Dusshera and the Story of Arjun

Everyone (Indian, mostly) knows that the Dusshera is the 10th day after the festival of Nine Nights (NavRatri) celebrated widely across India in one form or another. Dusshera is also known as Vijaya Dashami (the tenth day, the day of Victory). This is the day when Lord Ram won his battle over the King Ravan –

Lord Ram at War with ten-headed king Ravan

also, the day when Goddess Durga slew the demon that was harassing the heavens and the earth.

Goddess Durga Slaying the Demon Mahishasur

Image source: http://we-indians.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/dasara-dussehra-2009-300×225.jpg

There is one more story associated with Dusshera and I believe it is something that the young people can relate to more easily, because the victory of the good over the evil is an idea everyone accepts, but it is a little too abstract for me.

OK, so here the story goes. It is from the Mahabharat (one of the two epics, the other being Ramayan). The five brothers – the Pandavs had been sent away from their kingdom for a 12-year Vanvas – a term under the strict condition of anonymity in its 12th year. It was agreed that if they were recognised as Pandavs, they would have to start the term all over again. Hence, even if they could stay in the cities, it would make more sense for them to live in remote places and wilderness – after all, who would not recognise the famous five brothers?

Once upon a time during this Vanvas, as the 12th year approached its completion, the Pandavs came near the city of Viratnagar. The Pandavs were Kshatriyas (the ruling class of warriors) and also accomplished in the use of weapons. In fact, Bhim was unparalleled master in wielding the Gada, and Arjun was the best Banavali – the archer who never lost. Sahadev and Nakul – the youngest were expert horsemen and knew recognition and training of horses like no one else. If the five went into the city with these weapons and implements, they would doubtlessly be recognised. So they bundled up their stuff and put it high up on a very old Khijdo tree. As a popular belief went, Khijdo is a usual place where the spirits that have not found their peaceful rest, hang out.

Now the Pandavs entered the city and went to the King Virat. They had all changed their clothing and names, so when they narrated their skills to the king, the king soon hired them for various jobs: Yudhishtheer the eldest became the counsel to the king, Arjun became a hermaphrodite and taught dancing to the princesses, Bhim became the cook, Sahdev-Nakul took charge of the king’s steeds and Draupadi became the hairdresser to the queen.

As per the Indian style of story-telling, there are tales within the tale. There is a story behind why Arjun became a ‘woman’ and chose dancing. We will take that up some other time. But it seems that if he offered his services as an archer, he would be recognised the moment he used his bow called the Gandiv, which had the divine blessing and made a distinctive sound when its thread was put on both its ends. If one saw Arjun wield it and shoot at the target, there would be no mistaking his identity. Same was the case with Bhim and his use of Gada.

Thus, the brothers and Draupadi started their sojourn at Virat Nagri. This choice of the city was interesting, too. This small kingdom of Virat shared its border with the Kingdom on which the Pandavs had a claim, which was contested by their cousins – the Kauravs.

One day it so happened, that Arjun, who assumed the name Bruhannala was in the dance school teaching the princess Uttara. Suddenly there was a clamour and uproar, the queen was agitated. Arjun found that the Kauravs were forcing the herd of cows belonging to Virat, to cross the border into their state. In those days, it was common for the mighty to harass the relatively smaller kings and headmen in this way so that without a war, either some exchange could be worked out, or if no resistance is offered, resources could be gained.

That day was troublesome for the queen because the King was out of the town for some work. So, the young, inexperienced Prince Uttar as the second-in-line was expected to go for the fight. This was a matter of honor because there was hardly any greater insult to the Kshatriyas who could not protect their women and resources from an enemy. However, Uttar was a prince raised in protection and had no skills that a warrior has – much less the ability to lead his army. One needed both very badly if one was to face the Kaurav stalwarts including Guru Dron, Grandfather (Pitaamah) Bhishma and the master charioteer (Mahaarathi) Karna. So, Uttar, who apparently could not admit his fear to his mother – a woman, was preparing to go to the fight and his mother the queen Sudeshna was begging him not to go. As the queen begged more, Uttar was compelled more to declare how valiantly he would fight and how his victory over those thieves was certain. Hearing this, the princess Uttara jokingly asked her brother to take off the silk clothing of the Kauravas so that she could make her dolls’ clothes out of them. Kauravs were very effluent and could afford the kind of silk very few would get to see.

Now, Arjun had an obligation not to back off from a war cry.  Additionally, he was then an employee of that kingdom, and obligated to serve the employer’s interest – especially in the absence of the master. So, he soothed the queen saying that he had served the Pandav princes and he could be of help as a charioteer and an assistant to the fighting king. He also said that while he was alive, he would not let any harm befall the prince. Thus, reluctantly the queen let them go for rescuing their cows.

Now the first task for Arjun was to retrieve his Gandiv, and the arrows. He also had been gifted with Akshay Bhatho – a divine quiver that never runs out of bows. How did Arjun come to be gifted thus? Another story – another time 🙂

So – Arjun quickly took his chariot to the Khijdo tree and retrieved the weapons. Many of the weapons were divine, and it was necessary to first clean them and perform a puja in order to invoke their superlative, divine powers. As Arjun did this, the prince was awe-struck and became even shakier. So, as Arjun started loading his stuff into the chariot, the prince Uttar started to escape. Arjun grabbed him, put him at the back of the chariot and introduced himself. He asked the prince to run the chariot for him and assured him that he alone was sufficient to defeat the Kauravs. Uttar stared wide-eyed at this, because no one had claimed such mastery so confidently yet matter-of-factly before. And he was now having the rare honor of seeing one of the most famous and fabled Pandavs before him, dressed as a woman, supposed to be in 12-year hiding.

