Arjun or Partha was a master archer and played a central role in the conflict between the Pandavas and their adversaries, the sons of Dhritarashtra known as the Kauravas. To begin with, Arjun was reluctant to take part in battle because of the slaughter he knew he would cause in the enemy ranks, which included many of his own relatives. He was persuaded by his charioteer and close friend Lord Krishna, to change his mind. Their dialogue about issues involved in war—courage, a warrior’s duty, the nature of human life and the soul, and the role of Gods—forms the subject of the Bhagavad Gita, one of the key episodes in the epic Mahābhārata. He also played the key role in killing Karna, his arch-rival, in reality an unknown brother, on the side of the Kauravas.
It is asserted by some sources that the legend of "Ārash, the Parthian Archer" in Persian mythology bears some resemblance to that of Arjuna; this is cited by some as being reminiscent of a shared Indo-Iranian heritage. However, Arjun is an integral part of the Mahābhārata and one of its lead characters. The other central characters in the story are not mentioned in the story of Arash. Lastly, Indian scientists have discovered what they claim to be Dwaraka, or Krishna's city, indicating that the Mahābhārata may indeed have a link to actual events in Indian history, as opposed to being a mythological tale.
He bears a total of ten names: Arjun, Phalgun, Jishnu, Keeriti, Shwetvaahan, Vibhatsu, Vijaya, Pārth, Savyasachinn (also referred as Sabyasachi), and Dhananjaya. When he is asked to say his ten names as a proof of his identity:
"My ten names are - Arjun, Phalgun, Jishnu, Keeriti, Shwetvaahan, Vibhatsu, Vijaya, Parth, Savyashachee and Dhananjaya. I was called Dhanajaya when I conquered all the kings at the time of Rājsooya Yajna and collected wealth from all of them. I always fight till the end and I always win, that is why I am called Vijaya. My horses which were given to me by Agni Dev are white, that is why I am called Shwetavāhana. My father Indra gave me a beautiful crown when I was with Him, that is why I am called Kiriti. I have never fought by unfair means in any battle that is why I am called Jishnu. I never frighten my enemies by meanness, I can use my both hands when I shoot my arrows, that is why I am called Savyashachee. My complexion is unique like the Arjun tree, and my name is stainless, that is why I am named Arjun. I was born on the slopes of Himvaan in a place called Satsring on a day when the Nakshatra Uttara Phalgunī was in ascent, that is why my name is Phaalgun. I am called Vibhatsu because I am terrible when I am angry. My mother's name is Prithaa, so I am also called Paarth. I have taken an oath that I will destroy that person (and his kinsmen) who hurts my brother Yudhishthira and spills his blood on Earth. I cannot be defeated by anyone." (Mahabharat)
Pandu was unable to sire a child. His first wife Kunti had, in her maiden days, received a boon from sage Kindamb, which enabled her to invoke any deity of her choice and beget a child by such deity. Pandu and Kunti decided to make use of this boon; Kunti invoked in turn Yama Dharmaraja, Vayu and Indra and gave birth to three sons. Arjuna was the third son, born of Indra, king of the demi gods (devas).
Arjuna is depicted as a wholesome and well-rounded personality, a healthy mind in a healthy body, a person whom any mother, wife and friend would cherish and be proud of. The son of Indra, Arjuna is said to have been well-built and extremely handsome; he married four times, as detailed here. Arjuna was also true and loyal to his friends (his best friend was the great warrior Satyaki); he enjoyed a life-long rapport with his cousin and brother-in-law, Sri Krishna. He was also sensitive and thoughtful, as demonstrated by his misgivings about the Kurukshetra war, which caused Sri Krishna to impart the Gita to him. His sense of duty was acute; he once chose to go into exile rather than refuse to help a brahmin subject, a story detailed elsewhere.
