Draupadi warned him that he should not talk slightingly of Krishna, and told the court a story that showed how no power could harm anyone under the protection of Bhagawan Vishnu. Duryodhana was annoyed and asked Dussasana to disrobe her, and challenged her to save her honour with Krishna’s help – a situation reminiscent of Hiranyakashipu’s challenge to Prahlad. Thus it was to disgrace Krishna rather than the Pandavas that Duryodhana wanted Draupadi to be humiliated. As Dussasana proceeded towards her, Draupadi frantically pleaded with her husbands to protect her. Each of them told her how helpless he was. However, when Dussasana taunted Bhima, he picked up his mace and jumped at him. Yudhisthira rebuked him harshly, and told him that for Draupadi he must not harm his brothers. The Pandavas could get a hundred Draupadis, he said, but not a brother if they harmed their own brothers.
Draupadi prayed to Krishna. He was playing dice with his wife Satyabhama. He got distracted, and told his wife that Draupadi was in trouble, and was seeking his help, and he was going to save her. Satyabhama couldn’t believe that her husband could know about Draupadi’s situation when she was so very far from him. She wanted proof – the ultimate proof of visual experience. Krishna invoked his carrier, the divine eagle Garuda, and immediately proceeded towards Hastinapura with Satyabhama. From the sky Satyabhama could see how the wicked Kauravas were troubling her. When Draupadi saw Krishna on the back of Garuda in the sky, she experienced a profound sense of liberation. She offered him prayers, and said that by seeing him, she attained liberation from her sins of countless existences. It was as though at that particular moment she was so overpowered with the consciousness of Krishna that she became oblivious of her desperate situation in the Kaurava court.
Returning as though to her normal self, she prayed to him to protect her from the clutches of Dussasana. Krishna told her that she should not worry about such trivial matters, and that she should pray to the Sun god. What she had given would return to her in far greater measure at the time of her distress, he said. Surely Draupadi had no idea what connection it could have with her praying to the Sun god. But she didn’t ask, and Krishna didn’t clarify. From one point of view that was not the time for all this; at another, this was act of surrender – since Draupadi, a bhakta (“devotee”), had implicit trust on her Bhagawan, Krishna, there was no need for her to ask.
Anyway, with that Krishna left. Unknown to any human, he met the Sun god on his way back, and reproached him for having forgotten his debt to Draupadi, and not helping her at the time of her need. He reminded him that he had borrowed clothes from Draupadi in an earlier existence of hers, for the wedding of his son, Sani, and told him that the pay back time had come. Dussasana was trying to disrobe Draupadi and he should redeem his debt. Krishna’s attitude and tone in his gentle, but firm upbraiding of the Sun god brings out the status of the latter with respect to him. By the time of the great purans, the Vedic god Sun had lost his status. In one conceptualization he was assimilated into Vishnu (Sun and Moon were conceived of as the eyes of Vishnu, as The Bhagavat Gita put it). In another where he retained his distinctiveness, he was assigned a lower status with respect to Vishnu. Then hundreds of years after the age of the classical puranas, in the hands of Sarala, his fall was complete.
But surely the god’s position could not be compromised in the eyes of the humans. Therefore Krishna had asked Draupadi to pray to the Sun god, which she most devoutly did. The god instructed Chhaya (literally, “Shadow”) and Maya (literally, “illusion”) to dress Draupadi. Unseen by everyone including Draupadi, these two celestials kept dressing her, as Dussasana kept disrobing her.
Thus in a way Krishna and the Sun god together saved Draupadi’s honour in the manner of the Causer and the agent. This relation might be said to parallel one conceptualization of Jagannatha and Sudarshana in the context of the Jagannatha worship in Puri. Most probably, it was Sarala who was the first to postulate that Jagannatha, Balabhadra and Subhadra are the manifestations of Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma respectively. But he said nothing similar about Sudarshana. He probably considered Sudarshana as Vishnu’s divine discuss. Later some seem to have conceptualized Sudarshana as Surya. There may not be many adherents of of this view at present.
To return to the rest of the story. After a while Bhishma tried to tell the Kauravas the significance of what was happening. How many clothes did their women wear, he asked the Kauravas. If they did not understand what was happening, they were just miserable morons, he told them. They should desist from their evil attempt to humiliate Draupadi, and he warned them that Draupadi’s anger could reduce them to ashes. But the Kauravas paid no heed, and as she gazed at the inner quarters of Hastinapur palace, a fire blazed there, and Duryodhana’s wife Bhanumati, and the wives of his brothers, and other royal Kaurava women ran outside. A greatly frightened Bhanumati came running into the court and condemned the Kauravas, and prayed to Draupadi, as she would to a goddess, to save them from her anger. Dhritarashtra and Gandhari also sought her forgiveness, and as she grew calm, the fire got extinguished.
If Sarala’s Krishna didn’t directly intervene in favour of Draupadi, it might not be because – setting aside the question, very reasonable in the context of this predominantly bhakti text, as to who at all understood the meaning of his words and actions if he himself did not clarify, – he thought that it was too insignificant a matter for his direct involvement. His direct intervention would have strongly undermined the functioning of the karmic principle. Both Draupadi and the Sun god were bound to each other by their karma. Thus it was necessary that Draupadi got back what she had given, and that the beneficiary of her action must redeem his debt. It would not matter that between the receiving and the giving there were many aeons, and existences – time does not constrain the domain of the operation of karma.
However, if this were so, then what role could Krishna have at all in this operation of the karmic principle? We know he activated the process. But does the law of karma require such an activator? Pingala’s spiritual awakening, for example, was due to her past karma, and not the intervention by an activator like Krishna, going by the Oriya Bhagavata (Srimad Bhagavata) of the sixteenth century Oriya poet Jagannatha Dasa. On the other hand, Krishna’s intervention in Saaralaa Mahaabhaarata can be viewed as an instance of Bhagawan’s grace. Perhaps this is how His grace interacts with karma. Karmic principle invokes an essentially unfavourable picture of existence. Pain and pleasure both lose their meaning in the condition of bondage. Divine grace brings relief to existence, and in a sense provides support to the idea of a personal god. In Sarala, grace does not negate or even undermine the karmic law, but creates a possibility of transcendental experience outside of the karmic level. Draupadi experienced it for a moment when she saw Krishna on the back of Garuda.