The Warrior Son
Arjuna is a key characters in the Hindu epic, The Mahabharata, a collection of over 88 000 verses, and the longest epic in any language (Hodgkinson 8). The third of five Pandava brothers, Arjuna is described as a master ambidextrous archer, who is also highly skilled in the usage of other weapons, enabling him to earn the title of Maharathi, or outstanding warrior (Menon 2006a: 117). Arjuna’s skill in warfare plays a pivotal role in the civil war being fought between two royal branches, the Pandavas, and their cousins, the Kauravas, where he single handedly kills many powerful warriors fighting for the opposing side. Famously, Arjuna faces a moral dilemma over killing his kin before a great battle starts, and his resultant dialogue with Lord Krsna, his charioteer, who tries to convince him to fight, forms the subject of the Bhagavad Gita (The Song of the Lord) (Rodrigues, 233-234).
Due to a curse placed on King Pandu, he could not have sexual relations with either of his wives. To ensure the king had an heir, his wife, Kunti, made use of a boon she had been granted that allowed her to beget a child by any deity she chose. The third, and last child Kunti bore was Arjuna, begotten by the god Indra [Indra, in Hinduism, is the king of heavenly gods] (Hopkins 122).
Growing up, Arjuna is described by the epic as the most adept warrior among the five Pandava brothers. Of all the other Pandava brothers, and the hundred Kauravas, Arjuna was the great warrior Drona’s most diligent student. One Mahabharata story recounts an archery practice where Drona instructed each boy to aim at a wooden bird in a tree. As each boy aimed, Drona asked him what he saw. After each boy had described the bird, tree, and landscape beyond, Drona told him to lower his bow. Only when Arjuna replied to Drona’s question that he only saw the bird’s eye, was he allowed to shoot the target (Menon 2006a: 118-119). This story highlights the importance of focus, and how focused Arjuna was as a student. Another example of Arjuna’s dedication to learning was his discovery that his brother Bhima ate at night as well as he did in the day. Since Bhima was so good at eating, this gave Arjuna the idea to practice archery in the dark, to become more skilled (Menon 2006a: 116). As a further advantage to his skill at archery, Arjuna gained the celestial bow Gandiva by assisting Agni in the burning of the forest Khandava (Menon 2006a: 302).
Arjuna used his skill with his bow to win the hand of Drapaudi at her swayamvara, by shooting a spinning wooden fish in the eye while only looking at it in a reflective pool. Together with his brothers, he married Drapaudi as a common wife (Rodrigues 231). As a rule, when one of the brothers was alone with Drapaudi, the penalty for interrupting was a 12 yearlong exile. When news of trouble among his subjects came, Arjuna realized he had left his weapons in the room that Drapaudi was occupying with one of his brothers. So great was his sense of duty, that he obtained his weapons, defended his subjects, and voluntarily went on his exile immediately after (Menon 2006a: 259-260). During this exile, Arjuna married many more wives to strengthen his family’s kingdom. Of his many wives, the four most important were Drapaudi, Chitrangada, Ulupi, and Krsna’s sister, Subhadra. Arjuna fathered Abhimanyu with Subhadra.
In The Mahabharata, the eldest Kauravas, and rival of Yudhisthira for the throne, Duryodhana, challenged Yudhisthira to a game of dice. Yudhisthira had a weak spot for gambling, and it is said that due to Duryodhana’s treachery he lost everything he possessed, including his kingdom, his brothers, and Drapaudi. After the results of the gambling were declared void by the king, due to the humiliation of Drapaudi, Yudhisthira agreed to one final game of dice in which the wager was 12 years in exile, followed by a year that the exiled must stay disguised, or else face another 12 year exile. Yudhisthira lost, and the five Pandavas and Drapaudi were exiled (Williams 31).
During his second 12 years in exile, Arjuna left his brothers and wife and went on a pilgrimage to the Himalayas to win favour with the gods and to gain celestial weapons to use in the unavoidable war against the Kauravas at the end of the exile. In the Himalayas, he fought against Siva, who had disguised himself as a Kirata, (mountaineer). Soon after the fight began, Arjuna found himself disarmed and overcome by his opponent, and ashamed of his defeat, started to worship Siva and ask for forgiveness (Menon 2006a: 448). For this devotion, Siva gave Arjuna Pasupata, his most powerful weapon, and restored his bruised body to even greater strength than before (Menon 2006a: 449). After his fight with Siva, Arjuna was taken into heaven by his father, Indra, and lived among the gods for many years (Menon 2006a: 459). After impressing the gods Indra, Varuna, Yama, and Kubera, each presented him with unique celestial weapons (Hopkins 149).
While in Indra’s court, the celestial nymph Urvashi fell in love with Arjuna, but cursed him to live life with impotence when he rejected her. Indra later influenced Urvashi to change the duration of the curse to one year. In the last year of exile, Arjuna uses the curse to his advantage and disguised himself as a eunuch, acting as the master of dance and music under Raja Virata (Bae 145). At the end of the year, he helped Raja Virata defeat a Kaurava army, resulting in the marriage between Abhimanyu and Virata’s daughter, Uttara (Menon 2006a: 679).
