Arjuna: Your Complete Guide to the Mahabharata Hero

Arjuna Guide - Featured Image - Picture of a curly-haired handsome man with a diadem, representing Arjuna

Arjuna is the third of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata. His mother is Kunti, the adopted daughter of Kuntibhoja and wife of Pandu. His father is Indra, the king of the gods.

Right from his birth, Arjuna is considered by everyone around him to be a special child. He grows up favoured by his grandfather Bhishma and his preceptor Drona.

He displays remarkable levels of skill at archery, so much so that he quickly becomes one of the most impressive bowmen of his generation. In time, he gets plenty of blessings for various gods that elevate him to the status of the most powerful warrior of the world.

Arjuna is one of the two main pillars of strength for Yudhishthir – the other being Bhima. In the Kurukshetra war, Arjuna almost singlehandedly wins the kingdom back for his elder brother.

He shares a deep personal friendship with Krishna, and a fractious enmity with Karna.

In this guide, we will cover everything you need to know about Arjuna.

(For more Mahabharata character guides, please see: 56 Mahabharata Characters that will Never Cease to Amaze You.)

Contents

Before Birth

The circumstances surrounding Arjuna’s birth are as follows:

  • Pandu, Kunti and Madri have chosen to give up the kingdom (temporarily) and have settled down in the northern hillside surroundings of the Gandhamadana.
  • Since Pandu has been cursed by Kindama to never attempt sexual union with a woman, Kunti has already given birth to Yudhishthir and Bhima in the two year prior to Arjuna’s birth.
  • Yudhishthir and Bhima are born to Yama and Vayu, the gods of justice and wind respectively. Because of the common father, Bhima thus becomes half-brother to Hanuman.
  • Back in Hastinapur, Gandhari and Dhritarashtra have already given birth to their hundred sons, of whom Duryodhana is the eldest.
  • It is not made explicitly clear in the text whether or not Pandu wished for their children to one day become kings, but the boys are raised with that expectation.

It is instructive that Pandu chooses Indra, the king of the gods, as his third option after Yama and Vayu. The explanation given is that a king should put justice and strength ahead of pride, skill and personal glory.

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Birth of Arjuna

Indra presents them with a son who is named Arjuna, and his birth is accompanied by announcements by divine voices that predict a life of valour, of achievement, and of limitless fame.

The hermitage is visited by a wide array of celestials, Nagas, Gandharvas and sages such as Bharadwaja, Kashyapa, Gautama, Vishwamitra, Vasishtha, Atri, Angirasa and others.

Tumbura plays some charming notes. The apsaras dance. The sages chant their numerous blessings. In short, it is made clear by all the hullabaloo that the boy who has taken birth, the third Pandava, will go on to become one of the foremost heroes of his age, second to none.

Arjuna’s birth happens in the month of Falguna, so he is often called Falguna as a result.

In appearance, Arjuna is often described as curly-haired and copper-complexioned.

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Childhood and Early Years

After Arjuna’s birth, after a year, Madri gives birth to Nakula and Sahadeva at the same time with the help of the Ashwin twins. And then a few years – let’s say four – pass before Madri and Pandu die, forcing Kunti to return to Hastinapur.

Though the actual ages of the boys at this time is not recorded, we can surmise that Arjuna may have been five at this point.

For the first five years of his life, therefore, Arjuna lives at the Gandhamadana, accompanied by sages and playing with his brothers. He carries these memories with him to the royal palace.

Once they arrive at court, Arjuna quickly becomes one of Bhishma’s favourite grandchildren. He begins to serve his studentship under the eyes of Kripacharya.

While Bhima and Duryodhana immediately become bitter rivals during this period, Arjuna is left well enough alone by the Kaurava brothers. He is more or less amicable toward everyone, and is seen as largely harmless by his Kuru cousins.

Only as they grow a little bit older and begin to train in the science of arms does it become apparent to onlookers that Arjuna is precocious beyond his years with a bow and arrow.

Duryodhana begins to become wary of Arjuna at this point.

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Drona’s Favourite Student

Arjuna is around eight years old when Drona walks into their lives. This is a seminal moment in the story, because the relationship between Drona and Arjuna will drive much of the latter’s destiny.

