Long before the war began and while the Pandavas were still in exile, Duryodhana landed himself in deep trouble and could have been killed… if only Arjuna hadn’t intervened.
This story takes place some years before the bloody war of Kurukshetra. It was approximately the tenth year of the Pandavas’ exile. Arjuna had spent a greater portion of this time travelling to the Himalayas to gather divine weaponry and learning how to use all of it. The remainder of the Pandavas too had travelled all over the country paying visits to pilgrimage sites and respects to sages and everyone had finally settled in a forest called Dvaitavana waiting for the period of exile to end following which they would be required to go into hiding and living incognito for a year.
Meanwhile Duryodhana was living it up in the palaces and decided it wasn’t altogether a bad idea to rub this in the faces of his exiled cousins. So along with a large entourage that includes his brothers, their wives, Karna and a large contingent of soldiers. They set up camp in the forest and start their festivities.
Incidentally, another group was also picnicking in the same forest at the same time. Except this group didn’t comprise mortals but rather Gandharvas or the royal musicians of Indra’s court who were also renowned warriors. The leader of this contingent was Chitrasena.
As was wont, the two groups clashed and what was a skirmish blew into a full-scale battle. Before long, the Gandharvas overpowered the Kaurava clan – most warriors including Karna ran away from the scene – and captured Duryodhana, Dushasana and a few ladies from the royal family.
The few Kaurava soldiers that were left behind rushed to Yudhishtir and explained the situation to him. On hearing their story, the eldest Pandava ordered his brothers to rescue their cousins. Obviously, everyone protested but were convinced when Yudhishtir made them see that by saving Duryodhana, they would, in fact, be humiliating him.
So the four Pandavas set out to rescue the man who had put them through all this misery.
A fierce battle followed. When it was clear to Chitrasena, the leader of the Gandharvas, that they were being defeated, he tried to fly with Duryodhana in tow. Arjuna prevented this from happening and thus began a one-on-one duel between a demi god and a celestial being.
It is often asked what was it that made Arjuna earn the reputation of being the greatest archer on earth. Comparisons are often drawn between him and Karna who was arguably just as good but not as fortunate and between him and Eklavya who couldn’t live to his full potential after Dronacharya demanded the thumb of his right hand as fees. It was this battle that set Arjuna above all archers of his time, during which he took on a Gandharva and defeated him.
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Arjuna and his brothers rescued Duryodhana and took him back to Yudishthir where they expected their brother to punish the Kaurava prince. Instead, Yudishthir simply reprimanded him and sent him off with his tail between his legs. It was all that was needed, he argued.
And he wasn’t wrong. Duryodhana never repeated this mistake. And while he did draw the Pandavas into battle, he had known very well who it was that he was up against.