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In the Mahabharata, a Hindu epic text, the Pandava (also Pandawa) are the five acknowledged sons of Pandu, by his two wives Kunti and Madri. Their names are Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva. All five brothers were married to the same woman, Draupadi. (Each brother also had multiple other wives.)
The story begins with the introduction of the brothers' parents. Amongst the primary antagonists was Duryodhana (loosely translated as 'unconquerable'), the eldest of the Kauravas and the Pandavas' cousin. He was the eldest of the 100 brothers known as the Kauravas, who were born to the blind king of Hastinapura Dhritarashtra and his queen Gandhari (princess of Gandhara).
The Pandavas were born to Kunti and Madri by the boon given by Durvasa, which was given to Kunthi when she was a princess that she can have a son of any god which she respect without having any marital affair. After the marriage of Madri, Pandu voluntary renounced royal life, in order to do penance for having accidentally killed the sage Rishi Kindama and his wife. At his death, Rishi Kindama cursed Pandu that he will surely die if he attempts to have sexual relationships with his wives. Because of this curse, Kunthi had to use her boon to get sons. She gave birth to three sons, Yudhisthira from God of Dharma. Bhima from God of Wind and Arjuna from Lord Indra. At the request of Pandu she shared this boon with Madri to get her sons, the twins Nakul and Sahadev from Gods Ashvins.
After the death of Pandu and Sati of Madri, Kunti brought the Pandavas back to Hastinapura. As children, the Pandavas and Kauravas often played together. However, Bhima (one of the Pandavs) was always at odds with the Kauravas, particularly Duryodhana, who refused to accept the Pandavas as his kin. This usually led to much tension between the cousins. Insecure and jealous, Duryodhana harboured intense hatred for the five brothers throughout his childhood and youth, and following the advice of his maternal uncle Shakuni, often plotted to get rid of them to clear his path to the lordship of the Kuru Dynasty.
This plotting took a grave turn when Dhritarashtra had to relent to the will of the masses and rightfully appointed his nephew Yudhisthira as crown prince. This went against the personal ambitions of both father and son (Dhritarashtra and Duryodhana), and drove Duryodhana into such a rage, that he enthusiastically agreed to an evil ploy by Shakuni to murder Yudhisthira. Shakuni commissioned the construction of a palace in Varnavata, secretly built by incorporating flammable materials into the structure, most notably lacquer, known as Lac. This palace was known as Lakshagraha. Duryodhana then successfully lobbied with Dhritarashtra to send Yudhisthira to represent the royal household in Varnavata during the celebrations of Shiva Mahotsava. The plan was to set the palace on fire during the night while Yudhisthira would likely be asleep. Yudhisthira left for Varnavata, accompanied by his four brothers and mother Kunti. Fortunately for the Pandavas, the plan was discovered by their paternal uncle Vidura, who was very loyal to them and an extraordinarily wise man. In addition, Yudhisthira had been forewarned about this plot by a hermit who came to him and spoke of an imminent disaster. Vidura arranged for a tunnel to be secretly built for the Pandavs to safely escape the wax palace as it was set afire.
After their flight from the wax palace, the five brothers lived in the forests for some time, in the disguise of Brahmins. They heard from a group of traveling sages about a contest (Swayamvara) being held in the Kingdom of Panchaal that offered the princess Draupadi's hand in marriage to the winner. The Swayamvara turned out to rely on the skills of archery, and Arjuna, who was a peerless archer, entered the competition and won. When the brothers took Draupadi to introduce her to their mother, they announced to Kunti that they had arrived with excellent "alms". Kunti was busy with some work, and replied without turning to look at Draupadi (who was the "alms" referred to) ordering the brothers to share the "alms" equally amongst the five of them. Even when uttered erroneously, their mother's word was supreme for the Pandavas, who then agreed to "share" the princess, who was subsequently married to all five brothers.
When Dhritarashtra heard that the five brothers were alive, he invited them back to the kingdom. However, in their absence, Duryodhana had succeeded in being made the crown prince. Upon the return of the Pandavas, the issue of returning Yudhisthira's crown to him was raised. Dhritarashtra led the subsequent discussions into ambiguity and agreed to a partition of the kingdom "to do justice to both crown princes". He retained the developed Hastinapura for himself and Duryodhana, and gave the barren, arid and hostile lands of Khandavaprastha to the Pandavas. The Pandavas successfully developed their land and built a great and lavish city which was considered comparable to the heavens, and thus came to be known as Indraprastha.
