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Had Draupadi really stopped Karna from Participating in her Swyamvara?

“नहं वरयामि सूत — I shall not marry a suta.”

And with these brutal, hateful and insensitive words Draupadi stopped the great archer king of Anga, Suryaputra Karna, right before he would have succeeded in hitting the target. That heartless and arrogant Draupadi! Humiliating a reputed warrior for his caste! Why, if not because of this reason, the destiny made her suffer a similar public humiliation many years later?

This dialog, and this question has been and shall be a recurring topic of debate. Unfortunately, however, many more questions are crushed behind this one, How did Draupadi, who had recently manifested from a yagna fire, knew about Karna’s caste,  when in fact, he was an honored and invited guest, and  neither his father Drupad nor by his brother Drishtadumna introduced Karna as a Suta?

How did Draupadi, who had recently manifested from a yagna fire, knew about Karna’s caste,  when in fact, he was an honored and invited guest, and  neither his father Drupad nor by his brother Drishtadumna introduced Karna as a Suta?

And, if she could refuse a King and an honored guest, why didn’t she refuse an ordinary bhikshuk Brahmin, a beggar Brahmin, with no distinction, from attempting the target? Was draupadi, who was born as a God’s boon, such an arrogant heartless woman? 

And why Krishna, who incarnated to establish the righteousness, remained mum? Why, the protector of the good — paritranaya sadhunam — let Karna be humiliated in the name of caste, the same Krishna, who one day, protect Draupadi from another public humiliation. Was he too partial to Dharma? Were Krishna, and Draupdi really inhumane, or we have got the facts wrong?

Is it possible, that may be, just may be, Draupadi never forbid Karna from participation? That Draupadi was not a brutal woman, and Krishna wasn’t partial?

What does the Vyas Mahabharata say on this?

Was Karna invited?

Ok, so without further ado, let me transport you to Draupad’s swayamvar. Watch out, the Kings and dignitaries are entering — 

  

ऋषयश्च महात्मानः स्वयंवरदिदृक्षया |
दुर्योधनपुरोगाश्च सकर्णाः कुरवो नृप ||१३|
ब्राह्मणाश्च महाभागा देशेभ्यः समुपागमन् |
तेऽभ्यर्चिता राजगणा द्रुपदेन महात्मना ||१४||

— Shloka 13,14 of chapter 176, Adi Parva (BORI)

The Kouravas, led by Duryodhana, also came there, accompanied by Karna. Many illustrious Brahmanas also came from many countries. The great-souled Drupada duly worshipped the kings. (translation by Mr Bibek Debroy) 

Take a note, that Kanra is explicitly named among the King, who were welcomed and honored by Drupad. This proves, he was an invited honoured guest. 

The guests enjoy hospitality for sixteen days. And then on 16th day, Dhristdumna announces the term of the swyamber —

इदं धनुर्लक्ष्यमिमे च बाणाः; शृण्वन्तु मे पार्थिवाः सर्व एव |
यन्त्रच्छिद्रेणाभ्यतिक्रम्य लक्ष्यं; समर्पयध्वं खगमैर्दशार्धैः ||३४||

—Shloka 34 of chapter 176, Adi Parva (BORI)

O assembled kings! Hear that this is the bow, that is the target and these are the arrows. With these five arrows, shoot the target through the hole in the centre of the machine. 

Here I would like you to take a note of the word Parthivah which has been translated to Kings by Bibek Debroy in his English translation.  This is important as we will come back to this word later. 

But, for now, lets move to the next shloka.

एतत्कर्ता कर्म सुदुष्करं यः; कुलेन रूपेण बलेन युक्तः |
तस्याद्य भार्या भगिनी ममेयं; कृष्णा भवित्री न मृषा ब्रवीमि ||३५||

—Shloka 35 of chapter 176, Adi Parva (BORI)

I truly say that the handsome and strong one, born in a noble family, who accomplishes this great feat today, will obtain as his wife my sister Krishna.”

Why did Dhristdumna  mention the noble family? Was this to exclude Karna? I believe it was just like every brother of the world, he wished the best for his sister. Incidently, he also mentions handsome, but does that mean anyone not handsome would not be allowed?  Later when Arjuna, disguised as a begging Brahmin,  wins Draupadi, why no question of noble family was raised?

Apart from the fact that Drupad himself welcomed Karna earlier, a comprehensive referencial proof is available in the first four shloka in chapter 177, as Dhirstadumna introduces Draupadi to the suitors.

