The Pandavas along with their wife Draupadi, were in exile in the forest after the cunning game of dice played by their cousin Duryodhana. The terrible war seemed inevitable and they had to gather forces, armies and weapons for that.
Duryodhana, on his side had four stalwarts namely Bhishma, Dronacharya, Kripacharya and Ashwatthama who had complete knowledge of all types of weapons including that of the various celestial weapons which could be commanded and used at will. Yudishtira was worried at their own prospects since these four stalwarts were well looked after by Duryodhana and chances of their changing sides and fighting on the side of the Pandavas in the war seemed very remote.
Seeing his concern, Sage Vyasa advised Yudishtira to send Arjuna on a mission to Indra and get weapons from him. He said that since all the Devas had given their weapons to Indra, there would be a repository of celestial weapons with Indra. Sage Vyasa had also imparted secret knowledge to Yudishtira on certain advanced yogic techniques like travelling in the speed of the mind and other such things.
Yudishtira, therefore requested Arjuna to go and meet Indra and get the powerful weapons so that they could be well prepared for the war. He also imparted to Arjuna the secret knowledge which he had been given by Sage Vyasa.
Arjuna, thereafter, proceeded to the Himalayas after taking the blessings of his elder brothers, Lord Krishna and sage Dhaumya who was their Guru. He was dressed in his complete armour and taking his Gandeeva bow with the inexhaustible quiver of arrows and a sword, he travelled at the speed of thought in the northern direction. He crossed the Himalayas and the mountain Gandhamadana and reached the mountain Indrakila.
There he saw an elderly sage who was looking extremely radiant sitting under a tree. The sage asked Arjuna to stop and persuaded him to put down his weapons. This was a holy place, he said and the weapons were of no use there. But Arjuna was so resolute in his mission, and told the sage of his mission . The sage who was so pleased with Arjuna and showed his true form. He was indeed Lord Indra, Arjuna’s father. Arjuna paid obeisance to him and sought the divine weapons as told by his brother Yudishtira.
Lord Indra, however, told Arjuna to meditate on Lord Shiva till he saw him in person, and said that he (Indra) would give Arjuna the weapons after he had seen Lord Shiva. Indra then vanished.
Arjuna then proceeded to a beautiful dense forest nearby which was full of flowering trees, beautiful rivers and was filled with the sweet sounds of birds. Arjuna found the place blissful and set up a small hermitage and started his meditation there.
He dressed himself in tree bark and started severe penance. In the first month he ate fruits once in three days. In the second month, it became once in six days, in the third month he survived on only the dry leaves falling from trees, that too once in fifteen days. Then he started surviving on air alone, standing on the tips of his toes. His immense tapasya was generating lot of heat around and the other sages in that forest went to Lord Shiva and sought his intervention as they were unsure of what Arjuna was seeking and felt a sense of insecurity seeing the intensity of the meditation.
Lord Shiva smiled and assured the sages that Arjuna had no intention of harming them and that He (Lord Shiva) would take care. He then transformed himself into a ‘Kirata’ (hunter) along with Parvati dressed as a huntress. He was wearing a freshly flayed skin of a tiger and his head decorated with a crown of forest flowers. He was wearing the Rudraksha on his neck and the Tripundra on his forehead. He made His appearance near Arjuna’s hermitage.
As providence would have it, just then an Asura by name Muka assumed the form of a wild boar and charged into the hermitage with the intention of killing Arjuna. It ran around here and there creating havoc and disturbing Arjuna’s meditation in the process. Arjuna looked up when it charged straight at him. He defended himself with his bare hands and pushed the heavy animal to the floor. It charged at him again compelling him to take his Gandeeva. So skillful an archer Arjuna was , that he had shot an arrow at the boar in a split second. The boar fell dead but there were two arrows stuck on its side! Arjuna was puzzled as to how a second arrow had appeared, when the Kirata appeared from the opposite side with his wife. “The boar is mine ” said the Kirata in a rough voice. “I shot it first”.
“No, it is mine” said Arjuna defiantly. He looked at the Kirata with scorn and was wondering who this uncouth fellow was and wherefrom he had come. He mocked the Kirata and told him that he would not let go of the boar and would also kill him (the Kirata). The Kirata was not least bothered and in fact was ready for a fight.
Then started the great duel. Arjuna started raining arrows at the Kirata with his bow, the Gandeeva. But all of Arjuna’s arrows fell down like flowers without creating any impact on the Kirata. Also the ‘inexhaustible’ quiver was exhausted. Arjuna was surprised and started to panic. This had never happened before. He then rushed with his bow to strangulate the Kirata, but the Kirata just snatched away the mighty Gandeeva so easily like a child’s play.
Arjuna picked up his sword next and brought it down with all his might on the Kirata’s head and the sword broke to pieces!! The Kirata was standing unaffected with a sarcastic smile on his lips. Arjuna, not thinking for a moment, uprooted trees and boulders and started attacking the Kirata with them. The Kirata remained there smiling. Then when Arjuna, started attacking the Kirata giving blows with his iron fists, the Kirata started fighting back and what a fight it was! With equally strong blows, in a short while, the Kirata overpowered Arjuna and almost crushed him to pulp that Arjuna lost his consciousness and fell down.
Now the Kirata and his wife transformed back into the majestic Shiva and the beautiful Parvati in their resplendent forms and blessed Arjuna to get up. Arjuna got up and seeing Lord Shiva, was terribly ashamed to have fought with Him due to his ignorance. He pleaded for forgiveness and Lord Shiva blessed him and asked him what he wanted.
Arjuna sought the deadly Paasupata Astra. This was a crescent shaped weapon capable of colossal destruction and annihilation of anything. Naturally it was a dream of warriors like Arjuna to possess it. Shiva and Kali had used it. In the Ramayana, Lakshmana used it against Indrajit. It is said that the weapon could be used only against equals or superiors. It could be used as an arrow with the bow too.
Lord Shiva, smiled and granted his boon. He gifted to Arjuna, the Paasupata Astra and taught him how to unleash it and withdraw it and also the precautions to be taken before, while and after using it. Lord Shiva then touched Arjuna and blessed him for victory in the war. Arjuna’s body, with this divine touch became stronger than ever. Arjuna, extremely thrilled and pleased to get the much sought after weapon, then praised Lord Shiva with his hymns. Lord Shiva gave back the Gandeeva to Arjuna, blessed him again, rose up in the sky with Parvati and disappeared.
This is the story of how Arjuna got the Paasupata Astra, which he is said to have used against Karna and Aswatthama in the great war of Mahabharatha.
The image in the story has been clicked by me in Pattadakkal which is once again a place of rich Chalukyan architecture. This is near Badami in Karnataka. In the first panel, you can clearly see a boar standing on the demon’s body with Shiva and Arjuna on either sides aiming arrows at each other. Parvathi standing with a baby in the corner at the right. The lower panel depicts Arjuna in his chariot in Mahabharatha war.