Nakula in the Mahabharata



Nakula and his twin brother Sahadeva were the youngest of the five Pandava brothers. The twins were born to mother Madri, the second wife of King Pandu, but mythologically Nakula and Sahadeva were the sons of the Aswins, the god-twins (see Wilkins 414-415). Due to a curse, King Pandu could not produce heirs with his wives, so he encouraged them to invoke a special mantra that allowed them to have children with the gods of their choice. With the mantra, Madri “thought of the twin Aswins, who coming to her with speed begat upon her two sons (Ganguli Vol 1: 260),” named Nakula and Sahadeva. Kunti, King Pandu’s first wife had three children by the gods, the oldest was Yudisthira son of the god Dharma, and then came Bhima from the wind god and last was Arjuna from Indra, the god of thunder (see Rodrigues 229).

The story of Nakula and his family is articulated in one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata tells the tale of the power struggle over the kingdom of Hastinapura between the descendants of King Pandu (the Pandavas) and those of his blind brother Dhrtarastra (the Kauravas). Although Nakula does not play a primary role in this epic, as one of the Pandavas he is instrumental in helping his brother king Yudisthira regain dominion over the Hastinapura kingdom. Throughout the Mahabharata Nakula is described as being “unrivalled on earth for personal beauty” (Ganguli Vol. 1: 260), an excellent swordsman, loyal to his brothers, a great car-warrior, intelligent, and most prominently, skilled in caring for horses. During the Pandavas’ thirteenth year of exile, Nakula interviewing for a job with King Virata, described himself as being highly knowledgeable about breaking horses, their temperaments, as well as knowing “how to correct vicious horses and all the methods of treating their diseases” (Ganguli Vol. 4: 20).

Nakula, along with his brothers and the Kauravas were all trained by the skillful teacher Drona, where “the twins (Nakula and Sahadeva) excelled everybody in handling the sword” (Ganguli Vol. 1: 282). Although Nakula used many weapons, he is said to have favored the sword because “a hero armed with the sword can, single handed, withstand many bowmen and many antagonists armed with maces and darts” (Ganguli Vol.8: 361). The Kauravas and the Pandavas were constantly fighting and tensions were exacerbated after King Pandu, as a result of his curse dies and Nakula’s mother, Madri performs sati.  The blind Dhrtarastra steps up as king of Hastinapura and the Pandavas, escaping a death trap set by the eldest son of Dhrtarastra, Duryodhana, go to live in the forest (see Rodrigues 230).

While living in the forest, the Pandavas attend the swayamvara of Princess Draupadi, and the skilled warrior, Arjuna wins her hand in marriage. Draupadi agrees to marry all five of the Pandavas and would later give birth to five sons, “all of whom were heroes of the foremost rank and immovable in battle like the hills” (Ganguli Vol. 1: 432), which was evident in Nakula’s son Satanika. Satanika played a helpful role in the great war between the Pandavas and Kauravas, he was even described as being “that crusher of foes” (Ganguli Vol.6: 217). Nakula also had another son “named Niramitra born to his second wife, Karenumati” (Williams 218), who was the daughter of the king of Chedi.

After returning to Hastinapura to make peace with their uncle, Dhrtarastra decided to give the Pandavas the territory of Indraprastha, which was densely forested and of no use to the king. One of Nakula’s greatest individual feats was the conquest of the western territory of Indraprastha, “the direction that had once been subjugated by Vasudeva” (Ganguli Vol. 2: 66), and was “presided over by the god Varuna” (Ganguli Vol. 2: 66).  On his quest, Nakula first conquered the mountain country of Rohitaka, then Sairishaka the desert country and had a dangerous encounter with the sage Akrosa. Among some of the powerful tribes subjugated by Nakula were “the Dasarnas, the Sivis, the Trigartas, the Amvashtas, the Malavas, the five tribes of the Karnatas, and those twice born classes that were called the Madhyamakeyas and Vattadhanas” (Ganguli Vol. 2: 66-67), as well as the tribes along the sea shore and living on fisheries. Also Nakula was welcomed by his uncle Salya in the west and took from him enough treasure to fill the backs of ten thousand camels.

After seeing how the Pandavas “transformed the harsh land of Indraprastha into a wealthy kingdom” (Rodrigues 231), Duryodhana, filled with jealousy, devised a plan to take the kingdom away from the Pandavas. Knowing that King Yudhisthira was both addicted and terrible at gambling, Duryodhana challenged him to a game of dice, in which Yudhisthira lost his kingdom, possessions, brothers and his wife. The terms of the final game of dice dictated that the loser would have to surrender their kingdom and go into exile for thirteen years; with the last year being of non-discovery on punishment of repeating the entire period of exile. Yudhisthira lost this round of dice as well, and true to his character Nakula, as well as the other Pandavas and Draupadi accompanied their eldest brother into exile (see Rodrigues 231-232).

Whilst in exile, the Pandavas were not only faced with difficulty and privation but also had many adventures along the way. One such adventure occurs when the brothers, exhausted after unsuccessfully hunting deer, sent Nakula to fetch water from a nearby lake. Before Nakula could drink from the lake, he heard the voice of Yaksha telling him to answer questions before quenching his thirst. The thirsty Nakula however could not resist the crystal clear lake and he “dropped down dead” (Ganguli Vol. 3: 601). King Yudhisthira then sent Sahadeva followed by Bhima and Arjuna who all meet the same fate before he himself ventured over to the lake. Yudhisthira successfully answerd Yaksha’s questions, and as a reward he would revive one of the Pandava brothers. Wanting to be fair to both of his father’s wives, Yudhisthira chooses Nakula, son of Madri and impressed with the king’s dharmic choice, Yaksha, who was actually the god Dharma in disguise, revives all of the Pandavas.

In their thirteenth year of exile, the Pandavas under disguise resided in the kingdom of Virata, where Nakula was employed as keeper of the horses to the king. Nakula impressed king Virata “by showing him fleet and well-trained steeds that followed him wherever he went” (Ganguli Vol.4: 22). Later, at the close of the year of non-discovery Nakula with the Pandava brothers helped King Varata fight off an attack launched by Duryodhana on the kingdom. When Duryodhana refused to give the Pandavas “even five small villages” (Rodrigues 233), an eighteen day war between the Pandavas and Kauravas was initiated (see Williams 204-205).

Although Nakula was not the most prominent hero in this war, he did play a key role in many battles during its course. It was said that Nakula, remembering his years of exile would “vomit the poison of his wrath like an angry snake, down their very lives” (Ganguli Vol.4: 112), and Dhrtarastra would regret going to war. During one battle Nakula and Sahadeva, “endued with great effulgence, became the protectors of Bhima’s wheels” (Ganguli Vol.5: 42) and Nakula faced many antagonists  including Dussasana, his uncle ruler of the Madras, Bhishma, Drona, Duryodhana, Karna and the warriors of Alayudha. Perhaps his main contribution in the war against the Kauravas, was Nakula’s battle against Karna’s sons. Nakula first encountered the son Chitrasena who possessed a near equal skill in battle. After a close back and forth combat, Nakula prevailed slaying Chitrasena and his brothers Sushena and Satyasena “rushed with speed against the son of Pandu like a couple of tigers” (Ganguli Vol.7: 24). Nakula was able to defeat both of Chritrasena’s brothers and “beholding the slaughter of Karna’s sons and the prowess of Nakula, thy army….fled away in fear” (Ganguli Vol.7: 26).

At the end of the eighteen days of war, the Pandavas emerged victorious and Yudhisthira was restored to his rightful place as king of Hastinapura. Nakula was appointed a military official with the duties of “keeping the register of the forces, for giving them food and pay and for supervising other affairs for the army” (Ganguli Vol.8: 85). King Yudhisthira additionally gave Durmarshana’s gold and gem-adorned palace to “Nakula who deserved it best and who had been emaciated (with the miseries of a life) in the great forest” (Ganguli Vol.8: 88).

After a long period of rule, Nakula accompanied his brothers in their journey towards the sacred mountain Meru, located in the north. The Pandavas entered a yogic state and like his brothers Sahadeva, Arjuna and Bhima, Nakula too fell to the ground (see O’Flaherty 53-54). Despite Nakula’s many virtues and dharmic actions, he falls from his yogic state because he “thought that there was nobody that equaled him in beauty of person” (Ganguli Vol.12: 28), and “what has been ordained for a person, must have to be endured by him” (Ganguli Vol.12: 28). In other words Nakula’s attitude towards himself as being the most beautiful was un-dharmic and as a consequence he was not accepted into heaven as was his dharmic brother Yudhisthira.

Although Nakula is not specifically worshipped within the Indian tradition, The Mahabharata is celebrated and remembered through the performance of Javanese shadow-puppet plays. Javanese shadow plays are “part of an oral tradition which has been transmitted from dhalang (puppeteer) to dhalang for centuries” (Sears 90), and are based on the characters and anecdotes of the great Hindu epics, The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. Throughout the epics themes of “courage, loyalty and integrity are implicit” (Knapp 48), and shadow plays attempt to convey these messages by attributing certain physical and moral qualities to each character. The costumes donned by the puppets also serve to enhance their character types, which further allows the audience to intimately know the characters and their personalities. Krsna for example may be portrayed with a black face, which represents for the Javanese “maturity, calm and virtue” (Knapp, 50), and are qualities that Krsna portrays in The Mahabharata; specifically in helping the Pandavas defeat the Kauravas. So although Javanese shadow-puppet plays are not particularly dedicated to Nakula, his personality traits and contributory role in The Mahabharata are remembered and preserved through these performances.


Brodbeck, Simon P. (2009) The Mahabharata Patriline: Gender, Culture, and the Royal Hereditary. England: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Embree, Ainslie T. (1966) Editor, The Hindu Tradition: Readings in Oriental Thought. New York: Random House, Inc.

Ganguli, Kisari M. (1970) Translator, The Mahabharata. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers PVT. Ltd. Vol. 1-12.

Knapp, B. (1984) Indonesian theater : a journal. Anima, 11(1), 47-61.

O’Flaherty Doniger, Wendy (1988) Textual Sources for the Study of Hinduism. New Jersey: Barnes & Noble Books.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2007) Hinduism-the ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books.

Sears, L.J. (1994) Rethinking Indian Influence in Javanese Shadow Theater Traditions. Comparative Drama, 28(1), 90-110.

Wilkins, W. J. (2009) Hindu Mythology. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd.

Williams, George M. (2003) Handbook of Hindu Mythology. California: ABC-Cilo, Inc.


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Article written by: Kayla Plausteiner (Spring 2012) who is solely responsible for its content.