Arjuna is the most powerful warrior in the Mahabharata universe. He is the third of the Pandavas in order of seniority, born after Yudhishthir and Bhimasena.
He is the last of Kunti’s children. After his birth, Kunti decides that she will summon no more gods and bear no more sons. Nakula and Sahadeva, the fourth and fifth of the Pandavas respectively, are born to Madri, Pandu’s second wife.
In this post, we will answer the question: How did Arjuna get the Gandiva?
Arjuna receives the Gandiva from Agni, the god of fire, during the burning of the Khandava forest. He also receives two inexhaustible quivers and Agni’s chariot as gifts. Agni gives Krishna the Sudarshana Chakra and a mace called Kaumodaki. Arjuna and Krishna then help Agni in destroying the Khandava.
Read on to discover more about how Arjuna got the Gandiva.
(For answers to all Arjuna-related questions, see Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Toward the end of Arjuna’s twelve-year exile, soon after his marriage to Subhadra, Krishna and Arjuna are once sporting on the edge of the forest of Khandava.
They are approached by a Brahmin with a request.
‘My appetite is voracious, my lords,’ he tells them, ‘and it never ends no matter how much I eat. Will you be able to satisfy my hunger and save my life?’
Krishna and Arjuna tell the Brahmin that they will do anything in their power to help. After receiving a promise from the two heroes, the Brahmin reveals his true identity. ‘I am Agni, O Krishna and Arjuna,’ he says, ‘the lord of fire. I do not wish to eat the food of humans.’
‘Then what is it that you wish to eat, sir?’ asks Krishna.
‘This forest contains much of the wood that I need to satiate my hunger,’ says Agni, looking around them. ‘But it is also home to Takshaka, the king of the Nagas, and good friend of Indra.
‘Whenever I blaze forth in this direction, therefore, the king of the gods is forever ready at hand to thwart me with a few showers. You and your kinsman are well-versed in the art of war and weapons; I wish that you help me in my quest.
‘Ensure that Indra does not interfere, and also prevent the animals in the forest from escaping.’
The reason behind Agni’s wish to devour the Khandava forest lies in the story of Swetaki, a king who gained quite a reputation for being excessively fond of performing sacrifices.
At a certain point in his life, he gets the idea to perform the hundred-year-sacrifice, and propitiates Lord Shiva in the hope that the god would assist him. Shiva tells him that the job is not fit for a celestial.
But he says, ‘If you spend the next twelve years incessantly pouring clarified butter into the fire in my honour, at the end of the period, I shall grant you your wish.’
Swetaki does as he is told. For twelve years he keeps the fire going with continuous offerings of clarified butter, and at the end, Shiva reappears to the king and tells him, ‘There is a Brahmin on Earth by name Durvasa, O King, who contains a portion of my essence. I shall ask him to assist you in this project.’
And so Durvasa, at the command of Shiva, helps Swetaki perform the hundred-year-sacrifice.
In due course of time, Swetaki ascends to heaven and enjoys the fruits of the hundred-year-sacrifice, but all that excessive ghee leaves Agni with indigestion.
He goes to Brahma for advice on how to cure the condition, and the grandsire says, ‘Go feast on the forest of Khandava, with the wood and the fat of all the beings living in it. That will free you of your problem.’
Thus, Agni tries seven times to consume the Khandava forest, but he fails each time due to the intervention of Indra. The animals of the forest, also, rise up in arms against him.
Elephants fill up their trunks with water and spray it all over the advancing flames. Thousands of many-hooded snakes, the family of Takshaka, also hastily scatter much water over Agni, extinguishing his efforts.
Angered and frustrated by this, Agni goes back to Brahma and asks him what to do.
‘Go and take the help of Nara-Narayana,’ says Brahma, ‘who are presently incarnate on Earth, and are living in Khandavaprastha. They will help you with the deed even if they have to fight the entire army of the celestials to do so.’
Gifts for Arjuna and Krishna
This is how Agni disguises himself as a Brahmin and takes Arjuna and Krishna’s word.
Hearing that they are being employed to fight against the celestials, Arjuna tells Agni, ‘I have great strength in my arms and I carry great knowledge of war in my head, but I do not possess any divine weapons, O Agni.’
Agni then calls upon Varuna, and gives the Pandava the following gifts:
- A bow that was forged in the kingdom of Soma called the Gandiva
- Two inexhaustible quivers of arrows
- A chariot that had been built by Vishwakarma, furnished with celestial weapons, drawn by silver horses, and upon whose banner stands a great ape (Hanuman).
Krishna receives from Agni the following weapons:
- A discus with an iron pole driven through the hole in its center – called the Sudarshana Chakra.
- A mace called Kaumodaki, capable of slaying every Daitya on Earth, and which roars like thunder each time it is used.
The Slaughter of Khandava
Thus begins the massacre at Khandava. Arjuna and Krishna ride their chariots along its periphery, preventing animals from escaping. Birds that attempt to fly away are pierced with shafts by Arjuna.
Agni assumes his dangerous form and begins to eat at the trees, and as the water of the lakes begins to boil, the fish and other aquatic animals living in them meet their deaths as well.
When the gods go to Indra and inform him of what is happening, he commands a full force of celestials against the two warriors, but after a prolonged battle, Arjuna and Krishna defeat the army of the gods.
After that, Agni reduces the forest to ashes over a period of fifteen days, during which Arjuna and Krishna continue to guard it.
Here we must note the cleverness of Agni in enlisting the help of Arjuna in destroying Khandava. Indra’s motivation is to protect his friend, Takshaka. Agni is therefore essentially forcing Indra to choose between his best friend and his son.
A Symbol of Pride
From this moment on, the Gandiva becomes a symbol of Arjuna’s pride. He takes an oath that anyone seeking to snatch the Gandiva away from him will be punished with death.
During the war, Yudhishthir angrily suggests on one occasion that someone else with the Gandiva might have finished the war more quickly, and that sends Arjuna into a rage. The two brothers almost come to blows before Krishna pulls them apart.
The Gandiva fails him once, during his battle with Shiva at the time of procuring the Pashupatastra. Despite his best efforts, he fails to shoot even a single arrow right at Shiva during this encounter.
At the very end of the story, when the Pandavas leave on their final journey, Yudhishthir firmly tells Arjuna that the time has come for him to cast the Gandiva away into fire. Arjuna does so, reluctantly.
(We must remember that at this point, Arjuna is an old man in his mid-eighties, clinging to vestiges from his youth.)
Despite this, Arjuna’s pride is held against him by the gods: he is denied entry into heaven because he was deeply wedded to the idea of himself as the world’s best warrior. And the Gandiva was the symbol of this vanity.
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