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 the best archer?
When he is young, Arjuna is the best archer among all the Kuru princes. Two other men display comparable amounts of skill to him. One is Karna, who appears at the graduation ceremony and repeats all of Arjuna’s feats. The other is Ekalavya, a Nishada prince who learns archery on his own and surpasses Arjuna.
Read on to discover more about whether or not Arjuna was the best archer in the Mahabharata.
(For answers to all Arjuna-related questions, see Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Archer versus Warrior
Before we get into the weeds of this question, we must make a clear distinction between an archer and a warrior. While all good warriors are necessarily good archers (especially in the Mahabharata universe, where the top tier heroes are all archers), not all good archers are good warriors.
This is because the skill of shooting an arrow at a target – whether moving or stationary – is only a small part of fighting in a battle. In a tournament or a competition in which only the skill of archery is measured, what takes place is target-shooting under different constraints of time and space.
(For instance, like in Draupadi’s swayamvara, a person might be asked to shoot a revolving overhead fish in the eye while using only its reflection in a vessel of water by his feet.)
(Suggested: Was Karna better than Arjuna?)
In a battle, however, a bunch of other factors come into play that the warrior must master. At the very least:
- He should adapt to the quality of his opponent, and have answers to strategies he might adopt.
- He should be aware of the relative strengths of supporting warriors on both sides. In a real-life scenario, it hardly ever happens that two warriors only fight each other from start to finish.
- He should have a working knowledge of the kind of weapons he and his opponent possesses, and of their relative strengths.
- He should keep an eye on the terrain and time of the battle. For instance, during night time, Rakshasas become immensely more powerful than they are during the day.
Is Arjuna the best archer?
Having made this distinction between warrior and archer, now let us examine Arjuna’s credentials.
Right from his childhood, Arjuna is considered the best archer among the hundred and five Kuru cousins. Drona considers Arjuna his favourite, and assigns himself the challenge of making the Pandava the best archer in the world.
However, there are signs that even early on, this is a tall ask. For instance:
- The Kuru princes run into Ekalavya, a Nishada prince who displays such deftness and swiftness with his drawing and shooting that he shoots six arrows into a dog’s mouth when it opens it to bark.
- During the graduation ceremony of the Kurus, a heretofore unknown youth named Karna appears out of nowhere and successfully replicates all of the feats performed by Arjuna earlier.
Ekalavya reveals himself to self-taught, whereas Karna is Parashurama’s student. The fact that these two boys are able to match Arjuna’s skill in Hastinapur alone means that Arjuna’s skill is not out of the world.
The counterpoint, though, is provided by Draupadi’s swayamvara, where Arjuna alone manages to complete the task set by Drupada in lieu of Draupadi’s hand.
The only person besides Arjuna that is hinted at being capable of shooting the fish in the eye is Karna. But as he steps up to the podium, Draupadi rejects him and says, ‘I do not wish to marry a Sutaputra.’
On this evidence, it is reasonable to assume that Arjuna is the most skilled archer of all in the world – along with Karna.
But there are other contenders who – for various reasons – do not participate in Draupadi’s swayamvara. Bhishma, for example, does not attend the event because he has no interest in her as bride.
Drona is another archer who is presumably more skilled than Arjuna. Ashwatthama – whom Bhishma calls ‘equal unto an atiratha in skill’ – is another. Neither father nor son attend Draupadi’s groom-choosing, because neither wishes to publicly vie for Draupadi’s hand.
(Ashwatthama, at least in theory, is not disqualified from trying his hand at winning Draupadi. But Drupada would certainly have stopped his arch enemy’s son from potentially marrying his daughter.)
Other people who are probably as skilful as Arjuna but are either not present at Draupadi’s swayamvara or don’t participate in it are the Vrishnis: Krishna, Balarama, Yuyudhana (Satyaki) and Kritavarma.
Later, during the burning of the Khandava forest, Krishna proves himself as good a warrior as Arjuna in the battle against Indra. And Yuyudhana’s feats during the Mahabharata war make it clear that he is no slouch either.
Is Arjuna the best warrior?
At the time of his winning of Draupadi, Arjuna is therefore only one of the most skilled archers known to the world. If an open archery competition had been held and if all the aforementioned archers participated in it, we would have known without question who the best of them was.
But alas, no such event was conducted.
Starting with the burning of the Khandava forest, however, Arjuna’s power as a warrior begins to blossom. In exchange for letting Agni feast on the wood and animals of Khandava, Arjuna receives:
- The Gandiva, a bow that is unbreakable and whose aim is unerring.
- Two inexhaustible quivers, which means Arjuna never has to worry about running out of arrows.
- An indestructible chariot which is imbued by the speed of the wind, and which has the picture of Hanuman on its mast.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 13: Massacre at Khandava.)
Ostensibly, this is meant to help Arjuna defeat the gods who turn up to save Khandava. But after the project is done, Agni does not take back his gifts. Arjuna gets to keep them.
By the Virata Parva
The second wave of gifts that flows Arjuna’s way happens during the Pandavas’ exile. Arjuna realizes that his current power is not enough to successfully challenge Drona and Bhishma, so he sets out to collect as many divine weapons as he can.
He gets given the Pashupatastra by Shiva, after which he is taken to Amaravati – where the gods of the pantheon shower him with a veritable heap of weapons.
Arjuna gets so powerful during the thirteen years of his exile that when he faces the Kuru army on his own during the Virata Parva, Bhishma remarks that the middle son of Kunti has become ‘unrecognizable’.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 30: Brihannala Defends Matsya.)
Therefore, when the battle begins and Bhishma is asked to classify Arjuna as either a ratha or an atiratha, he smilingly replies, ‘Arjuna is far beyond an atiratha. He is impossible to classify!’
By all accounts, Arjuna’s skill as an archer has remained the same relative to the likes of Bhishma, Drona and Karna. But it is his power as a warrior that has grown manifold due to the vast number of blessings he receives from the gods.
When it comes to skill with the bow and arrow alone, Arjuna is among the best of his day. Karna and Ekalavya are known to be as skilful as he is, if not more.
Draupadi’s swayamvara establishes Arjuna as the best archer of his day, but one must note that there are notable names among those who do not participate in this event. Examples are Drona, Bhishma, Ashwatthama, Krishna, Yuyudhana and Kritavarma.
When it comes to overall power as a warrior, Arjuna far outshines everyone else by the end of the Virata Parva, owing to the number of divine weapons he earns from gods as a result of his many successful quests.
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