Arjuna (Sanskrit: अर्जुन, IAST: Arjuna) is a protagonist of the Indian epic Mahabharata and also appears in other ancient Hindu mythological texts. In the epic he is described as one of the five sons of Pandu, collectively known as the Pandavas, and was born when his mother, Kunti, invoked the god Indra using a mantra on her husband's request. The family formed part of the royal line of the Kuru Kingdom.

Arjuna is depicted as a skilled archer and wins the hand of Draupadi in marriage. She becomes his first wife and is simultaneously married to Arjuna's brothers. He is twice exiled, first for breaking a pact with his brothers; and secondly together with them when his oldest brother is tricked into gambling away the throne. Some notable incidents during the first exile were Arjuna's involvement in the burning of the Khandava Forest and his marriages with Ulupi, Chitrāngadā and Subhadra. During his second exile, Arjuna gained many celestial weapons. Before the beginning of the Kurukshetra War, Lord Krishna became his charioteer and taught him the sacred knowledge of Gita.[1] In the war, Arjuna defeated and killed many warriors including Bhagadatta, Jayadratha and Karna.

The word Arjuna refers to the character having white skin and clean hands. He is known by many other names, such as:[2][3]

The story of Arjuna is told in the Mahabharata, one of the Sanskrit epics from the Indian subcontinent. The work is written in Classical Sanskrit and is a composite work of revisions, editing and interpolations over many centuries. The oldest parts in the surviving version of the text probably date to about 400 BCE.[4]

The Mahabharata manuscripts exist in numerous versions, wherein the specifics and details of major characters and episodes vary, often significantly. Except for the sections containing the Bhagavad Gita which is remarkably consistent between the numerous manuscripts, the rest of the epic exists in many versions.[5] The differences between the Northern and Southern recensions are particularly significant, with the Southern manuscripts more profuse and longer. Scholars have attempted to construct a critical edition, relying mostly on a study of the "Bombay" edition, the "Poona" edition, the "Calcutta" edition and the "south Indian" editions of the manuscripts. The most accepted version is one prepared by scholars led by Vishnu Sukthankar at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, preserved at Kyoto University, Cambridge University and various Indian universities.[6]

Arjuna was one of the five Pandava brothers of royal lineage, whose collective name derives from their father and heir to the Lunar dynasty, Pandu. However, Pandu was under a curse whereby he would die if he had sexual relations with a woman and thus his sons were conceived by his two wives—Madri and Kunti— with others.[7] According to the legend, Arjuna was a demigod, who was born after his mother Kunti invoked the god Indra using a mantra given by sage Durvasa during her maiden days. She invoked the god on her husband's request.[8][9] Whilst the Devi Bhagavata epic records Arjuna as a reincarnation of a rishi called Nara, the Mahabharata makes no mention of this.[10]

Despite being the younger brother of Dhritarashtra, it was Pandu who succeeded their father as king of Bharata. This was because Dhritarashtra was blind, a disability which caused him to forfeit his right to the royal succession. Dhritarashtra fathered 100 sons, known as the Kaurava brothers, and ascended the throne on the death of Pandu.[11][12] The Pandava brothers were then brought up with their cousins, the Kauravas, and the education of all these boys was supervised by Bhishma.[13] Among their teachers was the brahmin warrior called Drona, who considered Arjuna to be his favourite.[14] According to Swami Parmeshwaranand, Arjuna was Drona's most accomplished pupil. He notes an incident where Drona deemed that out of all his students, none but Arjuna had the steadfast focus to shoot the eye of a toy bird on a tree using a bow and arrow, and that Drona was proven right.[15]

However, George M. Williams considers another pupil, Karna, to have been as capable as Arjuna. Karna had been born to Kunti prior to her marriage with Pandu, conceived with Surya but then abandoned to be raised by a low-caste family. He was thus secretly a half-brother of Arjuna and contrasted with him by being dark-skinned and of low status. As the legend progresses, these classmates become enemies, with Karna and the Kauravas allying against Arjuna and his four brothers.[10]

