Mahabharata Episode 14: Massacre at Khandava

Massacre at Khandava - Featured Image - Picture of an ornate snake breathing fire

In this series of posts, I am reconstructing the Mahabharata as a sequence of episodes. This will provide a quick and easy way for someone new to the story to become acquainted with it.

(For the previous post in this series, see Episode 13: Exile of Arjuna.

To access the full repository of Mahabharata episodes, see: 60 Mahabharata Episodes that Tell You the Whole Story.)

Agni’s Indigestion

During a time long before the events of the Mahabharata come to pass, there is a king called Swetaki. He performs the hundred-year sacrifice, during which he pours large amounts of clarified butter into the fire.

Swetaki rewards himself with a place in heaven for this feat, but Agni ends up with a severe case of indigestion.

He goes to Brahma for advice on how to cure this condition, and the grandsire replies: ‘Feast on the forest of Khandava with the wood and all the living beings in it. That will help you.’

But there is a snag in the matter: Khandava is also home to Takshaka, the king of the Nagas (one of the many sons of Kadru), and his many snake subjects. Takshaka is also a close friend to Indra, and therefore enjoys close to god-like status in the forest.

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.

An Alternative

Angered and frustrated by this, Agni goes back to Brahma and asks him what to do.

‘Go and take the help of Nara-Narayana,’ says Brahma, ‘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.’

Agni therefore disguises himself as a Brahmin and approaches Krishna and Arjuna. He first extracts a promise from them that they will satiate his hunger, and only then does he reveal his true form.

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 warcraft in my head, but I do not possess any divine weapons, O Agni, with which I can win against the gods.’

In order to perform this task, he gives Krishna and Arjuna a number of weapons.

Divine Weapons

Agni gives Arjuna the following tools to perform the slaughter of Khandava:

  • 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).

To Krishna he presents these:

  • 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. ‘We are now quite able to grant you your wish, O Pavaka,’ they tell Agni. ‘Blaze forth in your most destructive form and surround the forest on all four sides. We shall see to the rest.’

Khandava is Razed

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.

In the clearing that is formed after the forest has been flattened by Agni and the two Kshatriyas, Yudhishthir later builds the city of Indraprastha.

Aswasena the Naga

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. 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 later makes an appearance during the dying moments of the Mahabharata war, during the battle between Karna and Arjuna. He offers to turn himself into an arrow so that Karna can shoot him at Arjuna.

But just as he is about to pierce the forehead of the Pandava, Krishna stamps on his chariot with a heavy foot, causing it to sink into the earth. Aswasena thus only knocks off Arjuna’s crown. And Karna refuses to shoot him again, citing the battle rule that no warrior should use the same weapon on the same foe twice.

The Four Birds

The four birds that Agni chooses to spare are mere fledglings named Jaritati, Sarisrikka, Stavamitra and Drona. These are the babies of a sage named Mandapala, who had many years ago taken the form of a bird to have progeny. His wife, the mother of the four fledglings, is named Jarita.

Before the conflagration of Khandava begins, Mandapala approaches Agni and requests him to spare the nest containing his four sons. Not knowing this, Jarita reluctantly flies away and leaves her children behind as the fire begins to spread.

The birds, now left alone in their nest, pray to Agni in loud voices, praising him in a variety of forms.

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.  

Maya the Asura

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.

Before beginning work on the building, though, Maya goes to the north of Kailasa to a peak (called Hiranyasringa) nestled among the mountains of Mainaka.

When Arjuna asks him the reason, he says, ‘Some time in the past, O Pandava, when the Asuras were engaged in a sacrifice on the banks of Lake Vindu, I amassed a great deal of wealth and entrusted it to the treasury of King Vrishaparva for safekeeping. With your permission, I shall bring it back and present it to His Majesty Yudhishthir.’

Along with the treasure, Maya also brings back a fierce club (unnamed) for Bhimasena’s benefit, claiming that it will be unto Vrikodara as Gandiva is to Arjuna.

Also among the things he presents on his return is Devadatta, a large conch-shell that has once been in Varuna’s possession.

Building of Maya Sabha

Once he is back, work begins on the palace in earnest. Eight thousand Rakshasas are employed in its construction, and in fourteen months, it is ready for occupation.

