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: Why does Karna abuse Draupadi?
Karna abuses Draupadi and calls her a prostitute during the dice game. He does this as retaliation for the way in which she publicly humiliates and rejects him at her swayamvara. Karna also performs the role of chief antagonist against the Pandavas for Duryodhana, and so always needles them on his behalf.
Read on to discover more about why Karna abuses Draupadi.
(In Karna: Your Ultimate Guide to the Mahabharata’s Antihero, we delve deeper into the character of Karna. We also answer all Karna-related questions in Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Humiliation by Draupadi
In the Draupadi-Karna relationship, the first salvo is thrown undoubtedly by Draupadi. At her swayamvara, when Karna steps up to the podium and prepares to try his hand at completing the archery task set by Drupada, Draupadi stops him.
Addressing the assembly, she says, ‘I do not wish to be married to a Sutaputra.’ This is despite the fact that Karna is by now king of Anga.
Interestingly, no one in the assembly – not even Duryodhana – comes to Karna’s support. This suggests that while her behaviour may appear harsh, Draupadi is well within her rights to stop a suitor from attempting to win her hand.
(But then, if this is true of swayamvaras in general, much is made of a similar scene in some versions of the Ramayana, where Ravana approaches the bow at Sita’s swayamvara. Sita is described as hoping against hope that Ravana would fail. If she had the power to speak up, why did she not?)
In any case, Karna respects Draupadi’s wishes and returns to his seat without having a go at shooting the target.
What rubs salt into the wound here is that after rejecting Karna, Draupadi does nothing to prevent a poverty-stricken, nameless Brahmin from competing. The message to Karna is clear: I’d rather marry this poor man than you, even though you’re a king.
After their chance encounter at the swayamvara, Draupadi and Karna rarely have occasion to meet. They may have crossed paths at Yudhishthir’s Rajasuya, but after that, for twelve years they live fairly separate lives – Draupadi as queen of Indraprastha, and Karna as king of Anga.
During this time, Karna marries a girl (chosen for him by Adiratha, we’re told), has sons with her, and by all accounts gives a good account of himself as king. He garners a bit of a reputation as a just, generous man.
In this period, Draupadi has grown in stature too. Once a princess of Panchala, she is now queen to the emperor of the world. Anga, one assumes, is one of the many kingdoms that pay tribute to her husband. She is mother to five sons – each born to one of her five husbands.
Both Karna and Draupadi, therefore, have grown in self-importance during these twelve years. Karna, in his position as king, has become more comfortable with dispensing justice, with speaking and with being heard and obeyed.
On the other hand, if Draupadi thought Karna beneath her at her swayamvara, by now – with her own status having grown immeasurably – that feeling will have only intensified.
At the Dice Game
Why Karna is present at the dice game is not explained in the text. Since it is no short distance between Anga and Hastinapur, we may safely assume that Duryodhana must have invited him.
And if he did, is it unreasonable to suppose that he gave him instructions to behave in an abrasive manner toward the Pandavas?
Karna plays a vital role in escalating already roused tensions during the dice game. After Yudhishthir has lost everything to Duryodhana, on his last turn to roll, at Shakuni’s insistence, he pledges and loses Draupadi.
And Draupadi, true to the manner of one not used to being summoned anywhere by anyone, sends back a message asking, ‘Did the king lose me first or himself?’
This sets up a debate in court around whether Draupadi has or has not been won.
Argument against Vikarna
Surprisingly, Vikarna, one of the brothers of Duryodhana, springs to Draupadi’s support. (This probably comes as a surprise to Duryodhana and Shakuni – witnessing dissent from one of their own.)
Vikarna argues that by losing himself first, Yudhishthir had lost all rights over Draupadi, so he could no longer fairly pledge her in the game.
Karna, in the manner of someone used to expounding on matters of propriety in Anga, stands and delivers a four-point rebuttal of Vikarna’s points. His conclusion: though Yudhishthir lost himself, he still retained some rights, and that included a right to a spouse. So his pledge of Draupadi was valid, and she is now Duryodhana’s slave.
(For more detail on Draupadi’s disrobing, see: What happens during Draupadi’s Disrobing?)
