The burning of the Khandava forest

Posted on June 18, 2010

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Once Agni developed a condition of indigestion, for which he approached Krishna and Arjuna and sought their help in burning the Khandava forest (Read: ‘How Arjuna acquired the Gandiva‘). Brahma had earlier prescribed Agni to consume the forest’s vegetation along with its inhabitants as a cure. Arjuna and Krishna agreed to help, and Agni in return facilitated Varuna to provide them with weapons and accessories including the Gandiva and Chakra.

Agni allocated the pair of Krishna and Arjuna the responsibility of thwarting any obstacles and preventing the inhabitant creatures from escaping the fire.

Once they were armed and ready, Agni began to engulf the forest in flames. Vyasa narrates that the heat was so intense that the water in the ponds and lakes boiled, killing marine life. Birds that tried to fly were pierced by Arjuna’s shafts. Numerous living creatures perished in the flames.

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In the same forest, there lived a snake by the name Takshaka, who was a close friend of Indra. However, at this time, Takshaka had gone to Kurukshetra, leaving his wife and son Aswasena at home.

Indra, coming to know of Agni’s attempt to burn the forest, came to the rescue of his friend’s family and other dwellers of the forest. He dispatched heavy showers to douse the flames, but those showers dried up mid-air due to the intense heat. When Indra increased the intensity of the showers, Arjuna retaliated by covering the sky with numerous arrows  that sheltered the forest from the rains.

While this was going on, Takshaka’s wife tried to escape along with her son by rising up from the earth. Arjuna, realizing this, cut off her head by an arrow. Indra then deployed heavy winds that made Arjuna temporarily unconscious. During this moment, Aswasena escaped.

Burning of the Khandava Forest - A scuplture from Banteay Srei temple, Cambodia (Arjuna and Krishna are seen on chariots on either side; Indra is atop his elephant Airavata in the sky; Numerous arrows in mid-air counter the downpour of rain; Different birds and animals are seen scattering; Takshaka's wife and Aswasena are seen rising in the sky).

Soon many opponents entered the fray on behalf of Indra, and a terrible battle ensued. Arjuna and Krishna fought with birds from the race of Garuda, serpents, Asuras, Gandharvas, Yakshas, Rakshashas, Yama, Kubera, Varuna, Karthikeya, Aswins, Dhatri, Java, Tvastr, Surya, Mrtyu, Aryaman, Mitra, Pusha, Bhaga, Savitri, Rudras, Vasus, Maruts, Viswedevas and Sadhyas all at once. Vyasa describes this as a wonderful battle where the pair finally emerged victorious.

The burning of Khandava forest continued for fifteen days. Agni, having drunk rivers of fat and marrow, had his indigestion cured. Only six people escaped the great conflagration – Aswasena, the Asura Maya, and four Saranga birds.

Indra, pleased with the might of Krishna and Arjuna, sought eternal friendship with Arjuna, and expressed his desire to offer them a boon. Arjuna asked for a variety of divine weapons. Indra, after fixing in mind an appropriate time to execute the boon, told Arjuna, “I will bestow you with divine weapons when Shiva is pleased with you. The time for this will come to pass”. Saying thus, Indra departed.

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The Asura Maya, as a token of gratitude for sparing his life, built a grand palace for Pandavas in that land that came to be known as Khandavaprastha.

(Sources: Mbh Adi Parva, Chapters 225-235 & Sabha Parva, Chapter 1)

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