The question was first put by Drupada, the brother of Draupadi, to Bhagawan Vyasa as follows: "Respected sage! How can one woman become the wife of many, without leading to sin? Please explain this in detail".
Thereupon, Vyasa Ji explained through a story how it came to be that the Pandava's marriage with a single wife was in conformity with dharma.
The story began with a Vedic yajna being performed by Yamaraja, the god of death. During the course of the long yajna, Yamaraja resolved not to kill any human being and therefore, death being suspended, the number of beings increased greatly. Alarmed at the increase in the number of humans, all the gods like Varuna, Kubera etc, gathered together and went to Bhagawan Brahma, the creator of the world and said: "We are trembling with fear. We wish to be happy again and have come to seek protection with you."
Brahma Ji replied: "Why are you frightened of humans, when all of you are immortal? There should not be any fear in you from mortals".
The gods said: "Since the mortals have become immortals, there is no difference between us any more. Upset at this equality, we have come to you to seek a distinction."
Brahma Ji answered: "When Yamaraja has finished his yajna, death will again return amongst the humans. At that time, Yamaraja will be strengthened through your energies and the humans will not be equal to you."
Not long after, some of the gods, along with their king Indra, were sitting on the bank of a river when they saw a beautiful golden lotus floating on its waters. Indra, wishing to find out the mystery behind the lotus, went to the source of the river and saw there a lady, radiant like fire, filling water from the river, standing knee deep in it. She was crying, and the tears from her eyes, as soon as they touched the water, transformed into golden lotuses.
Indra went near her and asked: ""Respected lady! Who are you? Why are you crying? I want to know the truth. If you wish, please tell me."
She replied: O Indra! I am unfortunate and you will know who I am and why I am crying. Come with me this way and you will understand everything. Come, follow me."
Indra followed her and soon came across an extremely handsome young man, seated on the peak of the Himalayas. Accompanying the man was a beautiful woman. Both were playing a game of dice. However, Indra’s arrival did not bother them one bit and this indifference angered Indra, who perceived it as an affront to his authority. Looking with red eyes towards the handsome man, Indra gave vent to his anger saying: "Don’t you know that I am the king of the world? This world is under my control. You should know that I am the lord of all."
The young man took no notice of what Indra had said and continued to be immersed in his game. This further infuriated Indra who repeated what he had said. On seeing that Indra was angry, the young man, who was none other than Bhagawan Shiva with his wife Parvati, cast a look at Indra and smiled. At that look the king of gods became motionless and stood fixed at the spot, like a pillar.
When the game of dice was over, Shiva spoke to the weeping woman who had accompanied Indra: "Bring him here. I will make sure that pride never enters his heart again." As soon as the woman touched him, the paralysed Indra fell down to the ground. Then the radiant Bhagawan Shiva said to him: "O Indra! Never act with such pride again and think of yourself as the lord of this world. If you think you are powerful, then go ahead and remove this large stone lying in front of you. Under it is a cave in which you will find a surprise."
Indra did as he was told. In the cave he saw four other Indras of previous ages. Indra, on seeing them became very sad and wondered, "Will I also encounter the same fate?".
Bhagawan Shiva then looked at Indra with angry eyes and said: "Because of your foolish pride you have insulted me. Therefore, you too enter this cave." On hearing Shiva’s words, Indra started shaking with fear. He folded his hands and bowed saying: "O! Lord, please show me a way out."
Shiva replied: "Vain people should not be forgiven. These four people you see in the cave too had led a life puffed with pride. As a result of which they have been placed in this condition. Now you too lie in this cave with them. Afterwards, all five of you and this woman accompanying you will have to take birth in the world of human beings. This woman will be your wife. There you will perform extraordinary feats of violence and will be the cause of sending a large number of men to their deaths. Then, as a consequence of the positive karma that you will perform as human beings, you all will again attain Indrahood. You will achieve all that I have said and much more."
The four earlier Indras said: "Lord! We will all follow your command. However, we request that we should not be fathered by any humans, rather by gods (hence were the five Pandavas born respectively by the gods Dharma, Vayu, Indra and the two Ashwinis). We should fight with divine weapons and at the end, return to our higher worlds".
The ever compassionate Bhagawan Shiva accepted their request and addressed the weeping woman who had accompanied Indra: "You are none other than Swarga-Lakshmi, the personification of all that is auspicious in heaven. You are distressed because of the condition of your lord, these five Indras. You too will accompany them to the human realm and become their wife." The graceful woman bowed, humbly accepting Bhagawan Shiva’s command.
Then Shiva took them all to Bhagawan Vishnu, who approved of everything that had taken place and said: "Nowadays, there is too much burden on the earth because of there being too many humans (due to Yamaraja’s yajna); so much so that humans have started of thinking of themselves as immortals. The gods too desire that death start playing its role again and the balance in the cosmos be restored. Let these gods themselves go and fulfil this mission, which I fully support."
Bhagawan Vishnu then plucked two hairs from his body, one was white and the other was black. These two hairs entered Rohini and Devaki, who respectively gave birth to Balarama and Krishna. Thus it was that the former Indras were born as the Pandavas, and the celestial Lakshmi, ordained to be their wife, was born as the divinely beautiful Draupadi.
Conclusion: There is much to learn from this history of Draupadi. The first is that there is not a single thing in this world which is without use. Even death is highly required. Without death, the burden on the earth becomes too much. Bhagawan Vishnu is ever compassionate. When He saw that the gods were disturbed at the lack of mortality amongst humans, He made an arrangement, where not only were they able to fulfil their wish themselves, but also established dharma and removed adharma, thus benefitting the world immensely.
As for the great Draupadi, we realize here her true origin as an incarnation of Lakshmi. Her birth had the sanction of all the three Gods - Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. The divine roots of her origin are amply evident in her exemplary life on the earth. Not only was she a devout wife who looked well after the Pandavas, but also performed exemplary service to her mother in law, making sure that she was always near her and even when many servants were available, she made it a point to serve her mother in law with her own hands.
Though she was born a princess, Draupadi had to spend her very first night after marriage sleeping on the floor. She accepted this without a trace of resentment. At the end of the Mahabharata war, when her sleeping children were killed by a brahmin, she had enough sense of forgiveness and dharma to prevent her husband from killing the brahmin in retaliation.The sufferings Draupadi underwent and the sacrifices she made have been a constant source of inspiration to all of us. Homages to the divine land where once fell the feet of Devi Draupadi.
The history of Draupadi occurs in the Adi Parva of the Mahabharata, Chapters 195-196.
References & Further Reading:
- Debroy, Bibek. The Complete Mahabharata (English Translation in 10 Volumes): Delhi, 2014
- Pandey Ram, Ramnarayandatt Shastri. The Mahabharata (Hindi Translation): Gorakhpur.
- Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda. Sati Draupadi: Gorakhpur.