The following is my answer, given against the background of this book.
Panchaala, a Matrilineal society
Inheritance in a Matrilineal Society — Travancore-Cochin
How do matrilineal societies pass on the scepter? The Varma rulers of Travancore-Cochin in Kerala are an example. The ethnographers and even other people from Kerala will tell you that “the king’s nephew, i.e. sister’s son, becomes the next king”. This is both true and misleading. The actual rule is:
The King’s SISTER is the Queen, and HER daughter becomes the next Queen and the daughter’s brother becomes the next King.
Many of the Queens of T-C, especially when first founded, acted as matriarchs and asserted their power over the King.
The problem occurs when there is war — the King’s role is to be the Chief of the army. In fact, ONLY the brother of the Queen is considered fit to be the chief.
Why the brother and not the husband?
This is a security issue — matrilineal societies recognized the threat posed by a non-family head of the army and even the husband of the Queen was considered likely to be disloyal! The husband would be from another family, sometimes from another settlement.
As patriarchy developed from a matrilineal past, peculiar (from our point-of-view) practices developed. The great example of such a society is Ancient Egypt (from the very beginning until Cleopatra). The Pharaoh was considered the supreme ruler and God-incarnate. Sounds like patriarchy, doesn’t it. But there was a twist.
He would designate one of his queens as the “Great Queen”. The husband of the eldest daughter of the Great Queen inherited the crown! To keep the crown inside the family, a son of the Pharaoh by another queen would marry the eldest daughter of the designated Great Queen and be designated as the heir. By default, this daughter would be called the Great Queen, but many Pharaohs have used their power to specify other queens as Great Queens. To prevent any other man from laying claim to the throne, ALL the sisters of the eldest daughter of the Great Queen either married the heir.
What if these sisters didn’t? Such mavericks seem to have disappeared from the historical record!
So, in the Mahabharata …
the solution to the question is:
Draupadi is the Queen of Panchala and her brother Dhristadyumna is the c-in-c of HER Army!
The problem? Draupadi and Dhristadyumna are supposed to be the children of Drupada, the previous King! That does not fit.
But hold on! D&D are not born to Drupada in the usual fashion — they come full-grown out of the fire of a yagna that Drupada performs in order to get revenge on Drona.
Why, one may ask did the bards/kavis of ancient India feel the need to conjure up this magical explanation? Why couldn’t they just have said that Drupada performed a yagna and a god appeared and said that his sister’s children would help him get revenge?
That probably qualifies as an under-whelming conclusion to a great yagna.
Could it be that the ancient bards simply failed to understand. They must have been puzzled by an original story that made a big fuss over the King’s niece. Then the story makes a big fuss over the King’s nephew. Then he becomes c-in-c of the army.
For a patriarchial society that makes no sense.
In a matrilineal society, that makes perfect sense. There is no need to explain why Arjuna did not take over.
A curious aside: A visit from the husband
Picking up the cue from the Varmas of T-C again: the husband(s) of the Queen were from somewhere else and they did NOT live with the Queen but paid visits. They left their sandals outside the house before stepping in to indicate that they were temporary visitors. In the last few generations, the Queens of T-C have been monogamous, but that does not appear to be a requirement in any of the ancient matrilineal societies that we know of.
In folk versions of the Mahabharata there is a story of how the Pandava spending the night with Draupadi would leave his sandals outside the door to warn his brothers that Draupadi was pre-occupied. When Arjuna breaks this custom, he is condemned to go to the Himalayas for some years.
The husbands of the Matriarch
The Matriarch was not required to be monogamous! The concept of monogamy only becomes relevant when a culture understands how fatherhood comes about and the relation between a child and his/her father. Then a father might become interested in passing on control to HIS children and not to the children of another man. The only way to ensure this is to control the woman’s fertility and the woman’s partners, i.e. to limit the freedom of the woman. That requires a patriarchic society!
Draupadi the Matriarch of Panchaala
That is, Draupadi as Queen could take as many husbands as she wanted or needed or was dictated by state policy. Why five? The number five (and sometimes ten) repeatedly occurs in stories associated with groups of kings in Puranic manuscripts. Panchaala is named so because five tribes merged to create it.
In The Last Kaurava
Hastinapura is a patriarchy surrounded by matrilineal societies. At the time of the story, all of these are proto-states, developing statist structures. The Great War leaves a single proto-empire with its capital in Hastinapura ruling all the other proto-states. The empire is patriarchic and slowly all the vassal proto-states also become patriarchic. The war does not end, of course.
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