Did Draupadi love Karna?
There is no statement to that effect in the Mahabharata. To gain a sense of Draupadi’s feelings towards Karna, let’s look at the relevant incidents.
- Svayamvara: The first interaction between Draupadi and Karna is during her svayamvara. When Karna tried to compete, she certainly didn’t favor him in any way. Irrespective of whether Karna was refused permission to participate in the svayamvara by her or by Dhrishtadyumna, or whether he competed and missed the target by the thinnest margin among all the kshatriyas (as stated in the Mahabharata-tatparya-nirnaya by Srila Madhvacharya), the key point is that Draupadi didn’t exhibit any sign of love for Karna, whether at first sight or later.
- Marriage amidst poverty: When Arjuna in the garb of a brahmana won Draupadi’s hand in that svayamvara, she willingly, even happily, accepted a life of poverty while serving him. She may have accepted such a life either out of deference to her father’s will and the svayamvara tradition or out of attraction to Arjuna, who had so spectacularly won her hand during the svayamvara and the fight thereafter with Karna and the other peeved kings. If she accepted that life because of deference, then it’s extremely unlikely that such a submissive woman would entertain love for anyone like Karna who was an avowed rival of her husband. If she accepted that life because of her attraction to Arjuna, then it’s even more unlikely that she would feel love for her beloved’s enemy.
- Marriage amidst prosperity: Draupadi’s poor-seeming husbands turned out to be princes, who went on to become emperors. During this period of rising fortunes, there’s no reason for her heart to have turned to someone other than her husbands. The Mahabharata reports neither any friction between her and her husbands, nor any noteworthy interaction between her and Karna.
- Dishonor in the gambling match: Some people hold that, after the failure of her husbands to protect her during the gambling match, she felt that Karna would have protected her better. But such an analysis overlooks the reality that Karna was the very person who had instigated her dishonor by suggesting that she be dragged into the assembly and be disrobed in public. And it was Karna who called her a prostitute for having married five men. Even if she had had any affection for Karna as a hero, that attraction would have been destroyed by his villainous behavior. And the short duration of the incident as well as her strong-willed nature wouldn’t have allowed the occurrence of anything remotely resembling the Stockholm syndrome.
- Need for a protector: Even if Draupadi had felt that she would have been better off with some protector other than her Pandava husbands, that feeling didn’t make her turn to Karna. Even though he was present right there in the assembly, she didn’t ask him for protection; instead, she prayed to Krishna, even though he was not present visibly.
During their forest exile, when Jayadratha kidnapped her in the Pandavas’ absence, she castigated him not just for the irreligiosity of his action, but also for its sheer folly in provoking such formidable warriors as her five husbands. When the Pandavas came charging after Jayadratha, she proudly pointed them out to him, describing the heroic attributes of each of them. Her words don’t give even the slightest indication that she felt that their protection was inadequate. To the contrary, her words convey that she had full confidence in her husbands’ ability to rescue her and to punish her abductor.
During their yearlong incognito exile in Virata, when she refused Kichaka’s advances, he abused her in Yudhishthira’s presence. Yudhishthira refused to intervene, not wanting to blow up their cover by retaliatory action – few warriors could overpower the formidable Kichaka and if any unknown person had overpowered him, suspicions would have immediately flared up that Kichaka’s conqueror might be a disguised Pandava. And that’s what happened – Bhima’s killing Kichaka made the Kauravas suspect that Bhima might be responsible, thereby prompting their attack on Virata. Anyway, the relevant point for us is that even if Draupadi had felt disappointed and angered by Yudhishthira’s failure to protect her, that didn’t make her turn to any protector other than her husbands – she turned to Bhima, who more than adequately punished her abuser.
Moreover, the martial track record showed that Karna was inferior to Arjuna, as was evident from the fight of the Kauravas and the Pandavas with the Panchalas on the occasion of giving guru-dakshina to Drona. At that time, the Panchalas had defeated the Kauravas, who had Karna on their side; and then Arjuna had defeated the Panchalas. For a detailed comparative analysis, see the answer to the question “Was Karna a better archer than Arjuna?” in this article; The Son of the Sun – part 1.
- Consistent faithfulness: Most importantly, nowhere in the Mahabharata did Draupadi waver in her faithfulness to her husbands. In the public assembly when she was being dishonored, Duryodhana tried to pit her against her husband by saying that he would release all of them (the Pandavas and Draupadi) if she stated that Dharma-raja Yudhishthira committed adharma by gambling her after he had gambled himself. Even at such a time, when Yudhishthira was clearly at fault, Draupadi refused to cast blame on him. Later in the forest she complained about what she felt was his unassertiveness; still she remained faithful to him, even accepting the position of a lowly maidservant during their incognito exile.
The Mahabharata doesn’t report any reaction of Draupadi at the death of Karna or even when his identity as the oldest of Kunti’s sons is revealed. This silence is telling because the epic doesn’t try to idealize its heroes – it unhesitatingly describes their morally ambiguous actions. And despite this striking candor, it doesn’t give even a whiff of any secret love of Draupadi for Karna.
Therefore, those who claim that Draupadi loved Karna are talking about a Draupadi of their imagination, not the Draupadi of the Mahabharata.