Draupadi’s vastraharan (disrobing) is one of the most seminal incidents of the Mahabharata. The conflict between the Pandavas and the Kauravas reach a zenith owing to Draupadi’s humiliation. It leads directly to the war of Kurukshetra.
In this post, I will give you a complete guide on Draupadi’s vastraharan.
We will cover:
- What Happens during Draupadi Vastraharan?
- Draupadi Poses a Question
- Vikarna argues for Draupadi
- Karna’s Counterpoint
- How old was Draupadi during vastraharan?
- Why did Karna abuse Draupadi?
- Was Draupadi really disrobed?
- Why did the Pandavas not save Draupadi?
- How was Draupadi saved?
- What did Draupadi say after vastraharan?
- Why did Krishna allow Draupadi vastraharan?
- Why did Draupadi vastraharan happen?
- Why did Yudhishthir gamble Draupadi?
Keep reading to learn more about the vastraharan of Draupadi.
(For a comprehensive resource on Draupadi, see Draupadi: 50+ Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered.)
What Happens during Draupadi Vastraharan?
The disrobing of Draupadi is the most dramatic scene in the Mahabharata. During this, Yudhishthir first loses himself and then stakes Draupadi as pawn during a dice game.
Karna, after debating with Vikarna and concluding that Draupadi is now a slave, commands Duhsasana to forcefully disrobe her. She is saved by Krishna first, and then by Vidura.
The main thrust of Draupadi’s disrobing scene is a moral question: does a man who has lost himself (Yudhishthir) have the right to then pledge and lose his wife (Draupadi)?
In saying ‘lost himself’, we may apply the literal meaning that Yudhishthir has himself become a slave. But there is also the metaphorical suggestion of being intoxicated by gambling.
(Though it is actually incorrect to say that Yudhishthir was not in full control of his senses at this time, Draupadi would not have seen it that way.)
Arguing on Draupadi’s behalf – and saying that Yudhishthir did not have a right to pledge her – is Vikarna, one of Duryodhana’s brothers. Ironically, one of the Kauravas is speaking up for Draupadi’s honour, and by extension the honour of the Kurus.
Dismissing his points haughtily and mounting a case against Draupadi is Karna, who further goes on to suggest that Draupadi deserves to be treated like a prostitute because she has already taken (at least) five paramours.
In the resulting melee, Duhsasana advances to disrobe Draupadi, but is thwarted once by the divine intervention of Krishna.
Later, Vidura puts a stop to proceedings by exhorting Dhritarashtra to intervene in the matter. Listening to Vidura characterize Draupadi as the embodiment of Kuru honour, the blind king is moved to remorse, and he gives back everything that the Pandavas have lost.
Draupadi therefore emerges from this scene the victor, having rescued herself and her husbands from ruin.
(Suggested: What Happens during Draupadi’s Disrobing?)
Draupadi Poses a Question
At the moment of Yudhishthir losing Draupadi to Duryodhana, there is still no talk of disrobing her. This is an important point to remember.
Duryodhana merely wishes Draupadi to be brought to court and be shown that the Pandavas are now slaves. He wishes to humiliate Draupadi by laughing at her publicly, thus repaying the same treatment the Pandavas meted out to him a while ago.
However, when word is sent to Draupadi through a messenger that she is being summoned and that Yudhishthir had lost everything in the game of dice, she sends back an impudent (confident?) message asking: ‘Did the king lose himself first or me?’
This infuriates Duryodhana, and he says, ‘Why are we allowing a mere waiting woman to send back messages to her masters through a page? Duhsasana, go and bring her here. If it is necessary, drag her here by the hair.’
Draupadi of course resists Duhsasana as well, which gives him the excuse to bring her to court against her will.
Even at this point, there is no mention of disrobing Draupadi. She arrives in the hall and asks the same question again, this time in full view of the assembly.
Vikarna argues for Draupadi
In any case, when the question is asked in open court about whether Draupadi has been ‘won’ or ‘not won’, none of the Kuru elders are able to answer her. Bhishma, Vidura, Drona and Dhritarashtra stay quiet.
The most Bhishma can offer is that the ‘ways of Dharma are subtle’.
