Note: I thank Exotic India website for permission to use this wonderful painting of Draupadi in a scene taken from the Mabharata. You can visit their website at
Exotic India Art
Draupadi and the Maids and Mothers of the Mahabharata
The Indian epic, the Mahabharata, is a tale of love, of hate, of two clans who vie for a kingdom, of a dice game where a kingdom is lost . . . and of a war to the death fought to gain back that kingdom. In addition, it is the story of three women, maids and mothers, who risk all for their husbands and families. This is the tale of Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, of Gandhari, the mother of the Kauravas, and of Draupadi, the most beautiful woman in the world and the epic drama that rages around them. Draupadi is the heroine of the Mahabharata, a Hindu Goddess born of fire who endures many misfortunes but adheres steadfastly to the moral values of Dharma and who proves her innocence and fidelity by walking through fire. This is an epic to end all epics and it is virtually unknown to most Americans.
First the cast of characters. Consider the births of the Pandavas and the Kauravas.
Birth of the Pandavas
Kunti, mother of the Pandava clan, possessed a most singular gift. When she was growing up, the famous sage,
Durvasa, visited her father. Durvasa was something of a curmudgeon and difficult to care for. He could be demanding and sometimes less than civil but Kunti was a kind and patient girl so her father charged her with Durvasa’s care. Kunti understood that Durvasa was an important wise man and wanted him to be well disposed toward her family. In appreciation for her care, Durvasa taught the young maiden a mantra. Whenever she recited it, he told her, it would cause any God she wanted to give her a son of equal glory to Himself.
Kunti was curious, as are all young maidens. She didn’t really believe that she literally had the power to call upon the Gods so one lazy afternoon when she had nothing better to do she tested the mantra to see what would happen. As she recited, she thought about the Sun God, Surya. To her shock and amazement, the sky immediately darkened, the clouds deepened, and Surya, the Sun God came down to earth under cover of the clouds. He appeared before her in a blinding light and Kunti fell to her knees in adoration. She apologized for what she had done.
“I didn’t know it would work,” she said. “Forgive me and go back to heaven.”
But alas, it was too late. A girl has the right to change her mind in most things but not when she calls upon a God to give her a son. For Surya, the mantra was an obligation He was duty bound to fulfill. Besides, he was taken with Kunti’s beauty and virtue. But He understood her predicament. She was a maiden and must retain her virginity or suffer disgrace in the eyes of the world. So Surya performed a miracle and Kunti had a virgin birth.
Kunti gave birth to a son and named him Karna. He was a child as brilliant and radiant as the sun itself and was destined to become a legendary warrior. He wore large celestial earrings and a bodysuit of pure gold. Although Kunti was still a virgin she could still be embarrassed by the presence of a new baby who had popped up out of nowhere. How would she explain him? Sadly she took her baby to the river, put him in a box with expensive jewels, and set him afloat. She loved Karna but knew it was impossible for her to keep him. A charioteer, who was doing his daily ablutions in the river, found the baby and took him to his wife who was childless. She was delighted and the couple became loving parents to the orphaned infant, the boy who was half man and half God.
When she came of age, Kunti married King Pandu, but after his marriage, King Pandu received a terrible curse. If he slept with a woman, he would die. After much soul searching, Queen Kunti told her husband about the mantra Durvasa had taught her and Pandu encouraged her to use it. He wanted sons to help him and to inherit his kingdom. So Kunti used the mantra three more times. The first time she called upon the God Dharma, and Yudhisthira was born. Yudhisthira, as first son and inheritor of the kingdom, possessed qualities of piety, judgment and the balance and order that makes the universe possible.
The second time Kunti used the mantra, she called upon Vayu, the God of Wind and Bhima was born. He was a bull of a man and became known for his immense strength.
The third born was Arjuna from the God Indra. Arjuna is the principal protagonist in the Mahabharata epic. He was a special friend of Lord Krishna and fabled in his ability to use the bow and arrow. He was so good that he could shoot an arrow into the eye of a raven at great distance.
After Kunti gave birth to her three sons, Pandu requested that she share the mantra with his second wife, Madri, who was a special friend of Kunti. She did and Madri gave birth to twins, Nakul and Shahadev from the God Ashvins. They represented sunrise and sunset and were especially versed in healing and medicine.
