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In the Mahabharata, a Hindu epic text, the Pandavas are the five acknowledged sons of Pandu, by his two wives Kunti and Madri, who was the princess of Madra. Their names are Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva. All five brothers were married to the same woman, Draupadi.
The word Pandava is derived from their father's name, Pandu (Sanskrit: पाण्डु) and means "descendants (sons) of Pandu". The other epithets of the Pandava group are:
- Panduputra (Sanskrit: पाण्डुपुत्र) - sons of Pandu
- Pandavakumara (Sanskrit: पाण्डवकुमार) - young Pandavas
- Kaunteya (Sanskrit: कौन्तेय) - sons of Kunti (used only for Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna. They are also called Partha, since Pritha is another name of Kunti.[clarification needed] Later Karna was also called Kaunteya when his real identity as Kunti's son came to be known after the war)
- Madreya (Sanskrit: माद्रेय) - sons of Madri (used only for Nakula and Sahadeva)
- Yudhishthira: The eldest Pandava brother. His name means "one who is steadfast even during war". His parents were Kunti and Dharma, god of virtue, justice and morality. Though he lacked the characteristic combat prowess of a Kshatriya, Yudhishthira was one of the most virtuous men, skilled in the duties of a king and steadfast in the path of dharma. He was a good king who, along with his brothers, founded the prosperous city of Indraprastha. In consequence of Krishna's machinations and also by his brothers' conquest of the world, Yudhishthira became the emperor of the world. He performed two Ashwamedha sacrifices and one Rajasuya sacrifice. Yudhishthira learnt to control the dice from the Sage Brihadaswa and became good at playing chess. His other names are Ajatshatru ("without enemies") and Dharmaraja ("admired for virtues").
- Bhima: The second Pandava brother. His name means "of terrible might". His parents were Kunti and Vayu, the god of air and wind, who was known for his might. Bhima has the physical strength and prowess equal to a hundred elephants and was very athletic. He was aggressive and prone to anger. Of all the brothers, he alone opposed Yudhishthira, although very loyal to him, for his questionable decisions opposing common sense in the name of dharma. Bhima was devoted to his family and was their natural protector. He was a master in wielding the mace. He was also a powerful archer, having fought Drona and Ashwatthama and Karna on several occasions. Bhima was also very skilled in diverse areas of warfare, including wrestling, charioteering, riding elephants and sword fighting. Along with Arjuna, he went on expeditions to conquer the kingdoms to the east and south. During the Rajasuya Yagna, Bhima subjugated the kingdoms of the eastern direction completely. He slew Krishna's most dangerous enemy, Jarasandha, in a wrestling bout, and slew the Matsya commander, Kichaka, for molesting Draupadi. During the war, Bhima was most famous for slaying one hundred Kauravas and Duryodhana himself. He was also skilled in chopping wood, cooking, culinary arts and sciences. Bhima's other name was Vrikodara ("wolf bellied"). However, he was selfish as well.
- Arjuna: The third Pandava brother. His name relates to "arjana" or earning. His parents were Kunti and Indra, king of the gods and the god of the sky and war. He was very virtuous and avoided unjust acts. He was known for his singleminded concentration and his devotion to Krishna. Arjuna was more fortunate than his brothers as he was the favourite of Bhishma, popular among the people, famous among the gods and attractive to women. He was the favorite disciple of his guru Drona, who taught weapons. Arjuna was ambidextrous and perhaps the greatest of archers, having mastered archery to the highest possible level. He was rivalled by Bhishma, Drona and Karna. In those days, archery was considered to be the foremost of all fighting disciplines, and Arjuna's mastery over it contributed to his popularity. Arjuna was a complete master archer, a supreme chariot warrior and had also obtained near-perfect mastery over almost all divine, celestial and esoteric weapons, along with the secrets of invoking and recalling them. He spent five years acquiring and mastering divine weapons from Indra and the other gods. He also acquired the mastery over the rarest and the most powerful weapon, the Pashupatastra, from Lord Shiva himself. He also had command over devastating weapons like the Brahmastra.
- Nakula: The fourth Pandava brother. His name means "without kula (or, lineage)". His parents were Madri and the Ashwin twin Nasatya. He was attractive, humble, diplomatic and helpful. During the Rajasuya Yagna, Nakula conquered the western direction. During the Kurukshetra War, he slew many warriors including many sons of Karna. Nakula and his younger twin brother, Sahadeva, were excellent sword fighters. Nakula was also a master of equestrian arts and sciences, skilled in wielding unusual weapons, in chariotry and in riding horses.
