Impossible Quest to Have the Perfect Man? The 5 Imperfect Brothers of the Mahabharata
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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.

The five Pandava princes- heroes of the epic Mahabharata - with their shared wife-in-common named Draupadi.

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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?

From the Mahabharata, Krishna and Pandava Princes fight demons

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The Ancient Story of Mahabharata and the Birth of the Five Brothers

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.

Raja Pandu and Kunti, circa 1680.

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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.

Yudhisthira and His Dog, Ascending.

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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.