Draupadi and the Pandavas: The Story of an Unusual Marriage

Draupadi is the heroine of the Mahabharata. She is the princess of Panchala who ends up becoming the common wife of the five Pandava brothers.

In this post, we will explore the nature of this unusual marriage between Draupadi and the Pandavas.

(For a comprehensive resource on Draupadi, see Draupadi: 50+ Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered.)

Draupadi’s maidenhood

The first thing we should remember about Draupadi is that she does not have a childhood. She springs from the fire at Drupada’s sacrifice fully formed as a maiden.

And the proclamation at the time of her ‘birth’ is that she will one day cause the destruction of the Kuru empire.

From the time of Draupadi’s entry into Panchala’s royal house, Drupada begins to make his plans on how to use his newly acquired daughter to make inroads into the Kuru dynasty.

The most effective solution, he thinks, is to align himself with the Pandavas and help them in their fight against the Kuru establishment.

And the easiest way to become a Pandava ally is by arranging matters so that his daughter becomes wife to one of the Pandava brothers.

Among the Pandavas, for better or worse, Drupada chooses to court the attention of Arjuna.

Drupada’s Plan

In broad terms, Drupada’s plan of action is this:

  • Arrange for a swayamvara for Draupadi, and design an archery test so difficult that only Arjuna might be able to crack it.
  • Spread the news of Draupadi’s swayamvara far and wide so that if the Pandavas are alive, they will be drawn to Panchala in order to attend it.
  • Be prepared for Karna, as Duryodhana’s aide, to try and win Draupadi’s hand. Karna must be thwarted in some manner because if he attempts to complete the archery test, he will likely succeed.
  • Once Draupadi is wedded to Arjuna, the Panchalas can proclaim themselves allies to the Pandava cause, and strategize together about how to bring down the Kuru empire.

This is the broad-strokes idea that Drupada formulates for himself. Even at this early stage, Draupadi becomes merely a tool that enables Drupada’s desire for revenge.

From Draupadi’s point of view, she knows that two things are expected of her at the swayamvara:

  • If Karna stands up and announces a desire to participate in the event, she is to reject him outright by calling him a Sutaputra. She is to remain silent with any other contender because no one else but Karna is skillful enough to pass the test.
  • Her expectation during the months leading up to the ceremony is that she is intended for Arjuna. In her mind, therefore, she has already begun thinking of herself as Arjuna’s wife.

Becoming Arjuna’s Wife

Drupada’s plan comes to fruition in two important ways at the swayamvara: (1) Draupadi manages to play her role in rejecting Karna’s candidature, and (2) Arjuna wins Draupadi’s hand by completing the task.

(If we are to be precise, we should note that at the moment of Arjuna winning Draupadi’s hand, he is disguised as a Brahmin. All Drupada knows, therefore, is that his daughter had been won by a strange Brahmin youth.

For a period of a few hours, Drupada thinks that his plan had been foiled: some other man besides Arjuna and Karna had come and whisked his daughter off. But that very night, Dhrishtadyumna confirms that the young man was none other than Arjuna.)

From Draupadi’s perspective too, things have gone pretty much to plan. She is happy that her father’s desires have been met, and she is also pleased that she had become Arjuna’s wife.

But that night, at the Pandavas’ house, a discussion begins to emerge that will change her life forever.

Why did Draupadi Marry Five Pandavas?

Thus far in their lives, the Pandavas are kept as one functioning unit by Kunti, their mother. When Arjuna brings Draupadi back to their hut, Yudhishthir notices that all of his brothers are consumed by desire for her.

He predicts that if she were to marry any one of them, it will set up jealousy in the others that may eventually bring about their ruin.

Therefore, he decrees that she should become a common wife. That way, a situation of potential unrest can be avoided.

Draupadi is also known to be a Brahmin woman in her previous life, during which she earns from Lord Shiva the boon that she will, in her next life, be married to five valiant heroes who will also give her sons.

Vyasa instructs her to honour this old promise.

The final thrust comes from Drupada and Dhrishtadyumna, who – after learning of the issue – prefer that Draupadi marries Yudhishthir.

This is understandable because as the first wife of the eldest brother, Draupadi stands to gain much power and status in the future that she will not procure as someone married to the middle brother.

For these three reasons, Draupadi marries all five Pandavas.

(Suggested: Why did Draupadi marry all five Pandavas?)