Support for Draupadi comes from an unexpected quarter: from a brother of Duryodhana named Vikarna. He stands up and submits that Draupadi cannot be considered ‘won’ because of four reasons:
- Yudhishthir staked Draupadi while being under the influence of dice, which is a vice. And people do not consider decisions taken while under the influence of a vice to be of authority.
- Draupadi is not the sole property of Yudhishthir. She is the common wife of all five Pandavas. So Yudhishthir did not have the right to pledge her in the way he did.
- Yudhishthir placed Draupadi as stake not of his own free will but in response to the cajoling of Shakuni. This act, therefore, does not carry the same authority as one performed by the king on his own.
- As Draupadi herself has pointed out, the king lost himself first and became a slave with no possessions of his own. At that very moment, he lost every right he ever held over Draupadi.
Even at this moment in the incident, if no one argues against Vikarna, the assembly would have accepted his words. They’re logical, sensible, and considerate toward all parties.
But of course, a counterpoint emerges from Duryodhana’s side. Voicing it is his friend, Karna.
Karna provides a point-by-point rebuttal of Vikarna’s thesis thus:
- The king was under the influence of dice. But he was not placed there by force. He entered the game of his own free will.
- It is true that Draupadi is not the sole property of Yudhishthir. But she is the queen, and in that position, Yudhishthir has more of a right to her than anyone else. Why, during the Rajasuya, did she not sit next to him and perform all the necessary rites?
- Yudhishthir entered the game knowing that it had to be played either (a) to the end, or (b) until an elder calls it off, or (c) by mutual agreement of the players. Since these rules were known beforehand, there is no question of cajoling.
- Yudhishthir lost himself before pledging Draupadi. This does not mean, however, that he has lost her. Even slaves have wives and children, and possessions of their own. Why can such a slave, then, not gamble with his wife as stake?
Karna could have stopped there. Though one may argue that he has spoken out of turn here (what right has he, in reality, to speak in the Kuru court?), in the interest of debate one may encourage free speech from everyone present.
But Karna goes one step further, and – burning with spite more than anything else – calls Draupadi ‘no better than a prostitute’ because of her five husbands.
And in order to be treated ‘like a prostitute’, he calls out to Duhsasana to unclothe Draupadi right then and there.
How old was Draupadi during vastraharan?
Assuming Draupadi was sixteen when she got married, she would have been thirty years old during her vastraharan. This figure is contentious, and different assumptions made about the length of certain interludes between events will yield different results.
All in all, one might reasonably say that Draupadi, during her disrobing, is no older than thirty five.
Questions about characters’ ages at various points in the Mahabharata story are tough to answer with accuracy because explicit information about passage of time is not always available.
In trying to place Draupadi’s age at the time of her disrobing, we will have to make the following assumptions:
- What age was she when she was ‘born’ to Drupada? (Fifteen?)
- What age was she when she was married to the Pandavas? (Sixteen?)
- How long did the Pandavas take to unify the world under Yudhishthir’s rule? (Two years?)
- We know that Arjuna left on a twelve-year exile soon after Yudhishthir becomes emperor. How long after Arjuna’s return does the dice game begin? (The same year?)
With the above information, we can tentatively place Draupadi’s age during her disrobing at thirty years old. Of course, one can easily begin with different assumptions, or enter different numbers for each of the questions and come up with any number that suits them.
All in all, though, most reasonable answers to the question ought to place Draupadi’s age between thirty and thirty five years old.
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 does Karna abuse Draupadi?)
Was Draupadi really disrobed?
Draupadi is actually not disrobed during the dice game despite Duhsasana trying on two separate occasions. The first time, Draupadi is rescued by Krishna’s divine intervention.
The second time, just as Duhsasana is about to lay a hand on her, several bad natural omens appear and scare Dhritarashtra into calling a stop to proceedings.
Though we often refer to ‘Draupadi’s Disrobing’ as one of the main incidents of the Mahabharata, it is a bit of a misnomer. It is only an ‘attempted disrobing’ on part of the Kauravas. Draupadi is actually never rendered naked in the assembly hall.
Duhsasana does come close to unclothing Draupadi in two instances. The first time is when Karna commands him to treat Draupadi ‘as a prostitute should be treated’.
As Draupadi’s garments slide off her body, however, new clothes appear magically at Krishna’s behest and cover Draupadi’s body.
