Draupadi’s disrobing (vastraharan) is one of the most pivotal incidents in the Mahabharata. It is the event that launches the Mahabharata story into the woods, stripping the Pandavas of all their wealth and status.
It is also the one episode that sows the first seeds of the Mahabharata war. From the point of Draupadi’s disrobing, there really is no doubt in many of the characters’ minds that a war will need to be fought – if for nothing else, for retribution alone.
Here’s how the episode of Draupadi’s disrobing unfolds:
- Vyasa prophesies that the Kuru dynasty will be destroyed by internecine quarrels.
- Yudhishthir therefore takes a vow that he will do nothing antagonistic against his family members.
- Shakuni invites the Pandavas to a dice game.
- At the game, Yudhishthir stakes and loses all of his wealth and family – including Draupadi.
- Duryodhana suggests that Draupadi should be brought to court and disrobed.
- Draupadi asks the fateful question: am I person or a piece of property?
- Vikarna argues in Draupadi’s favour, and Karna against.
- Krishna protects Draupadi.
- The episode ends without resolution, but with a lot of anger and promises of vengeance.
- The Pandavas leave for their exile.
(For more answers to Draupadi-related questions, see Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered.)
The Prophecy of Vyasa
As the Rajasuya sacrifice of Yudhishthir draws to a close, Vyasa visits the new emperor and says, ‘Over the last few months, all the Kshatriyas of the land have come together in your name.
‘But I foresee a moment in time thirteen years hence when they will all be destroyed in your name. In the meantime, the portents you speak of will awaken, come alive, and bear enormous consequences – both to you and to the world at large.’
The source of this conflict, Vyasa tells the Pandavas, will not be an external enemy but just internal strife.
(Suggested: Why does Yudhishthir gamble Draupadi?)
This prompts Yudhishthir to take a vow designed to prevent any conflict with family members. ‘For the next thirteen years,’ he says, ‘I shall see to it that I will agree to everything that my elders and kinsmen want me to do.’
Yudhishthir’s intentions here are good: by banishing disagreement, he intends to prevent the war that Vyasa has foretold.
But in reality, this stance of ‘agreement at all costs’ invites so much wrongdoing on part of the Kauravas that at the end of the thirteen years, relationships between the cousins have broken down to the point where war is the only choice.
Yudhishthir, therefore – like the rest of us – meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it.
(Suggested: Why did Draupadi go to hell?)
Yudhishthir Accepts the Invitation
During the Rajasuya, Duryodhana accidentally falls into a pond that has been built to look like solid stone. Bhimasena laughs uproariously at his cousin, but the Pandavas do the right thing immediately after: they help Duryodhana out of the water, and give him dry clothes to wear.
But Duryodhana is so ashamed by this incident that all he remembers is Bhimasena’s ridicule. On his uncle Shakuni’s say-so, he convinces Dhritarashtra to invite Yudhishthir and the Pandavas to a ‘friendly’ game of dice.
(Suggested: Was Yudhishthir wise or foolish?)
Now, Yudhishthir understands the implications behind dice-play. Many kings in the past have lost their kingdoms and wealth through gambling. Many people have quarreled with their families because of dice.
But owing to his oath that he is not going to disobey any of his elders for the next thirteen years, he says yes.
The important point to note here is that he does not say yes because he is an inveterate gambler or because he cannot help himself. He does so because of his fervent wish to avoid Vyasa’s doomsday prediction.
(Suggested: Was Yudhishthir jealous of Arjuna?)
Yudhishthir Loses it All
After the two kings sit down, things unravel quite quickly for Yudhishthir. On Duryodhana’s behalf, Shakuni is rolling the dice, and it always seems to throw up numbers that suit the Kauravas.
At first the stakes are low – pearl necklaces, jewels and such – but they rapidly escalate until the king had lost the kingdom of Indraprastha itself to Shakuni. Then he begins to stake his brothers, one by one, starting with Nakula, followed by Sahadeva, Arjuna and Bhimasena.
Here again, it bears noting that it is not Yudhishthir’s tendency to gamble that makes him stake his brothers. It is the fact that unless one of the presiding elders calls an end to the game, a king is not meant to stop a dice game until it reaches its logical conclusion.
(Suggested: Was Karna good or bad?)
After losing all his wealth, he has only his brothers and wife to stake – besides himself too.
However, the order in which he makes these stakes is interesting:
- First, he loses his brothers.
- Second, he loses himself.
- Third and last, prompted by Shakuni, he remembers that he can stake Draupadi too, and does it.
It is this point that Draupadi raises once she is brought and presented in court as a slave.
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?’
(Suggested: Was Draupadi Arrogant?)
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.
(Suggested: Was Draupadi a virgin?)
