phants that used to accom­pa­ny Yud­histhi­ra when he set out on any expe­di­tion

  8. Know­ing the per­son­al sto­ries of the maids, ser­vants, horse­men, shep­herds and all the peo­ple involved with the roy­al affairs

  9. 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.

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’s 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 ensure that he would receive the best of edu­ca­tion in his for­ma­tive years.

Both Ganga and Satyavati rose above feelings and emotions , performed their duties to perfection.

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 duty of onus of mak­ing a deci­sion on the future of the Kuru lin­eage, she was open to the idea ask­ing Vyasa (her son through Rishi Parasara) to beget chil­dren though ambi­ka and amba­li­ka. Towards the end of her life, she qui­ety 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. These are the peo­ple who made great things work and that is what the women in the Mahab­harat too show.


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