What Happens During Draupadi’s Swayamvara? A Full Summary with Analysis

Draupadi's Swayamvara - Featured Image - Picture of tabla and shehnai representing Draupadi's wedding

Draupadi’s swayamvara (groom-choosing ceremony) is one of the seminal incidents of the Mahabharata. The events that occur during it have a deep, long-lasting impact on the future of the Kuru kingdom.

It is not an exaggeration to say that some of the seeds sown during Draupadi’s swayamvara are indirectly responsible for the Mahabharata war.

In this post, we will take a detailed look at this episode. We will also analyze the various threads that make up Draupadi’s swayamvara, and analyze the causes and consequences of each.

The following seven things happen during Draupadi’s swayamvara:

  1. The Pandavas arrive disguised as Brahmins.
  2. Draupadi rejects Karna.
  3. Arjuna wins Draupadi by completing the task set by Drupada.
  4. The assembled kings challenge Arjuna to a battle.
  5. Bhima and Arjuna fight against the suitors.
  6. Krishna follows the Pandavas back home and introduces himself.
  7. Draupadi is shared by the five Pandavas as a common wife.

Read on to learn more about this important episode. Here’s what we will cover:

When does Draupadi’s swayamvara happen?

It happens during the Adi Parva, after the Pandavas have escaped the burning house of wax in Varanavata. From there, they live for a while in the forest, where Bhima kills Hidimba (and bears Hidimbi a son named Ghatotkacha), and from there they move to the city of Ekachakra, where Bhima kills Bakasura.

They hear from Dhaumya the sage that the princess of Panchala, the daughter of Drupada, is being given away in marriage. So the Pandavas, accompanied by Kunti, arrive in Kampilya, the capital city of Panchala.

Incidentally, it is worth noting here that Drupadi is not Drupada’s biological daughter. According to legend, she and Dhrishtadyumna are born of a sacrificial fire, at a ceremony in which Drupada asks the gods for means with which to kill Drona.

How long does the ceremony last?

It is said that the ceremony lasts for sixteen full days, including prayer, sacrifices, welcoming of the guests in open assembly, and giving and receiving of gifts. On the last day, Draupadi is presented to the court along with the challenge: that of stringing an ornate bow and shooting five arrows out of it through a moving aperture at a target tied to the ceiling.

(This ‘target’ is often cited in contemporary telling as the eye of a fish, but the text does not make this claim.)

The Pandavas take shelter in the house of an unnamed potter and live there for a few days, keeping themselves inconspicuous. On the first day of Draupadi’s groom-choosing, they join a group of Brahmins making for the palace of the king in order to procure alms.

Who all are present at Draupadi’s swayamvara?

A large list of kings is read out by Dhrishtadyumna as present at the Panchala court that day. All the Kauravas are there, accompanied by Karna. Krishna (note the single ‘a’) and Balarama are present, but only in the capacity of spectators.

They make it certain right from the beginning that they do not intend to participate in the challenge.

Krishna, in fact, spots the Pandavas and remarks to his brother that they look similar to the sons of Pritha. ‘I have heard whispers that the Pandavas have escaped the house of flames, Brother,’ he says. ‘If they are alive, they would come here, would they not?’

Does Draupadi reject Karna?

Yes. In the whole gathering, he is the only one besides Arjuna who is considered able to pass the test. He arrives at the bow, lifts it with ease, tests it. He bends it into a circle, pulls at the string with a twang. But as he reaches for the first of the five arrows, Draupadi speaks up and says, ‘I do not wish to be married to a man born in the suta caste.’

Karna laughs at this objection, casts the weapon aside, and retreats to his seat after glancing up at the ceiling, as if in mockery of the sun.

Strangely, no clamour arises at Draupadi’s words. Duryodhana does not lend support to his friend. Drupada does not make efforts to placate his humiliated guest. The arrayed Brahmins do not protest at the discrimination.

