Arjuna (Sanskrit: Meaning "bright," "shining," or "silver") is one of the major characters and heroes of the famous Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. The third of the five Pandava brothers, Arjuna was a master archer who played a pivotal role in the conflict between the Pandavas and their adversaries, the Kauravas. He is most famous for his ethical crisis and subsequent dialogue with Lord Krishna in the Bhagavadgita, where he is counseled concerning the nature of the universe, proper duty, and supreme devotion.
His seminal role in the Mahabharata has marked Arjuna as a central heroic figure in the scriptures, iconography, and mythology of Hinduism. In his dialogue with Krishna in the Bhagavadgita, Arjuna embodies the qualities of the ideal student. His willingness to accept the word of Krishna, even though it involves raising his weapons against his kinfolk, illustrates his ideal devotion to God. Together, the inseparable friendship between Krishna and Arjuna represent the cosmic inseparability of Brahman and atman, or the essence of the universe and the soul, one of the fundamental ideas of Hinduism. In a more general sense of comparative myth, Arjuna also stands as the archetypal reluctant hero, who is called to a task of great import and initially shirks his duty, only to reconsider and perform his task with unmatched effectiveness. As such, Arjuna is a hero not only for Hindus but also for the entirety of humanity.
Arjuna in the Mahabharata
Before Arjuna's birth, Pandu, putative father of the Pandavas, was unable to sire a child because of a curse which rendered him unable to have sexual relations. He and his first wife, Kunti, decided to make use of a boon she had been given by the sage Durvasa, which enabled her to invoke any god of her choice in order to beget the deity's child. Accordingly, Kunti invoked the gods Yama, Vayu, and Indra in turn and gave birth to three sons. Arjuna was the third son, born of Indra, the warrior king of the devas. As the son of Indra, Arjuna is said to have been well-built and extremely handsome, with a proclivity for combat no doubt acquired from his father.
Thus, the foundation for Arjuna's career as a warrior was laid at a young age. He was described as a diligent student of the combative arts, learning everything that his guru, Dronacharya, could teach him. He was particularly skilled in archery, with much of his proficiency attributable to his habit of practicing in the dark. As Dronacharya's best pupil, Arjuna received instruction in the use of the Brahmasira, an immensely powerful weapon of mass destruction.
Arjuna's skill in archery proved to have an unlikely utility when it won him the hand of Draupadi, his first wife. Draupadi was the daughter of Drupada, king of Panchala, who held a contest for the purpose of choosing a suitable match for his daughter. Contestants were required to string a heavy bow and then use it to hit the eye of a wooden fish rotating above a pool of water. They were allowed to take aim at the eye of the fish only by looking at its reflection in the pool of water. Many princes and noblemen vied for the hand of the princess of Panchala; some, including Karna, were disqualified on grounds of supposedly low birth. However, Arjuna avoided this stipulation by dressing as a high-caste Brahmin and was allowed to compete, going on to win the hand of Draupadi.
All five Pandava brothers had attended the tournament without informing their mother. As they returned home in triumph, Princess Draupadi along with them, they shouted to their mother from outside the house so she could observe their good fortune. Busy with her work, Kunti dismissed them saying "whatever it is, share it between yourselves equally, and do not quarrel over the matter." So seriously did the brothers take the command of their mother that they made Draupadi their common wife. In spite of the fact she had married all five brothers, Draupadi loved Arjuna the most and always favored him over the others; likewise, Arjuna loved Draupadi more than his three other wives Chitrangada, Ulupi, and Subhadra.
The brothers agreed upon a number of protocols governing their relations with Draupadi. One of the foremost points of this agreement was that no brother would disturb the couple when another brother was alone with Draupadi. The penalty for doing so was a year of exile. Once, when the Pandavas were still ruling over a prosperous Indraprastha, a Brahmin came in great agitation to Arjuna and sought his help, informing him that a pack of cattle-thieves had seized his herd. Arjuna was thrust into a dilemma: His weaponry was in the room where Draupadi and Yudhishthira were alone together for the night, and disturbing them would incur the penalty he had agreed upon earlier. However, Arjuna hesitated only a moment, for in his mind he knew that coming to the aid of a subject in distress, especially a brahmin, was the raison d'etre of a prince. The prospect of exile did not deter him from fulfilling the duty of aiding the brahmin, and so he disturbed the conjugal couple, took up his weaponry and rode forth to subdue the cattle-thieves. Once he had finished the task, he insisted upon going away on exile, despite opposition from his entire family, including the two people whom he had disturbed.