- Sahadeva: The fifth and the youngest brother of the Pandavas. His name means "along gods" or "with gods". His parents were Madri and the Ashwin twin Dasra. Sahadeva was the wisest of all the Pandava brothers, and the most mysterious and introverted. Like Nakula, Sahadeva was a master of sword fighting. He was also skilled in fighting and taming wild bulls. Additionally, he was a skilled cowherd, capable of maintaining cattle, treating their diseases, assessing their health, milking them and in producing milk products. Sahadeva acquired mastery over the science of Dharma, religious scriptures and other branches of knowledge under the tutelage of the Sage Brihaspati, the preceptor of the gods. During the Rajasuya War, Sahadeva conquered the southern direction, up to the kingdom of Lanka. During the Kurukshetra War, Sahadeva slew the wicked Shakuni and his son, Uluka.
- Karna: The unknown Pandava. His name refers to the earrings he was born with. His parents were Kunti and Surya, god of the Sun. He was born many years before Kunti's marriage to Pandu and the subsequent birth of the Pandavas. When she was unmarried, Kunti rashly tested the power of Durvasa's mantra, invoking Surya. Bound by the power of the mantra, Surya sired Karna with Kunti. Karna was born with golden armour and earrings, which granted him complete immunity to divine weapons and any physical threat. Fearing censure, Kunti abandoned him and he was subsequently found and raised by a family of charioteers. He helped Duryodhana kidnap the princess of Kalinga in her Swayamvara, and he singlehandedly defeated all the kings in battle. When criticized by Bhishma, Karna pointed out that Bhishma had done the same thing in the past. Karna was the only warrior to defeat and humble the powerful Jarasandha in battle. For the first and only time in his life, Jarasandha surrendered to Karna and made an alliance with him. When Bhishma ridiculed Karna for his pathetic combat prowess, Karna single-handedly conquered the entire world and made Duryodhana the emperor. During the Kurukshetra War, Bhishma declared that the Pandavas were invincible. Karna proved him wrong by defeating Yudhishthira, Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva on several occasions during the battle. He also defeated Arjuna but spared his life due to the sun going down. Despite Parashurama's curse, Karna was able to invoke the Brahmastra, albeit with great difficulty. Urged by Krishna, Arjuna beheaded Karna when he was trying to pull his chariot wheel from the mud. Karna possessed the might of 10,000 powerful bull elephants and was a great master in archery, surpassing even Dronacharya, Bhishma and Arjuna . When Kunti revealed Karna's true origin to the Pandavas, they were completely devastated. Yudhishthira nearly lost the will to rule the kingdom after finding the truth about Karna.
The story begins with the introduction of the brothers' parents. Amongst the primary antagonists was Duryodhana (loosely translated as "unconquerable"), cousin to the Pandavas. He was the eldest of 100 brothers known as the Kauravas, who were born to Dhritarashtra, the blind king of Hastinapura, and his queen Gandhari, princess of Gandhara.
The Pandavas were born to Pandu and his wives, Kunti and Madri by the boon given to Kunti by Durvasa, that she could have a son by any god whom she respects without having any marital affair. After Madri's marriage, Pandu voluntary renounced royal life as penance for having accidentally killed the sage Rishi Kindama and his wife. At his death, Rishi Kindama cursed Pandu that he would surely die if he attempted to have sexual relationships with his wives. Because of this curse, Kunti had to use her boon to get sons. She bore him three sons: Yudhishthira by the god of Dharma, Bhima by the god of Wind, and Arjuna by Lord Indra. At the request of Pandu she shared this boon with Madri to get her sons, the twins Nakula and Sahadeva from the divine Ashvin twins.
After the death of Pandu and Madri's sati, Kunti brought the Pandavas back to Hastinapur. As children, the Pandavas and Kauravas often played together. However, Bhima (one of the Pandavas) was always at odds with the Kauravas, particularly with 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 Yudhishthira 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 Yudhishthira. Shakuni commissioned the construction of a palace in Varnavrata, secretly built by incorporating flammable materials into the structure, most notably the lacquer known as lac. This palace was known as Lakshagraha. Duryodhana then successfully lobbied Dhritarashtra to send Yudhishthira to represent the royal household in Varnavrata during the celebrations of Shiva Mahotsava. The plan was to set the palace on fire during the night while Yudhishthira would likely be asleep. Yudhishthira left for Varnavrata, accompanied by his four brothers and their mother Kunti. Fortunately for them, the plan was discovered by their paternal uncle Vidura, who was very loyal to them and an extraordinarily wise man. In addition, Yudhishthira 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 palace as it was set afire.
After their flight from the palace, the five brothers lived in the forests for some time disguised as Brahmins. They heard from a group of travelling sages about a contest (Swayamvara) being held in the Kingdom of Panchala 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, and they 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 Yudhishthira'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 Hastinapur 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. Owing to this, bet after bet, Yudhishthira 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. Yudhishthira 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 Yudhishthira that he still had his wife Draupadi to place as a bet and if Yudhishthira won, he would return everything to the Pandavas. Yudhishthira fell for the ruse and bet Draupadi, losing her too. At this point Duryodhana ordered that Draupadi, who was now a slave to him, be brought to the court. None of the Pandavas fought for their wife's honour. 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 (grandsire of the clan), Dronacharya (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 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 Lord Krishna protected her by providing her garments an unending length. Finally, as the blind king Dhritharasthra realized that this humiliation could prompt Draupadi to curse his sons, he intervened, apologizing to Draupadi for the behaviour of his sons, and turned the winnings of 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. They spent the 13th year masquerading as peasants in the service of the royal family of Virata, the king of Matsya. Upon completion of the terms of the last bet, the Pandavas returned and demanded that their kingdom be rightfully returned to them. Duryodhana refused to yield Indraprastha. For the sake of peace and to avert a disastrous war, Krishna proposed that if Hastinapur agrees to give the Pandavas only five villages, they would be satisfied and would make no more demands. Duryodhana vehemently refused, commenting that he would 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 lasted 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 five brothers survived. After having won the war Yudhishthira was crowned the king.
Death of Pandavas
The Pandavas ruled Hastinapur for 36 years and established a righteous kingdom. Shortly after the death of Lord Krishna, they all decided that the time had come for them to renounce the world, as the age of Kali yuga had started.
So the five Pandavas and Draupadi left to the path of liberation. For this purpose they all climbed Mount Kailash, which leads to the Swarga Loka. Unfortunately on their way, all except Yudhisthira slipped and died one by one. Yudhisthira was accompanied by a dog who was none other than Lord Yama himself.
The first to die was Draupadi; she was imperfect because she preferred Arjuna over her other husbands. Then it was Sahadeva, imperfect because he was smug about his knowledge. He was followed by Nakula, imperfect because he was arrogant about his good looks. Then fell Arjuna, imperfect because he was always jealous of other archers. Next was Bhima, imperfect because he was a glutton. Only the eldest Pandava, Yudhisthira, reached the door of Swarga Loka, carried on Lord Indra's chariot. On reaching Heaven he did not find either his virtuous brothers or his wife Draupadi. Instead he saw Karna, Bhishma, Dronacharya etc. and their sons.
He wanted an explanation from Lord Yama, the lord of death. Lord Yama explained that the Kauravas had been allowed into heaven because they died as warriors on the battlefield. This earned them so much merit and credit that it wiped out all their debts. Yudhisthira demanded to know where his brothers and his wife were. He was then taken to hell. Lord Yama explained that they were experiencing the reactions of their actions but it was temporary. Once the debt had been repaid, they would join them in Swarga. Yudhisthira loyally met his brothers, but the sight and sound of gore and blood horrified him. Though initially he was tempted to flee, he mastered himself and remained after hearing the voices of his beloved brothers and Draupadi calling out to him, asking him to stay with them in their misery. Yudhisthira decided to remain, ordering the divine charioteer to return. He preferred to live in hell with good people than in a heaven of his enemies. Eventually this turned out to be another illusion to test him.
Krishna's help to Pandavas
Krishna, being a well wisher of the Pandavas, helped them in various ways during the time of their ordeals.
Parents of Pandavas
The first three of the Pandavas were the sons of Kunti, a Yadava and Pandu's first wife. 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 the sage Durvasa and had transferred to Madri. Thus-
- Yudhishthira - son of Yama, the god of death
- Bhima - son of Vayu, the god of wind
- Arjuna - son of Indra, the god of rain
- Nakula - son of Ashwini Kumara Nasatya (god of health)
- Sahadeva - son of Ashwini Kumara Darsa (god of medicines)
Description by Draupadi of Pandavas
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. (Mahabharat, Book III: Varna Parva, Section 268.)
- According to Draupadi, Yudhishthira 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 counselled Jayadratha to run to Yudhishthira 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."
- Upinder Singh 2016, p. 26.
- Chakravarti V. Narasimhan; The Mahabharata. Columbia University Press, 1965.
- Singh, Upinder (2016), A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, Pearson Education, ISBN 978-93-325-6996-6
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