Karna is the first son of Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata.
He is also a close friend of Duryodhana, the eldest of the hundred sons of Dhritarashtra who are together called the Kauravas. Duryodhana is the story’s prime antagonist, and Karna becomes his prime ally in his machinations against the Pandavas.
In this post, we will answer the question: Was Karna in love with Draupadi?
There is no evidence in the Mahabharata that Karna loves Draupadi. He does desire her for a wife, which is why he attempts to complete the archery task at Draupadi’s swayamvara. After Draupadi’s public humiliation and rejection of him, he comes to detest her.
Read on to discover more about whether or not Karna was in love with Draupadi.
(For answers to all Karna-related questions, see Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
First Meeting: Swayamvara
The first time Karna and Draupadi lay eyes on each other is during Draupadi’s swayamvara at Drupada’s palace in Panchala. Karna is presumably invited because he is now king of Anga, and is also known to be a good friend of Duryodhana’s.
Karna and Draupadi do not speak with each other directly at this meeting. Karna rises and signals his intention to try his luck at winning Draupadi’s hand, but is shot down by her public rejection of him.
(Related Article: What happens at Draupadi’s Swayamvara?)
She addresses the assembly just as Karna rises, and says, ‘I do not wish to be married to a Sutaputra.’ This is despite the fact that Karna has been king for a year or two, and that he has been invited by Drupada.
Karna laughs at this imprudence on Draupadi’s part, and quietly returns to his seat.
During this first meeting, therefore, Draupadi does nothing to win over Karna’s heart. If anything, she may have hardened it so that he bears a grudge toward her.
Second Meeting: At the Rajasuya?
The second time Draupadi and Karna meet is during Yudhishthir’s Rajasuya, after the Pandavas have conquered the world and Draupadi has become its empress.
Karna is once again among the invitees that sit in the hall during the final act of the Rajasuya, when Yudhishthir offers the arghya to Krishna. This instigates Shishupala into launching a tirade of abuse against all the assembled Kuru elders.
Of the many ridiculous things he says during this speech, he compares Karna favourably to Krishna and suggests that Yudhishthir should have honoured the king of Anga instead of the Dwaraka prince.
(Related Article: 12 Mahabharata Stories from the Sabha Parva.)
(There is a hint of irony in this: as a reader, knowing that Karna is the eldest Pandava, of course Yudhishthir should have given the honour to Karna.)
Krishna, of course, kills Shishupala in a dramatic scene, and the Kauravas leave Indraprastha in a huff. It is also during this trip that Duryodhana slips and falls into a pool of water.
Here, too, there is no recorded conversation between Draupadi and Karna. But we may presume that they must have met and exchanged cordialities in their respective roles as hostess and guest.
Third Meeting: At the dice game
The third time Karna and Draupadi’s paths cross – this time fatefully – is during the dice game at which Yudhishthir loses everything and becomes a pauper.
Here, Karna plays the role of Duryodhana’s chief enforcer, arguing with Vikarna about Draupadi’s enslavement, quoting from the scriptures about Dharma, and ultimately branding Draupadi as an unchaste woman for having taking five husbands – and having children by all of them.
We must note that this is about thirteen years after their previous meeting at the Rajasuya. In the intervening period, Karna has risen in stature as king of Anga, even as Draupadi has settled into her life as empress of Indraprastha.
(Related Article: What happens during Draupadi’s Disrobing?)
If they had occasion to speak to one another in this time, the text makes no mention of it.
In any case, at the dice game, it is Karna who suggests that Duhsasana should give Draupadi ‘the treatment a disgraceful woman deserves’ and undress her in public, right in front of the Kuru elders.
(A part of this is him taking revenge for that long-ago slight during the swayamvara at Panchala. But a much bigger part is him playing a role that Duryodhana assigned him.)
At this meeting, it is fair to say that Draupadi and Karna’s relationship deteriorates beyond repair.
Admiration for Draupadi
However, it is fair to say that Karna expresses admiration for Draupadi at the end of this scene. As she frees her husbands by means of a boon that Dhritarashtra gives her, and as the Pandavas quietly start collecting their things to leave, Karna proclaims: ‘Draupadi has rescued the Pandavas like a lifeboat in the middle of a stormy sea.’
Equally, the same Karna – a few minutes before when everything seemed dire – was suggesting that Draupadi should forsake Yudhishthir and marry Duryodhana instead.
(At which Duryodhana beckons to Draupadi and meaningfully pats his thigh, as if he were calling her to sit on it.)
We may conclude from this that Karna admires Draupadi for the manner in which she has proven herself to be a loyal wife.
No other meetings
Karna and Draupadi never meet again, nor is there a moment in which they are present in the same room together. Not only do they not speak to each other, we rarely see them speak of each other.
Draupadi, to be certain, is full of hatred for Karna. More than once during their exile, she exhorts Arjuna to never forget his vow to kill Karna. She knows as well as anyone that it is Karna who is responsible for much of her humiliation during the dice game.
Despite all this, if one has to formulate a theory that Karna was in fact in love with Draupadi, we must also believe one or more of the following scenarios:
- Karna and Draupadi somehow knew each other and were lovers before her swayamvara. Draupadi may have broken things off with him after her swayamvara was announced, but Karna refused to take no for an answer. That explains why Draupadi publicly rejects him. The rest of the story can remain unchanged.
- Karna and Draupadi met each other for the first time at her swayamvara, and she rejected him. Yet, perhaps they got to know each other more intimately during the Rajasuya, and their love blossomed during the thirteen year period leading up to the dice game. This raises the question of why Karna then abuses Draupadi during it.
- Karna’s love for Draupadi is unrequited. Despite the shoddy manner in which he treats her, in his heart he carries deep respect and tenderness for her.
None of these three stand up to even a tiny bit of scrutiny. There is some credence to thinking that Karna may have – at some point in his life – desired Draupadi, like all the men in his generation. But the moment she spurned him publicly, any feelings he might have had for her would have instantly evaporated.
There is no possible way, therefore, that Karna has anything approaching love for Draupadi. He may have desired her for a wife during the time of her swayamvara – which is why he tries to compete – but after being rejected by her, he comes to detest her.
All the admiration that he announces is of a grudging nature: the kind that you will see a sore loser admit to after failing to break his enemy.
It is also possible that Karna is besotted by envy toward Draupadi and the Pandavas for the seemingly healthy and harmonious marriage they enjoy despite their unconventional arrangement.
But does Karna love Draupadi? No.
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