Drupada is one of the minor but significant characters in the Mahabharata. He is the king of Panchala for the entire timeline of the story, and he is one of the key enemies of the Kuru dynasty.
Drupada fathers three children who each plays a significant role in the destruction of the Kuru empire: Dhrishtadyumna, who kills Drona; Shikhandi, who helps Arjuna kill Bhishma; and Draupadi, who becomes the prime cause of the Kurukshetra war.
Drupada fights in the war on the side of the Pandavas, and dies at the hands of his once-friend Dronacharya on the fifteenth day.
(For a full list of important Mahabharata characters, see 56 Mahabharata Characters that will Amaze You.)
Birth and Childhood
By all accounts, Drupada is a contemporary of Drona. He is born to King Prishata of Panchala, and is sent to the hermitage of Sage Bharadwaja for his early education.
At this hermitage, Drupada and Drona become good friends. Drupada promises Drona (perhaps with the naivety of a child) that when he becomes king, will share his kingdom with Drona.
‘Once I become king, Drona,’ he says, ‘my kingdom is yours!’
Of course, children say such grandiose things to each other all the time. It so happens that as the two men grow into adults, Drona becomes a poor man and Drupada becomes a king.
Unable to see his family suffering in poverty, Drona remembers Drupada’s childhood promise and decides to take him up on the offer.
Naturally, it is not practical for a king such as Drupada to suddenly split his kingdom in two and give half of it to a friend he had not seen in years.
In fairness to Drona, Drupada deals with the situation in exactly the wrong way: instead of having a private chat with Drona and giving him perhaps a house and some wealth, Drupada insults his old friend publicly.
Why did Drona hate Drupada?
The hatred between Drupada and Drona begins with this incident: when Drona approaches Drupada with his family and reminds the king of the old promise.
And Drupada replies: ‘How can a king and a Brahmin be friends? If you want my charity, ask for it like all the other Brahmins. Do not presume that I owe you anything.’
As far as that goes, Drupada is right. Despite what may have happened in ancient history, Drona does not have any right to Drupada’s wealth. The fact that Drona expects this favour from Drupada annoys the king, and he seeks to put the Brahmin in his place.
The public humiliation enrages Drona. He goes from Panchala to Kuru, and becomes a preceptor to the Kuru princes. Years later, after their graduation ceremony, he asks from them his Guru Dakshina.
‘Invade Panchala and bring King Drupada back to me as prisoner,’ he instructs his wards.
The Pandavas succeed in performing this deed, and they present a chained and defeated Drupada in front of their teacher. Drona, for his part, extends a hand of friendship and says, ‘I will keep only half your kingdom, O King, and give you the other half.’
Why did Drupada hate Drona?
Drupada hates Drona because he interprets Drona’s gesture as a personal humiliation. Though on the outside he praises Drona and proclaims himself a slave to the acharya, on the inside he seethes, and secretly vows to take revenge.
This invasion of Panchala is a bit of a strange event in the Mahabharata story. At first glance it is inconceivable that Drona has the authority to essentially wage war against a neighbouring kingdom without consulting Bhishma.
Secondly, even if Drona had the requisite powers, it is incredible that he would let just-graduated princes into the thick of war without himself or Bhishma accompanying them.
The story would have us believe that Drona had enough clout with the Kuru leadership to start a war with Panchala for no reason other than settling his own personal score with Drupada.
So it is reasonable to assume that this battle happened with Bhishma’s knowledge and approval. And it is also reasonable to suggest that Drona might have accompanied his students into battle – though the Mahabharata suggests otherwise.
In any case, after the loss of Northern Panchala to Drona, Drupada begins obsessing about how he could destroy Drona and win his kingdom back.
Yaja and Upayaja
Drupada enlists the help of two sages, Yaja and Upayaja, to perform a sacrifice that will give him the means by which Drona can be destroyed.
At first the sages refuse to help Drupada, but the king serves them faithfully over a period of a year and gives them plenty of wealth in the form of cows and gold. In time, the sages come around.
Drupada asks for one son during the sacrificial ceremony; a son that would grow up and kill Drona. But he receives two children from the event: one is Dhrishtadyumna, who is destined to Drona; and the other is a dark-complexioned girl named Krishnaa.