Did Draupadi sleep with all Pandavas?

Yes. Draupadi has five sons in all, one with each of the Pandavas. So one can conclude that she must have slept with each brother at least once.

In order to establish fatherhood, during her childbearing years, the Pandavas take turns visiting Draupadi exclusively until she falls pregnant, and after each birth the cycle repeats.

This has given rise to the theory that Draupadi became wife to each Pandava brother in turn over and over throughout their marriage. While this might have been roughly true during her childbearing time, we do not know if the arrangement persisted otherwise.

The agreement that the Pandavas do have between one another is that Draupadi should be shared by all five brothers amicably; this means that when one of the brothers approaches her and finds her in the private company of another, the first will retreat and try again later.

If this seems haphazard and irregular, it is because it is. There is good reason to believe that outside of the reproductive sex that Draupadi had with the five Pandavas, she was sexually available only for Yudhishthir’s pleasure – if that.

Since the Mahabharata does not give us any details about the Pandavas’ sex lives, all kinds of speculations are allowed. We must also therefore consider it possible that their marriage did not have a sexual component to it.

In other words, my suggestion is that their marriage – outside of the five childbirths – is a platonic one.

How was Draupadi shared between the Pandavas?

The Pandavas’ arrangement for sharing Draupadi is a simple one: when one of the five brothers wishes to spend time alone with Draupadi, he is to approach her – only if she is alone.

If he finds her with another brother, he is to retreat respectfully without disturbing their privacy.

In the early days of Yudhishthir’s rule as emperor, Narada arrives at his court and tells him the story of Sunda and Upasunda, two inseparable brothers who had been torn apart by mutual desire for Tilottama, the divine dancer.

Narada recommends to Yudhishthir that the Pandavas ought to come up with some agreement on how to share Draupadi.

The Pandavas immediately comply with the sage’s wishes. Their plan is relatively simple: whenever any of the brothers wishes to spend time with Draupadi and finds her in the company of someone else, he is to retreat without disturbing them in any way.

Arjuna violates this principle soon afterward in order to collect his Gandiva from Yudhishthir’s chambers, and as penance he inflicts upon himself a twelve-year exile.

To return to the Pandavas’ sharing rules with Draupadi, one assumes that they will have had a more elaborate arrangement when it came to siring sons with her.

In order to make sure the parentage of each son is properly established, each Pandava would have had to take turns with her on a yearly basis – at least until she has given birth to all five Upapandavas.

Something of the sort would have been necessary to ensure that everyone knows whose son each Upapandava is.

(Suggested: How was Draupadi shared between the Pandavas?)

How did Draupadi manage five husbands?

During the Draupadi-Satyabhama Samvaada Parva, Satyabhama asks Draupadi how she had managed to maintain healthy relationships with five men at the same time.

She wonders if Draupadi makes use of some magical incantation or perfume to keep the Pandavas in order.

Draupadi laughs away the suggestion and tells Satyabhama that there are no shortcuts to marital bliss. But she makes the following five recommendations:

  • When I am serving the Pandavas (she says), I set my vanity and wrath aside. I do not let my jealousy show when I refer to their other wives, and I keep my facial expressions forever under control.
  • I communicate my feelings to them with well-chosen words, not with tears and anger.
  • I regard my husbands as poisonous snakes, excitable beyond measure by mere trifles. So even when I know that they are in the wrong, I choose to win them over with humility, good humour, cheer and empathy.
  • I love them with all my heart, and indeed, when any one of them is away for a period of time, I find that I yearn for his company. When your husband sees this kind of love in you, he overlooks many of your insufficiencies.
  • Above all, I make it a rule that all private conversations I have with any of my husbands remain private. I do not discuss them with anyone under any circumstances.

(Suggested: How did Draupadi manage five husbands?)

Was Draupadi characterless?

Draupadi is accused as characterless by Karna, for the fact that she has taken five husbands. According to scriptures of the time, a woman is considered a harlot if she takes five or more lovers during her life.

But Draupadi is considered a woman of very high honour despite this fact because of her dignity, composure and self-respect.

If we take the scriptural definition of harlot as truth, then Karna is right in saying that Draupadi is a woman of low character. In the same way, Kunti – who takes five lovers herself during her life – ought to be considered the same way.

