Was Arjuna a Maharatha?

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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: Was Arjuna a maharatha?

When Duryodhana asks Bhishma to classify Arjuna as either a ratha or an atiratha (a synonym for maharatha), Bhishma refrains from doing so. He says that Arjuna cannot be classified, that he is in an exalted league of his own that is higher than an atiratha.

Read on to discover more about whether or not Arjuna was a maharatha.

(For answers to all Arjuna-related questions, see Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)

Duryodhana’s Question

Just before the Kurukshetra war begins, Duryodhana asks the commander of his forces, Bhishma, to measure the relative strengths of the two armies participating in the battle.

In order to do this, Bhishma counts the number of rathas and atirathas present in each side. The word ‘ratha’ describes a ‘great chariot warrior’, and ‘atiratha’ means ‘a great ratha’. An atiratha is considered to be eight times as powerful as a ratha.

Bhishma goes through the entire roster of important warriors who have arrived at Kurukshetra to fight, and classifies each hero as either a ratha or an atiratha.

For instance, Bhishma classifies all of the hundred Kaurava brothers as rathas. Drona and Kritavarma are atirathas. Yudhishthir is a ratha whereas Bhima is an atiratha. And so on.

In the case of Arjuna, Bhishma refuses to classify him because – in the grandsire’s opinion – Arjuna’s effectiveness as a warrior is considerably superior to that of the average atiratha.

‘Arjuna is in a class of his own as a warrior,’ says Bhishma. ‘He is the most powerful of us all. He is beyond classification.’

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 37: Rathas and Atirathas.)

Reasons for Bhishma’s Judgement

Bhishma does not give reasons for all of his judgements. He reminds Duryodhana that all he is venturing here is his opinion, honed by years of observing warriors of different hues.

But in the case of Arjuna, Bhishma gives the following factors that have made Arjuna invincible:

  • Arjuna is extremely skilful as an archer. Even as a child, he was Drona’s best student.
  • He is blessed with unwavering focus and commitment that aid his considerable talent.
  • During the course of the Pandavas’ exile, Arjuna has become better as an archer. Not only has he become a master at his craft, he has also procured numerous divine gifts that have given him an aura of invincibility.
  • In the Kurukshetra war, Arjuna will have Krishna as charioteer. Bhishma reminds Duryodhana how Arjuna managed to rout the Kuru army during the Virata Parva without the services of Krishna. Now, he will have Krishna’s support.

Bhishma’s analysis is probably a bit clouded by his partiality toward Arjuna. But overall, this is a fair assessment of the level of threat that Arjuna poses to Duryodhana in the war.

The ‘other’ Maharatha

Only one warrior on either side of the battle possesses the weapon for which Arjuna has no counter. That man is Karna, and the weapon is the Vasava dart, given to him by Indra.

As commander of the army, Bhishma’s responsibility would have been to court Karna’s services and place them at the center of the Kuru army’s strategy. Knowing how important it is to nullify Arjuna, Bhishma should have formulated a plan in which Karna would get maximum exposure to Arjuna – during which the Vasava dart might be used successfully.

Instead, Bhishma unfairly insults Karna as an ardha-ratha (‘half a ratha’), and tells Duryodhana that he does not wish to share the battlefield with Karna.

Duryodhana is thus forced to fight for the first ten days without the one warrior who has the ability – and the desire – to kill Arjuna.

Bhishma later apologises to Karna and admits to him that the king of Anga is indeed a maharatha. But by this time, the war is already ten days old, and the Pandavas have already trounced Bhishma.

(Suggested: Why did Bhishma not allow Karna to fight?)

Was Arjuna actually invincible?

Taking into account all the divine weapons in Arjuna’s possession – the Pashupatastra, for example – he is definitely invincible. But he places upon himself a restriction that he will not use any of his god-given missiles during the war.

He vows to fight only with earthly weapons. The divine gifts will only make an appearance if the situation deserves their use. All the gods have already warned him that unwarranted use of these weapons would likely lead to the destruction of the entire world.

It is not explicitly clear what constitutes ‘warranted’ use. The usual meaning is that Arjuna can use the weapons only when facing a warrior who is as powerful as he is, or if the situation is so dire that the battle will be lost unless one of the divine astras is summoned.

As an example, Arjuna uses the Brahmastra in his final battle against Ashwatthama. But it is Ashwatthama who hurls the weapon first – in its offensive form. Arjuna casts the spell in its defensive form.

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 55: Ashwatthama is Cursed.)

Even in this case, Sage Vyasa implores the two warriors to call back their respective weapons. Arjuna does so. Ashwatthama does not.

With this restriction, therefore, Arjuna’s prowess as a warrior is severely curtailed. He is not as invincible as Bhishma says he is. If the Kurus had devised strategies to work around Arjuna’s presence on the battlefield, they would have succeeded.

In other words, Arjuna without the divine weapons is merely an atiratha (maybe slightly better than one because of the Gandiva and Krishna), but he is not invincible.

Examples from the war

In this section, we will see a few examples from the war which lend support to the theory that Arjuna is not as powerful as Bhishma makes him seem at the beginning. For instance:

  • The Samshaptakas – the army of Trigarta led by Susharma – challenge Arjuna and keep him diverted from the main action of the battle for the entire thirteenth day, allowing the Kauravas to kill Abhimanyu.
  • During the fourteenth day, as Arjuna is speeding toward Jayadratha, Krishna cautions him: ‘He is being guarded by six atirathas, O Arjuna. As powerful as you are, you cannot defeat them all on your own.’
  • Despite having the support of Krishna, and despite being favoured by the gifts of Agni, Arjuna almost loses his life in the final battle against Karna. It takes a special magical manoeuvre on Krishna’s part to save his life.
  • During the tenth day of the war, despite his exalted status as being ‘better than a maharatha’, Arjuna resorts to shooting at Bhishma from behind Shikhandi. The implication here is that he is unable to defeat Bhishma otherwise.
  • On the fourteenth day, while seeking Jayadratha, Arjuna sidesteps Drona and refuses to fight him. If he were truly vastly superior to Drona, he could have defeated him in short order and moved on.

All of this makes one wonder: was Arjuna truly that far ahead of the pack, especially if he was going to never use the divine weapons?

The evidence of the war suggests that he was not. But one must remember that possessing all the great weapons in his armoury would have given Arjuna immense confidence. That alone would have given him an edge over all the other atirathas.

Further Reading

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