The relationship between Karna and Draupadi is one of the most interesting sub-plot of the epic that is untold.
Karna is the quintessential tragic hero. All throughout his life he had suffered rejection. He was abandoned as a baby by his mother, he was rejected by Dronacharya, he was rejected by Draupadi and was denied the most coveted throne in the world although he was the rightful heir to it.
Now regarding the relationship between Draupadi and Karna it began with the
sayamvar arranged during Draupadi’s marriage. (For those who do not know a Sayamvar is a competition held among those men who are seeking to marry one girl, of course the winner gets the chick.) There was no pre-condition given in the Sayamvar and everyone was allowed to participate and theoretically any one could win. However, it was actually not so.
Draupadi was the daughter of King Dhrupad who was defeated in a war by Dronacharya with the help of Arjuna. To rub salt to his wounds Drona also took half of his kingdom to humiliate him. Dhrupad had since nurtured a deep grudge against Drona and wanted revenge. He arranged for a Yajna (Its an elaborate prayer) and asked from God to give him something or someone who can defeat Drona and bring back his honor. From the holy fire of the Yajna emerged this stunningly beautiful girl who was named Krishnaa (not to be confused with Sri Krishna.) and a boy named Dhristadyumna. The Gods told Dhrupad that these two siblings will avenge his humiliation and asked him to raise them as his own children. Dhristadyumna will later play his part and kill Drona in the battle of Kurukshetra but Krishnaa’s role was much more subtle. She knowingly and unknowingly played out her destiny. She would later go on to become the main reason for the great war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. It is as if her life was pre-programmed. This girl was also named Draupadi.
However, Dhrupad soon realized that as long as Arjuna was with Drona it was not possible for anyone on Earth or Heaven to do anything to him. So he was elated when the Pandavas fell out with the Kauravas and were castigated from their Kingdom. He knew that Drona had remained on the side of the Kauravas and hatched a plan to get his revenge. He thought that if he could make a permanent alliance with Arjuna he can possibly have his revenge on Drona through him. So he arranged for this elaborate Sayamvar for Draupadi’s marriage but the task he set for the competitors was so ridiculously difficult he was sure that no one else other than Arjuna would succeed. As the Pandavas at that time were in hiding, living as poor Brahmins he kept the competition open for all with no restriction on age, caste or creed.
What the story about Draupadi’s birth tells us is that Draupadi was a woman on mission. She had to marry Arjuna as that was the way she could play out the role for which she was born. So when in the Sayamvar, this unknown prince named Karna was about to complete the task which was supposed to be un-achievable to everyone except Arjuna, she panicked.
I think it is time to mention what the task was. The task which all the competitors were suppose to try was to take the bow and arrow which were kept in the arena, tie the string of the bow and shoot an arrow through the eye of a fish hanging from the ceiling. The archer was not supposed to look at the fish directly, he was to do this task by just looking at the shadow of the fish on water kept in a tank. It is something like the picture below but the fish was actually kept at a farther distance than shown here.
Anyway, now the funny thing was that all the great Kings and Princes of the country failed to even tie the string to the bow because it was very heavy. But when Karna tried to do it he had no problem in tying the string and was about to shoot the effing eye off the fish! It was at this point Draupadi realized that this guy was going to nail it and the guy was none of the Pandavas. She had to stop it with an excuse and she chose to deride Karna for his caste. Karna’s foster parents were Sut which is one of the so called “lower castes”.
Draupadi had nothing personal against Karna and she was not prejudiced against his caste, it was just an excuse thought of in a haste. She wanted to marry only Arjuna as she believed that he was the only one who could help her accomplish her destiny.
But this public refusal was a great humiliation for Karna as all those who were present in the Sayamvar laughed and taunted him, all those people who were no match for Karna in terms of strength and skills. But Karna the gentleman he is, did not say anything offensive and politely bowed out of the competition. Draupadi felt terrible for doing what she did and noticed how handsome and a perfect gentleman Karna was. It was this incident which created a soft spot in Draupadi’s heart for Karna. Obviously, Arjuna completed the task with no problem and married the beautiful Draupadi.
The next time the two came face to face was during the whole Vastraharan fiasco. For those who are not familiar, the story is that the Pandavas had lost all they had in a gambling match with the Kauravas and after they had given up everything they even pawned their wife Draupadi and unsurprisingly, lost. As a result, the Kauravas who were not reputed to be very respectful of women tried to strip Draupadi in public.
The Pandavas had already pawned themselves in the game and had lost it, so they were already slaves of the Kauravas and so was bound by some kind of shitty law of those times which said that they could not harm their masters no matter what they did. So the Kauravas decided to take the opportunity to humiliate Draupadi in the most crudest of ways. Karna, who was a friend of the Kauravas was present in the court when this barbaric act was taking place. Draupadi recognized Karna and asked him for help. But Karna, instead of helping Draupadi stood with the Kauravas and supported them. He even gave a few words of encouragement to the Kauravas (as if they needed any) and passed lewd comments. Draupadi was shocked by Karna’s behavior as she remembered him as a real gentleman and great warrior. Finally, Sri Krishna came to her rescue that day.
Most of this story is known to many who have read Mahabharata or have watched the TV series.
However, the interesting question is why didn’t Karna say anything to stop the brutality that day? There are many different stories regarding this but one interpretation which, I found plausible was that Karna was trying to instigate the Pandavas who were sitting like ducks and letting all these monstrosity go on. Karna could not do anything directly for Draupadi because he was bound by his friendship to the Kauravas and also if he tried to intervene people would raise eyebrows and gossips will start that Karna has a weakness for Draupadi. In reality he did have a weakness for her and that is why he was extra careful not to let his feelings show.He thought that the only way he could stop it is by inciting the Pandavas. He tried to do it by saying things like “Draupadi, you should leave the Pandavas who are cowards and don’t know how to protect you and instead marry the Kauravas.” All this was actually said to anger the Pandavas and push them into doing something to stop the horrible injustice on Draupadi. Alas, they just fell on deaf ears.
While that was Karna’s actual motive, Draupadi thought that Karna still nurtured the grudge against her for publicly humiliating him during the
Sayamvar and that is why he behaved so harshly and did not help her. Draupadi lost the soft spot she had for Karna after this incident until much later when Sri Krishna revealed to her Karna’s actual motives that day.