Sweet Surrender: the Story of Draupadi

Standing at the edge of a dark void, the seeker peeks over the precipice. Nothing but the dark unknown before her, she momentarily stands paralyzed, wishing she could return to familiarity — where the comforts of knowing are warm and caressing. But she has outgrown the old self; to go back would be impossible. She peers back at where she’s come from, so grateful for the experiences and the opportunities to learn. Determined now, she faces the void, and with a deep breath in, she leaps.

Embodying the fool archetype (the zero point, beginner’s mind), is not something that happens only once at the start of our journey, as if the spiritual path were a smooth trajectory from nothingness to transcendence. These experiences are cyclical. There are stops and starts, moments of wakefulness and forgetting. Suddenly, after years of seeming evolution, we may find ourselves suddenly on ruined foundations, ones that we had thought were too deep to crumble. And just as quickly we are back to the drawing board, doubtful and anxious, facing the fearful abyss of what’s ahead.

Surrendering to that unknown is perhaps the most challenging of tasks, which is why the Fool is such a daunting archetype. Even the word “fool” gives it away, for who wants to be the fool? We are socialized from early on to appear as if we have our shit together. We don’t need to rely on anybody to succeed — we’re taught to think. This American valuing of autonomy and self-reliance favors mastery and frowns upon the individual who needs anything other than himself.

It is a very patriarchal, masculine principle, this value of isolated self-reliance. Most mothers could easily testify to the falsity of anything approaching real self-reliance. Everyone relies on something or someone, even if that person has done a great job at convincing himself otherwise. We rely on partners, friends, family members, governments, organizations, healthcare systems, deities, systems, jobs, thoughts, emotions, and patterns of doing and thinking.

Surrendering to the unknown is an act of casting the reins out to that greatest of supporters, an unknown that has been given many names: Brahman, Siva, God, Mother Nature, Krishna, the Cosmos (or insert your cultural placeholder here). It is saying “I trust you” to a vastness that perhaps we’ll never quite comprehend. It is a letting-go to the flow that is always there, supporting the appearance of experience.

Leave it to Draupadi, who many consider the first feminist in the Hindu tradition, to deepen our understanding through her example.

This story comes from the Hindu epic, the Mahabarata. In this epic, Draupadi is the wife of Yudhisthira and his four Pandava brothers. The Kauravas, their cousins, are a rival family for the Kuru dynasty. The two families did not get along so well (as these stories often go) and their conflict and animosity towards each other ultimately culminates in the bloody Kurukshetra War, which is the stage for Arjuna’s dialogue with Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. Our story of Draupadi, however, is from an earlier moment in the Epic, when the conflict was still brewing.

Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kaurava brothers and, at the moment of the story, crowned Emperor of the world, will stop at nothing to humiliate and displace the Pandavas. He challenges Yudhisthira to a dice game with Shakuni, maternal uncle of the Kauravas and an expert dice player. Yudhisthira is no match for Shakuni, and little by little, Shakuni beats him out of the family’s horses and elephants, chariots and kingdom. Even the brothers themselves are ultimately gambled into slavery to the Kauravas. Lastly, Draupadi is wagered on the corrupt stage of this dice game. Duryodhana orders Dusshasana to drag Draupadi to the court by her hair.

Draupadi is a sassy, strong-willed woman and refuses to go down without a fight. She first challenges the legality of her slavery, given that the brothers had lost their freedom before she was wagered, which made it impossible for them to lose her (since they were already slaves and had no ownership in the first place). Legal claims, however, did not serve her in the face of this villainy. She publicly reprimanded the elders at court for doing nothing as this injustice against her was being carried out, but none came to her aid. She pleaded to her five husbands, but none would avail her.

To make matters worse, Duryodhana declares Draupadi a “public woman” (a whore, essentially) and orders that her clothes be removed. Draupadi was at her wit’s end and began to weep. Dusshasana, a man lost to sour wickedness, began to pull at Draupadi’s saree (which, if you are not familiar, is a form of dress that wraps several times around the body).

Draupadi calls out to Krishna for help. As Dusshasana continues to pull at her saree, Draupadi throws up both hands in salutation to Krishna as she cries for his assistance. In her surrender to the divine, a miracle happens: the more that Dusshasana pulls on her saree, the more material there is. The saree keeps going and going and going, never disrobing Draupadi. Finally, Dusshasana is exhausted from the pulling and gives up. Draupadi has been saved through surrender.

Like so many stories, this one is rich with meaning and metaphor. These stories are themselves archetypal, mirrors that we are meant to see ourselves reflected in. It is rather likely that you yourself have been Draupadi, your life gambled away to a place where not even the people that you love are recognizable. Every pillar of your reality has crumbled, perhaps through no direct action of your own, and you are out to sea without a bouy to cling to. You are the fool: back to the zero point of understanding.

Although conditions for us may not be as extreme as the Pandavas‘ dice game, we all experience life as a gamble sometimes, and occasionally in that gamble we lose everything we thought we knew. In the face of this possibility, Draupadi and the archetype of the fool welcome us to walk toward the flames with resolve and determination. But when we are paralyzed with indecision, seeing around us nothing but unfamiliar faces and betrayal, we can see nothing before us but certain catastrophe. So we dig our heels in, lock the doors, lower the blinds, and buy firearms.

However, catastrophe is never certain. The future only appears catastrophic from the standpoint of our current and past experience and our attachments to it. Inhabiting the archetype of Draupadi and the Fool means keeping ourselves open to the unknown and its infinite potentiality. When we resist it out of fear, we will feel violently pulled here and there against our will. When we align our will with Iccha-shakti, the willful movement of (call it Buddha, God, Krishna, or) the laws of the universe, we are casting our arms wide to the unknown. In the flow of the unknown, resistance becomes deliverance – for in it we are attuned, tuned in, and integrated.