Draupadi voices her preference. Karna returns to his seat. End of story.

I have examined this question at greater length in another post: Why did Draupadi Reject Karna?

Doubts on Arjuna’s Ability

After all the assembled kings had failed to string the bow of Drupada, Arjuna, in his garb as wandering Brahmin, rises and walks toward the central podium. The other Brahmins in the group cannot come to an agreement on whether this is a good thing.

‘How can a Brahmin youth,’ some say, ‘perform a task at which so many accomplished Kshatriyas have failed? If this boy attempts to string this bow and injures himself, we will be seen (falsely) as those aspiring to physical might and glory. So stop this man who is drunk on his vanity.’

But others prefer to evaluate Arjuna’s prospects from what they could see. ‘This young man bears the look of the trunk of a mighty elephant. His arms and shoulders are built as well as any Kshatriya’s, and his face shows great serenity. If he did not possess the strength that this challenge requires, why does he appear so calm?’

Yet others point out how Brahmins of the past performed tasks that defied belief. ‘Did Parashurama not defeat the entire race of Kshatriyas in battle? Did Agastya not drink of the entire ocean aided by his yogic powers? Strength of limb is not the only kind there is; perhaps this man is possessed of energy that we cannot fathom.’

But despite the noise, Arjuna does succeed in shooting the target. He wins Draupadi for himself.

Anger of the Kshatriyas

The assembled kings are not willing to accept defeat to a ‘mere Brahmin’, though.

‘How can a Brahmin be wedded to the daughter of king?’ they ask. ‘The swayamvara is permitted only to Kshatriya princes and kings; the Vedas are clear on this point. First they allow him to participate, and now that he has won, they have declared him a winner.

‘We shall not allow such unfairness to pass; we shall take weapons on this man who has brought his Brahmanic powers to bear upon this challenge that demanded pure physical skills. We shall kill him!’

Yudhishthir, Nakula and Sahadeva slip away quietly at this point, with Arjuna and Bhimasena staying back to challenge the suitors on behalf of Draupadi.

Though this develops as a potential free-for-all fight with Bhima and Arjuna on one side and the entire Kshatriya brigade on the other, what happens in reality is that just two individual challenges are thrown and met.

One: Arjuna defeats Karna in a show of archery. Two: Bhimasena secures a victory over Shalya with the mace.

Karna versus Arjuna

In the first battle, Arjuna renders Karna unconscious with a volley of arrows. The latter returns to the fight after regaining his senses, and this time gives a much better account of himself. Such is the lightness of hand displayed by the two princes that they both become invisible to the spectators, and the words they utter are intelligible only to the most practiced of heroes.

As they parry for an extended period of time, Karna, aghast that he is taking this long to dispose of a mere Brahmin, addresses Arjuna. ‘No one except Indra or the son of Pandu is capable of matching me in battle, O Brahmin,’ he says. ‘But you fight like a man possessed of great energy. Who are you?’

‘I am neither of the two men you cite, O Karna,’ lies Arjuna. ‘I am a mere Brahmin who has the grace of his preceptor. I have come here to vanquish you in battle, and I shall do just that in a little while from now.’

Hearing this, Karna desists from the challenge, reasoning that other-worldly powers of a Brahmin cannot be fought with mere weapons.

Shalya versus Bhimasena

In another part of the field, Shalya, the king of Madra, the father of Madri, challenges Bhimasena for a mace duel, only to be defeated in a trice. Bhima picks up Shalya in his arms and throws him to the ground, taking care not to hurt him (because he knows that Shalya is his grandfather).

Shalya is considered by many to be one of the most skillful mace-fighters in the world. Balarama, Duryodhana, Bhimasena and Shalya are often cited as comparable in might with the mace.

These two battles that happen at Draupadi’s swayamvara foreshadow events of the Mahabharata war, but with more serious consequences. Karna loses his life to Arjuna in the climactic battle of the war. Shalya meets Bhima with the mace on two occasions in Kurukshetra, and loses both times.

