Draupadi and Polyandry in the Mahabharata
The Mahabharata is a great epic, but in reality it is a love story with a great dimension. It traverses the heart of a woman in that ancient time and one can conclude that women in India have always been subjugated to man. Perhaps it is the same everywhere, but the tale of Draupadi is unique in that she married five brothers, had sex with each of them and conceived children from each as well.
Draupadi was won in a swayamwara by the Pandva prince Arjuna. The swayamwara was an ancient custom where once a princess became of marriageable age, the father would hold a contest and the princess would be the wife of the man who won the various contest of skill.
When Arjuna won Draupadi, the Mahabharata and the poet Vyasa is silent on the fact as to what her personal opinion was. Was she consulted or just presented with a fait accompli? Whatever it is Draupadi married all the five brothers namely Yudhistra, Arjuna, Bhima, Nakula and Shedeva. This was polyandry as it existed in that age. But the bigger question is how did Draupadi adjust to her new status with 5 husbands who were her lovers? This can be gleaned from the passages in the Mahabharata and one realizes that the poet Vyasa brings out that all the aspects of human relations like jealousy, desire, love and sex in equal measure consumed the Pandva’s.
Draupadi also made a set of rules that had to be followed. Firstly all the other wives of the Pandva’s were not allowed into the palace where Draupadi resided. She made an exception with only one wife and she was Subhadra, the sister of Lord Krishna whom Arjuna married. All other wives stayed with their parents and the Pandva princes had to visit the distant palaces of their in-laws to cohabit with them.
Draupadi also had other rules and she stayed with each of the Pandva princes for one year. During that time she was the exclusive wife of that man. Why one year? This had to do with the period of child bearing as Draupadi was impregnated by all the 5 brothers. During the time when Draupadi was with any of the Pandva brothers the others were forbidden to enter her chamber. Thus when Arjuna once stumbled into the chamber of Draupadi when she was being loved by Yudhistra, he had to go on a pilgrimage to atone for his sin. Arjuna also had 3 other wives.
The Mahabharata brings out the fact that though Draupadi may or may not have been consulted on the Polyandrous marriage, yet she was a woman of substance and exercised her will over all the brothers and they accepted what she said. We must remember that Draupadi was not the only woman in polyandry in Hindu mythology. Kunte the mother in law of Draupadi also had different husbands and the princess Jatila married 7 sages. There is also Matisha who married 10 pracheta brothers. The tale of Draupadi is important that despite being married to 5 brothers she exercised her will and thus emerges an example of a liberated woman.