Ironically, by the same definition that Karna applies to Draupadi, his own mother can be accused of being a whore. In Kunti’s case, though, this information is kept secret. With Draupadi, the fact that she has five husbands is common knowledge.

Despite this, Draupadi is considered the very epitome of virtue. Among the reasons are the following:

  • Draupadi’s marriage to the Pandavas happened due to decisions taken by people around her. She did not seek to be wife to five husbands. Therefore, it is to be commended that Draupadi risked being considered a prostitute in order to honour the wishes of the elders around her.
  • Draupadi displays exemplary conduct in the toughest of times. At the dice game, for example, when Dhritarashtra grants her a wish, she asks for her husbands’ freedom before her own.
  • In the Virata Parva, when she is forced to enter the royal house of Matsya as a Sairandhri, she places a condition with Queen Sudeshna that she will not consent to visit the bedchambers of the king or of any nobleman.

From the moment of her wedding to the moment of her last breath, Draupadi remains utterly loyal toward her husbands. Among all their wives, she is the only one who shares in all their troubles.

Due to all of these reasons, despite Karna’s attempt to paint her negatively, Draupadi is thought to be a woman of noble character.

(Suggested: Was Draupadi characterless?)

Draupadi as virtuous wife

As the common wife of the Pandavas, Draupadi finds herself in the curious position of having five husbands but not being loved intensely by any of them.

All the five Pandava brothers take other wives that they do not share with their brothers, and naturally, bare more of their hearts to those women rather than to Draupadi – with whom they share a complicated relationship.

An example of this is Arjuna, who finds in Subhadra a wife he can trust with his secret self. With Draupadi, because of the fact that he shares her with his brothers, he is always a bit guarded.

This is true of all the other Pandavas as well. Ironically, the one Pandava who shares of himself openly with Draupadi is Yudhishthir – who, by virtue of being king and the oldest brother, has just a little bit more of a claim on Draupadi, his queen.

Despite this situation, Draupadi manages to conduct herself in exemplary fashion, and earns herself a name for being a virtuous wife.

She is fiercely loyal to her husbands at all times – not least when she is approached with carnal intent by the likes of Kichaka and Jayadratha.

She participates fully in all of the Pandavas’ misfortunes, accompanying them to the forest when none of the other Pandava wives do so. In this, she truly becomes an inseparable part of the Pandava collective.

Finally, during the dice game, in the aftermath of her disrobing, she rescues her embattled husbands by winning their freedoms from Dhritarashtra.

(Suggested: Why is Draupadi called Pativrata?)

Draupadi’s Only Sin

Draupadi’s only sin in her relationship with the Pandavas is that she loved Arjuna more than she loved the other brothers.

We do not know this for sure. But when she drops to her death at the very end of the story, as the Pandavas are about to scale the mountain of Meru, Yudhishthir flatly declares this as her biggest sin.

None of the other brothers – not even Arjuna – contest him on this, or ask him how he knows. We, the readers, are left with the impression that this is a commonly held assumption among the brothers.

Notwithstanding this transgression, Draupadi and the Pandavas succeed in building a functional marriage that lasts for more than fifty years.

Did Draupadi love Arjuna the most?

While one cannot answer for certain about another person’s love, and while love cannot be measured, it is likely that Draupadi had a special place in her heart for Arjuna.

Arjuna is the man who did win her at the swayamvara. He is the most celebrated among the Pandavas. And he is the one who is denied her by circumstances for twelve years.

It is Yudhishthir’s opinion – one he voices at the very end, when Draupadi falls to her death at the base of Mount Sumeru – that Draupadi has always loved Arjuna more than any other man.

The text delivers this judgement in a declarative tone, as if believing Yudhishthir is the speaker of truth. Neither Bhima nor any of the other Pandavas think it right to question him.

But of course, a reader might ask: How does Yudhishthir know about Draupadi’s love? And how does Yudhishthir – or anyone – measure a woman’s love for one man relative to her love for other men?

Unless Draupadi has confided in Yudhishthir about her secret – that yes, she indeed did love Arjuna the most – there is no way Yudhishthir can know for certain. At best, he is only guessing.

As guesses go, this is not a bad guess. There are very good reasons for Draupadi loving Arjuna more intensely than she did the rest of them. But Yudhishthir cannot have known this as a fact.

(Suggested: Did Draupadi love Arjuna the most?)

Further Reading

If you liked this post, you will probably also enjoy: Karna: 40+ Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.