Abducted to be a wife
Subhadra was Krishna’s half-sister; some say she was yogmaya, a reincarnation of Durga, sent down to be part of the cause of the wicked Kamsa’s death.
When there was danger of Subhadra being married off to the clearly unsuitable Duryodhana, Krishna suggested that Arjuna abduct her. It was befitting of a Kshatriya to abduct a woman who loved him. Once that was done, there still remained the problem of appeasing the first queen Draupadi. Arjuna suggested that Subhadra offer herself to Draupadi as a humble servant. So, stripped of all her regal finery, she humbly served Draupadi. Eventually Draupadi lovingly accepted her as a co-wife.
Subhadra and Arjuna had a son, Abhimanyu, the brave young warrior who had learnt the secret of entering the chakravyuha formation in war while still in his mother’s womb. The pregnant Subhadra had listened fascinated, when Arjuna narrated how to enter the chakravyuha. However, she fell asleep when he narrated how to get out of it and thus Abhimanyu never learnt that art of coming out of the chakravyuha. As a result, he died in battle.
Related reading: When Lord Krishna taught Arjuna to choose love over vanity
Her son provided the sole heir
When the 18-day Mahabharata war ended, Arjuna and Subhadra were left with their son’s widow Uttara and her unborn child. Draupadi had lost all her sons. When Uttara’s son Parikshit grew up, his father and uncles left him in charge of the kingdom and retreated from life. It was thus through Subhadra that the regal line continued.
The story after the Mahabharata, when the Pandavas and Draupadi are on their way to heaven, makes no mention of Subhadra. Draupadi was famously jealous of Arjuna’s love for Subhadra, yet she was the only wife who accompanied him on his final journey.
Draupadi was famously jealous of Arjuna’s love for Subhadra, yet she was the only wife who accompanied him on his final journey.
That was her role. Subhadra’s whole purpose of being appears to have been to provide an heir who won a crucial battle for them and was instrumental in continuing the bloodline.
What then did Subhadra mean to Arjuna? What was her place in the larger scheme of things?
By now, I think we begin to understand that in Indian mythology, stories about couples are not just stories about the couple. The two individuals are two bits of a larger whole, and thus their stories emanate from and retreat into this larger whole. The Mahabharata is a case in point, where it was imperative that the virtuous Pandavas defeat their wicked cousins.
Everyone had their particular role to fill
Marital relations were never meant to overwhelm one’s life. Draupadi was acknowledged as a senior wife. Arjuna’s other two wives, Uloopi and Chitrangada, never lived with him. A man’s many wives and his limited association with each of them, the concept of patrani was an accepted norm those days. There’s really no record of Subhadra having questioned Arjuna about any of the others.
The inequality is heavily in favour of the men. There is however, another aspect to be considered. Women had important political roles to play in addition to being someone’s second or third wife. Uloopi was the only daughter of an underwater snake king in the Ganges and she remained there to take charge of her father’s kingdom. Chitrangada was the daughter of the king of Manipur and her son Babruvahana inherited his grandfather’s reign. Subhadra (her name means ‘auspicious’), the beloved sister of Krishna and Balarama is, till date, revered along with her brothers at the Jagannath temple in Puri.
Related reading:Nalayani, who was cursed to be reborn as Draupadi because…
How the other wives of Arjuna were involved in saving his life
Bhishma was Ganga’s son. When Arjuna kills him through treachery on the twelfth day of the war, Bhishma’s brothers (the Vasus, celestial beings) curse him. Uloopi appeals to the Vasus and they manage to have the curse mitigated. Babruvahana is to kill Arjuna, and Uloopi is to appear on the scene with a gem that will revive him. Thus they play out their assigned roles.
Each of us is born for a purpose. Sometimes we arrive at that purpose through marriage. Some women remain unmarried to care for old parents or a disabled sibling; sometimes men remain unmarried for the same reason. Sometimes a marriage ends with alimony; at other times it is just a means to help us learn an important lesson in our life. Sometimes, when a marriage ends, it is important to remember that ‘being married’ is not the goal. The goal is perhaps that we become more patient or compassionate.