दुर्योधनो दुर्विषहो दुर्मुखो दुष्प्रधर्षणः |
विविंशतिर्विकर्णश्च सहो दुःशासनः समः ||१||
युयुत्सुर्वातवेगश्च भीमवेगधरस्तथा |
उग्रायुधो बलाकी च कनकायुर्विरोचनः ||२||
सुकुण्डलश्चित्रसेनः सुवर्चाः कनकध्वजः |
नन्दको बाहुशाली च कुण्डजो विकटस्तथा ||३||
एते चान्ये च बहवो धार्तराष्ट्रा महाबलाः |
कर्णेन सहिता वीरास्त्वदर्थं समुपागताः ||४||

Shloka 1-4 of chapter 177, Adi Parva (BORI)

Dhrishtadyumna said, “Duryodhana, Durvisaha, Durmukha, Dushpradharshana, Vivimshati, Vikarna, Saha, Duhshasana, Sama, Yuyutsu, Vatavega, Bhimavegadhara, Ugrayudha, Balaki, Kanakayu, Virochana, Sukundula, Chitrasena, Suvarcha, Kanakadhvaja, Nandaka, Bahushali, Kunduja and Vikata—these and others are the immensely powerful sons of Dhritarashtra. These warriors have come with Karna for your hand.

Doesn’t this line explicitly confirm that Karna was not excluded?

After naming many sons of Dhriasthra, who are prominent warriors, Dhristdumna, then, further introduced other Kings and Participants who have come there. And I must once again ask you to take a note, that  no other Karna is mentioned anywhere in this chapter, neither as son of Dhritrashtra, nor as any other King. Only one Karna is mentioned in the Swaymber Parva.

Here are the other Kings mentioned from shloka 5 to 21, of chapter 177 —

“Hundreds are the famous and great-souled kings, bulls among the Kshatriyas—Shakuni, Bala, Vrishaka and Brihadbala, all these sons of the king of Gandhara have come. Adorned with every ornament, the great-souled warriors Ashvatthama and Bhoja, skilled in the use of all weapons, have come. The kings Brihanta, Manimana and the valiant Dandadhara, Sahadeva, Jayatsena, Meghasandhi of Magadha, Virata and his two sons Sankha and Uttara, Vardhakshemi, Susharma, King Senabindu, Abhibhu with his sons Sudamna and Suvarchasa, Sumitra, Sukumara, Vrika, Satyadhriti, Suryadhvaja, Rochamana, Nila, Chitrayudha, Amshumana, Chekitana, the immensely powerful Shrenimana, Chandrasena, the powerful son of Samudrasena, Jalasamdha, the father and son Vidanda and Danda, Poundraka, Vasudeva, the valorous Bhagadatta, Kalinga, Tamralipta, the king of Pattana, the maharatha Shalya, king of Madra with his sons, the brave Rukmagandha and Rukmaratha, the Kourava Somadatta and his three maharatha sons Bhuri, Bhurishrava and Shala, Sudakshina, Kamboja, the Kourava Dridhadhanva, Brihadbala, Sushena, Ushinara’s son Shibi, Samkarshana, Vasudeva, Rukmini’s brave son Samba, Charudeshna, Sarana, Gada, Akrura, Satyaki, the immensely powerful Uddhava, Hridika’s son Kritavarma, Prithu, Viprithu, Viduratha, Kanka, Samika, Saramejaya, the brave Vatapati, Jhilli, Pindaraka, the brave Ushinara, all famous as descended from the Vrishni lineage; Bhagiratha, Brihatkshetra, Jayadratha, the king of Sindhu, Brihadratha, Bahlika, the maharatha Shrutayu, Uluka, King Kaitava, Chitrangada, Subhangada, the patient king of Vatsa, the king of Kosala.”

Shloka 5-21 of chapter 177, Adi Parva (BORI) tranlated by Bibek Debroy

This will again become significant as we move deeper into our discussion.

Was caste a criteria in Swaymber?

Moving on, the  concluding part of Dhristdumna statement is of vital importance that is mentioned in shloka 21 and 22 of chapter 177 — 

एते चान्ये च बहवो नानाजनपदेश्वराः |
त्वदर्थमागता भद्रे क्षत्रियाः प्रथिता भुवि ||२१||
एते वेत्स्यन्ति विक्रान्तास्त्वदर्थं लक्ष्यमुत्तमम् |
विध्येत य इमं लक्ष्यं वरयेथाः शुभेऽद्य तम् ||२२||

Shloka 21 and 22 of chapter 177, Adi Parva (BORI)

O fortunate one! These and many other kings of many regions, famous on earth, have come here for you. These brave ones will try to shoot the excellent target for your hand. O beautiful one! You will choose as a husband the one who hits it.