Reeling under the loss of half the lands of his future kingdom, Duryodhana's jealousy and rage were further fueled by the Pandavas' success and prosperity. Eventually, Shakuni sired yet another ploy and got Duryodhana to invite the Pandavas over to his court for a game of dice (gambling). Shakuni was a master at gambling, and owned a pair of dice which magically did his bidding and produced numbers desired by him. Owing to this, bet after bet, Yudhisthira lost all of his wealth and eventually, his kingdom in the game. He was then enticed by Duryodhana and Shakuni to place his brothers as bets. Yudhisthira fell for it and put his brothers on stake, losing them too. He then placed himself as a bet and lost again. Duryodhana now played another trick and told Yudhisthira that he still had his wife Draupadi to place as a bet, and if Yudhisthira won, he would return everything to the Pandavas. Yudhisthira fell for the ruse and bet Draupadi, losing her too. At this point Duryodhan ordered that Draupadi, who was now a slave to him, be brought to the court. Duryodhana's younger brother Dushasana dragged Draupadi to the royal court, pulling her by her hair, insulting her dignity and asserting that she, like the Pandava brothers, was now their servant. This caused immense anguish to all the great warriors seated in the court, but each of them, namely, Bhishma (the grandsire of the clan), Dronacharya (the teacher/guru of Kauravas and Pandavas) and Kripacharya except Vidura remained silent. Duryodhana then ordered Dushasana to disrobe Draupadi before everyone as a slave girl has no human rights. The elders and warriors in audience were shocked but did not intervene. As Dushasana began to disrobe her, she prayed to God to protect her honour, and miraculously, God Dharma and Sun God Surya protected her by creating illusions. In some version Lord Krishna protects her by providing her garments an unending length.Finally as the blind king Dhrithrasthra realized that this humiliation could prompt Draupadi to curse his sons, he intervened, apologizing to Draupadi for the behavior of his sons and turned the winnings of the dice game back over to the Pandava brothers, releasing them from the bondage of slavery.
Incensed at the loss of all that he had won, Duryodhana threatened suicide and coerced his father into inviting the Pandavas for one last round of gambling, the terms of which were that the loser would be condemned to 12 years of exile into forests, and a 13th year to be spent incognito, and if the cover be blown during the 13th year, another cycle of 13 years would ensue. Obeying their uncle's orders, the Pandavas played the round, and again lost to Shakuni's cheating. However, this time, their patience had been nearly pushed to its edge. During the 12 years of exile in the forest, they prepared for war. Arjuna performed penance and won the entire gamut of celestial weapons (Divyasatras) as boons from the Gods. The 13th year was spent masquerading as peasants in the servitude of the royal family of Virata, the king of Matsya. Upon completion of the terms of the last bet, the Pandavas returned and demand their kingdom to be rightfully returned to them. Duryodhana refused to turn Indraprastha over. For the sake of peace, and to avert a disastrous war, Krishna proposed that if Hastinapura agrees to give the Pandavas only five villages, they would be satisfied and would make no more demands. Duryodhana vehemently refused, commenting that he shall not part even with land as much as the point of a needle. Thus, the stage was set for the great war, for which the epic of Mahabharata is known most of all.
The war was intense and was fought for 18 days over the course of which both parties worked around, bent, and even broke rules of warfare. At the end all 100 Kaurava brothers and their entire army was slain, with only four surviving on their side. The Pandavas too lost several allies but the 5 brothers survived. After having won the war, they returned to Hastinapura and Dhritarashtra renounced the kingdom. Yudhisthira was crowned, and after ruling peacefully for many years, the Pandava brothers and their wife departed for the heavens, taking a long journey through the Himalayas. On this journey, one by one, Draupadi and the four younger brothers fell to their deaths, due to their various shortcomings. Only Yudhisthira, who had never abandoned sanctity and had always upheld his Dharma (in fact, some people say only Yudhisthira's thumb fell down, because he lied just once to Drona in the battlefield) completed the journey. Nevertheless, after completing a punitive separation, the four brothers and Draupadi were reunited with Yudhisthira in the heavens.
Krishna's help to the Pandavas
Krishna, being a well wisher of the Pandavas, helped them in various ways during the time of their ordeals, as described below:
- Krishna protected Draupadi's honour in the court of Hastinapur when Dushasana tried to strip her sari. He extended the length of her sari while Dushasana went on pulling it. Dusshasana finally falls unconscious due to exhaustion and Draupadi is thus saved.