It does not take long for Drona to be impressed by the third Pandava. On one occasion, when a bird’s eye needs to be shot at, Arjuna is the only one to display enough single-minded focus to gladden Drona’s heart.

On another, Drona sees Arjuna practice archery in the middle of the night, in pitch darkness. When asked what he is doing, Arjuna replies: ‘I found that I can eat in the dark out of habit, Acharya. I want to make shooting arrows in the dark a similar habit.’

Drona promises Arjuna that he will make him the best archer in the world bar none. In order to keep this promise, he does not hesitate to sabotage the efforts of a Nishada prince called Ekalavya.

When Drona discovers that Ekalavya has taught himself archery by practicing in front of a mud idol of Drona, he asks the prince for the thumb of his right hand in dakshina.

On yet another occasion, Arjuna rescues Drona’s life from an alligator-infested lake.

Due to all of these incidents, and through his general likeability, Arjuna manages to become Drona’s favourite student. In some ways, Drona likes Arjuna even more than he likes his own son, Ashwatthama.

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Graduation Ceremony

At the end of the Kuru princes’ education, Drona and Bhishma arrange for a customary graduation ceremony to which the citizens of Hastinapur are invited.

This is like a performance put on by the princes to showcase all the skills they have learned under Drona these last five years or so. It is also an opportunity for the kingdom’s citizens to watch and admire their future rulers in the flesh.

Like all performances, this is carefully orchestrated to make the princes look good in the eyes of the public. Drona ensures that his star pupil – Arjuna – gets plenty of time to show off his wide range of abilities.

However, the arrival of a stranger by name Karna puts a dampener on things from the Kuru establishment’s point of view. Not only does Karna repeat all of Arjuna’s feats – thus undermining the prince’s status – he also challenges Arjuna to a single combat.

Kripa and Bhishma tactfully resolve the issue on a technicality, but this does not prevent Duryodhana from leaping to Karna’s aid. From this point on, the two become inseparable friends.

Karna is always eager to show his loyalty to Duryodhana. Duryodhana always uses Karna as a tool to harm the Pandavas. This becomes a recurring theme for the rest of the Mahabharata story.

From Arjuna’s perspective, this ceremony offers further proof that archers as good – or better – than him exist in the world. This is the beginning of his life-long enmity with Karna.

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Invasion of Panchala

Shortly after the graduation ceremony, Drona demands dakshina from his students. While the ceremony was just a marketing exercise, the dakshina is real. Students have to earn something of value and give it back to their teacher.

Drona’s brief is this: Capture Drupada, the king of Panchala, and bring him to me alive as prisoner.

This is by no means a trivial ask. Panchala is a strong kingdom, one of the Mahajanapadas. In order to bring its king back to Hastinapur as prisoner, Kuru has to go to war with its neighbour.

What Drona is essentially asking is for the Kuru princes to wage a proper war against Panchala, defeat Panchala’s army, and bring back Drupada in chains for his inspection.

If he has hopes that the Pandavas and Kauravas will work together on the project, they’re quickly squashed when Arjuna ‘graciously’ gives the Kauravas the first go at the challenge. Secretly he tells his brothers that he fully expects his cousins to lose.

Arjuna’s prediction comes true. The Kauravas – and the army they take with them – are routed by Drupada. Then, the Pandavas lead a division into battle.

A few hours later, Arjuna presents Drupada to Drona as dakshina. This is another feather in Arjuna’s cap, and he becomes even more dear to Drona.

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Draupadi’s Swayamvara

After the Pandavas’ successfully escape from Varanavata, they disguise themselves as Brahmins and live at Ekachakra. Here, Bhima kills Bakasura.

During this time, Vyasa pays them a visit and tells them to travel to Panchala to attend Draupadi’s swayamvara. He tells them Draupadi’s story, and hints that she is destined to become the common wife to the five Pandavas.

The Pandavas obey Vyasa. At the ceremony in Drupada’s hall, a number of suitors try in vain to successfully complete the archery task that the king has set them. When Karna rises to try his luck, Draupadi rejects him on grounds that he is a charioteer’s son.

Arjuna then steps up to the podium, and with a minimum of fuss, shoots the revolving fish in the eye. He wins Draupadi’s hand.

But the aftermath is violent. All the failed suitors rise up in revolt against Drupada, ostensibly because a poor Brahmin had won Draupadi. Now it falls upon Arjuna to defend his prize from his rivals.

Bhima helps him in this effort. Two battles of note take place: Arjuna defeats Karna in an archery duel, and Bhima secures a victory of Shalya with the mace.

Arjuna and Bhima safely escort Draupadi back to the Pandavas’ hut, where it gets decided by Yudhishthir and Kunti that it is best if Draupadi becomes the common wife of all five Pandavas.

Yudhishthir asks for and receives Arjuna’s consent for this decision. There is no animus between brothers over how Draupadi ought to be shared.

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Exile of Arjuna

Shortly after the five-day wedding that makes Panchala an unlikely ally to the Pandavas, the Kuru elders call the sons of Pandu back to Hastinapur. At the behest of Bhishma, Dhritarashtra gives the Pandavas Khandavaprastha to rule independently.

Yudhishthir becomes king of the city. At around the same time, on the advice of Narada, the five brothers have an agreement of how to share Draupadi. The basic rule is this: if any brother interrupts any other brother’s private time with Draupadi, the interrupting brother will be required to undertake a twelve-year exile as punishment.

Almost immediately after this, a situation arises which compels Arjuna to venture into Yudhishthir’s private chambers to retrieve his bow and quivers. At that moment, Yudhishthir and Draupadi happen to be together.

Arjuna finishes his task with the weapons, and then announces that he is going to go on a twelve-year exile.

Yudhishthir tries to stop his younger brother, but Arjuna insists. During these twelve years, Arjuna takes three wives and has a son with each of them. His wives are Ulupi, Chitrangada and Subhadra.

His sons are Iravan, Babruvahana, and Abhimanyu respectively.

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Marriage to Subhadra

During the course of his exile, Arjuna builds marital alliances with three different kings:

  • Kauravya of the Nagas, father of Ulupi
  • Chitravahana of Manipura, father of Chitrangada
  • Balarama of Anarta, brother of Subhadra

Of these three, the last is the most important because Anarta is by far the most powerful kingdom in the list. Toward the end of his twelve years, Arjuna visits Anarta and becomes a personal guest of Krishna.

The two of them spend some time together in Prabhasa, a natural reserve located on the outskirts of Dwaraka. Here, they build a foundation of a friendship that will endure till their deaths.

It is during this visit that Krishna encourages Arjuna to abduct Subhadra and make her his wife. Krishna has reasons to believe that Balarama wishes to use Subhadra’s alliance to strengthen his friendship with the Kauravas.

Krishna wants to instead use Subhadra as a tool to deepen the informal alliance Anarta has with the Pandavas. Arjuna, for his part, likes this idea because it betters the Pandavas’ prospects.

Arjuna obeys Krishna’s instructions and carries Subhadra away. After a short period outburst of temper, Balarama is assuaged by Krishna, and the wedding happens.

Arjuna and Subhadra have a son together called Abhimanyu. Later, Abhimanyu’s death becomes the primary turning point in the Mahabharata war.

At the end of Arjuna’s exile, he brings Subhadra back to Hastinapur. Krishna accompanies his sister to her new home and stays at Khandavaprastha for a while – as Arjuna’s guest.

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Khandava

With Krishna and Arjuna sporting together at Khandava, Agni the god of fire approaches them in a disguise. He first secures Arjuna’s promise (‘I will give you whatever you wish!’), and then reveals his true form.

The story is that Agni has been fed plenty of ghee over a hundred years thanks to a sacrifice performed by Swetaki, a pious king of a bygone age. Now, plagued by indigestion, Agni seeks to devour the forest of Khandava to regain his lustre.

What stops him from burning the forest down is that Takshaka the Naga lives here, and he has the protection of his good friend Indra. So whenever Agni approaches Khandava with menace in his mind, Indra causes a torrential rain to fall upon the forest, dousing Agni’s flames.

