It seems there are many books based on or influenced by Myths and Mythological Beings.
There are so many different Mythology and Mythological Beings recorded. Some are very popular and well known, others not so much. There are many similar beings, yet different depending on the culture it’s based in. The definition of Myth covers about anything in the Urban Fantasy/Fantasy realm to me.
This week we have:
Fantasy author Joseph Robert Lewis
Talking of Arjuna, from the Indian Epics.
I'm no expert on Indian mythology, so everything you're about to read may be slightly wrong. Slightly. But I have read the Mahabharata, which is one of the great Indian epics, alongside the Ramayana. But where the Ramayana tells the tale of the heroic Rama's romance with Sita and his war against the demon king Ravan (which you might compare to the Greek myth of Perseus), the Mahabharata tells a much grander story about
To even summarize the Mahabharata would take a long time. This epic Sanskirt poem is ten times longer than the Iliad and the Odyssey combined! Suffice it to say that the story encompasses royal genealogies, divine births, romance and seduction, rivalry and blood feud, gods and demons, miracles and curses, monsters and magic, love and betrayal, and just about anything else you could want in a great fantasy story. The best part is that the story is partly true. Just as the Iliad tells of the very real war of Troy, the Mahabharata tells of the very real war of Kurukshetra, which occurred in India over 25 centuries ago.
But let's talk about Arjuna!
Early on, the king of the Kurus is Lord Pandu, but he is cursed to die if he ever has sex again. So his wife uses a secret mantra to summon the gods to give her sons. The third of these sons is Arjuna, the son of Indra, king of the gods. Arjuna and his four brothers (the "Pandavas") are raised in the wilderness to become wise leaders and fierce warriors, and eventually return to their family's city of Hastinapura to claim their royal birthright. But their cousins (the "Kauravas") don't want to share power with their popular (and older) kin. So the rivalry begins.
Arjuna distinguishes himself at an early age as a great archer, and archery becomes a recurring theme or event throughout his story. His relationships with his teachers and his rivalries with other young archers are intense, to say the least. One young boy from the swamps is so impressive that Arjuna's mentor commands the boy to cut off his fingers so he can no longer challenge Arjuna. But the greatest threat comes from a youth named Karna, who appears to be the son of a poor charioteer (and is thus excluded from princely archery). But Karna is in fact Arjuna's oldest brother, fathered by the sun god Surya and given to Arjuna's mother years earlier, but she floated the baby down a river Moses-style so that no one would accuse her of having a child out of wedlock. But when the Kaurava princes see that Karna can challenge Arjuna's superhuman skills, Karna becomes their closest friend and ally, and thus an enemy to his own brothers, the Pandavas.
(Karna is the great tragic figure of the Mahabharata. He is constantly rejected, cursed, and hated even though he is in fact a virtuous and kind man. When he finally learns who his real family is, he chooses to keep it a secret. Rather than reveal himself to be the eldest Pandava brother and thus win the loyalty and fealty of the others, he allows them to go on hating him so that they can eventually kill him and claim their rightful throne. Yet he remains loyal to the Kauravas because they took him in when no one else would.)
Over the following years, the Kauravas carry out plot after plot to shame and kill the Pandavas, including poisoning, drowning, trapping them in a burning house, and stealing their freedom through a rigged game of dice. And time and again, the Pandavas are forced to flee to survive. It's during these periods of exile that Arjuna truly shines. He goes on long pilgrimages to purify himself and hone his skills, and along the way he loves several maidens and princesses, including a Naga (water spirit) and the fiery Drapaudi, who actually becomes the wife of all five brothers in a fascinating reverse-harem situation that never causes any drama at all. Just kidding! It's a constant source of drama for all of them.
Arjuna also becomes close friends with Krishna, a fellow prince rumored to be a god (which he is, as the eighth and most perfect avatar of Vishnu). Their friendship grows over time, and Arjuna eventually falls in love with Krishna's sister Subhadra and marries her (causing no small amount of tension in the house with Draupadi). Again and again, Krishna appears to Arjuna in times of need to provide guidance, or even to fight alongside him. On one of their adventures, Krishna helps Arjuna to obtain the Gandiva, a powerful bow fashioned by the gods.
When the eldest Pandava brother becomes Emperor, Arjuna leads the war of submission, traveling around India to conquer the world in his brother's name. But their good fortune does not last long, as the Emperor is tricked into losing his kingdom and his freedom (as well as his brothers' freedom) in a game of dice with the Kauravas.
During their thirteen-year exile, the Pandavas live in the wilderness with their wives and mother, and they consult with Krishna about what they should do with their evil cousins. What they do not realize is that Krishna has been subtly manipulating the rivalry between them and the Kauravas all along to goad them into war. Krishna's true purpose in the world is to end the race (caste) of warrior-princes who oppress the masses and cause suffering in the world, and when the princes are destroyed the Fourth Age of the world will begin. So while Krishna's advice is always honest and sound on the surface, and he repeatedly acts as an ambassador between the cousins to resolve their feud peacefully, his actions slowly but surely lead the cousins toward a cataclysmic war for the greater good of all mankind.
In the middle of this exile, Arjuna realizes that he will need more powerful weapons to defeat the Kaurava armies, and to defeat Karna, so he travels alone into the mountains and finds his father Indra, who takes him to heaven for several years to learn to use the weapons of the gods and to learn of his divine parentage. He also helps Indra to defeat several armies of demons (asuras) that have been annoying the gods for countless millennia.
Finally Arjuna returns to his brothers and they decide to spend the last year of their exile in disguise, working in the court of a wise king, Virata. Each brother assumes a new identity and takes a position such as cook or shepherd. Arjuna is cursed during this year to become a eunuch, and he spends the time teaching singing and dancing to the ladies of the court (which he learned from the gods). But during this time, the Kauravas discover the true identities of the Pandavas and attack. King Virata's army cannot repel the evil princes, who are led by Karna, so Arjuna (who is still a eunuch in effeminate clothing) rides out to defeat the army single-handedly.
The last section of the Mahabharata describes the final war between the princes in great detail. Day by day, duel by duel. Arjuna battles with Karna, as well as his old teachers and relatives who are compelled by honor to fight with the Kauravas even though they all want the Pandavas to be victorious. Arjuna is deeply conflicted about the war, not wanting to kill anyone for wealth or power, and not wanting to kill his family and friends. And his pain only grows as his own allies are killed, including his beloved son.
In one of the great climactic battles, Arjuna finally confronts Karna. Each of them unleashes an arsenal of holy weapons to create a spectacle so otherworldly that even the gods are stunned. But here Karna is undone by three curses placed on him during his life, which mire his chariot in the mud, strip him of his armor, and cause him to forget his greatest weapon. Thus Arjuna kills him, never knowing that he is killing his own brother.
Ultimately, the Pandavas triumph, but at a terrible cost. Every warrior prince in India has died and the carnage is horrific. Sadly, Arjuna and his brothers assume the throne and rule for several years, but in the end they return to the mountains to purify themselves and die.
Epic? Clearly. Tragic? Most definitely. Should you read it (in translation)? Yes.
One last note: All throughout the Mahabharata, the characters have very deep and thoughtful discussions about who they are and what they are doing. These are not paper heroes who are good for goodness' sake. They are real people with fears and doubts, who constantly question their own choices. Even the villains (who are being partly controlled by demons) reveal themselves to be introspective and conflicted about their role in the world, and their relationships with their friends and enemies. So the Mahabharata is not only a warrior's epic but also a modern novel of love and suffering and morality and death. Which is all the more reason to read it!
Joseph Robert Lewis:
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