It is as a warrior that Arjuna is best known. The foundation for his career as a warrior was laid young; Arjuna was an outstanding and diligent student, learning everything that his guru Dronacharya could teach him, and early attaining the status of "Maharathi" or outstanding warrior. Guru Dronacharya once decided to test his students. He hung a wooden bird from the branch of a tree and then summoned his students. One by one, he asked his students to aim for the eye of the wooden bird and be ready to shoot; then, when they were ready, he would ask the student to describe all that he was able to see. The students generally described the garden, the tree, flowers, the branch from which the bird was suspended and the bird itself. Guru Dronacharya then asked them to step aside. When asked what he could see, Arjuna told his Guru that he could only see the bird's eye. Another story says that Arjuna once noticed brother Bheema, who was a voracious eater, eating in the dark as though it was daylight, and realized that if he could practice archery in the dark he would become vastly more proficient.
His skill in archery was to have an unlikely utility; it won him the hand of Draupadi, his first wife, the daughter of Drupada, king of Panchala. A contest was held by Drupada to choose a suitable match for his daughter. A wooden fish was suspended high above a pool of water; furthermore, the fish rotated in a circle. Contestants were required to string a heavy bow and then use it to hit the eye of the rotating fish. They were allowed to take aim at the eye of the fish only by looking at its reflection in the pool of water. Many princes and noblemen vied for the hand of the princess of Panchala. Some (including Karna, another hero of the Mahābhārata) were disqualified on grounds of supposedly low birth. However, although the Pandavas and their mother were in hiding at that time, Arjuna had prudently dressed as a high-caste Brahmin and was allowed to compete. This was just as well, since it was eventually Arjuna, the peerless archer, who alone was able to accomplish the set task; he won the hand of Draupadi.
All the five Pandava brothers had attended the tournament without informing Kunti, their mother, about it. They returned home in triumph, bringing the princess Draupadi with them. From outside the house, they shouted out to their mother: "Mother, you will never believe what we have got here! Make a guess!" Busy with her work, Kunti refused to be baited. "Whatever it is, share it between yourselves equally, and do not quarrel over the matter," she said. So seriously did the brothers take even this casual statement of their mother, that they resolved upon making Draupadi their common wife. It says something about the magnanimity of Arjuna that, having won his bride single-handedly, he 'shared' her with all his brothers willingly. One possible reason he took this action was to prevent any breach or jealousy arising between the brothers. However, despite marrying all five brothers, Draupadi loved Arjun the most and always favoured him. And Arjun loved Draupadi the most out of his four wives. There is another story about Draupadi, which mentions the boon she received in her previous birth of having five of the most desired men, as her husbands. Initially Draupadi's parents didn't agree to her marriage to all the Pandavas. But when he was told about this boon she had, King Drupad agreed.
The brothers agreed upon a protocol governing their relations with Draupadi, their common wife. An important point of this agreement was that no brother would disturb the couple when another brother was alone with Draupadi; the penalty for doing so was exile for a year. Once, when the Pandavas were still ruling over a prosperous Indraprastha, a brahmin came in great agitation to Arjuna and sought his help: a pack of cattle-thieves had seized his herd, he had recourse to none but Arjuna for a remedy. Arjuna was in a dilemma: his weaponry was in the room where Draupadi and Yudhishthira were alone together, and disturbing them would incur the penalty agreed upon. Arjuna hesitated for but a moment; in his mind, coming to the aid of his subject in distress, especially a brahmin, was the raison d'etre of a prince. The prospect of exile did not deter him from fulfilling the duty of aiding the brahmin; he disturbed the conjugal couple, took up his weaponry and rode forth to subdue the cattle-thieves. Upon finishing that task, he insisted, in the teeth of opposition from his entire family, including the two people whom he had disturbed, upon going away on exile.
Apart from Draupadi, Arjuna was the husband of three other ladies, namely Chitrangada, Uluchi and Subhadra. All of these events occurred during the period when he went into exile alone after having disturbed Draupadi and Yudhishthira in their private apartments.
