ARJUNA . Of the Pāṇḍavas, the five sons of Pāṇḍu in the Mahābhārata, Arjuna is the third oldest, or "middle" Pāṇḍava. He is the youngest son of Kuntī, mother of the three oldest brothers. All five are only putatively Pāṇḍu's sons, for each had been sired by a god whom the mother invoked in consultation with Pāṇḍu, who had been cursed not to have sexual relations on pain of death. Unbeknownst to the Pāṇḍavas, there is also a sixth brother, Karṇa, whom Kuntī had abandoned in her youth. Arjuna is the son of Indra, king of the gods, and Karṇa is the son of the sun god Sūrya.
For Arjuna's conception, Pāṇḍu performs special tapas (ascetic acts) to gain Indra's cooperation in siring his best son. At the infant's birth, a heavenly voice announces his glory and forecasts his success, predicting that he will perform three sacrifices. Arjuna rather than his eldest known brother, Yudhiṣṭhira, will be the chief sacrificer (yajamāna ) in the sacrificial acts that connect the story. Thus, one of Arjuna's names is Kirīṭin ("the crowned one"). Furthermore, it will be through Arjuna's son Abhimanyu that the royal lineage will continue. But the Pāṇḍavas will also act in concert, presenting a refracted image of the ideal king and sacrificer.
Arjuna, his brothers, and their cousins the Kauravas study weaponry with the brahman Droṇa. Arjuna becomes his best pupil and receives instruction in using the doomsday weapon of Śiva—the Brahmaśiras, or "Head of Brahmā." But when it comes time to display his prowess in a tournament, Arjuna is matched by his unknown brother Karṇa, who from this point on becomes the champion of the Kauravas.
Deepening dimensions of Arjuna's role are now conveyed in three episodes: the marriage of Draupadī, Arjuna's sojourn in the forest, and the burning of Khāṇḍdava Forest. In the first episode, he succeeds where all others have failed in an archery feat that wins him the hand of the fire-born Draupadī, incarnation of the goddess Śri (Prosperity), who in her dark aspect as Kṛṣṇa ("black lady") is also the epic's personification of the goddess of destruction. Although Draupadī soon weds all five Pāṇḍavas, Arjuna remains her favorite. Next, because of his violation of an agreement among the brothers never to intrude when any one of them is alone with Draupadī, Arjuna is banished for twelve years. He is supposed to be a celibate (brahmacārin ), but he nonetheless contracts three additional marriages during this period, the last to his cross-cousin Kṛṣṇa's sister Subhadrā. She will bear him Abhimanyu. Arjuna then consolidates his relation with Kṛṣṇa and they destroy Khāṇdava Forest, each on a separate chariot, to sate the god Agni (Fire). Here one learns that in former lives Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa were the ṛṣis Nara ("man," perhaps also "soul," or puruṣa ) and Nārāyaṇa (a cosmic form of Visnu). Furthermore, this passage introduces them as "the two Kṛṣṇas," a foreshadowing of the war in which they will be known as "the two Kṛṣṇas on one chariot," especially in reference to their chariot duel with Arjuna's brother Karṇa.
Thus Kṛṣṇa shares his name not only with the goddess Draupadī-Kṛṣṇa, but with Arjuna. Arjuna itself means "silver" or "white," and the name Kṛṣṇa evokes opposite dimensions. The name they share links all three in the destructive tasks they must undertake to inaugurate the "sacrifice of battle."
In the two episodes in which Arjuna next figures prominently, he prepares himself for battle in ways that show deepening connections with the destructive Śiva. During the Pāṇḍavas' exile after the disastrous dice match with the Kauravas, Arjuna performs tapas to Śiva until the god appears to grant Arjuna's use of the doomsday weapon. Śiva's touch permits Arjuna to ascend to heaven, where he is further instructed by Indra. Later, when the Pāṇḍavas disguise themselves in their thirteenth year of exile, Arjuna becomes a eunuch dancing instructor, recalling myths of Śiva's castration and his lordship of the dance. In battle, Arjuna will "dance" on his chariot and will see Śiva before him bearing a lance and carrying out the actual destruction of his foes.
Arjuna's most crucial scene, however, is that described in the Bhagavadgītā. Poised on his chariot to begin the war, with Kṛṣṇa now his charioteer, he is overcome with compassion for his foes and refuses to fight. Kṛṣṇa unveils Arjuna's true warrior calling and reveals his own "omniform" as Visnu in the destructive form of Time. Arjuna's role is to be the instrument of a destruction that will occur anyway. In submitting to Kṛṣṇa's teaching, Arjuna becomes the ideal bhakta, or devotee. This pivotal epic figure thus represents the ideal king and sacrificer, the principal husband of the incarnation of the Goddess, the son of Indra and protégé of Śiva, and the companion and ideal devotee of the avatāra.
For the foundational studies, see two works by Georges Dumézil: Mythe et épopée:, vol. 1, L'idéologie des trois fonctions dans les épopées des peuples indo-européens (Paris, 1968), and The Destiny of the Warrior, translated by Alf Hiltebeital (Chicago, 1969). For further extension of Dumézil's insights applied to the Hindu context, see Madeleine Biardeau's "Études de mythologie hindoue, Chap. II, Bhakti et avatāra," Bulletin de l'École Française d'Extrême Orient 63 (1976): 111–263 and 65 (1978): 87–238; Alf Hiltebeitel's "Śiva, the Goddess, and the Disguises of the Pāṇḍavas and Draupadī," History of Religions 20 (1980): 147–174; and Jacques Scheuer's Śiva dans le Mahābhārata (Paris, 1982).
Katz, Ruth Cecily. Arjuna in the Mahabharata: Where Krishna Is, There Is Victory (Studies in Comparative Religion). Columbia, SC, 1989.
Alf Hiltebeitel (1987)
Arjuna's close friendship with Kṛṣṇa is central to the Mahābhārata's structure. Among Arjuna's wives is Subhadrā, Kṛṣṇa's sister: the son of Arjuna and Subhadrā is Abhimanyu, who dies in the Kurukṣetra war. During the Kurukṣetra war, Kṛṣṇa serves as Arjuna's charioteer and adviser, often inciting him and the other Pāṇḍavas to tricky means to their end of victory. Perhaps the most famous incident in the Mahābhārata is Arjuna's failure of nerve before the war, in which he will have to kill his Kaurava relatives, resulting in Kṛṣṇa's expounding of the Bhagavad-gītā to encourage him to fight. In truth, the Mahābhārata tells us, Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa are incarnations of Nara and Nārāyana; it is as though Arjuna's friendship with (devotion to) Kṛṣṇa brings him beyond the human state to semi-divinity.