In the Mahabharata, the Draupadi Swayamvara (groom-choosing ceremony) is an important episode that brings together a number of concurrent threads:
- The Pandavas meet Draupadi for the first time.
- Krishna and Balarama make their first public appearance in the story.
- Arjuna’s prowess as an archer is established outside the Kuru kingdom, in an open competition.
- Drupadi rejects Karna, which sows a seed of discord that she will reap later during the dice game.
Of all these, here we will focus primarily on the last item: why did Draupadi reject Karna?
In her swayamvara, Draupadi is offered by Drupada as prize to any man who will shoot a revolving fish in the eye while using only its reflection as guide. When Karna steps up to the podium to try his luck, Draupadi rejects him saying, ‘This man is not born of a high order. He is the son of a charioteer. I refuse to marry him.’
This is the short answer. In the rest of this article, we will unpack the various angles to the story.
How did Draupadi’s swayamvara work?
The meaning of the word ‘swayamvara’ is ‘self-chosen’. By definition, a swayamvara is a ceremony in which the bride chooses one man to wed out of a hall full of suitors.
How a typical swayamvara works is like this:
- The bride is taken around the hall, from suitor to suitor, garland in hand.
- The bride is accompanied by an attendant (usually a woman she knows well) who introduces each suitor, his lineage, his accomplishments and qualities that make him a good husband.
- If the bride likes a particular suitor, she garlands him. If she doesn’t, she moves on to the next.
However, one popular variation of the swayamvara is to incorporate a test to the act of winning the maiden’s hand.
This is often employed by kings of big kingdoms where there is plenty of competition for the bride. Such a king can afford to apply a screening procedure to all the kings that are interested.
Examples: In the Ramayana, Sita is offered as prize to anyone who can string Mahadeva’s bow. In the Mahabharata, Draupadi is offered as prize to anyone who can shoot a fish in the eye.
Is Draupadi allowed to reject a suitor?
Now, in ‘prize’ swayamvaras, it is not enough for the bride to like a given man. The man must also prove his prowess by completing the task. It is entirely possible that the man a princess likes may not be skillful enough to pass the test.
The converse is also true; meaning: a suitor that a bride does not like may finish the task successfully and ‘win’ her.
So it may not be fair to call such an arrangement a swayamvara at all, because the woman does not have the freedom to choose her groom. She is essentially forced to trust in the screening process that her father has set up.
Having said this, though, a princess in this scenario does have the freedom to reject a suitor before he tries to pass the test.
The fact that Draupadi does this and there is no uproar among the elders of Drupada’s court suggests that this is accepted practice. While the woman has no right to reject a man after he has won her, she does have the right to stop him from trying.
Is Draupadi ‘right’ to have rejected Karna?
We have established that Draupadi has the right to reject Karna. But was she morally right to do so? Especially if she had no other complaint with him besides his caste?
First, we don’t know exactly what grounds Draupadi really had to reject Karna. Like all of us, she may have had plenty of reasons to not like Karna (his looks, his stature as small-time king of a far-flung nation, his friendship with Duryodhana…), but forced to cite a reason, she may have chosen to mention his caste.
Second, even if we assume that his caste is the only factor that Draupadi thought of, it is a perfectly acceptable argument to make for a bride looking for prospective grooms. (Or – for that matter – a groom looking for brides.)
A bride has the right to desire a husband whose social standing is equal to or higher than her own. If Draupadi thought that marrying Karna was a step ‘down’ for her socially, that she can do ‘better’, then she is right to make that decision.
For those of us modern readers tempted to moralize on this issue, we must note that this same ‘weighing up’ happens in today’s marriages as well. Just that our measures of social worth are different.
Why did Draupadi not reject Arjuna?
Here’s the real puzzle: if Draupadi thought that marrying Karna would be a step down for her, why did she not reject Arjuna when he stepped up to the podium?
Remember that this Arjuna is in disguise. He is not Prince Arjuna. He is a poor Brahmin with nothing to show for himself. He is, in fact, not even on the list of invited parties.
If Draupadi was socially conscious about whom she was marrying, she should have rejected Arjuna as well. Why didn’t she?
I can think of two reasons:
- At this time, it was commonly known that the Pandavas are in hiding. In fact, Drupada’s whole plan with the archery competition was in the hope that it would bring Arjuna to his court. So perhaps Draupadi had been instructed by Drupada not to reject any man whom she does not know.
- A Brahmin is considered a higher order than a Kshatriya, even if he is dirt poor. So when she sees a Brahmin approach the dais, Draupadi would not have had any compunction because she will be marrying ‘up’. A rich Sutaputra, therefore, is of lower social standing than a Brahmin in penury.