Obtaining the Gandiva
Arjuna was banished to exile for twelve years. Over the course of this time, he traveled and married his three additional wives. During this time, he also consolidated his relationship with his cousin Krishna. Shortly after his return to Indraprastha, Krishna accompanied Arjuna on his visit to the Khandava forest. Here they encountered Agni, the fire-god, who was faced with the task of burning down the forest in order to relieve a sickness from which he was suffering. Agni asked for their help in consuming the forest in its entirety, since he had failed repeatedly at the task since Takshaka the serpent-king, a friend of Indra, had been residing in it. In each of the fire-god's previous attempts to burn down the forest, Indra had caused rain to fall. Arjuna told Agni that although he has been well-trained in the divine weapons, he must possess an exceptionally powerful bow to withstand the power of his father.
Agni then invoked Varuna, who gave Arjuna the Gandiva, an unbreakable bow, which affords its user sure victory in battle and played a significant role in Arjuna's later battles. Additionally, Varuna also gave Arjuna a divine chariot, with powerful white horses that never tired and could withstand wounds by earthly weapons. Arjuna instructed Agni to proceed, and meanwhile took up a duel with Indra. The ensuing battle lasted several days and nights, until finally a voice from the sky proclaimed Arjuna and Krishna to be the victors, and told Indra to withdraw. And so, the forest was burnt and Agni was sated.
While the forest burnt, Arjuna chose to spare one asura by the name of Maya, a gifted architect. After Yudhisthira, Arjuna's elder brother, was crowned emperor of India, Maya built him a magnificent royal hall as a token of his gratitude. However, this gift made his cousin Duryodhana envious and his uncle Shakuni concocted a ruse to destroy the Pandavas. He invited the Pandavas to his abode for a game of dice in which Yudhishthira lost everything, including himself, his brothers, and Draupadi, through the use of a trick. In the wake of their victory, the Kauravas dishonored their cousins and even attempted to disrobe Draupadi in front of the entire court, an embarrassment from which she was saved only by the grace of Krishna. When the elders intervened and ordered that everything be returned to the Pandavas, Shakuni forced the brothers into another game of dice, and he again won. This time, the Pandavas and their common wife were forced into exile for 13 years as a condition of their loss, and on the 13th year they must remain hidden. If they are discovered by the Kauravas during this time, the Pandavas would be forced into exile for another 13 years.
During this period, Arjuna's training prepared him for the looming war to come. In the fifth year of their exile, Arjuna left the others and ventured to the Himalayas to do penance to Lord Shiva for the purposes of obtaining the Pasupata, Shiva's personal indefensible weapon. Arjuna's penance stretched over a long period of time until finally Shiva was satisfied and appeared before him as a motley hunter. The hunter challenged Arjuna to a duel, which he accepted, and an intense battle followed, during which Arjuna realized the hunter's true identity. Immediately, Arjuna fell before Shiva's feet, and the god subsequently granted Arjuna knowledge of the Pasupata.
After obtaining this powerful weapon, Arjuna then proceeded to the heavenly realm of Indraloka to spend time with his mythological father, and also to acquire further training from the devas. Additionally, he suppressed the Nivatakavachas and Kalakeyas, two powerful asura clans that had obtained boons from Brahma so as to be undefeatable by the gods. Arjuna readily destroyed them with his training. During his time in Indraloka, Arjuna was also propositioned by the apsara (nymph) Urvashi. Because Urvashi had once bore a son named Ayus, who was a distant forbear of Arjuna, he regarded Urvashi as he would his mother and reminded her of this connection while rejecting her advances. Urvashi grew annoyed at this rejection and, in her chagrin, cursed Arjuna with impotence. Upon receiving rebuke from Indra, Urvashi modified her curse so it would last only one year, a year of Arjuna's choosing, at that.
This curse proved fortuitous, and Arjuna used it as a very effective disguise for the duration of the thirteenth year he spent in exile along with his brothers and Draupadi in the court of Virāta under the pseudonym Brihannala. At this time, he acted like a woman. At the end of this year, Arjuna single-handedly defeated a Kaurava host that had invaded Virāta's kingdom. In appreciation of this valor, and having been appraised of the true identity of the Pandavas, King Virāta offered the hand of his daughter Uttarā to Arjuna. Arjuna demurred on grounds of age as well as the fact that Uttarā had become like a daughter to him while he tutored her in song and dance. He proposed that Uttarā should marry his young son Abhimanyu instead, and the wedding dutifully took place.
Arjuna at war
Upon finishing their period of exile, the Pandavas sought the return of their kingdom from the Kauravas. However, the Kauravas refused to honor the terms of their agreement, which caused the great Kurushetra war to break out. Krishna gave each of the warring sides a choice: They could either be given the benefit of his personal counsel or of his army. Arjuna chose the companionship of Krishna while the Kauravas chose the mighty army. Thus, Krishna became Arjuna's personal charioteer during the eighteen-day war and protected him on numerous occasions from injury and death.
Before the war begins, however, Arjuna was reluctant to take part in the battle. Riding into the Kurukshetra battlefield on his chariot steered by Krishna, Arjuna looked upon the faces of his Kaurava cousins and was filled with trepidation:
- There Arjuna could see, within the midst of the armies of both parties, his fathers, grandfathers, teachers, maternal uncles, brothers, sons, grandsons, friends, and also his father-in-law and well-wishers-all present there.
- When the son of Kunti, Arjuna, saw all these different grades of friends and relatives, he became overwhelmed with compassion and spoke thus:
- Arjuna said: My dear Krsna, seeing my friends and relatives present before me in such a fighting spirit, I feel the limbs of my body quivering and my mouth drying up.
- My whole body is trembling, and my hair is standing on end. My bow Gandiva is slipping from my hand, and my skin is burning.
- I am now unable to stand here any longer. I am forgetting myself, and my mind is reeling. I foresee only evil, O killer of the Kesi demon.
Given the slaughter he knew that he would cause in the enemy ranks, which included many of his own relatives, Arjuna laid down his arms and decided that he would not fight. Thereafter, Krishna counseled Arjuna and convinced him that the difficulties he was experiencing were merely delusions, and that he had no choice but to fight. The godly charioteer explained that the nature of the soul is eternal, and while Arjuna may kill the fleshly bodies of his relatives, their souls will live on forever. In addition, Krishna also expounded for Arjuna the importance of following caste duties without consideration of personal gain or loss—since Ajuna was a member of the warrior caste, it was his duty to fight without question. The discharge of one's caste dharma (duty), Krishna said, supersedes all other pursuits in life, whether spiritual and material. Later on in the dialogue, Krishna revealed that he was indeed an incarnation of God, and manifested his full divinity to Arjuna. By the conclusion of the Gita in the eighteenth chapter, Arjuna has accepted his duty and enters the battle to fight, essaying a vastly important role in the winning of the war. Distilling virtually all the major teachings of the various Hindu schools, the Gita is one of the most important scriptures in the entire Hindu canon.
The slaying of Jayadratha
Another important story involving Arjuna came about after the strongest warriors of the Kaurava Army collaborated to attack Arjuna's son, Abhimanyu, when he was exhausted and weaponless. Arjuna held the Sindhu king Jayadratha, husband of Dushala, the sister of the Kaurava brothers, principally responsible for the attack, and pledged to end his own life if he failed to kill Jayadratha by the end of the day. Arjuna went on to kill an entire platoon comprised of more than 100,000 of Jayadratha's soldiers. In the climactic moment of this battle, the sun is close to setting and thousands of warriors still separate Arjuna from Jayadratha. Seeing his friend's plight, Lord Krishna raises his Sudarshana Chakra into the sky and covers the Sun, giving everyone on the battlefield the impression that the sun has set. The Kaurava warriors prematurely rejoice over Arjuna's defeat and imminent death, and Jayadratha is exposed. Upon the Lord's urging, Arjuna lets loose a powerful arrow and decapitates Jayadratha, avenging the death of his son.