So, in total, there were five Pandavas, all born from the Gods.
Birth of the Kauravas
The Kauravas are the sons of Dhritarashtra, the blind king, and Gandhari. Both Dhritarashtra and Pandu, the father of the Pandavas, are sons of the Saint, Vayasa, the author of the Mahabharata. Gandari’s situation mirrors that of Kunti in a curious way. Vayasa came to visit Dhritarashtra and Gandari cared for him. He had a pleasant stay and granted Gandhari a wish. Her wish was for 100 sons all as strong as their father. She also asked for a daughter. Gandhari was pregnant for several years and at the end of that time she gave birth to a lifeless blob of flesh. She was devastated and was about to dispose of it when Vayasa reappeared and ordered her to purchase 101 jars with tight lids and to have them filled with ghee. He cut up the piece of flesh into 101 pieces and placed them in the jars.
When the first jar was opened and the first baby was born, he was named Duryodhana which means “the unconquerable one” or “difficult to fight with.” When Duryodhana let out his first scream upon being born, he set off a cacophony of howling from the beasts of the jungle and there were many signs of ill omen.
Frightened, Vayasa told his son and his daughter-in-law to abandon the baby. In a voice that echoed from hell, he said, “These omens spell doom to the Kuru clan. The scriptures clearly state that for the good of the clan, an individual can be sacrificed, for the good of the village, a clan can be sacrificed, for the good of the country, a village can be sacrificed, and for the development of the soul, even the earth can be sacrificed. So for the good of the clan and of the country and of humanity, please sacrifice this son of yours.”
But both Gandhari and Dhritrashtra loved their first-born son and could not cause him harm. They ignored Vayasa’s wishes and kept the child. ( Paraphrased from Wikipedia)
The characters are now in place and I can continue the story where we left off. To an American ear, some of the character names are difficult. I know I have trouble keeping everyone straight so I’ve added a crib sheet in the form of a character list at the end of this post. Please refer to it if you get confused.
Draupada, the King of Panchal, desired an invincible son to avenge him of his enemies. As if in answer to his prayers, a wise man came to the palace and offered to help him. The wise man set a ritual fire and fed it with offerings to the Gods. When it was hot and ready, the sage threw grains and ghee into it and the fire flared up to a great height. To Draupada’s delight, a well-formed teenaged boy stepped out. He was called Drishtidyumna. The boy bowed to his father but turned immediately back to the fire reaching out his hand. A teenaged girl took it in hers and stepped from the fire. She was the boy’s twin in every way and the most beautiful woman on earth at the time. Her name was Draupadi. In her turn she also bowed to her father.
Born of fire, the passionate Draupadi had fine skin the color of copper and her aura emanated the sweet scent of lotus blossoms. She was chaste but opinionated and confident. Her father could see that her fiery temper required a strong husband, one who would be equal to her in divine qualities.
In the Mahabharata, Draupadi is described as being the most beautiful woman ever born. She had eyes like lotus petals and faultless features endowed with youth and intelligence. Her extreme beauty could astound a beholder. She had a slender waist and her body emitted the fragrance of the blue lotus for two miles around.
As her father, Draupada knew Draupadi had a strong and fiery character and that her husband needed to be intelligent, righteous, handsome and an excellent warrior. The king believed he knew the perfect match for her. It was his hope that Lord Krishna, the eighth avatar of Vishnu, would become his son-in-law.
As was the custom at the time, the king held a Swayamyar, a competition for her hand in marriage and sent out word for miles around. Whoever won the competition would have Draupadi in marriage. Her fame had spread far and wide and all the warriors and princes from foreign lands traveled to the kingdom to try their hand.
Everyone who possibly could came to Draupadi’s Swayamyar, some to compete, some as spectators and some to just eat the food and enjoy the largesse of King Draupada. Along with the others came the five Pandava princes accompanied by their friend Lord Krishna. The Pandava princes were disguised as Brahmin priests. Karma, the orphaned son of Kunti, also came as he was a great warrior of unusual ability, bravery and beauty but he wasn’t recognized or known as a Pandava.
When Krishna arrived he met with King Draupada to pay his respects and Draupada asked him if he wanted to be Draupadi’s husband. Krishna declined but He pledged himself as her protector. He said it was his dharma to be like a brother and friend to Draupadi but assured Draupada that she would always be able to depend on him for help and counsel when and if she needed it. He suggested Arjuna as being the right husband for Draupadi.