Having come this far, Karna does not rest his case. He places an accusation over Draupadi and calls her a prostitute. ‘Our scriptures declare,’ he says, ‘any woman who takes five or more paramours in the course of her life is akin to a prostitute. And this woman has, in the eyes of the entire world, shamelessly wedded five husbands.’
Of course, there are perfectly valid reasons for Draupadi having married all five Pandavas. (See: Why did Draupadi Marry Five Pandavas?) But there is also truth to the statement that Karna has referenced.
Scriptures of the time do seem to have made the declaration that no self-respecting woman should take more than five sexual partners during the course of her life.
This is the reason that Kunti gives Pandu for not using Durvasa’s incantation after Arjuna’s birth. ‘I have already taken four paramours including you, my lord,’ she says. ‘If I take one more, I shall be known in the world as debased.’
(Of course, it’s quite another matter that Kunti has already become debased in reality because she had already slept with Surya before her marriage. But no one but her knew about that. As far as the world knew, she only had four lovers.)
Karna Suggests Disrobing
Having made his accusation – and having received no pushback – Karna now calls on Duhsasana to publicly disrobe Draupadi in order to ‘treat her like a woman of her character ought to be treated’.
Whether prostitutes of the time were routinely disrobed in assemblies, one does not know. But as Duhsasana approaches to carry out Karna’s command, none of the Kuru elders deem it fit to stop what is going on.
Why? We’re not told. But everyone seems to be caught up in the logic and reasoning of the debate that took place between Karna and Vikarna. They consider Karna’s point to be a sound one, though he takes a bit of a leap from ‘slave’ to ‘prostitute’.
In any case, Vidura is the first of the Kuru elders to reframe the conversation from ‘Has Draupadi been won?’ to ‘Why are we humiliating the daughter-in-law of the house in this manner?’
Once Vidura speaks in these terms, everyone slowly comes to their senses. Dhritarashtra asks forgiveness of Draupadi and gives the Pandavas back their kingdom and wealth.
One can argue both ways about whether Karna still burned with anger for what Draupadi had done to him at her swayamvara. After all, twelve years have passed. Did he still carry a grudge?
But then, Karna is precisely the sort of intense, brooding man that would find it difficult to forgive anyone for a slight of that nature. It is entirely possible that over all those years, Karna was biding his time, waiting for an opportunity to humiliate Draupadi in much the same way as she had humiliated him.
You called me a Sutaputra, he may say, and I called you a prostitute.
Either way, it seems reasonable to assume that at least part of his motivation for abusing Draupadi so ruthlessly stems from a desire to exact vengeance for her past slight.
(Even after all this, there are some who suggest that Draupadi may be in love with Karna. See what I think about that in: Did Draupadi Like Karna?)
Under Duryodhana’s Instructions
Much of Karna’s general antagonism toward the Pandavas arises out of his desperate need to be seen as loyal to Duryodhana. Since we have already established that Karna had no reason to be present at the dice game and had probably been invited there by Duryodhana, it is not unreasonable to presume that he was under further instructions to put on a boorish, uncouth act.
We know for certain that the dice game is planned by four people: Shakuni, Duryodhana, Karna and Duhsasana. During Draupadi’s disrobing, all the main antagonistic events are carried out by one of these four.
Even if Karna did not hate Draupadi enough to want her disrobed in public, he would have had to play his part in order to please Duryodhana. And to please Duryodhana is his life’s mission because Duryodhana has given him everything.
Regardless of the truth about the motivations behind his actions, Karna’s abuse of Draupadi – and the subsequent fallout – creates an unbridgeable fissure between the Kuru cousins.
So far, despite cool relationships, they were able to co-exist in relative harmony. But after this, after the Pandavas are sent to exile and robbed of their wealth, there is no going back to peace.
The Pandavas make a series of vows during this scene, all of which they fulfil during the war of Kurukshetra. The most visceral of these promises is Bhimasena assuring everyone that he will one day tear open the chest of Duhsasana and drink his blood.
If you liked this post, you may find these interesting also:
- 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story
- 300+ Mahabharata Stories to Thrill, Delight and Enchant You
- Karna: 41 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered
- Draupadi: 46 Questions about the Mahabharata Heroine Answered
- Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered