Draupadi and Karna: What was their Relationship Like?

Draupadi and Arjuna are two of the main characters of the Mahabharata. She is the princess of Panchala who ends up marrying the Pandavas, while he is the right-hand man of Duryodhana, and the secret firstborn of Kunti.

In this post, we will answer the question: What was the relationship between Draupadi and Karna like?

Draupadi and Karna meet for the first at time at Draupadi’s swayamvara, where Draupadi rejects him. Karna then plays an important enabling role in Draupadi’s vastraharan. From that point on, the two characters have nothing but distaste for one another. However, after Karna’s death, Draupadi comes to know that he was Kunti’s firstborn – and her heart softens.

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

Draupadi’s Swayamvara

Draupadi and Karna meet for the first time at the former’s swayamvara. In fact, Draupadi’s swayamvara is an important event in the Mahabharata, where a number of subsequently vital plot points are introduced. Namely:

  • Krishna and Balarama make their first appearance here, though they announce themselves not as suitors but as spectators.
  • Draupadi publicly rejects Karna’s bid to win her hand, thus paving the way to a fractious relationship in the future.
  • Arjuna wins Draupadi’s hand, and her heart.
  • After the swayamvara is complete, Arjuna and Bhima together defend their ‘prize’ from all the other suitors at the ceremony, who are angry at having lost.

Draupadi’s swayamvara is actually an event organized by Drupada with the express intention of luring Arjuna out of hiding, and enticing him to participate in the archery competition.

The feat required to win Draupadi’s hand – shooting a fish’s eye while aiming at its reflection in a vessel of oil – is deliberately designed by Drupada to weed off all potential suitors. Supposedly, only Arjuna possesses the requisite skill.

However, whatever Arjuna can do, so can Karna. And Drupada knows that Karna is going to attend the swayamvara. For the ploy to work, therefore, Draupadi has to reject Karna on some pretext or the other.

Whether Draupadi rejects Karna of her own volition or if she is acting under Drupada’s instructions, we do not know. But this is the first interaction between the two characters – and it buries a shard of rage inside Karna’s heart.

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

Why did Draupadi reject Karna?

Draupadi’s swayamvara is designed especially to lure Arjuna out of hiding. But when Karna gets up to try his hand at the task, Draupadi becomes afraid that the intention of the entire swayamvara may be compromised.

So she exercises her right to reject him – and announces that she does not want to marry a Sutaputra.

The often-cited reason for Draupadi’s rejection of Karna is the one she states in the assembly: that she does not – in all honesty – want to get married to someone low-born as him.

While she is presumably within her rights to do this (no one at the assembly protest or speak up in Karna’s favour), there is a reason to believe that her actions are premeditated.

Drupada organizes the entire swayamvara of Draupadi with one intention: to stand the best chance of bringing Arjuna out of hiding and to ensure that he alone wins Draupadi. So he designs an archery test so complex that only Arjuna can pass it.

However, the conundrum is this: whatever Arjuna can do with bow and arrow, so can Karna. And Karna will be present at the ceremony.

It is entirely possible, therefore, that Drupada anticipates Karna’s attempting to win Draupadi, and instructs his daughter that should Karna rise in his seat and walk up to the podium, she should reject him.

This will ensure that the only other person capable of completing the task is disqualified. The path for Arjuna is cleared.

All of this suggests that Draupadi may have thought of herself as being Arjuna’s wife for all the months leading up to her swayamvara, as preparations are taking place in Panchala.

Drupada would have told her that he intends to get her married to Arjuna alone. Indeed, the entire ceremony is only a pretext to bring Arjuna out of hiding.

So it is not Draupadi’s fault that she gives her heart in private to Arjuna in the time leading up to her swayamvara.

(Suggested: Why did Draupadi reject Karna?)

Did Draupadi like Karna?

Not only does Draupadi not like Karna, she has plenty of reasons to actively hate him for all the abuse he heaps upon her during the dice game.

Early on during the Pandavas’ exile, Draupadi confides in Krishna that of all the people she despises most in the world and wishes to see ruined, Karna is one.

The possibility of Draupadi possessing romantic feelings for Karna has been raised in some works of popular fiction that have been written as point-of-view retellings of the original Mahabharata.

