Polyandry is not very common in Sanskrit literature. While it was common for a man to have multiple wives, a woman having multiple husbands was rare. The Mahabharata remains a rare exception in this matter.
The birth of Draupadi can be traced back to her father Drupada’s defeat at the hands of his future son-in-law, Arjuna who was tasked by his teacher Drona to humiliate him. Following the defeat, Drupada performed a sacrifice to obtain a blessing so he could seek revenge. From the fire emerged Dhrishtadyumna, a strapping young warrior and Draupadi, a woman so beautiful that the reputation of her beauty preceded her. It is said that Draupadi was the most beautiful woman of the age, one with a dark complexion, curly hair and her body emanated the fragrance of a blue lotus.
Drupada’s intention was to marry Draupadi off to Arjuna but on hearing of his death in the palace fire, he decides to hold a swayamvara or a competition. To win Draupadi’s hand, the men had to lift and string a bow and fire an arrow to pierce the eye of a golden fish by only looking at its reflection in the water.
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Several princes participated in the challenge but no one could lift the bow let alone string it or fire an arrow. It is believed that when Karna rose up to the challenge, he was shot down since he was a low-born. At the end, though, the task was accomplished by a young brahmin who in fact was Arjuna in disguise. After their assassination attempt, Arjuna and the Pandavas had gone into hiding letting the world believe that they were dead.
The entire assembly rose up in offence that the hand of a princess was won by a brahmin. Still in disguise, Arjuna and Bhima defend themselves and Draupadi and make their way out of the palace.
As Arjuna arrives at the hut where they were staying, he asking his mother to come out to see what he’d ‘found’. Still inside the hut, Kunti unthinkingly asks Arjuna to share whatever it was that he’d found with his brothers. Yudhishthira rationalists this by pointing out that a woman so beautiful would drive a wedge between the five of them. And so, in order to follow his mother’s orders and brother’s suggestion, Arjuna agrees for Draupadi to be married to all five of them.
This then brings them to the question of how such an unusual marriage would work. So they agree that Draupadi would be with each of them for a year and during this time no one but the one brother to whom she was married would lust after her. It was also decided that no brother but the one to whom she was married would ever enter her chambers during that year.
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That is how Draupadi’s marriage to the five brothers worked for their entire lifetime and she bore them a son each.