The two major Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, still appear widely in popular folk drama, tales and art all over Southeast Asia with slight adaptations in all the myriad cultures of the region. Scenes from the epics are illustrated in the relief sculptures of temples such as the Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Rama temple in Malaysia, and mural painting in Vat Oup Moung, a Buddhist monastery in Vientiane, Laos. The five Pandava brothers of Mahabharata especially became blue prints in many traditional cultures of the south and southeast Asia as the perfect heroes. Kings claim descendants of the brothers, and their names are used for temples and streets even to this day.
However, it is also well known that the five brothers are, in fact, not perfect. In the Javanese version of the story alone for example, the third brother, Arjuna, is depicted as a womanizer— marrying up to 12 wives, while the eldest, Yudhisthira, became a slave of Mo Limo (Five Deadly Sins of Ancient Java which include gambling). Each of the five brothers, at one time or another, are depicted as being too proud or too short sighted to be considered as good examples for generations of children. So, what makes the five Pandava brothers so popular?
The story of Mahabharata is that of a dynastic struggle for the throne of Hastinapura, a kingdom ruled by the Kuru clan. The two branches of the family, the Kaurava and the Pandava, struggle to achieve domination of the kingdom. The struggle culminates in the battle of Kurukhsetra, in which the five Pandava brothers, the “protagonists” of the story, emerge victorious.
The acknowledged father of the Pandava brothers is Pandu, king of Hastinapura. The word Pandava means “descendants of Pandu”. However, they were not Pandu’s biological sons. They were in fact born from Pandu’s two wives, Kunti and Madri, from the boon given to Kunti by a sage, that she could bear a son by any god she wished.
Sometime after marrying his second wife, Madri, Pandu voluntary renounced royal life as penance for having accidentally killed a sage and his wife. Before he died, the sage cursed Pandu to die if he ever attempted to have sexual relations with his wives. Due to this curse, Kunti used her boon and bore three sons: Yudhishthira by Yama, the god of judgement; Bhima by Vayu, the god of wind; and Arjuna by Indra, king of the gods. At Pandu’s request, Kunti then shared her boons with Madri, who bore the twins Nakula and Sahadeva from the divine twin gods Ashvin.
Yudhistira is the eldest of the Pandava brothers. Considered the master of the spear, he was also skilled in the duties of a king, and was steadfast in the path of Dharma (righteousness). Draupadi, the common wife of the five Pandava brothers, in her description of her husbands in Book II: Varna Parva, Section 268, says that Yudhishthira was just and merciful to surrendering foes.
Bhima, the second Pandava brother is the son of Vayu, the god of the wind. He was very athletic and had the greatest physical strength out of the brothers, making him the natural protector of his family. Also like the wind, he was also very aggressive and prone to anger. Master of the mace, Bhima was very skilled in diverse areas of warfare, including wrestling and sword fighting. In the Kurukhsetra war, Bhima killed the hundred Kauravas and King Duryodhana himself.
Apart from his expertise in the art of warfare, Bhima was also a skilled cook. Because of his appetite for food, Bhima was nicknamed Vrikodara (“wolf bellied”). According to Draupadi, “they that offend him are never suffered to live. He never forgets a foe. On some pretext or other he wreaks his vengeance.”
Arjuna is the third Pandava brother, the son of Indra, king of the gods as well as the god of the sky and war. Arjuna was the favorite of his teachers, popular among the people, famous among the gods and attractive to women. A master of the art of archery, He was also skilled in playing musical instruments, singing, dancing and poetry. Draupadi praised Arjuna as the greatest of archers “with his senses under complete control”, never forsaking his virtue due to lust, fear or anger, and he would never commit an act of cruelty despite his ability to withstand any foe.
The fourth Pandava brother, Nakula, was born from Madri and the Ashvin twin Nasata. Attractive, diplomatic and helpful, he was a master swordsman, as well as a master of equestrian arts and chariotry. According to Draupadi, not only was Nakula “the most handsome man in the whole world,” he was also “versed in every question of morality and profit” and “endued with high wisdom.”
Sahadeva, the fifth and the youngest brother of the Pandavas, was the son of Madri and the Ashwin twin Dasra. According to Draupadi, “there is not another man equal unto Sahadeva in intelligence or in eloquence amid assemblies of the wise.” Master of the swords, Sahadeva was also skilled in fighting and taming wild bulls. Additionally, he was a skilled cowherd, capable of maintaining cattle, treating their diseases, and even milking them.
Those qualities may portray the brothers as perfect men. Draupadi, who was the wife of all five brothers, should have been the luckiest woman in the world. However, her marriage to the five brothers was both a blessing and a penance. In her previous life, Draupadi had completed Ghor Tapasya (severe penance) and invoked Lord Shiva. She asked for a husband with excellent qualities, the main five being: moral values, physical strength, skill, good looks and intelligence.
Shiva said that her request was impossible, as one man cannot bear all these qualities. If he sent one man with all these qualities, he would cause an imbalance in the society and would ultimately pose a threat. Shiva therefore asked her to lower her standards. However, Draupadi was stubborn and insisted on her wish. Shiva relented, and in her next birth, Draupadi was destined to marry five men who, between them, bore all the qualities she asked Shiva.
