After a few days journey the forest paths brought the Pāṇḍavas and Dhaumya onto the road leading to Pañchāla. As they made their way along that broad stone highway, they met a group of Brahmins. The Brahmins asked, “Who are you and where are you going?” Yudhiṣṭhira replied that they were five brahmacārīs, celibate students, who had come from Ekacakra along with their teacher. The Brahmins then exhorted the brothers to attend Draupadī’s svayaṁvara. “Accompany us. We are going straight there. The magnanimous King Drupada will be distributing vast wealth to the Brahmins on his divine daughter’s behalf.”
Again the Pāṇḍavas heard of the extraordinary birth and beauty of Draupadī, as well as details of her impending svayaṁvara. All of Kāmpilya would be celebrating. There would be actors, singers, dancers and expert reciters of the ancient Vedic histories. Powerful wrestlers would compete, and athletes would give wonderful displays. Food and drink of the best quality would be served in abundance. And at the end of the celebration Draupadī would then select a husband from among the kings and princes, who had been assembling from all parts of the world. The Brahmins told the Pāṇḍavas that they had heard that Drupada had set a most difficult task for the man who would win his daughter’s hand. The kings who were coming to compete would also be distributing much charity to the Brahmins in hopes of invoking auspiciousness for themselves and obtaining victory at the svayaṁvara.
The Brahmins laughed as they spoke. They pointed to the simple cloth the Pāṇḍavas were wearing. “It seems you boys could use some new cloth. Follow us. Having received all that you require, you may return with us or go wherever you will.” Inviting the five brothers to travel with them, the Brahmins continued, “Who knows? The princess may even select one of you boys, all as handsome as the celestials.” They pointed to Bhīma. “This godlike youth has a body like a thunderbolt. Surely he will win much wealth if he enters the wrestling competitions.”
Yudhiṣṭhira smiled. “We shall all accompany you to Kāmpilya. Pray lead the way!”
The party proceeded. They traveled by day and at night stopped in roadside woods or on lakeshores. With their gentle speech and amiable behavior the Pāṇḍavas endeared themselves to whomever they met, but no one recognized them. As they reached the outskirts of the city they came to a small village. Walking from house to house to find accommodations, they were soon admitted by a potter and his family. The brothers settled there and lived by begging, just as they had done in Ekacakra. They learned from the villagers that the svayaṁvara was to take place in a few days. The king had set a stiff test for winning Draupadī. A small target had been placed on top of a tall pole. Beneath it was a rotating plate with one small hole in it. An arrow had to be shot through that hole at the moment it was aligned with the target. The king had also determined that a particular bow should be used, one which an ordinary man could barely lift. Only an extraordinary warrior would be able to pass the test and win the divine Draupadī’s hand.
Arjuna was enlivened. He prayed to Kṛṣṇa that he might have the chance to try for the princess. From Vyāsadeva’s words it seemed that she was destined to be the wife of one of them, and by such a union the brothers would gain the friendship and alliance of the powerful Drupada. That would probably prove useful in the future. Arjuna eagerly awaited the svayaṁvara.
Drupada had made lavish preparations for the ceremony. A huge stadium had been constructed. In its massive sandstone walls were one hundred gates, each one inlaid with gold and precious gems. Each gate was wide enough to admit crowds passing through. Within the stadium were gently sloping terraces made of coral and lapis lazuli. At the front of these terraces were hundreds of jewel-encrusted thrones arranged for the many monarchs in attendance. All around the stadium the king had built white mansions for their residence. The buildings were many-storied and looked like the cloud-kissing peaks of Mount Kailāsa. The windows of those mansions were covered with gold lattices and the walls studded with diamonds and emeralds. Costly rugs were spread on their marble floors.
When the day of the svayaṁvara arrived, the kings were invited into the stadium. They came through the northern gate and took their seats on the golden thrones. As the monarchs entered, thousands of trumpets blared and kettledrums resounded throughout the stadium. Many ṛṣis, all of them shining like the sun, entered through the eastern gate. The terraces, adorned with countless wreaths and garlands, were filled with Pañchāla’s citizens. As they flooded into the stadium the colorfully dressed people made a sound like the roar of the ocean. The scent of black aloe and frankincense wafted throughout the stadium as everyone settled into their places.