The duo soon pursued the Kauravs. Kauravs, knowing that Virat was away and also knowing that in his absence there was no one to offer any resistance, were also little relaxed in returning. Hence, when Arjun challenged them to stay and give them a fight, they were surprised. When they sensed that their challenger was a woman, they mockingly advised her to return since  no Kshatriya would fight with a woman. Arjun replied that not respond to this invitation would be a mistake. Before the Kauravs could act, an arrow each was shot at the feet of the Guru Dron, Acharya (Principal) Krup and Grandfather Bhishma. These were elders whom Arjun respected, and he could not have fought against, let alone assaulted anyone of them without their prior permission. (Such were the ethos of the warriors in those times!) The elders also shot arrows that passed over the head of Arjun, indicating that they had they had recognised their beloved disciple, or grandson , and had their blessings for him – and thus, the permission to fight.

The fight began, but the archer Arjun was invincible because his mastery had been blessed and strengthened on numerous occasions when he encountered the Gods, who admired Arjun’s archery. Arjun’s objective was to rescue the cows and not to kill his elders and brothers. (In India, cousins are considered as close as one’s brothers and sisters by blood) So, he shot an arrow that caused the entire Kaurav army to faint. Uttar took the cows back. He also removed the silk clothing that Kauravs were wearing – except those of the elders whom Arjun respected),  as the trophies for his sister Uttara. After all, who could dare – who had the audacity to take the Kaurav warriors’ clothes off after defeating them? It was unheard of, not even dreamed of. But Uttar did it as he had the backing of none other than the invincible Banavali Arjun.

Now THIS was on the day of Dusshera. It is the day when Arjun ended the time when he chose to suppress his qualities, his true character and had assumed a role and activities that were not truly himself. Dusshera is a celebration of, recognition of and respecting who one truly is. Correspondingly, it is also about giving up what encumbers or eclipses you, what hides the true you and what is not in your own best interest. It is about asserting one’s self even at the risk that when others recognise the real you, they might react in ways that mean trouble for you. That means, Dusshera symbolises one’s return to one’s true self and facing the consequences rather than hiding out in anonymity. The story also tells us that once this recognition occurs, we need to choose our tools and implements, maintain them and develop mastery over it. Even divine blessing cannot be given to the one who does not establish his mastery.

Arjun fighting the Kauravs while dressed as Bruhannala

Image Source: http://archives.chennaionline.com/festivalsnreligion/Articles/epicstory23.asp

Anyway, when the Kauravs recovered their senses, they immediately told their grandfather Bhishma that they had identified Arjun, and the other four also must be with him only. Since this was done, they clamoured for renewal of the punishment. What happened next is a long story again.. we will tell that story some other time.

Until then, happy Dusshera to you! May you find your true self, find the courage to assert it, and find the means and implements with which you will develop yourself!


11 thoughts on “Dusshera and the Story of Arjun

  1. bloodhound says:

    I really like such stories. Bedtime stories like these are the ones which i always crave for. I dont want to know whether they are true stories or not, but i wish to hear them every night( not read them, because i dont like reading :P) It’s a feat for me that i read this whole article!! It was good 🙂


    • 🙂 Thank you! Your comment surely encourages me.

      I often toy with an idea of voice-recording stories for my future grand-children, because I loved to hear them from my mother’s grandparents every single night we were with them!


  2. […] The busiest day of the year was October 17th with 75 views. The most popular post that day was Dusshera and the Story of Arjun. […]


  3. Nancy Khanna says:

    Hi Margie,

    Lovely story brought to life by your vivid writing style. Didn’t know this interpretation of Dussehra. I am going to send the link to my son.
    Thanks for sharing and look forward to reading more.. (the ones you have promised in this post)



  4. Kshema says:

    Dear Margie ma’m,

    An interesting narration of Arjuna’s character as Bruhannala. I went back in time (to my Class IV days) when I watched the old b/w Telugu movie ‘Nartanasala’ (The dancing hall) that depicted this story from Mahabharata. We get to learn so many things morals from our epics. This little story tells us about victory of good over evil, respect for elders, seeking permission before taking any major step, duty towards our protectors/shelter-givers, love for our youngsters etc.

    Thanks for reminding it.


    • Dear Kshema,

      I am suddenly thinking that may be we build these lesser-known stories for our children, grandchildren and just about anyone who cares.

      Thanks for encouragement, and I wait for some story-suggestions from you..


  5. bhavesh parekh says:

    really worth for young generations kids

    i also agree that it is our proud history



    • Thanks, Bhavesh.. These characters seem so familiar to me because they were essential aspects of my daily life – through books, through my mother’s grandmother’s stories on the starry nights when we went to her house for vacations.. to me, they are neither myths, nor history – they are discussions filled with interpretations and comments just as we would discuss any other characters in our family. So live, they are!


  6. Dear Rajesh,

    I do not know if Ram and Pandavs did not exist. For me anyone is real from whom I learn. Why waste breath in debating?

    But it was heartening for me to note your interest. I would sure put more ‘stories’ in this section 🙂



  7. Rajesh Gohel says:

    wow.. i knew about the agyaatwaas stuff but didnt konw about the fight that Arjun put in… its a revelation to me that dasshera also signifies something else.. unraveling ur true self.. once i a while, its good to do that i guess.. Interestingly, I once quoted to a colleague of mine that my mythological knowledge regarding Mahabharat and Ramayan is not great and he was upset with the use of the words mythology. He said, its not mythology, as is often quoted.. it is rather our proud history. So true.. would like to read more such stories.. 🙂


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