A lesson from the life of one of the great heroines of the Vedic tradition.

By Chaitanya Charana Dasa

When circumstances render her helpless, Draupadi’s unflinching devotion to dharma attracts divine protection and serves as an inspiration for us.

Draupadi’s admirable character is revealed in the most humiliating incident of her life – her attempted disrobing by the wicked Duhshasana. Though victimized in body, she refuses to be victimized in heart. Her exceptional character transforms the lowest point in her life into the highest point. From the incident in which she is the most dishonored, she emerges as the most honorable.

Victim of a Power Play

On that fateful day, in keeping with a purificatory tradition, she is wearing a long single cloth – a kind of sari – for a specified period before putting on her ornate royal garments as the chief queen of the reigning monarch, Yudhishthira. Unknown to her, he has lost everything in a rigged gambling match – his property, his brothers, himself, and finally her. According to the terms of the gambling match, they all have now become slaves of the Kauravas.

After the Kauravas win Draupadi, the jeering Karna suggests that she be summoned to the assembly and disrobed publicly, as she is now the Kauravas’ slave, bound to do their bidding. The reprehensible scheme to disrobe her is driven not just by lust but also by hunger for power – the Kauravas see Draupadi less as a person and more as a tool to demean the Pandavas. Their mentality is marked through and through by objectification of women.

They order a court messenger to summon Draupadi. The messenger goes to her chamber and informs her about all that has transpired in the assembly. She is appalled, but quickly pulls herself together and comes up with a strategy to buy time. She tells the messenger to ask the assembly whether she has actually been lost, since Yudhishthira had already gambled and lost himself. When he was not his own master, how could he have gambled her away? Draupadi is grasping at straws, and she probably knows it. But when straws are all that’s there to grasp, they need to be held on to firmly.

That Yudhishthira gambled Draupadi might suggest that he too treated women as property, thus objectifying them. But the sequence of events reveals a more nuanced reality. Yudhishthira gambled her after he had gambled himself, whereas he had gambled all his property before he had gambled himself. So, even if Draupadi is considered his property, she is categorically higher than the rest of his property – for him, she is more precious than himself. She is his property in the sense of “belonging,” as used when a lover says to the beloved, “You belong to me.” Such an assertion makes the beloved feel valued, cherished, treasured.

When the messenger conveys Draupadi’s question to the assembly, the Kauravas demand that she come and ask it herself. The messenger returns to Draupadi, but she sends him back asking whether the righteous assembly has actually summoned her, a chaste woman, to appear in public in her present condition when she is dressed in a single cloth. The evil-minded Duryodhana can’t wait to humiliate the Pandavas, so he tells his brother Duhshasana to bring her immediately to the court. That vile warrior strides to her chamber and pounces on her. Screaming for help, she tries to run to the chambers of Gandhari, the Kauravas’ mother, who might be able to stop her son. But Duhshasana catches her by the hair, drags her to the assembly, and hurls her to the ground in the middle of the hall.

Technicality and Travesty

Though disheveled and distraught, Draupadi rises, offers her respect to the assembly, and requests that they answer her question. The blind king Dhritarashtra remains silent. So the responsibility to answer falls on the eldest member of the assembly, the grandsire Bhishma. He states that two principles are pertinent: a wife always belongs to her husband, whereas nothing belongs to a slave. He confesses his inability to decide which of the two principles merits precedence in this circumstance.

No one in the assembly offers any other opinion except Dhritarashtra’s half-brother, Vidura – he strongly condemns the attempt to disrobe Draupadi and indeed the whole conspiracy to dispossess the Pandavas through the rigged gambling match. But Duryodhana has made a habit of neglecting his uncle’s wise counsel, and this occasion is no exception. His father is too attached to him to do anything that will displease him.

The whole assembly gets caught in a technicality about dharma and ends up condoning a travesty of dharma. The bhakti tradition calls such an error niyamagraha – sticking to the letter of the law while neglecting its spirit. The real issue was not “Does a woman belong to her husband?” but “Did the assembly find the dishonoring of a virtuous woman unconscionable?”

