Vigilance as an act to subvert the ‘powerful’: Juxtaposing Draupadi and Rizpah

Ch. Sweety Helen is Executive Secretary, Commission on Youth, National Council of Churches in India. A feminist and a Biblical Scholar, here she reflects on the story of Rizpah from the perspectives of Life, Justice and Peace.


“I won’t rest until the blood of the sinning Duchashanans and Duriyodhanan have caressed my hair. Until that day comes, my hair shall remain the way it does today, unbraided, uncared for just like I am today.” says Draupadi according to the Tamil poet Bharathiyar in his Paanchali Sabadam.[1]

“Unless my dear ones are rendered proper burial I will neither slumber nor will I allow King David to slumber”

Draupadi and Rizpah together sing a song together for Justice and peace, they sing in solidarity, sing in agony for the injustice that is happened and they sing in love, they both sing together , We are women, women of courage, united in love, sisters in determination, sisters of conviction.    

Draupadi’s Oath

Draupadi was the daughter of the king Drupada of Panchaal. She was allegedly born out of a sacrificial fire and her birth was accompanied by an oracle which declared her “the greatest among all women”.[2] Draupadi is one of the outstanding women, the Hindu mythology has offered to the world. The epic presents Draupadi as displaying her individuality, strength, and unyielding determination both for justice and vengeance. Through these characteristics Draupadi has become a symbol of empowerment of women and has gained the worship of followers. The Mahabharata is where Draupadi’s history begins. As a prominent female character and heroine of the epic, Draupadi is presented as the wife of five pandava princes in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Draupadi and her five husbands Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva are wed after Arjuna impressively wins Draupadi’s swayamvara.[3]  She is a heroine who is unpredictable, unwavering and who possess the austerity of a traditional Hindu wife. Many see Draupadi as an early feminist because of her fearlessness in admonishing those who harmed her and her family. Draupadi existed in a time when a woman’s role was to serve her husband.[4]

Draupadi cheerharan /Vasthrapaharanam remain as the most vivid of Mahabharata, basically because vasthrapaharanam is one of the main reasons for the Mahabharata war and it is also a breaking point for Draupadi. In the great assembly hall where dice was being played, all the Kuru elders, Bhishma, teachers like Drona and Kripa and Vidura, all were sitting without speaking. When Yudhishthira lost in the game, Duryodhana said that the Pandavas were now slaves. He sent one maid to bring Draupadi into the hall as she was now a slave. The maid went to Draupadi’ chamber and told her about the Pandavas doings. They were all slaves and so was she. Draupadi was very angry. She sent the maid away saying that Yudhisthira had no right to stake her in gambling. It was not allowed in the dharma. The maid came back to the assembly hall and told Duryodhana about Draupadi’s response. Duryodhana, became very angry and he asked his younger brother Duchsashan to fetch Draupadi, forcefully into the hall. Duchsashan went to Draupadi’s chamber and catching hold of Draupadi by her hair, dragged her to the assembly hall. Raging with anger, Draupadi appealed the assembly to raise their voice against such gross injustice. None had a word to say. The Pandavas were also sitting dumb, with their heads downcast. Draupadi asked, “What right Yudhisthira had to put her at stake in the gambling?” No one spoke again. Duryodhana became even more angry at Draupadi. He ordered younger brother to remove the clothes of Draupadi in the assembly, forcibly. Even then no one protested. Draupadi in desperation, appealed to Krishna.[5] Krishna works a miracle to prevent her sari from running out of layers. Draupadi is humiliated and is angered by the Pandavas inability or reluctance to help her. It is Draupadi’s reaction to situations like these that set her apart from her husbands; she is often the first one to react to the injustices and is visibly a powerful woman. [6]

Rizpah’s revenge II Samuel 21:10-14

Rizpah is the heroine who is buried in the pages of the Hebrew Bible in 2 Samuel 21. Rizpah the woman of courage is deliberately avoided even by feminist theologians. Though very little space is dedicated to discuss about the personhood of Rizpah, but the fact is that very little that is dedicated to her speaks volumes.

Rizpah is a daughter of Aiah and she is a mother of two sons whom she bore to Saul. She is a woman of courage, a woman who fulfills her responsibility to her family and a woman who can move the “powerful” from their comfort zones.


God told the Hebrew people that as they travelled through the land of Canaan they were to make treaties with no group of people who lived there. They were to conquer the land completely. The people in the city of Gibeon, however, deceived the Hebrews into making a treaty with them by making them think they had come a great distance, rather than just a few miles. That treaty had been honored and protected for centuries, until Saul became king in Israel. In his zeal for Israel, Saul began to exterminate the foreign people from his kingdom, and in so doing, broke the time-honored treaty with the Gibeonites.[7]

After the unification of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, David is on the throne and the land is struck with drought. It is a national disaster. This national disaster was thought to be a punishment from God. In times of national crisis when the people suffer, the leadership must take responsibility. And so David, pious king that he is, “inquires of the LORD”, which means he goes to the prophets of the Court, he consults the priests and theologians, and he asks them: “tell me what this is all about”. They come to the conclusion: yes it is a punishment of the LORD, but it is a punishment for what Saul had done. So David goes to the Gibeonites and says: I know that Saul has done a great injustice to you.[8] David handed over the sons of Saul into the hands of the Gibeonites and we are not informed in what way they were handed over. But we do have information that Gibeonites impaled seven of them on the mountain before the Lord. The seven of them perished together.

Rizpah knowing what has happened to her sons and the nephews gathered the bodies of the dead and spread a sack cloth to a rock and guarded over the bodies by day and night from the birds and the wild animals. David learnt of what Rizpah has done and has taken the bones of Saul and his sons and buried them.           



Juxtposing Draupadi and Rizpah:


Draupadi and Rizpah sisters in solidarity:

Draupadi and Rizpah are women of different places, different characters, different families and are from different genres altogether. They were women who lived in different periods but they are sisters who live in solidarity with each other. They are sisters by virtue of their qualities, by virtue of their courage, by virtue of their determination and by virtue of their yearning for Justice; Justice not only to themselves but to their families as well. These women are women of courage, united in their qualities. They never to seem to give up in any circumstances never want to compromise with situations, the first to respond to the injustice that is happened, the first to take oaths to restore justice. In both their cases Justice cannot be achieved, basically because for one it is a life that is taken away and for the other it is the prestige. Their acts of courage could not bring them back what they have lost, for Draupadi it was utter humiliation in a public hall and for Rizpah it is lives of the children of Saul.  But their initiatives were to shame the so-called powerful, in Draupadi’ case it was the Kauravas and Pandavas as well and in Rizpah’s case it is David the King and the Gibeonites who are responsible for the death of her dear ones. War has always been seen in terms of violence, bloodshed, swords, metal weapons etc. The war vaged by Daupadi did not need a metal weapon, the war vaged by Rizpah did not need bloodshed, they both used ‘refutation’. Refutation was a weapon used by both of them to combat the injustice that is happened to both of them.

Refutation a weapon to combat injustice:

As it is today, burial in Biblical times was an occasion for showing love and respect, for the loved ones who died. As we do it today, in the biblical times too the dead ones bodies are anointed with herbs and spices, and wrapped in    cloth. There would be an official time for mourning. As we see in Jeremiah 9:17, professional mourners often accompanied the families to the grave site and staying with the family and joining them in the customary tears, wailing and crying. In the context where burial is a ritual which gives expression for their love, now the dear ones of Rizpah are denied burial. How would we feel if we were in the situation of Rizpah, may be if I were in her situation I would seize the collar of the persons involved in it and would ask them to do the necessary. But for such an act I definitely would have to reap the consequences. Rizpah was very intelligent and hence has thoughtfully strategized a plan through which she thought she would not go to the space of the ‘powerful’ but she would bring the culprits to her space, a space of her own, and moving them to action.  Rizpah maintained a constant vigil over the seven bodies, fighting off the birds of the air by day and the wild animals by night.