With the terms of their exile completed, the Pandavas looked to the Kauravas for their rightful half of the kingdom. Duryodhana refused them, and even refuses to give them five villages to live in, causing war to break out (Rodrigues 233). The two armies gathered on the plains of Kuruksetra. Before the battle, Arjuna approached Krsna for help, where Krsna gave him an ultimatum. Choosing between having Krsna on his side, or his army, Arjuna chose to have Krsna as his charioteer and allowed Krsna’s armies to fight for the Kauravas, as Krsna had loyalties to both sides (Hodgkinson 9). It is here, with Krsna on his chariot, lining up for the battle, that Arjuna faces the terrible grief of the moral dilemma that is in front of him. Before him he sees many familiar faces in the opposing lines and realizes that the battle would result in him killing kin, and great teachers, such as Bhishma and Drona. Just as he is about to give up, to Arjuna’s surprise, Krsna revealed himself as a god, and revealed the subject matter that makes up the Bhagavad Gita in an effort to convince Arjuna to fight (Hiltebeitel 110). Krsna teaches Arjuna the whole philosophy of the Vedic tradition (Hodgkinson 10). Krsna teaches in gentle tones and exposes many types of yoga, and teaches to focus on upholding righteousness without consideration of personal loss, consequences and rewards, and that duty supersedes any other pursuit. Krsna finally convinces Arjuna to fight by telling him that killing his kin doesn’t matter because, “by my hand these men are slain already” (Segal 170). From this point on, Arjuna becomes a devoted student and subject to Lord Krsna (Segal 171).
The battle at Kuruksetra is fought for eighteen days, and Arjuna defeats many warriors. The fifth day sees Arjuna singlehandedly killing thousands of Kaurava warriors (Rosen 94). On the tenth day he mortally wounded Bhishma; he defeated Susarman and his four brothers on the twelfth day, but also lost his son Abhimanyu (Rosen 95). He killed Jayadratha with a celestial arrow on the fourteenth day (Rosen 97). On the seventeenth day, Arjuna dishonorably killed his nemesis, and maternal half brother, Karna, by shooting him with an arrow while his chariot was stuck in the mud (Rosen 98). By the end of the eighteenth day, only the five Pandava brothers, Krsna, and one other survive, ending the war with the Pandavas as victors (Hodgkinson 10).
Victorious, the Pandavas rule over Hastinapura, the devastated home of their ancestors. The sage Vyasa reconciles the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Yudhisthira rules as king and Arjuna protects the horse from his Asvamedha (horse sacrifice) as it roams the kingdoms (Menon 2006b: 505). During these roamings, Arjuna conquered many kingdoms for his brother [See Arjuna on Wikipedia for general list of conquered kingdoms]. When the earthly form of Krsna decides to leave the world, the Pandava brothers decide to follow him. In their old age, they make a final pilgrimage to the Himalayas to reach heaven, and along the journey they die, one by one (Hodgkinson 10). According to The Mahabharata, Arjuna is defeated by supporters of the Kauravas, the Abhiras, and dies.
In Hindu culture, Arjuna is one of the most popular heroes in The Mahabharata. The Bhagavad Gita is a very popular portion of The Mahabharata as well, and it goes in depth into the character of Arjuna. The popularity of Arjuna in Epic mythology stems from his exciting mastery of weaponry, his supernatural survivals in battle, and the depiction of his exciting life. Furthermore, Arjuna is the model of the perfect student, is idyllically dedicated to God, and puts duty above all else, making him a popular role model. Arjuna is often used as a teaching tool for human character development in young Hindus. The story of Arjuna is relatable to many other characters in epic works, as he stands as the typical reluctant hero, who initially tries to avoid his duty, but eventually performs his task with bravado (Segal 168).
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Bae, James (2003) In a World of Gods and Goddesses: The Mystic Art of Indra Sharma. Novato: Mandala Publishing.
Carriere, Jean-Claude (1987) The Mahabharata. New York: Harper & Row Publishers.
Framarin, Christopher (2007) “Good and Bad Desires: Implications of the Dialogue between Krsna and Arjuna.” International Journal of Hindu Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2: 147-170.
Ganguli, Kisari (1896) The Mahabharata. Calcutta: Bharata Press.
Hiltebeitel, Alf (1976) The Ritual of Battle: Krishna in the Mahabharata. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Hodgkinson, Brian (2003) The Bhagavad Gita: a verse translation. Delhi: Books For All.
Hopkins, Washburn (1969) Epic Mythology. New York: Biblo and Tannen Booksellers and Publishers, Inc.
Hudson, Dennis (1996) “Arjuna’s Sin: Thoughts on the Bhagavad-Gita in its Epic Context.” Journal of Vaishnava Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1: 65-85.
Katz, Ruth (1989) Arjuna in the Mahabharata: Where Krishna is, There is Victory. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
Menon, Ramesh (2006a) The Mahabharata: A Modern Rendering, Volume 1. Lincoln: iUniverse, Inc.
Menon, Ramesh (2006b) The Mahabharata: A Modern Rendering, Volume 2. Lincoln: iUniverse, Inc.
Rosen, Steven (2006) Essential Hinduism. Westport: Praeger Publishers.
Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism – The Ebook: An online introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.
Segal, Robert (2000) Hero Myths: A Reader. Maiden: Blackwell Publishers.
Smith, John (2009) The Mahabharata. Toronto: Penguin Classics.
Theosophical Publishing (2005) The Weakness of Arjuna. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing.
Williams, David (1991) Peter Brook and the Mahabharata. London: Taylor & Francis.
RELATED TOPICS FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION
Heroism in Hinduism
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Article written by: Dennis Van Hell (March/April 2012) who is solely responsible for its content.