After the princes completed their training, Arjuna defeated Drupada of Panchala, who was impressed by the prince's skills, as the gurudakshina for his beloved teacher Drona.[16] Later, Duryodhana and his maternal uncle Shakuni planned to burn Pandavas alive along with their mother Kunti. They built a palace out of lac in a village named Varanāvata. The Pandavas, though, managed to escape the house of lac with the help of Vidura through a secret tunnel.[17]

Arjuna is a central character in the Hindu epics and appears in hundreds of situations. Among the most notable is his marriage to Draupadi,[10][18] the fire born daughter of Drupada, who was the king of Panchala.[19]

After the event of Lakshagriha, Arjuna, his mother and brothers decide to hide from Hastinapura. One day, Arjuna comes to know that Drupada is holding an archery tournament to determine who should marry his daughter. The tournament was to lift and string a bow, and fire arrows to pierce the eye of a golden fish only by looking at its reflection in the water. At the Swayamvara, almost all the assorted monarchs were unable to complete the challenge. At the end, Arjuna, dressed as a Brahmin, wins the tournament.[20] Annoyed by their defeat, the kings attack Arjuna, but he defeats them and runs home to tell his mother of his success, shouting "look what we have found". Commentators vary as to whether Kunti thought he was referring to alms found in the forest or to some great prize unknown to her. She tells him that the find must be shared with his brothers, as they had always shared such things in the past. This misunderstanding, combined with the protocol that the oldest of the brothers, Yudhishthira, should marry first, leads to agreement that all five brothers marry her. This is one of the rare examples of polyandry in Sanskrit literature.[10][21] The brothers agreed that none should intrude if Draupadi was alone with one of the others, the penalty for doing so being a year to be spent in exile during which the culprit must remain celibate.[10]

When Arjuna, his siblings, mother and Draupadi returned to Hastinapura, Dhritarashtra determined to avoid a rivalry developing for control of Hastinapur by splitting the kingdom, with half of it being left to his own eldest son, Duryodhana, and half to the eldest son of Pandu, Yudhishthira.[11][12]

Arjuna inadvertently broke the pact with his brothers, intruding as he sought to collect weapons whilst Yudhishthira, was alone with Draupadi. He felt obliged to go into exile despite Yudhishthira's attempts to dissuade him.[19] It was this event that led to him forming a close relationship with his cousin Krishna[a] because he ignored the celibacy condition of the pact[10] and married three people on his travels, the first of whom was a Naga princess named Ulupi, with whom he had a son called Iravan. His second marriage was with a princess of Manipura, Chitrangada, who bore a son named Babhruvahana. The third was with Subhadra, the sister of Krishna. This last event, which took place in Dvaraka,[19] is not the first meeting between Krishna and the Pandavas in the story but it does mark the start of a bond, sealed with the birth of the couple's child, Abhimanyu, whom Krishna adores.[23]

It was while at Indraprastha, the capital city of the Pandavas,[24] for the birth of Abhimanyu that Arjuna and Krishna become involved in what Alf Hiltebeitel describes as "one of the strangest scenes of the epic", this being the burning of the Khandava Forest. This story within a story has been interpreted in various ways.[23]

The essence of this part of the myth is that Arjuna and Krishna are in the forest when they are approached by a hungry person. They agree to help satisfy his hunger, at which point he reveals himself to be Agni, the god of fire. Agni's hunger can only be sated by consuming the entire forest and everything in it but his previous attempts to do this were thwarted by Indra, who is protector of the forest and sent down rains to quench the fire. The cousins agree to fend off Indra and anyone else who might interfere; to this end, Arjuna armed himself with the Gandiva bow and Krishna with his Sudarshana Chakra, weapons suitable for a fight with the gods. They then begin to destroy the forest, battling against Indra and other gods, as well as demons, animals and snakes. Once the forest has gone, after six days of fire and slaughter, Arjuna and Krishna receive thanks from Indra, who had retreated with the other gods part way through the proceedings on being commanded by a mysterious voice to step back and watch.[25]

