The Mahabharata Research
In the ancient Epic
Arjun is the actual protagonist in the original version of the epic. He's the only warrior who goes undefeated in the Mahabharata war. Widely accepted as the greatest warrior of the period by almost everyone in the epic (except Karna), his heriocs are unequealled. It is widely believed that the Mahabharata war would not have been won by the Pandavas without Krishna's guidance. But the most ignored fact is that the war would not have been won without Arjuna as well.
The third son on Kunti, Arjun, became the beloved student of Guru Drona just because of his passion for archery and dedication to learning. Drona loved him as much as he loved his son and shared the knowledge of almost all the special skills that he possessed. With utmost dedication to sharpening his archery skills, fuelled by the desire to become the greatest archer in the word, Arjun kept surprising everyone during his childhood. Impressed by his talent and hardwork, his teacher Drona promises to make him the best warrior in the world. And Arjuna grows to be the fighter he was groomed for. His first victory starts with the mighty Panchala Army where he humbled the powerful king Drupada, to avenge his Guru's humiliation. From then on he went around showcasing his skills and gathering appreciation and was renowned all around Aryavartha (the then known continent / kingdoms) as the greatest warrior alive. The rise of the empire of Indrapastha was due to the might of Arjuna and Bhima. And the most impressive factor is, Arjuna never stopped seeking knowledge and skills despite being regarded as the best. He continued his quest for acquiring special weapons throughout the epic, and probably this made the him the undefeated warrior until the end of the Mahabharata battle.
His humbling of the entire Kaurava army at the battle of Virata alone is sufficient to prove the superiority of his skills over that of all other mighty warriors. Arjuna was the only person whom Drona feared during the battle, despite knowing that Arjuna will not fight too hard against him. There are many instances during the war, where Drona describes the speed and shooting range of Arjuna as superior to all other warriors. The Samshaptakas considered it an honour to challenge Arjuna and be killed by him. Bhishma valued Arjuna as the single Maharathi on the Pandava side, but also added that the was sufficient to win the war for Pandavas. Karna chose Arjuna as his greatest enemy simply because he too wanted to be the best warrior in the world, and could see that Arjuna was earning that honour from every nook and corner.
Though Arjuna leads his journey of undefeated contests until the end of the Mahabharata war, he also tasted defeats in the later part of his life. He lost to his own son Babruvahana at Manipur. He lost to an unknown group of robbers while trying to protect Krishna's ladies. But despite these failures he encounted during his old age, he's simply the best warrior the epic presents us - not just because of his victories, but because of the efforts he took throughout his life to achieve those heights.
Behind the Hero
There are a handful of books and articles on the struggles and sacrifices of many heroes in the epic. But one would not easily find a book with a meaningful depiction of Arjuna's struggles. He had spent his entire childhood sharpening his skills. No other warrior in the epic has dedicated as much of time and effort for achieving his dream. Karna comes close, but Arjuna's hardwork throughout his adulthood places him ahead of everyone when it comes to perseverance. His real struggles started after becoming one of the greatest warriors. He along with his brothers suffered injustice at Varanavrat. He had to share the woman whom he just married (or got home for marrying). He had to go on pilgrimage/exile for breaking the rules made by the brothers. He went around winning battles for his elder brother, but at the end had to spend 13 years with his brothers in exile. But what is impressive about Arjuna is, he always kept seeking more skills and strength, even during the toughest phases of his life. No one had prepared for the great battle as Arjuna did. Even during the exile he chose to leave his brothers behind at the ashram, and go around learning new skills and aquiring new weapons, which at the end paid rich dividends. Karna equalled Arjuna's feats at the rangabhoomi, but when they met at the battlefield after years Arjuna definitely had an upperhand. The Arjuna whom Karna met at the Rangabhoomi and the one he faced in Virata were miles apart in terms of skills.
