Draupadi’s admirable character is revealed in the most humiliating incident of her life: her attempted disrobing by the wicked Dushasana. 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. The incident in which she is the most dishonored, she emerges as the most honorable.
On that fateful day, she has just taken a ritual bath. As per 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, in a rigged gambling match, lost everything: his property, his brothers, himself and finally her. As per 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 was driven not just by lust but also by hunger for power – the Kauravas saw 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 had actually been lost when Yudhishthira had already gambled and lost himself – when he was not his own master, was he her master to have gambled her? Draupadi is holding on to straw and she probably knows it. But when straw is all there is to hold on to, it needs 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 gambles her after he has gambled himself, whereas he gambles all his property before. 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 had 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 Dushasana 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 Dushasana catches her by her hair, drags her to the assembly and hurls her to the ground in the middle of the hall.
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 Vidura, the half-brother of Dhritarashtra. But Duryodhana has made a habit of neglecting his uncle’s wise counsel – and this occasion is no exception. 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 niyamaagraha – sticking to the letter of the law while neglecting its spirit. The real issue was not whether a woman belonged to her husband or not; it was whether the assembly didn’t find anything wrong with such egregious dishonoring of a virtuous woman.
Duryodhana, enjoying the Pandavas’ discomfiture, tries to pit wife against husband. He announces that if Draupadi admits that dharma-raja Yudhishthira had violated dharma by gambling her, he would 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 Yudhisthira so clearly was. Just because we are let down by others doesn't mean that 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 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. Firstly, Yudhishthira had been pitted against a trained gamester – this invalidated the match right from the beginning. Secondly, he had gambled unwillingly, been compelled by his elders’ instruction. Thirdly, 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 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, in Draupadi’s specific case, she 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 it, declaring that the great god, Shiva, ordained it. In no way was such polyandry comparable to prostitution. For his mendacious and malicious insult to an honorable woman, Karna deserves the strongest censure.
With Vikarna silenced by Karna, Duryodhana asks Dushasana to strip Draupadi. Crying in mortification, she holds on to her sari desperately. But she is no match to that huge brute. Finally, 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. Dushasana 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.
This incident of Draupadi’s honor being protected by Krishna incarnating as her endless sari has been immortalized in the bhakti tradition through architecture and literature, poetry and imagery, prayer and song. Krishna’s supernatural intervention is significant, 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 culminational 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 inability 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.
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. The king is jolted out of his stupor on hearing that his sacrificial fire, which he had kept lit throughout his life, has gone off. 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. The question begs itself: How was the Kauravas’ skill tested by having Shakuni 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 play in his stead – and play with a win-at-all-costs, take-no-prisoners mindset.
Dhritarashtra tells Draupadi to ask for some boon. She asks for the release of her husband – not Arjuna who had won her, but Yudhishthira who had lost her.
Even in the closest of relationships, we all sometimes commit mistakes, and most of us do have conscience that makes us feel bad when we act harshly. That pinch of conscience is a burning wound for sensitive people, 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. But controlling one’s pain and anger 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, her husbands 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. The king in a rare display of magnanimity returns the Pandavas everything they had lost. (Later, they are recalled for another rigged gambling match on losing which they are exiled to the forest.)
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 Dushasana, although he gets immortalized infamously as Draupadi’s disrober. The darkest character is not Duryodhana, whose exposing his bare thigh to Draupadi eventually leads to his death through the breaking of that very thigh by Bhima. The character who emerges the darkest is Karna not because his behavior is so reprehensible, but because such behavior is so shockingly out-of-character for him. To his credit, he regrets his actions, as he admits in the Mahabharata while speaking to Krishna and then to Bhishma. In contrast, Dushasana 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.
In this incident, Krishna’s protecting Draupadi is often highlighted. An equally, if not more, important feature is Draupadi’s consistent strength of character. Within her female form runs a spine of steel that stands erect throughout. 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. Such inner strength is something that all women – and indeed all of us – 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 can not admire such character and admire the character with such character?