In the Mahabharata, Why Did Draupadi Marry Five Pandavas?

Why did Draupadi marry the Pandavas - Featured Image - A symbol of yin and yang in a circular pattern, symbolizing marriage

Why did Draupadi marry five husbands when it was Arjuna alone who won her?

In the Mahabharata, Draupadi’s marriage is considered one of the pivotal episodes, and it ends up becoming a cross that she alone among women of her generation is asked to carry.

Though it was common at the time for men – especially powerful men – to take multiple wives, it rarely happened that a woman took more than one husband.

All in all, three reasons exist as to why Draupadi married five Pandavas:

  1. Kunti misspeaks by accident when the Pandavas bring Draupadi back home from the swayamvara, and says, ‘Whatever you have brought, divide it equally between the five of you.
  2. Yudhishthir realizes that all the other four brothers (including himself) are smitten by desire for Draupadi, so he thinks it is best that she becomes a common wife – thus turning a potential fissure into a binding agent.
  3. Vyasa reveals that Draupadi is actually an incarnation of a woman who, in her previous life, asked Shiva for a husband, and received a boon that she would ‘marry five princes of the Bharata race’ each begotten by a god.

(For answers to all your Draupadi-related questions, see: Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered.)

Why didn’t they ask Draupadi?   

During the point at the story where Draupadi is brought back to the Pandavas’ hut in Ekachakrapura, while debate rages on about what should be done, no one thinks about asking Draupadi what she wants.

This may seem harsh to us modern readers, and it may seem inconsistent with a world in which a woman is often allowed to choose her own groom in a public ceremony. The word ‘swayamvara’, of course, means ‘chosen by self’.

But the circumstances surrounding Draupadi’s groom-choosing are a little different. Here, Drupada arranges for a competition in which Draupadi is to be given away as prize.

(Suggested: Why did Draupadi reject Karna?)

So she does not have the same agency as someone who is participating in a more conventional swayamvara.

She has enough freedom to stop a prospective groom from attempting to complete the task set by Drupada (and she does this by rejecting Karna when he steps up to the podium).

But once she has been won, she effectively loses the right to dictate whether her winner keeps her for himself or gives her to someone else.

(Suggested: Did Draupadi love Arjuna the most?)

Did Yudhishthir behave selfishly here?

A common interpretation of Draupadi’s marriage is to blame Yudhishthir for being selfish. As the oldest brother, this argument goes, he should have done the ‘right thing’ and allowed Arjuna to keep Draupadi for himself.

Instead, to satisfy his own craving for Draupadi, he decreed that all five brothers should have her.

This sounds plausible at first glance, but on deeper analysis it falls apart.

For one thing, if Yudhishthir were so besotted by Draupadi that he wanted to keep her for himself, he could have just asked Arjuna to give her up so that he alone could marry her.

(Suggested: Was Yudhishthir wise or foolish?)

This is by no means against the moral code of the day: the winnings of the younger brother belong rightfully to the eldest brother.

Also, this would have improved Draupadi’s prospects. As first wife of Yudhishthir, she would have a claim as possible future queen of Hastinapur. As Arjuna’s wife? She’d be way down low in the pecking order.

(In fact, when Drupada and Dhrishtadyumna are asked by Vyasa as to their opinion regarding whom Draupadi should marry, both of them say ‘Yudhishthir’. They understand that Yudhishthir is a better ‘catch’ than Arjuna for Draupadi.)

(Suggested: Why did Yudhishthir gamble Draupadi?)

Bearing all this in mind, a selfish Yudhishthir would have in fact married Draupadi by himself. The fact that he allows for a co-husband model suggests that his intentions were honest:

He truly thought that if any one of the five brothers were alone to get Draupadi (even that one was himself), it would drive a wedge between them.

On the other hand, by proposing that they share her, Yudhishthir turns a potential risk into an advantage. After Kunti, Draupadi will become the pivot around which the sons of Kunti and the sons of Madri will turn together.

The Pandavas become even more united than before by the act of sharing Draupadi.

(Suggested: Was Yudhishthir jealous of Arjuna?)

Does Krishna have a say in this?

Some retellings of the Mahabharata make it so that Krishna arrives on the spot in the nick of time and gives his approval for the decision.

But in truth, Krishna has nothing to do with this. Neither does he suggest it nor does he offer an opinion on it.

Yes, it is true that Krishna and Balarama are present at Draupadi’s groom-choosing. They do follow the Pandavas back to their hut.

(Suggested: How did Krishna and Draupadi become friends?)

And they do meet the Pandavas and pay their respects to Kunti. But they do not stay back to discuss the merits of polyandry with the Pandavas at this stage.

Incidentally, this is the first recorded meeting between Krishna and the Pandavas. It would have been inappropriate too for Krishna to jump in on a vexing personal issue within minutes of introducing himself to Yudhishthir.

Why does Vyasa support Yudhishthir?

When Drupada discovers that the Brahmin youth that won his daughter’s hand was none other than Arjuna, he invites them to his palace, and reveals his preference for Draupadi marrying Yudhishthir.

Vyasa arrives at Drupada’s hall right at that moment, and tells everyone that Draupadi is actually an incarnation of a Brahmin woman (unnamed) who, in her previous life, asked Shiva for a virtuous husband.

But Shiva apparently told her: ‘The good deeds of this life will help you in the next, fair maiden. That is how karma works. So while I cannot grant you a husband for this life, in the next, you will receive five husbands each of whom are fit to be gods in their own right.’

Now, regardless of whether this is true or not, Vyasa must have seen the same logic that Yudhishthir did at the hermitage: that the Pandava brothers are better off being held together by a common wife than being divided by an exclusive one.

What does Arjuna make of it all?

In all of this, spare a thought for Arjuna. He is the one who won the prize, and yet no one seemed to think it right to ask for his view on the matter.

In fact, the above statement is not quite true. Yudhishthir does ask Arjuna whether he would like to marry Draupadi by himself, and the latter replies, like a dutiful brother:

‘You have the full right to decide what to do with my winnings, O King. I am certain that you will think of what is right for all of us.’

(Suggested: Was Arjuna happy to share Draupadi?)

Now this can be interpreted two ways: did Arjuna honestly leave it all in the hands of Yudhishthir, or did he secretly hope that Yudhishthir would do the ‘right thing’ and let him alone have Draupadi?

All said and done, Arjuna does not react explicitly either way to the final decision. He appears to be at peace with what the elders have prescribed.

Interestingly, Arjuna does not seem to be consumed by love or any other such tender desire for Draupadi. Draupadi, on the other hand, loves Arjuna more fervently that she does the other four Pandavas.

(We come to know of this explicitly at the very end, when Yudhishthir proclaims it as fact when Draupadi dies in the Mahaprasthanika Parva.)

(Suggested: Did Arjuna love Draupadi?)

Where does this leave Draupadi?

In a rather unfortunate position, in fact.

Yes, for all practical purposes she gets the prime position in all court rituals. She becomes the queen of Indraprastha when Yudhishthir becomes emperor. And through her, Panchala becomes a top-of-the-line ally to the Pandavas.

So the politics work out fine – both for her and for Drupada.

But personally speaking, she becomes a bit of an orphaned wife. All five Pandavas take wives of their own with whom they share private relationships.

(Suggested: How did Draupadi manage five husbands?)

Draupadi is the one wife that the brothers share among themselves, so she remains available to them all without ever attaining ‘favourite’ status with any of them.

In addition, to fulfill her obligation as the ‘string that ties the five sticks together’, she alone is forced to go into exile with her husbands.

She keeps house for them, she suffers along with them, and once or twice – chiefly in the Virata Parva – she becomes the fulcrum around which the story turns.

What are the arrangements of Draupadi’s marriage?

Draupadi’s sex life has been subject of much speculation. Some have suggested that Draupadi cycles through the five Pandavas a year a time, starting with Yudhishthir, ending with Sahadeva, and going back to Yudhishthir.

Now this must have happened during the first five years during which Draupadi bears the Pandavas a son each. Taking yearly turns makes it much easier for everyone to establish a child’s parentage.

Did they continue with this through the exile years, and during Yudhishthir’s second reign after the Mahabharata war? We don’t know.

(Suggested: Why is Draupadi called Pativrata?)

One thing that the five brothers establish very early on (at the urging of Narada) is a simple rule:

If any of the brothers seek Draupadi’s exclusive company and he finds that she is already with another brother, he will back off and try again later. If one of the brothers interrupts another brother’s private time with Draupadi, he will be punishable by exile.

This appears to be a common-sense rule until the last sentence. Surely a minor indiscretion like a breach of privacy is not punishable by exile?

But then, that is precisely what happens when Arjuna inadvertently enters Yudhishthir and Draupadi’s private chamber (to get his Gandiva so that he can drive off some robbers) and punishes himself with a twelve-year exile.

(Suggested: How was Draupadi shared between the Pandavas?)

Who are the sons of Draupadi and the Pandavas?

The five sons that Draupadi has with the Pandavas are called the Upa-Pandavas. Their names are Prativindhya (with Yudhishthir), Sutasoma (with Bhimasena), Shatanika (with Nakula), Shrutasena (with Sahadeva) and Shrutakarma (with Arjuna).

Note that the first four sons are born to Draupadi when Arjuna is away on exile, and only after he returns does she bear his son. Shrutakarma therefore is the youngest of the Upapandavas.

This is a bit like rubbing salt into the wound for Arjuna: not only is he asked to share the woman he has won with his brothers, but he also becomes the last in line to have a son with her.

(Suggested: Did Draupadi have children?)

Now, the Mahabharata gives no hint that Arjuna bears a grudge against Yudhishthir or against the rest of his brothers, but storytellers have speculated at length in various places about his inner thoughts.

As an aside, during his exile, Arjuna takes three wives for himself: Ulupi, Chitrangada and Subhadra. He has sons with all of them before he returns to Indraprastha.

So not only does Draupadi have her last son with Arjuna, but Arjuna also has his last son with Draupadi.

(Suggested: How did Draupadi’s sons die?)

Final thoughts

We will end this post with the following thoughts:

  • The polyandrous arrangement between Draupadi and the Pandavas is chosen by Yudhishthir in order to not let divisions develop among the brothers.
  • In hindsight, he is proven right. Draupadi does end up being the one cause behind which the five Pandavas rally – time and again.
  • It is not a decision taken lightly or offhandedly. It is debated at great length and approved by Vyasa.
  • It is not the ideal scenario for either Arjuna or Draupadi – they would be only human to have lingering ill-feeling about it.
  • The political angle of the marriage works better this way for Drupada, because by having Draupadi marry the eldest Pandava and become official queen, Panchala and Indraprastha become thick allies.
  • Krishna (rightly) has no say in this.  

Further Reading

If you liked this post, you may also like: Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered.