Of all the questions about the Mahabharata, this one is asked surprisingly often: did Draupadi like Karna?
At first glance, this is an absurd notion. Why would Draupadi like Karna? What reasons would she have for liking the one person in the world who is most responsible for making her life hell?
How would she find it in her heart to desire a man that her husband Arjuna has sworn to kill – on her behalf?
But just as interesting is also to speculate about reasons for which such a question may be asked. So in this post, we will look at this topic from various angles, and try to tease out some meaning from it.
First, the answer on whether Draupadi liked Karna:
There is no evidence whatsoever in Vyasa’s Mahabharata that Draupadi has any positive feelings toward Karna. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Not only does she not like him, but she intensely dislikes him. And every time her husbands show signs of wavering in their quest for war against the Kauravas (which includes Karna), it is Draupadi who reminds them of all the insults that she had had to bear during her disrobing.
(For answers to all your Draupadi-related questions, see: Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered.)
Now let’s unpack this a little bit more.
Where does this idea come from?
From what I can tell, the first time this idea found me was in an Odiya novel called Yajnaseni, by Pratibha Ray. It’s a stream-of-consciousness style book written in Draupadi’s voice.
I also found it in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s novel, The Palace of Illusions. It is also a stream-of-consciousness style book written in Draupadi’s voice.
Both books paint Draupadi in a modern, third-wave-feministic light. The Draupadi of these books is, among other things:
- Sexually promiscuous and unapologetic about it.
- Judgemental about her husbands, unhappy in her marriage.
- Romantically attracted to Karna and Krishna.
- Constantly complaining about her lot in life, and how much she is suffering.
(Suggested: Was Draupadi characterless?)
Before we go on, I must hasten to clarify that I have no problem with any of the above. In works of fiction, a novelist has full freedom to explore any angle of a public-domain work – which the Mahabharata is.
But I stated the four points just as a contrast to the Draupadi of the Mahaharata who: (a) is not sexually promiscuous, (b) is not judgemental or unhappy in her marriage, (c) is not romantically attracted to Karna or Krishna, and (d) welcomes the misfortunes of her life with dignity and without undue complaints.
If anything, if you could use one word to describe Vyasa’s Draupadi, it would be: resilient. So it would be a mistake to conflate her with the Draupadi who inhabits the pages of Yajnaseni and The Palace of Illusions.
(Suggested: Why did Draupadi Reject Karna?)
Why did the idea catch on?
An unfortunate side effect of writing novels based on the Mahabharata is that if your work becomes famous enough (both the novels I cited above answer to ‘famous’), your readers think that the characters that you’ve created are true representations of Vyasa’s characters.
Unless writers of such novels come out and expressly make it clear that what they’ve written are only speculative interpretations, this misunderstanding will persist.
Confession time: I read Yajnaseni before I’d read the Mahabharata in its original form, and I also thought that perhaps there is a hint or a suggestion in the actual story about Draupadi’s liking for Karna.
(Suggested: What Happens during Draupadi’s Swayamvara?)
By the time I’d discovered The Palace of Illusions, though, I’d already read the Mahabharata so I could see it just as an author’s interpretation.
There also appears to be some perverse delight in painting a woman as sexually promiscuous. This delight is shared by men (understandably) and women (not so understandably) alike.
And there is the inevitable TV show that will glorify Karna and subtly suggest that hey, look, Draupadi secretly admires him.
Let’s look at the facts…
But let’s for a moment give the question its due seriousness, and examine the facts of these two characters as depicted in the Mahabharata:
- Draupadi and Karna meet a total of three times in the story: first, during her swayamvara, where she rejects him; second, during the Rajasuya sacrifice of Yudhishthir; and third, during the dice game where Karna basically convinces everyone that she is a prostitute and should be disrobed.
- Arjuna’s vow to kill Karna is taken for the sole purpose of avenging Draupadi’s humiliation.
- Time and again, Karna shows extreme contempt for Draupadi: for instance, when they’re in exile, he encourages Duryodhana to ride out to where they’re living just to make fun of them.
- Time and again, Draupadi tells Krishna that Karna is among her chief tormentors. She specifically tells Krishna that she wants revenge, and that she wants him to die at the hands of Arjuna.
- Time and again, whenever Yudhishthir and his brothers momentarily consider peace with the Kauravas, it is Draupadi who reminds them that her vengeance has to be earned.
In all of this, where is the suggestion that Draupadi may like Karna?
(Suggested: What Happens during Draupadi’s Disrobing?)
Do we know that she does not like Karna?
This is a common argument made when one is speaking of such things. A person well and truly invested in Draupadi’s secret love affair with Karna might pipe up and say, ‘Well, do you know for sure that she did not like Karna? So there!’
But the problem with this line of thinking is: the fact that we’re not sure does not invalidate the inferences that we can draw from her behaviour and other recorded incidents.
- Do we know for sure that Draupadi did not secretly love Duryodhana? No. Does that mean, then, that she did?
- Do we know for sure that Draupadi did not secretly love Bhishma? No. Does that mean, then, that she did?
- Do we know for sure that Draupadi did not have a lesbian affair with Subhadra? No. Does that mean, then, that she did?
No, no, and no. When everything in the story suggests that Draupadi hates Karna, and if you’re going to propose that she in fact loved him, by way of evidence you need something more than: but you don’t know for sure that she didn’t.
(Suggested: Why does Karna abuse Draupadi?)
Did Draupadi feel regret at the end?