Arjuna's character in the epic is in fact a simple example of the complex nature of human beings. He was the most talked about and most feared warrior, but behind the courageous warrior hides a weaker heart. He loves his weapons more than most of the things in his life. At the same time, he values all relationships in his life. His obedience and dedication to his teacher Drona is indescribeable. His respect for the grandsire Bhishma is second to none. His love for this mother Kunti is a pinch more than that of his brothers. His friendship and devotion to Krishna is too selfless to describe. On the battlefield, he is a symbol of courage and strength, outside it, he's a man of emotions and relations. Even at the battlefield, when the hopes of the entire Pandava camp was resting on his shoulders, he was the most confused person. He wass deeply disturbed by the fact that he's going to fight his own kith and kin. It needed Krishna's maturity to bring Arjuna back to reality. Though Arjuna seems tender when it comes to relationships, he also has an arrogant side to his nature. His belief on his own skills were somewhere close to the bounday of self-confidence and arrogance. It's indeed debatable.
Arjun and Drona:
Arjuna-Drona relationship stays even today as a symbol of a perfect Teacher-Strudent relationship. Drona was so proud of his beloved student. Among the huge line of princes whom he taught, he hand-picked Arjuna becuase he saw the glimpse of brilliance in Arjuna - a rare mix of skills and dedication. In a way Drona invested more time in Arjuna than with any of his other students. Motivated by his desire to carve out a great warrior who could help him defeat Drupada, Drona promises to make Arjuna the greatest archer in the world. Arjuna on the other hand was too devoted to his teacher and never thought twice before obeying the orders. Drona's test of illusion shows Arjuna's presence of mind. The initial test of focus shows how much in Sync Arjuna was, to his teacher's expectations. And even when facing each other in the war, the respect they gave for each other is huge. Drona considered Arjuna to be much superior to him, and it was evident when on the end of 12th day of the war he repeats to Duryodhana that he cannot capture Yudhistira if Arjuna is around, as Arjuna's speed and shooting range is much more than Drona's. Arjuna on the other hand saw his guru as the hurdle that he might not be able to cross. When Drona was killed, Arjuna simply lost his cool and pounced on Drishtadyumna for the injustice done to his teacher. These are the kind of events that make Mahabharata the most complete and celebrated epic in the world. It's not for no reason that Arjuna-Drona is the most talked about teacher-student duo.
Arjun and Bhima:
Arjun's relationship with Bhima is mixed with love, respect and pride. Among the Pandava brothers, Bhima-Arjuna relationship is the most complete one. They share a lot of common values as well as go through common struggles and had huge trust on the ability of each other. They knew each other's strength and weakness, and they stood by each other whenever needed. They both were frustrated by the decisions of their elder brother, but still abode by the same. They fought many of the tougher battles together. And they operated in unison during the Mahabharata war to aide each other's objectives. Bhima trusted Arjuna's skills more than his own might. And Arjuna on the other hand was too proud of Bhima's might. Almost all challenges that came Pandava's way were handled by Arjuna and Bhima together. They were together to challenge Jarasandha, they fought together at Kampilya, they were together to battle Chitrasena 's army. Even at Virata, they led the armies at 2 different fronts. And throughout the great Kurukshetra war, they took the bigger challenges. The bond between Arjuna and Bhima is a complex polynomial with a mix of love, pride, respect and trust.They together potray a much complex and complete painting of brotherhood.
Arjun and Karna:
Who is a better warrior? Arjun or Karna? This question pops up quite often in a lot of forums and discussions, and it is not a surprise to see that many people come up with Karna as the answer. And that answer is really an indication of whether someone has really read an authentic version of the epic or is just influenced by one of the various folklores, since anyone who has read an unbiased version of the epic will never think twice before picking Arjun. For the most authentic version, one of the best sources is Kisari Mohan Ganguly's translation (as mentioned in the references), and one could find umpteen number of instances where Karna is unable to stand up to Arjun.
