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 Pashupatastra?
Arjuna receives the Pashupatastra from Lord Shiva during the first year of the Pandavas’ exile. Arjuna sets out on a quest to acquire divine weapons from the gods in order to become powerful enough to defeat Bhishma and Drona. The Pashupatastra is the first of these weapons, and he gets it after Shiva humbles him in the garb of a hunter.
Read on to discover more about how Arjuna got the Pashupatastra.
(For answers to all Arjuna-related questions, see Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
What is the Pashupatastra?
The Pashupatastra is often called one of the most powerful weapons in the Indian mythic universe. This includes the Mahabharata. It belongs to Lord Pashupati (‘pashu’ means ‘animals’, and ‘pati’ means ‘saviour and protector’; it is another name of Shiva).
The three gods of the pantheon – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva – each has his own deadly weapon. They are:
- The Brahmastra – ‘astra of Brahma’
- The Narayanastra – ‘astra of Narayana’
- The Pashupatastra – ‘astra of Pashupati’
These are imagined by many in the physical form – i.e.: the weapons are actual arrows (or lances, or missiles) that can be handed over from one person to another. In order to use the weapon, therefore, you have to first possess it.
But an equally likely explanation is that these are a form of knowledge, a technique or an incantation you can use with any arrow in your quiver. The knowledge is so secretly guarded and so complex, however, that only a few worthy people ever possess it.
Arjuna’s Bid for Power
Early on in their exile, Arjuna and Yudhishthir have a bit of an argument about whether might or forgiveness is the more powerful quality in a hero.
Yudhishthir argues that forgiveness is absolute, but Arjuna – and Draupadi – thinks that in the real world, it is the mighty that rule over men and dominions.
Though the debate itself ends without resolution (this is a common occurrence in the Mahabharata), the brothers agree that even if the Pandavas decide to challenge the Kauravas to a battle, they are – at that point – powerless to do so.
‘Bhishma and Drona will fight by Duryodhana’s side,’ Yudhishthir reminds Arjuna. ‘We do not have the skills or the experience to fight those two stalwarts and win.’
Arjuna therefore decides that if they are to stand any chance at making a successful bid to regain their kingdom, he has to set out on a quest to procure as many divine weapons as possible.
Arjuna first goes to Indrakila, a place known to be the favourite abode of Indra. This is located in the far north, beyond the mountains of Gandhamadana – where the Pandavas were born.
Here in Indrakila, he settles under a tree and begins to chant a mantra given to him by Vyasa. This summons Indra, who appears in the guise of a Brahmin and asks the Pandava to make a wish.
Arjuna tells his visitor that he wishes to gain the knowledge of all the weapons in the world. Indra replies, ‘You will get what you seek. But you have to first please the holder of the trident, Shiva. Devote yourself to obtaining his blessings, and only then can I grant you your wish.’
Arjuna therefore readies himself to four months of singing Shiva’s praises while undergoing severe physical hardships.
Death of Mukasura
During his four-month prayer, Arjuna progressively fasts himself: during the first month he eats only fruits once every three nights. In the second month, he takes a meal only once every six nights.
In the third month he eats once a fortnight, and by the fourth he is subsisting on air alone.
The sages and gods of the Earth become worried at this. They go to Shiva and persuade him to stop Arjuna.
Shiva disguises himself as a hunter, and accompanied by Parvati (who dresses in the garb of a huntress), floats down to the tree in Indrakila under which Arjuna is standing on one foot.
At about the same time, an Asura called Muka disguises himself as a wild boar with the intention of killing Arjuna. As the boar is charging at the prince, he interrupts his worship to pick up the bow and shoot at the beast one well-aimed arrow.
However, two arrows strike the advancing boar, one on each side. One of them is Arjuna’s. The other belongs to a hunter who steps into the clearing accompanied by his wife.
(Incidentally, the story of Mukasura is not told in detail anywhere else in the Mahabharata. It appears to be a convenient excuse to not kill an innocent animal for no reason in a fight between Arjuna and Shiva.)
Arjuna Argues with Shiva
Shiva throws the first salvo at Arjuna. He tells the prince, ‘You have ventured into my part of the woods, O Brahmin. And the beast you shot at was first felled by my arrow. The meat is therefore mine.’
Arjuna has no need for food, of course, but the arrogance (as he sees it) of a lowly hunter infuriates him. He replies, ‘I have given up food for the sake of my lord, O Hunter. But your pride astounds me.
‘Do you know who you speak to? I am the brother of King Yudhishthir, who is the emperor of all the lands you have never heard of. Just to teach you a lesson I will fight you and take that pig’s carcass for myself.’