Chitrangada: Arjuna travelled the length and breadth of India during his term of exile. His wanderings took him to ancient Manipur in the eastern Himalayas, an almost mystic kingdom renowned for its natural beauty. Here he met the gentle Chitrangada, daughter of the king of Manipur, and was moved to seek her hand in marriage. Her father the king demurred on the plea that, according to the matrilineal customs of his people, the children born of Chitrangada were heir to Manipur; he could not allow his heirs to be taken away from Manipur by their father. Arjuna agreed to the stipulation that he would take away neither his wife Chitrangada nor any children borne by her from Manipur, and wed the princess on this premise. A son, whom they named Babruvahana, was soon born to the happy couple--he would succeed his grandfather as King of Manipur.
Uluchi: While Arjuna was in Manipur, Uluchi, a Naga princess of otherwise noble character, became infatuated of him. She caused him to be abducted after he had been intoxicated with potent concoctions; she had him conveyed to her realm in the netherworld. Here, uluchi induced an unwilling Arjuna to take her for wife. Later, the large-hearted Uluchi restored Arjuna to the lamenting Chitrangada. Uluchi later did much to further the comfort and happiness not only of Arjuna, but also of Chitrangada and the young Babruvahana. She played a very major part in the upbringing of Babruvahana; she enjoyed much influence over him, and was eventually also to restore Arjuna to life after he was slain in battle by Babruvahana.
Subhadra: Arjuna decided to spend the last portion of his term of exile in an orchard near Dwaraka, the residence of his cousins Balarama, Krishna and Subhadra, who were the children of his maternal uncle Vasudeva. Here, he and his cousin Subhadra fell in love with each other. This matter was abetted by Krishna, who had always been particularly attached to Arjuna, and wished nothing but the best for his sister Subhadra. Knowing that the entire family would view with disfavour the prospect of Subhadra becoming the fourth wife of her cousin Arjuna, Krishna facilitated the elopement of the couple and their departure for Indraprastha. In a twist to the tale, at Krishna's advice, it was Subhadra who drove the chariot from Dwaraka to Indraprastha. Krishna used this fact to persuade his family that Subhadra had not been abducted; on the contrary, it was she who had kidnapped Arjuna.
A single son, Abhimanyu, was born to Arjuna and Subhadra. Parikshita, son of Abhimanyu and Uttarā, born after Abhimanyu was killed in the battlefield, was destined to be the sole surviving dynast of the entire Kuru clan, and succeeded Yudhistra as the emperor of the Pandava kingdom
Shortly after his return to Indraprastha, Arjuna visits the Khandava forest with Krishna. There they encounter Agni, the fire-god. He has become wan from consuming too much ghee as a result of one king who is performing far too many 'yagnas' (ritual invocations with fire), and feeding ghee to Agni. He asks for Arjuna and Krishna's help in consuming the forest in its entirety to restore him to health. Takshaka the serpent-king, a friend of Indra's, resides in it and Indra thus causes rain whenever Agni tries to burn this forest. Arjuna tells him that while he has training in the divine weapons, to withstand the power of Indra's astras he must have an exceptionally powerful bow, an unbreakable one. Agni then invokes Varuna, and then gives Arjuna the Gandiva, an incredibly powerful bow, which gave its user sure victory in battle. This bow plays a great role in Arjuna's battles to come. Additionally, he also gives Arjuna a divine chariot, with powerful white horses that do not tire, and are unwounded by normal weapons.
Arjuna tells Agni to proceed, and fights a duel with his father in the process, a battle that lasts several days and nights. A voice from the sky proclaims Arjuna and Krishna the victors, and tells Indra to withdraw.
In the burning of the forest, Arjuna chose to spare one Asura, named Maya, who was a gifted architect. In his gratitude, Maya built Yudhishtra a magnificent royal hall, unparalleled in the world. It is this hall, which triggers the pinnacle of Duryodhana's envy, causing the game of dice to be played.