He then went to meet Draupadi. Draupadi felt comfortable with Krishna and trusted him. She was grateful for the pledge of his protection and sought his advice about who to marry. He told her that she should keep an eye out for him during the competition and he would help her chose the man who would be the right husband for her.
Draupada then created a trial that would be difficult for anyone other than Arjuna to win. In the center of the court a pole was erected and on top of the pole was a revolving wheel. On the wheel was a fish. At the bottom of the pole was a pan of water. The winner would have to shoot an arrow through the eye of the fish while looking only at the reflection of the revolving fish in the water. The feat was almost impossible. Many tried and many failed.
Karna, the orphaned son of Kunti and the Sun God, came to try his luck and succeeded in hitting the eye of the fish. Draupada was angry and suspicious. He had designed the test so that only one man would be able to succeed and that man was Arjuna. Draupada demanded he do it again and he did. His arrow went directly into the eye of the fish. Draupadi rose with the garland of flowers to put around his neck as was expected of her but she glanced at Krishna first to see his reaction. He nodded no. She stopped, went back to her seat and said she would not marry a commoner, the son of a mere charioteer. Karna was angry and slammed out of the court vowing vengeance. He never forgave Draupadi for this greatest of all slights and hated her from that moment.
The next man up was a Brahmin, actually Arjuna in disguise. Only a prince was allowed to compete but although Arjuna was dressed as a Brahmin, he had the obvious bearing of a prince and was permitted to take part. He hit the eye of the fish on the first try and then did it again. Draupadi glanced at Lord Krishna who nodded yes. This was the man for her. She rose and put the wedding garland around his neck.
But the princes were jealous and rioted. They attacked Arjuna but Bhima, his brother, who had the strength of one hundred men, came to his rescue and easily defeated them.
Arjuna led Draupadi away from the palace to the hut where the Pandavas were staying. The Pandava brothers were excited and called out in unison to their mother, Kunti, who was in an interior room of the hut at the time.
“Look mother what we have brought home,” they said.
Thinking that they had brought home alms probably food, Kunti stayed where she was and called out to them. “Share it among yourselves.”
And that was it. The Pandavas were duty bound to obey every word their mother said. When Kunti came out and saw her mistake she was distressed. Draupadi had been won by Arjuna and had no intention of becoming the wife of all five Pandavas but Kunti couldn’t take back her words. In the Mahabharata there is no going back. There is no other incident of Polyandry in Hinduism. No one knew what to do.
Krishna came in at this moment and helped to resolve the situation. He told them that in a previous life Draupadi had worshipped Shiva to get a husband with five qualities but Shiva gave her the boon in her next life instead. Instead of one man with five qualities, she would marry five men each having one quality. Thus marrying the five Pandavas was Draupadi’s destiny, her dharma.
Read more at Kidsgen.com
Lord Krishna took Draupadi aside and said, “This awkward situation you find yourself in is of your own making but it is not your fault. Shiva has given you five fine husbands.”
Draupadi was concerned about the day-to-day workings of being the wife to five different men. There would be problems of who was the progenitor of offspring. The society then was patrilineal. How would she prove paternity? Also, Draupadi doubted if she would be able to divide her affection and time equally among the five and there might be fights and jealously. It would be difficult to love five different men in the same way. She would naturally prefer one over the other. How could she keep everything fair?
Krishna told her to spend one year with each Pandava starting with Yudhisthira, the oldest. At the end of the year, go to the next one. She would live with each brother in turn and the other brothers would be barred from entering her room. “This should solve your problems,” Krishna said. “And remember, if there are difficulties, you can come to me. I will always be there for you.”
The Dice Game
Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas and acting king in place of his blind father, invited his cousins, the Pandavas, to a dice game. The eldest, Yudhisthira, had the reputation of never being able to resist a challenge. He played for them all. Sakuni, an uncle of Duryodhana, made the dice that were used. It is said that he carved them from the bones of his parents and that the soul of his father was in them and would roll whatever number he desired. Bit by bit Yudhisthira lost the kingdom of the Pandavas to the evil Duryodhana. Increasingly desperate and anxious to win back his kingdom, Yudhisthira put up his brothers as collateral, and lost them one by one. He then put up himself but lost. He had nothing. He was bereft. Duryodhana then issued one last challenge.
He said, “Put up Draupadi and I will put up everything, your kingdom and mine. If you win you will be the Lord of all the land.”
Inebriated and excited by the game and wine, Yudhisthira could not resist. To the horror of everyone present, he pinned everything on one last roll of the dice. Sakuni rolled. Duryodhana could not lose: the dice rolled in his favor.
Word was then sent to Draupadi in the women’s quarters to present herself in the main hall. When she learned that she was staked in a dice game and had become Duryodhana’s slave, she is horrified.
“I am no one’s slave. I am a Queen,” she insisted and refused to leave the quarters. Thinking quickly, the intelligent Draupadi presented an argument. “If Yudhisthira has already lost himself then he cannot lose anything else. If he lost himself, he does not own me. Besides, I am a Queen in my own right. He cannot gamble me away.” But Duryodhana refused to listen to such logic. He commanded his brother, Dushasana, to fetch her to the hall. Dushasana forcefully dragged her out to the middle of the court by her hair.
Draupadi was indignant. She insisted that she is a person in her own right and in charge of her own destiny. “I cannot be gambled away like a possession. I am a Queen”, she argued.
She appealed to Yudhistira to help her. “You are my husband,” she cried. “It is your duty to protect me.” but Yudhistira shrugged helplessly. She appealed to each brother in turn but no one could help her. Duryodhana wanted to further humiliate Draupadi and the Pandavas, so he bared and patted his thigh while staring deeply into Draupadi’s eyes. The implication wass clear. He wanted her to sit on his thigh.
Bhima, son of the Wind God, went into a rage and vowed, “I will break that thigh, Duryodhana, or be your slave for seven lifetimes.”
At this point Duryodhana’s brother, third in line for the throne, saw danger in Duryodhana’s tactics. He argued that Draupadi was right. If Yudhisthira had lost himself, he could not stake her. “Besides,” he said, she is the common wife of all the Pandavas.” He put the question to all the assembled kings. It was then that Karna, Kunti’s orphaned son, infuriated because he had been turned down by Draupadi at her Swayamvara, called her a whore. According to Hindu scripture, a woman who has sexual relations with more than three men is automatically a whore. Seeing her husbands sitting passive and helpless, Draupadi prayed to Krishna to protect her. The Pandavas and the court looked away as Dushasana began to undress Draupadi. He unwraped her sari but the cloth turned out to be endless. It went on and on and Dushasana became exhausted. He could not continue and her honor was saved.
Bhima , impassioned by the sight of his beloved Draupadi being violated, vowed to all those present, “I will cut off your arm, Dushasana, and I will drink your heart’s blood before I allow either you or your kin to enter the kingdom of heaven.” The court was uncomfortable with all it had witnessed.
Anger flashed from Draupadi. She turned to Duryodhana and vowed, “When I next wash my hair, it will be with your blood. When I next comb it, it will be with your bones.”
The only Kauravas who objected to Draupadi’s disrobing was Vikarna, Duryodhans’s brother, who I already mentioned, and Vidura, the son of Vyasa and a half brother of Dhritarashtra’s. Vidura called Duryodhana a snake and a demon but found no support in the court. Draupadi threatened that when her father heard of this insult to his daughter, he would destroy them and all their kingdom.
Draupadi was about to curse the entire Kuru kingdom when Gandhari interupted and called Dhritarashtra to action. The blind king realized that he had given too much power to his son in ruling the kingdom and intervened. He knew he could not undo what has already been done but he offerd Draupadi three boons. For her first boon, Draupadi asked that her husbands be freed from bondage so her sons would not be called Dasas (servants). For her second boon she asked that all the wealth Yudhisthira lost be restored to them. She does not make a third wish thinking the two boons are enough of a concession. She didn’t want to create ill will.
Duryodhana later convinced his father to invite the Pandavas to a new game of dice with modified rules. The loser in this game would go into exile for twelve years followed by a year of anonymity. Yudhisthira agreed and once again lost. The Pandavas, accompanied by Draupadi, were sent into exile for thirteen years.
At the end of that time, there was a great war. Duryodhana was killed and almost all of civilization as it was then known lay dead on the battlefield. Draupadi got her wish. She washed her hair in the blood of Duryodhana and combed her hair with his bones. The Pandavas were again the kings of the land but an evil darkness took hold of the people. They began to speak unkindly of Draupadi. “She is overly proud,” they said. “She is vengeful and cruel.” They whispered that she was a whore for having five husbands. They complained to the Pandavas and demanded a trial by fire.
They said that Draupadi must walk on coals to prove her purity and fidelity. She did, and as her feet touched the fire, the coals turned to rose blossoms. She came through unscathed and was gladly welcomed back by her husbands. Once again the name of Draupadi was celebrated throughout the land.
Every year when it draws near to the festival of light, important elements from the story of the Mahabharata are retold and fire walks are held to commemorate her triumph.
Mythological figures stand for something. The Greek Goddess, Pandora, was a gifted woman with a serious fault — curiosity — and as a result of that curiosity, she unleashed evil upon the world. Draupadi’s story is far more difficult to understand. She is the most beautiful woman on earth and for her, beauty is both a blessing and a curse. She listened to Krishna, took his advice and went to him throughout her life. She was passionate and proud, kind and giving, and both vengeful and forgiving.
I was raised Catholic and the only woman in what could be called Catholic myth was the Virgin Mary. Mary was meek and mild, kind and loving but asexual. She was a woman with all of a woman’s traits save one, sex itself. Mary didn’t sweat. Did she have menstrual periods? I almost feel like I’ve sinned even asking that question.
The Virgin Mary is a tough act to follow — so is Draupadi — but I can see myself as Draupadi and I am jealous of my Hindu sisters for their luck. She had breasts and hips and a belly button and Mary does not.
There are other mythical similarities to note. Kunti’s virginity was reconstituted, and Karna, beginning his life in the river, reminds me of Moses in the reeds. There is a lot here. What is your take on all of this?
Note: Blue ink means the character is a Pandava and red ink means he/she is a Kauravas. Black ink is neutral.
|Arjuna||No. 3 Pandava son. Son of the God, Indra.|
|Bhima||No 2 Pandava son. Son of the God of Wind, Vayu. Known for immense strength. A bull of a man. Killed 100 brothers by himself.|
|Bhishma||8th son of Kuru King Shantanu. Grand uncle of Pandavas and Kauravas|
|Dhritarashtra||Husband of Gandhari and father of Duryodhana, Dushasana and the 100.|
|Draupada||Father of Draupadi.|
|Draupati||Born of fire. Daughter of Draupada. Wife to five Pandavas.|
|Drishtidyumna||Born from fire, twin brother of Draupata.|
|Durvasa||Famous sage. Gave mantra to Kunti.|
|Duryodhana||Eldest son of Dhritarashtra. The day he was born the forest animals howled in pain.|
|Dushasana||Second son of Dhritarashtra and brother of Durodhana.|
|Ganhari||Mother of Kauravas clan.|
|Karna||Orphaned son of Kunti and Sun God. Fought on Kauravas side.|
|Krishna||Lord Krishna, 8th avatar of Vishnu.|
|Kunti||Wife of King Pandu of Hastinapur. Mother of the Pandava clan.|
|Madri||Second wife of Pandu, Mother of Nakul and Sahadeva by God Ashvins.|
|Nakula||No 4, Youngest Pandava. Son of Madri and the God Ashvins.|
|Pandu||King of Hastinapur. Father of Pandavas.|
|Sahadeva||No 5, Youngest Pandava. Swears to kill Shakuni to avenge Draupati’s honor and does on 18th day of the Kurukshetra war.|
|Shakuni||Brother of Gandhari and uncle of Duryodhana. Shakuni is angry that his sister, Gandhari marries a blind man. Carves dice from the bones of his dead parents dice that will never lose him a game. Shakuni’s father’s soul is said to have entered the dice and would roll to whatever number Shakuni wanted.|
|Vayasa||Wise man. Wrote Mahabharata. Father of Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vikarna. Helped Gandavi have 100 sons. Predicted Duryodhana was evil.|
|Vikarna||Son of Vayasa. Brother to Dhritarashtra and Pandu.|
|Yudhishthira||No 1. Oldest Pandava. Son of God of Dharma|