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 marry Ulupi?
During his exile, Arjuna is abducted by Ulupi when he is performing his daily morning routine. Ulupi tells him that she desires to be his wife. When Arjuna tells her that he had taken the vow of celibacy, she counters him by taking a vow that she will kill herself if he refuses to marry her. Thus cornered, Arjuna consents.
Read on to discover more about Arjuna’s marriage to Ulupi.
(For answers to all Arjuna-related questions, see Arjuna: 51 Questions about the Mahabharata Hero Answered.)
Exile of Arjuna
A short while after the wedding of Draupadi to the five Pandavas, Yudhishthir is given a part of the Kuru kingdom – called Khandavaprastha – to rule independently as king. Here, Draupadi becomes his queen.
The Pandavas formulate an agreement between themselves that Draupadi is to be shared on an ad-hoc basis: if one of the husbands desires her company and seeks her out, he is to withdraw respectfully if he already finds her with another brother.
Soon after the conflagration of Khandava – which adds valuable real estate to Yudhishthir’s new kingdom – Arjuna inadvertently ventures into Yudhishthir’s room when the latter is privately consorting with Draupadi.
Neither Draupadi nor Yudhishthir is offended at the slight, but Arjuna insists on imposing upon himself a twelve-year long exile, during which he proposes to live a life of purity and chastity in the company of pious sages.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 14: Exile of Arjuna.)
Reasons for Arjuna’s Exile
Though the ostensible reason for Arjuna’s exile is atonement for the sin of breaking the Draupadi-sharing pact, there may be some hidden reasons too. Here are a couple:
- Arjuna is unhappy with the manner in which he is expected to share Draupadi with the rest of his brothers. He goes on this exile as either a protest or as a way to distance himself so as to cope better with the matter.
- As a new king, Yudhishthir does not have allies of his own at this point. Arjuna seeks to visit the kingdoms of the world and carry to them messages of friendship from Yudhishthir, thus creating their first geopolitical alliances.
Having said this, however, we must stress on the fact that at the time of leaving from Khandavaprastha, Arjuna has every intention to be celibate during his trip. To the extent that he wishes to form alliances, he harbours no wish to be married.
During the first few months of his exile, when Arjuna and a few Brahmins assemble at the origin point of the Ganga to offer their morning prayers, a Naga princess called Ulupi abducts him and carries him underwater to the land of her father, Kauravya.
Arjuna is quite unperturbed by this all. He completes his daily rituals in worship of Agni, and then addresses the maiden.
‘Who are you, timid one?’ he says. ‘And why have you brought me here?’
‘I am the daughter of King Kauravya, O Prince, and they call me Ulupi,’ replies the girl. ‘The moment I saw you, the god of desire has shot his arrows into my heart, and I wish for you to be my husband.’
Arjuna tells Ulupi about his vow of celibacy. ‘I am afraid that cannot be, Princess,’ he says. ‘I have taken the vow of celibacy for the mistake I committed. Is there any way I can give you pleasure while staying true to my word?’
I know the circumstances that have led to your exile, Arjuna,’ says Ulupi. ‘And it is true that if you break your vow of celibacy, your austerities will suffer a small dent.
‘But if you do not satisfy my desire, I promise you that I shall consign myself to flames, and then your practice will suffer a great deal more because you will have the death of a Naga maiden hanging about your heart.
‘Also, O sinless one, you are a married man. Your celibacy has already been broken once. The strength of such a vow taken by a married man is not significant, O Prince, because it is taken for the sake of your wife.
‘Whoever has heard of a Brahmachari who has to remain so out of respect for his wife?’
Armed with this double-edged argument, Ulupi proposes to Arjuna that he take her as his lover for one night. The morning after, Arjuna returns to his hermitage by the Ganga.
As a parting gift, Ulupi gives him a boon that he will become invincible in water, never to be defeated by any amphibious creature.
A Son Named Iravan
This does not quite count as a marriage, because Arjuna does not wed Ulupi according to any known rites or rituals. However, their union does result in a son named Iravan, who grows up with his mother and succeeds Kauravya as a Naga chief.
Despite this, Ulupi is considered to be Arjuna’s wife. She does not take any other man as her husband after Arjuna’s departure. So we may surmise that they married each other by the Gandharva code.
(The ‘Gandharva’ code is when a man and a woman accept one another as husband and wife with ‘only the elements as witnesses’. This sort of marriage is often used by eager kings desperate to seduce unsuspecting maidens. In the case of Arjuna, it is Ulupi who suggests it and Arjuna who consents.)
Iravan leads a small Naga army into battle at Kurukshetra on the side of the Pandavas. He dies at the hands of the Rakshasa Alambusha on the eighth day of the war.
In some retellings of the Mahabharata, Iravan is sacrificed before the war in order to ensure the Pandavas’ victory. When Iravan expresses a reluctance to die a virgin, Krishna assumes his form as Mohini and sleeps with Iravan the night before he is killed.
Mohini also mourns Iravan’s death for a full thirteen days, as if she were his true wife. Krishna then returns to his normal form and drives Arjuna’s chariot into battle.
Marriage to Ulupi helps Arjuna in another way after the Mahabharata war ends.
Ulupi happens to overhear Ganga tell the elemental gods angrily that Arjuna will pay for the manner in which he killed Bhishma. Ulupi then arranges it so that Arjuna and Babruvahana fight each other outside the city of Manipura during Yudhishthir’s Ashwamedha sacrifice.
(Suggested: Mahabharata Episode 57: Arjuna Fights Babruvahana.)
In this battle, Babruvahana kills Arjuna, but Ulupi revives him with her magic. She also tells Arjuna that his title of ‘Vijaya’ is not rendered obsolete because of this loss because a man’s son is considered a version of himself.
‘You have only lost to yourself therefore, my lord,’ she says. ‘You therefore still deserve your title. And you have now also atoned for the sin of killing Bhishma unjustly during the war.’
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