Mahabharata Episode 13: The Exile of Arjuna

Exile of Arjuna - Featured Image - Picture of a galloping horse representing Arjuna in full flow

In this series of posts, I am reconstructing the Mahabharata as a sequence of episodes. This will provide a quick and easy way for someone new to the story to become acquainted with it.

(For the previous post in this series, see Episode 12: Draupadi Enters. To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)

Here’s what we will cover in this episode:

The Sharing of Draupadi

Early on after the ascension of Yudhishthir to his own throne in Indraprastha, Sage Narada pays him a visit.

Among the pieces of advice he passes on, the most important concerns the terms and conditions under which the five Pandavas share Draupadi between themselves.

The Pandavas do not come up with anything elaborate; their only system is that if Draupadi is already engaged in the company of one brother, all the other four brothers will not approach her.

Implicit in the idea of being shared by five husbands is also the fact that if Draupadi is to bear children to each of the Pandavas, then she has to partition out her conjugal visits so that the parentage of her children is correctly known.

So during her child-bearing years, Draupadi – almost by necessity – will sleep with only one Pandava per year so that when she becomes pregnant, everyone knows whose child she is carrying.

In this way, she gives birth to five sons – together called the Upapandavas – each of whom is the son of one of her husbands.

The names of the Upapandavas are Prativindhya (with Yudhishthir), Sutasoma (with Bhimasena), Shrutakarma (with Arjuna), Satanika (with Nakula) and Shrutasena (with Sahadeva).

Interestingly, as fate would have it, Draupadi has all the other sons in order of seniority except for Shrutakarma. She bears Arjuna’s son last, because Arjuna leaves on a twelve-year exile during the first year of Yudhishthir’s reign as king.

Arjuna Leaves

At the beginning of the Arjuna Vanavaasika Parva, it so happens that a Brahmin’s cattle in Indraprastha is stolen by a bunch of dacoits. The victim comes to the king’s court with his complaint and urges Arjuna to give him justice.

In haste, the third Pandava says, ‘Cease your worry, O Brahmin. I shall see to it that the thieves are brought to court and that all your wealth is returned.’

But as soon as he says this, he realizes that all his weapons are kept in the same chamber where Yudhishthir is at the time sitting with Draupadi. However, not discharging the duty of protection to the helpless in the kingdom is also a sin unworthy of a king like Yudhishthir.

So knowing full well the consequences of his actions, he enters the chamber, picks up his weapons, and goes to punish the thieves.

After the whole episode ends and the Brahmin has left gratified, Arjuna announces his wish to go into exile for twelve years. Yudhishthir tries to reason with him thus:

‘I know why you came to our chamber, Brother. Neither I nor Draupadi was upset by your entry in the slightest. Indeed, a younger brother has full right to enter the chambers of his older brother; it is the older brother who is not allowed to enter the chambers of his younger brother. So you do not need to observe this vow.’

But Arjuna replies with joined hands, ‘Brother, it is you who has taught us that when it comes to a matter of duty, one must not find reasons to escape it. A vow taken is a vow taken, and it must be carried forth at all times.

‘Is it not what we have been taught from the life of Bhishma, our grandfather, too? I shall not count myself among the worthy descendants of our line if I now accept your reasons and shirk my duty.’

Is this an act of protest?

Some observers have suggested that this act of Arjuna to go into an exile is an act of protest at Yudhishthir ‘stealing’ his wife, and his subsequent words are those of sarcasm.

The text does not give us a glimpse into Arjuna’s mind during this incident, nor does it give us any indication of his tone of voice, so we’re free to speculate in either direction.

On the one hand, Arjuna does have good reason to be annoyed at how things have panned out regarding Draupadi. Despite it being he who had won her, he has had to give her up to Yudhishthir for nothing more than political reasons. And now, circumstances have conspired such that he will get to have his son last, after Sahadeva.

So one can excuse Arjuna if he is a little miffed.

On the other hand, Arjuna does not display much interest in Draupadi right from the very beginning. He only sees her as a prize he had won, and he appears to take it well within his stride when it is suggested that Draupadi should be shared among the brothers.

My personal opinion is that the relationship between Arjuna and Yudhishthir – at this point in the story – is a deeply respectable one. Arjuna does go on to gather small resentments against his older brother, but that begins at the time of Draupadi’s disrobing.

So if you were to place a gun to my head and make a choice, I’d say that Arjuna is playing it straight here. But I admit it’s a close thing.

Ulupi

Arjuna’s exile is supposed to be a celibate one, and for the first few months it does turn out to be that way. But he comes upon a city of the Nagas where a princess takes a fancy to him and abducts him to the bottom of the river.

‘I am the daughter of King Kauravya, O Prince, and they call me Ulupi,’ says the girl. ‘The moment I saw you, the god of desire has shot his arrows into my heart, and I wish for you to be my husband.’

‘I am afraid that cannot be, Princess,’ says Arjuna. ‘I have taken the vow of celibacy for the mistake I committed. Is there any way I can give you pleasure while staying true to my word?’

‘I know the circumstances that have led to your exile, Arjuna,’ says Ulupi. ‘And it is true that if you break your vow of celibacy, your austerities will suffer a small dent.

‘But if you do not satisfy my desire, I promise you that I shall consign myself to flames, and then your practice will suffer a great deal more because you will have the death of a Naga maiden hanging about your heart.

‘Also, O sinless one, you are a married man. Your celibacy has already been broken once. The strength of such a vow taken by a married man is not significant, O Prince, because it is taken for the sake of your wife. Whoever has heard of a Brahmachari who has to remain so out of respect for his wife?’

(We must note here that Ulupi does not know that Arjuna is yet to sleep with Draupadi. So his celibacy – probably, because who can tell for sure about these things – has in fact not been broken.)

