The Kiratarjuniya is a sanskrit epic poem written by Bharavi in the 6th Century AD, describing the interaction between Arjuna and lord Shiva in the guise of a kirata or mountain-dwelling hunter.
The poem is set during the period of forest exile of the Pandavas within the story Mahabharata. Facing the prospect of war against the Kauravas at the end of their exile, Arjuna is advised by the sage Vyasa to seek divine weapons. Reminded of the humiliation that his brothers and his wife Draupadi faced during the dice game where they lose their entire kingdom, Arjuna decides to perform an austere penance.
Arjuna is guided by a yaksha to the Indrakila mountains near the present-day region of Vijaywada and prays to Shiva. Here, Arjuna endures the hardships of the weather and overcomes many temptations, standing steadfast in his goal.
Pleased with his penance, Shiva decides to test his valor by appearing as a hunter, with both of them shooting a wild boar simultaneously and arguing over who shot first. Upon realizing that he is unable to win, Arjuna at last recognizes Shiva and surrenders to him. Shiva then grants him the powerful Pashupatastra, whose descriptions parallel that of a modern day thermo-nuclear weapon.
I think of This episode from the Mahabharat as a transitionary period. Until this point in the story, the main characters of the story (the 5 Pandava brothers) have had a moderately comfortable upbringing, survived treachery via the burning wax palace courtesy of their cousins, had their new kingdom handed to them on a silver platter by their uncle the king, cultivated the land with the help of Krishna and Balarama, built a fabulous palace with the help of the architect Mayavi, lost the entire kingdom in a game of dice and been exiled for 13 years in the forest.
They interactions have been only with other human characters so far and have only been accumulating either moral teachings or alliances with other kingdoms through marriage.
This is the first divine encounter that they actively seek out that also manifests in the form of a tangible object they can make use of. (I’m not counting their meetings with Krishna since an Avatar is a bit of a complicated person who is sometimes considered either wholly divine, wholly mortal, a bit of both, or neither). Considering that Arjuna receives an enormously powerful weapon that he is immediately warned to never use due to its terrible effects, and the fact that the weapon is never mentioned again for the rest of the epic leads us to question the purpose of this episode.
Is it to tell us that the Pandavas were righteous by divine ordnance? Or is it just a confidence boost for Arjuna to have an unusable powerful weapon in his quiver, just like he has Krishna on his chariot in the battlefield? Or is it to mirror the adventures of his brother Bhima meeting Hanuman or Yudhisthira meeting the crane who turns out to be a Yaksha who turns out to be his father Yamadharmaraja, the god of death and divine justice, which also serve as lessons in humility and wisdom? Perhaps all of these and perhaps none.
When it came to drawing the piece, I made Shiva seem like a giant bestowing an enormous weapon capable of tearing apart the very fabric of the universe to the tiny insect-like Arjuna to show the parity in stature between them.
For the border, I was inspired by the story of the river/celestial maiden Ganga (who is trapped in Shiva’s matted hair) riding a mythical creature called a Makara (which is a half-elephant/half-ram, half-fish type of creature, which is also the zodiac equivalent of Capricorn)
And for the border’s border, I decided to put a composite statue of Nandi, which is the bull that serves as Shiva’s ride.