9 December: Arjuna

Arjuna shooting from his chariot with Krishna at the reins, and Hanuman as a banner.

Name: Arjuna

Tagline: A son of the god, Indra, Arjuna is a real hero in all senses of the word. Unfortunately, he and his brothers get into a deadly struggle with their cousins.

Claim to fame: Arjuna is a major character in the great Indian epic, the Mahabarata – in particular, he is the main character of the Baghavad Gita.

When I decided on the topic for this advent calendar, I vowed to go wider than the European circle of stories that I am most familiar with. Luckily, there are loads of stories from abroad. And from the Indian subcontinent, perhaps the greatest story is the Mahabarata, an epic that probably occupies the same place as something like the Odyssey or the Illiad.

The gist of the story is this, in very brief and from my rudimentary understanding of it: the Pandava brothers and the Kaurava brothers are cousins, and heirs to the throne in the kingdom Hastinapur. The Karuvas are the senior branch, but the eldest Pandava is older than the oldest Kaurava. Conflict and war ensues.

Before that, though, both sets of brothers train together, and our boy, Arjuna, excels. In one story, their teacher, Drona, asks them all to shoot a bird in the eye. But first, they must tell him what they see. The first of them see the bird on the branch, or they see the bird. Drona asks them to put down the bow. But when it’s Arjuna’s turn, he sees only the eye. Drona tells him to let fly, and he hits the bird directly in the eye.

Arjuna isn’t without help in his heroism, though. To begin with, he is the son of the great god, Indra. His mother has been taught how to call up any god and have them father a child with her. Her husband, meanwhiled, has been cursed, such that he will die whenever he has sex. And so his wife calls up a new god to father each of her children. And Indra, the king of the gods, god of thunder, fathers Arjuna.

Arjuna’s squire is another of the gods: Krishna, who is an incarnation of the great god, Vishnu. They go on many adventures, including one in which they set a great forest on fire at the request of the fire god Agni. In the course of that adventure, he gained his divine bow, Gandiva, which was created by Brahma, the creator god, who used it for a thousand years. It was then wielded by several other gods, before finally ending up with Arjuna. He also received a magical chariot, and two quivers that would be ever full.

But after that, the conflict tightened. The Kaurava challenge eldest of the Pandavas, Yudhishthira, to a game of dice for the kingdom. As a member of the warrior caste, Yudhishthira cannot refuse the challenge. But the Kaurava use loaded dice, and Yudhishthira loses the kingdom. After the game, an accord is struck between the Kaurava and the Pandava, stipulating that the Pandava must go into exile for 13 years, after which the Kaurava must give the kingdom back to the Pandava.

Arjuna receives the divine weapon of Shiva.

Heroes in exile can only mean one thing: adventure! For Arjuna as well. Someone councils him to seek a magical weapon belonging to the god, Shiva. So he goes to a holy mountain, makes an offering to Shiva, then meditates on the god. Soon, a hunter appears and challenges him to a fight. Arjuna finds himself hopelessly outmatched, and calls upon the blessing of Shiva. In that moment, he notices that the hunter is wearing his offerings around his neck, and he recognises the hunter as Shiva. Shiva is pleased with Arjuna, and grants him the weapon and the skill to use it.

 

After this success, Indra invites Arjuna to join him in his realm. While he is there, Urvashi, one of Indras concubines, and Arjuna develop feelings for each other. But Arjuna rejects her, as she has had a relationship with one of Arjuna’s ancestors, making her akin to a mother. Urvashi is angry at the rejection, and curses Arjuna to live as an eunuch among women (or maybe as a woman) for the rest of his life. But she thinks better of it, and on Indra’s urging, reduces the curse to one year.

Later, Arjuna gets into a conflict with the god, Hanuman, when he criticises the god, Rama. Rama had his army build the great bridge – but Arjuna is questioning why, if Rama was such a great archer, he didn’t simply build it out of arrows. Hanuman, in the guise of a monkey, then challenges Arjuna to do what he is suggesting, leading Arjuna to use divine weapons to create bridge after bridge out of arrows, while Hanuman uses his superhuman strength to destroy them all. In the end, Krishna appears, and chides both of them. Hanuman agrees to become a banner for Arjuna to carry during the later war.

When the exile is up, the Pandavas return to the kingdom. But of course, the Kaurava refuse to give up the kingdom. War is joined, and the two sides ready for battle. But on the morning of the battle, Arjuna looks at all the friends and relatives on the other side of the battlefield, and he is struck with self doubt. How can it be righteous to wage war against your own friends and relatives. But Krishna takes him aside, and explains the inevitability of the war, and how acting in accordance with your dharma (loosely understood as “fate” or “purpose”) is not a bad thing.

In the end, the Pandava win the war, and rule the kingdom for many years. But Krishna has been cursed because he did not intervene to prevent the war, and is killed. With this, Arjuna loses his divine powers and weapons. In the end, all the Pandavas walk up a mountain on a pilgrimage, but all but Yudhishthira fall because of their various flaws. Yudhishthira had tried to prevent the carnage, and so maintains his strength. In the end, all of them are taken to heaven, after having weathered a time in the underworld to purge them of their vices. As such, Arjuna ends up as a god himself.

How would I use him: Arjuna and his brothers provide an interesting model of heroism. They are both like and unlike some of the classic heroes in fantasy and roleplaying.

Compare, for instance, the concept of dharma and the concept of alignment in D&D. If alignment is something inherent in the world, a being that acts in accordance with its alignment is virtuous, even if it is evil. Similarly with a concept like paths (and Humanity) in Vampire: the Masquerade, and with the different hierarchies in the New World of Darkness. I suppose it is also somewhat similar to the keys of the Solar System.

Another thing to look at is the divine weapons of the Hindu cosmology. This concept is called “astra”, and seems to work somewhere between magical items and spells. If you want a cool concept for giving people magical powers in a fantasy setting, this might be a good reference.

And of course, the story and the character in itself is interesting. Arjuna and his brothers follow the “larger than life” school of heroes – not a full god, but certainly more than a man. He could almost be a character from a game of Exalted. It is also an example of a courtly plot, involving intrigue, adventure and martial prowess. And one in which there is a clear protagonist, but no outright evil foe. Both sides are more or less doing what they are supposed to do.

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