- Durvasa and his students visited Yudhisthira's hermitage during their exile and asked them to provide for a meal. The Akshaya patra was a magical bowl given to Draupadi by Surya. It would produce innumerable amount of foodstuffs and would continue to do so until Draupadi ate her meal. On this occasion Draupadi had already partaken her meal and the bowl would not produce anything more. Durvasa being an irascible sage had to be served or he would curse Draupadi and her husbands. At such an odd moment, Krishna appeared before Draupadi and Pandavas and said that he was very hungry. Draupadi wept and said she had nothing to offer him. Krishna took the patra from Draupadi and ate a grain of rice that was sticking to the Akshaya patra. Durvasa and his students hunger gets satiated immediately by this act of Krishna. Thus, Krishna saved the Pandavas from the curse of Durvasa.
- Sahadeva was very good in Astrology. Duryodhana, on the advice of Shakuni approached Sahadeva in order to seek the right time (muhurta) to start the Mahabharata war so that the Kauravas will be victorious. Sahadeva disclosed the same for the Kauravas in spite of knowing that Kauravas were their enemy, as Sahadeva was known to be very honest. Then, Krishna planned to create an eclipse much before the beginning of the war. In the mean time, both Sun and Moon got shocked by Krishna's thought and appeared before Krishna stating that this will create a huge imbalance in the entire Universe. Then, Krishna declared that as Earth, Moon and Sun are together in one place, this in itself was an eclipse.
- Krishna rescued Arjuna from Karna's shakti weapon by not exposing him to Karna, until Karna used it against Bhima's son - Ghatotkacha.
- When Karna shot Nagastra on Arjuna, Krishna applied pressure to the chariot by his foot and thus sunk it, as a result of which the astra missed Arjuna's head and hit his crown instead.
- When Ashwatthama launched the Narayanastra on the Pandavas immediately after the death of Dronacharya, Krishna rescues the Pandava Army by instructing them to put down their arms and to surrender themselves completely towards the weapon. Bhima refused to do so since it would be cowardliness on his part. Krishna protected Bhima by shielding him and showing his back to the astra.
- When Bhagadatta launched the Vaishnava astra on Arjuna, Krishna intervened it immediately. Consequently, this weapon turned into a garland and fell on Krishna's neck. The Vaishnava astra is an astra of Vishnu. In this way, that weapon came back to Vishnu and Arjuna was saved.
- Duryodhana is going to meet his mother on the last day of the battle. His mother has told him to take a bath and enter her tent naked, like an infant. On the way he meets Krishna who mocks him and instigates him to wear the leaves of banana tree in order to cover his thighs before meeting Gandhari. When Gandhari removes her blindfold and looks at Duryodhana, the skin on his body turns hard like vajra or diamond. Unfortunately his thighs remain unaffected and thus vulnerable as they were covered with the leaves. This weakness was later exploited by Bhima in order to defeat Duryodhana in Gadayuddha.
- Krishna saved the Pandavas when Ashwatthama ambushed the Pandava camp at night. Due to this, Ashwatthama ended up killing the Upapandavas instead of Pandavas.
- Krishna revived Parikshit who was killed in Uttara's womb by Ashwatthama's misuse of Brahmastra.
- Krishna saved Bheema from getting killed from the hands of Dhritarashtra when all the Pandavas came to meet him after the war. Dhritarashtra insists each one of the Pandavas to hug him. When, Bheema approached Dhritarashtra, then Krishna instructed him to place Bheema's iron statue that was used by Duryodhana while practicing Gadayuddha, before Dhritarashtra instead of Bhima himself hugging Duryodhana's father. Dhritarashtra crushed the iron statue into pieces. Thus, Krishna prevented Bhima from getting crushed by Dhritarashtra.
- Krishna helps Pandavas establish their kingdom in the Khandava Vana by asking Agni to 'eat' all the vegetation there. He also captures Mayasura who asks Arjuna to spare his life and compensates by building the fabulous Indraprastha and Mayasabha.
- Krishna plays an instrumental role in Jarasandha's death. He gives the vital secret to Bhima by pulling apart a straw and throwing it opposite directions thus indicating the way of killing Jarasandha.
- Krishna went as a peace messenger to Duryodhana to try and negotiate to settle the matter without a war. He asks Duryodhana to give the Pandavas just five villages and be in peace. Duryodhana refuses to do so and thus the War becomes imminent.
- When both Arjuna and Duryodhana ask for Krishna's assistance in the war, Krishna asks Arjuna first. Arjuna, naturally, chooses the unarmed Krishna leaving the Narayani Sena to Duryodhana.
- if it had not been for Krishna then Arjuna would have had to immolate himself, as he would not have killed Jayadratha.
Parents of the Pandavas
The first three of the Pandavas were the sons of Kunti, (Pandu's first wife) and the younger two were the sons of Madri (Pandu's second wife). Since Pandu had been cursed to die if ever he had intercourse with a woman, the actual fatherhood of the children is traditionally attributed to various gods, in virtue of a boon that Kunti had received from Durvaasa and had transferred to Madri. Thus, Yudhisthira was the son of Dharma, the god of righteousness; Bhima the son of Vayu, the wind-god; Arjuna the son of Indra, the sky-god; and Nakula and Sahadeva the sons of the Ashwini Gods. Karna was also born of Kunti Devi, and was the son of Surya, the Sun God.
Iravati Karve has suggested in her book, Yuganta, that the actual father of Yudhisthira, or of all of the brothers, may have been Vidura (probably since he was considered to be an avatar of Yama), and that this was edited and hidden in the story to strengthen the claim for the kingdom by the brothers. Vidura had been cursed by Sage Mandavya in his last birth that he would take birth as a man and suffer the fate of never becoming a king despite having the qualities of a perfect ruler. And so he was born as Vidura.
However, Iravati Karve's theory has been criticised by many Mahabaharata authorities like Buddhadeb Bose and Nrsimhaprasad Bhaduri on grounds that the authors of the Mahbharata had no need to "hide" about Yudhisthira's birth when he apparently writes explicitly and undauntedly about all "illicit" relationships.
A description of the Pandavas according to their wife, Draupadi
The Pandava brothers were collectively married to Draupadi. On one occasion, Draupadi was kidnapped and abducted from a hermitage in the forest by the wicked king Jayadratha. When her husbands learned of the crime, they came in hot pursuit. Seeing them approach, Jayadratha asked Draupadi to describe them. Angrily, Draupadi told the king his time was up, and that the knowledge would do him no good. She then proceeded to give the description. (Mahābhārat, Book III: Varna Parva, Section 268.)
- According to Draupadi, Yudhisthira possessed a "complexion like that of pure gold, possessed of a prominent nose and large eyes, and endued with a slender make." Master of the spear. He was just, had a correct sense of morality, and was merciful to surrendering foes. Draupadi counseled Jayadratha to run to Yudhisthira and to beg for forgiveness.
- Draupadi described Bhima as tall and long-armed. In a display of ferocity, he was "biting his lips, and contracting his forehead so as to bring the two eyebrows together." The master of the mace, his superhuman feats had earned him great renown. "They that offend him are never suffered to live. He never forgets a foe. On some pretext or other he wreaks his vengeance."
- Arjuna she praised as the greatest of archers, intelligent, second to none "with senses under complete control." Neither lust nor fear nor anger could make him forsake virtue. Though capable of withstanding any foe, he would never commit an act of cruelty.
- Nakula, said Draupadi, was "the most handsome person in the whole world." An accomplished master swordsman, he was also "versed in every question of morality and profit" and "endued with high wisdom." He was unflinchingly devoted to his brothers, who in turn regarded him as more valuable than their own lives. The name Nakula generally means full of love and the male characteristics implied by the name are: Intelligence, Focus, Hard-Work, Handsomeness, Health, Attractiveness, Success, Popularity, Respect, and unconditional Love.
- Finally, Sahadeva was the youngest of the brothers, and like the others formidable in war and observant of morality. Master of the swords "Heroic, intelligent, wise and ever wrathful, there is not another man equal unto him in intelligence or in eloquence amid assemblies of the wise."
Kerala and Pandavas
The Thrichittattu Maha Vishnu Temple in Alappuzha District is believed to have been built by Yudhishtira. The Thrikodithanam Maha Vishnu Temple at Changanacherry in Kottayam District is believed to have been built by Sahadeva, the youngest of Pandavas.  In Malappuram District, there is a place called Edakara whose origins are believed to be from the name of a village in West Bengal called Ekachakra where Pandavas are believed to have stayed during their exile. Near Chengannur in Alappuzha district, there is a hill called Pandavanpara. It is believed that Pandavas stayed here for a while during their years in exile. The five temples included in Divyadesams are those at which the five Pandavas are believed to have worshipped- Yudhisthira at Chengannur, Bhima at Thiruppuliyoor, Arjuna at Thiruvaaranvilai, Nakula at Thiruvanvandoor and Sahadeva at Thrikodithanam. At Muthukulam near Harippad in Alappuzha District, there is a temple called Pandavarkavu whose founder is believed to be Kunti.
- Chakravarti V. Narasimhan; The Mahabharata. Columbia University Press, 1965.
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- The Mahābhārata of Vyasa, translated from Sanskrit into English by Kisari Mohan Ganguli and published online at sacred-texts.com.