After Arjuna's return to Indraprastha, several crucial incidents described in the Mahābhārata took place, culminating in the exile of all the five Pandava brothers and of their common wife Draupadi. Arjuna's training during this period is particularly significant in the war to come.
Pashupata: During the fifth year of their exile, Arjuna leaves the others and proceeds to the Himalayas to do tapas to Lord Shiva, to obtain the Pashupata, Shiva's personal astra (i.e. "weapon"), one so powerful as to lack any counter-astra. Arjuna performs penance for a long time. Shiva, pleased with his penance, decides to test him further. He causes an asura in the shape of a large wild boar to disturb Arjuna's penance. Incensed at the boar, Arjuna chases it, and shoots an arrow at it to kill. At the same instant, another arrow from the bow of a rude hunter (Shiva) also hits the boar. The hunter and Arjuna, with the pride of warriors, argue about whose arrow killed the boar. This leads to an intense duel between the two. The hunter soon deprives Arjuna of all his weapons. Arjuna, who feels ashamed at this defeat, turns to the Shivalinga, that he has been worshipping during his penance, and offers it some flowers in prayer, only to find that the flowers have magically appeared on the body of the hunter instead. Arjuna realizes the hunter's identity, and falls at Shiva's feet. Shiva subsequently grants him knowledge of the Pasupata.
After obtaining this astra, he then proceeds to Indraloka (heaven), spending time with his biological father Indra, and acquiring further training from the devas. Additionally, he destroys the Nivatakavachas and Kalakeyas - two powerful asura clans that resided in the skies, and menaced the gods. The clans had obtained boons from Brahma as to be undefeatable by gods. Arjuna, being a mortal man, could destroy them with his training.
Urvashi's curse: While in Indraloka, Arjuna was propositioned by the apsara (celestial danseuse) Urvashi. Urvashi had once been married to a king named Pururavas, and had borne a son named Ayus from that liaison; Ayus was a distant forbear of Arjuna, hence he regarded Urvashi as a mother. Arjuna reminded Urvashi of this connection while rejecting her advances. Another belief says that since Indra was Arjuna's father and Urvashi was an apsara in Indra's court, so Urvashi is more like a motherly figure for him. Urvashi got annoyed at this rejection, saying Arjuna has insulted by spurning her advances. Urvashi rebuked Arjuna and told him that a danseuse is not concerned with earthly relations of any sort. Yet Arjuna could not overcome his scruples; "I am a child in front of you," he said. Chagrined at this response, Urvashi cursed Arjuna with impotence. Because Indra told her to reduce the curse, she modified her curse to last only one year, and Arjuna could choose any one year of his life during which to suffer the life of a eunuch. This curse proved fortuitous; Arjuna used it as a very effective disguise for the period of one year when he, his brothers and Draupadi all lived incognito while in exile.
After spending 12 years in the forest, the Pandavas spent the thirteenth year of exile incognito, as stipulated by their agreement with the Kauravas. This year is spent by them in disguise at the court of King Virāta. Arjuna made use of the curse put on him by the apsara Urvashi and chose this year in which to live the life of a eunuch. He assumed the name Brihannala. At the end of one year, Arjuna single-handedly defeated a Kaurava host that had invaded Virāta's kingdom. In appreciation of this valour, and being appraised of the true identity of the Pandavas, King Virāta offered the hand of his daughter Uttarā to Arjuna. Arjuna demurred on grounds of age as well as that Uttarā was like a daughter to him, owing to his having been (as a eunuch) her tutor in song and dance. He proposed that Uttarā should marry his young son Abhimanyu. This wedding duly took place; the posthumous son born of that union was destined to be the sole surviving dynast of the entire Kuru clan.
In addition to the guidance of and personal attention from Krishna, Arjuna had the support of Hanuman during the great battle of Kurukshetra.
Arjuna entered the battlefield with the flag of Hanuman on his chariot. The incident that led to this was an earlier encounter between Hanuman and Arjuna; Hanuman appeared as a small talking monkey before Arjuna at Rameshwaram, where Sri Rama had built the great bridge to cross over to Lanka to rescue Sita. Upon Arjuna's wondering out aloud at Sri Rama's taking the help of "monkeys" rather than building a bridge of arrows, Hanuman (in the form of the little monkey) challenged him to build one capable of bearing him alone. Unaware of the monkey's true identity, Arjuna accepted the challenge. Hanuman then proceeded to repeatedly destroy the bridges made by Arjuna who became depressed and suicidal, and decided to take his own life. Vishnu then appeared before them both, chiding Arjuna for his vanity, and Hanuman for making the accomplished warrior Arjuna feel incompetent. As an act of 'penitence', Hanuman agreed to help Arjuna by stabilizing and strengthening his chariot during the then-likely great battle.
Upon finishing the period of their exile, the Pandavas seek the return of their kingdom from the Kauravas, who refuse to honour the terms of the agreement. War breaks out.
The Bhagavad Gita:
Krishna's elder step brother Balarama, ruler of Dwaraka, decides not to take sides in the war, as both Kauravas and Pandavas are kinsmen of the Yadavas. However, Krishna in his personal capacity decides to be near Arjuna and protect him. Krishna becomes Arjuna's personal charioteer during the 18-day war and protects Arjuna upon numerous occasions from injury and death. The term "Charioteer" in connection to Krishna is interpreted as "One who guides" or "One who shows the way"; apart from protecting Arjuna from all mishap, Krishna also showed Arjuna the righteous way by revealing the Bhagavad Gita to him in the hours immediately preceding the start of battle.
This happened thus: As the two armies fell into battle-formation and faced each other on the battlefield, Arjuna's heart grew heavy. He saw arrayed before him his own kinsfolk; the elders of his clan on whose knees he had once been dandled as a child; the very guru Dronacharya who first taught him to wield the bow all those decades ago. Will it be worthwhile, he asked himself, to annihilate his own kindred for the sake of a kingdom? Arjuna sees his spirit faltering at this crucial juncture just as the war is about to begin; he resorts to Krishna for guidance.
It is at this juncture that Lord Krishna reveals the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna. This is one of the most revered of Hindu texts. In it, Krishna deems it Arjuna's duty to struggle to uphold righteousness, without consideration of personal loss, consequence or reward; the discharge of one's moral duty, he says, supersedes all other pursuits, whether spiritual and material, in life.
The Bhagavad Gita is a record of the conversation between Lord Krishna and Arjuna. The relationship between Arjuna and Krishna is representative of what is ideal for all mankind: Man guided by God. The Bhagavad Gita records the Lord comforting and guiding a mortal who is facing a terrible moral crisis, and is an important scripture in Hinduism.
The Kurukshetra war:
Thus fortified in his belief of the righteousness of his chosen course of action, Arjuna takes up arms and essays a vastly important role in the winning of the war by the Pandavas.
Arjuna killed his uterine brother Karna, another formidable warrior who was fighting in aid of the Kauravas against the Pandavas. This act of fratricide was committed by him while in ignorance of the relationship. Karna and Arjuna form a terrible rivalry when Karna seeks to revenge himself upon Arjuna's guru and the princely order for casting him out and humiliating him. Arjuna is further provoked when Karna insults Arjuna and the other Pandava's wife Draupadi and has an indirect role in the murder of Arjuna's son Abhimanyu in battle. They both bring this terrible and personal rivalry to a climactic battle of terrifying proportions. For a long, long time, powerful weapons are discharged by the two warriors at terrifying pace without relent. The prowess and courage of both is marvelled by the millions of other soldiers. Karna knowing that he cannot kill Arjuna by any means he takes out his snake arrow to kill Arjuna. He uses this snake arrow against arjuna but snake aswasena whose mother was killed by arjuna enters that arrow and tries to kill Arjuna. But the Lord Krishna saves his friend and devotee Arjuna at this crucial juncture. Then Arjuna becomes mad with anger and shame and rains innumerable arrows at Karna and wounds him .Then Arjuna is urged by Lord Krishna to kill Karna when he is attempting to raise his chariot, reminding him of Karna's own apparent lack of mercy and regard for the rules of war in the killing of Arjuna's son Abhimanyu in a terrible and brutal fashion. Arjuna thus kills Karna. In the end Karna's sins doom him, marking another instance in the Mahābhārata of how an individual's actions serve to mark his destiny, and the need to lead a virtuous life.
In another memorable battle, it was Arjuna who annihilated a whole akshouhini, or hundreds of thousands (109,350) of Kaurava soldiers in one day to avenge the terrible murder of his son Abhimanyu, who was killed by all of the strongest warriors of the Kaurava Army, attacking simultaneously and especially when Abhimanyu was exhausted and deprived of weapons and trapped in a formation impossible for anyone save the Kuru general Drona, Arjuna, Krishna and Krishna's son Pradyumna to escape from. Having pledged to enter the fire if he failed to kill the Sindhu king Jayadratha, whom he held principally responsible, by the end of the day, Arjuna in the process kills an entire akshauhini, or more than hundreds of thousands of soldiers. In the climactic moment, the sun is close to setting and thousands of warriors still separate Arjuna and Jayadratha. Seeing his friend's plight, the Lord Krishna, his charioteer, raises his Sudarshana Chakra to cover the Sun, faking a sunset. The Kaurava warriors rejoice over Arjuna's defeat and imminent death, and Jayadratha is exposed in a crucial moment, where upon the Lord's urging, Arjuna sets loose a powerful arrow that decapitates Jayadratha. This note of the act of protection of Krishna of his righteous friend and disciple will be incomplete without adding that Jayadratha's father, the old and sinful king Vridhakshtra had blessed his son that anyone who caused his head to fall to the ground would cause his own head to burst. Jayadratha's head is carried by the arrow to his own father's hands, who was meditating near the battlefield; who in his shock drops the head and himself dies of his own blessing.
After the conclusion of the war, the Pandavas take charge of Hastinapura, the undivided realm of their ancestors. Their great victory, the wide support they gained for their cause and the defeat of the many kings who had supported the Kauravas, all unite to make them feel that the time is right to hazard a further venture: the performance of the Asvamedha Yagna, or "horse sacrifice", whereafter the title of Chakravarti ("Emperor") may be assumed. The sacrifice required that after preliminary rituals, a horse is let loose to wander where it will. The kings upon whose lands the horse wanders all have a choice: they may either accept the master of the horse (in this case, Yudishthira, eldest of the Pandavas) as their own leige lord and offer their submission to him, or they may offer resistance and wage war. Arjuna led the armed host which followed the horse around its random wanderings. He had occasion to receive the submission of many kings, either without or following an armed confrontation. He was thus instrumental in the expansion of the Pandava domains.
His war campaign into the Uttarapatha resulted in the reduction of over thirty tribes/Kingdoms including those of Pragjyotisha, Uluka, Modapura, Vamadeva, Sudaman, Susankula, Northern Uluka, Puru kingdom of Viswagaswa, Utsava-Sanketa, Lohita, Trigarta, Darava, Abhisara, Kokonada, Ursa, Simhapura, Suhma, Sumala, Balhika, Darada, Kamboja. Thence after reducing the robber tribes of the mountains, Arjuna landed into Transoxiana region (Sakadvipa or Scythia) and conquers the Lohas, Parama Kambojas, Northern Rishikas (or Parama Rishikas), Limpurushas, Haratakas, Gandharvas and the Uttarakurus etc.
In course of time, the Pandava brothers decide, at an advanced age, to renounce the world. They entrust the kingdom to Parikshita, the son of Abhimanyu and grandson of Arjuna. The Pandavas, including Arjuna, then retire to the Himalayas and eventually depart the world.