Draupadi’s swayamvara sees almost the entire royalty of the Indian subcontinent congregate in the capital city of the kingdom of Panchala. Most notably, the Kouravas, along with Karna, are there. The Pandavas are there too, disguised as brahmans.
Stringing a heavy bow, and hitting a target through a hole in the center of a ‘machine’ — that’s the test set for the princes and kings participating in the swayamvara. Artistic representations of this test, where a rotating golden fish affixed on a vault is reflected in a pot of water on the floor, and the archer is expected to hit the fish’s eye looking at the water’s surface, seem to be later elaborations, for the Mahabharata itself doesn’t provide anything on those lines.
All participants fail at the first step of stringing the bow. Interestingly, the text doesn’t talk of Duryodhana’s failure, or even of Karna’s — whom many commentators have shown as one who actually strung the bow but was rejected by Draupadi for his low birth before he could shoot the target.
Once the kshatriyas have exhausted themselves, the brahmans are invited to attempt the test. Arjuna walking up to the bow divides opinion among the brahmans. Some see it as a potential demonstration of how brahman might exceeds kshatriya power, while others are worried how such an action might offend the kshatriyas present there, who, after all, are sovereigns who facilitate the brahman lifestyle.
Arjuna, as we all know, succeeds. In a bizzare turn of events, Yudhistira, Nakul, and Sehadeva use this moment to leave the assembly and go towards the potter’s house where the Pandavas have taken residence.
All the princes and kings assembled in Panchala take umbrage at the fact that princess Draupadi is going to be given to a brahman. Bound to be respectful towards a brahman, they proceed to vent their anger on king Drupada, who, frightened, cowers behind Arjuna and Bhima.
The kshatriyas are being led by Karna. It is of course a bit silly of Karna to guard kshatriya’s honour, for he does not, in his mind, belong to the caste.
As the brahmans show their aggression, they also allow the kshatriyas to attack them, for it is alright to fight against a brahman who does so. Duryodhana and his brothers, note, are tactful, fighting only ‘lightly and carelessly’.While Bhima battles with Shalya, Arjuna faces off with Karna. Karna is surprised at the dexterity of the brahman he is facing. He enquires him of his true identity, but receives only a cryptic answer. Fearing that the brahman is a great personality, Karna recedes from the battle.
Now a word about Krishna, Vasudeva and Balarama: the rulers of Yadavas, who, observing the brouhaha before them, are able to identify Arjuna and Bhima. The commotion is ended when Krishna stands up and announces: “This lady has been won according to dharma.” This is taken as the word of god, and the kings are immediately pacified.
(The writer is reading the unabridged Mahabharata)