Arjuna, the celebrated hero of the Mahabharata has remained popular through the ages because he reflects an intrinsic aspect of human nature – that eternal struggle between who we really are and who we really wish to be. While he is a demi-God, and possesses admirable virtues such as courage, wisdom, a strong belief in duty and right action, he is also deeply flawed, in that his pride often takes precedence over the greater good. But this is what makes him most relatable to the audience.
Arjuna was born to Kunti, who was married to King Pandu of Hastinapur. Arjuna’s real father, however, was Lord Indra as Pandu was impotent and Kunti had been given a mantra that allowed her to invoke any God, who would bless her with a child. The Pandavas, including Arjuna and his four brothers, spent the first years of their lives in exile with Pandu and his two wives, Kunti and Madri. After Pandu’s and Madri’s passing, Kunti took all five children back to Hastinapur, where they lived in a palace along with Pandu’s blind brother Dhritarashtra, who had taken over as king in his brother’s absence, his wife Gandhari, and their 100 children, the Kauravas.
Arjuna’s extraordinary abilities caught everyone’s eye early on. He, along with all his cousins, were trained and educated by several teachers, most prominent of whom was Drona. He educated them on military art and weaponry. Drona was impressed in particular with Arjuna’s archery skills and quickly made him his favourite. His students questioned why their teacher was partial to Arjuna. This is where we get our first glimpse into Arjuna’s courage, strength and loyalty.
Keen to prove to his students why he loved Arjuna so, Drona asked his students to meet him at a lake. As they watched their teacher swimming in the lake, a crocodile suddenly attacked Drona. While the rest of the students froze, it was Arjuna who jumped into the lake and rescued his teacher. Drona later told his students that the crocodile was nothing but an illusion he had created to prove how selfless and brave Arjuna could be.
The Kauravas and Pandavas grew up in relative harmony, even though there were simmering tensions that would come to the fore once Dhritarashtra was ready to give up the throne. Dhritarashtra had been ruling over Hastinapur in the absence of his brother, Pandu. Therefore, he named Pandu’s son, Yudhishthira as heir to the throne. This angered his own son, Duryodhana, who thought he was more capable of handling the kingdom than his Pandava cousins, and thus began the battle for Hastinapur.
Arjuna was a survivor. He and his brothers survived an attempt on their life by their cousin Duryodhana, and he also lived in exile twice – the first one was self-imposed, while the other was a result of the Pandavas losing a game of dice against Duryodhana. Through every struggle, Arjuna’s heroism stood out.
The conflict between the hero Arjuna wanted to be and what he really was became really evident just before he went into self-exile, when the Pandavas were ruling over a flourishing Indraprastha. When the Pandavas married Draupadi, they took a vow never to intrude upon any of the brothers when they were alone with her. But one day, Arjuna was approached by a man who needed help catching some thieves. Arjuna needed his bow and arrows to fight them. But the weapons were in a room where his brother Yudhishthira was spending time with Draupadi. Arjuna was torn between doing his duty and breaking his vow. He chose duty and barged into the room to take the bow and arrow. He then went into a self-imposed exile for 12 years, despite protests from his brothers and Draupadi. This was an example of how Arjuna could not see beyond his pride and reputation and did not take into account what his absence would mean for the kingdom of Indraprastha.
An example of Arjuna’s empathy and loyalty would be the scene where he entered the battlefield with Krishna and watched his cousins, his teacher, Drona, and his grand-uncle, Bhishma, waiting to fight him on the opposite side. He told Krishna he didn’t want to fight his kin, after which Krishna had to remind him of his duty and that he was doing the right thing. Only then was Arjuna convinced. After winning the war, the Pandavas, including Arjuna, ruled over Hastinapur for 36 years, before renouncing the world and entering heaven while in the Himalayas.
Arjuna shows us how we can be better human beings, not just through the virtues we are told to live by, but also through the lessons that we learn when we struggle and fail. True heroes are those who get back up every time they are knocked down and Arjuna is the best example of that.