Agni’s proposal to Arjuna is this: I will give you plenty of divine weapons with which you can hold back Indra. All I ask is that you allow me to raze this forest down to the ground.

Arjuna agrees. Krishna helps his friend in the project. While Agni burns the forest down – with all the animals living in it – Arjuna and Krishna stand guard, and defend the forest when Indra arrives with his army.

Among other things, Arjuna receives from Agni the Gandiva, an indestructible chariot and two inexhaustible quivers of arrows. Krishna receives the Sudarshana Chakra. These weapons remain with the two warriors their whole lives.

Seen from a naturalist’s perspective, the destruction of Khandava is a means of reclamation of land from a natural reserve to feed Yudhishthir’s ambition. Soon after, Yudhishthir expands Khandavaprastha into where the forest had once been.

This enlarged kingdom becomes the base for the Pandavas’ future conquests. The kingdom comes to be known as Indraprastha.

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The Exile Years

During the twelve-year exile of the Pandavas, Arjuna goes on a five-year quest to procure as many divine weapons as he can. His first stop is at Indrakila, where he propitiates Lord Shiva and receives the Pashupatastra.

From there, he goes to Amaravati, the abode of Indra. Here, he completes two different adventures: one to vanquish a class of Rakshasas named the Nivatakavachas, and two to liberate a mountain-city called Hiranyapuri from the clutches of some Danavas.

While at Amaravati, he also learns to dance under the tutelage of a Gandharva named Chitrasena. Arjuna later faces Chitrasena in a battle to free Duryodhana.

Arjuna also earns a curse from the apsara Urvasi. She propositions him for sex and he refuses. Angered by this, she curses him that he will have to spend a year of his life as a member of the ‘third gender’.

This happens during the Virata Parva, when Arjuna adopts the name of Brihannala and becomes dance teacher to Uttara, the daughter of King Virata.

After he becomes the most powerful man in the world – thanks to his weapons – Arjuna returns to Gandhamadana and meets his brothers and wife there.

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Rescuing Duryodhana

Toward the end of the Pandavas’ exile, Duryodhana once arrives at the hermitage where his cousins are staying with the express intention of ridiculing them for their misfortunes.

He is accompanied by Shakuni and Karna on this trip. But as luck would have it, he enters into a quarrel (over some water of a lake) with some Gandharvas, and the argument escalates into a full-on battle.

Shakuni and Karna flee from the prospect of fighting these Gandharvas. Duryodhana fights and loses. As a result, he finds himself imprisoned and helpless.

One of Duryodhana’s servants runs to the Pandavas for help. Yudhishthir magnanimously sends Arjuna and Bhima to free Duryodhana. Bhima is reluctant, but at the end he obeys his brother.

When Arjuna turns up to fight, he sees that the leader of the Gandharvas is none other than Chitrasena, the man who taught him to dance in Amaravati. The two of them take part in a ritualistic battle, after which Chitrasena frees Duryodhana.

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Quarrel with Jayadratha

Also toward the end of their exile, the Pandavas have an unfortunate encounter with Jayadratha, the king of the Saindhavas and brother to Dusshala (the sole sister of the hundred Kauravas).

Jayadratha tries to abduct Draupadi in the Pandavas’ absence. As he is carrying her away, the Pandavas return to their empty hut and begin to follow his tracks.

Arjuna and Bhima are once again at the forefront. They overtake Jayadratha, defeat him, and rescue Draupadi. Before they let Jayadratha go, they shave his head and leave five tufts of hair on the scalp – signifying that he lost to the Pandavas.

This humiliation burns inside Jayadratha. He prays to Shiva and receives a boon that he will be able to defeat all the Pandavas (with the exception of Arjuna) on a single day in the upcoming war.

Jayadratha’s boon comes to fruition on the thirteenth day of the Mahabharata war, when he bravely keeps Drona’s Chakra Vyuha from breaking open after Abhimanyu has pierced it.

This leads directly to Abhimanyu’s death, and then to his own the next day at the hands of a furious Arjuna.

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Arjuna as Brihannala

During the thirteenth year of the Pandavas’ exile, the terms that they have to meet are these: they have to live out in the open in villages and cities, among people, and they have to remain hidden.

