The Mahabharata is a collection of hundred Parvas (or ‘sections’) that tell the story of a long-standing family feud between two sets of cousins – the Kauravas and the Pandavas – for control of the Kuru throne in Hastinapur.
The climactic event of the story is an eighteen-day war that happens between the two factions on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
It is commonly understood that the Pandavas are the protagonists of this tale and the Kauravas the antagonists – though many retellings have appeared over the years that flip this structure.
In this post, we will summarize the Khandava Daha Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
A Brahmin’s Hunger
The Khandava Daha Parva effectively begins with a Brahmin approaching Krishna and Arjuna while they were sporting on the edge of the forest of Khandava.
‘My appetite is voracious, my lords,’ he tells them, ‘and it never ends no matter how much I eat. Will you be able to satisfy my hunger and save my life?’
Krishna and Arjuna tell the Brahmin that they will do anything in their power to help. It should be noted that one of the tenets of the Kshatriya Dharma is that one should never deny a Brahmin’s request.
We see many instances of gods taking advantage of this and soliciting boons from kings. This is an example of one such approach. (Another instance of this occurs when Indra, disguised as a Brahmin, asks Karna for this kavacha-kundalas.)
After receiving a promise from the two heroes, the Brahmin reveals his true identity. ‘I am Agni, O Krishna and Arjuna,’ he says, ‘the lord of fire. I do not wish to eat the food of humans.’
‘Then what is it that you wish to eat, sir?’ asks Krishna.
Agni wants Khandava
‘This forest contains much of the wood that I need to satiate my hunger,’ says Agni, looking around them. ‘But it is also home to Takshaka, the king of the Nagas, and good friend of Indra.
‘Whenever I blaze forth in this direction, therefore, the king of the gods is forever ready at hand to thwart me with a few showers. You and your kinsman are well-versed in the art of war and weapons.
‘I wish that you help me in my quest – make certain that Indra does not interfere, and also prevent the animals in the forest from escaping.’
At this stage, Janamejaya interrupts Vaisampayana, the narrator of the tale, to ask why Agni wanted to destroy the Khandava forest.
‘Why did the illustrious celestial desire to burn that place, O Sage? He must have had a compelling reason to do so. Tell me everything about this incident.’
And Vaisampayana tells him the following story of a king named Swetaki.
Swetaki is a king who lives ‘in the days of yore’, which means long before the events of the Mahabharata take place. He is known more than anything else for his obsession with performing sacrifice after sacrifice.
The poor Brahmins who have been forced to sit in front of the fire for years on end suffer declining eyesight and clogged lungs as a result. Due to this, his priests go on strike and refuse to perform Swetaki’s next planned event: a hundred-year yagnya.
Swetaki tries every trick in the book to placate his priests. He gives them gifts. He speaks to them softly. He threatens them. But when they do not budge, he says to them, exasperated:
‘I am neither a degraded wretch nor have I ever given you any less respect than you deserve. And yet you refuse to grant me my wish. What must I do now?’
‘Your appetite for sacrificial ceremonies is unending, O King,’ the priests reply, ‘and we cannot possibly quench it. We think that you should ask Lord Shiva himself to descend from Kailasa and help you conduct your yagnya.’
Though these words are said in anger and mockery, Swetaki takes them seriously, and over the next few years, pleases Shiva with his austerities. When the lord appears and asks him to name his wish, he says, ‘I wish you to assist me at the hundred-year sacrifice.’
Shiva smiles at the king’s naivety. ‘This is not a job for a celestial, O King. But let me see how badly you want it. If you spend the next twelve years incessantly pouring clarified butter into the fire in my honour, at the end of the period, I shall grant you your wish.’
Swetaki does as he is told. For twelve years he keeps the fire going with continuous offerings of clarified butter, and at the end, Shiva reappears to the king and tells him:
‘There is a Brahmin on Earth by name Durvasa, O King, who contains a portion of my essence. I shall ask him to assist you in this project.’
And so Durvasa, at the command of Shiva, helps Swetaki perform the hundred-year-sacrifice. In due course of time, Swetaki ascends to heaven after a life well-lived.
But Agni, with all the offerings that were made to him during this time, becomes overfed, and decides that he will never again take libations of clarified butter from anyone.
He goes to Brahma for advice on how to cure his indigestion, and the grandsire says, ‘Go feast on the forest of Khandava, with the wood and the fat of all the beings living in it. That will free you of your problem.’
Armed with Brahma’s suggestion, Agni tries seven times to consume the Khandava forest, but he fails each time due to the intervention of Indra. The animals of the forest, also, rise up in arms against him.
Elephants fill up their trunks with water and spray it all over the advancing flames. Thousands of many-hooded snakes, the family of Takshaka, also hastily scatter much water over Agni, extinguishing his efforts.
Angered and frustrated by this, Agni goes back to Brahma and asks him what to do. ‘Go and take the help of Nara-Narayana, who are presently incarnate on Earth, and are living in Khandavaprastha at the moment.
‘They will help you with the deed, even if they have to fight the entire army of the celestials to do so.’
This is how Agni disguises himself as a Brahmin and takes Arjuna and Krishna’s word that they would satiate his hunger.
Hearing that they are being employed to fight against the celestials, Arjuna tells Agni, ‘I have great strength in my arms and I carry great knowledge of war craft in my head, but I do not possess any divine weapons, O Agni, with which I can win against the gods.’
