Disguised as a brahmana,
Arjuna steps forward to meet the challenge
that has humiliated the powerful young kings.
The sage Vaisampayana is telling the history of the Pandavas to their great-grandson, King Janamejaya. As the Mahabharata continues, the Pandavas, disguised as brahmanas, are attending a ceremony in which Princess Draupadi will choose a husband from among many young kings. Draupadi's father set up a challenge for her suitors: They must string a mighty bow and pierce a difficult target. The other kings having failed, the Pandava Arjuna now steps forward.
THEREUPON, WHEN ALL the kings had given up their attempt to string the bow, the wise Arjuna rose up from the midst of the brahmanas. Seeing that Arjuna, Prtha's son, shining like the flag of Indra, had set out for the center of the arena, the leading brahmanas cried out and shook their deerskins. Some were unhappy to see a brahmana going to compete with warriors, and others were filled with joy.
The sages were considered experts, and they lived by their intelligence. Some of them said to one another, "The kings of the earth, led by Karna and Salya, mighty monarchs renowned in all the world as masters of the military science, could not bend the bow. How then can a mere brahminical student, frail, lacking stamina, and untrained in weapons, string the bow? The kings will ridicule us brahmanas when this whimsical and thoughtless act comes to nothing.
"Whether out of pride or impulsiveness or unsteadiness in his life as a religious student, he has gone out to string the bow. He must be stopped! For God's sake, don't let him go! We shall not be ridiculed in public so that we are no longer taken seriously. And we shall not risk a conflict with all the kings of the world."
But others disagreed.
"This young man looks very good. He's built like the trunk of the king of elephants. His thighs, arms, and shoulders are bulging with muscles, and he seems as steady and hard to move as the Himalayan mountains.
"We can infer from his bold confidence that the task of stringing the bow and piercing the target is actually possible for him. He has power and great daring. A weak man could not go out there alone as he is doing. And after all, whether among gods, human beings, or lower life the brahmanas can accomplish any task. Eating only water or living on air or collecting fruits in the forest, brahmanas are fixed in their vows. And though apparently weak, by their spiritual power they are very strong. Abrahmana should never be scorned, whether he behaves properly or has committed some fault, whether his work in this world is great or small, and whether his work brings apparent joy or sorrow."
An Easy Task For Arjuna
Coming to the center of the arena, Arjuna, as unmoving as a mountain, simply stood by the bow. Then he respectfully walked around the bow, keeping it to his right, and bowed down, touching his head to the ground.
Then that fiery warrior happily took the bow in his hands. In the wink of an eye Arjuna fastened the cord, took the five arrows in his hands, and shot the target. Pierced by Arjuna's shafts, the target fell suddenly onto the earth.
The heavens burst into sound, and a great roar filled the stadium. Indra, the lord of heaven, showered flowers on the head of Arjuna, the slayer of the wicked. Throughout the stadium people waved their cloths in jubilation. Some cried out in wonder, and others shouted their disapproval, while showers of flowers fell from the sky, covering the land with celestial blossoms. Hundred-piece bands broke into song, reciters began to recite, and bards and historical chroniclers praised the astonishing event with elegant voices and language.
Seeing Arjuna's feat, Drupada, destroyer of the enemy, was well pleased, and he stood ready with his army to help Arjuna.
As the great uproar continued unabated, the most virtuous Yudhisthira quickly returned to his residence with his twin brothers, Nakula and Sahadeva, the finest of men.
Seeing the target pierced, and seeing Arjuna shining with the brilliance of Indra, Draupadi took the white garland meant for the groom and went broadly smiling to Arjuna, the son of Kunti. As the brahmanas praised and honored Arjuna for he had performed an inconceivable deed he took the woman he had won in the arena of heroes. Followed by his new wife, he walked out of the stadium.
The Kings Protest
When King Drupada desired to give his daughter to the great-spirited brahmana who had won her, fury rose among the assembled kings, and they began to look at one another.
"This king passes over all of us, treating the assembled warriors like straw in the gutter, and instead he wants to give Draupadi, the best of women, to a simple brahmana. Let us kill this wicked king who thinks so little of us. He shows by his qualities that he is unworthy of respect or the consideration offered to the elderly. Let us kill this evil-doer and hater of kings, along with his son. First he calls all the rulers to his city and honors them and feeds them sumptuously, and finally he humiliates them.
"Are we to believe that in this gathering of royalty, like unto a council of the gods, he has not found a single ruler worthy of his family? Sages are not entitled to the privilege of choosing a princess. The Vedas declare that a svayamvara is for men of the royal order. On the other hand, if this fair maiden finds not a single one of us worthy of her, then, fellow kings, let us throw her into the fire and go back to our kingdoms.
"Even though the brahmana, out of immaturity or greed, has so displeased us, in no way is he to be killed. Indeed, we rule our kingdoms, spend our wealth, raise our sons and grandsons,' and live our very lives for the sake of the saintly brahmanas. Still, we must avoid the danger that kings henceforth be regularly insulted. We must protect the sacred principles of warriors so that other svayamvaras do not end like this one."
Bhima And Arjuna Protect Drupada
Having thus spoken, those tigerlike kings, bludgeons in hand and bristling with anger, rushed upon Drupada to arrest him. Seeing the furious kings rushing to attack him with bows and arrows at the ready, Drupada fled in terror and sought shelter of thebrahmanas. The kings charged forward in pursuit like maddened elephants. But then two greatly powerful sons of Pandu Bhima and Arjuna, subduers of enemies went forward against them.
The kings could tolerate no more. Weapons raised with armored hands, their only aim now to kill, they flew forward upon Arjuna and Bhimasena, the two sons of the old Kuru king. Bhima, however, was a warrior of astonishing power and deeds. With his great strength he struck with the shock of a thunderbolt. With his bare arms that unique fighter jerked a large tree out of the ground, and like a lordly elephant he clipped off its leaves [so that the foliage would not soften his blow]. Staying close to Arjuna and brandishing his new weapon in his long, wide arms, Bhima, pain of his enemies, stood like the fearsome lord of death wielding his death-dealing rod.
Having first witnessed Arjuna's feat, which required more than human intelligence, and seeing now the inconceivable prowess of Arjuna's brother Bhima, Lord Krsna, known as Damodara, turned and spoke to His fiercely potent brother, Balarama, who was armed with His plow weapon. Lord Krsna said: "My dear Sankarsana, My brother, that one there who moves with the bearing of a maddened bull and who bent the mighty bow that stood as tall as a palm tree he is Arjuna, as indisputably as I am all-pervading Vasudeva. And that one who returned at once when the kings became wild and who so easily tore out a tree he is Bhimasena, playing the part of a human being, for no man on earth has the power to do what he just did here.
"That other one who left earlier fair-skinned, with large eyes like lotus petals, a more slender physique, the gait of a great lion yet a humble demeanor, and a prominent and handsome nose that enhances his face he, O infallible one, is surely the king of virtue, Yudhisthira.
"Those twins who seem like two young gods of war I reckon to be the sons of the Asvin gods. I have heard that the sons of Pandu and their mother Prtha were saved from the burning house of lac."
Trusting in the words of His younger brother Krsna, Lord Balarama, whose complexion is as white as the purest cloud, said to Him, "I am so happy that by the grace of Providence Our father's sister Prtha and her sons, the best of the Kurus, have all been saved."
The powerful brahmanas, shaking their deerskins and water vessels, said to King Drupada, "You have nothing to fear! We shall fight the enemy!"
When the sages spoke thus, Arjuna smiled and said to them, "Please, be spectators and stand to the side. Just as one can ward off poisonous snakes with mantras, so I shall stop these furious ksatriyas, dispersing them with hundreds of straight-shooting arrows."
Taking his prize bow, Arjuna stood with his brother Bhima like an unmoving mountain, for he was a maharatha, one who can fight alone against thousands of soldiers. Like fearless bull elephants rushing against a hostile herd, the two courageous brothers flew at the angry warriors, headed by Karna, who had now been roused to full fury.
The monarchs and their men declared, "Even a brahmana may be killed in battle if he desires to fight. So says the law."
Karna Fights With Arjuna
Karna went after Arjuna with tremendous power, like a battle-hungry elephant fighting another bull for the sake of his mate. Salya, the mighty lord of the Madras, attacked Bhimasena. Duryodhana and other kings battled the brahmanas, but gently and without effort.
