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 study in detail the character of Draupadi.
(For a comprehensive resource on Draupadi, see Draupadi: 50+ Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered.)
The birth of Draupadi occurs shortly after Drupada loses half his kingdom to an invasion by the Kuru princes. Drupada manages to ward off an attack by Duryodhana and his brothers, but against the Pandavas he is not able to defend his kingdom.
Stricken by hurt at this loss, Drupada immediately performs a sacrifice with the express intention of procuring a method by which Drona can be killed and the Kurus can be vanquished.
A divine voice hears his prayers, and gives him two gifts: a young man who is destined to kill Drona, and a young woman who ‘will bring about the destruction of the Kuru race’.
Drupada adopts these two people as his children. To the boy he gives the name of Dhrishtadyumna. The girl he calls Krishnaa.
It is not clear exactly how old these two people are at the time they appear in Drupada’s sacrifice. Since Yudhishthir, at this stage, is around eighteen years old, we can place Dhrishtadyumna’s age around sixteen, and Draupadi’s at around fourteen.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 9: Invasion of Panchala.)
A more realistic account…
If we wish to strip the Mahabharata story of its magical elements, we may retell the story of Draupadi and Dhrishtadyumna’s birth as follows:
Drupada has just returned from his failed attempt to defend Panchala. He has just given up half his kingdom to Drona. From the status of a king, he is now merely a figurehead ruler of a vassal state in South Panchala.
His most fervent wish is to avenge this humiliation. But as someone who has been stripped of all his power, he cannot hope to fight the Kurus on the battlefield and win. So he calls his sages and asks them if there is a way out.
The sages recommend that Drupada perform a sacrifice in which he adopts two children, and entrusts them with the long-range ambition of one day bringing about the ruin of the Kuru dynasty.
It is not unreasonable for a king in Drupada’s situation to think of diplomatic strategies to fulfil his desires. Where battle has failed, for instance, marriage may succeed.
So he adopts a marriageable maiden whose beauty is other-worldly, and uses her as pawn to exploit the fissures between the Pandavas and Kauravas.
In this narrative, there is no magic. The sacrifice is just a ceremony in which Drupada adopts his two chosen children. And the voice that proclaims Dhrishtadyumna and Draupadi’s respective destinies belongs to the Brahmin performing the ceremony.
Was Draupadi arrogant?
Draupadi is often portrayed in popular culture as possessing a fiery temperament. Though some of her actions – especially early on – can be termed arrogant, she displays remarkable dignity and endurance in suffering with her husbands.
While arrogance may be part of her character, she is also kind, loyal, dutiful and well-versed in matters of Dharma.
Three incidents are usually cited to make the case that Draupadi is arrogant:
- She rejects Karna and publicly humiliates him during her swayamvara.
- She laughs at Duryodhana when he falls into a pool at Yudhishthir’s Rajasuya.
- She welcomes Subhadra with cruel words when she first meets him.
In the first instance, it is entirely possible that she was behaving that way under instructions from Drupada, who was keen to prevent Karna from participating in the groom-choosing process. The second incident did not happen as stated by Duryodhana; in reality, Draupadi is not even present when Duryodhana falls.
The third is true, but her behaviour is understandable given that she has had to wait for twelve years for Arjuna only to see him return with another woman.
On the other hand, we see plenty of evidence of her loyalty – with Kichaka and Jayadratha – of her dignity – when asking for boons from Dhritarashtra – and her self-respect – in asking the assembly whether Yudhishthir held any rights over her or not.
She also debates with Yudhishthir time and again during their exile on various matters of scriptural truth, which suggests that she has read widely and deeply enough to engage with another person intelligently on a range of topics.
Having said all this, we must also admit that Draupadi is a princess. Perhaps the most beautiful and desirable woman of her age. A certain amount of arrogance in her personality is to be expected.
(Suggested: Was Draupadi arrogant?)
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?)
Jealousy against Subhadra
Arjuna’s twelve-year exile is ostensibly meant to be a period of chastity and forbearance. But he ends up taking three wives during this period, and has three sons with them.
