In this series of posts, I am reconstructing the Mahabharata as a sequence of episodes. This will provide a quick and easy way for someone new to the story to become acquainted with it.
(For the previous post in this series, see Episode 17: The Game of Dice.
To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)
Draupadi Frames the Argument
As soon as Yudhishthir loses Draupadi as the concluding act of the dice game against Shakuni, Duryodhana bellows out a laugh. Getting up in his seat, he passes an order to the attendant to carry a message to Draupadi that she must make herself available in court in the manner befitting a waiting woman.
The attendant does the prince’s bidding and goes to the women’s quarters. And on hearing about everything that had occurred during the game of dice, Draupadi asks, ‘If the king had already lost himself, by what right did he pledge me?’
She sends the attendant back to the hall with this message, implying that she is a free agent now, unbound by marriage.
The question catches the elders of the Kuru court off guard. First, there is the flagrant disobedience of the king’s orders. Second, there is the logic of her words. Is she, or is she not, a slave of the Kauravas now? No one seems to know.
This is where Duryodhana takes matters into his own hands. Standing up, he says, ‘Why do we allow a mere waiting woman to question the orders of the king? Duhsasana, go and bring Draupadi here, with or without her consent.’
And thus, in a now famous scene, Duhsasana drags Draupadi by the hair into open court with all the elders in attendance.
Once she appears, amid tears and shock, Draupadi repeats her question, thus framing the argument around her independence as a person rather than her position as daughter-in-law of the Kuru court.
Is she won? Or not won?
None of the assigned elders of the hall weigh in on the subject one way or the other, and it falls to Vikarna, one of Duryodhana’s brothers, to speak on Draupadi’s behalf.
His argument has four main points:
- Yudhishthir was under the influence of dice when he staked Draupadi.
- Draupadi is not the sole property of Yudhishthir; she is a common wife.
- Yudhishthir was convinced by Shakuni to pledge Draupadi. The king was not acting of his free will.
- Yudhishthir lost himself before pledging Draupadi.
Taking these four points into consideration, says Vikarna, Draupadi ought to be declared ‘not won’.
But on the other side of this debate is Karna. In his rebuttal, he points out:
- Yudhishthir placed himself under the influence of dice. He was informed of the rules at the beginning.
- Draupadi is a common wife, but she is the person in position of ‘queen’. Therefore she is the property of Yudhishthir.
- No cajoling had taken place. Once the game began, it had to be played to the end.
- Despite losing himself, and despite becoming a slave, Yudhishthir still had a right over his wife. Even a slave had a right to possessions, one of them being his wife.
Karna Makes an Accusation
So far Karna is on stable ground. He is debating with Vikarna on a point of morality. But after putting forth his view, he goes a few steps further and insults Draupadi’s character.
‘For those of you who think,’ he says, ‘that bringing a woman here out into the open in a single piece of cloth is improper, remember that all our scriptures have ordained just one husband for one woman.
‘Indeed, it has been said that a woman who takes five paramours is equivalent to a prostitute. Such a woman is already unchaste, and it is not at all an unchaste act to bring her into the open view of men in an assembly such as this, even if she is dressed in a single cloth, even if she is menstruating.’
And then he orders Duhsasana to remove Draupadi’s clothing from her body.
This is of course completely beside the point. The marriage of Draupadi to the five Pandavas is none of Karna’s business. As long as Draupadi and the Pandavas are happy with their arrangement, no one else needs to give their approval.
Here, Karna is apparently blinded by spite and hubris. He is the first person in the assembly to suggest that Draupadi’s clothes should be removed – and the reason he gives for it is that she is a prostitute.
It is hard to overstate how significant this is. The disrobing of Draupadi is the pivotal point around which the entire story of the Mahabharata turns. And the person solely responsible for it is Karna.
(For a more detailed version of this incident, see: What Happened during Draupadi’s Disrobing?)
Sense Prevails with Vidura
With Duhsasana actually preparing to undress Draupadi and with Bhishma and Dhritarashtra remaining mute, Vidura rises and addresses his king.
Smartly, he steers clear of all the logical mazes that Vikarna and Karna have set up. Instead, he appeals to Dhritarashtra’s sense of judgement. Through a story, he gives Dhritarashtra four pieces of advice:
- He who knows the truth but does not speak it because of temptation, anger or fear will cast upon himself a thousand nooses of Varuna. At the end of each year, one noose disappears, so the person punishes himself for a thousand years.
- If virtue is pierced by sin (Draupadi being the symbol of virtue here) in an assembly, it is the duty of every person in attendance at the gathering to offer protection. In an assembly where a censurable act is not rebuked, half the demerit attaches to the head of the assembly (Dhritarashtra in this case).
- If the sinful act is duly stopped, then the head of the assembly and all the others free themselves of the demerit, and the perpetrator himself becomes the sole one responsible for consequences.
- A person becomes a witness by virtue of having heard, seen, and understood a particular event. When functioning in this manner, a witness should always tell the truth as it occurs to him.
Duryodhana Drives a Wedge
When Vidura asks the elders of the Kuru court for guidance on the issue, Bhishma surprisingly (almost farcically) says that they should all ask Yudhishthir to adjudicate on the matter.
‘Yudhishthir is the one person among us all who knows all the shastras,’ says Bhishma. ‘Perhaps we ought to ask him.’
