If the grand story of the Mahabharata is the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet, then the Bhagavad Gita is “Street Fighting Man.” It gets all the ubiquitous radio play; maybe you’ve even heard it in a commercial, definitely in a Martin Scorsese movie. You likely know the words, even the harmonies, without having had to try at all to memorize them. The story of Draupadi is one of the less played tracks, perhaps “Salt of the Earth,” tucked away on the end of the second side of the album. Let’s throw it on the turntable and take a listen:
Move over Arjuna! Draupadi is also the hero of this epic Hindu narrative. She is described as the “fire-born” daughter of King Drupada. She is stunningly beautiful and decidedly dark-skinned. I’m no social media expert, but I’m willing to bet that her Instagram would be on par with Rihanna’s. She is the common wife of the Brothers Pandava, men of wealth and taste, the good guys in the famous battle in the Bhagavad Gita. Of those five brothers, Yudhishthira turns out to be a troubled gambler.
Apparently, Draupadi and her squad witness Duryodhana, the Pandavas’ visiting rival, fall into a pool of water one day at the “Palace of Illusions,” their really dope hangout, in front of Duryodhana’s whole crew. This dude’s masculinity is so fragile that he needs immediate and brutal revenge. Duryodhana seeks this revenge by challenging Draupadi’s husband Yudhishtira to a dice game, except his dice were rigged. COLD.
Yudhizzy is drunk enough at this game that he does not even realize the nature of his enemy’s game. He gambles away all his wealth, keeps drinking. He gambles his brothers away, one by one, drunk beyond sense. Nobody takes his keys from him; in fact they probably keep refilling that cup. (Does every group of friends have a Yudhishtira?) Then in a nonsense move, he gambles away himself! You bet your own ass he lost that one too. Finally he only has one thing left to gamble: his wife Draupadi.
Draupadi is mortified. They drag her into the dice hall by her hair. She, fully sober, questions the very legitimacy of the bet, arguing for the sake of her safety and her dignity that Yudhishtira cannot gamble her away after he already lost himself. When the flag is on the field, the court of elders reviews the play, and there is some hot debate, including the worst insults you can imagine at the Pandavas and Draupadi.
In his humiliated, revenge-thirsty rage, Duryodhana orders his number one dude to tear off Draupadi’s sari. At the moment of crisis, Draupadi calls the name of Krishna, her god. Her devotion invites a miracle, and no matter how much the villain’s goon tries to disrobe her, more and more fabric appears, like a holy magician’s scarf. Thus her faith saves her from shame. Amen!
I think of the story of Draupadi whenever I hear accounts, too frequent lately, of my fellow Muslim Americans being harassed for their choice to wear a hijab. When a woman or a man makes a sartorial show of her or his devotion to God, and are scorned and abused for it, I feel the pull to call to the divine.
I hope spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson is right when she says, “Anytime you try to be a loving person, you’re doing your part to save the world.” She also talks about prayer as conscious reception to choices that are more loving and effective, a deliberate reorientation to goodness. When you pray, you don’t ask that your problems be solved. Yet you invite your heart to be open to their solutions. When I hear of personal, institutional, and systemic abuse of my Muslim brothers and sisters, I pray for their protection, the protection of their constitutional rights, the protection of their dignity and their capacity to peacefully and lovingly express their faith, the protection of their hearts from the violence of the thoughts of those persecuting them.
Jesus is quoted as having said, "'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40, New International Version) Here the term “least” can refer to those who have the least material wealth, or it could mean those whose dignity is honored the least by our institutions, those who are the fewest in number, those with the fewest followers on Twitter, those who have the least representation in Hollywood or in Congress. The term is fluid, and should be reexamined continuously as we try to honor God, our highest conception of goodness.
Jesus also in this verse touches on the Buddhist idea of emptiness, or arbitrariness of form. If you wanted to discuss it grammatically, you could say that in the grammar of prayer and in the grammar of action, the direct object of any verb is arbitrary. So by praying, “Give x peace,” I am praying for the full range of possible values of x. By praying, “Give x joy,” I pray for any possible x to receive joy. Please, God, apply my prayer, “Give x protection,” to as many values of x as you can find. And that's the way to honor God.
It is clear from the immediacy of Krishna’s divine intervention that Draupadi had a sustained, intimate relationship of prayer with Krishna, and that her practice was extraordinarily cultivated. Like how in football, a Hail Mary pass would be most likely to be successful if thrown by an excellent professional quarterback. Practice allows opportunity for perfection, and prayer allows opportunity for miracles. Many critics of the effectiveness of prayer question its potency as passive and spiritually lazy, but only when the supplicant habitually reorients themselves to goodness is prayer optimally able to perform its promises of miracles.
So yogis, pray for protection for us all. Pray with regularity and concentration for what you want, and you’ll get it in the moment of need. Pray, children. It’s just a shout away!