In the Mahabharata, have you ever wondered: Why did Draupadi die first? She was:
- As virtuous as the Pandavas (perhaps more so because she didn’t have to kill anyone).
- Supportive of her husbands’ choices even though she had nothing to do with them.
- Pushed into an arrangement which no woman would ever choose for herself.
- Able to manage it all with dignity and strength.
- The unifying factor that made it possible for the Pandavas to win the Mahabharata war.
And yet she was the first to die. Why? In this post we will try and answer this.
Draupadi dies at the foothills of Mount Sumeru, when accompanying the Pandavas in their bid to reach heaven in their mortal bodies. She is the first of the six to die. When Bhimasena asks Yudhishthir for the reason, the latter replies, ‘Because she loved Arjuna more than she loved the rest of us.’
The implication in Yudhishthir’s answer, of course, is that Draupadi’s sin is graver than the sins of the rest of the Pandavas. As Sahadeva, Nakula, Arjuna and Bhimasena subsequently fall to their deaths, Yudhishthir tells them why they’re dropping off.
It is not explicitly stated, but the order of the five deaths gives an insight on the order of the magnitude of the sins that cause them.
After the Mahabharata war, for a period of thirty six years, Yudhishthir rules over Indraprastha as king, and over the entire region of Aryavarta as emperor. He has the kingdom of Anarta – with Krishna and Balarama – as a stable and staunch ally.
At the end of this period, following the destruction of Dwaraka – the events of which are described in the Mausala Parva – the Pandavas decide that it is time for them to relinquish their wealth and seek passage to heaven.
Like all powerful people, they presume that they have lived moral lives. So they believe that they’re entitled to attain the regions of heaven without needing to die first.
They embark upon a long journey around the country, visiting various rivers and holy places. Then, they begin to walk up the mountain called Sumeru, at the top of which stand the gates to Indra’s kingdom.
Note that the expectation in the minds of the Pandavas at this final leg of the journey is that they will all be welcomed to heaven in their mortal bodies.
So when Draupadi falls, her husbands are confused. Yudhishthir is the only one who seems to know what is going on, but whether he was expecting this or whether he merely understood it better than his brothers after it has happened, we don’t know.
In any case, the Pandavas move on as soon as she drops. Curiously enough, they do not stop to bury her or cremate her either. None of the brothers even suggest that as an option.
Symbolically, the message is clear: the final journey of a man’s life ought to be taken alone. None of your loved ones will accompany you. The best you can hope for is to have them see you off at death’s door. You alone must walk through it.
But within the context of the story, it is difficult to understand why Bhimasena – for instance – doesn’t offer to carry Draupadi up to the mountaintop. Once upon a time, he had carried all five Pandavas and his mother Kunti in his arms. Carrying Draupadi would not have been a challenge.
Why doesn’t Bhimasena carry Draupadi?
We can only speculate about the reasons here. Here are a few that occur to me:
- Draupadi immediately dies as soon as she falls. So carrying her to the mountaintop would not have made sense. Her soul had already left her body. Bhima would only be carrying an empty shell.
- Even if we allow that Draupadi is alive when she falls, it is possible that the Pandavas at this point are worn down to the point of fatigue themselves. We must remember that they’re by now quite old. They’re probably doing all they can to drag their own feet. Carrying Draupadi would be asking for too much.
- If Draupadi immediately stopped breathing after she fell, she would be buried beneath snow in a matter of an hour or so anyway. Nature would give her a burial. The Pandavas did not need to go to the effort of burying her.
- At the start of the final journey up the mountain, the six of them may have agreed among themselves (off screen) that each person is on their own. That one must make it to heaven on the weight of one’s own deeds. That one cannot count on help from others.
I will repeat that these are only speculations on my part. You’re free to add your own to the list.
Did Draupadi actually love Arjuna most?
This is the other question that arises with Draupadi’s death. Bhimasena asks Yudhishthir why Draupadi, the most virtuous among wives, has failed to complete the journey, and Yudhishthir replies, ‘Because the love she had for Arjuna was deeper than the love she had for the rest of us.’
We must remember, however, that this is Yudhishthir’s opinion.
If we think of Yudhishthir as a neutral observer of events who judges everyone fairly and divines everyone’s thoughts accurately, we may consider his words factual. But what if he is a flawed man too? What if he is mistaken?
The rest of the Mahabharata story contains little evidence about Draupadi’s feelings of love for Arjuna. The only time she gives us a glimpse of her feelings is when Arjuna returns from his exile having wed Subhadra. This sends Draupadi into a fit of jealousy, and it requires some peacekeeping effort from Arjuna to brook friendship between the two ladies.
Speaking from her behaviour alone, therefore, it is impossible to tell whether Arjuna was Draupadi’s favourite.
