Arjuna is one of the heroes of the longest Indian epic, the Mahabharata. He is the third of the five Pandavas, officially the son of king Pandu and his two wives Kunti (who is also known as Pritha) and Madri. However, we read in books 1 and 3 of the Mahabharata that the Pandava brothers are actually the offspring of different gods and the two wives of king Pandu.
When Kunti was a young girl, a priest granted her a curious gift: by the means of a secret sacred formula, she was able to summon up gods at will to beget children with her. By the time Pandu married Kunti, he had a curse on him: he had been condemned to perish if he ever engaged in sex. This was an obstacle to perpetuate his lineage, so Kunti’s gift became very useful: Pandu and Kunti agreed on using her gift. She first summoned the god Dharma and conceived Yudhisthira. The second god summoned was Vayu, and Kunti gave birth to Bhima. Finally, the god Indra was summoned, conceiving Arjuna. After this, Kunti taught the sacred formula to her co-wife Madri and she summoned the Ashvins, two Vedic gods, who conceived the twins Nakula and Sahadeva.
The Search For Glory
In Indian tradition, archery is held as a highly respected battle skill and it is also considered an art. No wonder, then, that the bow and arrow are Arjuna’s choice as a warrior. Like many heroes, Arjuna is not much of a family man: he has a tendency to go off on his own looking for action. A number of adventures happen to him when he goes into exile for 13 years. He marries Draupadi, who is actually the wife of all five Pandava brothers, a very unique family structure not replicated elsewhere in Indian tradition.
He had quite a few adventures with the god Krishna. Interestingly enough, despite the fact that Krishna is not only a god but the reincarnation of the god Vishnu, Arjuna treats Krishna more like a peer instead of with the respect that a junior member of the family should feel for a supreme god. Forming a warrior pair with Krishna, Arjuna burns down the Khandava Forest, so it becomes suitable for building the Pandava capital city, Indraprastha, which is probably present-day New Delhi in India.
Arjuna also travels to the world of the god Indra, and on his way he fights against the god Shiva who assumes the form of a mountain man. Once in Indra’s heaven, Arjuna spends ten years and he learns to dance.
The background of Arjuna’s adventures relates to an episode in which two sets of cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, are competing for the throne. Yudhisthira, the eldest of the Pandava brothers, loses his right to rule during a dice game. Tha Kauravas challenge Yudhisthira to take part in a dice competition where the dice are not only loaded but also handled by one of the Kauravas’ uncle. Yudhisthira is not allowed to refuse the challenge, since he is a member of the Kshatriya caste (the warrior rulers caste), and it is against his dharma to withdraw once someone has challenged him directly. The passion of the game is so high, that he starts losing everything: possessions first, then his kingdom, and even the freedom of his brothers, his own freedom and, finally, the freedom of his wife, Draupadi. The situation gets very violent when Draupadi is dragged by the hair by one of the Kaurava brothers despite the protests that she is having her period. During the climax of the conflict, the cry of a jackal is heard in the court, and everyone present acknowledges it is a bad omen.
Dhritarashtra, the blind king, is overseeing this challenge and, moved by the brutality of the events, decides to grant three wishes to Draupadi. Her first wish is the freedom of Yudhisthira, her second wish is the freedom of the remaining four brothers, and she refuses to ask for a third wish. On explaining the reasons why she refuses her third wish, Draupadi replies, “greed destroys dharma”. Finally, the blind king declares the game void and allows the Pandavas to depart. A deal is then agreed between Pandavas and Kauravas, by which the Pandavas will go into exile for 13 years and after that period they will be allowed to return and reclaim the kingdom. Once the time is over, they come back, the Kauravas refuse to return the kingdom to the Pandavas and war inevitably follows.
The Cosmic Vision
Possibly the most dramatic episode in Ajuna’s life takes place in the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Indian text that became an important work of Hindu tradition in terms of both literature and philosophy, also known as the Gita, for short.
The setting of the Gita is during the Kurukshetra war, a major conflict between the Pandavas and the Kauravas fighting to control the kingdom and it is presented as a long conversation between Arjuna and Krishna, who is actually a reincarnation of the god Vishnu. About the middle of the Gita, Arjuna requests Krishna to show himself in his divine form, to take off his human costume and manifest himself the way he truly is. Arjuna’s human sight is not able to perceive the divine essence, so Krishna grants him the gift of Spiritual Vision:
[Krishna speaking] But these things cannot be seen with your physical eyes; therefore I give you spiritual vision to perceive my majestic power. (Bhagavad Gita 11:8)
Krishna agrees to Arjuna’s request and displays a shocking revelation of his full vigour and glory. Arjuna then sees a blinding radiance that resembles a thousand suns, a million divine forms, infinite variety of colours and shapes, all the gods of the natural world, all the living creatures, the entire cosmos turning within Krishna’s body along with the infinite number of faces of the god, infinite mouths, arms, eyes and stomachs. He also sees heavenly jewels, countless weapons, the very source of all wonders, Krishna’s face everywhere, all the manifold forms of the universe united as one, Brahma, the creator god seated on a lotus flower, ancient sages and celestial serpents. Towards the end of this vision, Arjuna sees Krishna consuming the entire universe with his breath, all the worlds being destroyed in the mouth of the god, including all the warriors on the battlefield.
Arjuna is terrified and humbled by this vision and he simply cannot handle its intensity, so Krishna recovers his human form. Arjuna decides to obey Krishna’s command by engaging in the battle, after hearing the following words.
[Krishna speaking] [...] arise, Arjuna; conquer your enemies and enjoy the glory of sovereignty. I have already slain all these warriors; you will only be my instrument. (Bhagavad Gita 11:33)
Inspired by Krishna’s teachings, the Pandavas regain control of the kingdom.
There is an episode in Arjuna’s adventures where he dresses up like a woman in the court of the king Virata, something similar to the episode in Norse mythology when the god Thor dresses in bride’s clothes while he was trying to recover his mighty hammer. Episodes where heroes dress up as women can also be found in the stories of Hercules and Achilles, the heroes of Greek mythology.
Due to his impressive skills with the bow and arrow, Arjuna has been compared to the Greek god Apollo, also a skillful archer. However, in terms of status and character, Arjuna has also been compared to Achilles, which would be more accurate since both heroes share a half-human, half-divine nature and both are fearful warriors. This is why sometimes scholars refer to Arjuna as the Hindu Achilles, which is clearly a matter of which reference frame we adopt: it would be equally correct to say that Achilles is the Greek Arjuna.