In what we have inherited from Vyasa, however, there is no suggestion of any such angle. The only possibility of Karna and Draupadi being together is raised by Krishna right before the start of the war.

Draupadi is offered as one of the prizes (we have to call them bribes) waiting for Karna if he forsakes Duryodhana and fights on the Pandava side.

Karna and Draupadi do not meet all that often during the story, certainly not enough for romance to blossom.

Draupadi is a woman considered to be of the highest honour, forever faithful to her husbands in thought and deed. The suggestion, therefore, that she may be in love with one of her bitterest enemies is foolish.

Indeed, Draupadi and the Pandavas repeatedly cite Karna as the man most responsible for the extent of damage caused to the Kuru dynasty during the dice game.

(Suggested: Did Draupadi Like Karna?)

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.

We must note right at the outset that this sort of public ridicule is not new for Karna. He has been derogatorily called Sutaputra all his life. But the difference is that not long before Draupadi’s swayamvara, Karna has been crowned king of Anga.

To be insulted as a Sutaputra by a maiden at her groom-choosing – while also carrying the title of a king – must have indeed hurt.

Karna does laugh and shake his head at Draupadi’s words, but he does respect her wishes. He does not make a bid – like Bhishma – to abduct her or to challenge the other suitors.

Nor does anyone in the room – from among sages, kings, commonfolk – rise to speak on his behalf. Not even Duryodhana argues that Karna has every right to enter an open competition.

Regardless, the incident leaves a sour taste in Karna’s mouth. One expects he seethes with quiet anger at Draupadi ever since. His particular cruelty toward Draupadi during the dice game is probably an attempt to avenge this slight.

(Suggested: Did Draupadi insult Karna?)

Was Karna in love with Draupadi?

There is no evidence in the Mahabharata that Karna loves Draupadi. He does desire her for a wife, which is why he attempts to complete the archery task at Draupadi’s swayamvara. After Draupadi’s public humiliation and rejection of him, he comes to detest her.

Karna and Draupadi do not spend all that much time in each other’s presence to develop an emotion as strong and complex as love.

Though we know that Karna must have desired Draupadi for a wife, we do not know if he was acting of his own volition or under Duryodhana’s instructions at the swayamvara.

Once Draupadi rejects him publicly, though, Karna harbours anger for Draupadi. He takes his revenge at the dice game, where he brands her a prostitute for having taken five husbands.

This, in turn, angers Draupadi and Arjuna against Karna – to the extent that Arjuna vows in that same hall to kill him.

The Pandavas reserve special hatred for Karna after the events of the dice game. Draupadi is heard on multiple occasions naming him among the people who have wronged her.

There is simply no reason for Karna, therefore, to love Draupadi.

(Suggested: Was Karna in love with Draupadi?)

Was Karna involved in Draupadi Vastraharan?

Karna is one of the main characters involved in Draupadi vastraharan. He argues with Vikarna – one of the hundred Kauravas – that Draupadi has been won fairly by Duryodhana, and that now she is his slave.

He also calls Draupadi a prostitute for having taken five husbands, and commands Duhsasana to unclothe her in public.

The main question that arises during the dice game is whether Yudhishthir was within his rights to pledge Draupadi as a stake after having lost himself previously.

Vikarna argues that Yudhishthir no longer had a right over Draupadi since he pledged and lost himself first. But Karna argues that even a slave has rights over his wife, so Draupadi was rightly pledged and lost even if Yudhishthir was already a slave.

After having presented the counterpoint, Karna goes one step further and brands Draupadi a prostitute in accordance with the scriptures that proclaim: Any woman who takes five or more paramours in her life is a prostitute.

And since she is a prostitute, claims Karna, she does not deserve to be treated as anything but one. He tells Duhsasana to disrobe her in full view of the court.

This is, of course, despicable behavior even toward a prostitute. Only Vidura has the sense to stop matters from getting out of hand, but this is enough for the Pandava-Kaurava rivalry to reach boiling point. From here on, there is no turning back.

(Suggested: Was Karna involved in Draupadi Vastraharan?)

Why did Karna abuse Draupadi?