What if Draupadi had been humbler?
Here we must ask a question: if Draupadi had behaved in this little episode with a bit more humility, could she have escaped the ignominy of being publicly disrobed?
Probably yes. If she had just obeyed the page and come to the hall when she was summoned, if she had just accepted Duryodhana’s attempt to insult her, and if she had resisted the urge to raise a point of debate in a highly emotionally strung situation, the extent of her humiliation would have been much smaller.
Duryodhana would have showed her the Pandavas with all their wealth stolen from them. Bhishma and Vidura would have seen to it that no real damage is done via the dice game. They would have given the Pandavas back their wealth.
(Suggested: Why is Draupadi blamed for the Mahabharata war?)
Relationships would still have frayed, but not to the extent that individuals need to take oaths to kill one another.
Having said this, one cannot fault Draupadi for reacting in the way she did: she is the fire-born, the Yajnaseni. She is the princess of Panchala. A bit of hauteur comes with the territory.
She is well within her rights to ask the question that occurred to her. But perhaps that is the lesson: just because you have a right to do something in a given situation doesn’t mean that you should.
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:
(Suggested: Why did Krishna allow Draupadi Vastraharan?)
- 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.
(Suggested: Was Karna involved in Draupadi Vastraharan?)
Karna proposes Draupadi’s disrobing
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.
(Suggested: Why does Karna abuse Draupadi?)
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.
And now the scene gets a dose of divinity.
With Duhsasana taking it upon himself to disrobe Draupadi, she begins to sing the praises of Krishna, who hears her all the way from Dwaraka and arranges for vast swathes of clothes to appear miraculously to clothe Draupadi’s naked body, even as Duhsasana continues to pull them off her.
The logical reader may ask where Krishna has come from suddenly. How does he hear Draupadi’s cries from all the way in Dwaraka? And why does he choose this method of all the others to stop the charade?
(Suggested: How did Krishna help Draupadi?)
Also, after Krishna intervenes and leaves, the story returns to exactly the point at which it left off, with Vidura standing up and entreating Dhritarashtra to stop Duhsasana.
On the other hand, if you’re a devotee of Krishna, none of these questions ought to matter. Since he is god-like and his powers are expansive, it is not a leap of faith to believe that he has done this.
One of the interesting aspects of Draupadi’s disrobing is that the whole episode ends without a resolution. One on side we have Vikarna saying that Draupadi has not been won, and on the other we have Karna arguing the opposite.
Who is right? Has Draupadi been won or not?
The answer is we don’t know. The episode ends when Vidura tells Dhritarashtra a few stories and convinces him that the whole thing is a farce. The underlying message is this: there are situations in life that should not be allowed to develop regardless of logic.
(Suggested: What did Draupadi say after vastraharan?)
Vidura’s position is that no matter what has happened and no matter what arguments are being made, the daughter-in-law of a house should never be subject to this humiliation in this manner. No amount of posturing can make it right.
Thankfully, Dhritarashtra sees this and gives Draupadi two boons. With the first one, she chooses freedom for Yudhishthir, and with the second, she frees the four other brothers.
Impressed that she did not ask for her own freedom or for the kingdom, Dhritarashtra grants the Pandavas their entire lost wealth back.
The whole thing concludes with the Pandavas mounting their chariots and leaving – as if nothing had happened – for Indraprastha.
(Suggested: Why is Draupadi called Pativrata?)
The Second Dice Game
Of course, the larger scheme doesn’t end there. Duryodhana sends a messenger chasing after the Pandavas in order to invite them for another dice game.
Here the stakes are predetermined and exact: the losing party goes into exile for twelve years (the aranyavaasa or vanavaasa), followed by a year in incognito (the agnyaatavaasa). If the party gets found during the thirteenth year, they will be forced to return to the forest for twelve more years.
Yudhishthir is still in his ‘elder-pleasing mode’, so he says yes. He figures that by eschewing all conflict in words, all conflict will be averted in behaviour as well.
(Of course, he ends up being very wrong, but he doesn’t know if it yet.)
Epilogue and Exile
In the second dice game, things turn out pretty much as expected. Shakuni defeats Yudhishthir on Duryodhana’s behalf, and the Pandavas prepare to leave for their exile.
However, all the anger that has been building during Draupadi’s disrobing comes to the fore here, and Yudhishthir’s four brothers take four oaths that are all fulfilled during the Mahabharata war:
- Arjuna vows to kill Karna.
- Bhimasena promises that he will tear open Duhsasana’s chest and drink his blood.
- Sahadeva makes a vow to kill Shakuni.
- Nakula takes a general-purpose oath to kill ‘the sons of Dhritarashtra that have brought dishonour to Yajnaseni.’
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
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- Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered
- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered