Why did Arjuna go to hell?

Why did Arjuna go to hell - Featured Image - Picture of hell's gate.

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 to hell?

The ostensible reason for which Arjuna goes to hell is to atone for his vanity. Arjuna is known throughout his life as the most powerful of warriors, and that status makes him vain. The other reason for Arjuna’s short period in hell is the unjust manner in which he kills Bhishma in the Kurukshetra war.

Read on to discover more about why Arjuna went to hell in the Mahabharata.

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

Destination Heaven

Toward the end of the Mahabharata story, after having ruled the world from their capital at Indraprastha for thirty six years, the Pandavas relinquish their kingdom to their successor – Parikshit – and set out on their final journey.

This comprises of visiting all the pious places of the earth before proceeding northward to the Himalayas. The Pandavas and Draupadi intend to scale the mountain Sumeru, expecting that they will be allowed into heaven without having to first experience the unpleasantness of death.

During this ascent, Draupadi, Sahadeva, Nakula, Arjuna and Bhima fall and die. Only Yudhishthir makes it to the top alive, and only he is granted entry into Indra’s kingdom in his mortal body.

Arjuna is the third Pandava to fall to his death. When Bhima asks Yudhishthir the reason, Yudhishthir replies: ‘Arjuna has never been able to conquer his vanity. He was always proud that he was the most powerful warrior in the world.’

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 60: The Pandavas Die.)

Did Arjuna go to heaven?

It bears mentioning that Arjuna does go to heaven shortly after suffering a spell in hell. We are not told details of the nature of his punishment; but by the time Yudhishthir arrives at Indra’s hall, Arjuna is already there with the rest of the Pandavas and Draupadi.

Another point: the reason behind Arjuna’s relegation to heaven is presented to the reader as Yudhishthir’s opinion. We do not know for certain that (a) Arjuna was actually arrogant enough to displease the gods, and (b) that pride in one’s skill is sinful enough to warrant a short visit to hell.

For the record, all of Yudhishthir’s quoted reasons seem laughably trivial. Draupadi favoured Arjuna over her other husbands. Sahadeva and Nakula were vain about wisdom and good looks respectively. Bhima was excessively fond of food.

If we remember that these men have each killed thousands of people in the Kurukshetra war, these minor character flaws seem too minor to deserve mention.

In the remainder of this article, we will look at some of Arjuna’s transgressions that may have influenced Yama’s decision not to allow him direct access to heaven.

Jealousy against Ekalavya

When he is a young man, Arjuna encounters a Nishada prince called Ekalavya who displays incredible skill with bow and arrow. Arjuna asks the boy who his teacher is, and Ekalavya truthfully replies: ‘I am the student of Dronacharya.’

What Arjuna does not know is that Ekalavya built for himself a statue of Drona and practiced in front of it for years. Thus, Drona is only Ekalavya’s spiritual teacher.

Arjuna returns to the palace and complains to Drona: ‘You promised that you will make me the best archer in the world, and yet you taught that Nishada better.’

This prompts Drona to set out to meet Ekalavya, and in order to keep his promise to Arjuna, he demands Ekalavya’s right thumb as fees for having given him archery lessons.

Ekalavya happily gives up his thumb, and Arjuna keeps his position as the world’s best archer.

Discrimination against Karna

During the graduation ceremony of the Kuru princes, Karna appears for the first time in the story and proceeds to repeat all of Arjuna’s feats in full view of the assembly.

This is a tactic chosen by Karna to draw the attention of all the Kuru elders toward him. But Arjuna views this as a targeted attempt to insult him. Unprovoked, he rises and challenges Karna to a duel.

‘I will confine you to the path of all unwelcome visitors, Karna,’ he says. ‘I will kill you today while our respected elders look on.’

Karna accepts the challenge, and while the two warriors are preparing for battle, Kripa – in an attempt to manage the situation – asks Karna for his lineage.

Duryodhana then steps in and opportunistically wins Karna’s friendship by making him king of Anga. Karna thus becomes an ally to the Kauravas and enemy to the Pandavas.

If Arjuna had taken Karna’s arrival at the ceremony less personally, Karna and Duryodhana may never have become friends.

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 8: Karna Arrives.)

Breaking his vow of celibacy

Arjuna punishes himself with a twelve-year exile during the first year after his marriage to Draupadi. Since his ‘crime’ is that he disturbed the privacy of Yudhishthir and Draupadi, he takes a vow of celibacy, and vows to live a pious life in the company of Brahmins.