While Karna's rivalry with Arjuna is most spoken about, it is indeed true that Karna was in fact one of the great warriors that Arjuna rivaled with. The admirers of Karna cite 2 incidents to claim him superiority over Arjun; Arjun's failure to thwart the Nagastra on the 17th day (and Krishna saving Arjun), and Arjun killing Karna when he was unarmed, but all other instances of Arjun's supeiriority are ignored. In a war, no warrior goes unharmed even in victory, and even the mightiest warrior will have their moments of failure. In fact Karna was not the only warrior who got Arjun off-guard. The valient Bhagadatta did it. And of course Karna also did it. But Arjun's superiority could be seen from his victory over the entire Kaurava army (including Karna) at the battle of Virata or from his victory over Karna and Duryodhana's army at the battle of Panchala, or even from the battle with the Gandharva's where Karna had retreated. And Karna's defeat at the hands of Bhim, Satyaki, Abhimanyu, Chitrasena are also often untold. If Karna's failure to hit the target at Kampilya is debatable based on which version of Mahabharata you are referring to, Karna's failure to even locate the target during the swayamvara of Lakshmana (Krishna's wife) is not that talked about. Arjuna too lost the contest which was ultimately won by Krishna, but he was a lot close to hitting the target which Karna couldn't even attempt.
Karna's character resonates a lot with the image of a modern day hero, and hence rose to the heart of millions of people who read Mahabharata. As the epic transitioned through different sections of the society, he became the hero of the oppressed, of all those who fight against an unjust society. The fact that he rose to fame and power fighting the social discrimination meted out during his childhood, made him an icon of social reformation. To add to this, Karna's image as a generous donor made him even more admired. Many stories on Karna's valour got added to many local and tribal versions of the epic. These include the story of Krishna praising Karna's might for thrusting Arjun's chariot with his arrows, Karna's heroics to defeat vasuki and save the pandavas, Krishna's test of generosity for Arjun to realize Karna's greatness, and on and on. But you would find none of these stories in an unabridged version of the epic. Karna indeed is a great warrior, but a close examination of the epic crowns Arjuna as the greatest warrior of his time.
Arjun and Krishna:
The relationship between Krishna and Arjuna is one of the most beautiful and selfless form of friendship that the epic presents us. Krishna did care a lot about the welfare of his cousins, the Pandavas. And since Arjun was of the same age as Krishna, they bonded well as friends.The cousins were too fond of each other that they considered their relationship to be more dearer and important than almost all other relationships in their life. Their mutual trust was too deep to explain. Krishna is today revered as the incarnation of the supreme lord. He was probably revered so during his lifetime as well. But if you are willing to keep this belief aside and take a look at Krishna the prince, there are many instances that show how human Krishna was. His relationship with Arjuna was one of those. Their relationship was in fact multi-faceted. At times they are cousins who respect each other, and sometimes they are the best friends who trust in each other. There are instances when the relationship is that of a teacher and student. And at times, it's that of a devotee and deity. We see a warrior and his charioteer, and at the same time see a manipulator and his pawn. Despite how you see their relation, you can simply not ignore the list of positive emotions that are always reflected in Krishna-Arjuna relationship. Selflessness, trust, respect, devotion, love, and openness are all what define their relationship. And theirs is probably the purest form of selfless love that you could find in the entire epic.
In Modern versions:
Arjun is one of the most undermined warriors in modern renditions of Mahabharatha. Contrary to the chocolate boy image portrayed in the Star plus tele-serial version, Arjun was one of the most heavily built, mighty warriors of his time. In many of the later versions the might and prowess of Arjun is diminished a lot in comparison to the earlier versions of Mahabharata. This transition in the portrayal of Arjun was triggered by writers who picked their own heroes from the Epic and essayed their version of Mahabharata with a bias towards the characters they loved. In most of the versions, Arjuna is dwarfed by the authors' admiration for Karna. With the evolutioin of Karna as a symbol of suppressed talent, many folk tales got later added to the regional versions of Mahabharata where Karna was depcited as the greatest warrior and Arjuna's might gets dwarfed. And in many other versions, the admiration for Krishna goes overboard that all other characters in the epic including Arjuna are denied their due respect. The mighty warrior who dominated all battlefields during his time has today become a symbol of weakness. Even his enlightment by Krishna's talk on the first day of battle is seen by many as a portrait of a weak devotee's enlightment by the Supreme Lord. Arjuna was indeed weak hearted when Krishna pitched in to embolden him. But he was neither weak armed nor timid . The weakness was Arjuna's love and respect for this kith and kin. And what Krishna did was simply overpowering that love and respect with the principles of detachment and obligation. If the original version exaggerates the might of Arjuna, as the case with any other warrior, the modern versions deprecate the same. The real Arjun would have been somewhere between these lines.