The Pandavas decide to ‘hide in plain sight’ at the court of Virata, the king of Matsya. Arjuna disguises himself as Brihannala, a member of the ‘third gender’, and gain entry into the women’s chambers of the royal court.

Here, hidden from all public view, he teaches dance to Uttara, the daughter of Virata.

The only time he shows himself is during the fourth month of the year, when a large fair in Matsya attracts visitors from all over the world. Some of Brihannala’s students put on a show, and he garners praise for being a good teacher.

Brihannala plays an important role in the killing of Kichaka. He plots with Bhima as to the mechanics of the deed, and also otherwise keeps a close eye on Draupadi the whole time.

The most significant deed of Brihannala, however, is when he defends Matsya singlehandedly from the full might of the Kuru army.

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Defending Matsya

After the death of Kichaka, Duryodhana launches an opportunistic raid on Matsya, hoping to steal some cattle from the beleaguered city. The attacks happen on two fronts, one of which is defended ably by Virata with the help of the four Pandavas in disguise.

While this battle rages on, though, a large division of the Kuru army – including the likes of Duryodhana, Karna, Ashwatthama, Kripa, Drona and Bhishma – descend upon the undefended northeastern border of Matsya.

Brihannala rides the chariot of Uttara Kumara (also called Bhuminjaya), the son of Drupada, who brags brashly that he will defeat the Kurus. But once he sees them arrayed in front of him in their battle gear, he loses his courage.

Brihannala takes Bhuminjaya to the old tree where the Pandavas had left their weapons. Once he has his Gandiva back, he rides back into the battlefield – this time with Bhuminjaya at the reins – and fights all on his own against the whole army.

He uses the full array of his skills and divine weapons, and manages to rescue all of Matsya’s cattle.

It is at this battle that Bhishma and Drona see – for the first time – just how powerful Arjuna has become in the past thirteen years. From this point on, they continually advise Duryodhana to relinquish all hope of winning a war against the Pandavas.

Duryodhana, unfortunately, interprets this as their partiality.

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Arjuna Chooses Krishna

After the end of the Pandavas’ exile, when the two sides are preparing for war, Duryodhana and Arjuna arrive at Dwaraka on the same day at the same hour to ask for Anarta’s help.

Duryodhana enters Krishna’s room before Arjuna, but sits at the head of the bed. Arjuna stands at Krishna’s feet. So when Krishna wakes up, he sees Arjuna first.

He then tells the two of them that one side will receive the benefit of his entire Narayana Sena, and the other will have him as a guide and strategic mentor. ‘But,’ he says, ‘I will not touch a weapon until the war is finished.’

The choice is given first to Arjuna – much to Duryodhana’s chagrin, because he is sure that Arjuna will gleefully pick the army and go home. But Arjuna surprises Duryodhana by picking Krishna instead.

‘I am powerful enough to win the war on my own, O Madhava,’ he says later, explaining his choice. ‘But I cannot even conceive fighting against you – let alone winning! If we are to win, you have to be by our side.’

He then asks Krishna to become his charioteer, which effectively makes him the most invincible warrior the world has ever seen on a battlefield.

With the Gandiva, the chariot of Agni, the picture of Hanuman on the mast, the inexhaustible quivers, his own skills and experience as an archer – and with now Krishna holding the reins, Arjuna is simply indestructible.

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The Bhagavad Gita

Despite all the lengthy preparations for war, and despite all the suffering he and his brothers had had to endure over the last thirteen years, Arjuna finds himself unwilling to fight when he sees Drona, Bhishma and Kripa lined up against him.

He tells Krishna that he wants to relinquish his weapons and find a small hermitage in the forest to live in. ‘After all,’ he says, ‘what use is wealth that I will earn by killing my preceptor and my grandfather?’

Krishna rises to the occasion here, and delivers a lecture that is in equal parts a masterclass in moral philosophy, spirituality, practicality and ethics.

The core tenet of Krishna’s speech here is that Arjuna is only a small cog in a cosmic wheel that must turn one way and not the other. It is not Arjuna’s duty to question the bend of the river of time. It is arrogance on his part to believe that he knows what is right and what is wrong.

Krishna implores Arjuna to rise above all attachments. ‘If you must be attached to something, Partha,’ he says, ‘be attached to the fulfilment of your duty. Nothing else.’

Arjuna plays the role of an active listener here, asking questions at different points. This entire conversation has come to be known as the Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism’s seminal texts.

At the end of Krishna’s speech, Arjuna finds that his spirits have been revived. He picks up the Gandiva, and promises Krishna that he will fight at his best.

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Defeating Bhishma

By the ninth day of the war, Krishna is a bit irritated with Arjuna because the latter is refusing time and again to fight at his best against Bhishma. And with Bhishma vowing to eliminate the entire army of the Pandavas, unless something is done to break the deadlock, the war will soon end.

Krishna impresses upon Yudhishthir the importance of thwarting Bhishma. The Pandavas then go and ask Bhishma how to kill him. Bhishma tells them that he is bound by an oath to refrain from fighting Shikhandi.

On the tenth day, then, the Pandava strategy is to place Shikhandi at the center of their formation, with the single-point instruction to pepper the grandsire with arrow after arrow the entire day.

Arjuna and Bhima protect Shikhandi’s chariot wheels. All the other Pandava warriors are entrusted with the responsibility of defending Shikhandi from all the Kaurava fire.

Wise as this method seems, Shikhandi fails to make a dent in Bhishma’s armour. In the afternoon, Arjuna makes the decision – upon Krishna’s goading – to begin shooting at Bhishma from behind Shikhandi.

It is only after Arjuna enters the battle in this underhanded way that Bhishma begins to waver. His armour gets shattered, and he gets pierced with arrows.

Stung by the strength of these arrows, Bhishma exclaims: ‘I am falling – but to the arrows of Arjuna. Not those of Shikhandi!’

Bhishma thus falls onto his ‘bed of arrows’ at the end of the tenth day. From here on, with Drona taking up the role of commander, the war takes a distinct turn toward the ruthless.

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Avenging Abhimanyu

At the end of the thirteenth day, as Arjuna and Krishna are returning from the battlefield after a long fight with the Samshaptakas, Arjuna is struck by an unnamed feeling of dread.

The chariot makes its way into the camp. All the people Arjuna knows are averting their gaze. No musical instruments are playing tonight. And most of all, Arjuna notices that Abhimanyu – who usually welcomes him home every evening – is nowhere to be seen.

Upon entering the tent of Yudhishthir, he sees his brothers immersed in a deep state of gloom. He has heard during the fight that Drona has employed the Chakra Vyuha on that day. So he puts two and two together.

He slaps his forehead and says, ‘Alas, my son is no more.’

On the fourteenth day, Arjuna rides into battle with a single-point agenda: find and kill Jayadratha. Equally, the Kauravas are pursuing a single-point agenda of their own: protect Jayadratha so that Arjuna will be forced to kill himself.

Drona creates an impenetrable array that is three-layered: a box formation at the front (Sakata Vyuha), a lotus formation in the middle (Padma Vyuha) and a needle formation at the read (Soochi Mukha Vyuha).

Jayadratha is placed right at the back of the needle, guarded by six atirathas. Drona places himself at the very entrance of the Sakata Vyuha, so that even to enter the Kaurava ranks on this day Arjuna has to first defeat Drona.

Arjuna, however, side-steps Drona and rides past him. He scythes his way through the long and arduous array, and reaches Jayadratha just as the sun is about to set.

Then, aided by Krishna – who first brings about a cloud cover and creates an illusion that the sun has already set, and then advises Arjuna about how to behead Jayadratha – Arjuna fulfils his vow.

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The Death of Drona

Drona’s death occurs as a result of a cunning plan suggested by Krishna and put into action by Bhima and Yudhishthir.

First, Bhima kills an elephant named Ashwatthama. He then goes to Drona and tells him that Ashwatthama has been killed, implying that the time has come for Drona to relinquish his weapons.

Drona, of course, does not believe Bhima. He seeks out Yudhishthir – knowing that the son of Dharma never speaks an untruth – and asks him to confirm the news.

