The episode in the Mahabharata in which the swayamvara of Draupadi takes place is one of the most debated and discussed portions of the great epic. Many versions of this incident exist, each of which narrates the happenings in the court of Drupada in a different way. The chief amongst the disputes is regarding the treatment of Karna in the contest.
The North Indian recensions of the Mahabharata claim that Karna succeeded in stringing the bow and was about to shoot at the artificial fish when Draupadi stopped him declaring that she wouldn’t marry a suta. At this, Karna is supposed to have laughed and returned back without completing the task. These renditions essentially claim that Karna was fully capable of completing the challenge and therefore he was equal to, if not better, than Arjuna.
The critical edition of the Mahabharata published by BORI simply does not have any mention of Karna’s attempt. The shlokas seem to have been dropped to bring about a ‘consistency’ between the various recensions. In the 2-3 chapters that narrate this incident, a few other shlokas have also been dropped to, once again, make the narration appear consistent.
In the Southern recensions, including the famous Kumbhakonam edition, the narration of this episode is more detailed, and the description of Karna’s episode is contrary to the Northern recensions. In this version, Karna attempts to string the bow, and fails! So the situation involving Draupadi interfering and rejecting him simply does not arise in this narration.
In the various editions of the Mahabharata that exists in the astha mathas of Udupi (following the parampara of Sri Madhwacharya) also, the narration is in line with the Kumbhakonam edition. The description of this incident in the Mahabharata Tatparya Nirnaya of Sri Madhwacharya is also along the same lines.
Let us look at this interesting episode from the Jaya as per the Southern recensions and the Tatparya Nirnaya of Sri Madhwacharya.
After the slaying of Bakasura by Bhimasena at Ekachakranagara, the Pandavas continue to stay in that village for a while. One day a Brahmana visits them and informs them of the swayamvara of Draupadi that has been setup by King Drupada of Panchala. He advises them to go and participate in the same.
The Pandavas decide to go to Panchala for the swayamvara. On the way, they encounter a Gandharva by name Chitrasena. Arjuna defeats the Gandharva and obtains the divine Agneyastra in return. Chitrasena also advises them to obtain the services of a purohita. The Pandavas thank him for the suggestion and thereafter engage Sage Dhaumya, who remains their purohita for the remainder of their lives.
The Pandavas, Kunti and Dhaumya reach Panchala – in the guise of Brahmanas – to ensure no one recognizes them. They spend a number of days at the capital city of Drupada staying in the house of a potter, along with many other Brahmanas who had gathered there to witness the contest.
Drupada had secretly nurtured a desire that the madhyama Pandava – Arjuna – should marry his daughter Draupadi. Keeping this in mind, he had obtained a mighty bow called Kindhura and had also obtained a boon from Lord Shiva that none, except Arjuna, would be able to string the bow.
तद्दनुः किन्धुरं नाम देवदत्तमुपानयत् |
ज्यायसी तस्य च ज्याsसीत् प्रतिबद्धामहाबला ||
न तु ज्यां प्रसहेदन्यस्तद्दमः प्रवरं महत् |
शङ्करेण वरं दत्तं प्रीतेन च महात्मना || Adi – 185 – 10, 11 ||
“That excellent bow, by name Kindura, was given by the Lord. It had an excellent and strong string that was to be bound. Lord Shankara, who was pleased (with Drupada) had granted a boon that none else (other than Arjuna) would be able to string it”
(Note: The critical edition has omitted the above two shlokas)
Drupada had gotten an instrument (machine) made and placed it at a height in the contest hall. The instrument had a hole in the middle through which one could see an artificial fish placed at its center. The challenge for the Kings and Princes was to see the reflection of the fish in a bowl of water placed on the ground and release five arrows upwards. The one who would hit the fish with all the arrows would win the hand of Draupadi!
Assembly of Kings
Numerous Kings and Princes from all over Bharata had arrived at Panchala for the contest. All of them were received by Drupada and his family and treated royally. They enjoyed the hospitality of the Panchalas and spent their time practising their arts and simply enjoying their time.
After 16 such days of revelry, the day of the swayamvara arrived. All the royals gathered in the main hall. There were also many brahmanas who had gathered at the place to witness the contest. The Pandavas had joined the rest of the Brahmanas and were seated along with them.
Dhristhadyumna got up and welcomed each of the Kings. He announced the names of the great Kings who had gathered there.
At first he announced the names of the many sons of Dhritharashtra – including Duryodhana, Dushashana, Durvishaha, Durmukha, Vivimshati, Vikarna and others – who had arrived there. He announced that the Kauravas had come there along with Karna.
