(This is the fifth of the Introductions to the Mahabharata Katha Series of Padma Shri Professor P. Lal published by Writers Workshop, Kolkata. Sections 186-201, Pp. 961-1030 of The Complete Adi Parva)
With section 186 of the Sambhava in the Adi Parva we are well on the way to the bridegroom-choice ceremony (svayamvara) of Draupadi, which is itself a misnomer. But of that later. In this particular section what is of interest is that the Brahmins flocking to the ceremony out of sheer gluttony and sensation-hunger find Bhima the most promising candidate (186.18-19). This supports the contention of some that Arjuna is not the natural leader among the brothers, and that the Angaraparna episode (section 172) was Vyasa’s way of deliberately focusing our attention on the third Pandava by way of preparation for his winning Draupadi. Bhima, though silent, seems to draw all the attention to himself most naturally. On the other hand, without Krishna, Arjuna is really nowhere, except in the remarkable mythical incidents of his encounter with Shiva and his sojourn in the abode of the gods that come in the Vana Parva.
Apropos the decline in Brahminical spiritual stature, shlokas 6 and 14-17 bluntly and cruelly expose that these Dvapara-end Brahmins are rushing to the svayamvara purely for profit and entertainment, to gaze open-mouthed at kings and warriors and greedily garner the largesse they distribute. Gone are the days when Kshatriyas would rush to worship Brahmins. Duryodhana, we will find later, is quite dismissive of them.
In Section 187 (verses 8-9) Drupada is said to wish secretly to marry Draupadi to Arjuna, and therefore to have specially commissioned a bow that none but Arjuna may bend. The Panchalas are aware of rumors that the Pandavas had escaped the fiery death planned for them (195.12), whereas so far it seemed that only Vidura and Bhishma were aware of this.
If this was Drupada’s desire, why did he not approach Bhishma in the normal manner?
The conditions Drupada announces (the man piercing the target will win Draupadi) contradicts the very termsvayamvara, “self-choice”. This freedom of choice (as Damayanti’s of Nala and Kunti’s of Pandu) and the restriction of participation to Kshatriya suitors alone are two essential features of this ceremony, both of which are violated in Draupadi’s case. For, she is by no means a free agent choosing as her husband the man she likes best (Kunti is the only one in the Hastinapura dynasty who is that fortunate) but is merely being given away as a prize to the best archer in a trial of skill as virya-shulka. Dhrishtadyumna bluntly tells her that there is no question of her having any choice in the matter (188.25). Yet, when Karna comes forward, Draupadi suddenly comes alive, refusing to be a mere pawn, and loudly proclaims that she will not marry a suta, even if he hits the target. However, neither her father nor her brother intervenes when a Brahmin steps forward to string the bow. And this despite Dhrishtadyumna’s unequivocal declaration.
Is caste-upmanship in evidence?
Section 190.20 is the first reference to the Krishna-Arjuna nexus that is so central a relationship in the epic. Arjuna thinking on Krishna before stringing the bow, although there has been no interaction between them so far, could very well be an interpolation. In 189.9-10 it is Krishna who, despite never having met the Pandavas, recognizes them and points them out to Balarama. In 191.20-23 he gives us the first physical descriptions of the five brothers. Curiously, of them it is Yudhishthira who alone stands out with some particularized physical features: eyes like lotus-leaves, slim, fair, gentle-looking, long-nosed, lion-like gait. Arjuna is merely the lion-gaited, tall bow-wielder, while Bhima is the tree-uprooting wolf-waisted hero, and the twins simply handsome young men. Yudhishthira is the only complex character among them. Arjuna’s only characteristic other than archery is philandering; while Bhima besides being a Hercules is also Porthos-like in his straightforwardness. Nakula and Sahadeva are just shadows, wholly one-dimensional, little more than names. Dumezil expended much effort in arguing, not very convincingly, that they are integral to the Indo-European tri-functional mythic pattern because they represent the third function of the Vaishya.
Vyasa’s description of Draupadi coming to garland Arjuna is very sensitively transcreated (190.31). The rage of the suitors is directed chiefly against Drupada for having deprived them of his daughter after inviting them, and against Draupadi, possibly because of her rejection of Karna, but not against the Brahmin because they feel he acted either out of pride or greed. They stress that something must be done so that this does not become a precedent for future svayamvaras. The ensuing combat ranges Karna against Arjuna for the first time in battle with the former withdrawing,as he will in every subsequent duel. Karna’s prowess appears vastly exaggerated. The comparison with Vishnu-Achyuta suggests the constant refrain running through the epic identifying Arjuna with Nara the archer-sage, and as one of the inseparable Nara-Narayana pair, the latter being another name of Vishnu. Shloka36 unobtrusively hints at the authority attributed to Krishna, for it is he who intervenes and gently dissuades the kings from further fighting.
In the midst of all this confusion, like the rest of those present in the ceremony, the reader tends to forget the three other Pandavas. How is it that they have nothing to say or do in this grossly unbalanced fight of two un-armored and primitively armed brothers against fully equipped Kshatriyas? Quite early, in 190.29, at the first signs of the suitors’ resentment at Arjuna’s success, Yudhishthira and the twin paragons slip out of the enclosure for unstated reasons.
Did Arjuna take his eldest brother’s permission before stepping forward to try his luck at the test? Vyasa is silent.
Draupadi, therefore, is really won by the Arjuna-Bhima duo. Yudhishthira does not have even a single word to his credit. Nor do we find the eldest Pandava whispering any advice or encouragement to his brothers before disappearing.
It is a unique instance of desertion in the face of danger that Yudhishthira will repeat in the great war.
here do these three brothers go after slipping out of the enclosure? In 192.42-44, Kunti is anxiously worrying about the delay in returning from their alms-rounds. This indicates a muddle in the text’s transmission because Kunti decided to shift to Kampilya when Vyasa advised her to go there and win Draupadi as her daughter-in-law. We find that Draupadi is brought home only by Bhima and Arjuna. Then, in section 193, Kunti takes Draupadi to Yudhishthira who, therefore, is already indoors.Dhrishtadyumna’s report to Drupada also substantiates that Yudhishthira and the twins were already at home with Kunti when Bhima and Arjuna arrived with the bride (195.7). It is significant that with the introduction of Draupadi in the narrative the brothers, for the first time, appear to have gone off on their own without informing their mother of their destination. They will do so again when leaving Indraprastha for the fateful game of dice in Hastinapura.
An interesting point is the staying of the ‘Brahmin’ Pandavas in a potter’s house.This pre-supposes that the potter was a Vaishya, hence an acceptable, upper caste. It is significant that neither Dhrishtadyumna nor Krishna comment on the choice of residence. It also appears that they are not just sharing the potter’s house, but have exclusive use of it, for, unlike the Ekachakra Brahmin host, we never come across this invisible host.
Section 193 contains the famous pronouncement of Kunti: “Share and enjoy your alms” (shloka 2), uttered “unwittingly” about Draupadi, but is it all that accidental?
In section 171 Vyasa advised them to proceed to Panchala because Draupadi had been blessed by Shiva in her previous birth to have five husbands. Kunti is conscious that their primary intention here is to win Draupadi and, through the alliance with Drupada, reassert their right to the kingdom. She would have known that this was the day for the svayamvara. Her foresight had seen the ruination attendant upon any splitting up of the five brothers. What better bond than a common wife? This could, of course, also lead to serious fraternal conflict, to prevent which Narada will come forward with his suggestions later.
Kunti’s psychology is fascinating. She has had sons by Surya, Dharma, Vayu and Indra. In abandoning her first-born, she replicated her own abandonment first by her father and then by her foster father who had no qualms about placing a nubile princess at the exclusive disposal of the eccentric Durvasa. As she was “persuaded” to have intercourse with four persons, so does she create a dramatic scenario where her daughter-in-law is compelled to have five men sharing her all through life.
It is a working-out of deep psychological complexes with a vengeance.
A question that remains unanswered is Draupadi’s intriguing silence in the face of this outrageous demand to which she silently acquiesces. Strangely enough, the Pandavas do not seem to have any recollection of what Vyasa had told them in Ekachakra about Draupadi becoming their common wife. Kunti immediately approaches Yudhishthira for resolving the dilemma: her words must not prove false, yet dharma must not be violated. Kunti never even suggests that Draupadi should not be shared. Characteristically she seizes upon a fortuitous (?) statement of her own, turning it to glorious gain.
To be fair to Yudhishthira, he suggests that Arjuna, who pierced the target, should marry Draupadi. Arjuna points out that he cannot get married before his elder brothers. Conveniently, no one remembers that Bhima had jumped the queue at Kunti’s behest with Hidimba. At this point Vyasa gives us a typically terse shlokacarrying vast significance (193.11-12). It is a tribute to Yudhishthira’s perspicacity that he immediately perceives that all of them are in love with Draupadi. It is now that he recalls what Vyasa had told them and, to prevent dissension, decides that all of them will marry her (193.16).
Krishna and Balarama enter at this juncture and leave discreetly so that they are not spotted, having made it quite clear on which side their sympathies lie. The basis is the blood relationship through Kunti, who is their father Vasudeva’s sister. It is, therefore, again because of Kunti that the Pandavas ultimately regain the kingdom after vanquishing their cousins with Krishna’s help.
How alert Krishna was is seen in section 194, where Dhrishtadyumna is found tailing Arjuna and Bhima to the potter’s hut. It is here that Bhima’s voracious appetite is mentioned by Kunti, when she advises Krishna to lay apart a full half of the entire food for him, pointing him out for her as “fair complexioned, elephant-huge”. She does not introduce the rest. Thus, by sheer physical presence it is Bhima who, once again, is in the limelight for Draupadi and for us.
Shloka 4 provides an extremely interesting bit of information: “Krishna-Draupadi joyfully followed him,/ holding on to his deerskin.” According to Manusmriti, the Shudra bride is to hold on to the garment of her higher-caste husband. Here, Draupadi follows the same rite believing that Arjuna is a Brahmin. Princess Draupadi adjusts herself without any problems to a life of complete simplicity, lying on the floor at the feet of five brothers and partaking of whatever food has been procured by way of alms. The strength of character this shows will make her a worthy counterpart of Krishna and, between the two of them, the destruction of the Dhartarashtras is assured.
Strangely, Dhrishtadyumna does not report the decision about the polyandrous marriage. Is he deliberately concealing it to spare his father this unpleasant shock?
The other interesting point is that Drupada’s priest points out that Pandu was a close friend (195.18), a fact hitherto unknown. He also states that Drupada’s intention had been to marry his daughter to Arjuna. Vyasa does not tell us what emotional turmoil this raised in Yudhishthira, being a direct insult to the eldest Pandava to be bypassed in favor of a younger brother. Perhaps that is why Yudhishthira’s reply is unusually harsh, prevaricating and very much of a rebuff, saying, in effect, that since Drupada had made his bed, he might as well be reconciled to lying in it. He points out that this was no svayamvara (195.23-24). Drupada, however, does not give up. In a manner reminiscent of Odysseus spotting Achilles disguised among girls, Drupada arranges a display of articles calculated to appeal to the different castes. It is a shrewd, unobtrusive and completely successful test.
There is wry humor in the manner in which Yudhishthira breaks the painful decision regarding Draupadi’s marriage to her father. Drupada has taken it for granted that Arjuna is to be the husband and he announces this to Yudhishthira, who responds with the enigmatic, “In that case, O king,/ I too must marry” (197.20). Nonplussed, but with unfailing kingly courtesy, Drupada responds that any brother can marry his daughter. Obviously, her wishes are of no consequence whatsoever.
She is but a puppet, as her name “Panchali” signifies.
The reader feels let down coming to such a situation after having lived so far in the company of a heroine like Kunti. Moreover, Drupada does not realise that by his declaration he has thrown overboard the very basis of the virya-shulka, where only the person passing the test could be Draupadi’s husband. By his statement, Drupada has virtually acknowledged that she is no longer his to bestow, but Yudhishthira’s, to marry her himself or to bestow her on any of his brothers according to his sweet will. That is precisely how he treats Panchali-the-puppet.
Yudhishthira now announces their decision, stating that it is Kunti’s will and, most intriguingly, that both he and Bhima are bachelors. Here is the truth-vowed son of Dharma lying through his teeth about Bhima’s marital status. He adds that this is also in consonance with their pledge (of which we have not heard so far) to share everything they get equally for the sake of their unity (197.24). This looks forward to 203.8-9 where Duryodhana suggests that seeds of jealousy be sown among the five brothers. Karna’s scornful reply goes to the very heart of the matter, particularly Draupadi’s silent acceptance of this polyandrous union without a word of protest (204. 7-8), that she is delighted to have so many husbands. Unwittingly Karna has plumbed Draupadi’s innermost secret—which perhaps even she is unaware of—reaching back to her previous birth’s ascesis for getting husbands. The snide remark about the insatiable sexual drive of women is a standard male chauvinist jibe that spawned stories in the eastern and southern vernacular retellings of the epic depicting Draupadi’s secret longing for Karna as a sixth husband. 
Drupada, naturally, is quite shocked at Yudhishthira’s obnoxious demand. To him it is nothing but a gross violation of the prescribed social code. Yudhishthira’s response about the subtlety of Dharma is deeply ironic. It will rebound at him from no less a person than Bhishma in that shameful scene of Draupadi’s molestation in open court (197.28). Yudhishthira conveniently omits to quote any precedents although he says that they are following the examples of the ancients. When we recall that the sons of Kunti were all born in the Himalayas, of unknown parentage, it gives substance to the proposition that they were brought up in a society where polyandry was an accepted tradition, as indeed it still is in the Garhwal region. This explains why Duryodhana felt that the Pandavas had less claim to the throne than himself. Both his parents were royal, while the fathers of Kunti’s sons were un-known.
At no stage does the eldest Pandava suggest that if Drupada is not agreeable they will give up Draupadi. The alliance is far too important and rich a prize to forsake. Kunti’s wisdom lies in providing her grown sons with a new and sexually attractive focus to revolve around instead of herself. Draupadi, indeed, is not only like Kunti in her strong personality, but is also an able substitute in the field of political alliances. Just as through Kunti the Pandavas were allied to the powerful Vrishnis and Yadavas, similarly through Krishna’s unique empathy with Draupadi that blood relationship is given the sanction of a bond forged through unity of souls, and the trinity of Yajñaseni, Arjuna and Krishna becomes the hub of their wheel of fortune.
Luckily for the Pandavas, they are spared the trial of having to choose between their mother’s wish and giving up Draupadi by Vyasa arriving precisely at the time when Dhrishtadyumna and Yudhishthira are thrashing out this problem afresh. Vyasa’s initial response is negative and he refers to this practice as opposed to the Vedas and Vedantas and as mocked at (vipralabdha) by the world. Then, he draws out the opinions of Drupada, his son, Kunti and her eldest son. Drupada merely points out that there are no precedents nor any Vedic sanction for polyandry.
Dhrishtadyumna poses the more practical moral issue: how can the elder brother justify having intercourse with his younger brother’s wife? Notice that he does not posit the opposite, being aware of the ancient, though obsolete, niyoga tradition of the younger brother impregnating his elder’s widow.
He goes a step further to demolish Yudhishthira’s reply to Drupada in 197.28 that dharma is subtle: precisely for that reason, he says, how is he to know that the proposal is dharma and not adharma? Yudhishthira manages to dig up two puranikprecedents: Jatila and Varkshi. Of the former, nothing is known beyond the fact that she espoused and served seven sages and belonged to the Gautama clan. She is referred to again in the Shanti parva (38.5), where the women of Hastinapura praise Draupadi, comparing her to Jatila in the manner in which she has served her five husbands. Of Varkshi, there is an extended story in the Vishnu Purana (I.15). Sage Kandu is seduced by the apsara Pramlocha who, while leaving, exudes the embryo through her body as perspiration that is absorbed by leaves of trees. This is gathered by the wind, given life and form to by the moon and called Marisha. When the ten Prachetas are about to destroy the forests that have overcast the earth, Soma stops them with the peace-offering of this Varkshi (tree-born girl) as their common wife. From this union Daksha Prajapati is born. It is an eminent precedent, therefore.
Yudhishthira’s third point is the importance of obeying one’s mother, who is the greatest among gurus. Here is a unique declaration in this epic, which is predominantly a man’s world, about the mother’s supremacy.
The usual attitude is that of Parashurama who beheads his mother at his father’s behest. It is here that we find the only exception. Kunti supports this, pointing out that her words, if fruitless, would brand her a liar, tainting her with untruth. Vyasa assures her that this will not happen, and that what she has proposed is, in fact, the eternal law, sanatana dharma. This phrase takes us back to sections 104 and 122, the stories of Dirghatamas and Shvetaketu, where the sanatana dharma is described as all women being free to have sexual relations with any man (122.14).
Vyasa takes Drupada apart to disclose to him what this “eternal way of life” is and how it originated, but does nothing of that sort. Instead, he spins two yarns, throws in a bit of hypnotism and provides the excuses Drupada needs to agree to the eminently desirable alliance. These have been omitted in the Critical Edition. The first story told by Vyasa is peculiarly rambling. Shlokas 199.1-9 have nothing to do with the actual episode of five Indras being reborn as the Pandavas. Yet, they articulate extremely important mythic motifs. These nine shlokas relate to Yama’s performance of an animal sacrifice, during which death did not touch the humanity. The gods, seeing no difference between mortals and themselves in this respect, rushed to Brahma who assured them that mortals would start dying once the sacrifice was over.
It is to reduce the burden of overcrowded earth that the gods plan the battle of Kurukshetra.
While returning from this sacrificial ritual of the god of death, Indra finds a lotus floating in the Bhagirathi river and seeks out its source. Here we enter the realm of folklore: Indra finds a lovely girl whose tears, falling into the Ganga at its source, turn into golden lotuses. This mysterious la belle dame sans merci invites him to follow her if he wants to know who she is and why she is weeping. Neither of these questions are ever answered. Like the deceiving elf, she leads him to his doom, which he invites by his overweening pride—that very same flaw for which he had thrown Yayati out of heaven. Insulting Shiva, whom he finds sporting with his consort, he is imprisoned in a cave with four of his predecessors—Vishvabhuk, Bhutadhama, Shibi, Shanti and Tejasvi—and condemned to be born as a mortal. These Indras lay down a precondition: that the gods Vayu, Dharma, Indra and Ashvinikumaras engender them.
Here, therefore, we have another account of the divinity of the Pandavas presented by Vyasa who tactfully plays on Drupada’s vanity as well. He declares that Shiva assigned the goddess Shri as their common wife and that she was born miraculously from the yajña-fire as Draupadi. Presumably, the reason for becoming their common wife is that Shri was the femme fatale who ensnared each of the haughty Indras. Like the other kanyas renowned in Indian myth—Ahalya fashioned by Brahma, ocean-born Tara, Mandodari created by Vishnu or Parvati, and tree-engendered Marisha—Draupadi is ayonija-sambhava, not of woman born. She emerges gratuitously at the end of a sacrificial rite performed to wreak vengeance, like the kritya whom the prince of Kashi despatches against Krishna to avenge his father’s death and the krityainvoked by the titans to fetch the suicidal Duryodhana for restoring his confidence after his imprisonment by the Gandharvas. Yajñaseni also resembles the blue and red (nilalohita) kritya of the Rig and Atharva Vedas. Like Janamejaya’s serpent-holocaust ritual performed by priests in black robes, Drupada’s rite was a departure from the normal sacred (Shrauta) sacrifice, and partook of the nature of death-dealing abhichara (black-magic). That is why Upayaja, whom Drupada approached first, refused to perform it. Here, too, there is a resemblance with Kunti because Durvasa’s boon to her is described as abhicharasamyuktam…varam mantragramam, invocations linked to black magic. In particular, it is linked to Yudhishthira’s birth. Pandu specifically urges Kunti to summon Dharma withabhichara rites, upacharabhicharabhyam. 
Draupadi’s emergence from the sacrificial altar is an unintended bonus for Drupada who performed the dark rites for obtaining a son to kill Drona. Her birth is accompanied by a skiey announcement that this lovely dark lady will destroy all Kshatriyas. Therefore, she appears to fulfill not just Drupada’s purpose, but that of the gods responding to the earth’s anguished prayer to lighten her burden of oppressive Kshatriyas. Significantly, despite being aware of this announcement—or being conscious of it—the gods-engendered Pandavas wed her and destroy the Kauravas whose birth is entirely human. Her marriage to the son of Yama-Dharma, Yudhishthira, reinforces her ominous links with death.
To this is added the sub-episode of Shiva obtaining Narayana’s approval to this plan, and Narayana himself sending out a white and a black hair into the world: the former becoming Balarama and the latter Krishna. By saying that Arjuna is Indra, i.e. the last one captured by Shiva, and that Draupadi is Lakshmi, Vyasa has provided adequate heavenly ‘background’ to the entire affair to circumvent all mundane objections.
In the process, an awkward situation is created. For, Shri-Lakshmi is the consort of Vishnu, who incarnates partially as Krishna. That is the secret of the special bonding between Draupadi and Krishna. However, Draupadi weds Arjuna, a portion of Indra. To resolve this issue, the later Markandeya Purana (V.25-26) made Draupadi an incarnation of Indra’s wife Shachi instead, which occurs in certain recensions of the epic relegated to the appendix of the Critical Edition. In one birth she was Nalayani-Indrasena, wedded to an old, irascible, leprous sage Maudgalya. “Mudgalani” occurs in the Rig Veda 10.102.2 as Indra’s dart, and the charioteer in the battle winning a car-load worth a thousand. Mudgala, the rishi of this sukta, was the eldest son of Brihamyashava and founded the Panchala kingdom. So the link with Panchali surfaces. Mudgalani seems to have been childless, parivrikteva (lightly esteemed compared to the favorite wife), and made up for it with her warlike prowess, bringing Mudgala back victorious with booty, which is what Draupadi also does.
To capitalize on the impact he has created, Vyasa gifts Drupada divine sight, with which he sees the Pandavas as five Indras and is overjoyed “at the display of maya”. This is a very revealing word, and perhaps a hint that it was all a wonderful illusion. Vyasa goes on to buttress the case yet further by retelling the story of Draupadi having asked Shiva for five husbands in a previous birth. In other words, Lakshmi was also a sage’s daughter whom no one wanted to marry! This contradiction is not even remarked upon by the stupefied Drupada. His response in 200.4, however, shows that he has not wholly lost common sense. He says, in effect, that as long as no one blames him, Draupadi can have as many husbands as she wants. It is quite clear that he is not befooled by the “divine sight” etc. and is still doubtful about the morality of this polyandrous marriage. What makes him agree is Vyasa’s production of instant puranik precedent, as that will be sufficient authority with which society can be faced when the inevitable flurry of consternation takes place.
Vyasa’s account has been embellished in various ways. Southern recensions of the epic have Vyasa inform Drupada that she is an incarnation of Parvati, while the five brothers are the five-headed Shiva. Apparently, Shaivites wanted to appropriate the epic protagonists and planted this version in the epic, which does show Shiva playing a significant role many a time. In another passage, showing the Vaishnavite influence at work, Arjuna is called an incarnation of Vishnu while the god’s four arms become the other Pandavas and Lakshmi becomes Draupadi. Other passages narrate that in an earlier birth she was named Bhaumashvi, princess of Shibi, who married five sons of Nitantu in svayamvara in accordance with the ancient practice and had five sons by them. Reborn as Nalayani (also called Indrasena, daughter of Nala the Nishada king) she was married to Maudgalya, an old, leprous, irascible sage. Such was her devotion that when a finger of his dropped into their meal, she took it out and calmly ate the rice without revulsion. Pleased by this, Maudgalya offered her a boon, and she asked him to make love to her in five lovely forms. As she was insatiable, Maudgalya cursed her to be reborn and have five husbands to satisfy her sexual craving. Thereupon, she practiced severe penance and pleased Shiva, obtaining the boon of regaining virginity after intercourse with each husband. Shiva commanded her to go to the Ganga and bring him the man (Indra) she would find there. The Jaina Nayadhammakahao tells of suitor-less Sukumarika, reborn as a celestial courtesan because of her passion, who is born again as Draupadi. According to the Brahmavaivarta Purana (Prakriti khanda, 14.54-57, Krishna Janma khanda 116.22-23), she is the reincarnation of the shadow-Sita who was Vedavati reborn after molestation at Ravana’s hands, and would become the Lakshmi of the fourteen Mahendras in Svarga, of whom five incarnated as the Pandavas. According to this Purana (14.57), after the fire ordeal, the shadow-Sita was advised by Rama and Agni to worship Shiva. While doing so,kamatura pativyagra prarthayanti punah punah, tormented by sexual desire and eager for a husband, she prayed again and again, asking the three-eyed god for a husband five times. Hence, the five husbands of Draupadi.
The multiple wedding takes place on successive days. A very significant feature we overlook is that the priest Dhaumya formally marries Draupadi only to Yudhishthira with all the rituals. Thereafter, mysteriously, he leaves the palace altogether (200.12) and the other Pandavas take her hand on successive days without the sacred rituals. This implies that formally she was only the eldest Pandava’s wife. This is linked to Draupadi asking as her first boon from Dhritarasthra, after the dice-game trauma, that Yudhishthira be freed from slavery so that her son by him is not called a slave’s offspring (II.71.30).
