Arjuna is a natural warrior from his earliest childhood. His discipline came from a deep joy and pride in his athleticism, his sense of his body, his co-ordination of eye and hand. War-training was not blood-lust, but a pride in skill, as well as love for his teacher, Drona. The latter takes to teaching Arjuna to shoot arrows at night, and there is a shared joy in the skill of archery, a single-minded devotion to the discipline. It is this detached use of skill without personal grievance that Krishna was to remind Arjuna of in the Bhagavad Gita – moral code enjoined violence, but only when one was sure that it was both objectively just, and subjectively detached.
Arjuna’s life and learning was just such a preparation: when he got it right, “Drona shuddered with pleasure” (Book of Beginnings: 273). Arjuna’s successful bowmanship eventually wins the hand of the much sought-after queen, Draupadi. Krishna smilingly congratulates him with a “festoon of white flowers” (Ibid.: 353). It is the beginning of a momentous friendship. Arjuna beats back the kings who question his right over Draupadi. It is decided that he has to share his wife with his brothers. Marriage brings together some of the more uncomfortable mixtures of dharma and kama, but the brothers and Draupadi seem to manage their co-habitation. But perhaps it was always fragile, and one day, the contract breaks. The agreement was that none would enter the room when another brother was with Draupadi. However, at one point Arjuna is forced to, as he needed to get weapons urgently to help an importunate Brahmin. The punishment was to spend twelve months in a forest, away from the others.
Arjuna leaves with a retinue to the forests on the banks of the Ganga. He decides to use this separation from his brothers to concentrate on furthering his martial skills for the war that everyone senses was imminent. But one cannot predict what happens in forests, amidst communities whose customs may be very different.
One day, bathing in the river, he finds himself sharply pulled down into the waters by the daughter of the king of snakes, a woman named Ulupi. Under the waters, he discovers, there is a parallel order of life. Arjuna offers the fire rites as he would on land – this imagination of a subterranean world is similar to the final episode of Duryodhana’s life where he waits wounded, protected by the waters of a lake. In the case of Ulupi, the fact that she is a snake/human is consistent with the concern with snakes throughout the Mahabharata. After all, the whole narrative of the epic – the outermost frame –had started with Arjuna’s descendent Janamajeya attempting to kill snakes. Snakes appear in many stories, open-ended symbols, sometimes benign, sometimes malevolent, always powerful, a testament to the enduring mystery of nature.
The episode with Ulupi is a charming and fantastical romance – like parts of the Nala–Damayanti story, it affirms the simpler meaning of kama. Ulupi falls irresistibly, helplessly in love with Arjuna: “I am churned” (Ibid.: 400). Arjuna too is immediately attracted to Ulupi, but he feels obliged to tell her that part of his punishment was that he had to be celibate. Ulupi assures him (with a non-human logic?) that the vow of celibacy applied only to his relations with Draupadi! She argues that her love was greater than any punishment that he would suffer for such an infraction. Thus it must be honoured! Without too much hesitation Arjuna spends the night with her. The next morning, he rises through the waters and continues with his journey. All around are verdant, sacred landscapes, mountains and coasts and rivers. More romance surely awaits amidst such fertility. The vow of celibacy seems to be long forgotten, or perhaps Ulupi has successfully convinced him.
A princess Chitrangada awaits him. Her father insists that she could only be promised to Arjuna if he promises to impregnate her, giving the kingdom an heir. Arjuna spends three months, unlike the solitary night with Ulupi. But after many nights, he reverts from his romantic to his warrior self, and returns to a life of wandering. Such recesses are always filled with him saving quietist ascetics from enemies. He has never forgotten his primary duty:
A baron’s life is always conquest. For were he to lack all virtue, a man of prowess still routs his enemies: were he to possess all virtues, what use is he without prowess? All virtues have their being in power...afterward the saffron robe will be easily available for hermits who hanker for peace.— (The Book of the Assembly Hall: 62)
It is precisely because of – and not in spite of – the fact that he is a powerful warrior that Arjuna can have adventures in love, and it is his warrior-ship that arguably causes him to be desirable in the first place. The warrior has to know when to put on his armour, but also when to lay his quiver aside. The sage Prahlada had noted: “He who is gentle at the right time and hard at the right time finds happiness in this world and the world hereafter” (The Book of the Forest: 276). Arjuna returns to Chitrangada to see the son he has begotten, but does not stay. Instead, he joins up and picnics with Krishna. Together, they “fetched foodstuffs...watched actors and dancers” (The Book of the Beginning: 405).
Krishna takes him to his home city of Dvaraka. What was supposed to be a punishment with regard to Draupadi turns out to be an adventure of love and friendship: “For many nights he stayed with Krishna in Krishna’s lovely house that was filled with gems and pleasurable things” (Ibid.). Arjuna exemplifies the warrior ethos – he is not a pure hedonist (he has a great sense of discipline, loyalty to brothers, friends, wives). But perhaps more than any other character, his gravitas was complemented by a carefree counter-ethos of adventure and nomadism. There is also a warm sense of the fantastical – underwater snake-lovers and outlandish non-human enemies he is always happy to wound or kill. The warrior-class, when not soldiering, was happy to indulge in peace’s vivid pleasures.
Arjuna and Krishna enjoy the pleasures of each other’s company, but also jewellery, music, fragrant aloe and sandalwood, flecked and osprey hued horses, feasts in opulently terraced and turreted homes, alcohol: “drunk, always war-crazed, wearing divine garlands and raiment” (Ibid.: 406). This is kama in its fullness, and sans guilt – its full meaning involves all these elements of the kingdoms of peace and prosperity: fantasy, revelry, pleasure, friendship.
Excerpted with permission from The Moral Imagination of the Mahabharata, Nikhil Govind, Bloomsbury.