(To call this a weak copout on part of Bhishma is an understatement. This is the other reason for the whole disrobing incident: a lack of strong leadership that is unafraid to take hard decisions.)
Yudhishthir remains silent, and Duryodhana, sensing an opportunity, says, ‘If Bhimasena and Arjuna admit in front of this assembly hall that Yudhishthir is not their master and lord,’ he says, ‘I shall grant Draupadi her freedom right this moment.’
His intention is to divide the Pandavas and to turn Arjuna or Bhima (just one will do) against Yudhishthir publicly. But Bhima, despite being overcome by anger, replies, ‘King Yudhishthir has been our master all our lives, and he will remain one until our deaths.’
Interestingly, it is Arjuna who wavers just a little bit. With eyes downcast, he says, ‘King Yudhishthir was our master at the time he started the dice game. But now, he has lost us and he has lost himself too. Now it is right for the Kauravas to decide whether or not he is the master.’
At these words, the people in the assembly hall draw a deep breath, because this is the first evidence of fissures among the brothers.
Even as ill omens make their presence felt in the form of jackals howling and hounds baying, among chants of ‘Swasti’ from Drona, Bhishma and Kripacharya, Dhritarashtra gets up at the throne and begins to speak.
Dhritarashtra Says ‘Enough’
At the appearance of inauspicious portents such as birds of prey shrieking in the middle of the day, Dhritarashtra decides that enough is enough. All this while he has been watching (in a way) mutely as events unfolded in the assembly; now he raises a hand for silence and addresses Draupadi.
‘I do not know the answer to your question, O Panchali,’ he says. ‘But I do know that as the queen of the Pandavas, and the daughter-in-law of this esteemed dynasty, you have suffered much in the hands of my son.
Let this gathering be called to a halt right now. Along with my apology, I give you a boon. Ask for anything.’
Draupadi ends up earning not one but two boons from Dhritarashtra:
- She wishes for Yudhishthir to be freed from slavery first.
- Second, she wishes for the other four of her husbands to be given back their freedoms.
- When Dhritarashtra gives her a third boon, she respectfully declines and tells him she is happy with two.
This elicits a word of admiration from Karna. He says, ‘We have not seen or heard of such an act performed by any woman in the world. With the sons of Pandu lost and sinking in an ocean of distress, Krishnaa has become the boat that rescued them.’
Thus, the end to Draupadi’s ordeal did not come about due to any logical closure but from inauspicious signs of nature. The underlying message appears to be this: some matters are not to be resolved through logic.
Undressing a woman – let alone a queen, a daughter-in-law of the house – publicly in a hall of men – with the intention to humiliate her – is wrong. Even if a strong logical argument can be constructed to support it, it is still wrong.
That is what Dhritarashtra understood from the howls of jackals and the hooting of owls.
Yudhishthir Loses Everything
After Draupadi wins back the freedom of her husbands from Dhritarashtra, they get back on their chariots and leave for Indraprastha.
But Duryodhana convinces Dhritarashtra to send an invitation to Yudhishthir for another dice game. And this time, the terms are agreed upon right at the start:
The loser will go on a twelve-year exile with a thirteenth year of incognito to be spent in hiding outside of the forest, in urban areas. If they manage to get through the thirteenth year without being identified, they will be given back their kingdom. But if they are caught during the thirteenth year, they will leave for another twelve-year exile.
It is not certain why Yudhishthir does not reject this proposal: all we can speculate is that the events that have transpired were not dire enough to shake him out of his vow of cooperation with Dhritarashtra.
This second dice game happens very quickly, and of course the Pandavas lose. This time there is no need for arguments or debates on Dharma. They merely change into humble clothes and leave.
Before they leave, though, four of the Pandava brothers take oaths in anger:
- Arjuna promises the universe that he will one day kill Karna.
- Bhimasena is easily the most affected man of the lot: he takes a vow that he will shatter Duryodhana’s thigh, and that he will drink Duhsasana’s blood.
- Sahadeva’s oath is to kill Shakuni, the architect of the whole game.
- And Nakula, when it is his turn, speaks of his desire to kill all the Dhartarashtras who have humiliated Draupadi.
All of these oaths are fulfilled during the Mahabharata war.
As they leave…
As the Pandavas and Draupadi leave for the forest, we’re given short descriptions of how they carried themselves.
- Yudhishthir covers his face with a cloth, afraid that if he opens his eyes the fire that burns his heart might spill out and destroy everything he sees.
- Bhimasena walks while closely examining his mighty arms, lost in thought about how he is going to use his superhuman strength on his foes when the time comes for retribution of all these wrongs.
- Arjuna throws sand-grains all around him, reminding himself of the rain of arrows that he is going to unleash upon the world on his return.
- Sahadeva smears his face so that no one in the city can recognize him.
- Nakula covers himself in dust so that no lady who looks at him would lose her heart to him. (Strange, but okay.)
- Draupadi weeps incessantly, not for herself or her husbands but for all the future deaths of men who have treated her badly on this day. She is shedding tears for the plight of all the women of Hastinapur who are going to be widowed due to the sinful acts that have been allowed to happen.
Thus begins the Pandavas’ twelve-year exile period. A number of things happen during this time, not the least of which is the growth of Arjuna into an invincible warrior.
More of that in our next episode.
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