In 200.14 we find Narada declaring that Draupadi regained her virginity every night before the next wedding. According to the Villipputtur’s Tamil version of the epic, Draupadi bathes in fire—reminding us of Rider Haggard’s “She-who-must-be-obeyed”—after each marriage, emerging chaste like the pole star. She shares with Satyavati and Kunti an imperishable, ever-renewable virginity. But, unlike her mother-in-law and great-great grandmother-in-law, Draupadi has to live out her entire life parceled out among five men within the sacrament of marriage. Is there a link with the marital hymns of Rig Veda 10.58.40-41 and Atharva Veda XIV.2.3 where the bride is first offered to Soma, Gandharva and Agni and only then to the human bridegroom as her fourth husband?
Somah prathamo vivide gandharvo vivida uttarah/
Tritiyo agnishte patisturiyaste manyushyajah//
“Soma obtained her first of all; next the Gandharva was her lord.
Agni was thy third husband: now one born of woman is thy fourth.
Soma to the Gandharva, and to Agni the Gandharva gave:
And Agni hath bestowed on me riches and sons and this my spouse.”
Sayana explains that until sexual desire arises in the girl, Soma enjoys her. When it has arisen, Gandharva has her and transfers her at marriage to Agni from whom man takes her to produce wealth and sons.
Drupada loads the empty-handed Pandavas with great wealth by way of dowry and manifold treasures are sent by Krishna for the Pandavas, so that they can meet the Dhartarashtras on equal footing.
In section 201 comes Kunti’s address to her daughter-in-law. The transcreation describes the bride (201.3,12) as “dressed in silk”. The original has kshauma, “linen” while silk is kaushika or kausheya, which does not feature in the epic. The blessings Pritha showers on Draupadi are profoundly ironic, for she knows that this princess will be the cause of the Kurukshetra holocaust and necessarily suffer the consequences of the carnage (201.11).
Among the Dhartarashtras there is frenzied consultation and the varied advice make interesting reading. Shakuni feels (222.11-21) that Drupada’s power is negligible and this is the right moment for destroying the Pandavas before the Panchalas are reinforced by the Vrishnis under Balarama and the Chedis led by Shishupala. Somadatta’s son Bhurishravas points out that Arjuna and Yudhishthira are deeply entrenched in the hearts of the people and are also much too powerful now with the support of Krishna and Balarama. This speech offers a rare insight into how others saw Yudhishthira (202.31-32). He also describes Arjuna as particularly courteous in speech, thereby winning the hearts of the people. More important, he points out that to attack the Pandavas now in the Panchala capital is to invite death, as it is far too well defended. Hence, he advises that peace be maintained and that they leave for Hastinapura safely. Duryodhana does so.
It is interesting to study how Krishna gradually looms larger and larger over the Pandavas’ destiny right from the day of the svayamvara, and how his presence can be felt more and more in the epic. Thus, in 209.64, Krishna keeps pressing Dhritarashtra to hasten the coronation after he has announced the decision. Again, it is only with Krishna’s consent that the Pandavas agree to return to Hastinapura.
With the winning of Draupadi, the chariot of destiny has begun to roll inexorably towards the doom of the dynasty Satyavati had sought so laboriously to establish and its replacement by the bloodline of Kunti through Arjuna-Nara fathered by lord of gods Indra.
- Pradip Bhattacharya Pancha Kanya, Writers Workshop, Calcutta, 2005, p. 101
- The practice is prevalent in Punjab to avoid partitioning of holdings and because of the acute scarcity of nubile girls as a result of indiscriminate female feticide, cf. “Modern Draupadis”, Times of India, 7.8.2005, p.8
- C. Minkowski: “Snakes, Sattras and the Mahabharata” in Essays on the Mahabharata ed. A. Sharma, Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1991, p. 391 and A. Hiltebeitel: Rethinking the Mahabharata, University of Chicago Press, 2001, p.188.
- Birendra Mitra, Kurukshetrey Deb Shibir, Nath Publishing, 2004, p. 104.
- Pratibha Ray portrays this at length in her novel Yajnaseni (Rupa) and Roopa Ganguli conveyed the anguish dramatically in the Bengali teleserial Draupadi