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: Why did Arjuna go on exile?
Arjuna goes on exile as penance for an indiscretion he commits: he disturbs Yudhishthir and Draupadi during a private moment. Neither Yudhishthir nor Draupadi wish Arjuna to punish himself, but Arjuna insists. He imposes upon himself a twelve-year exile for breaking the pact that none of the Pandava brothers should impinge upon Draupadi’s privacy.
Read on to discover more about why Arjuna goes on exile in the Mahabharata.
(For answers to all Arjuna-related questions, see Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Sharing of Draupadi
During the early days of Yudhishthir reign as emperor of Indraprastha, he gets a visit from Sage Narada, who recommends that the Pandavas draw among themselves an agreement regarding how they are going to share Draupadi amicably.
The Pandavas come up with a commonsense approach: the first of the husbands to approach Draupadi for private companionship will have access to her. If one of the brothers finds Draupadi in the company of another Pandava, he is to retreat quietly and try his luck again later.
The smart reader will note that this cannot possibly be the full extent of the Pandavas’ sharing arrangements for Draupadi. For instance, when the time comes for Draupadi to bear children, she will have to sleep with each of the Pandavas in turn for each pregnancy so that paternity is established beyond doubt.
But at this stage in the story, this is all we are told.
(Suggested: How was Draupadi shared between the Pandavas?)
A Brahmin’s Request
Soon after the Pandavas create this arrangement for themselves regarding their common wife, a Brahmin who lives in Indraprastha comes to Arjuna and complains that dacoits have stolen his cattle. He asks Arjuna for help to retrieve the stolen wealth.
Right at the outset, we must pause to comment on the absurdity of the situation. Does Indraprastha have no other law and order officers who will look into theft and other petty crimes? Is Arjuna, the younger brother of the king, expected to be available to chase down cattle-stealing dacoits?
It does not seem reasonable, but that is the setup we’re given.
Arjuna promises the Brahmin that justice will be done, but then he realizes that his Gandiva and other weapons are kept in Yudhishthir’s bedchamber. And to make matters worse, right at that moment, Yudhishthir and Draupadi are in that room together.
However, not discharging the duty of protection to the helpless in the kingdom is also a sin unworthy of a king like Yudhishthir. So knowing full well the consequences of his actions, Arjuna enters the chamber, picks up his weapons, and goes to punish the thieves.
After the whole episode ends and the Brahmin has left gratified, Arjuna announces his wish to go into exile for twelve years. Yudhishthir tries to reason with him thus:
‘I know why you came to our chamber, Brother. Neither I nor Draupadi was upset by your entry in the slightest. Indeed, a younger brother has full right to enter the chambers of his older brother; it is the older brother who is not allowed to enter the chambers of his younger brother. So you do not need to observe this vow.’
But Arjuna replies with joined hands, ‘Brother, it is you who has taught us that when it comes to a matter of duty, one must not find reasons to escape it. A vow taken is a vow taken, and it must be carried forth at all times.
‘Is it not what we have been taught from the life of Bhishma, our grandfather, too? I shall not count myself among the worthy descendants of our line if I now accept your reasons and shirk my duty.’
Saying this, Arjuna makes preparations to go into the forest for a twelve-year exile. During it, he makes many journeys to interesting lands, and he returns a changed, much-improved man and warrior.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 13: Exile of Arjuna.)
An act of protest?
Some observers have suggested that this act of Arjuna to go into an exile is an act of protest at Yudhishthir ‘stealing’ his wife, and his subsequent words to his elder brother are uttered with sarcasm.
However, there is no evidence of animosity between the two brothers at this point in the story. Arjuna was asked for consent by Yudhishthir before the decision was taken to make Draupadi the Pandavas’ common wife.
On the other hand, it is Arjuna who won Draupadi, and he would not be human if he did not feel a tiny bit of resentment at the thought of having to share his woman with four other men.
In the real world, actions don’t have singular motivations. Events don’t have singular causes. It is entirely possible, therefore that a part of Arjuna might have been glad to get away from Indraprastha and travel the world alone.
Though he might not have planned the whole thing, it is not unreasonable to suggest that he welcomed the opportunity to go away and procure wealth and friends of his own.
(Suggested: Was Arjuna happy to share Draupadi?)
An Expedition of Diplomacy
This journey by Arjuna to visit the kingdoms of the world comes at an opportune time for Yudhishthir. At this point, Yudhishthir is not a prominent king. He has just been given a part of the Kuru kingdom to rule, and the city he has made his capital is a small one by the edge of the forest – called Khandavaprastha.
While other kingdoms would have known about this development, they would not have thought of Yudhishthir as a significant player in his own right. They would have still assumed him to be Bhishma’s understudy.
Once Arjuna has made the decision to go, therefore, Yudhishthir might have taken him aside and said, ‘Brother, use these twelve years wisely. Build friendships with other kingdoms wherever you see fit.’
This exile, therefore, doubles up as a campaign of diplomacy in which Arjuna carries messages of friendship from Yudhishthir – as an independent king himself – to the other kings of the world.
Celibacy and Chastity
At the time of his departure, of course, Arjuna intends to observe the vow of celibacy throughout the period of his exile. But very early on, Ulupi the Naga princess foils this idea and seduces him for a night of passion.
This incident would have encouraged Arjuna to consider using marriage as a possible tool for building relationships with kingdoms. While at the time of his departure he would have frowned upon the idea, now he embraces it and uses it to his advantage.
Arjuna is a handsome man. His exploits as a warrior have given him much fame in the country. He is from a good family, and while he has no straight path to the throne at Khandavaprastha, the Pandavas together have a mighty reputation as powerful warriors.
Arjuna uses all of this to procure for himself two important marriage alliances: one with Chitrangada at Manipura, and the second with Subhadra at Dwaraka.
The latter brings him closer to Krishna and lays the foundation for a long and deep friendship. Indeed, immediately after marrying Subhadra and returning to Khandavaprastha, Arjuna and Krishna together raze the forest of Khandava and build for Yudhishthir a new city called Indraprastha.
Krishna also becomes instrumental in making Yudhishthir the emperor of the world.
All in all, there are three different reasons for which Arjuna goes on exile:
- He imposes the exile on himself as a punishment for having disturbed the privacy of Yudhishthir and Draupadi.
- He bears a small amount of resentment in his heart for having to share Draupadi with his brothers, and thinks it wise to distance himself from the situation.
- He uses the exile as an opportunity to build friendships and alliances on Yudhishthir’s behalf. He builds three of these: with the Nagas through Ulupi, with Manipura through Chitrangada, and most importantly with Dwaraka through Subhadra.
Arjuna’s exile therefore ends up being the first move of the Pandavas toward world domination.
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