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 Astika Parva.
(For a full summary of the Mahabharata with all hundred Parvas, see Mahabharata Summary: All 100 Parvas Explained.)
Astika is the sage who eventually saves the serpents from the wrath of Janamejaya. At the beginning of the Astika Parva, on being asked by the sages to describe the tale of this man, Sauti begins with the story of how Jaratkaru, Astika’s father, came to have him.
Jaratkaru was a great ascetic who ate sparingly and had his desires under firm control. He belonged to a race of sages called the Yayavaras.
Once, when he was on a journey around the world, inside a cave he saw a group of elderly men hanging from the ceiling by their legs like bats.
‘Who are you, good sirs?’ asked Jaratkaru, making to help one of them and realizing that the rope which suspended the men had almost fully worn off, eaten by rats.
‘And why do you hang heads down in this cave in such a precarious manner?’
‘We are the ancestors of a sage called Jaratkaru,’ says the leader of the hanging men. ‘We are sinking low into the land of the dead because our line is close to going extinct.
‘Our son has entered a life of austerities and penance. Not for him such quaint desires such as having a son and extending his lineage. Who are you, O Sage, who worries for us so?’
Jaratkaru takes a vow
Why, I am the Jaratkaru that you refer to!’ said Jaratkaru. ‘I am your descendant, and you my ancestors. Pray tell me how I am to serve you.’
‘Set your heart on marriage and offspring,’ said the ancestors. ‘The merit one acquires by becoming a father far exceeds that begotten by virtue and ascetic practice.’
After a moment of thought, Jaratkaru agrees to help. ‘I shall not marry just any other maiden, though,’ he says. ‘I shall marry only that girl who has the same name as I, and her relatives must be willing to give her to me as charity without expecting anything in bride price.’
Saying so, he takes leave from his ancestors and begins looking for a suitable wife.
But he does not succeed in finding anyone because of his twin conditions. After a long time, while praying in the middle of the forest, Vasuki, the king of all serpents, appears before him and offers his sister to Jaratkaru in marriage.
But Jaratkaru reminds Vasuki of his condition, whereupon the snake smiles and says, ‘My sister’s name is Jaratkaru as well, O Sage. I have been told that you will arrive to take her hand in marriage, so I have waited for you all this while. Please accept her as your wife.’
And so the sage Jaratkaru marries the Naga woman Jaratkaru. Their son, Astika, will go on to play an important role in saving the serpent race from annihilation in Janamejaya’s hands
Now we approach the story of Astika from the other side, where we look at how the Nagas were born and why they became sworn enemies of Garuda, Vishnu’s steed.
The sages in Naimisha request Sauti to tell the history of Astika in detail, and the bard chooses to begin with the wedding of Sage Kashyapa to the two daughters of Daksha Prajapati, Kadru and Vinata.
Early on in their marriage, Kadru asks for a boon from Kashyapa to receive thousand snakes of equal splendour as offspring. Having granted his wife her wish, he asks Vinata what she would like.
And she replies, ‘My lord, please grant me just two sons who will surpass all of Kadru’s children in strength, energy, size of body and prowess.’
As per the wishes, in due course of time, Kadru brings forth a thousand eggs, and Vinata but two. After five hundred years, all of Kadru’s eggs hatch and her thousand snakes come into the world.
But Vinata’s eggs are still hard. Overcome by envy, Vinata breaks open one of the eggs, only to find a half-developed human being inside. He curses his mother and says:
‘Since you could not wait for your eggs to hatch, you will serve as a slave. You will need to take good care of the surviving egg during your years of slavery, for it is the son growing inside it that will rescue you.’
Saying so, he rises to the sky and became Surya’s charioteer.
Vinata Becomes a Slave
In the meantime, Kadru and Vinata have a bet on the colour of Uchchaihsravas, the divine horse that came into the world during the churning of the ocean of milk.
Now it is common knowledge that Uchchaihsravas is completely white, with not even a single strand of black hair on his body. But Kadru challenges Vinata that the tail of the horse is black. ‘Shall we agree, sister,’ says Kadru to Vinata, ‘that the loser will serve the winner as a slave?’
Vinata agrees to the condition. Kadru now goes to her sons, the serpents, and orders them to become a strand of black hair each and cover the tail of the divine horse so that it could be blackened.
The snakes refuse to do their mother’s bidding, whereupon Kadru places a curse on them. ‘During the snake sacrifice of the wise king Janamejaya of the Pandava race, Agni shall consume you all,’ she says.