Later, after Vidura’s passionate defence of Draupadi’s honour falls flat against Dhritarashtra’s grim silence, Duhsasana again advances on Draupadi to do his elder brother’s bidding.
This time, protest comes from nature itself, with a number of inauspicious omens appearing all around them.
These scare Dhritarashtra enough to call Duhsasana off, and to beg Draupadi for forgiveness. He also grants her two wishes and implores her to ask for anything she wants.
Why did the Pandavas not save Draupadi?
The Pandavas are unable to save Draupadi during her disrobing because by then, they have all lost their freedoms and have become Duryodhana’s slaves.
Yudhishthir loses all his four brothers one by one first, then loses himself, and then pledges Draupadi. When she is dragged to the hall, therefore, the Pandavas are helpless.
On multiple occasions during the incident, Bhima loses his temper and almost launches himself at Duryodhana, but he is held back by Arjuna who is taking his cue from Yudhishthir.
Yudhishthir, for his part, sits with his head bowed in a supplicant’s pose. He is determined to follow – right to the grim end – the vow he has taken to comply with all of Dhritarashtra’s wishes.
This is the first time in the story that Draupadi’s honour is seriously compromised, and the Pandavas are rendered helpless by Yudhishthir’s vow.
The Pandavas learn their lesson from this: in the future, whenever Draupadi is threatened – like with Kichaka and Jayadratha – her husbands always come to her rescue.
Incidentally, during the dice game, it is Draupadi who saves the Pandavas by asking Dhritarashtra for their freedom when the blind king offers her a boon.
This prompts Karna to grudgingly admit: ‘Today Panchali has saved the Pandavas like a boat rescues a fisherman from a storm.’
This incident also earns Draupadi the (unfair) epithet: nathavati anathavat – which means ‘she who has husbands but is still an orphan’.
How was Draupadi saved?
Draupadi’s honour is saved on two occasions during her disrobing. On the first, Krishna intervenes in godly fashion when Duhsasana approaches her with the intention of undressing her.
Krishna causes a number of garments to appear magically one after the other to cover Draupadi’s body, even as Duhsasana frantically pulls at each one.
After this, Vidura tries to reason with Dhritarashtra about the sin of treating the house’s daughter-in-law in this manner. Duhsasana once again approaches Draupadi menacingly.
Dhritarashtra does not seem inclined to take any steps toward stopping any of this, but right at that moment a number of bad omens make an appearance. Vultures cry. Donkeys bray. A strong gust of wind blows from the south.
These signs compel Dhritarashtra into agreeing with Vidura and calling off the dice game. He begs for Draupadi’s forgiveness and grants her two wishes to ask for anything she wants.
Draupadi asks for the freedom of Yudhishthir and for all his lost wealth to be returned as her first wish. For her second wish she asks that her other four husbands are made free men. Thus, she rescues the Pandavas.
What did Draupadi say after vastraharan?
Draupadi’s disrobing comes to a halt when Dhritarashtra, frightened by some inauspicious natural omens that appear in the middle of the day, decrees that the assembly will be dissolved with immediate effect.
He apologizes to Draupadi and says, ‘I am shameful that you have had to suffer so much at the hands of my son, Panchali. Please ask me for two boons and I shall grant them to you.’
Draupadi first asks for Yudhishthir’s freedom, and then for the freedom of the four remaining Pandavas.
Thus it is Draupadi who rescues her husbands from slavery, eliciting grudging admission from Karna that ‘Draupadi has become the boat that has saved the Pandavas in their ocean of distress.’
After this, Draupadi and the Pandavas – upon Dhritarashtra’s instruction – mount their chariots and return to Indraprastha.
Later, after the second dice game has been played and after the Pandavas are sent away on exile, Draupadi is shown to be weeping inconsolably.
She’s weeping not for her own plight but for the future plight of all the wives and mothers of Hastinapur who will lose husbands and sons in the war that will be fought to avenge this day.
Why did Krishna allow Draupadi vastraharan?
Shortly after the Pandavas and Draupadi have departed for their exile, the Vrishnis with Krishna at their head come to visit them. Krishna tells Yudhishthir:
‘If I had been in Dwaraka when news of the dice game came to us, I would have come to Hastinapur in haste and put a stop to proceedings.’