His statement leaves no room for Draupadi to deny anyone — You will choose as a husband the one who hits it.

After Swyamber, Draupadi leaves with Arjuna and Drupad sends Dhristdumna to seek their identity. When Dhristdumna returns, Drupad asks — 

पाञ्चालराजस्तु विषण्णरूप; स्तान्पाण्डवानप्रतिविन्दमानः |
धृष्टद्युम्नं पर्यपृच्छन्महात्मा; क्व सा गता केन नीता च कृष्णा ||१४||
कच्चिन्न शूद्रेण न हीनजेन; वैश्येन वा करदेनोपपन्ना |
कच्चित्पदं मूर्ध्नि न मे निदिग्धं; कच्चिन्माला पतिता न श्मशाने ||१५||

— shloka 14 and 15 of chapter 185 of Adi Parva (BORI)


“Where has Krishna gone? Who has taken her away? Is it a Shudra or one of low birth? Has a Vaishya who pays taxes placed his feet on my head? Has a garland been thrown away on a cremation ground? O son! Or is it a foremost man from our own varna, or is it one from a higher varna? Or has a lower being placed his foot on my head and defiled Krishna?

Can you see, Drupad has no idea about the identity of Arjuna, still he couldn’t stop Draupadi from going with an unknown person who may be a shudra. Then how can anyone stop Karna?

Yet, another reference — Next, Drupad sends his priest to Pandavas to seek out their identity. Here Yudhisthir replies — 

प्रदिष्टशुल्का द्रुपदेन राज्ञा; सानेन वीरेण तथानुवृत्ता |
न तत्र वर्णेषु कृता विवक्षा; न जीवशिल्पे न कुले न गोत्रे ||२३||

— Shloka 23 of chapter 185 of Adi Parva (BORI)

Drupad  set a price and this brave one has won her in accordance with that. Therefore, no questions can be asked about his varna, action, intention, means of living, lineage or gotra.

What does this tell us? Was caste a criterion for Swyamber?

So why did Draupadi reject Karna?
Answer is she didn’t, as it was against the guidelines of the swaymber. 

What is the basis of this story?

This is not one of those episodes where you can’t blame the modern narratives alone and entirely. Among 1259 ancient manuscripts that BORI (Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute) researched, 5 of them mentions the incident of Draupadi rejecting Karna. Imagine! Just five among over a thousand manuscripts. Others doesn’t mention this story.

But among these five is the famous recitation by Neelkantha Chaturdhar. He graphically mentions how, when other Kings failed to string the bow, Karna rose to participate, and not only he successfully strung the bow, he also armed it with the five arrows. And it is at that point —

दृष्ट्वा तू तं द्रौपदी वाक्यमुच्चेर्जगाद   नहं वरयामि सूतम ||

— Neelkantha Chaturdhara Recitation

Draupadi, seeing Karna, said — “I will not marry a Suta”.

But… wait before you form an opinion. Neelkantha, in his commentary, has also presented a contradiction of this in his further recitation. It was when Arjuna rose to participate, people started talking — 

यत्कर्णशल्यप्रमुखैः पार्थिवैर्लोकविश्रुतैः |
नानतं बलवद्भिर्हि धनुर्वेदपरायणैः ||४|| 

— shloka 4, chapter 179, Adi Parva

When the great warriors like Karna and Shalya and other great Kings, who are well known for their strength and archery, couldn’t string the bow, how could a weakling Brahmana, with no knowledge of weapons, succeed?

Checkout, Karna failed to string the bow! But it is possible, if and only if he participated. And if failed, where is the question of Draupadi forbidding him?

What does critical edition say?

This is an important reason, though not the only reason, why BORI completely rejected this story as interpolation. Based on these references, BORI has not only excluded this episode from the critical edition, but the chief editor of the project Vishnu Sukthankar elaborated this in his editorial preface in these words — 

Unfortunately, this melo­dramatic interlude, to judge by the documentary evidence, appears to be the handiwork of a very late Vyāsaīd, as it is found only in K * Ñ2 Dn D2.4. c, that is, one manuscript of the K group, one Nepali manuscript, and three composite Devanāgarī manuscripts, besides the Nīlakaṇṭha version! All of these are late and inferior or conflated manuscripts. It is missing, on the other hand, not only in the Śāradā version and the Southern recension (as in the case of many of the interpolations of the Vulgate ), but for once, also in the entire Bengali version.