The Pāṇḍavas entered with the Brahmins and took their place in their midst, unnoticed by anyone. They looked around the arena. At the head of all the assembled kings sat Duryodhana and his brothers, resembling a blazing planet surrounded by a hundred bright stars. Bhīma felt his anger rising but Yudhiṣṭhira checked him with a glance. They could not risk being discovered--yet.
The ceremony had begun. Actors and dancers were entertaining the crowd. Brahmins were performing fire sacrifices. Drupada was distributing charity. All of this continued for fifteen days and, with each day, the attendance swelled. The Pāṇḍavas were astonished to see Drupada’s affluence. The Pañchāla king was distributing heaps of gold and gems to the Brahmins. Although dressed as Brahmins, the Pāṇḍavas did not go forward to collect charity, but remained in their places, awaiting the day when Draupadī would appear.
On the sixteenth day the princess, dressed in robes of shining yellow silk and adorned with brilliant ornaments, entered the arena. In her hands she held a golden dish containing the nuptial garland, which she would place around the neck of the man who successfully passed the test her father had set. Gentle music from the flute, tabor and vīṇā played as Draupadī walked toward her seat next to her father. Seeing her beauty, the kings and princes suddenly stood up and brandished their weapons. They boasted to one another in loud voices: “I shall win this princess!” “None can equal my strength and prowess!” “Draupadī will be mine!”
That host of princes seemed like an agitated ocean as they rose and boasted of their power. Afflicted by the god of love and staring at one another in jealousy, they slapped their arms and held aloft their bows and swords, looking like so many Himālayan elephants maddened by desire while in rut.
The celestial chariots of the gods--led by the guardians of the four quarters of the universe, Yamarāja, Indra, Kuvera and Vāyu--settled above the arena. Siddhas, Cāraṇas, Nāgas, Rudras, Daityas, Dānavas and Guhakas assembled in the canopy of the sky, curious to witness Drupada’s sacrifice and the selection of Draupadī’s husband. The great ṛṣis, headed by Nārada, Aṅgirā and Parvatya, stood in the sky among the gods, appearing like suns.
When the five Pāṇḍava brothers saw Draupadī’s dark and lovely face, they felt their hearts pierced as if by darts. They stood up from their seats and gazed at her exquisite form as she moved gracefully to her father’s side. On the opposite side of the arena were the Yādavas from Mathurā. Sitting in their midst, Kṛṣṇa noticed the Pāṇḍavas stand. He looked closely at the five brothers and, turning to Balarāma, said, “In My opinion, those five men over there are the Pāṇḍavas.” Kṛṣṇa indicated the brothers with a slight nod of His head. “I heard a rumor that My cousins survived the fire in Vāraṇāvata. This now seems true. What is Your opinion, Rāma?”
Balarāma carefully observed each of the five brothers. There was no doubt. They were Kuntī’s sons. He turned and smiled at Kṛṣṇa, who returned His smile, but They remained silent about Their discovery.
By now, all the princes were gazing only at Draupadī and her father. None of them noticed the Pāṇḍavas in their midst. Drupada waved to them and, biting their lips in anger and envy toward one another, they sat down. As celestial flowers fell from the sky, the sound of countless conches and kettledrums filled the stadium. Draupadī’s brother Dṛṣṭadyumna stood up like a golden flagstaff raised in honor of Indra. The stadium fell silent as he announced the names of all the kings and princes present. He first named the princes from Hastināpura, then those from Mathurā, then all those attending from hundreds of other countries and provinces.
Dṛṣṭadyumna held his sister’s arm and said in a voice that rumbled like thunder, “This princess will be won today by he who can hit the mark.” The prince pointed to the huge bow lying on a golden table. “There is the bow and the arrows you must use. Truly do I say that whoever shoots an arrow through the device and into the target will win Draupadī’s hand. Only one of noble birth and great prowess will be capable of this feat.”
Dṛṣṭadyumna sat down near his father. Drupada instructed his priest to kindle the sacrificial fire for the svayaṁvara ceremony. The sounds of thousands of Brahmins reciting Vedic prayers filled the arena. The king looked around at the assembled princes. He was not impressed. None of these proud monarchs looked like a suitable match for his daughter. The king thought of Arjuna. If only that prince were still alive. He had heard a rumor that the Pāṇḍavas had escaped the fire, but where were they now? This test could only be passed by someone of Arjuna’s ability. Drupada had deliberately devised a test that only Arjuna could pass in hopes that the Pāṇḍava might appear. Yaja had promised him he would obtain a daughter from his sacrifice who would become Arjuna’s wife. How could the ṛṣi’s words prove false? Drupada looked on anxiously as each king and prince was called to try the test.