Yudhishthir then asks Krishna where he had been, and Krishna replies, ‘When I stayed in Indraprastha for a while after the Rajasuya, King Salwa invaded and looted Dwaraka.
‘When I returned, I saw that the city had been ransacked. I immediately set out at the head of a force to kill that wicked man.’
Krishna tells Yudhishthir that news of the dice game was delivered to Dwaraka while he was absent. He came to know of what had happened only after he had returned – when it was too late.
This suggests that the divine intervention of Krishna during the disrobing incident is a later interpolation that is not consistent with the rest of the story.
Krishna did not stop Draupadi’s disrobing, therefore, for a simple reason: because he did not know of it until it had already taken place.
Another possibility is that Krishna – with his divine wisdom – knows that as horrific it is, Draupadi’s vastraharan has to happen in order for the Pandava-Kaurava conflict to develop into full-fledged enmity.
He therefore ensures that Draupadi is humiliated in public. But he also takes care that her honour is not snatched away from her. He protects her from Duhsasana’s assault so that she is not disrobed completely.
(Suggested: Why did Krishna allow Draupadi Vastraharan?)
Why did Draupadi vastraharan happen?
Draupadi’s vastraharan happens due to three reasons:
(1) Yudhishthir loses himself before he loses Draupadi, (2) Draupadi frames the conversation as a legal point as opposed to an emotional one, and (3) Karna argues conclusively that Draupadi is both a slave and a prostitute; therefore she ought to be undressed in public.
If there had been a slight difference in the order in which Yudhishthir loses his five family members, things may have turned out differently. Consider, for instance, if he had lost Draupadi before he lost himself.
In that situation, Draupadi would not have raised the issue of whether she had or had not been rightfully lost.
Regardless of when and how Yudhishthir lost Draupadi, if she had taken care to frame the conversation differently from the outset, the question of her disrobing would not have arisen.
When she is summoned to the hall, if she had addressed Dhritarashtra and said, ‘I am the daughter-in-law of the Kuru house, Your Majesty. Why am I being treated this way?’ that would have led to a different debate and probably a different outcome.
(Indeed, at the end, it is precisely this frame that Vidura employs in winning Dhritarashtra’s contrition.)
Even if the first two incidents had occurred as they did, if Karna had not risen to argue against Vikarna about Draupadi’s rights and character, or if he had stopped short of calling her a prostitute, even then her vastraharan might have been avoided.
These are the three main reasons, then, for Draupadi’s disrobing – the fact that Yudhishthir lost himself before losing her, the fact that she framed the point of debate as a legal one, and the fact that Karna successfully proved her a slave and a prostitute.
(Suggested: Why did Draupadi Vastraharan happen?)
Why did Yudhishthir gamble Draupadi?
At the dice game, Yudhishthir first stakes and loses all his four brothers, and then himself. He says to Shakuni, ‘I have lost everything.’ But Shakuni reminds him that he still has Draupadi.
It is then that Yudhishthir – cornered into playing the game to the end – stakes Draupadi and loses her.
Yudhishthir says yes to the dice game invitation despite knowing that the Kauravas probably have something wicked planned for them.
He takes a vow shortly after his ascension to kingship that he will always be conciliatory toward all of Dhritarashtra’s instructions and wishes.
He does this with the intention of removing all conflict between himself and the Kauravas. But ironically, this pliant behaviour plays into the hands of Duryodhana and Shakuni, and gives rise to events that lead directly to Draupadi’s disrobing.
A normal Yudhishthir would have quit the dice game long before the stakes became serious. He would not have allowed Shakuni to exploit him, nor would he have said yes to the game in the first place.
But because of his vow, he waits for Dhritarashtra to call an end to the game. Failing that, the rules dictate that he must play until one of the players is stripped of all his wealth. Yudhishthir obeys the rule to the letter because of respect for Dhritarashtra.
As for Draupadi, by claiming that he has lost everything, Yudhishthir signals to Shakuni that he does not consider Draupadi his property anymore. But Shakuni, eager to remove all doubts in the matter, ‘reminds’ him that he still has Draupadi.
Whether Yudhishthir is right or wrong to pledge Draupadi in this way, the assembly debates at length shortly after Shakuni is declared the winner of the game.
(Suggested: Why does Yudhishthir gamble Draupadi?)
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