Gandiva: Excalibur of Bows and Arrows

September 12, 2015

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Archery History   Arjuna   Asia   asian archery   Gandiva   history   Indian Archery Legends   legends and myths  


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Many mythical and legendary heroes are paired with a weapon that works like a pen that writes their history. King Arthur is one of them. A legendary English king whose story is told by many a fabled twist that constantly reinvents the legend. One of his traits that is always with him is his own sword called Excalibur. According to the Arthurian story Excalibur came into Arthur’s possession in a number of ways. One of them is ‘the Sword in the Stone’ where Arthur pulled out the famous sword from a stone, which made him the divinely appointed ruler and heir of Uther Pendragon’s kingdom of Britain. Another tale tells us that Excalibur was a sword of magical powers given to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake, a reincarnation of a mystical sorceress who grants Arthur the power to become the guardian of the kingdom. Now if a sword can write the history of a great nation through a knight is there an archer with a bow and arrow that is the equivalent of Excalibur. It turns out there is but it’s not an English legend, it’s an Indian legend called Arjuna, whose bow was called Gandiva.


The legend of Arjuna and Gandiva comes from a Hindu text called Mahabharata. This is a major Sanskrit epic of ancient India which tells the story of the Kurukshetra War and the fates of Indian princes from the Pandava and Kaurava families who fought for the claim to the throne of Kuru. The Mahabharata also contains philosophical teachings, which includes the four goals of life known as purusharthas and the book itself is the longest known epic poem in ancient literature. Arjuna is the third of three Pandava brothers in the royal family of Hastinapura. He had training in religion, science, administration and military arts by Bhisma. Later comes another tutor called Drona who becomes the Kuru princes’ teacher of weaponry. Drona taught weaponry to all the princes and Arjuna was his favourite and most accomplished pupil. Arjuna becomes a master in archery and in one famous incident he shot a bird straight in the eye on a tree, which proved his ability with accuracy to be the best in India. To test his students and for Arjuna to show off just how skilled he was with a bow Drona put himself in danger and got Arjuna to save him from a crocodile attack. There was also another act of showmanship where Arjuna shot accurately without visualizing his target. Drona was so impressed that he promised to coach him to become the greatest archer that ever lived.


As part of his gurudakshina, a tradition where the student reciprocates his training to his master, Arjuna and his brothers attacked and captured King Drupada. Drona had a grudge against Drupada and after his capture the king was so impressed he wanted Arjuna to marry his daughter Draupadi. That came later after when the feud with the Kaurava family had begun. While in disguise at a royal challenge to win over her heart he had to perform a very complicated archery skill. It involved the use of a bow of the Hindu god Shiva called Pinaka or Shiva Dhanush. The trick shot was use Pinaka to shoot and pierce the eye of a golden fish whilst looking at it’s reflection. Arjuna scored a direct hit and won her over much to Drupadaa’s delight.


After a while the Kauravas come out of hiding and when they show up they become leaders of one half of the Kingdom of Kuru called Hastinapur. At this point his cousin Krishna comes into the story and they develop their friendship. This is where the Gandiva bow comes into the legacy of Arjuna. While roaming in the Khandava Vana, Arjuna and Krishna meet the god of fire, Agni. Agni is hungry for something to unleash his fire throwing abilities and enlists them to help him in burning down Khandava Vana. They help by bringing in the god of the oceans, Varuna who blesses Arjuna with Gandiva. This is how he came into possession of the bow. The fire god Agni was then able to burn down Khandava Vana along with all it’s demons and evil spirits.


Now that Arjuna’s story has come full circle to Gandiva it’s only logical that the story of Gandiva comes to the fore. Gandiva was created by Brahma, the creator of the universe and it was passed onto several different hands for five hundred years between each hand. Varuna was the sixth person to own it and passed it onto Arjua with a chariot and two quivers with unlimited arrows in them. According to the text the bow had hundreds of gold bosses and radiant ends. In the hands of Arjuna he has invincible and when he fired on arrow on Gandiva it made a rumble the sound of thunder. The bow had a number of some very incredible features. It had 108 bow strings and could fire hundreds of arrows at a time with a great range of several miles. Gandiva had killed many great warriors and the gods themselves. This bow was forged by Brahma out of a heavenly tree called the Gandi. It was so heavy that very few people could truly wield it, including Arjuna who was believed to be worth of wielding it just like the gods that it had exchanged hands with. Gandiva is designed as a double curve and the strings had a celestial origin and therefore they were unbreakable. Every time the bow was fired the bow glowed so brightly not many people could look at it properly. Making Gandiva a celestial weapon of dominance on the battlefield in the Kurukshetra war. After the war Arjuna returns Gandiva to Agni along with the quivers.


The bow with which Arjuna used to win over his first wife also has a story to tell. Pinaka was given by Hindu god Shiva to the King Devaraatha, the ancestor of King Janaka in a story told in another Hindu text called Ramayana. Janaka had a daughter called Sita and he offered a challenge to anyone who life the divine bow and string it. While trying to string Pinaka a prince called Rama broke it but won the princess’s hand in marriage. When Parashurama, an avatar of Vishnu and student of Shiva hears of this he challenges Rama for breaking it. Getting out his own Vishnu bow Rama is asked to string it and fight a duel with him. He does this by snatching it, stringing it and placing an arrow on it and finally aims it at Parashurama’s heart. However before he fires it Parashurama realizes that Rama is an avatar of Vishnu too and his successor at that. So he forgives him and accepts defeat.




Charlie Keeble
Charlie Keeble

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