Showdown with Karna
Karna, Arjuna's childhood rival and unrecognized brother, also grew to become a formidable warrior, although he aligned himself with the Kauravas. Their rivalry only grew when Karna played an indirect albeit significant role in the murder of Arjuna's son Abhimanyu upon the battlefield. Their personal vendetta reached its climax when they met in a battle of immense proportions on the seventeenth day of war. For hours and hours powerful weapons are discharged by the two warriors at terrifying pace without relent. Looking on, millions of other soldiers marveled at the prowess of the combatants. Realizing that he could not kill Arjuna by any conventional means, Karna took out his powerful snake arrow in order to gain the advantage. However, Lord Krishna intervened and rescued his devotee at this crucial juncture, allowing Arjuna to send a barrage of arrows at Karna and wound him severely. Krishna urged Arjuna to kill Karna, reminding Arjuna of Karna's ruthlessness against Abhimanyu, and Arjuna complied.
This act of fratricide was committed while still in ignorance of Arjuna's true relationship with his fifth brother. After Karna's death, Kunti informs the Pandavas of the long-kept secret that she was Karna's mother, and that he was actually the eldest of the Pandava brothers. This elicited much grief from the Pandavas. Yudhisthira was particularly incensed upon learning that his mother had kept Karna's true identity from him and his brothers, and he cursed all women, stating that from that day forward they would never be able to keep secrets.
After the conclusion of the war, the Pandavas took charge of Hastinapura, the realm of their ancestors. Their great victory and the political power it afforded them gave them the confidence to hazard a further venture: the performance of the Asvamedha Yagna, or "horse sacrifice," where after one of them could assume the title of Chakravarti or "Emperor." The sacrifice required that a horse be let loose to wander where it will. Thereafter, the kings upon whose lands the horse wanders through have a choice: They may either accept the master of the horse (in this case, Yudishthira, eldest of the Pandavas) as their own lord and offer their submission to him, or they may offer resistance and wage war. Arjuna lead the armed host that followed the horse around its random wanderings. Over the years, he had occasion to receive the submission of many tribes and kingdoms, sometimes using armed force, sometimes using none. Thus, he was instrumental in the expansion of the Pandava domains. In the course of time, the aging Pandava brothers (including Arjuna) decide to renounce the world. They entrust the kingdom to Parikshita, the son of the deceased Abhimanyu and grandson of Arjuna who represents the sole surviving dynast of the entire Kuru clan, and then they retire to the Himalayas and eventually depart the world.
Arjuna is one of the most celebrated human heroes in Hindu scripture. Wholesome, devoted, and magnanimous, he bears many noble qualities of human beings. His theological significance is also immense. In his dialogue with Lord Krishna in the Bhagavadgita, wherein the nature of the universe is unraveled for him, Arjuna embodies the qualities of the ideal student. His willingness to accept the word of Krishna, even though it involves raising his weapons against his kinfolk, illustrates his ideal devotion to God. Together, the inseparable friendship between Krishna and Arjuna represent the cosmic inseparability of Brahman and atman, or the essence of the universe and the soul, one of the fundamental ideas of Hinduism.
In a more general sense of comparative myth, Arjuna also stands as the archetypal reluctant hero, who is called to a task of great import and initially shirks his duty, only to reconsider and perform his task with unmatched effectiveness. As such, Arjuna is a hero not only for Hindus but also for the entirety of humanity.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Eliade, Mircea (ed.). Encyclopedia of Religion. New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1987. ISBN 0029098505
- Katz, Ruth Cecily. Arjuna in the Mahabharata: Where Krishna is, There is Victory. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1989. ISBN 0872495426
- McGrath, Kevin. Arjuna Pandava: The Double Hero in Epic Mahabharata. Orient Blackswan, 2016. ISBN 978-8125063094
- Segal, Robert A. Hero Myths: A Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2000. ISBN 063121514X
- Theosophical Publishing. The Weakness of Arjuna. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2005. ISBN 1425459137
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