With their crowns and golden earrings glinting in the warm sunshine, the kings and princes strode up one by one to the bow. It was only with considerable effort that they were able to even lift the massive weapon from the table. Having somehow managed that, and finally getting it upright, they then had to bend and string it. These kings could not manage the task even in their imaginations. The bow would bend slightly, then spring back with great force. The princes were thrown to the ground, their bodies bruised and their crowns and garlands scattered. As they each took their turn and were, in turn, humiliated, they returned to their fine golden thrones, straightening their shining ornaments as they walked. Panting for breath, their romantic ardor dispelled, the princes sat silently shaking their heads.
Karṇa’s turn came. Seeing him march toward the bow like a golden mountain entering the arena, the Pāṇḍavas considered that the target had been struck and the princess won. As he approached the bow, however, Draupadī stood up and said in a loud voice, “I shall not accept a charioteer’s son as my husband.”
Knowing that Karṇa was the son of Adhiratha, leader of the sutas who generally acted as chariot drivers, Draupadī exercised her prerogative and denied him the opportunity to attempt the test.
Karṇa blushed deeply and laughed in vexation. Glancing at the sun, he turned and strode back to his seat. He ground his teeth and wrung his hands in anger, but said nothing.
The powerful king of the Cediś, Śiśupāla, was next. With great effort he bent the bow into a semi-circle, then lost his grip as he tried to string it. He was thrown onto his back and lay there exhausted for several moments before returning to his seat, defeated. Then Jarāsandha, lord of the Magadha country and scourge even of the gods, took his turn. He bent the bow and held it in one hand while trying to string it with the other. Again the bow resisted and he was thrown to his knees.
Sneering at the other monarchs’ weakness, Duryodhana strode up. A silence fell upon the assembly as the king of Hastināpura bowed to Drupada. The king nodded slightly and Duryodhana lifted the bow. He strung it deftly and placed on its string one of the golden-shafted arrows. Taking careful aim he loosed the arrow. It sped upwards and passed cleanly through the rotating hole but missed the target by a hair’s breadth. The prince angrily threw down the bow and returned to his seat.
Knowing that it was Draupadī’s destiny to marry Arjuna, none of the Yādava kings, including Kṛṣṇa and Rāma, attempted the test. They simply watched and laughed as the bow hurled each of the princes to the ground. They breathed a sigh of relief when Duryodhana’s arrow whistled past the target. That wicked man did not deserve a prize like Draupadī. But where was Arjuna? Only Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma felt no apprehension. They looked across at the Brahmins’ compound.
Now all the kings had tried and failed. Draupadī was still holding the bright red garland on its golden dish. Dṛṣṭadyumna called for any last contestants. Arjuna looked at Dhaumya who smiled and nodded. The prince stood up and walked into the center of the arena. The assembled Brahmins roared in joy and waved their deerskins. Maybe a simple Brahmin would succeed where even the proud, mighty kings of the earth could not. And if any Brahmin could succeed, it would be this one. Arjuna looked like a dark cloud as he advanced toward the bow. He moved like a lion.
Not all the Brahmins agreed. Some of the elder Brahmins were doubtful. Fearing that Arjuna would humiliate the Brahmin class by this rash act, they spoke out loudly. “How can one untrained in arms and lacking strength succeed where even the lords of this world have failed? Stop that youth! It is merely out of childish impetuosity or vanity that he is attempting this impossible task. We shall all be made to look ridiculous.”
Other Brahmins demurred. “Just look more closely at this boy. His arms and thighs resemble the trunks of mighty elephants. His shoulders are broad and he appears as powerful as a maddened lion. He may well succeed. Surely he would not have gone forward if he lacked energy and power.”
Some of them described the power of Brahmins. Whether possessed of physical strength or not, Brahmins were always powerful by virtue of their spiritual strength. No Brahmin should ever be disregarded. Once all the earth’s warriors had been annihilated by Paraśurāma, who was a Brahmin. The great Ṛṣi Agastya had drunk the entire ocean. There was nothing a Brahmin could not achieve. This youth should not be checked. “Yes! Let him go forward. He will easily string the bow and strike down the target.”
The elders replied, “So be it,” and again took their seats.