Women are expected to braid their hair in the public, when the Pandavas have lost in the game of dice, according to the Kauravas, the pandavas and Draupadi became their slaves. When Draupadi was called for, she rejected to come into the public. She felt that she doesn’t have to oblige to the command of Duryodhana. She perhaps would have yelled who the hell is Yudhistira to bet me in the game. She refused to come into the public place, which reminds us of Vasthi who was very bold enough to say that she does not want to accept the command of the King. Draupadi’s rejection resulted in being dragged by her hair into the assembly and was unclothed by Dhushasana. She might have shouted Dhushasana, is it not because you are ‘Duh (tough)’ and your shasanas (ruler) are dusht (bad), that you are named ‘Dushasana’ (tough ruler)? And then she cries to Lord Krishna and she was rescued but she does not stop there. She would have definitely yelled aloud, questioned the credibility of her husbands and would have instigated them to take an oath against those who have caused injustice to her. She doesn’t lose her voice, doesn’t lose her command over herself and lashes out at the men of the assembly. “I won’t rest until the blood of the sinning Duchashanans and Duriyodhanan have caressed my hair. Until that day comes, my hair shall remain the way it does today, unbraided, uncared for just like I am today.”  Her refusal to braid her hair is the weapon that she has used to destroy the “powerful”. The powerful who are arrogant due to their power, powerful who are proud due to their status and the powerful who forget human values.

Intercession and confrontation:  

These two women have used two different mode of communication and ensured that justice is restored, peace is rebuilt, and life is celebrated. Rizpah used intercession as a mode of communication through which she communicated to God, and to the people around. Rizpah took sackcloth and spread it out for herself to the rock.” Some Bible scholars believe that Rizpah fashioned a sort of tent for herself, perhaps large enough to cover those seven decaying bodies as well.  The Hebrew rendered “she stretched a sack cloth to a rock” This expression is also found in Isaiah 30: 29 and 51:1. In Isaiah 30:29, Rock is God and in Isaiah51:1, Rock refers to ancestors, the parents of Israel. I would like to go along with Monica Melanchthon who concludes from these two passages that Rizpah the mother and Rizpah the aunt has stretched out her sackcloth and is interceding and praying to the rock meaning God and the ancestors. Rizpah’s spirituality has gained justice for her, peace for the dead ones. Non-burial and improper burial is shameful and as it brings divine judgment, her determination to remove the shame from the family has put the king to shame, who was forced to move from his place and entered into the space of Rizpah and offered proper burial to the dead ones.

Draupadi refuses to braid her hair, she confronts with those who are gathered in the assembly. She confronts with those who are seated in the assembly and says to yudhistira since you were no longer a free man, how could you stake anything at all?” With great determination and power in her words she said “If you have loved and revered the mothers who bore you and gave you suck, if the honor of wife or sister or daughter has been dear to you, if you believe in God and dharma, forsake me not in this horror more cruel than death” “Even abandoned professional gamblers would not stake the harlots who live with them, and you, worse than they, have left the daughter of Drupada to the mercy of these ruffians. I cannot bear this injustice. You are the cause of this great crime.[9] Draupadi’s voice would have trembled those who are gathered in the assembly. Her words would have put both her husbands Pandavas and the Kauravas the perpetrators of violence to shame. Her loud voice in the assembly filled her husbands with a metanonia experience and hence Bhima takes an oath to drink the blood of Duchasana as an act of repentance and break the thighs of Duryodana and the rest of the pandavas also take oaths and these oaths would have probably calm the angry Draupadi, these oaths would probably sing aloud in her ears ‘Shanti shanti shantihi’


Rizpah and Draupadi are sisters in determination, conviction, faith, strength and love. They felt their refusal to bury the bodies of her sons and nephews and to be braided should be a reminder of the shameful act that is being done to them. Draupadi’s vigilance to be braided and Rizpah’s vigilance to offer the dead bodies a proper burial are one and the same. Their fight was to combat injustice, their determination was to force their enemies to move to action, their conviction was to challenge the injustice then and there, finally their commitment was to offer a life for justice, in justice and with justice. They believed that their gods are gods of life, Justice and peace and would accompany them in their journey with public shame, humiliation and abandonment.       


[1] accessed on October 25, 2012, 3:46 pm.- An interview with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.

[5] accessed on October 28, 2012, 9:37 pm.

[7] Daughter of Rizpah accessed on October 29, 2012, 08: 30 pm.

[9] accessed on October 29, 12:45 pm.

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