Yudhishthir says, ‘Ashwatthama is dead.’ Then, after a pause, he inserts an addendum. ‘The elephant.’

But Drona has already gone into shock after hearing the first sentence. He throws away his weapons and sits on the terrace of his car to meditate.

Dhrishtadyumna seizes this moment, runs up to his arch enemy with sword in hand, and beheads him.

Arjuna does not like the strategy right from the beginning, and plays no part in its execution. His one requirement is that Drona should be taken captive and not killed. At the end, as Dhrishtadyumna advances at Drona, Arjuna calls out to his commander and tries to ward him off.

But Dhrishtadyumna is too blinded by excitement and fury to listen.

Arjuna confronts Dhrishtadyumna about this later, but receives resistance from Bhima who proclaims all acts of war as fair. An argument develops between Satyaki and Dhrishtadyumna, with the latter reminding the former that he had taken the life of Bhurishrava in precisely the same manner just the day before.

Later, on the seventeenth day, when a quarrel erupts between Arjuna and Yudhishthir, Arjuna angrily insults Yudhishthir’s false sense of virtue after having killed Drona so unjustly.

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Arjuna Kills Karna

There are two big climactic fights that herald the end of the Mahabharata war. The duel that happens between Arjuna and Karna in the dying moments of the seventeenth day is the first of these.

(The Bhima-Duryodhana mace-fight at the end of the eighteenth day is the second.)

Entering into the challenge, all the odds are with Arjuna. He is the favoured blue-eyed boy, the son of Indra. He has the Gandiva, the inexhaustible quivers, the indestructible chariot of Agni, the wisdom and advice of Krishna, and the blessings of Hanuman.

We have not even begun to count all of the divine weapons that he has procured – like the Pashupatastra and the Vajrayudha.

On the other side, Karna has had his kavacha-kundalas snatched by the thieving Indra. He no longer has access to the Vasava Astra, which he used against Ghatotkacha. He has been cursed by his preceptor that all his knowledge will desert him in the biggest moment of his life.

His charioteer is Shalya, who is working as a spy for Yudhishthir and is therefore ready to do anything to sabotage Karna’s efforts.

Despite these heavy odds, Arjuna has a close brush with death when Karna shoots an arrow aimed unerringly at his forehead. But for Krishna’s intervention – he stamps down on the chariot and causes the arrow to knock off Arjuna’s crown instead – Arjuna may have lost his life.

That one hiccup aside, it is smooth sailing for the Pandava. Karna’s chariot-wheel gets stuck in the mud, and with Shalya refusing to help, Karna has to attend to it himself.

He jumps off the vehicle, tries to lift the wheel off the ditch, and asks Arjuna for some time. Arjuna has half a mind to grant his enemy his wish, but Krishna once again intervenes and commands his friend to show no mercy.

Krishna reminds Arjuna of all of Karna’s many misdeeds. Fuelled by these memories, Arjuna shoots an arrow straight at Karna’s neck.

With Karna’s death, Arjuna fulfils the oath he takes during the disrobing of Draupadi.

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Arjuna Slaps his Thigh

During the second climactic fight between Bhima and Duryodhana, Arjuna slaps his thigh – in the same way Duryodhana slaps his during Draupadi’s disrobing – and gestures to his brother that he should aim for his opponent’s thigh.

This is probably the only instance in the Mahabharata where Arjuna eagerly perpetrates or encourages an unfair act. In all previous such incidents – with Drona and Bhishma, for example – he is portrayed as reluctant and hesitant.

Here, though, he asks Krishna about Bhima’s chances against Duryodhana. And when he hears Krishna’s opinion that Bhima has no chance except to resort to unfair methods, Arjuna loses no time in conveying that information to Bhima.

By slapping his thigh, he encourages Bhima to break the rules of mace-combat in order to win.

Bhima takes his younger brother’s signal, and at the next available opportunity, crushes Duryodhana’s thighs with his mace. With a cry of pain and of disgust, Duryodhana hits the ground.

This act brings the Mahabharata war to a close. Shortly thereafter, Krishna blows on his conch and declares the Pandavas victors.