कर्णेन सहिता वीराः त्वदर्थे समुपागताः |
शतसंख्या महात्मनः समेता देवरूपिणः || Adi – 185 – 15||
“These 100 brave warriors, all of whom are like Devatas and possess great endeavour, have arrived here, along with Karna, in order to obtain you”
(Note: The critical edition does has the above shloka. It clearly shows Karna was considered as a Kshatriya here, due to his lordship over the Kingdom of Anga)
Some of the other Kings and warriors who had gathered there were Shakuni, Vrushaka, Ashwathama, Bhoja, Vasu, Suvarcha, Amshuman, Chekitana, Jarasandha, Danda, Paundraka Vasudeva and Bhagadatta.
The mighty Rugmangada, Rugmaratha, Shalya, Somadatta and his sons Bhuri, Bhurishravas and Shala, Sudakshina, Bruhadbala, Shibi and the Kings of Kerala, Pandya and Chola Kingdoms had also arrived there.
Lord Krishna, Balarama, Samba, Charudeshna, Akrura, Satyaki, Kritavarma, Pruthu, Kanva, Angaraka, Sameeka and hundreds of other Yadus and Vrishnis had also arrived and gathered there. Based on the directions of Sri Krishna, all the Yadus and Vrishnis had decided to only watch the proceedings and not participate in it.
Other mighty warriors such as Bhagiratha, Bruhadratha, Jayadratha, Bahlika, Chitrangada and the powerful King of Chedi – Shishupala – had also arrived. Thus, almost all the powerful Kingdoms of the world had been represented in that great gathering.
Dhrishtadyumna indicated to Draupadi that she should garland that warrior who would succeed in piercing the artificial fish with five arrows.
Lord Krishna then drew the attention of Balarama and pointed out the presence of the five Pandavas in the crowd. Balarama expressed his great happiness at seeing the Pandavas alive. No one else in the hall noticed the presence of the Pandavas as their attention was always fixed on the radiant and beautiful Draupadi.
The Great Contest
The challenge to win Draupadi then started. One by one, many Kings came to the center of the hall and attempted to complete the task. Each one of them failed to string the bow. The tension of the bow was so tight that they got hit by the same in their attempt to bring the string closer to the bow and they were thrown away a distance! A number of Kings saw the pathetic fate of the initial contestants and decided to not even try the challenge.
At that point, Shishupala, the King of Chedi came forward and attempted to string the bow. He managed to bring the string close to the bow such that only a distance equal to the size of a blackgram remained between the string and the bow. At that point, he could not control the tension of the bow, which stuck him and he fell down on his back.
दमघोषात्मजो वीरः शिशुपालो महाद्युतिः |
तमप्यारोप्यमाणं तु माषमात्रेsभ्यताडयत् || Adi – 186 – 44 ||
When Shishupala was humbled thus, the mighty and powerful Jarasandha, the King of Magadha and one of the most powerful persons alive then, got up to attempt the challenge. When he managed to bring the string close to within a distance equal to the size of a sesame seed, the bow stuck him! He fell down on his knees and returned.
तमप्यारोप्यमाणं तु सर्षमात्रेsभ्यताडयत् |
धनुषा विध्यमानस्तु जानुभ्यामगमन्महीम् || Adi – 186 – 48 ||
After Jarasandha, it was now the turn of Shalya, the King of Madra, to attempt the feat. When the gap between the string and the bow was the size of a green gram, Rudra’s boon took effect and the bow hit Shalya. He was thrown half a yojana away!
ततः शल्यो महावीर्यो मद्रराजो महाबलः |
तमथारोप्यमाणं तु मुद्गमात्रेsभ्यताडयत् || Adi – 186 – 49 ||
When all the mighty Kings were failing thus, Duryodhana decided that it was time for him to show his prowess and obtain the hand of Draupadi. But his fate was worse than the predecessors. He could only manage to bring the string close to within a distance equal to the size of a finger. The bow hit him so badly he fell on his face. Out of humiliation he walked away from the hall.
उत्तानशय्यमपतद् अङ्गुल्यतरताडितः |
स ययौ ताडितस्तेन व्रीडन्निव नराधिपः || Adi – 186 – 54 ||
At this point, the only powerful King who was remaining in the contest was Karna, the ruler of Anga. He managed to lift the bow and played around with it. When he attempted to string the bow, he came to within a hair’s width between the string and the bow but the bow struck him. Thus having failed, Karna retired from the contest.
