Arjuna was the most prominent warrior in the Mahabharata. The best archer in the world, with the avatar of Sri Vishnu as a guide, and the establishment of Dharma as the objective, on the biggest stage that humanity had ever seen.
It is only natural that the tools available to him had to be exceptional. And so he had the indestructible गाण्डीव (Gandiva) at his disposal, a celestial रथ (chariot) with four divine horses, a पताका (flag) graced by Hanuman himself, and divine incarnate Sri Kṛṣṇa at the reins. With resources like these, who could defeat him?
Not once, not twice, but multiple times. He won in the end, but that too was temporary.
Wait, hang on, you must be thinking. Wasn’t Arjuna the only undefeated warrior in the Great War?
There are two related stories that also need to be mentioned here. I say stories, since they do not find mention in the authentic texts of the Mahabharata. But, if a story teaches us something, what difference does it make if it actually occurred?
So here goes.
It is said that when Arjuna and Karna faced off during their final battle, both fought valiantly, but Sri Kṛṣṇa kept praising Karna on his bravery and valor. This irritated Arjuna to a point when he questioned Kṛṣṇa – my shower of arrows leads to Karna’s chariot going back ten paces, while his shower of arrows only results in us going back two paces. Then why do you praise him, instead of me?
Kṛṣṇa replied – Partha, you are right about the paces, but wrong in your judgement. His chariot has only him on it.
Yours has the blessings of the mighty Hanuman, who sits on your flag, and me, who carries with me the responsibility of सृष्टि – Sṛṣṭi, all of creation…yet our chariot goes back a couple of paces when he rains arrows down on us. Surely that is greater?
The second incident occurred after the war ended. Sri Kṛṣṇa asked Arjuna to take his Gandiva and disembark from the chariot. Arjuna questioned him on this, since it was tradition that the charioteer gets down first. Sri Kṛṣṇa replied that he would explain the situation, however, Arjuna had to get down first, and so he did. Sri Kṛṣṇa then let go of the reins and disembarked, as Hanuman disappeared from the flag above. In an instant, the chariot, it’s yoke and shaft, and its mighty steeds, all collapsed into a heap of ashes.
Intrigued, Arjuna asked him to explain what had happened!
Sri Kṛṣṇa replied – my dear Arjuna, your chariot had been consumed long back by the divine weapons that had been released by Drona, Karna and all the other mighty warriors when they fought you. It was because I had sat upon it during the battle that it did not fall into pieces. I held it together by my presence, and now that it’s objective has been fulfilled, it has been reduced to ashes, because I abandoned it.
आत्मानँ रथितं विद्धि शरीरँ रथमेव तु ।
बुद्धिं तु सारथिं विद्धि मनः प्रग्रहमेव च ॥
इन्द्रियाणि हयानाहुर्विषयाँ स्तेषु गोचरान् ।
आत्मेन्द्रियमनोयुक्तं भोक्तेत्याहुर्मनीषिणः ॥
The body is a chariot. The indriyas, or sense organs, are the horses of the chariot, the manas, or mind are the reins and the buddhi, or intellect is the saarthi, the charioteer. For a balanced and firm ride, the saarthi has to be in control of both the mind (the reins) and the sense organs (horses). The sense organs have a tendency to indulge, and hence yoga helps in प्रत्याहार – pratyahara – withdrawal of the waywardness of the senses, and towards discovery of the self.
In the Mahabharata, the chariot denotes the sharira, or the body, Arjuna denotes the aham – the ego, and Sri Kṛṣṇa denotes the atman, which is also part of the universal consciousness, the supreme guide. We think that the aham – the ego is important, but in reality, it is the atman that holds us together. When the atman leaves the body, it is but reduced to a pile of ashes (death).
So we come back to the question – who defeated Arjuna?
The answer is – Arjuna.
With the resources he had, victory was a given. Yet, he was repeatedly defeated by his own nature – his ego, that made him proud of his archery and his emotion, that he brought in at the wrong time at the start of the war (and that resulted in the Bhagavad Gita). Even after Sri Kṛṣṇa sang the Gita – that contained all the knowledge and wisdom that was available to humanity and beyond – even after he showed him the Vishvaroopa, even after he assured him that he would never abandon his devotees – Arjuna still needed affirmations throughout the war.
So yes, Arjuna was defeated by himself. But Sri Kṛṣṇa stayed true to his word…he never abandoned him.