The smiling hunter does not rise to the bait, but he does not remove his foot from the side of the dead boar either. ‘I would like to see you try, O Prince,’ he says.
Arjuna fits two arrows onto his bow and shoots them at the hunter, but both of them fly out of sight. ‘A prince who cannot aim at this big a target?’ says Shiva, gesturing at himself. ‘Your brother Yudhishthir must not rely on you to win his wars.’
Arjuna shoots two more arrows with a grunt of impatience, and they also miss their mark. He throws the bow onto his other hand and tries again, still in vain.
Frustrated, he runs up to the hunter and tries to hit him on the head with the Gandiva, but even as the weapon shatters to pieces, the hunter remains smiling and unhurt.
Technically, this should go down as a defeat in Arjuna’s career, so his title of ‘Vijaya’ is not quite accurate. But the counterpoint is that he is fighting a Shiva, so of course he is going to lose.
Also, Arjuna does not explicitly accept defeat, nor does Shiva claim victory. The duel ends when Arjuna is trying to puzzle things out – how did the Gandiva miss? Why did it turn into a garland? – and Shiva graciously adopts his proper form.
Also technically, therefore, this is not a resolved battle. So Arjuna did not quite lose.
Acquiring the Pashupatastra
Shiva gives Arjuna the Pashupatastra without much further ado. ‘This weapon can be propelled by thought or, speech or by the strength of your arms with a powerful enough bow. And there is no one in the three worlds that can quell it.’
Shiva also warns Arjuna about the judiciousness he must display with the weapon. ‘However,’ he says, ‘you must take care not to use it on a foe who is weaker than you are. If you do that, it will reduce all of creation to ashes.’
In other words, Arjuna must use the Pashupatastra only as a final resort – if all of his other weapons and skills have proven futile.
This essentially means, of course, that Shiva is guaranteeing that the Pandavas cannot lose the war.
Having thus blessed Arjuna – but after first quelling the Pandava’s pride – Shiva disappears. After this, a few other gods appear and shower Arjuna with more gifts.
Four other gods descend from heaven after the departure of Shiva: Indra, the king of the gods; Yama, the son of Surya and the lord of the dead; Varuna, the keeper of the water and the chief of Daityas and Nagas; and Kubera, the treasurer among the celestials.
The gifts they give Arjuna are as follows:
- Yama gives Arjuna his mace, along with the required knowledge and technical mastery required to use it.
- Varuna gives up his array of nooses, which he claims he used during the rescue of Taraka from the mighty Daityas.
- Kubera hands over the Antarddhana (loosely translated: ‘inner wealth’), which is capable of putting victims to sleep. Shiva purportedly used this during his destruction of Tripura.
- Indra grants his son the gift of divine sight, by which Arjuna can see the gods in all their splendour.
Indra then invites Arjuna onto his chariot. From there, Arjuna goes to Amaravati.
Another Visit to Shiva?
Much later in the story, on night of the thirteenth day of the Mahabharata war, Arjuna goes to sleep after having taken a vow to kill Jayadratha – in order to avenge the death of Abhimanyu.
But his sleep is troubled, and he dreams that he and Krishna rise up to the skies to meet with Shiva. The god reassures Arjuna that the Pandavas will win the war. He also presents Arjuna with the Pashupatastra – again.
Whether this dream actually occurs or whether it is just Arjuna’s subconscious reminding him of the Pashupatastra is not certain. It is probably the latter, because Arjuna needs this reinforcement before a big day in battle.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 45: Arjuna Takes an Oath.)
All Three Astras
With the success of his mission, Arjuna is in possession of both the Brahmastra (which he learned from Drona, who in turn learned it from Parashurama) and the Pashupatastra.
He does not have the Narayanastra – Ashwatthama does – but fighting on his side is Krishna, who is Narayana himself. Krishna knows how the Narayanastra can be neutralised.
(Suggested: 12 Mahabharata Stories From the Drona Parva – Part 1.)
Thus, the Pandavas come into possession of two of the three powerful astras in their offensive form, and the means with which to defend themselves from the third astra. Thus they become near invincible regardless of all other mundane factors such as army size.
In addition to the three astras, Arjuna also the Gandiva, two inexhaustible quivers, a chariot that can never be damaged, and the blessings of Hanuma who resides on the mast of Arjuna’s vehicle and imbues it with supernatural speed.
Add to all this the strategic element of Krishna’s constant guidance during the battle, and Arjuna – aided by his own considerable skill too, of course – becomes the most powerful warrior of the known world.
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