Brahmins were considered spiritual leaders of society, and there were plenty of occasions during which Brahmins were called upon to marry daughters of kings – or even father children through widowed queens to keep a royal dynasty alive.
But marrying a charioteer’s son? Totally different proposition.
Politics Behind Draupadi’s Decision
There is a political angle as well to Draupadi’s rejection of Karna.
Consider this: Draupadi is the princess of Panchala, which is perhaps the second-most powerful kingdom in the world next to Hastinapur. This means when Drupada announces his daughter’s swayamvara, every city in the known world is interested.
Why? Because marriage brings with it alliances and trade partnerships that will prove beneficial. On Drupada’s part, he is careful to make sure that his daughter is not given away to just any other king. He wants someone who is comparable in power and status.
So Drupada has an eye on Hastinapur – and a particularly keen eye on Yudhishthir because he is the first in line to the throne there.
His plan is to create an archery task so complex that only Arjuna can complete, and then hope that Draupadi will be given to the eldest brother as king – because after all, even in Hastinapur’s interest, it makes sense for the princess of Panchala to marry the heir to the throne. Not the third brother.
The plan is almost fool-proof, but with one snag. Whatever Arjuna can do, so can Karna. And Karna will come to the ceremony accompanying Duryodhana. And he will have a go at the fish’s eye. What can be done?
The easiest solution is to arrange to have Draupadi reject Karna in case the king of Anga stands up to enter the competition. No explanations need to be given, though she can always say that she does not want to be wedded to a Sutaputra. And the world would understand.
It is not important why she rejects him. But it is very important that she does so.
So it is entirely possible that the rejection of Karna by Draupadi is a decision taken in advance by Drupada in the interests of Panchala. Draupadi simply is the ‘executor’.
Power Play Behind Draupadi’s Decision
Then as now, the more powerful you are, the more you can get away with.
If a princess of a smaller kingdom was to pull the same trick, she would probably have been ridiculed. But at the same time, a smaller kingdom does not have the same heft in a marriage negotiation that Panchala has.
For instance, if the king of Vanga sends out an invitation for his daughter’s swayamvara, only kings and chieftains of other small kingdoms and tribes will attend. Vanga does not have the resources to attract prospective grooms from the likes of Hastinapur or Panchala. So the princess of Vanga will choose the best of what’s available.
Small kingdoms generally also don’t have the clout to arrange for competitions between suitors. They opt for a more traditional swayamvara where the bride walks around the hall and garlands the man of her choice.
(Even in such a traditional scenario, we must not rule out the possibility that the decision of whom the princess should pick is heavily influenced by the girl’s father’s wishes. And why not? Fathers ought to be careful about whom their daughters marry.)
So in Draupadi’s case, she rejected Karna because she held more power than Karna in that moment – and she used it.
Consequences of Draupadi’s Rejection
However, the thing with power is that it shifts.
Draupadi rejects Karna at the swayamvara. She is more powerful than he is. Panchala is more powerful than Anga. Fair enough.
But a bit later, events take such a turn that Yudhishthir loses everything he has to Duryodhana. Draupadi becomes nothing more than a slave-girl in the court of Hastinapur.
In this moment, Karna is more powerful than she is.
Just like Draupadi uses the benefits of her position (as princess of Panchala) to reject Karna during her swayamvara, Karna uses the benefits of his position (as friend of Duryodhana) to argue against her at the game of dice. It is on the strength of his argument that Duhsasana disrobes Draupadi in Hastinapur’s assembly.
And again, of course, power shifts.
Still later, it is Arjuna’s turn to use the benefits of his position (as the most blessed warrior in Kurukshetra) to kill Karna and thus exact revenge for the humiliation of Draupadi.
The officially given reason for Draupadi’s rejection of Karna is that he is the son of a charioteer, not fit to marry a princess. But there may have been other reasons. Namely:
- It is a politically wise move to reject Karna because as the king of Anga, he has little to offer Panchala from a strategic perspective.
- It is a decision enabled by power: if Draupadi had been princess to a smaller kingdom, she would not have had the choice to reject a suitor in the same fashion.
- It is a decision in keeping with the social mores of the day: a Brahmin is considered the ‘highest’ order, with Kshatriyas coming second. So a princess is well within her rights to reject a charioteer’s son while not rejecting a Brahmin with no official social title.
I hope this post has given you all that you wanted to know about Draupadi’s rejection of Karna, its various implications, and the consequences arising from it.
Complement this with a reading of Draupadi’s marriage to the five Pandavas in order to get a fuller appreciation of the topic.
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
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- Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered
- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered