Reading Guide. This story provides a more detailed account of Draupadi's previous lifetime as Nalayni, and the "karma" that results in her having five husbands. It comes from the southern Indian and Tamil versions of the Mahabharata, and you can find a very detailed translation of this episode by Satya Chaitanya here: Nalayani: the Past Life of Draupadi. The episode is included in Narayan's Mahabharata and in Devdutt Pattanaik's Jaya, and you can find more versions on this page: Malayalam Retellings. You might also be interested in this article from The Hindu newspaper about a modern theatrical adaptation of Nalayani's story: Silent Dimensions.
Image. The illustration shows Vyasa telling a story to King Drupada, and it also shows the contents of the story.
Source. The version of the story below is based on Notes of a Study of the Preliminary Chapters of the Mahabharata by V. Venkatachellam Iyer (1922), but I have adapted the passage to read like a story. In the original book, it is presented as a mixture of story and analysis. [400 words]
When Drupada is concerned about Draupadi having five husbands, the sage Vyasa explains:
I shall very gladly tell you the history of the previous incarnation of your daughter. Once on a time, Nalayani obtained for her husband the rishi Maudgalya and lived with him happily. Cycles after cycles rolled on, and the pair had the best of the enjoyments of life.
Thereupon, the rishi felt that he had enough of the pleasures of youth and betook himself to divine meditation and tapas, giving up all intercourse with his wife. He abandoned her to herself.
She was loath to part with him. She protested against his desertion and said she was not yet satisfied in the cravings of the flesh and he should not desert her this way.
The rishi cried out in indignation. "You shall take birth as the daughter of King Drupada. There you shall be the wife of five famous men, and you can have your desires satisfied then by them."
Nalayani, after having been thus ill-used by her husband, was chagrined to find that the desires of the flesh were still unsatisfied. She made tapas to Shankara and prayed, "Give me a husband, give me a husband, give me a husband, give me a husband, give me a husband."
Shankara appeared before her and granted her boons. Said the god, "You shall be born again as a high-class woman. Five notable men shall be your husbands."
Nalayani protested to the god against what she believed was his levity. He replied that it was due to the fact that she asked for a husband five times. She reasoned with him against the absurdity of the idea, but he was not open to conviction, notwithstanding her admonition that the provision for five husbands was a thinly disguised form of prostitution. The god assured her that after all it was not so bad as that, for there had been days when there had been no such thing as marriage, when a woman was free to consort with whomsoever she chose and no taint attached to her.
Nalayani, having now got more than she wanted, was minded to make the best of it and said to the god that, if she was to have five husbands, she should have the benefit of virginity at every start. This he granted to her.