Duryodhana, enjoying the Pandavas’ discomfiture, tries to pit wife against husband. He announces that if Draupadi admits that dharma-raja Yudhishthira violated dharma by gambling her, he will release all the Pandavas. Shrewdly, Draupadi rejects his bait. She refuses to cast any blame on her husband, not because she is blind to his mistake, but because she is honorable enough to publically stand by her loved ones, even when they have committed a terrible mistake – all the more so when they are remorseful, as Yudhishthira so clearly was. Just because we are let down by others doesn’t mean we have to let them down.

She responds that if Yudhishthira had had the choice, he wouldn’t have gambled at all – he had gambled only because of the instruction of his elders. The onus was, therefore, on those elders to decide what was right.

The dishonoring of Draupadi is so heinous that it triggers dissension in the Kaurava camp. One of Duryodhana’s brothers, Vikarna, rises and urges the assembly to answer her question. When he is answered with silence, he offers his own opinion, pointing out several improprieties in the gambling match. First, the rules of gambling stated that the person staking the wealth had to cast the dice, not some surrogate. As Duryodhana had staked his wealth against Yudhishthira, Sakuni’s casting the dice on Duryodhana’s behalf had invalidated the match right from the beginning. Second, Yudhishthira had gambled unwillingly, being compelled by his elders’ instruction. Third, he had been goaded to keep gambling far beyond civilized limits – things done under the spell of gambling shouldn’t be taken seriously among relatives. And, most pertinently, he had lost himself first, so he was in no position to stake Draupadi. The assembly applauds Vikarna, but Karna, waving his huge shoulders, silences everyone. He mocks Vikarna, labeling him immature and ignorant of morality. Rather than rationally refute Vikarna, Karna inexplicably chooses to fight dirty – he justifies the atrocious dishonoring of Draupadi by assassinating her character. Deeming her a prostitute for having married five men, he argues that there was nothing wrong in publically dragging and disrobing such a dishonorable woman.

This grievous slur on Draupadi’s character was entirely unjustified. Though polyandry was rare, it had scriptural and historical precedents. Additionally, Draupadi hadn’t done anything objectionable to get five husbands – she had simply accepted the decision of her elders. Sages of the caliber of Vyasa and Narada had sanctioned her marriage to the five Pandavas, declaring that it had been ordained by the great god Shiva. In no way was such polyandry comparable to prostitution. For his mendacious and malicious insult to an honorable woman, Karna deserves the strongest censure.

The Inexhaustible Robe and the Exhausted Disrober

With Vikarna silenced by Karna, Duryodhana asks Duhshasana to strip Draupadi. Crying in mortification, she desperately holds on to her sari. But she is no match for that huge brute. Feeling her cloth being forcefully dragged off her body, she raises her hands in fervent supplication to her Lord, Krishna, and begs Him to rescue her from sinking in the Kaurava ocean. By Krishna’s mystic power, her sari becomes endless. Duhshasana keeps pulling and pulling and pulling, but to no avail. He gets exhausted, but her sari remains inexhaustible. The whole assembly applauds Draupadi’s virtuousness that has attracted such supernatural protection, and censures the Kauravas for attempting to dishonor her.

Though Krishna didn’t personally appear to protect Draupadi, the bhakti tradition explains that He incarnated as her inexhaustible sari. This incident of Draupadi’s honor being protected by Krishna has been immortalized in the bhakti tradition through architecture and literature, poetry and imagery, prayer and song. Krishna’s supernatural intervention is thrilling and inspiring, but it shouldn’t detract from Draupadi’s strength of character. That remarkable strength comes from her spirituality, her pure devotion to Krishna. And her foundational spirituality finds its culminating expression in her helpless prayer to Krishna and His miraculous reciprocation.

Significantly, the miracle doesn’t slow the Mahabharata’s narrative. Its focus remains on discerning dharma, and dharma centers on human actions, not divine interventions.

Unsurprisingly, the adharmic Kauravas aren’t fazed by the miracle. Their failure to disrobe Draupadi doesn’t make them rethink their maliciousness; it just makes them suspend their intention to disrobe her. Rather than recognizing that they are doing something dastardly that has caused higher powers to stop them, they decide to continue their humiliation campaign in another way – they declare that Draupadi should be sent to the maids’ quarters and taught to sweep their palace.