A divine voice proclaims at her birth that she will become the prime cause of the destruction of the Kuru empire.
Krishnaa later comes to be known more commonly as Draupadi. Arguably, it is Draupadi who is the more powerful instrument in Drupada’s hands, because she allows him to destroy the entire Kuru dynasty.
It is interesting that Drupada receives Draupadi without even asking for her. Once again, the story may have downplayed the real reason for the sacrifice: perhaps Drupada asks both for Drona’s destruction and for Kuru to be annihilated.
At the end of it all, Drupada ends up with three children – Shikhandi, Dhrishtadyumna, and Draupadi – who are destined to kill Bhishma, Drona and the Kuru kingdom respectively.
Because of the way in which he uses his sacrificial powers as a weapon, Drupada earns the name of Yajnasena (he whose sacrifices act as an army). Draupadi is sometimes called Yajnaseni, or the ‘daughter of Yajnasena’.
Did Drupada love Draupadi?
Draupadi and Dhrishtadyumna arrive into Drupada’s family as fully grown adults. So it is unreasonable to think that Drupada would love them the same way as he would his other children, whom he had seen as children.
Draupadi’s ‘birth’ at the sacrifice occurs perhaps a couple of years before her swayamvara, so Drupada is not left with much time to acquaint himself with his daughter.
Also, we must remember that Draupadi’s birth is entirely transactional. Drupada sees her only as a tool by which to carve the Kuru kingdom out from the inside. He is too occupied with plotting his strategy than with loving his daughter.
In other words, Drupada never thinks for Draupadi as a person with her own desires and dreams. For him, her only purpose to exist is to lead him into a position from which he could reinstate Panchala as a superpower.
A similar dynamic exists between Drupada and Dhrishtadyumna too, though because Dhrishtadyumna is a man there would have been more conversation between son and father.
Drupada’s relationship with Draupadi, on the other hand, would have been entirely functional.
So it must be said that Drupada does not love Draupadi in the way we think of fathers loving their daughters today in the modern world.
Before the birth of Dhrishtadyumna, perhaps even before the visit of Drona to Panchala, Drupada performs a sacrifice to propitiate Lord Shiva – with the express intention of procuring a son that would kill Bhishma.
(This suggests that the enmity between Kuru and Panchala goes back a number of years. And it is only natural that Drupada wishes to kill Bhishma; with Bhishma gone, the Kuru kingdom is weakened tremendously.)
As luck would have it, though, Shiva gives Drupada a daughter, not a son. This daughter is named Shikhandini.
Shiva assures Drupada that when the time comes, Shikhandini will transform into a man, and that in the far future, she will become the reason for Bhishma’s death.
That is not quite the same as ‘killing Bhishma’, but for Drupada, it feels like a good enough gift.
Following Shiva’s instructions, Drupada raises Shikhandini as a boy, having him dressed in male clothes, training him in male activities, and so on. Even when the time comes for her to marry, Drupada does not divulge his secret to the family of the bride.
Around the time of the wedding, Shikhandini exchanges her gender with Yaksha and becomes a man permanently. He takes the name of Shikhandi from then on.
As it happens, Shikhandi’s birth as a girl is a necessary event. He will leverage this fact against Bhishma’s reluctance to fight women, and helps Arjuna defeat the grandsire on the tenth day of battle.
Drupada enables all of that by patiently raising Shikhandini as a boy, despite resistance from courtiers and family members.
The other big masterstroke in Drupada’s life is the way he courts the Pandavas as allies, and becomes their prime supporter in their quarrel against the Kauravas.
He uses Draupadi to lure the Pandavas out of their hiding spot in Ekachakra. By instating a screening test that only Arjuna can pass, he makes sure that Draupadi is won by the Pandavas.
And when the proposal comes that all five Pandavas would marry his daughter, after a short period of resistance, he realizes that Draupadi as Yudhishthir’s first wife has much more value for Panchala than she does as Arjuna’s wife.
The Panchala-Pandava alliance will be much stronger with Draupadi acting as Yudhishthir’s first wife than otherwise. So Drupada gives permission for the five-way marriage, though his preference would have been for Draupadi marrying Yudhishthir alone.