Cowed by this, in a bid to win back her affection and hopefully reverse the curse, the snakes decide to obey Kadru’s order. They become strands of black hair and settle upon the tail of Uchchaihsravas, turning it from snow white to coal black.
Thus the curse of the egg-child came to be. When the two sisters examined the horse’s tail and discovered that it is black, Vinata enters into a state of slavery and begins serving Kadru.
The Birth of Garuda
A few years after Vinata begins her duties as Kadru’s slave, her other egg hatches and a bird of great strength flies out of it.
He is capable of assuming any form, of going at will anywhere he wishes, and of calling to his aid any measure of energy. In resplendence he is comparable to Agni himself.
Indeed, when Garuda first spreads his wings, the gods think that Agni has awakened to destroy the universe, but Agni soothes their concerns saying that Garuda is the foe of the Nagas and the Rakshasas, a friend to the gods.
The gods then proceed to pray to Garuda to reduce his energy, and after he does so, he goes to meet Vinata in the company of Aruna, his brother, the sun’s charioteer.
Kadru and the thousand snakes tell Garuda that Vinata will be freed only if Garuda succeeds in bringing for them the gods’ nectar.
Defeating Indra’s Army
This is the first and only time Garuda fights the gods openly. Among the first casualties on Indra’s side is Brahmana, the celestial architect, who succumbs to the bird’s talons and beak.
Garuda raises a dust storm with his incessant flapping so that the immortals are blinded, and then he mangles them with his beak.
Even with the arrival of Vayu, the wind god, the balance of the fight does not tilt. Not even wavering for a moment, the son of Vinata attacks the celestials from all sides at once, changing shape and size at will, using stealth and power alternately.
The Sadhyas and the Gandharvas are the first to flee eastwards, followed by the Vasus and the Rudras who take refuge in the mountains to the south. The Adityas run to the west, and the twin Ashwins to the north.
Garuda destroys the Yakshas as well, and in doing so resembles Shiva himself, that destroyer of enemies, that holder of the Pinaka at the end of an epoch.
The Stealing of Amrita
With Indra’s army dispensed with, Garuda goes to where the amritais kept, and sees that it is surrounded by tall flames that cover the entire sky, so hot and orange that they look intent on swallowing the sun itself.
Garuda enlarges the size of his mouth by ninety times and fills it with the waters of many rivers. And returning to the place of the amritain less than a moment, he douses the fires with the water in one fell swoop.
Now, placed near the amrita, he sees a wheel of steel-edged swords revolving incessantly, designed by the Gods to keep robbers at bay. To thwart this contraption, Garuda diminishes the size of his body to that of a fly and whizzes past the rotating blades.
Next, he faces two serpents who could turn the object of their gaze into ashes. Here he covers the eyes of the reptiles with dust so that they cannot look at him, and having blinded them thus, he picks them apart with his talons and cuts them into pieces.
Thus he takes the jar containing the amritaand, having broken the machine with the rotating swords with the strength of his wings, he rises to the sky once again.
At this point, Vishnu blocks Garuda’s path and makes him an offer.
Knowing that violence has not worked on the bird, he resorts to flattery.
‘It pleases me that you have resisted the urge to drink the nectar of immortality yourself, O Bird of the heavens,’ says Vishnu. ‘Whom did you steal it for?’
Garuda tells Vishnu the story of his half-brothers and mother, at which Vishnu makes some more approving noises.
‘You have tremendous control over your senses, O Garuda,’ he says. ‘I wish to give you two boons. Ask for anything you wish.’
‘The first,’ says Garuda, ‘is that I shall forever be above you.’
Vishnu smiles. ‘Granted. And the second?’
‘Make it so that I shall remain immortal and free from disease even without drinking the amrita.’
‘I shall make it so.’
Now, Garuda offers one boon to Vishnu in return for the two he had been granted. Vishnu asks that Garuda should become his steed.
‘But if that is so, how will I remain above you, O Narayana?’
‘I shall fight with your image on the banner of my chariot,’ replies Vishnu. ‘So you shall always be above me, Garuda, save for when I need to go somewhere.’
Whether Garuda agrees to this willingly or whether he’s tricked, we do not know, but once the boons are given and granted, he becomes Vishnu’s carrier.
Garuda becomes Suparna
After this short exchange, as Garuda is about to resume his journey home, Indra hurls at him his most destructive weapons, the Vajrayudha.
It causes not even a scratch on the body of Garuda, and he laughs at Indra and says, ‘O King of the Gods, I shall respect the sage (Dadhichi) of whose bone the Vajrayudha was made, and I shall respect the weapon itself, by not attacking you.
‘But I shall leave you a single feather plucked from my body. See if you are able to destroy it.’