Amidst the golden archways and gem-encrusted walls, Maya places a tank (an indoor swimming pool, for us modern readers) whose banks are overlaid with pearl-set marble.

Lotuses and aquatic fowls of various types dot its surface, and fish and tortoises swim in its transparent, mud-free water. The bottom of this tank shines with a steady golden light.

Having thus finished the palace, Maya presents it to Yudhishthir, who enters it on an auspicious day amid the blessings of all his courtiers, friends, family members and sages.

And the king begins to conduct affairs of his state from this sabha in the manner of Brahma surrounded by all the attending gods.

Why was the Khandava destroyed?

If a rational reader of the Mahabharata insists on rejecting the ‘Agni had overeaten’ hypothesis, he might ask just why the Khandava forest had to be destroyed and all the life forms in it killed.

The most plausible answer is that the kingdom of Kuru was at that point attempting to expand in order to divide it into two, so that one part of it can then be given to Yudhishthir.

One way to expand one’s kingdom is to invade other cities and loot their wealth by means of taxes and tribute. Another – probably less expensive, but also less rewarding – is to ‘reclaim’ land from a natural reserve like a forest.

Whether the Khandava was owned by Kuru or not, we are not told explicitly. But it does appear that there is some skirmish that took place during its reclamation. Maybe these were indigenous people who lived in the forest. Or perhaps a small neighbouring kingdom had to be defeated in order for Kuru to get possession of Khandava.

In this model, the razing of Khandava is really an example of mass deforestation occurring to enable a city to be founded. The story of Agni’s hunger is merely embellishment on part of the Kuru poets to whitewash the incident as heroic.

What must have truly happened?

Let us follow this premise to its conclusion, and describe the events of Khandava in a more realistic manner.

Following the return of the Pandavas after their marriage to Draupadi, Bhishma decides that it is best if Yudhishthir is given a city to rule. However, instead of making him king of Hastinapur and brushing Dhritarashtra away, he formulates this plan of building a city from scratch inside the kingdom of Kuru.

The region he chooses for this new city is known as Khandavaprastha, a small village situated right next to the forest of Khandava.

Of course, Khandavaprastha by itself is not big enough for Yudhishthir to rule. So Bhishma decrees that they will flatten Khandava itself and build on the land a new city that will take on the name of Indraprastha.

This is a favourable solution for several reasons:

  • Dhritarashtra and Duryodhana will not need to give up any of their existing dominions – with the exception of Khandavaprastha.
  • After Khandava is leveled, in terms of acreage, Yudhishthir will preside over the same amount of land as his cousins. So this has the appearance of a ‘fair’ solution.
  • The strain on Kuru’s military is bound to be quite low because they’re only burning down a forest – and maybe fighting against some native tribes that are not sophisticated with weapons.

Who paid for it all?

In choosing this solution, Bhishma did what any conquest-minded regent would do. When asked to divide the pie into two equal parts, he first sought to double its size.

Still, a division of the Kuru army had to be deployed in order to burn down Khandava. An army of engineers and architects had to then be employed to construct the great hall and palace of Yudhishthir. Who paid for this?

Since we’re firmly here in speculative territory, here are a few possibilities:

  • What Maya calls the ‘treasures of Vindu’ may be nothing more than wealth looted from the indigenous tribes that were defeated during this battle. Whether they were killed or assimilated into Kuru as ‘citizens’, their wealth would have been confiscated – through force or through diplomacy.
  • Cutting down the trees of Khandava would have yielded enormous amounts of wood which Kuru could export to other kingdoms for money.
  • Kuru could have harvested valuable animal products from the many beasts that were killed during this event. Think elephant tusks, tiger pelts, deer skin, and lion manes. These could have been traded as well in exchange for gold.
  • And what of all the wealth stolen from Northern Panchala that has enriched Kuru’s treasury over the two years that have passed? Some of that would have been used to build Indraprastha.

In any case, by the end of it all, Yudhishthir has his great mansion, the Pandavas have their kingdom, Draupadi has become queen, and the inheritance issue between the Pandavas and the Kauravas appears to be resolved.

At least that is what Bhishma thinks. Now the stage is set for the next round of bickering, which kicks off with Yudhishthir’s Rajasuya. We will see more of that in the next episode.

Further Reading

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