There is an old saying that one shouldn’t keep the Mahabharata in their home. The epic encodes violent moments in our collective history. None of its main actors are flawless. And it is this shade of grey that adds to its importance. However, over the last millennia and a half, this grey has slowly been erased. Some figures have been deified and their wrongs condoned.
The coronavirus lockdown in India has revived the Ramayan and Mahabharat series on Doordarshan for a younger generation, and has reinforced the collective silencing of Subhadra’s story, rather than ‘wronged’ Draupadi or Sita’s.
Subhadra’s painful story of abduction in the Mahabharata remains buried because of the nationalist glorification of Arjun and Abhimanyu over time. Generations of authors have glossed over a significant act of violence by their heroes, without which the Mahabharata (in its composed form) wouldn’t have been possible.
Subhadra’s voice has been silenced and all the wrongdoings against her have either been disregarded or worse, romanticised.
The original story of abduction
The ‘Subhadra Haran’ episode in the Mahabharata is brief. It begins with Arjun coming to Dwarka during a festival, and seeing Subhadra. His desires are awakened (kandarpa samajayata), and he asks her brother Krishna about her. Krishna replies that swayamvar is the acceptable form of marriage for Kshatriyas. However, marriage by abduction is also a possibility for Arjun (fig. 1) because he doesn’t know what Subhadra’s decision in the swayamvar would be.
With Krishna’s approval, Arjun abducts Subhadra (fig. 2). The word used here is ‘aropyat’, which is strangely the same word that Valmiki used to describe the abduction of Sita in Ramayana.
In all of this, we know nothing about Subhadra’s consent, or who she would have chosen in the swayamvar had the decision been left to her. Her elder brother Balaram is enraged when he learns of the abduction, but Krishna pacifies him.
Bhagawat Puran: Consenting abduction and introduction of Duryodhan
With time, the divine cult of Krishna became bigger than other brahmanical gods. So, there was a need to revise myths, including that of Subhadra’s abduction. Many devotees would have found it difficult to entertain the possibility that their god sanctioned the abduction of his own sister. The composers of the Bhagawat Puran thus had the two-fold task of creating a sense of ‘consent’ and shifting the blame elsewhere.
For the first, they obliterated any mention of swayamvar and insinuated that Subhadra and Arjun reciprocated each other’s desires. The second task required a bigger build-up. They introduced a subplot that wasn’t mentioned in the Mahabharata. They said Balaram had chosen Duryodhan as Subhadra’s groom without taking her consent. It, thereby, convincingly shifted Krishna’s lapse onto Balaram, and made abduction look like a better alternative.
Courtly ‘epic’ romances
As the Bhagawat Puran began to be widely circulated, this new story of Subhadra and Arjun replaced the old. It licensed authors who were too uneasy with her abduction to create an elaborate and ornate romance. Kulasekhar Varma’s 10th century Subhadra Dhananjay takes away the burden of abduction from Arjun and dumps it on Duryodhan, who apparently sent a cloud-demon to abduct Subhadra. Arjun saves her but doesn’t know who she is. A comedy of errors soon follows. Subhadra, who is in love with Arjun, is conflicted when she falls in love with her saviour (also Arjun), and again with a man in the guise of an ascetic (also Arjun). Arjun falls in love with the woman he saved and also finds himself conflicted about his prior love for Subhadra. The play ends with the resolution of this absurd conflict. The premise of abduction is reduplicated and made so comedic that one begins to disbelieve the earlier violence of the act.
Regional authors, who came from centres of Vaishnavism, also took cue from the Bhagawat Puran. In Telugu, we come across Tallapaka Tirumalamma’s 15th-century Subhadra Kalyanam. In Odia, we find a sizeable genre on their romance. The illustrious poet Upendra Bhanja’s Subhadra Parinay plays with the ‘abduction followed by saviour’ trope, but also finds a way to hint at Krishna’s will. It is Krishna’s wife Satyabhama who is abducted by a Gau Singh, and it is her that Arjun saves. Seeing his valour, Subhadra gives her heart to him.
When the Mahabharata acquired a national status in the colonial period, Abhimanyu and Arjun were reinvented as national heroes. It also meant that the Subhadra episode had to appear harmless. This was achieved by crafting ‘ascetic’ Arjun as the object of Subhadra’s desire. “Instant infatuation” coupled with “comic tantrums” and “threats to suicide” were used to define her story. Tara Charan Shikdar’s Bengali Bhadra-Arjun (1852) and Bhargavam Varerkar’s Marathi Sannyashache Lagna (1945) shows her actively pursuing Arjun, flouting the restraints Balaram imposed on her. B.R. Chopra’s 1988 TV series Mahabharat went as far as to show her abducting him. One wonders about the (f)utiliy of men giving women a voice after obliterating her ability to make her own decision — in this case, the swayamvar.
By this time, however, the authors had written themselves into a corner. They couldn’t quite erase the act of violence by kidnapping. The unease is perhaps best captured by Ravi Varma in his iconic painting where Subhadra looks away hesitantly as persistent Arjun tugs at her hand.
Abduction and her brother’s violation of consent remain central themes, though their burdens had been transferred and the events romanticised. The problem begins when instead of questioning the epic heroes we start questioning the act of abduction itself. Did Subhadra license it? Why didn’t she scream? Maybe abduction is justified if done by the ‘Hero’? And in our society, where epics are used to sustain moral ethos, one can see the danger of such thinking. Subhadra’s story still needs to be retold, but are we ready to hear it?
The authors are presently working on the novelised retelling of Subhadra’s abduction. The authors are graduate students of history and art history at Mcgill University and the University of Wisconsin Madison. Views are personal.