Today, I will continue my exploration of Hindu mythology with the tale of the Exile of Arjuna the hero of the Mahabharata.
The Story of Arjuna
In our previous tale, we met a warrior named Arjuna as we recounted the tale of Shikhandi and his/her quest to defeat the Near immortal Bhishma. However, would you be surprised to learn that Arjuna, himself once spent time as a woman?Indeed. So lets delve into this tale of transformation.The Origin of the PanvadaAs stated before, The Mahabharata is an epic poem detailing a war between two groups of cousin called the Kurukshetra War. The first group of cousin were known as the Pandava. This group was comprised of the five son of King Pandu of Hastinapur. The other group was the Kauravas the 101 sons of Dhritarashtra, the blind half brother of Pandu. Both Pandu and Dhritarashtra were half nephews of the Warrior Bhishma.Arjuna was the "supposedly" the third acknowledged son of Pandu, but was in reality the son of the Hindu God Indra. He along with the rest of the Pandava and the Kauravas were brought up together under the sage wisdom of Bhishma and the sage Drona. They all grew up accomplishing great feats or great renown.
Eventually the question of succession comes before the cousins and it is decided to make Yudhishthira oldest of the Pandava and Duryodhana eldest of the Kaurayvas as the crown princes and split the kingdom in two. The Kaurayvas inherit the land of Hastinapur while the Pandava ended up inheriting the land of Khandavaprastha.Khandavaprastha, however, is a poor and undeveloped land. So Arjuna and the Pandava end up having to rebuild the land. During this time Arjuna (along with his cousin and companion Krisna) sets out to aid the Fire God Agni. The god had come under a great hunger and needed to burn down a forest to sate his overwhelming appetite. However, his every attempt at this feat was defeated because the Serpent King Takshaka dwelled there. Takshaka was friends with the God Indra (Arjuna's father), and every time Agni attempted to burn down the forest, Indra would bring down torrents of rain to save his friends home. Arjuna and Krishna aid Agni by challenging Indra to a battle while the fire god burned down the forest. In the end they were successful in defeating Indra allowing Agni to burn down the entire forest and all but one of the demons living there. The great demon architect Mayasura was the only demon spared by Arjuna. In gratitude he built the Pandava a great palace for Arjuna's elder brother Yudhishthira.This palace enraged Duryodhana, king of the Kaurayvas. He went to his uncle Shakuni and together the two scheme a way to get rid of the Pandava and rule all of India. They invite the Pandava to a game of dice where through treachery they manage to cheat Yudhishthira out of everything they owned. The Panvada attempted one last game to win back all that they had lost, and were again cheated. This time, however, the condition of their loss was that they were to be exiled from their lands for 13 years and during the last year if so much as one of them were ever heard of again they would be banished for 13 more years.The Exile, the Curse, and the Ultimate Disguise For thirteen years the Panvada were exiled from their homes and lands. During this time Arjuna engaged in many great feats and even traveled to Heaven to spend time in the Palace of his father, Indra. There, Arjuna was allowed to learn the art of song and dance from the King of the Gandharva (nature spirits renowned world over for their musical abilities). Eventually he was invited to partake in a gigantic banquet while getting to watch the beautiful cloud nymph Urvashi dance before him. Arjuna was entranced by the dance and sheer beauty of Urvashi. He couldn't help but feel overwhelmed because not only was she beautiful but in the distant past she had mothered one of his ancestors. Unfortunately, his father mistook this look of familial awe for one of lust and after the banquet asked Urvashi to go to his son and seduce him. Urvashi had noticed Arjuna during the dance, and when asked to go to him was filled with feelings of deep desire. However, upon coming to him, Arjuna turned her away! As far as he was concerned she was like his mother due to his ancestory to her. Even after she told him that as a divine being that it would be okay he refused.Urvashi, the most beautiful of all nymphs, took this rejection as an insult and Cursed Arjuna to be woman* for the rest of his life. Fortunately for Arjuna, Indra came to his aid and convinced the nymph to amend her curse to only last one year and to start at the time of Arjuna's choosing. Thus, was Arjuna was able to turn a curse into a gift. For during the last year of his exile he would have to remain in hiding and now he had the ultimate disguise.So, upon entering the last year of his exile hiding in the Matsya Kingdom, he enacted the curse and became the maiden Brihannala. From there he manages to enter the Court of the King Virāta and become the song and dance teacher for the king's daughter Uttarā for the Pandava's last year of exile. (S)he grows close to the girl while teaching her the song and dance techniques he learned in Heaven from the Gandharva, and comes to see her as a daughter.
Near the end of the year of Exile, the Pandava's enemy Duryodhana receives word that they are possibly hiding in Matsya. After some scheming he decides he will convince the rival tribe of Trigarta to attack and steal all the cattle of the Matsya one day and then sending an army of his own to destroy Matsya the next.
Sure enough, King Virāta falls for the trap and sends his entire army to retrieve the cattle after the Trigarta's attack leaving his kingdom Defenseless. Upon learning that an enemy army is invading while the kingdom is without any warriors to defend them, the king's son, Uttar brashly decides that he will fend off the Kaurayvas on his own. At the last moment, he is talked into bringing Brihannala as his Charioteer.
The War Begins
Once on the battlefield, the prince realizes that he has no chance of defeating the Kaurayvas on his own and attempts to flee. However, he is blocked by Brihannala who takes up all his/her mystical weapons that he/she gained from a lifetime of epic feats and charges the army. Single-handily she drives off the army and saves the Kingdom. She and the Prince return to the palace where (with the year being cursed and of hiding now over) Brihannala reverts back into Arjuna before the King. Learning of the true identity of the Panvada the king is so impressed with Arjuna that he offers him the hand of his daughter Uttarā .
Arjuna, due to viewing Uttarā as his own daughter, declines the proposal; but, offers instead that Uttarā marry his own son, Abhimanyu, The king and princess agree and the two are married. Then Arjuna and the rest of the Panvada finally come out of hiding. With the aid of Krishna and their allies the Drupad kingdom, they raise an army and go to fight the Kaurayvas beginning the Kurukshetra war.
Arjuna from their goes on to fight and defeat his nigh-immortal former master Bhisma with the Help of the Drupad warrior Shikhandi and ultimately wipes all all 101 of the Kaurayvas and re-establishing his elder brother Yudhishthira as ruler of all of India. Years later, Arjuna's grandson born from the marriage of Abhimanyu and Uttarā, goes on to succeed Yudhishthira as King.
*Most versions of this myth have Arjuna turn into a Eunuch. However, some versions say he became a woman. Either way, he lived as a woman and with the other women of the palace.