Saying so, Garuda lets afloat one of the thousands of feathers that adorn his wings. The sight of the feather is so magnificent that the gods – including Indra – are held in thrall. The gods now give Garuda the name of Suparna: one in possession of fair feathers.
And Indra, accepting defeat at the hands of Garuda, asks for the mighty bird’s friendship.
The Bed of Deception
Garuda then makes haste to return to his half-brothers. Offering them the jar of amrita, he says, ‘Here, according to your condition, I’ve brought the nectar from the gods.
‘You must free my mother now and allow me to take her away. I am placing the jar here on this bed of kusa grass. Please perform your ablutions before you partake of this divine fluid.’
The snakes, rejoicing at their good fortune, leave to attend to their devotions, but in the meantime, as per the plan, Indra takes the nectar and returns it into its rightful place in heaven.
The serpents, on coming back, realize that they have been tricked, but in their desperation, they lick the grass on which the jar had been resting, on the off chance that some of the nectar had dropped on it.
This causes their tongues to be slit along their lengths by the sharp blades of the kusa.
Garuda, for his part, having developed a healthy appetite for his half-brothers, makes a habit of eating them at all times, both to appease his hunger and for enjoyment.
Thus ends the mighty bird’s successful quest for amrita, and the beginning of his alliance with the gods.
Elapatra Suggests a Plan
While the Nagas are now reeling under the implications of Kadru’s curse, Elapatra, one of the brothers, approaches Vasuki and gives him the following suggestion.
‘Listen, Brother,’ says Elapatra. ‘On the day our mother placed her curse on us, I was seated on her lap, and I heard the gods speak of us to Brahma.
‘They expressed the same concern that we today share, that the race of snakes will disappear from the Earth. But the Grandsire told them that it would not be so. ‘A man named Astika will come to put a stop to the sacrifice of Janamejaya. Only the sinful among the snakes will die; the virtuous will survive.’
‘Astika!’ said everyone.
‘Astika?’ said Vasuki. ‘Who is this Astika?’
‘The Creator said that Astika will be born of a sage among the Yayavaras called Jaratkaru. And hear this, Brother. He will wed a maiden from the Naga clan, also named Jaratkaru. Now, is it not true that one of your sisters possesses that name?’
‘Yes,’ said Vasuki. ‘Yes, indeed.’
‘Then you have heard from me the right method of delivering us from the dreadful curse of our mother,’ said Elapatra.
And so Vasuki instructs his brothers to keep an eye on Jaratkaru the Yayavara, and to alert him immediately after it becomes known that the Brahmin is on the lookout for a bride.
When he appears, Vasuki offers his sister, Jaratkaru, in marriage to the Brahmin Jaratkaru.
All of this happens in order to pave the path to the birth of Astika.
The Anger of Janamejaya
Now we return to the scene of Janamejaya’s youth, where sage Uttanka has instigated the king against Takshaka. After listening to the story of his father’s death by the venom of the snake king, Janamejaya gets consumed by anger.
‘I intend to exact my vengeance upon this vile beast. O Sages!’ he says. ‘Tell me what I must do in order to see this Takshaka burn in live fire before my very eyes.’
And to this sages advise that the king must perform the great snake sacrifice that is told of in the Puranas.
A great fire is lit in an open field, and upon chanting of the right verses, all the snakes in the world, against their will, will come flying to the place of the sacrifice and drop on their own into the fire.
This gladdens the hatred-ridden heart of Janamejaya, and he passes an order that immediate preparations must begin to ensure that the snake sacrifice would happen without delay.
The massacre of serpents thus begins.
The Arrival of Astika
With thousands of snakes dying in the sacrificial fire every passing hour, Takshaka, the king of the Nagas, and the prime target of Janamejaya’s ire, takes refuge in Indra’s palace.
Vasuki, meanwhile, looks around despondently at the dwindling numbers of his brothers, and feeling his own skin bristle and itch with the need to fly into the fire, he calls upon his sister Jaratkaru and begs her to send Astika to Hastinapur.
Jaratkaru summons Astika, just a boy at this time, and tells him that the time has arrived when he must fulfil the purpose of his birth.
Astika goes to Hastinapur and enters the sacrificial compound. The gatekeepers allow him in because he’s just a boy. Reaching the platform on which Janamejaya is sitting, Astika beholds the splendour and size of the ceremony and sings many words in its praise.
When Janamejaya grants Astika a boon, the boy wishes for the sacrifice to end.
Thus, Janamejaya is forced to abandon the snake-sacrifice without killing Takshaka. And this brings the Astika Parva to an end.