In any case, Ulupi manages to seduce Arjuna, and they spend the night together. Arjuna resumes his journey the next morning. In time. Ulupi gives birth to a son named Iravan.

Chitrangada

Arjuna’s next stop in the course of his wanderings over Aryavarta is at Manipura. It is described that he reaches the Mahendra mountain (Mahendragiri in Orissa), then goes to Kalinga, and from there, ‘proceeding slowly along the seashore’, reaches Manipura.

Here he meets a princess named Chitrangada, and falls in love with her. When he approaches her father, the king Chitravahana, for her hand, he tells the Pandava that in their dynasty, princesses are not given away after marriage.

‘The female children in our line are made putrikas, O Arjuna,’ says Chitravahana. ‘After her marriage, her children will remain here and rule Manipura after me.’

‘I understand,’ says Arjuna, and agrees to marrying Chitrangada in lieu of the condition that he will stay with her until a child is born to her, and that he will allow that child to be brought up in Manipura.

Arjuna thus becomes husband to the princess of Manipura and lives with her in the palace for three years. At the end of this period, Chitrangada gives birth to a boy named Babhruvahana.

As soon as the son is born, Chitravahana anoints him the future heir to the kingdom, and Arjuna bids farewell to his wife and son to continue on his journey.

Meeting Subhadra

After travelling along down the eastern coast and back up the western coast, Arjuna arrives in Dwaraka and takes advantage of the wonderful hospitality of Krishna. For a while the cousins sport together and have a good time.

But one day, Arjuna sets eyes on Subhadra, the younger sister of Krishna, and loses his heart to her.

Seeing with amusement how Arjuna is affected by the sight of the Yadava princess, Krishna says, ‘You have taken the vow of celibacy, dear friend, and you have travelled the world in your time. How is it that the god of desire still agitates your heart so?’

When Arjuna is rendered speechless, preoccupied still by the sight of Subhadra, Krishna continues, ‘That is the daughter of the Vrishnis, dear sister to Balarama and I. Tell me if you wish her to be your wife, for I can then speak to my father myself.’

‘Tell me, O Janardana,’ says Arjuna, ‘how I can make that maiden my wife. I shall do anything in my power to obtain her.’

‘Well,’ says Krishna, ‘if I go and speak to my father, he will say that the right thing to do would be to arrange for a groom-choosing ceremony, where Subhadra will have the choice of a thousand kings lining up for her.

‘You shall be one of them, of course, Partha, but what if her heart sets upon another before you have had a chance to woo it? Who can know which way a maiden might turn of her own will?’

‘Then what shall we do?’

‘Your grandsire, Bhishma,’ Krishna replies, ‘wanted to procure the princesses of Kasi for King Vichitraveerya. He did not wish to play to the whims of a swayamvara. What did he do?’

Abducting Subhadra

‘Are you saying that I must abduct her?’ Arjuna asks, looking at Krishna. ‘But she does not know me. She might resist.’

‘She undoubtedly will. But that should not deter you, Partha, for this form of marriage has received sanction from the scriptures.’

Thus blessed, and after sending a messenger to Yudhishthir and receiving his assent, Arjuna yokes two of the fastest horses from Krishna’s stable – Saivya and Sugriva – to his chariot.

Early one morning, while Subhadra is returning to Dwaraka from the Raivataka Mountain after her prayers, the Pandava descends upon her and carries her away in the blink of an eye.

The maids who are accompanying the princess drop all their plates on the ground and come rushing into the city to raise alarm. In no time at all word goes all the way up to Balarama, that an honoured guest at the palace had dared to make away with Subhadra.

All the princes and chieftains that are gathered there rush to pick up arms.

Krishna, however, speaks on behalf of Arjuna and convinces Balarama that this match between Subhadra and Arjuna is extremely beneficial to the Vrishnis. After some back and forth, Balarama agrees reluctantly, and arranges for a proper wedding to take place between the two.

Arjuna spends a whole year in Dwaraka after the wedding, which happens to be the twelfth and last year of his exile. Soon after, he brings Subhadra to Indraprastha.

Draupadi’s Jealousy

News of Arjuna’s philandering ways reaches Draupadi. Here is the man who won her, the man whom she has loved more than any of the others. He had left with the ostensible promise of celibacy and Brahmacharya. But he has returned with three wives and two sons.

(By this time, there is a good chance that Subhadra is already carrying Abhimanyu in her womb, so we can make that three sons.)

All that while Draupadi herself bore four sons to her husbands as is her duty. So between Draupadi and Arjuna, the couple have had seven children with other people before they have had a chance to unite.

Arjuna may be indifferent to this, but the way in which Draupadi reacts on his return suggests to us that she finds the whole thing ridiculous.

Her anger, though, is short-lived. Arjuna sends Subhadra alone to Draupadi’s chamber with deft instructions, and the Vrishni princess manages to charm the queen of Indraprastha.

In good time, Draupadi finally has a son by Arjuna, who ends up being the youngest of the lot.

Episode Summary

Arjuna’s exile turns out to be rather beneficial to Yudhishthir the king. Not only has his younger brother travelled the world and collected important strategic information about other kingdoms, he has also forged alliances through marriage with three kingdoms.

Of these, Dwaraka is of course the most important one. It is during his exile that Arjuna first gets to spend significant amounts of time with Krishna, laying the foundation of a friendship that lasts right to the very end of their lives.

In these twelve years, Yudhishthir also gets the opportunity to find his own feet as king of Indraprastha. Now, he wishes to rise to the status of emperor, or king of kings.

How he does that – and how he handles the fallout of his ambition – we will see in our next episode.

Further Reading

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Enjoy!