Did Draupadi insult Karna?

Did Draupadi insult Karna - Featured Image - Picture of a snake overlaid on top of an arrow. Representing the tortuous nature of destiny.

Draupadi is the most prominent female character in the Mahabharata. Her given name at birth is Krishnaa, but since she is the daughter of Drupada she is called Draupadi. She is also known as Panchali – or the ‘daughter of Panchala’.

Draupadi is often considered the primary reason for the destruction of the Kuru dynasty. She takes birth as a grown young woman in a sacrifice performed by Drupada, in which the king asks for a ‘weapon’ with which the Kurus can be defeated.

In this post, we will answer the question: Did Draupadi insult Karna?

During her swayamvara, when she sees Karna about to try his luck at meeting the challenge posed by the archery test, Draupadi exercises her right to reject him. Whether or not an explanation is warranted, she offers one. ‘I do not intend to marry a Sutaputra,’ she says. This has the effect of publicly insulting Karna.

Read on to discover more about whether or not Draupadi insulted Karna.

(For answers to all Draupadi-related questions, see Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered.)

Prologue to Draupadi’s Swayamvara

In order to understand what happens during Draupadi’s swayamvara, one has to also know the context surrounding it. Here it is in a nutshell:

  • Drupada loses a battle to Drona and is forced to give up half his kingdom to Kuru ownership. This diminishes his status as king; he becomes a mere tribute-paying nobleman to the house of Kuru.
  • Seething with desire for revenge at this slight, Drupada immediately sets about performing a sacrifice with two intentions: (a) to procure a son who will kill Drona, and (b) to procure some means by which the Kuru dynasty may be destroyed.

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 9: Invasion of Panchala.)

  • Both his wishes are granted. Out of the sacrificial fire spring two fully formed young human beings, one male and one female. A divine voice proclaims the former to be the future killer of Drona, and the latter as the ‘primary cause of the destruction of the Kurus’.
  • Drupada names the young man Dhrishtadyumna and the young woman Krishnaa. She comes to be known commonly as Draupadi – daughter of Drupada.

For a time after Drupada receives his two gifts, he goes about plotting how to use Draupadi as pawn to bring about: (a) fissures in the Kuru dynasty, and (b) the return of Panchala to its old glory days.

At about this time, the Pandavas have gone missing, and rumours are rife that Duryodhana had had them killed. Drupada therefore knows of the internal conflict between the Pandavas and the Kauravas.

Drupada’s Plan

Drupada’s chosen option is to further foment this internecine quarrel in the Kuru house, and if possible, correctly pick the winner.

One must note that at this point, the smart money is on Duryodhana and the Kauravas to prevail. But Drupada also knows that Arjuna and Bhima alone are enough to successfully challenge the hundred sons of Dhritarashtra.

(How does he know this? Because a couple of years ago, he has seen the might of the Pandavas first-hand when they captured him and produced him in front of Drona. On that same occasion, Drupada had easily repelled Duryodhana and his brothers.)

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 10: Conspiracy in Varanavata.)

Drupada must also have access to other intelligence coming out of Varanavata: that the Pandavas may have escaped and are living in some unknown city disguised as Brahmins.

Also, siding with Duryodhana would mean befriending Drona again. Drupada wants to do the exact opposite.

Therefore he makes the choice of backing the Pandavas against the Kauravas. Though the fact remains that the Pandavas defeated him in battle, he swallows his pride and decides to extend to them the hand of friendship – because they had been acting then under the command of Drona.

In order to build this relationship with the Pandavas, then, Drupada decides to use Draupadi as pawn.

The Swayamvara

Drupada now has a plan to align himself with the Pandavas, in the hope that they will ultimately prevail against the Kurus. Now he has to put it into action.

But he has a few problems at hand:

  • He does not know where the Pandavas are living, nor does he have a way to find out.
  • Even if he does know where the Pandavas are, Kuru would see it as a direct act of antagonism if Drupada sought out Yudhishthir and gave him Draupadi in marriage. He has to therefore call for a swayamvara, in order to send a signal of fairness.