The last of these wives is Subhadra, whom he abducts (with the enthusiastic urging of Krishna) and marries. Unlike his two other wives – Ulupi and Chitrangada – Subhadra accompanies him back to Indraprastha.
Draupadi receives her with harsh words, and calls her a concubine for having seduced Arjuna. Arjuna has, of course, anticipated this and had instructed Subhadra to be on her best behaviour in order to win over Draupadi’s affection.
The two women eventually put aside their differences and settle into a comfortable relationship. But the episode suggests that Draupadi has more love in her heart for Arjuna than she does for any of the other Pandavas.
This will become an important factor at the moment of Draupadi’s death. This partiality toward Arjuna counts against her prospects of reaching heaven in her mortal body – at least in Yudhishthir’s opinion.
Laughing at Duryodhana
One common accusation levelled against Draupadi is that she laughs at Duryodhana when the latter slips into a pool of water at Yudhishthir’s palace of illusions during the Rajasuya.
This scene is depicted as the catalyst that inflames Duryodhana’s rage against the Pandavas. It is to avenge this insult, we’re told, that Duryodhana goes out of his way to insult Draupadi during the game of dice.
However, the truth is that Draupadi is not even present when Duryodhana falls into the pool. She comes that way laughing with a few of her companions as Duryodhana emerges from the pool and is being attended to by servants.
It is Bhimasena who laughs uproariously at his cousin’s plight, but even he is quick to summon attendants to help Duryodhana out with a change of garments.
Where does this notion – that Draupadi laughed at Duryodhana – come from, then? From Duryodhana himself.
Later, when he is trying to convince Dhritarashtra to invite the Pandavas over for a dice game, Duryodhana tells his father an embellished version of what happened to him at Yudhishthir’s palace.
In this version, the Pandavas stood around laughing at him while he fell into the pool of water. Draupadi also pointed and laughed. She even intimated that Duryodhana has inherited his father’s blindness.
This version of events is Duryodhana’s attempt to poison Dhritarashtra’s mind against the Pandavas and Draupadi. In reality, Draupadi does not laugh at Duryodhana.
(Suggested: Did Draupadi insult Duryodhana?)
Might or Forgiveness?
During the exile years, Draupadi plays the role of dutiful wife to perfection. She attends to all the needs of her five husbands, and by all accounts they share a happy life together.
She also plays the role of Yudhishthir’s prime antagonist in debates of a spiritual nature. Yudhishthir especially is prone to bouts of uncertainty; in these times, Draupadi reminds him of the reasons why they are enduring such horrific struggles.
In one such argument, Yudhishthir and Arjuna converse about whether might or forgiveness is the stronger virtue. Yudhishthir speaks on behalf of forgiveness, whereas Arjuna insists that might is the proper way.
Bhima is another of the brothers who take a harsh view of Yudhishthir’s opinions. On numerous occasions he insults Yudhishthir for having failed in his duty as a brother, king and husband.
Draupadi finds herself supporting Bhima and Arjuna in these arguments.
Using Bhima as Enforcer
Throughout the Mahabharata, Draupadi repeatedly uses Bhima as an enforcer for her wishes. Despite the fact that Arjuna is her ‘real’ husband, Draupadi turns to Bhima more often for help and support. For instance:
- As the Vana Parva draws to a close, she sends Bhima on a quest to bring back a bunch of Saugandhika flowers. This leads directly to an unexpected fillip to the Pandava cause when Hanuman promises to grace Arjuna’s chariot.
- During the Virata Parva, when troubled by Kichaka, it is Bhima that Draupadi turns to with pleas to protect her honour.
- Later, when the Kichaka brothers tie her to a stake and threaten to burn her alive, Bhima arrives on the scene and rescues her.
- At the end of the Kurukshetra war, torn by grief at the news of her sons’ deaths at the hand of Ashwatthama, Draupadi implores Bhima to chase down the son of Drona and avenge her.
- During the last year of the exile, when Jayadratha abducts Draupadi, once again it is Bhima (in the company of Arjuna) who punishes the Saindhava king.