Bald Lies and Salted Wounds

Meanwhile, several inauspicious omens occur. Vidura warns Dhritarashtra that such omens portend the destruction of the Kuru dynasty and implores him to stop the adharma that is provoking these omens as reactions. When Vidura informs the king that his sacrificial fire, which he had kept lit throughout his life, has gone out, the king is finally jolted out of his stupor. Coming to his senses, he attempts to minimize the damage. He lauds Draupadi for her chastity and courage, and tries to mitigate the Pandavas’ silent fury by mouthing sweet words.

The baldness of his lies would have provoked laughter had the situation not evoked such horror. He says that he had called the gambling match just to test the skills of the two cousins. But how was the Kauravas’ skill tested by having Sakuni gamble on their behalf? The situation was like that of a person who invites someone to a friendly boxing match and then has Mike Tyson fight in his stead – and fight with a win-at-all-costs, take-no-prisoners mindset.

Dhritarashtra tells Draupadi to ask for a boon. She asks for the release of her husband – not Arjuna, who had won her during her svayamvara (marriage contest), but Yudhishthira, who had lost her during the gambling match.

Even in the closest of relationships, we all sometimes commit mistakes. Most of us do have a conscience that makes us feel bad when we act harshly. In sensitive people, that pinch of conscience is a pain severe enough to impel them towards self-correction. When we have hurt someone, we often feel regretful and repentant. But when the hurt person hits back at us with harsh words, those words frequently become like salt on the wound of our self-recrimination. The aggravated sting can change our attitude from self-corrective to ultra-defensive, thereby worsening the situation. Such aggravation of the situation can be prevented if the hurt person resists the urge to hit back. However, controlling one’s pain and anger when we are grievously hurt is not easy – it requires great fortitude.

Exhibiting such fortitude, Draupadi resists the temptation to put any salt on Yudhishthira’s wounds. Instead, by asking that he be released, she helps the mortified king regain his dignity.

Dhritarashtra tells Draupadi to ask for some other benediction. She asks that all her husbands be released along with their weapons, adding that they don’t need anything more – with their weapons alone they will regain everything else. The king says that he is not satisfied and tells her to ask for more benedictions. Draupadi declines, quoting an ancient standard that forbids kshatriya women from asking more than two benedictions. In a rare display of magnanimity, the king returns to the Pandavas everything they had lost. (Later, they are recalled for another rigged gambling match, on losing which they are exiled to the forest.)

The Virtuous Turns Villainous

Karna can’t tolerate this foiling of the scheme to dishonor the Pandavas. The moment when the Pandavas regain what they have lost is Draupadi’s one moment of dignity in a nightmare of indignity. And yet Karna cannot let her have even that much relief. He can’t resist taking a potshot at the Pandavas: Just see these warriors who were saved by a woman!

In this incident, Draupadi emerges the brightest character. The character who emerges the darkest is not Duhshasana, although he gets infamously immortalized as Draupadi’s disrober. The darkest character is not Duryodhana, whose envy is the engine for all these evil machinations. The character who emerges the darkest is Karna, not because his behavior is so reprehensible, but because it is so shockingly out of character for him. To his credit, he regrets his actions, as he admits later while speaking to Krishna and then to Bhishma. In contrast, Duhshasana and Duryodhana never regret their vile deeds – their only regret is that they couldn’t dishonor the Pandavas more. Just as in the Ramayana Kaikeyi acts reprehensibly due to Manthara’s association, so too in the Mahabharata Karna acts reprehensibly by Duryodhana’s association, being driven by the desire to please that debauched prince.

A Spine of Steel

In this incident Krishna’s protecting Draupadi is often highlighted. An equally, if not more, important highlight is Draupadi’s consistent strength of character. Within her female form runs a spine of steel that stands straight even when she is demeaned. And that steely resolve is relevant and instructive for us. When the world subjects us to indignity, we may not be the beneficiaries of miraculous rescues, but we can still cultivate a steely resolve and thereby go through and grow through that adversity. Such inner strength is something that all women – and all men too – can aspire for, no matter what indignity the world subjects us to.

Today, when systems for the protection of women are often found to be distressingly inadequate, this ancient incident when the system utterly fell apart speaks to all of us. Draupadi reveals the strength that comes from one’s innate dignity, by sheltering one’s identity not in one’s femininity, but in one’s spirituality.

Who cannot admire such character and admire the character with such character?