The Mahabharata is a collection of hundred Parvas (or ‘sections’) that tell the story of a long-standing family feud between two sets of cousins – the Kauravas and the Pandavas – for control of the Kuru throne in Hastinapur.
The climactic event of the story is an eighteen-day war that happens between the two factions on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
It is commonly understood that the Pandavas are the protagonists of this tale and the Kauravas the antagonists – though many retellings have appeared over the years that flip this structure.
In this post, we will summarize the Swayamvara Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
The Pandavas Enter
The Swayamvara Parva begins with the arrival of the Pandavas and Kunti in Southern Panchala, ruled by Drupada.
They 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, the Pandavas become part of a group of Brahmins making for the palace of the king in order to procure alms. Kunti stays behind at the house.
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.)
A List of Kings
The swayamvara of Draupadi can be roughly divided into three parts. The first, where all the assembled kings fail at the challenge, the second where Arjuna succeeds, and the third where Arjuna and Bhimasena fight off their challengers and take Draupadi home.
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?’
Draupadi Rejects Karna
The other noteworthy incident of this part of the ceremony is the slighting of Karna. 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 thought. Karna returns to his seat. End of story.
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 said, ‘perform a task at which so many accomplished Kshatriyas have failed? If this boy attempts to string this bow and injures himself, he will bring ridicule upon the entire race of Brahmins in the eyes of monarchs.
‘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, like that of the mountain Himavat. His gait is like that of a lion.
‘If he did not possess the strength that this challenge requires, why does he appear so calm?’
Arjuna Claims his Prize
Without much fuss, Arjuna strings the bow and shoots the target. Amid cheers and blessings from the Brahmin conclave, the Kshatriyas rise, seething and suspicious.
Drupada, for his part, places Draupadi’s hand in Arjuna’s. Garlands are exchanged. An appropriate number of flowers rain from the sky.
But the assembled kings speak among themselves, covered in humiliation. ‘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 leave from the court amid all the clamour.
Bhima and Arjuna stand together, Draupadi behind them, facing the throng of enraged monarchs.
Karna versus Arjuna
Two personal duels occur at this time, one involving Arjuna and Karna, the other with Bhima and Shalya.
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, it is said, that they both become invisible to the spectators.
The words they utter are intelligible only to the most practiced of heroes, those who understand the nuances that the warriors are employing.
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.
Bhima versus Shalya
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).
The other kings, watching these feats, become worried that the Brahmin boys are indeed great warriors. ‘Who can defeat Karna except Parashurama, Drona and Arjuna?’ they ask.
‘Who can encounter Duryodhana in battle except Krishna and Kripacharya? And who can overthrow Shalya but Balarama, Bhimasena and Duryodhana?
‘Perhaps we should not fight these men, therefore, because they seem to be equal to the most powerful warriors of the land.’
At this stage, Krishna steps into the fold and gently addresses the defeated kings. ‘Do not let your humiliation guide your actions, O Kings,’ he tells them.
‘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 follows them to their hut.
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.’
Meanwhile, Krishna and Balarama, who have followed the Pandavas all the way from the palace to their home, pay their respects to Kunti, introduce themselves to their cousins, and leave.
Contrary to some popular versions, Krishna does not counsel Kunti on the suitability of polyandry at this stage. Nor does he dispense wisdom.
This is the first recorded meeting between the Yadava brothers and the sons of Pandu, so nothing of great significance happens. There is no hint of the enduring friendship they will come to share in the future.
With this interlude, the Swayamvara Parva comes to an end.