But just a few months into the exile, Arjuna is abducted by Ulupi, the Naga princess. He allows himself to be seduced by her. He has a son with her called Iravan.

He then breaks his vow of celibacy twice more: marrying Chitrangada of Manipura and Subhadra of Dwaraka. He also has a son with each of the two princesses.

This breach of a vow may have been considered more serious by Yama than Arjuna’s vanity.

The Khandava Massacre

Shortly after his exile is finished, Arjuna and Krishna team up in clearing out the forest of Khandava in order to build for Yudhishthir the city of Indraprastha.

The official reason for the burning of Khandava is that Agni has a case of indigestion and has secured approval from Brahma to consume the forest. But Indra is stopping Agni in order to protect his best friend, Takshaka.

Agni therefore comes to ask Arjuna and Krishna for help. The two men guard the forest from all directions and protect it from Indra’s invasion. They also ensure that none of the animals in the forest escape Agni’s clutches.

While Arjuna gets rewarded with divine weapons for this help he gives Agni, in the final analysis, this has to go down as a barbarous act. The number of lives that are lost in this incident is incalculable.

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 13: Massacre at Khandava.)

The Killing of Bhishma

On the tenth day of the Mahabharata war, Arjuna uses Shikhandi as a shield in order to attack and defeat Bhishma.

The Pandavas realize on the ninth evening – from Bhishma himself – that the grandsire has forbidden himself from fighting Shikhandi. So on the tenth day, they organize their forces such that Shikhandi is always facing Bhishma. Bhima and Arjuna protect each of Shikhandi’s chariot wheels.

Throughout the day, Shikhandi follows Bhishma wherever he goes and peppers him with arrows. True to his word, Bhishma refuses to fight. He does not shoot in Shikhandi’s direction.

But Shikhandi’s arrows are by themselves not strong enough to kill Bhishma. Arjuna therefore stations himself behind Shikhandi and shoots at his grandfather, progressively crippling him.

Toward the end of the day, Bhishma finally falls on a bed of arrows.

Although Arjuna atones for this sin somewhat by dying at the hands of Babruvahana, it is possible that Yama thinks this act heinous enough to warrant some more punishment.

Shooting at Bhurishrava

On the evening of the fourteenth day of the war, Arjuna intervenes in a battle between Satyaki and Bhurishrava.

The two warriors fight one another for a long time with various weapons, and it comes to a stage where Bhurishrava holds the superior position. He is advancing on an unarmed and fallen Satyaki with a dagger in hand.

Arjuna is busy trying to find a way to Jayadratha, but Krishna tells him: ‘Satyaki needs your help.’

Arjuna arrives on the scene just as Bhurishrava is about to chop Satyaki’s head off. Under the guidance of Krishna, the Pandava shoots at Bhurishrava’s arm from behind, and severs it at the upper arm.

Bhurishrava then argues with Arjuna about how unethical his act was. He relinquishes his weapons and sits down to meditate. Satyaki swoops on this opportunity and slices Bhurishrava’s throat.

What makes all this even more horrible is that Bhurishrava is the son of Somadatta, who is himself the son of Bahlika, Shantanu’s elder brother. Bhurishrava is therefore Arjuna’s uncle.

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 47: Satyaki Kills Bhurishrava.)

Slapping of the Thigh

During the final mace battle between Duryodhana and Bhima, Arjuna asks Krishna about the relative strengths of the two warriors. Krishna replies: ‘Bhima is the stronger of the two, but Duryodhana is more skilled. Bhima cannot defeat Duryodhana in a fair fight.’

Taking his cue, Arjuna then slaps his thigh meaningfully to suggest to Bhima that the time has come to land a few blows under Duryodhana’s waist.

Bhima accepts this with glee, and breaks Duryodhana’s thigh with his mace.

(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 53: Bhima Defeats Duryodhana.)

General Violence

In his capacity as the most powerful archer in the world, Arjuna participates in many battles over the course of his life. Here are a few that we have not mentioned in this post:

  • He leads the Kuru army against the army of Drupada in order to pay Drona’s guru dakshina.
  • He kills the Nivatakavachas in Amaravati, and also frees Hiranyapuri from a band of Rakshasas.
  • He defends the cattle of Matsya during the Virata Parva, singlehandedly routing the Kuru army.
  • In the final battle, he kills many akshauhinis of troops belonging to Duryodhana.

In essence, therefore, Arjuna kills thousands of people on the battlefield. While the justification is that he always fights on the ‘right’ side, Yama may have taken a more stoic view of the matter and said, ‘Killing is killing.’

Further Reading

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