Agni then calls upon Varuna, and gives the Pandava the following gifts:
- A bow that was forged in the kingdom of Soma called the Gandiva
- Two inexhaustible quivers of arrows
- A chariot that had been built by Vishwakarma, furnished with celestial weapons, drawn by silver horses, and upon whose banner stands a great ape (Hanuman).
Krishna receives from Agni the following weapons:
- A discus with an iron pole driven through the hole in its center. ‘This weapon will make you superior in battle to men and gods, the Rakshasas, the Pisachas, the Daityas and the Nagas, O Krishna. When you hurl it at someone, it will kill them and return to your hands.’
- A mace called Kaumodaki, capable of slaying every Daitya on Earth, and which roars like thunder each time it is used.
Armed with these weapons, Krishna and Arjuna ready themselves for battle.
The Slaughter of Khandava
Thus begins the massacre at the Khandava forest. Arjuna and Krishna ride their chariots along its periphery, preventing animals from escaping. Birds that attempt to fly away are pierced with shafts by Arjuna.
Agni assumes his dangerous form and begins to eat at the trees, and as the water of the lakes begins to boil, the fish and other aquatic animals living in them meet their deaths as well.
When the gods go to Indra and inform him of what is happening, he commands a full force of celestials against the two warriors, but after a prolonged battle, Arjuna and Krishna defeat the army of the gods.
After that, Agni reduces the forest to ashes over a period of fifteen days, during which Arjuna and Krishna continue to guard it.
It is interesting to note that Arjuna fights his father in this battle, but they do not acknowledge each other in that fashion.
In fact, Indra even renders his son unconscious during the fight for a period of time, and when he summons his soldiers, commands them to kill the two warriors if necessary.
There are three things that Agni does not consume in the fire of Khandava: a Naga prince called Aswasena, a Danava called Maya, and four birds called the Sarngakas.
Here, we will look at the stories of all three.
Aswasena is the son of Takshaka the Naga. As the fire rages on, Aswasena’s mother, in an attempt to rescue her son, swallows him.
Aswasena enters the mouth of his mother head first, and just as his tail is about to disappear down her throat, Arjuna’s arrow beheads his mother and cuts her into pieces.
Just as Arjuna is about to aim his next shaft at the Naga prince, though, Indra renders him unconscious, giving Aswasena enough of an opportunity to flee.
(Aswasena will return during the final battle scene between Karna and Arjuna.)
Maya is an Asura who lives in the abode of Takshaka. With the forest almost reduced to ashes, in a last desperate attempt to escape, he falls on Arjuna’s feet and begs for mercy.
Arjuna gives him his word, and thus his life is saved. A short while later, Maya would repay this act of kindness by building for Yudhishthir a magnificent hall which fuels Duryodhana’s envy and indirectly leads to the game of dice.
The most interesting story of the three, however, concerns the four Sarngaka birds.
There was once a sage by name Mandapala, who failed to attain heaven even after committing to a life of extreme austerities and penance.
He asked the gods what he had done wrong, and the gods told him, ‘O Sage, you have done everything that can be asked of a man, but you have not procured offspring.
‘It is true that the act of reproduction is necessary in clearing your path to salvation. If you desire to live as the gods, return to Earth and right this matter.’
The sage returned to Earth as he was ordered, and chose to take the form of a bird because he thought that finding a mate and having children would be easier in that form.
He mated with a female bird called Jarita and set up his nest in Khandava. But while his eggs were still to hatch, Mandapala left Jarita for another bird named Lapita.
While Agni comes to Khandava and burns everything in his way, the sons of Mandapala are mere fledglings, and Jarita is manning the nest.
‘How do I protect all of you, my sons?’ she laments. ‘I am not powerful enough to carry all of you away from here. Even if I was, that fierce warrior with the bow is likely to shoot us down. What am I to do? We have been abandoned by your father.’
What Jarita does not know is that Mandapala, knowing beforehand that Agni is approaching Khandava, extracts from him a boon after much praise and worship that the lord of fire would not harm the four birds.
‘My eldest son, Jaritati,’ says Mandapala to Agni, ‘is the one on whom the continuation of my race depends. My second, Sarisrikka, will beget progeny for the expansion of my ancestors’ race.
‘Stavamitra, my third son, will become a devoted ascetic, and Drona, my last, will become a great Vedic scholar.’
The sons of Jarita console her and ask her to fly away to safety, telling her that she should save herself and beget more progeny later rather than perish along with them.
Once the mother reluctantly leaves, the four brothers pray to Agni in loud voices, praising him in a variety of forms.
Agni Shows Mercy
Pleased, Agni asks the young birds, ‘You are the sons of Mandapala, are you not? I have given your father my promise that I shall not harm you.’
Saying so, Agni leaves that tree alone among the whole forest untouched. After the flames had died down, Jarita returns to her children and embraces them amid tears of joy.
Even Mandapala returns, and after a short period of coolness, the family is united.
With this burning of the Khandava forest ends the Khandava Daha Parva of the Mahabharata. Arjuna and Krishna are praised to the skies by the gods for their valour.
Indra appears before them and grants them a boon each. Arjuna asks for all of the god’s weapons, while Krishna wishes that his friendship with the Pandava might remain eternal.
At the end of the fifteen days, with Agni leaving satiated, Krishna and Arjuna, along with Maya, come to rest on the banks of a river. Up next: The Sabhakriya Parva.