When, in her confusion, Draupadi asked Krishna, her best friend and the avatar of the god Vishnu, if it was possible and morally correct to marry five men, she received no sympathy. Krishna replied, “You wanted the best archer, the man with the power of 1000 elephants, a man with matchless morals and wisdom, the most handsome man in the world and the man whose intellect is famous worldwide. Lord Shiva told you that it is impossible, but you were not ready to lower your standards. Now that your wish has come true, you have to accept it, for that is your karma.”
The fact that Draupadi’s gift was also her punishment is in itself an indication of the imperfections of the Pandava brothers. It took five demigods to embody the qualities of the one perfect man. In the context of marriage, Draupadi would have also needed to accept the five flaws and challenges embodied by her five husbands. Each of these challenges can be represented by the fingers of the hand.
Bhima is represented by the thumb, the strongest and thickest finger on the hand, and a symbol of power and aggression. Bhima, the biggest and strongest of the five Pandavas, is depicted as a forceful and often unforgiving. His life’s challenge is therefore of controlling his energies and the cultivation of the ability to forgive, both of which Bhima failed in the epic. Arjuna is represented by the forefinger, the finger of faith. The reason why Arjuna was the great archer among the Pandavas and never missed his targets is believed to be the result of faith. Therefore, it was to Arjuna that Krishna reveals the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most sacred of scriptures in Hinduism. Arjuna’s life challenge was the crisis of faith which everyone in the world would face at one time or another in their lives. Arjuna himself experienced such a crisis in the Kurukhsetra war and almost surrendered, leading to Krishna’s revelation of the Bhagavad Gita.
Yudhisthira corresponds to the middle finger, representing the lessons of righteousness and of discerning good from evil. He may be the most righteous person in the story, the man who could not tell a lie and tried to be just. However, he was also weak and was either unable to discern right from wrong or failed to act on it. The events that led to the war are shown as an outcome of his temptation as he gambled his kingdom, his family, and his freedom away. The challenge for Yudhisthira was choosing between the right and wrong in a situation.
The twins, Nakula and Sahadeva represent the ring finger and the little finger respectively. The life test represented by Nakula was that of sexuality, which he failed in the end as the reason for his fall at the end of the epic was because he was conceited about his looks. Pride was also the reason for Sahadeva’s downfall as he was too proud of his intelligence. A derivation of this name is generally composed from the Sanskrit words Hastin (“elephant”) and Pura (“city”). However, another more detailed derivation from the name can be Hast (“hand”), ina (“pertaining to”) and Pura (“city”). The trials and tribulations of life are experienced on the field of battle— that is the palm with the five fingers represented by the Pandavas and their individual challenges.
There have been many attempts to unravel the historical growth of Mahabharata. Although the origins of the epic probably fall between the 8th and 9th centuries BCE, its oldest preserved parts of the text are thought to be from the Gupta period (c. 4th century BCE) when it probably reached its final form. An intriguing report by the Greek writer Dio Chrysostom (c. 40 – c. 120 CE) says that Homer’s epic poetry was being sung even in India, implying that the Iliad had been translated into Sanskrit. Indian scholars have generally taken this as evidence for the existence of a Mahabharata from this time period, and the episodes of which Dio may have identified as similar to the Iliad were in fact scenes from Mahabharata.
The Pandava brothers represent human problems and trials that have been relatable for thousands of years. Temples were erected celebrating scenes from the epic, bearing the brothers’ names, and some even claimed to have been built by the brothers themselves.
The Mahavishnu Temple at Thrichittatt, Chengannoor, South India is one of the five Vishnu temples associated with the five Pandava Brothers. Said to have been built by Yudhisthira, and the earliest references to this temple appear in the poems and hymns composed by the Alvar saint, Nammalvar, circa 800 CE. There are also stone inscriptions in the temple which date it back to the Second Chera Empire (800 – 1102 CE). The legend associated with this temple was that the only lie ever uttered by Yudhisthira in his life was to defeat his teacher and lead him to a defenseless state so that Arjuna was able to bring about his death. To purify himself of this sin, Yudhisthira underwent penance and built the Mahavishnu Temple at Thrichittattu.
Only 3.5 miles (5.6 km) to the west was the temple said to have been built by Bhima, the Thirupuliyur Mahavishnu Temple. This temple is also said to be the home of Bhima’s mace. Like Thirichittattu, the earliest references to this temple appear in poems and hymns composed by Nammalvar. Arjuna built a temple at a site known as Nilackal, near Sabarimala, as a penance for having killed an unarmed Karna on the battlefield.
Pandavathootha Perumal Temple or Thirupadagam, in Tamil Nadu is also dedicated to the god Vishnu. The temple is mentioned in the Divya Prabandha, the early medieval Tamil canon from the 6th to the 9th century CE and is associated with a chapter in Mahabharata where Krishna went to the Kaurava as a missive from the Pandavas. Krishna, being the avatar of Vishnu, showed his vishvarupa (giant form) to all the people present at the court at the time. Pada means “big” and Agam means “residence”, signifying the temple as the place where Vishnu is thought to reside in his giant form.