Draupadi knows that Bhima is the self-appointed protector of the Pandavas, so she uses his love for him as a tool to inflame his anger at various times.
A Damsel in Distress
Draupadi’s main contribution to the events of the Mahabharata is to function as the object of desire of multiple foul-natured men.
She is constantly placing herself in delicate situations from which she needs to be rescued – whether it is with Duryodhana at the dice game, with Jayadratha in the forest, or with Kichaka in the palace of Virata.
She also functions as binding agent that keeps the five Pandavas united under one cause. Since the Pandavas are each born to a different father, and since Nakula and Sahadeva are born to a different mother, there isn’t much biological force keeping the brothers together.
In the first half of their lives, Kunti performs the role of mother and protector to all five brothers. But after their marriage, that mantle passes to Draupadi.
If Yudhishthir had not made the decision for Draupadi to marry all five of them, it is very likely that the Pandavas might have turned against one another. By becoming a common wife, she instead becomes a force for good.
Many Faces of Draupadi
The Mahabharata gives us several angles from which to examine Draupadi. In various situations, she exhibits different sides of her.
- Draupadi is capable of intense and jealous love, which she reserves for Arjuna – even though it is forbidden under the rules of her marriage to the Pandavas.
- She is a fiery, independent woman with a keen sense of justice – which is why she poses a question to the assembly in Hastinapur during the dice game.
- She is a devoted wife, which we see from her willingness to share in her husbands’ misfortunes and miseries. Indeed, she is the only one among the Pandavas’ wives to accompany them on their exile.
- She is a vengeful person who finds it difficult to forgive her enemies. She nurtures her grudges over years, and never forgets them. In fact, during the exile years, all the Pandavas waver in their anger, but Draupadi never does.
- She is able to play the role of a coquettish woman when required, the way she does with Bhima when she needs the Saugandhika flowers.
- But she is also able to berate her husbands when she feels that they are not performing their roles well enough. A case in point: she declares that the war is not finished until the Pandavas avenge the deaths of the Upapandavas.
- She is often painted in the story as a damsel in distress. One of the overarching themes of the Mahabharata is how the Pandavas learn to protect their wife’s honour, and how they ensure that justice prevails.
At the end, Draupadi is a complex character who is extremely strong in her need for justice and morality, but weak physically and socially because of her gender. So she often has to rely on the power of her husbands to achieve her ends.
Cause of the Mahabharata war?
The incident of Draupadi’s disrobing at the dice game is the pivotal moment that launches all of the Pandavas’ hate. Draupadi insists on revenge and war throughout their exile even when the Pandavas consider peace.
The war is fought with the intention of delivering vengeance to Draupadi. Therefore, she is considered most responsible for the Mahabharata war.
Wars happen when one kingdom wishes to appropriate wealth that another kingdom has claimed as its own. What constitutes ‘wealth’ changes with the times, but in Vedic society, it was land, gold, cows – and women.
Draupadi – like all the women of her time – did not have any agency in the matter of the Kurukshetra war. It is the men that surround her that decide whether a war ought to be fought, where it ought to be fought, and whose purposes it should serve.
The likes of Krishna, Duryodhana, Dhritarashtra, Bhishma, Vidura, Yudhishthir – these are the primary agents that made the decision to fight the war.
Draupadi is only the convenient excuse. As the most desirable ‘piece of property’ in the world, it is expected that men quarrel to obtain her. But it is not a state that she desires. It is a cross she is destined to bear.
On the other hand, Draupadi plays an active role in keeping the hate in the Pandavas’ heart aflame during the long exile years. Whenever she sees her husbands’ will flagging, she rouses them by reminding them of their vows and of her dishonour.
At the end of the war, after the Upapandavas are killed, Draupadi forces the (now jaded) Pandavas to take up arms again and avenge their sons’ deaths.
While the Pandavas do wish to get their kingdom back, and while that is the primary reason to fight the Kauravas, it is also true that ‘protecting Draupadi’s honour’ is also an important driving force.
(Suggested: Why is Draupadi blamed for the Mahabharata war?)
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