If you’re a student of the Mahabharata, you will know that Arjuna is the most powerful warrior of his time. During the course of the story, you will hear other characters refer to him in a variety of different names. If you’re like me, you will have often wondered: What are the different names of Arjuna?
Arjuna has twelve different names. They are: Arjuna, Falguna, Jishnu, Kiriti, Shwetavahana, Vibhatsu, Vijaya, Krishna, Savyasachi, Gudakesha, Kapidhwaja, and Dhananjaya. He also has other descriptive titles like Partha, Brihannala, Parantapa, Bharata and Kaunteya.
Read on to learn more about:
- The meanings of Arjuna’s names
- The stories behind some of Arjuna’s names
- What other names Arjuna is known by
- The context around Arjuna introducing himself in the Virata Parva
What are the meanings of the different names of Arjuna?
Dhananjaya: he who has won wealth (during his many battles in many kingdoms)
Vijaya: he who always wins
Shwetavahana: he whose chariots are pulled by white horses (Shweta = white, vahana = vehicle)
Falguna: he who was born on a day when the constellation of Uttara Falguna was in the ascendant
Kiriti: he who wears the resplendent diadem that Indra placed on his head after his victory against the Danavas
Vibhatsu: he who has never committed an unvirtuous act on a battlefield
Savyasachi: he who can wield the Gandiva equally well with both hands
Arjuna: he who is always righteous, and whose complexion is not found among men of Earth
Jishnu: he who is second to none, and who is incapable of being surpassed
Krishna: he who is dark-skinned
Gudakesha: he who is curly-haired (or / and) he who has conquered sleep
Kapidhwaja: he who has Kapi (Hanuman) on his chariot’s flagstaff
How did Arjuna conquer sleep?
There is no record in Vyasa’s Mahabharata of Arjuna conquering sleep in any literal sense. During the Kurukshetra war, Arjuna does sleep like all other men.
Indeed, on the night after Abhimanyu is killed, Arjuna dreams in his sleep of travelling to Kailasa with Krishna for company, in order to procure the Pasupatastra from Shiva.
So where does this claim of ‘sleep conquering’ come from? As far as I can tell, from this small anecdote:
The story goes that when the Kuru princes were children, Arjuna discovers one night (after a gust of wind had blown the candles off) that he is able to eat in pitch darkness without interruption. So he asks himself, If I can eat without using my sight, can I also not train myself to shoot arrows without seeing the target?
And he begins to practice in pitch blackness, and stays up a number of nights in order to train his mind to perform this feat.
It is also well-known that Arjuna is an incarnation of a sage called Nara, who along with Narayana has attained a high state of meditative living. Since conquering one’s senses is a prime component of meditation and yoga, it has led some people to postulate that Arjuna must have conquered sleep.
How did Hanuman come to be on Arjuna’s flagstaff?
Toward the end of the exile of the Pandavas, when they’re about to leave the Gandhamadana, Bhimasena once sets out to find a flower that Draupadi likes, and runs into Hanuman at the mouth of a cave. The elder brother promises the younger that he would help the Pandavas in the upcoming war by adorning Arjuna’s flagstaff.
Hanuman also helps Bhimasena in other ways in this encounter:
- At the start, he pretends to be an old and infirm man, and brings down Bhima’s arrogance down a couple of notches when the Pandava fails to move Hanuman’s tail.
- He gives Bhima a summary of the Ramayana, and assures him that the sons of Kunti are going to be victorious in the upcoming war.
- He educates Bhima about the four yugas and the nature of time.
What is the diadem that Arjuna has won from Indra?
The diadem that Arjuna wears around his forehead – hence his name Kiriti – is a present of gratitude given to him by Indra for having defeated the Nivatakavachas during the Nivatakavacha Yuddha Parva.
One story arc within the Vana Parva is that of Arjuna procuring divine weapons from different gods in order to strengthen himself for the Mahabharata war. In this quest, among other things, he goes to Indra’s city of Amaravati and stays there for a while as the god’s guest.
He also undertakes two missions of war: (a) the killing of Nivatakavachas, and (b) the rescue of a city called Hiranyapuri that had been taken over by Rakshasas.
Both these races possess boons that they cannot be killed by any race of beings except humans, so it takes the prowess of Arjuna to destroy them.
Since Arjuna helps Indra with these two missions, the king of the gods reward him with a diadem that earns Arjuna the name of Kiriti.
What other names is Arjuna called by in the Mahabharata?
In addition to the above, Arjuna is sometimes called Partha (son of Pritha – which is the maiden name of Kunti).
In fact, in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna almost exclusively uses this name to address Arjuna.
Strictly speaking, Arjuna shares this name with all the other sons of Pritha – Yudhishthir, Bhimasena, Nakula, Sahadeva, even Karna – but in practice, none of the other five men are called this very often.
Other commonly used titles that Krishna uses to address Arjuna are Bharata (prince of the Bharata race) and Kaunteya (the son of Kunti).
What about Brihannala?
It is true that Arjuna takes on the name of Brihannala during the events of the Virata Parva. But this is an alias that he adopts while in disguise, in order escape discovery during the thirteenth year of exile. This is one of his true names.
Brihannala is a eunuch, a member of the ‘third sex’ as the Mahabharata puts it. In addition to adopting the mannerisms of a eunuch, Arjuna also becomes a eunuch for the period of a year in order to honour a curse placed on him by Urvasi.
During this time, Arjuna also uses the skills of dance and music that he learned from a Gandharva named Chitraratha in the court of Indra.
Who asks for the names of Arjuna in the Mahabharata?
The scene is the end of the Virata Parva. The Pandavas are serving out the final days of their Agnyatavasa – the thirteenth year of hiding in which they are meant to live undiscovered.
Duryodhana and the Kaurava army have invaded Matsya in order to steal their cattle. The rest of the Matsyan army is engaged elsewhere in fighting the Trigartas.
Only Uttara Kumara, King Virata’s son, is available to fight the Kuru warriors. But he has Brihannala by his side, as charioteer.
The prince is brave in the beginning, but once he sees the actual heroes lined up against him – the likes of Bhishma, Drona and Karna – his courage deserts him and he flees the battlefield.
Brihannala drives him off toward a cemetery where, he says, ‘I know a place where some warriors have hidden their weapons.’
It is when Brihannala asks Uttara Kumara to bring down the bundle of weapons from the top branch of a Sami tree that the prince asks Brihannala who he is. And Brihannala replies, ‘I am Arjuna.’
Why does Uttara Kumara ask Arjuna for his names?
Out of suspicion. Brihannala tells Uttara Kumara that he is none other than Arjuna in disguise, and the prince – because he cannot believe that such a great warrior has been spending time in their palace as a eunuch – asks this question as an identity check.
Note that in Brihannala’s answer, he only names ten different names, not twelve. Missing in his answer are Gudakesha and Kapidhwaja.
What happens after Arjuna tells his names?
When Brihannala tells the names of Arjuna to the young Matsyan prince, and also gives out each name’s meaning, Uttara Kumara is convinced that the eunuch is speaking the truth.
He climbs the Sami tree and brings down the bundle of weapons. All the Pandavas’ weapons are there: Bhimasena’s mace, Yudhishthir’s spear and bow, Nakula and Sahadeva’s stuff… and of course the Gandiva.
Arjuna dons his armour, wears his two inexhaustible quivers, picks up the Gandiva, and blows on his conch.
Uttara Kumara offers to become Arjuna’s charioteer. Together, they ride out to meet the Kuru army and stop it from stealing Virata’s cattle.
What happens during the battle?
This battle is one of the greatest one-man-shows in the Mahabharata, where Arjuna absolutely decimates the entire Kuru army single-handedly. He fights Bhishma, Kripacharya, Drona, Karna, Ashwatthama and Duryodhana in turn, and defeats each of them.
In order to bring the battle to a close, he uses the Sammohanastra (a weapon that puts its target to sleep – the word sammohana means trance-like) to render the entire Kuru army unconscious so that they can drive the cattle back home safely.
If you’d like a more comprehensive summary of the Virata Parva, check out this post.
What happens to the Kauravas after the battle?
Duryodhana is shell-shocked at the turn of events. He had thought that with the death of Kichaka, Matsya has become a weak kingdom unable to defend itself. So he had expected this battle to be an easy one.
He did not expect to be defeated by a person who appeared at first glance to be a eunuch.
However, a part of Duryodhana is also overjoyed because the battle has revealed to the world that the fighter is none other than Arjuna. And since period of Agnyatavasa has not yet run out, the Pandavas are now doomed to return to the forest for twelve more years!
But Bhishma is right on hand to perform some calculations. After noting that the measure of time is imperfect and that it ‘leaks’ a little (a bit like how we adjust our calendars during leap years), he confirms that the year of Agnyatavasa had in fact ended – the very day before the battle.
What happens at Virata’s court after the battle?
King Virata is of course overjoyed to receive the news that his son Uttara Kumara has defeated the Kuru warriors on his own.
When Kanka (Yudhishthir in disguise) suggests that Uttara Kumara could not possibly have lost the battle because he had Brihannala by his side, Virata gets irritated.
When Kanka insists on repeating that statement a couple of times, Virata gets angry enough to hurl a pair of dice at Kanka, hitting him on the nose hard enough to make him bleed.
Uttara Kumara and Brihannala arrive on the scene at exactly that moment, and by this time the prince of course knows who the Pandavas are. But he had been instructed by Brihannala to keep the secret going for one more day.
Uttara Kumara tells his father, therefore, that ‘a great warrior had come to help me fight the Kuru forces. This victory belongs not to me but to him.’
The End of the Virata Parva
The next day, the Pandavas arrive in Virata’s court wearing their regular royal robes.
And Arjuna introduces Virata to his four brothers and his wife.
Virata and his queen Sudeshna are consumed by guilt for having treated the Pandavas and Draupadi as servants for the last year, but the Pandavas express their gratitude to the king of Matsya for having housed them so safely.
To solidify this friendship, Virata offers the hand of his daughter Uttara to Arjuna in marriage.
But Arjuna says, ‘I taught the princess dance for a year, O King. I am like a father to her. So I shall accept her hand, but to marry my son Abhimanyu instead. Not me.’
It is the son of Abhimanyu and Uttara, Parikshit, who carries forward the dynasty of the Kurus after the death of the Pandavas.
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