Now, this is a different matter altogether. Like the Pandavas, Draupadi gets to know at the very end of the Mahabharata war that Karna was in fact the eldest son of Kunti.
Krishna reveals to them that if fate had played her game in a slightly different way, Karna would have been the king of Indraprastha.
We’re not specifically told Draupadi’s reaction at this point, but is it fathomable that she feels a bit of regret at the way things have unfolded between her and Karna? Yes.
(Suggested: Why did Krishna offer Draupadi to Karna?)
Is it further possible that she thinks: if Karna had been the king of Indraprastha, I would have been his queen? Also yes.
Similarly, Yudhishthir and his brothers also feel regret. But the crucial point is this: the regret is about how things have unfolded, not about how they had reacted to Karna’s provocations.
Whether or not Karna is Yudhishthir’s elder brother is irrelevant to how he treated the Pandavas and Draupadi.
Therefore, even after this knowledge is made public, the Pandavas and Draupadi would still not have felt any remorse at their enmity with Karna.
(Suggested: Is Karna the real hero of the Mahabharata?)
Further Appeal for the Idea
There’s another reason why this idea has appeal: it has more to do with Karna than with Draupadi.
There are two Karnas in the Mahabharata: so far we’ve spoken about the vile, vindictive, arrogant, hapless friend of Duryodhana. This fellow is no good.
No one in his right mind would find him likeable. Besides Duryodhana, if there is a vote for who is the second most important villain of the Mahabharata, it would go to this man.
But there is another Karna: he is the unfortunate plaything of fate, abandoned at birth by his biological mother, deprived of love and acceptance, discriminated against by Brahmins and Kshatriyas alike.
He is generous and kind to everyone, charitable to a fault, a man of honour, a man you’d be fortunate to call your friend.
(Suggested: What was Karna famous for?)
This second side of Karna wins him many admirers. The argument goes that he is not to be blamed for his foibles, because he has been thwarted by destiny. Everything the Pandavas have is actually his by right. He is the eldest of Kunti’s children.
Indraprastha is his by right. And of course, so is the queen of Indraprastha, Draupadi.
In fact, doesn’t Krishna offer the kingdom and Draupadi to Karna just before the war? Doesn’t he promise Karna that if he only switches sides, Draupadi would come to his bed and bear him sons?
So the idea of Karna getting Draupadi appeals to the ‘justice complex’ in all of us. In a fair, rightful world, Draupadi would be Karna’s wife. They would – should – be together.
When we’re told, therefore, that Draupadi secretly likes Karna, we think to ourselves: hey, not too far-fetched. He is a Pandava after all.
(Suggested: Was Karna a Pandava?)
It is ironic that this notion has surfaced in feminist works that seek to project Draupadi as a symbol of sexual independence. But in doing so, it objectifies and trivializes her experiences with the same stroke.
- Would a person of Draupadi’s social status (a princess, a queen, an empress) forgive humiliation of the kind that Karna bestows upon her?
- Would a person with Draupadi’s knowledge of social norms – who has accepted to be wife to five husbands – openly display wanton behaviour toward men she had not wedded?
- Would a person of Draupadi’s fire – who insists on Duhsasana’s blood being rubbed into her hair – fall in love with a man who is almost single-handedly responsible for all her life’s travails?
To suggest that Draupadi would somehow be in love with Karna is to reduce her personhood to something infantile.
(Suggested: Why did Draupadi Vastraharan happen?)
The Only Scenario…
Having said all this, there is one speculative scenario in the Mahabharata which would have led to Draupadi marrying Karna. And that is if Karna had accepted Krishna’s offer of switching to the Pandava side just before the war.
If Karna had said yes:
- Yudhishthir would have relinquished the throne of Indraprastha to him. On winning the war, Karna would have become the emperor.
- Krishna would have asked Draupadi to marry Karna – and also have his child.
- Draupadi – despite her past reservations about Karna – would have obeyed in light of the new knowledge about Karna’s identity.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 35: Karna Rejects a Bribe.)
Here too, I think Draupadi would have said yes unhappily; it is not easy to forget all the slights that have been heaped upon you by a person only to be asked to marry him for political expediency.
But the norms of those times would have made it impossible for her to say no.
Especially because Krishna, the Pandavas and the Panchala royals (Shikhandi, Dhrishtadyumna and Drupada) would have insisted that this is in the best interest of the entire region.
(Suggested: Was Karna in love with Draupadi?)
- If someone asks you again whether Draupadi was in love with Karna, say no.
- The idea has taken birth in some fictionalized works based on the Mahabharata. There is no evidence whatsoever in Vyasa’s work that suggests a romantic angle between the two characters.
- On the contrary, there is plenty of evidence – via words and actions – that suggest the exact opposite: that Draupadi hates Karna.
- The fact that Karna is the eldest of the Pandavas is irrelevant. This information is not revealed to Draupadi until the very end.
- The fact that Karna – by right – deserves to be king and husband to Draupadi is also irrelevant. The question is whether Draupadi is in love with Karna, not whether Karna deserves this or that.
- The only scenario in which Draupadi may have married Karna is if he had accepted Krishna’s offer to switch sides before the Mahabharata war.
Finally, there are two faces to Karna in the Mahabharata, one admirable and one reprehensible. We can react with pity at the first and disgust at the second.
His character is memorable enough; we don’t need to force Draupadi’s love on him without her (or, for that matter, his) consent.
If you liked this post, you may also find this interesting: Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered.