Son of Kunti by the god Indra, Arjuna is, next to Karna, the greatest warrior in the poem and one of the five heroes of the Mahabharata. Trained by the military expert Drona from a young age, this Pandava prince is skilled in archery, able to string and release dozens of arrows with deadly accuracy in mere seconds. A gallant warrior, Arjuna is called Vijaya, or "victor" and Dhanamjaya, or "winner of wealth." Although an unconquerable fighter at the start of the great battle, Arjuna experiences an intense feeling of self-doubt and loses his resolution to fight when he sees his kinsmen lined up against him. His courage is restored by Krishna, who sings to him the Bhagavad Gita, or the "Song of the Lord." With these words the divine Krishna convinces Arjuna that death is merely an illusion, that souls are immortal and return, reincarnated, to the earth after a period in heaven.
Arjuna's exploits include his journey to Indra's heaven—where his father, the king of the gods, advises him—and his discovery of magical weapons to aid the Pandavas in the war against the Kauravas. He also draws King Drupada's bow at Draupadi's svayamvara, or ceremony of self-choice, winning her as wife for himself and his brothers. He defends the town of Matsya from the attacking forces of Duryodhana, and slays Karna during the climactic moment of the great war. Near the end of the poem, he ascends to heaven with his brothers and wife, after a brief time of...
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Karna, "the archer-king," is son of Surya, god of the sun, and Kunti. A magnificent warrior, Karna is born with natural armor attached to his skin, making him nearly invincible in battle. Because she is unmarried when she gives birth to him, Kunti sends him adrift on a river, hoping that he will be found by worthy parents. He is adopted and raised by Adhiratha, a charioteer, and travels to the imperial capital of Hastinapura when he grows up. Duryodhana, who has been looking for a warrior skilled enough to defeat his enemy Arjuna, makes Karna king of Anga. Thus, Karna fights on the side of the Kauravas against his own half-brothers, the Pandavas, in the great war.
Karna is a tragic figure in the Mahabharata. He remains true to his dharma, or sacred duty as a warrior, even when it causes him great personal sorrow to do so. Once he swears to fight his brothers, he never rescinds his vow. He also deeply regrets the fact that his mother will not acknowledge him publically as another of her sons. When the god Indra, Arjuna's father, requests his armor, Karna gives it to him, even though he knows this will put him at a great disadvantage on the battlefield. In return for this sacrifice, Karna asks for a weapon of incredible power, a magical dart that will assure the destruction of any enemy, but may be used only once. The Pandavas force the use of this weapon against them early, so that it will no longer be a threat to the Pandavas. Without his...
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The earthly manifestation of the Hindu god Vishnu (the Preserver), Krishna is chief of the Yadavas, a race hailing from the ancient city of Dwaraka in western India. A physical incarnation, or avatar, of the god in mortal form, Krishna is the binding force and spiritual center of the Mahabharata. His name means "dark," and Krishna is usually represented as having dark blue skin. Though mortal in the poem, he is able to reveal his divine form to those around him. Possessing the wisdom of the all-pervasive Vishnu who is said to "repose in truth, truth in him," Krishna is infallible. During the great war, however, he refuses to fight on either side. Instead he offers himself, unarmed, or ten thousand of his Yadava warriors. Arjuna chooses the former, while Duryodhana happily takes the latter.
Krishna is sometimes called Krishna Vyasa Dvaipayana and credited with composing the Mahabharata, yet in the poem he is Arjuna's friend and charioteer, a character separate from the poet and seer Vyasa. As Arjuna's companion, Krishna is present throughout the work, though he makes his divine presence known most effectively when he sings the "Song of the Lord," the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna's song serves to dispel Arjuna's doubts about the war. Krishna imparts his wisdom to the warrior and destroys his fear, informing him that death is an illusion, a moment of passage between one existence and the next. Krishna tells Arjuna that he must fight with...
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Son of Pandu's first wife Kunti by Dharma (the god of justice), Yudhishthira is the oldest of the five Pandava brothers and is destined to be king of Kurujangala. Noble and aloof, he is the foremost example of the Hindu warrior who follows the precepts of dharma, or sacred duty. Seldom perturbed, Yudhishthira is courageous, strong, prudent, and patient. His name means "firm in battle," a quality which he displays near the end of the great war, as he forsakes his otherwise tranquil exterior and savagely attacks the Kaurava general, Salya. He also demonstrates his courage and propriety by dropping his weapons and armor prior to the battle, and asking the permission of Bhishma, Drona, and Kripa to fight them.
Yudhishthira's most notable traits, apart from his detachment, are his taste for gambling and inability to refuse a challenge. (This last is related to his code of conduct as a warrior, and therefore is not regarded as a flaw). Duryodhana and Sakuni exploit these qualities of Yudhishthira's character by inviting him to take part in a game of dice. Yudhishthira agrees and, due to their cheating, loses first his kingdom of Indraprastha, then—because he will not stop gambling even though he is losing—goes on to lose his brothers, their shared wife Draupadi, and himself, thus setting the stage for the great battle.
After the war, Yudhishthira, now king, feels a great responsibility for the near total destruction of his people. He...
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Arjuna's son by Subhadra, Abhimanyu is killed in the great war by Duhsasana after his chariot is cut off from the main Pandava force by King Jayadratha. He fathers one son, Parikshit, by his wife Uttarah.
A charioteer from the kingdom of Anga, Adhiratha adopts and raises Karna after finding him floating in the Ganges river.
The eldest princess of Banaras, Amba is abducted by Bhishma along with her sisters Ambika and Ambalika to serve as wives for Vichitravirya. She refuses, and instead flees west to be with her true love, the King of Salwa. She later throws herself into a flaming pyre in order to be reincarnated as Sikhandin.
The second of Vichitravirya's wives, Ambalika is impregnated by the poet Vyasa. Frightened by Vyasa's appearance, she turns pale, and gives birth to a pale-skinned son whom she names Pandu, meaning "white," "pale," or "pale yellow."
Though married to Vichitravirya, Ambika's son Dhritarashtra is fathered by the poet Vyasa. She reacts to Vyasa's frightful appearance by closing her eyes, and her son Dhritarashtra is born blind.
The learned son of a Naga and a hermit, Astika asks King Janamejaya to stop the snake sacrifice on behalf of his people.
Son of Drona, Aswatthaman is a mighty warrior who fights with the Kaurava...
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