Arjuna’s story was one of the best known in Hindu mythology, yet it is fully intelligible only if one is familiar with the many other stories related to it. It is nested in or overlaps with the story of the great Bharata war, the story of Krishna, the story of Krishna’s mother, Kuntî, and with the other larger stories, many of which are told in the Bhagavad Gîtâ and the Mahâbhârata. Kuntî received a mantra (magical formula) from the sage Durvâsa as a fivefold boon so that she could become the mother of a son from any deva she thought about as she chanted the mantra.
Before marriage she tried one of its five uses and gave birth to Karna by the sun god Sûrya. But Kuntî abandoned Karna, and he was raised by a low-caste family without knowledge of his miraculous birth. After marriage, with the permission of her sick husband Pandu, Kuntî used the boon three times and gave birth to three more sons: Dharmaputra (or Yudhishthira) from Yama (god of death), Bhîma from Vâyu (wind god), and Arjuna from Indra (king of the gods and god of war).
She gave the fifth use of the mantra to Mâdrî, the other wife of her husband. Mâdrî thought upon the As´vins as she chanted and gave birth to twins, Nakula and Sahadeva. These five sons became know as the five sons of Pandu (the Pandavas). In the Devî Bhâgavata Arjuna is said to be the reincarnation of the rishi called Nara. But this twist in the story is not part of the narrative in the Mahâbhârata.
Arjuna, his brothers, and their one hundred cousins, who were known collectively as the Kauravas, received training in archery from the great master (acarya) Drona. Arjuna surpassed everyone except the dark-skinned and lowcaste Karna, Arjuna’s unknown half-brother. Karna later became allied with and the champion of the Kauravas, who had become the enemies of the Pandavas.
Three episodes about Arjuna stand out of the hundreds nested in the Mahâbhârata: Arjuna’s marriage to Draupadî, the loss of the kingdom to the Kauravas, and the single episode told in the Bhagavad Gîtâ. Arjuna won the hand of the princess Draupadî in an archery tournament, and when he announced to his mother that he had won a great prize, she declared that the prize must be shared equally with his brothers as always. Obediently, Draupadî married all five brothers, but Arjuna was her favorite.
The brothers agreed that none could intrude upon the brother who was alone with Draupadî on pain of a one-year exile of celibacy. By mistake Arjuna broke the agreement and went into exile. But he did not remain celibate and married three more times. The most interesting of these was the marriage to his cousin Krishna’s sister, Subhadrâ.
She bore him a son whom they named Abhimanyu, who died on the plains of Kurukshetra in the great war. This exile was the beginning of the epic relationship between Arjuna and his cousin Krishna. Together they destroyed the Khândava Forest to appease the god of fire (Agni), riding on two chariots as “the two Krishnas.”
A nested story told how they were the seers Nara and Nârâyana in a previous life. Nara has his own myth as the cosmic man, or the original soul (purusha). Nârâyana would metaphysically connect Krishna with the cosmic form of Vishnu. This warrior pair joined again for the greatest of all battles on the fields of Kurukshetra, with Krishna as Arjuna’s charioteer, the two Krishnas in one chariot.
The great war had so many causes that the storytellers nested one myth inside another to create the world’s longest epic, the Mahâbhârata. At the same time the theme was simple and understandable. The Pandavas had been cheated out of their kingdom by the evil of their cousins, the Kauravas. The eldest Pandava, Yudhishthira, lost everything including Draupadî in Indian literature’s most notorious dice game.
Draupadî would have been stripped naked in the great hall had not divine intervention provided an infinite amount of material to her sari. This humiliation of their joint wife would be avenged. Now all the Pandavas were exiled from their kingdom. Arjuna used the time of this exile to further prepare as a warrior. He performed severe austerities (tapas) to S´iva and was granted use of the doomsday weapon (a divine bow and missiles that destroyed his enemies).
He was even transported to heaven and taught by his father, Indra, god of war. Arjuna became a celibate dance instructor—an episode that associated him with S´iva, who was lord of the dance. Later in the great war Arjuna danced on his chariot and saw S´iva as the real agent of the destruction before him. Arjuna’s most famous moment, one of the most loved in Hindu mythology, was a single episode in the great war, the episode described in the Bhagavad Gîtâ.
Arjuna had lost heart as a warrior and questioned whether he should fulfill his duty (dharma) as a warrior. He refused to continue a fight that would mean killing of family and friends and incurring sin. Krishna argued with little success until he appeared in his true nature as the supreme lord of the universe— as Vishnu. Arjuna was taught that he must do his duty, he must act without attachment to results, and he must offer all the fruits of his actions to the divine in loving devotion.
Thus even in killing he would be free of sin. Arjuna’s belated recognition of the charioteer Krishna as Vishnu, the supreme lord of the universe, earned for him a place in Vaishnava mythology as the role model for all true devotees (bhaktas). But Arjuna transcended any narrow sectarianism. He became a pan-Indian example of one who does their caste duty (varna-dharma).
He fought for a just and righteous society based on the rules of the Hindu tradition. He was an ideal husband, whose karma (in the sense of previous actions) earned a marriage with the Goddess in her incarnated form as Draupadî. He was the ideal human, connected to the divine as son of Indra, as pupil of S´iva, and as the friend of Krishna, the incarnation (avatâra) of Vishnu.