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 son of Indra?
In the Mahabharata, Arjuna is described as the son of Indra. When he is born, a divine voice proclaims that he will become the greatest archer the world has ever seen. However, alternate retellings of the story have speculated that the Pandavas – including Arjuna – are fathered by sages at Gandhamadana to help Pandu and his wives produce heirs.
Read on to discover more about whether or not Arjuna was the son of Indra.
(For answers to all Arjuna-related questions, see Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
The Pandavas are born as a result of a gift given by Sage Durvasa to Kunti when she is an unwed maiden. This incantation allows a woman to summon any god of her choice so that she may have a son with him.
A disbelieving and naïve Kunti tries the incantation before she gets married. She calls for Surya, the sun god, and has a son with him who grows up to become Karna.
But after her marriage, when Pandu is cursed by Sage Kindama that he would die if he approached either of his wives for sex, Kunti offers to use her power again in the interest of giving Pandu the heirs that he so desperately wants.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 4: Kunti, Madri and Gandhari.)
Kunti therefore has Yudhishthir, Bhima and Arjuna with Yama (the god of justice), Vayu (god of the wind) and Indra (king of the gods) respectively.
Then Madri, Pandu’s second wife, requests Kunti for the mantra. Kunti gives it to her for just once, but Madri uses it to summon the Ashwin twins, thus procuring two sons with just one use.
The official version of the story, therefore, is that the Pandavas are the sons of gods.
Birth of Arjuna
The birth of Arjuna is accompanied by much fanfare at the hermitage of Dhaumya at the Gandhamadana.
Divine voices predict a life of valour, of achievement, and of limitless fame. The hermitage is visited by a wide array of celestials, Nagas, Gandharvas and sages such as Bharadwaja, Kashyapa, Gautama, Vishwamitra, Vasishtha, Atri, Angirasa and others.
Tumbura plays some charming notes. The apsaras dance. The sages chant their numerous blessings. In short, it is made clear by all the hullabaloo that the boy who has taken birth, the third Pandava, will go on to become the foremost hero of his age – second to none.
The Grace of Indra
Befitting his status as the son of Indra, Arjuna is given plenty of gifts and blessings throughout his life in order to fulfil his destiny. Yes, he possesses tremendous amounts of skill and commitment, but without the gifts he receives at various points in the story, he would not have become the most powerful warrior in the world.
In terms of skill at archery alone, Arjuna is comparable to the likes of Karna, Ekalavya, Drona, Bhishma and Ashwatthama. But when his skill is supplemented by the gifts he receives, he becomes unstoppable.
(Suggested: How did Arjuna get the Gandiva?)
Here is a quick list:
- Arjuna receives the Gandiva and two inexhaustible quivers of arrows from Agni. The lord of fire also gives Arjuna an indestructible chariot. Ironically, Agni gives these weapons to help Arjuna fight against his father, Indra.
- During the Pandavas’ exile, Arjuna calls on Indra, who guides him to Shiva, who in turn presents to Arjuna the Pashupatastra.
- During his visit to Amaravati, Arjuna makes full use of Indra’s hospitality and gathers several divine gifts from all the gods of the pantheon.
It is unclear as to why Arjuna is marked out – right from birth, almost – as the hero. The only quality that distinguishes him from his brothers is that he is born to the king of the gods.
So we must conclude that everything that accrues to Arjuna during his life does so because he is the son of Indra.
An Alternate Theory
However, we must remember that there aren’t any witnesses to the births of the Pandavas. If we seek to strip the Mahabharata of the ‘magical’ elements, and try to get at the truth as it happened before it has been fictionalised, we may come up with the following suggestions:
- Pandu is not impotent because he has been cursed by Kindama. He is impotent because of a disease or a genetic affliction.
- Kunti does not have any divine gift to summon gods or to have children with them. Her firstborn, Karna, is also born of natural union between her and another man – probably Durvasa.
- The Pandavas, therefore, are not born of gods. Kunti and Madri practice niyoga with the consent of her husband, and use the seed of some of the sages at the Gandhamadana to have children.
- There are no divine voices proclaiming great destinies for any of the sons.
In this scenario, the Pandavas are fathered by unnamed sages at the hermitage in the hills. They are then adopted by Pandu with due ceremony. They thus gain the name of ‘Pandavas’.
Reason for the lies?
If we assume for a bit longer that this is a credible sequence of events, we must now answer why the lie that the Pandavas were born to gods has taken birth. Who first came up with the idea? And what purpose does it serve?
We must first note that for the lie to be needed in the first place, Pandu’s impotence must already be an open secret to the world. People of Hastinapur must already have been gossiping about King Pandu’s inability to have children.
When their first child is born, therefore, Pandu and Kunti do not have the option of pretending that Pandu’s virility has magically returned. They have to make it publicly known that the child is not the biological offspring of Pandu.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 5: Pandavas and Kauravas.)
Still, it is not a sin for an impotent king to take the help of a Brahmin to sire sons. The people of Hastinapur would not have held it against Pandu if he had just told them that he has acquired sons through the process of niyoga.
However, there must have been some temptation to build a mythology around his sons. Pandu must have foreseen that the Pandavas will have to go back and stake a claim to the throne of Hastinapur. And for that to happen, it is much more persuasive to proclaim them sons of gods.
A more likely happening is that this is not Pandu’s idea at all, and that as long as Pandu is alive, there was never an intention on anybody’s part to refer to the five boys as being sired by gods.
But at the death of Pandu and Madri, Kunti’s position becomes quite untenable suddenly.
Consider: she is a single mother of five fatherless children. Not only is she tasked with bringing them up, but she is also expected to take them back to court at Hastinapur and raise them to hold their own against the incumbent king’s sons.
The sages that accompany her to Hastinapur will confirm that the sons belonged to Pandu. But with Pandu himself dead, people will be liable to ask: Who are these boys’ real fathers?
In order to embellish their images in the eyes of the public, therefore, Kunti must have herself come up with the story that these are sons born to gods.
As written, the Mahabharata makes it very clear that Arjuna is Indra’s son. Not only is Arjuna blessed with skill, temperament, good looks and divine gifts, he is also favoured by everyone to be the ultimate champion warrior.
However, some alternate theories suggest that the Pandavas are not the sons of gods but of unknown sages at the hermitage where Kunti, Pandu and Madri lived at the time.
If you favour the first explanation, then Arjuna is the son of Indra. If you favour the second, then he is the son of a Brahmin whose name we do not know.
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