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Chapter 17: Draupadi's Swayamvaram

WHILE the Pandavas were living in disguise as brahmanas at Ekachakrapura, news of the swayamvara of Draupadi, the daughter of Drupada, King of Panchala, reached them. Many brahmanas of Ekachakrapura planned to go to Panchala in the hope of receiving the customary gifts and to see the festivities and pageant of a royal wedding. Kunti, with her motherly instinct, read her sons' desire to go to Panchala and win Draupadi. So she told Yudhishthira: "We have been in this city so long that it is time to think of going somewhere else. We have seen these hills and dales till we are tired of them. The alms doled out to us are diminishing and it is not good to outstay your entertainment. Let us therefore go to Drupada's kingdom which is reputed to be fair and prosperous." Kunti was second to none in worldly wisdom and sagacity and could gracefully divine her sons' thoughts and spare them the awkwardness of expressing them.

The brahmanas went in groups to witness the swayamvara and the Pandavas mingled with them in the guise of brahmanas. After a long march the party reached the beautiful city of Drupada and billeted themselves in the house of a potter as obscure brahmanas of no note.

Though Drupada and Drona were outwardly at peace, the former never could forget or forgive the humiliation he had suffered at the latter's hands.

Drupada's one wish was to give his daughter in marriage to Arjuna.

Drona loved Arjuna so dearly that he could hardly look upon his pupil's fatherin- law as his deadly foe. And if there were a war, Drupada would be all the stronger for being Arjuna's father-in-law. When he heard the news of the destruction of the Pandavas at Varanavata, he was plunged in sorrow but was relieved by a later rumour that they had escaped.

The marriage hall was beautifully decorated and built amidst a finely laid out group of new guest-houses designed to accommodate the swayamvara suitors and guests. Attractive sights and sports had been arranged for public entertainment and there were glorious festivities for fourteen days continuously.

A mighty steel bow was placed in the marriage hall. The candidate for the princess' hand was required to string the bow and with it shoot a steel arrow through the central aperture of a revolving disk at a target placed on high.

This required almost superhuman strength and skill, and Drupada proclaimed that the hero who would win his daughter should perform this feat. Many valiant princes had gathered there from all parts of Bharatavarsha. The sons of Dhritarashtra were there as well as Karna, Krishna, Sisupala, Jarasandha, and Salya.

Besides the competitors there was a huge concourse of spectators and visitors. The noise that issued therefrom resembled the uproar of the ocean and over it all arose the auspicious sound of festal music from hundreds of instruments.

Dhrishtadyumna on horseback rode in front of his sister Draupadi seated on an elephant. Fresh from her auspicious bridal bath, and clad in flowing silk Draupadi dismounted and entered the swayamvara hall, seeming to fill it with the sweetness of her presence and perfect beauty.

Garland in hand, and coyly glancing at the valiant princes, who for their part looked at her in speechless admiration, she ascended the dais. The brahmanas repeated the usual mantras and offered oblations in the fire. After the peace invocation had been chanted and the flourish of music had stopped, Dhrishtadyumna took Draupadi by the hand and led her to the center of the hall.

Then he proclaimed in loud, clear tones:

"Hear ye, O princes seated in state in this assembly, here is the bow. There is the target and here are the arrows. He who sends five arrows in succession through the hole of the wheel and unerringly hits the target, if he also be of good family and presence, shall win my sister." Then he narrated to Draupadi the name, ancestry and description of the several suitors assembled there.

Many noted princes rose one after another and tried in vain to string the bow. It was too heavy and stiff for them, and they returned to their places abashed and ashamed.

Sisupala, Jarasandha, Salya, and Duryodhana were among these unsuccessful aspirants. When Karna came forward, all the assemblage expected that he would be successful but he failed by just a hair's breadth and the string slid back flashing and the mighty bow jumped out of his hands like a thing of life.

There was great clamor and angry talk, some even saying that it was an impossible test put up to shame the kings.

Then all noises were hushed, for there arose from among the group of brahmanas a youth who advanced towards the bow.

It was Arjuna who had come disguised as a brahmana. When he stood up; wild clamor burst forth again from the crowd.

The brahmanas themselves were divided in opinion. Some being highly delighted that there should be among them a lad of mettle enough to compete, while others more envious or worldly wise, said what impudence it was for this brahmacharin to enter the lists when heroes like Karna, Salya, and others had met with failure.

But there were others again who spoke differently as they noted the noble and shapely proportions of the youth. They said: "We feel from his appearance that he is going to win. He looks sure of himself and he certainly knows what he is about.

The brahmana may be physically weaker, but is it all a matter of brute strength? What about the power of austerities? Why should he not try?" And they blessed him.

Arjuna approached the place where the bow lay and asked Dhrishtadyumna: "Can a brahmana try to bend the bow?"

Dhrishtadyumna answered: "O best of brahmanas, my sister will become the lifemate of any one of good family and presence, who bends the bow and shoots the target. My words stand and there will be no going back on them."

Then Arjuna meditated on Narayana, the Supreme God, and took the bow in his hand and strung it with ease. He placed an arrow on the string and looked around him with a smile, while the crowd was lost in spellbound silence.

Then without pause or hesitation he shot five arrows in succession through the revolving mechanism right into the target so that it fell down. The crowd was in tumult and there was a blare of musical instruments.

The brahmanas who were seated in the assembly in large numbers sent forth shouts of joy, waving aloft their deerskins in exultation as though the whole community had won Draupadi. The uproar that followed was indescribable.

Draupadi shone with a fresh beauty. Her face glowed with happiness which streamed out of her eyes as she looked on Arjuna. She approached him and placed the garland on his neck. Yudhishthira, Nakula, and Sahadeva returned in haste to the potter's house to convey the glad news immediately to their mother.

Bhima alone remained in the assembly fearing that some danger might befall Arjuna from the kshatriyas. As anticipated by Bhima, the princes were loud in wrath.

They said: "The practice of swayamvara, the choosing of a bridegroom, is not prevalent among the brahmanas. If this maiden does not care to marry a prince, she should remain a virgin and burn herself on the pyre. How can a brahmana marry her? We should oppose this marriage and prevent it so as to protect righteousness and save the practice of swayamvara from the peril which threatens it." A free fight seemed imminent.

Bhima plucked a tree by the roots, and stripping it of foliage, stood armed with this formidable bludgeon, by the side of Arjuna ready for any event. Draupadi said nothing but stood holding on to the skirts of the deer-skin in which Arjuna was clad.

Krishna, Balarama and others sought to appease those who had created the confusion. Arjuna proceeded to the house of the potter accompanied by Draupadi.

As Bhima and Arjuna were taking Draupadi to their temporary abode, Dhrishtadyumna followed them at a distance, and, unseen by them, closely observed everything that took place there.

He was amazed and delighted at what he saw, and returning, he secretly told King Drupada: "Father, I think they are the Pandavas. Draupadi accompanied them, holding to the skirts of the deer-skin of that youth and she was not at all abashed.

I also followed and I saw all five and a venerable and august lady who, I have no doubt, is Kunti herself."

Invited by Drupada Kunti and the Pandavas went to the palace. Dharmaputra confided to the king that they were the Pandavas. He also informed him of their decision to marry Draupadi in common.

Drupada rejoiced at knowing that they were the Pandavas, which set at rest all anxiety regarding the enmity of Drona.

But he was surprised and disgusted when he heard that they would jointly marry Draupadi.

Drupada opposed this and said: "How unrighteous! How did this idea get into your head, this immoral idea that goes against the traditional usage?"

Yudhishthira answered: "O king, kindly excuse us. In a time of great peril we vowed that we would share all things in common and we cannot break that pledge.

Our mother has commanded us so."

Finally Drupada yielded and the marriage was celebrated.