As heir to the lordship of Kurukshetra, Yudhishthira had attracted the unwelcome attention of his Kaurava cousin, Duryodhana, who sought the throne.[26] The royal consecration involved an elaborate Vedic ceremony called rajasuya which extended over several years and included the playing of a ritualised game of dice.[27] This particular game, described as "Indian literature's most notorious dice game" by Williams,[10] was rigged by Duryodhana, causing Yudhishthira to gamble and lose everything, including his kingdom and his shared wife Draupadi.[21][28] He and his brothers only obtained their freedom because Draupadi offered herself to the Kauravas in exchange. She was then humiliated by them so much that revenge for her treatment became a further motivation for the Pandavas in the rivalry with their cousins.[21] During her humiliation, Karna called her a whore for marrying five men. This led Arjuna to take a vow of killing Karna.[29] The brothers, including Arjuna, were forced into a 12-year exile, to be followed by a year living incognito if Yudhishthira was to regain his kingdom.[28]

While in this exile, Arjuna performed twelve labours. He received instruction in the use of weapons from Parashurama, the sixth avatar of Vishnu, and visited the Himalayas to get celestial weapons that he would be able to use against the Kauravas. Thereafter, he honed his battle skills with a visit to Swarga, the heaven of Indra, where he emerged victorious in a battle with the Daityas and also fought for Indra, his father, with the Gandiva.[8]

After the battle at Khandava, Indra had promised Arjuna to give him all his weapons as a boon for matching him in battle with the requirement that Shiva is pleased with him. During the exile, following the advice of Lord Krishna to go on meditation or tapasya to attain this divine weapon, Arjuna left his brothers for a penance on Indrakeeladri Hill.[31]

When Arjuna was in deep meditation, a wild boar ran towars him. He realised it and took out an arrow and shot it at the boar. But, another arrow had already pierced the boar. Arjuna was furious and he saw a hunter there. He confronted the hunter and they engaged in a fight. After hours of fighting, Arjuna was not able to defeat him and realised that the hunter was Shiva. Shiva was pleased and took his real form. He gave him Pashupatastra and told that the boar was Indra as he wanted to test Arjuna. After gaining the weapon, Indra took him to heaven and gave him many weapons.[32][33]

During his exile Arjuna was invited to the palace of Indra, his father. An apsara named Urvashi was impressed and attracted to Arjuna's look and talent so she expresses her love in front of him. But Arjuna did not have any intentions of making love to Urvashi. Instead he called her “mother”. Because once Urvashi was the wife of King Pururavas the ancestor of Kuru dynasty. Urvashi felt insulted, and cursed Arjuna that he will be a eunuch for the rest of his life. Later on Indra’s request, Urvashi curtailed the curse to a period of one year.[34]

Arjuna spent the last year of exile as a eunuch named Brihannala at King Virata’s Matsya Kingdom. He taught song and dance to the princess Uttara. Later Uttara was married to Arjuna's son Abhimanyu.[35]

The Bhagavad Gita is a book within the Mahabharata that depicts a dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna immediately prior to the commencement of the Kurukshetra War between the Panadavas and Kauravas. According to Richard H. Davis,

The conversation deals with the moral propriety of the war and much else as well. The Gita begins with Arjuna in confusion and despair, dropping his weapons; it ends with Arjuna picking up his bow, all doubts resolved and ready for battle.[36]

Arjuna was a key warrior in Pandava's victory in Kurukshetra War. He killed many powerful and key warriors of Kaurava's side.

After Krishna left his mortal body, Arjuna took the citizens of Dwaraka, including 16,100 wives of Krishna, to Indraprastha. On the way, they were attacked by a group of bandits. Arjuna desisted fighting seeing the law of time.

Upon the onset of the Kali yuga and acting on the advice of Vyasa, Arjuna and other Pandavas retired, leaving the throne to Parikshit (Arjuna's grandson and Abhimanyu's son). Giving up all their belongings and ties, the Pandavas, accompanied by a dog, made their final journey of pilgrimage to the Himalayas. The listener of the Mahabharata is Janamejaya, Parikshit's son and Arjunaś great-grandson.[41]

According to the legends, Arjuna built the Aranmula Parthasarathy Temple during his conquest for Ashwamedh Yagna in South India. Aranmula Parthasarathy Temple is one of the "Divya Desams", the 108 temples of Vishnu revered by the 12 poet saints, or Alwars[42][page needed] located near Aranmula, a village in Pathanamthitta District, Kerala, South India.

Arjuna's extraordinary talents and skills have made him a common name in popular culture.

There have been a serials and films based on Arjuna's life and exploits.