(Suggested: Why did Draupadi reject Karna?)

  • But to such a swayamvara, all the great kings of the world will come. What if Draupadi finds herself enamoured by one of them and garlands him? The swayamvara therefore has to take all freedom out of Draupadi’s hands. It has to be a competition.
  • But at such a competition, multiple kings may participate and an undesirable king may win. To prevent such an outcome, it has to be a task so difficult that only Arjuna can be reasonably expected to complete it.

Drupada’s strategy is beginning to take shape now. He will set an archery task so complex that only Arjuna can crack it. But there is one final problem. And the problem is Karna.

Dealing with Karna

Drupada knows from stories he had heard about the Kuru graduation ceremony that whatever Arjuna can do with bow and arrow, so can Karna.

Further, Drupada also knows that Karna will attend Draupadi’s swayamvara. Even if Drupada makes it a point not to invite him, he will come as a friend and supporter of Duryodhana.

Furthermore, Karna is now himself a king. Drupada will need to invite him and give him the respect that his title deserves.

And if Karna attends the ceremony, chances are he will insist on trying to win Draupadi. And if he wins Draupadi, Panchala’s status will be further degraded, because as the wife of Duryodhana’s best friend (slave?), Draupadi will be nothing more than Duryodhana’s puppet.

By all means, therefore, Drupada has to prevent Karna from winning Draupadi’s hand. But how?

Taking Draupadi’s Help

For this, Drupada turns to Draupadi. In a swayamvara where the maiden is given away as a prize, the maiden is forced to accept any man who successfully accomplishes the set task.

But – this is crucial – she does have the freedom to reject any suitor before he attempts the task.

(Suggested: What happens during Draupadi’s Swayamvara?)

In Karna’s case, this is especially true because he is a low-born man. So Drupada asks Draupadi to stop Karna in the event that he stands up and signals an intention to participate in the swayamvara.

This absolves Drupada of all wrongdoing. And no finger needs to point at Draupadi either because she is merely exercising her right.

Draupadi’s Insult

Things come to pass exactly as Drupada envisions. Karna does attend the swayamvara. He does stand up to examine the bow that needs to be used to shoot the arrow. But just as he is about to string it, Draupadi speaks up.

‘I do not intend to be married to a Sutaputra,’ she says. ‘I wish therefore that this man be disallowed from participating.’

The reaction to Draupadi’s words is pure silence. No one admonishes her (which suggests that this is not improper within the circumstances), and no one speaks up on Karna’s behalf (which suggests that they agree with Draupadi).

Whether Drupada would have gotten away with it had Draupadi rejected a king – say Duryodhana or Shalya – we do not know. But the test is such that none of the assembled kings can pass anyway, so Drupada does not need to worry about that.

Karna’s Reaction

Karna’s immediate reaction is to laugh in disbelief, but as he looks around and sees that there is no support for him, he puts the bow back down and returns to his seat.

Drupada, at this point, has reason to be pleased with how the ceremony is progressing. Now that Karna has been thwarted, all that remained was for Arjuna – if he was present – to win Draupadi for himself. And if Arjuna was not present, Drupada can either call a second swayamvara at a later date.

As it happens, Arjuna does present himself, and he does win Draupadi. The whole thing is a tremendous success for Drupada.

(Suggested: Why does Karna abuse Draupadi?)

But what he does not foresee is the underlying anger that Draupadi’s insult causes Karna, and how it fuels his future invective toward her during the dice game.

By this account, it is clear that Draupadi was merely acting under instructions when she rejected Karna. But the consequences of her words has far-reaching consequences, setting up Karna as the seething serpent seeking revenge on Draupadi.

Which he exacts during the dice game – by branding Draupadi a prostitute and by declaring that she should be disrobed publicly.

Further Reading

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