Krishna’s Address

Even as the assembled kings are processing these events (‘How can Karna be defeated?’, ‘How can Shalya have lost?’ etc), Krishna steps up and gently speaks to them.

‘Do not let your humiliation guide your actions, O Kings,’ he says. ‘The Brahmin youth has won Draupadi fairly, by meeting the challenge set for him by His Majesty Drupada. Let him pass, therefore, and let us not tarnish the occasion with unnecessary bloodshed.’

The kings retreat, and as Arjuna and Bhima leave the hall with Draupadi, Krishna, along with Balarama, follows them to their hut.

They confirm their suspicions that the five Brahmins are actually Pandavas, and after paying their respects to Kunti and introducing themselves to their cousins, they leave.

Contrary to some popular versions, Krishna does not interfere in the developing argument of how Draupadi should be shared among the Pandavas.

Kunti Misspeaks

In what has now become perhaps the most famous unintentional utterance in Indian literature (history?), Kunti says to the arriving Pandavas at the potter’s hut, from inside her kitchen with her back turned to them: ‘Whatever you have brought, share it between yourselves.’

At the same time, Yudhishthir notices that all his other brothers are consumed by desire for Draupadi. He thinks to himself that if Draupadi was to be given just to one of them, the others will burn with envy, and that envy will one day wrench them apart.

So he makes the decision that Draupadi will take all five brothers as husbands.

All the brouhaha surrounding Draupadi’s marriage to the Pandavas has been covered with more detail in my post: Why did Draupadi Marry Five Pandavas?

Draupadi’s Marriage

Dhrishtadyumna, the son of Drupada and brother to Draupadi, also follows the Pandavas back to their hut, and is overjoyed to learn that the ‘Brahmins’ who won his sister are none other than the Pandavas. He hurries back to give Drupada the news.

Both the king and prince, though, wish Draupadi to be married to Yudhishthir, not Arjuna. Why? Because Yudhishthir is the eldest brother, and he is in line to the throne of Hastinapur. As wife to Arjuna, Draupadi will not command any status in Yudhishthir’s court, and by implication, Panchala will not be as high on Hastinapur’s list as they would like.

So there are two competing interests here:

  • Drupada wants Draupadi to marry Yudhishthir.
  • Yudhishthir wants Draupadi to marry all five brothers.

In order to arrive at a compromise between the two positions, Drupada agrees to have Draupadi marry all five brothers – under the condition that Draupadi will serve as queen.

Consequences of Draupadi’s Swayamvara

The groom-choosing ceremony of Draupadi is one of the inflection points of the Mahabharata. It has far-reaching consequences.

Here are a few that come right to mind:

  • Thanks to Draupadi’s public rejection and humiliation, Karna becomes a grudge-bearing enemy of the Pandavas. All this pent-u- animosity comes out during the events of the dice game.
  • This is the first instance of Arjuna and Karna facing off against one another. Though it is not publicly known that the Brahmin in disguise is Arjuna, this duel foreshadows a lifelong rivalry that gets resolved during the Mahabharata war.
  • This marriage of Draupadi with Yudhishthir secures an alliance for the Pandavas and for the Panchalas. This friendship remains strong right to the end. Indeed, the army that fights on the Pandava side in Kurukshetra is almost 70% comprised of Panchala forces.
  • Draupadi’s marriage to all five Pandavas directly results in Arjuna’s exile, during which he marries three princesses: Ulupi, Chitrangada and Subhadra. All three marriages result in alliances that prove decisive in the Mahabharata war.
  • By deciding to become the Pandavas’ common wife, Draupadi accepts the mantle of their care from Kunti. After this episode, the role of Kunti in the Pandavas’ life becomes diminished, and Draupadi becomes the heroine of the Mahabharata.

Further Reading

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Enjoy!