Inferences from Draupadi’s life
We can draw the following inferences from incidents that happen during Draupadi’s life:
- At her swayamvara, she is won by Arjuna. And then she is protected by Arjuna and Bhima fighting together against the rest of the suitors.
- During her disrobing, Arjuna vows to kill the man who is most responsible indirectly for the incident: Karna. And Bhima vows to kill the man most responsible directly: Duhsasana.
- During the Kichaka episode, it is Arjuna who opens the dance hall at night, and Bhima who performs the deed. Later, when the sons of Kichaka tie Draupadi to a stake and are about to burn her, who turns up with an uprooted tree in his hand? Bhima.
- During their exile, Arjuna is absent for a long time in a quest to attain divine weapons. In this period, Draupadi and the remaining Pandavas rely on Bhima for protection.
- Bhima’s meeting with Hanuman happens on a quest that Draupadi sends him on to bring her back a certain blue flower. A woman asking a man to get her a flower is a certain sign of affection.
- Toward the end, after Ashwatthama has killed the Upapandavas, Draupadi exhorts Bhimasena to chase after the interloper and kill him.
From all this, we can safely conclude that of her five husbands, Draupadi probably liked Arjuna and Bhima more than she liked the other three. This is natural: Arjuna and Bhima are the most heroic of the five Pandavas, and perform the role of protectors better.
Is unequal love a sin?
After Draupadi’s death, the Pandavas fall down one by one in this order:
- Sahadeva is first, and the reason is that he was secretly proud of his wisdom.
- Nakula is second. The reason is that he was proud of his handsomeness.
- Arjuna is third. The reason is that he was proud of his skill as archer.
- Bhimasena is fourth. The reason is that he was gluttonous.
Note that these reasons are all given by Yudhishthir. But for a moment, let’s assume these are factual.
The implication is that unequal love toward one’s husbands is the highest of these five sins. Pride in one’s wisdom is one step better, pride in one’s looks is another step better, and pride in one’s skill is yet another step better.
Gluttony for food is better than pride (though Bhimasena shows plenty of evidence of pride as well throughout the story), but still a sin grave enough to prevent you from reaching heaven.
Here we must ask: is unequal love that bad? Is it even possible to love two people exactly the same amount?
Who measures love? In this case, Yudhishthir. And how is he doing it? He’s not telling us.
All five Pandavas have wives other than Draupadi. In Arjuna’s case, it is often said that Subhadra is his favourite wife. That means among the wives that he had, he loved Subhadra more than he loved Draupadi. Does that not make him as culpable as Draupadi?
Another Possible Explanation
One can observe another pattern in the order of the Pandavas’ death. They fall in sequence from youngest to oldest. Draupadi, Sahadeva, Nakula, Arjuna, Bhima – that is the order in which they were born.
Perhaps there is some other rule governing these six people that Yudhishthir is unaware of: that they must die in the order of their birth.
That flies in the face of Yudhishthir’s theories, and I offer this with my devil’s advocate coat on. After all, Yudhishthir is only giving us his surmises on why his wife and brothers are dying.
He is as vulnerable to confirmation bias as anyone else is. Indeed, as someone who has ruled as king and emperor for thirty six years, he is perhaps more so.
What may have caused Draupadi’s death, then?
If you’re a naturalist, Draupadi died first merely because she was a woman, and because of physical fatigue that overcame her due to the length and tedium of their journey. She has not trained to be a powerful warrior like her husbands; of course hers will be the first body to give up during a tough climb up a mountain.
If you’re looking for karmic reasons, here’s a point that is often overlooked:
Throughout the Mahabharata, we’re told that the rewards and punishments we’re given in this life are a result of actions in our previous life. So the cause and timing of one’s death is impossible to ascertain, simply because no one knows details of what you did in your previous birth.
And yet, notice, that Yudhishthir offers – as causes – sins from their current lives for the deaths of his brothers and wife. Yet another reason to doubt him.
Now you know everything about why Draupadi died in the Mahabharata. Here is a quick summary:
- The official reason given (by Yudhishthir) for Draupadi’s death is that she loved Arjuna more than she loved the rest of the Pandavas.
- But this is not a sin: Arjuna himself has multiple wives, and is known to be partial to Subhadra.
- Inferences drawn from Draupadi’s life suggest that she has about the same affection for Bhima and Arjuna.
- It is possible that Yudhishthir’s reasons are biased: after all, if it is true that the actions of this life only bear fruit in the next, it cannot be true that Draupadi’s love for Arjuna has come back to haunt her in her current life.
- It is also possible that Draupadi died first merely because she is a woman, and her body was naturally the first to be overcome by fatigue during the climb up the mountain.
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