Arjuna reached the center of the arena and, after bowing to the king, spoke in a voice that echoed around the stadium. “Is it permissible for a Brahmin to attempt this test?”
Drupada looked curiously at the Brahmin, then gave his assent. “It is never disgraceful for rulers to be subordinated by the power of Brahmins,” the king replied. “Indeed, they are protected by that power even as Viṣṇu protects the gods.”
Arjuna turned to the bow and, folding his palms, bowed low before it. Within his mind he prayed to Kṛṣṇa. Having walked respectfully around the bow three times, he took it up in his right hand. In moments he had strung it and placed a golden arrow on the string. A complete hush fell over the stadium as Arjuna stood absolutely still with the bow drawn to a full circle. He knelt and aimed upwards at the target. Suddenly he released the arrow and it shot up with blinding speed. Passing cleanly through the hole it struck the target in its center. As the target clattered to the ground with the arrow sticking from it, the stadium erupted. The people rose to their feat and cheered, while musicians played innumerable instruments. Drums, trumpets and conches resounded and bards immediately composed poems glorifying Arjuna’s achievement. The gods praised Arjuna and sent down showers of celestial flowers. The Brahmins rose in a body, waving their garments and water pots and leaping about in joy. But the kings and princes were seized with shame and they uttered exclamations of grief and despair. Drupada, his eyes expanded in happiness, gazed in wonder as the mysterious Brahmin walked toward the royal dais. Who was he? Could it actually be Arjuna? The king noticed the other monarchs becoming agitated. There was clearly going to be a fight. Drupada turned to his chief minister and commanded that his army stand ready. He then told Draupadī to accept the Brahmin as her husband.
The princess looked at Arjuna as he approached the dais. She was immediately attracted by this god-like youth with the gentle demeanor. Maybe he was Arjuna, as Yaja had promised. Even if he were not, there was certainly no shame in marrying him. He was a Brahmin and Brahmins were always considered superior to the ruling class, or kṣatriyas. And, although he appeared to be a Brahmin, he was especially powerful and obviously self-controlled. This union was surely sanctified by the presence of Kṛṣṇa, the all-powerful Lord of the creation. Draupadī approached Kuntī’s son and joyfully placed the garland around his neck.
Seeing Draupadī actually accept the Brahmin further infuriated the kings. Yudhiṣṭhira decided it was time to leave. He rose up with his brothers and walked toward the stadium gates. Arjuna followed behind with Draupadī. The Brahmins cheered and praised him as he walked past.
From amid the enraged kings, Duryodhana called out, “How does this Drupada dare offend us in this way? He has passed over all the lords of the earth to bestow his daughter upon a poor and unqualified Brahmin. Brahmins should never be allowed to compete in a svayaṁvara, which is meant only for the royal order. It seems Drupada invited us here only to insult us.”
The kings roared in agreement. Some of them waved their weapons. Śiśupāla then said, “The Pañchāla king is so proud that he thinks none of us his equal. He deserves to be punished at once. Let us act so that other svayaṁvaras do not end in a similar way.”
The kings stood up with their weapons at the ready. They glared at Drupada and moved in a body toward him. Seeing the overwhelming odds, Drupada backed away in fear.
Yudhiṣṭhira was observing the scene from the gate. Realizing that Drupada, now his father-in-law, was in danger, he ordered Bhīma and Arjuna to assist him. The brothers quickly ran up to the dais and placed themselves between Drupada and the other kings. Arjuna still held the sacrificial bow. Bhīma tore up a tree from the side of the arena and brandished it menacingly. The two princes looked like Indra and Yamarāja standing against the massed force of Daityas and Dānavas. The hundreds of kings stood back warily as they looked at the two heroes facing them.
Kṛṣṇa remained unmoved. Watching the two Pāṇḍavas preparing to fight, He turned to Balarāma and said quietly, “Any doubts there may have been about the identity of these princes should now be gone. None but Bhīma could have torn up that sal tree and who but Arjuna could have struck down the target? O Saṅkarṣaṇa, these are surely the Pāṇḍavas.”
Balarāma looked at Bhīma and Arjuna as they prepared to ward off the maddened kings. “This is certainly true,” He smiled. “It is fortunate indeed that Our aunt and her young sons have escaped from the fire in Vāraṇāvata.”
Many Brahmins ran forward to support the two Pāṇḍavas. They waved their water pots and deerskins, crying out, “Fear not! We shall fight these arrogant monarchs.”