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Arjuna Fights Babruvahana

After the war is won, Yudhishthir performs the Ashwamedha sacrifice to re-establish his status as emperor. During this, Arjuna is tasked with accompanying the sacrificial horse as it wanders from kingdom to kingdom.

While following the horse, Arjuna arrives in Manipura, the kingdom in which he married Chitrangada all those years ago. Now his son, Babruvahana, is the ruler here.

At first, Babruvahana welcomes his father with all due respect, but Arjuna sternly reminds his son that they meet now as adversaries. Reluctantly, Babruvahana returns in full battle gear to fight his father.

In this battle, Babruvahana actually injures and kills Arjuna. As he is lamenting his act, almost out of nowhere, Ulupi appears and assures the young man that everything has happened as ordained.

Then she revives Arjuna with some Naga-magic. She explains to everyone that Arjuna had to meet his death at the hands of his son to honour the curse of Ganga, who had become angry with Arjuna at the way in which he killed Bhishma.

Now that Arjuna has died at the hands of his son, Ulupi says, he will no longer be required to serve punishment in hell for Bhishma’s death.

Also, since a man’s son is considered to be an image of himself, Arjuna’s title of ‘Vijaya’ is not rendered false with this defeat because after all, Arjuna has only lost to himself.

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After Krishna’s Death

For thirty six years after the Kurukshetra war, Yudhishthir rules the world as emperor from his capital at Indraprastha. The catalyst for the next phase of their lives comes from the fall of Dwaraka.

Right after the war, Gandhari curses Krishna that the Yadavas will one day die from in-fighting the same way as the Kurus. That day comes thirty six years later, when Satyaki and Kritavarma quarrel about the death of Bhurishrava and come to blows.

This small spark ends up causing a raging fire which consumes the Vrishni race. Krishna observes this process detachedly. He even participates in the carnage.

After the bloodshed has come to an end, he sends a message to Arjuna to come to Dwaraka, and to take the women back to Hastinapur. He then goes to a tree in the woods where he dies to a hunter’s arrow.

Arjuna does Krishna’s bidding. He rescues a number of Vrishni women and citizens just in time as Dwaraka succumbs to the sea.

But on their way back to Hastinapur, the travelling party is raided by bandits. Arjuna wishes to fight them but he discovers that all his skills and powers have left him.

He is unable to aim or shoot arrows as he used to. The bandits carry away the women, loot Dwaraka’s wealth, and make off without any losses.

Arjuna leads the reminder of the group to Hastinapur. Then he goes to Vyasa and asks what has happened. Vyasa replies: ‘You have been given all your powers for a purpose, Partha. That purpose has been fulfilled. Your powers were then taken away.’

Vyasa suggests to Arjuna that the time may have come for the Pandavas to take their final journey. Arjuna returns to Hastinapur and relays the message to Yudhishthir.

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Arjuna’s Final Journey

As the Pandavas prepare for their final journey, Yudhishthir installs Parikshit as the king of Hastinapur and Yuyutsu as minister. The five brothers then put on humble robes and set out accompanied by Draupadi.

Even after the incident with the bandits during his return from Dwaraka, Arjuna continues to carry his Gandiva around with him. Yudhishthir gently admonishes his brother, and asks him to cast it away.

Arjuna first resists, but then sees the wisdom in his older brother’s words. He builds a sacred fire and hurls his bow and arrows into it. With this act, Arjuna finally relinquishes control over all the symbols of success that have defined him throughout his life.

From the time he was a small boy, he has given his life to archery. Now he has given it up.

After a long sojourn around the country, the Pandavas reach the foothills of the Meru. They begin their ascent up the mountain in the hope that they will be allowed into heaven in their mortal bodies.

Arjuna becomes the fourth person to fall and die on this climb, after Draupadi, Sahadeva and Nakula in that order. As he falls, Bhima asks Yudhishthir why Arjuna – the son of Indra, no less! – has been denied entry into heaven.

And Yudhishthir replies: ‘Because he has never conquered pride in his skill and accomplishments.’

Bhima also dies soon after. Yudhishthir becomes the lone character in the Mahabharata, therefore, to ascend the mountain and to be granted entry into heaven without first going through the process of physical death.

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Further Reading

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