We must remember that Drupada was – just a few years before Draupadi’s swayamvara – defeated by the Pandavas. But he puts his personal humiliation aside and seeks the Pandavas’ friendship, knowing that supporting the rebel force against the Kuru throne is a good strategy for eventually bringing it down.
The Rise of Panchala
With Pandava-Draupadi marriage is a significant one for everyone involved. During this, the Vrishnis of Anarta – led by Krishna and Balarama – indicate support to the sons of Pandu. And of course, Panchala stands behind them too.
This makes things awkward for the Kuru establishment. It certainly does not bode well for the Kurus that a part of their family is now in cahoots with a long-time enemy and neighbouring kingdom.
Vidura cites this as a powerful reason for calling the Pandavas back home, and to give them a city to rule.
Dhritarashtra reluctantly agrees with this logic, and so Yudhishthir becomes king of Khandavaprastha. During the twelve years of his reign here – when Arjuna goes on his self-imposed exile – the Panchalas experience a reversal of their fortunes.
For the first time in decades, there is peace between Kuru and Panchala. Though Drona does not give Northern Panchala back to Drupada, we can assume that Kuru-Panchala relationships are good during this period.
For Panchala, especially, there is an elevation in status. In a roundabout way, the royal families of Kuru and Panchala are now related by marriage.
The Fall of Panchala
Panchala’s prosperity and power reaches its peak when Yudhishthir is crowned the emperor of the world. At the Rajasuya, Panchala and Kuru are almost equal in status among the Pandavas’ guests.
But after the dice game, with the Pandavas losing everything and the Kauravas capturing the empire completely, Panchala’s status once again begins a slow decline.
The Kuru-Panchala relationship – held together so far because of the Pandava-Kuru relationship – breaks down. The two kingdoms become antagonistic again.
This does not mean they go to war. But Kuru squeezes Panchala politically and with respect to trade during the Pandava exile years. Drupada grins and bears this reversal of fortunes, and waits for his sons-in-law to return.
After the Pandavas return, it is therefore not surprising that Drupada launches one of the most impassioned speeches in favour of war against the Kauravas.
How strong was Drupada?
Drupada’s skills as a warrior are exemplary, as evidenced by the manner in which he single-handedly defeats the Kuru brothers – who are being helped by Ashwatthama and Karna too – during the Drona-inspired invasion of Panchala.
It takes Arjuna and Bhimasena’s prowess to subdue Drupada.
A couple of caveats here: at the time of the invasion of Panchala, Drupada was still a relatively young man. And the Kuru princes have not yet grown into what they would become.
Nevertheless, we must conclude from this that Drupada is no slouch on the battlefield.
On the eve of the Kurukshetra war, Bhishma classifies Drupada as an atiratha, the most powerful class of warriors. We do not know for sure if Bhishma is relying on current form or past achievements to make this judgement.
Maybe it’s a bit of both.
But by the time of the war, Drupada is already an aging – if not old – man. He does not perform any miraculous deeds on the battlefield during the fifteen days he is alive. So either Bhishma is wrong in his assessment, or Drupada is past his prime.
The same, incidentally, can be said of Virata, whom Bhishma cites as an atiratha and who also does not distinguish himself in any way during the war.
How did Drupada die?
Drupada dies on the fifteenth day of the Kurukshetra war, perhaps fittingly at the hands of Drona. This event acts as a further catalyst for Dhrishtadyumna to become even more ruthless in his quest for vengeance.
Tragically, Drupada dies without ever witnessing his most treasured wish: his son Dhrishtadyumna killing Drona. That happens after his death.
However, Drupada does live long enough to see his other son, Shikhandi, fulfil his destiny by becoming one of the prime causes of Bhishma’s death.
Through his long life, Drupada does all he can to secure the future prosperity of Panchala, and to make Panchala more powerful than Kuru. Despite winning the Mahabharata war, this dream ends up being unfulfilled.
On the night of the eighteenth day, Ashwatthama goes on a rampage and kills all the Panchala heirs and the remainder of their army.
Drupada thinks that if Bhishma and Drona are killed, and if the Kuru dynasty is destroyed, it automatically means that Panchala will be the supreme power of the world. But fate unfolds in such a way that Panchala is also destroyed in the process.
Drupada’s fondest wish, therefore, remains out of his grasp.