ततो वैकर्तनः कर्णो वृषा वै सूतनन्दनः |
धनुरभ्याशमागम्य तोलयामास तद्दनुः |
तं चाप्यरोप्यमाणं तु रोममात्रेsभ्यताडयत् || Adi – 186 – 55 ||
Seeing the fate of Karna, the few remaining contestants gave up completely and even avoided eye-contact with the bow. Their dreams of obtaining Draupadi melted away.
Arjuna Steps Forward
The scene in the hall was chaotic. All the people assembled there were shocked and it appeared that the swayamvara would not succeed at all. At that moment, Arjuna stepped forward from the assembly of the Brahmanas and into the ring. Prior to this, he took the permission of Bhimasena for participating in the contest.
The rest of the Brahmanas gathered there wondered how a Brahmana can succeed in such a difficult task when even the mighty Karna and Shalya had failed!
आहुः परस्परं केचिन्निपुणा बुद्धिचिन्तकाः |
यत् कर्णशल्यप्रमुखैः पार्थिवैर्लोकविश्रुतैः ||
नानतं बलवद्बर्हि धनुर्वेदपरायणैः |
तत्कथं त्वकृतास्त्रेण प्राणतो दुर्बलीयसा ||
द्विजमात्रेण शक्यं हि सज्यं कर्तुं धनुर्द्विजाः |
सज्यं चेत् कृतवानेष विद्धं लक्षं कथं भवेत् || Adi – 187 – 3,4,5 ||
“The sharp, but worried, lot talked amongst themselves. When those Kings like Karna and Shalya, who are powerful, well versed in archery and well known in the world, could not bend the bow (and thereby string it), how can a weak Brahmana, who does know the craft and does possess the requisite prana-shakti string it? O Brahmanas! even if he manages to string it, how can he possibly pierce the target?”
(Note: The above three shlokas are present in *ALL* editions of the Mahabharata. This clearly indicates that Karna had failed to string the bow, just like the other Kings. The requisite conclusions about which recensions are more accurate when it comes to this incident can be drawn from these shlokas itself!)
Arjuna, still in the guise of a Brahmana, then asked Dhrishtadyumna if he, as a Brahmana, could attempt shooting at the fish. Dhrishtadyumna replied in the affirmative.
ब्राह्मणो वाsथ राजन्यो वैश्यो वा शूद्र एव वा |
एतेषां यो धनुश्रेष्टं सज्यं कुर्याद् द्विजोत्तम ||
तस्मै प्रदेया भगिनी सत्यमुक्तं मया वचः || Adi – 187 – 20 ||
“O excellent Brahmana! Be it a Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya or a Shudra, whoever strings the bow (and pierces the target), I shall give my sister to him. This is the truth”
(Note: This shloka clearly indicates that there was no barrier for a Suta to participate in the contest. However, the Northern recensions do not have this shloka)
Thereafter, Arjuna prayed to Lord Krishna mentally only, so as to not reveal his identity, and proceeded to attempt the challenge. In less than a minute, he succeeded not only in stringing the bow, but also in shooting five arrows at the target all the while looking at the reflection below. The artificial fish, having been pierced by the arrows, fell down on the ground.
सज्यं च चक्रे निमिषान्तरेण शरांश्च जग्राह दशार्धसंख्यान् |
विव्याध लक्षं निपपात तच्च छिद्रेण भूमौ सहसाsतिविद्धम् || Adi – 187 – 23 ||
Draupadi then went towards Arjuna and garlanded him with the divine mala that she was holding. This garland was originally left on the gates of Drupada’s palace by Amba, who had a boon from Shiva that the person who would wear the garland would eventually kill Bhishma. Thus, Arjuna, who succeeded in obtaining that garland, got the responsibility of killing Bhishma, in the great war!
When news about a poor Brahmana succeeding in winning Draupadi’s hand became known, all the defeated Kings got enraged out of jealousy and came back to the hall to challenge the Pandavas. However, Bhima and Arjuna got together and dished out a terrible defeat to all the Kings, including Jarasandha, Karna, Duryodhana and Shalya. Arjuna defeated Karna resoundingly while Bhima toyed around with Shalya throwing him up in the air and catching him like a kid.
Seeing the fate of their brothers, the remaining Kauravas proposed a ceasefire. They declared that it was not proper to engage Brahmanas in battle! Lord Krishna then stepped in and instructed all the Kings to back away and depart to their own lands.
Thus the swayamvara of Draupadi ended in a dramatic fashion with Arjuna winning the hands of the princess of Panchala. Eventually, all the five Pandavas ended up marrying Draupadi, as per the instructions of their mother Kunti.