— Page LXI, Prologomena of Vishnu S. Suthankar

In the continuation he concludes

A little reflection will, however, convince any one that it is a palpably jaked and thoroughly unreal situation.

— Page LXI, Prologomena of Vishnu S. Suthankar

More References

In the Gita Press version of Mahabharata, which closely follows Neelkantha recitation and cross references BORI, has included the Draupadi forbidding Karna episode, in the main text in line with Neelkantha version, however, contradicts the story in the editorial footnote on the basis of BORI and later section of Neelkhantha itself, where Karna failed to string the bow.

— Geeta Press footnote (Adi Parva)

Karna stringing the bow is not mentioned in Southern recitations. Bhandarkar edition (BORI) also doesn’t mention it in its main text. Even Neelkhantha based on shloka 15 of chapter 187 and shloka 4 and 19 on next chanpter 189, proves that Karna failed to string the bow. This provies Karna never strung the bow.

— Geeta Press, footnote, chapter 188.

Let us finally have a check of the referred shloka 19 of Neelkantha, which clearly mentions Radheya Karna failed to string the bow —

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— Neelkantha recitation, shloka 19-20

When warriors like Rukmi, Sunith, Vakra, Radheya (Karna), Duryodhana, Shalya and Salwa, who were renowned for their knowledge or archery, at that point of time…

— Neelkantha Mahabharata Shloka 19-20

Finally, there is another technique critics follow to ascertain authenticity of an incident — cross referencing. For example, the story of Draupadi’s insult is mentioned in several Parvas later, with Pandavas and Draupadi remember their humiliation. Even Krishna mentions it. But there is no mention of Karna being denied a chance by Draupadi in any follow up Parvas. We never see any one, including Karna complaining about it.

This can be considered as a conclusive proof of Draupadi rejecting Karna being an interpolation.

Why is this narrative so popular?

Now, as we looked into the conclusive evidence that summarily rejects the theory that Draupadi ever denied Karna a chance, the question remains — why is this interpolation so popular as to be continuously mentioned in all contemporary tales, TV Shows or novels?

Because it has a strange negative appeal — While on what hand it gathers sympathy for Karna, and acts as a facade to Karna’s failure, on the other hand it tries to explore a psychological justification for Karna’s role in Draupadi’s humiliation at the court of Hastinapur.

Its true, that the failure of our role model is tormenting. But is it justified that to prove someone great, we distort the epic itself? Some of us are unfortunately, ready to condemn Draupadi as an arrogant lady, Lord Krishna as a conspirator and Ved Vyas as a biased author.

We close out today’s episode here, but our story hasn’t concluded. In the concluding part of Draupadi’s swayamvar, we shall discuss in detail the epic battle between Karna and Arjuna that followed Draupadi’s swayamvar, a battle that continues between the fans of  Karna and Arjuna on to this date.

And watch out for our next episode, where we would attempt to save our epic between the war of titans.

Summary

  • Karna was an invited guest.
    • King Drupad welcomes Karna himself
    • Dhristdumna specifically names Karna as a contestant.
    • No one ever mentions Karna as a Suta
  • Swyamber had no caste restriction.
    • Dhrishtdumna announcement in this regard is clear
    • Drupad wasn’t sure who won Draupadi’s swyamber?
    • Yudhishthir confirms the same.
  • Karna failed to String the bow. It is clearly mentioned in
    • BORI main text (chapter 179, shloka 4)
    • Two Shlokas of Neelkantha Mahabharata.
    • Clarified in annals of BORI.
  • Draupadi Never rejected Karna
    • All the above point proves it.
    • only 5 out of 1259 ancient manuscript mentions this reference.
    • There is no cross reference of this story.
    • Both BORI PAGE LXI, PROLOGOMENA OF VISHNU S. SUTHANKAR and Annals of BORI proves it.

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Important references used in this Article

  1. BORI Mahabharata, Adi Parva
  2. Translation of BORI by Mr Bibek Debroy
  3. Geeta Press Mahabharata Sanskrit-Hindi, Volume 1

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