Arjuna smiled and gently restrained them. “Stand aside and watch,” he said. “With my sharp arrows I shall stop them just as so many snakes are checked by the power of mantras.”
Karṇa advanced to the head of the kings. He shouted, “Although the royal order should not attack Brahmins, it is permissible if those Brahmins stand ready for battle.”
Karṇa stopped at a distance from Arjuna and shot arrows at him. Arjuna, who was supplied with a large number of shafts by Drupada’s soldiers, immediately countered all of Karṇa’s arrows with his own. King Śalya of Madras fought with Bhīma and they appeared like two huge elephants colliding together. Duryodhana and the other kings contended lightly with the other Brahmins who still challenged them. They easily held off the ascetic sages, but did not injure them.
Arjuna sent a number of swift arrows at Karṇa. They pierced his limbs and stunned him with their force. Karṇa looked upon his opponent with surprise. He had not expected such dexterity and martial power. Guarding himself more carefully, he replied with hundreds of straight-flying shafts, but Arjuna again knocked down all his arrows before they reached him. Seeing his expertise, the other kings cheered him on. This infuriated Karṇa. He released thousands of arrows. They filled the air like a flock of golden birds. Still Arjuna countered them, invoking celestial weapons and creating a mass of arrows that sped toward Karṇa.
The two combatants fought with astonishing skill. As they battled they called out to one another in the language of heroes: “Behold the strength of my arms!” “Guard yourself, if you can.” “See how I counter your moves!” “Stand ready, for I shall release even more deadly weapons!”
The other kings stood by and watched open-mouthed, praising both warriors as they displayed their skills.
Karṇa soon realized he was not to gain the upper hand in the fight, so he stopped his attack and addressed Arjuna in a loud voice. “O best of Brahmins, I am pleased with your prowess. Are you the science of arms personified? Perhaps you are Paraśurāma or Indra, or maybe even the infallible Lord Viṣṇu. When I am angered there are none who can fight with me but these personalities--or the son of Kuntī, Arjuna.”
Arjuna smiled. “I am neither Indra nor Paraśurāma. Nor am I any god or divine being. Know me to be a simple Brahmin who has become proficient in arms by his guru’s grace. Having mastered both earthly and celestial weapons, I stand here ready to vanquish you in battle.”
Karṇa lowered his weapons and became pensive. This was no ordinary Brahmin. It would be better to desist from the fight. A Brahmin’s spiritual power was always greater than a kṣatriya’s martial power. The great king Viśvāmitra, even though well-versed in every divine weapon, could not overpower Vasiṣṭa Ṛṣi, and the Brahmin Paraśurāma single-handedly defeated all the kings of the earth. Karṇa bowed to the mysterious Brahmin and turned away from the battle.
Elsewhere, Bhīma and Śalya were still engaged in a fierce hand-to-hand combat. Locked together, they stamped and rolled about the arena like a pair of maddened elephants fighting for supremacy. Their roars and the sound of their blows filled the stadium. Sometimes pushing, sometimes dragging and sometimes throwing the other down, they fought with unflagging energy. They struck each other with the force of thunderbolts, laughing loudly as they fought. Suddenly Bhīma lifted Śalya high above his head and whirled him around. He threw the king to a distance and left him lying stunned. Remembering him to be the brother of Mādrī, Bhīma did not continue his attack upon Śalya.
The kings were amazed to see both Karṇa and Śalya matched by the two Brahmins. They looked in awe upon Bhīma and Arjuna, who stood together ready for further assaults. “Surely these two are not Brahmins. Who could fight with Karṇa except Droṇa or Arjuna? Who could throw down Śalya other than the mighty Balarāma or Bhīma? None could face Duryodhana except the unconquerable Kṛṣṇa. Let us establish their lineage before we continue.”
The other kings agreed. It was not wise to fight with Brahmins, even if they were offensive; but if these two proved to belong to another class, then the fight could continue with full force.
Seeing the kings hesitating, Kṛṣṇa came forward and spoke to them. “O monarchs, the maiden has been fairly and wonderfully won by the Brahmin. There is no need for further fighting. Let us not blight this sacred occasion by unnecessary bloodshed, especially by assaulting the Brahmins.”
With gentle words and arguments Kṛṣṇa succeeded in dissuading the kings from further aggression. Gradually they put away their weapons and left the arena. As they went out they talked together in amazement, wondering who the two mighty-armed Brahmins might be.