During the dice game, after arguing against Vikarna that Draupadi has indeed been lost by Yudhishthir, Karna calls her a prostitute for the ‘sin’ of taking five husbands.

His anger for Draupadi stems from the fact that she rejected and publicly humiliated him during her groom-choosing ceremony.

The main antagonist during the dice game between Yudhishthir and Shakuni is Karna. He takes special umbrage against Vikarna – one of Duryodhana’s brothers – for suggesting that Draupadi may not have been pledged fairly by Yudhishthir.

Not only does Karna argue that Draupadi is now a slave to Duryodhana, he also calls her a prostitute for having taken five husbands.

(Interestingly, Kunti refers to this same rule – that a woman taking five lovers is unchaste – and stops using Durvasa’s incantation after three uses: with Yama, Vayu and Indra. Since Pandu is one of her lovers too, she is seen by the world as having had four paramours in total.)

There may have multiple motivations for Karna’s behaviour here:

  • He may have been posturing for Duryodhana’s benefit, showing everyone how much he hates the Pandavas and Draupadi too.
  • He may have some lingering distaste from Draupadi’s swayamvara, where she publicly rejected him.
  • He may also have been exercising his newfound status as king and Dharma-expert in front of the assembly that once ridiculed him as Sutaputra.

(Suggested: Why did Karna abuse Draupadi?)

Karna Rejects Draupadi

The relationship between Draupadi and Karna begins when Draupadi rejects Karna at her swayamvara.

Perhaps fittingly, their relationship completes a full circle when – on the eve of the Mahabharata war – Karna rejects Draupadi.

As the war is about to begin, Krishna arrives in Hastinapur with the intention of brokering peace between the cousins. When talks in the Hastinapur court fail, Krishna makes one significant attempt to deprive Duryodhana of the services of his best man: Karna.

In trying to get Karna to fight on the side of the Pandavas, Krishna takes the following approach:

  • First, he tells Karna the truth: that he is the firstborn son of Kunti, and by extension the eldest of the Pandavas. ‘Your place is among your brothers, O Vasusena,’ he says.
  • Second, he promises Karna that if he were to switch sides, he will be immediately instated the head of the Pandava army. He will become the king, with Yudhishthir and the rest of the brothers serving him as attendants.
  • Arjuna, his long-time rival, will become Karna’s younger brother and carry out all his wishes.
  • Finally, Draupadi – she who has scorned him all his life – will become his queen. And she will bear his sons.

Despite this generous offer, Karna turns Krishna down. He chooses to remain faithful to Duryodhana instead of switching his loyalties in the last minute.

If Karna had said yes, he would have secured the ultimate personal victory over both Arjuna and Draupadi. He would have lived to see them serve him, and maybe even love him. That would have been the ultimate revenge.

But the fact that he chooses loyalty over revenge suggests that all of Karna’s hatred for the Pandavas and for Draupadi was not significant enough to blind him to virtue.

(Suggested: Why did Karna refuse to leave Duryodhana?)

Did Draupadi cry for Karna?

There is no record of Draupadi showing any grief at Karna’s death. Even after Kunti reveals the secret of Karna’s birth to her sons and daughter-in-law, the Pandavas are smitten by despair.

Yudhishthir goes as far as insulting his own mother, but Draupadi does not shed a tear.

Before it is known that Karna is actually a Pandava, his death does not bring about any remorse or grief among the Pandavas. Arjuna and Krishna celebrate Karna’s death because it makes a Pandava victory more of a certainty.

Also, Karna dying means that Arjuna can be considered safe.

We do not know for certain how Draupadi reacted when she was given the news of Karna’s death. In all likelihood, she was gladdened that Arjuna has fulfilled his vow for her benefit.

Karna is one of Draupadi’s sworn enemies. She holds no sympathy for him in her heart.

However, one might expect that Draupadi might have softened in her feelings once she came to know that Karna is Kunti’s firstborn. The Pandavas are distraught at the news, and they complete Karna’s last rites as they would have for an elder brother.

But even at this time, Draupadi does not show any signs of grief. Yes, she plays her part as Yudhishthir’s wife in sending Karna along on his final journey, but she does not cry for him.

Further Reading

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