Strongly bending his bow, Arjuna struck the attacking Karna with three arrows. Radheya [Karna] was stunned by the force of the sharp, sizzling arrows and approached with much caution. As Arjuna and Karna furiously battled each other, the skill and speed of the two fighters was incomparable, and each fought hard for victory. They addressed each other in words meaningful to heroes: "Just see how I countered your move!" and "See the strength of my arms!"
Realizing that the power of Arjuna's bow-wielding arms was unmatched on earth prompted Karna to fight with even greater fury. Counteracting the swift shafts fired off by Arjuna, he roared his battle sound, and his fellow warriors shouted with admiration.
Karna said, "I am satisfied by your performance in battle, O brahmana chief. There is great prowess in your arms, you have learned all the weapons, and you do not become discouraged. O noble sage, are you Dhanur Veda himself, or perhaps even Lord Parasurama? Are you Lord Indra, or possibly the infallible Visnu? To disguise yourself you have assumed the appearance of a brahmana, and using the might of your arms you now fight with me. Once I become angry, no one save Indra himself or the Pandava Arjuna can fight me."
Hearing Karna speak to him thus, Phalguna Arjuna replied, "I am not Dhanur Veda, O Karna, nor am I the powerful Parasurama. Quite simply, I am the best of fighting brahmanas, and I am the most skillful in the use of weapons. By the instructions of my guru I am expert in the brahma weapon and in the device of Purandara Indra. I therefore stand here in battle to conquer you, O heroic warrior. Be resolved!"
At these words Radheya Karna, the great chariot fighter, withdrew from the battle, having decided that the power of a brahmana could not be defeated.
At that very moment, O king, the two mighty warriors Salya and Vrkodara Bhima began to fight one another, each maddened with strength and hungry for victory. Like huge enraged bull elephants they taunted one another. With fist colliding against fist, knee smashing against knee, they dragged each other around the fighting ring. Then, in the midst of their battle, Bhima seized Salya in his arms, lifted him high, and slammed him against the ground. The brahmanas broke into smiles. Having brought down powerful Salya, the mighty Bhimasena, best among men, astonished everyone, for he did not strike and kill his foe.
With Salya now brought down and Karna hesitant, the ksatriyas grew doubtful and surrounded Bhimasena.
"These bull-like brahmanas have done very well indeed!" they said. "We should learn where they were born and where they reside, for who has the power to oppose Karna in battle if not Parasurama or Drona or Krpa, the son of Saradvan? Who has the power to meet Duryodhana in battle but Krsna, the son of Devaki, or the fiery Phalguna Arjuna? Salya, king of the Madras, is the strongest of men. Who could fight him but the heroic Lord Baladeva or the Pandava Vrkodara Bhima? Let us forge a truce and suspend fighting with these brahmanas. After we discover who they are, we shall fight again later."
Carefully watching the activities of Bhima, Sri Krsna believed that Bhima and Arjuna were the sons of Kunti. He therefore convinced all the warriors that Draupadi had indeed been fairly won, and thus He restrained them from fighting on. The noble kings were experienced warriors, and on hearing Lord Krsna's remarks they desisted from battle and returned to their kingdoms in utter amazement.
"The competition was dominated by brahmanas. The princess of Pancala now lives with the brahmanas, for they have chosen her." Thus spoke the kings who had gathered for the festival as they journeyed to their homes.
Meanwhile, surrounded by brahmanas clad in deerskins, Bhimasena and Arjuna could hardly move. Those two heroes of mankind at last broke free of the pressing crowd. While their enemies studied and stared at them, and as Draupadi faithfully followed them, they shone beautifully amid the tumultuous scene.
Hridayananda Dasa Goswami led the team of devotee-scholars who completed the translation and commentary of the Srimad-Bhagavatam begun by His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He is now doing graduate work in Sanskrit and Indian Studies at Harvard University.
Dramatic readings by Hridayananda Dasa Goswami of his Mahabharata translations may be purchased from: HDG Tape Ministry, P. O. Box 1156, Alachua, FL 32616. Phone: (904) 418-4644.