Khandava in Flames

and Mandapala-Jarita-Lapita

(This is the fourth of the Introductions to the Mahabharata Katha Series of Padma Shri Professor P. Lal published by Writers Workshop, Kolkata. Pages 1153-1216, sections 224-236 of The Complete Adi Parva)

Section 224 of the Adi Parva presents a rare portrait of prevailing courtly mores during a picnic. Draupadi and Subhadra are explicitly described as “wine-flushed”, while the other ladies are “teetering under the influence of wine”, drinking, laughing, dancing, singing and even fighting amongst themselves— hardly a fundamentalist’s delight! But, then, the Mahabharata is no place for one who is searching for material to bolster dogmas. Vyasa’s epic celebrates humanity in all its richness, variety and enjoyment of life, with no prudishness or taboos. We are intrigued to find that Arjuna and Krishna do not take part in this intoxicated revelry but quietly slip away to a secluded spot and chat.

Into these sylvan surroundings, heavy with sensuousness and lassitude, steps the discordant and grotesque figure of dyspeptic Agni in a Brahmin’s garb, summoning the heroes back to the world of strife and pitiless destruction (224.31-32). Agni’s ailment can be cured only by consuming the Khandava forest which, however, is protected by Indra as his friend, the Naga Takshaka, dwells there. Here are sown the seeds of the enmity between Pandava and Naga that leads to the first incident of assassination in epic lore, that of Parikshit, Arjuna’s grandson. Its aftermath is the mighty snake holocaust instituted by Janamejaya. Then, as now, Takshaka somehow escapes the destruction that envelops all others. In both incidents, it is Indra who tries to protect Takshaka alone of all the Nagas. The roots of this peculiar friend¬ship have not been given anywhere in the Puranas, except for the solitary clue in the Astika parva when Indra sends down rain to save the Nagas from being scorched when Garuda carries them too near the sun. Through the word naga itself, they are closely linked to Indra, as it also stands for “elephant” (his mount) and “clouds” that are the storm-and-rain god’s tools. In the Nagas entwining themselves in the tail of Indra’s horse Uchchhaishravas to ensure that their mother Kadru wins the wager with Vinata yet another link is forged. 

Thanks to Janamejaya’s curiosity, we get to know why Agni is so persistent in his efforts to consume this forest. Readers of the Critical Edition and of van Buitenen’s translation are unnecessarily deprived of this relevant and interesting myth. Agni’s all-consuming hunger has its source in the Pauloma parva, where Bhrigu cursed him to devour everything, whether clean or unclean. The dyspepsia is King Shvetaki’s doing. He performed so many sacrifices, pouring ghee ceaselessly into the sacred fire for years on end, that even the priests deserted him. Ultimately, Shiva asked Durvasa to help Shvetaki complete his hundred-year sacrifice.

Bramha’s prescription is a very simple one: high animal and vegetable protein diet, free from ghee. Unfortunately, all the denizens of the forest unite to put out the fire every time Agni tries the cure. The frustrated and dyspeptic Agni turns once more inevitably to Bramha who, in 226.4-5, gives us an explicit avowal of Krishna and Arjuna being the incarnations of the divine duo, Narayana and Nara. It will be recalled that the invocatory shloka of the epic urges obeisance to these two. The Krishna-Arjuna relationship is a unique one. They prefer each other’s company to participating in the picnic revelry with the women (224.27-29). Arjuna falls asleep narrating his experiences to Krishna, who eagerly greets him when he awakes (220.11-15). Krishna unhesitatingly suggests that his sister be abducted by Arjuna, and lends him his own chariot and horses for the purpose, besides persuading the Vrishnis not to take offence at the incident. In the Udyoga parva we come across a unique picture of this relationship drawn by Sanjaya in section 58. He finds Krishna and Arjuna somewhat inebriated: Krishna is lying with his feet on Arjuna’s lap, while Arjuna has one foot on Draupadi’s lap and the other on Satyabhama’s. 

The Khandava holocaust raises serious problems. How are we to reconcile the ruthless, indiscriminate slaughter of all living creatures in violation of Kshatriya norms of hunting and war, with the character of Arjuna who is called Vibhatsu because he never commits any horrifying deed? On the face of it, this seems to be an account of the clearing of a forest for obtaining more cultivable land for the new kingdom of the Pandavas. Naturally, all wild animals inhabiting it would have to perish. But, it is quite clear that there are human beings living in it as well. There is the Asura architect Maya, the bird-woman and her children by a Brahmin and, most important, the Nagas. Khandava is described as situated near the Yamuna, the river from which Krishna had banished Kaliya Naga and his entire clan. Iravati Karve sees this as the colonialism of the Aryans. Encroaching on fellow-Kshatriyas’ lands was prohibited. Though they could be conquered and tribute levied, no Kshatriya house could be deprived of its kingdom. Expansion was possible only by picking on the forest surrounding the new Pandava capital, which happened to be a Naga kingdom under Takshaka. Takshaka’s son is saved by his mother, who dies in the attempt, and by Indra’s intervention. Takshaka himself tries to slay Arjuna during the Kurukshetra war by poising himself on Ashvatthama’s arrow, but is foiled by Krishna. He wins sweet revenge by killing Arjuna’s grandson Parikshit, but makes a powerful enemy in Utanka by stealing the earrings he is bringing for his guru’s wife. If it had not been for Utanka, Janamejaya would never have known of Takshaka’s involvement in his father’s death and the second snake holo¬caust would not have taken place. Here, at the very end of the Adi parva, therefore, we once again pick up the thread of the very strong Naga sub-theme that captures the reader at the beginning of the Mahabharata

If, on the one hand, Khandava-burning shows man’s victory over Nature, on the other it recounts a father-son confrontation. Indra opposes Arjuna with all the forces at his command and is gratified when his son defeats all his attempts to quench the fire. The strong resemblance to the slaughter of the Asuras after the churning of the ocean is reinforced by a celestial announcement declaring the heroic duo to be the divine rishis Nara and Narayana, who had been responsible for the defeat of the titans in the battle over Amrita. Indra rejoices on seeing the gods defeated by his son’s prowess, and leaves Khandava to its fiery fate. The gifting of celestial weapons is itself a crucial episode. It is these and the chariot that cause so much havoc in the great war, though Krishna does not use either the discus or the mace he receives from Varuna. Both these weapons are Vishnu’s as well, thereby establishing implicitly the identity of Krishna and Vishnu.

The burning of Khandava is one of the most vivid portions of the epic in visual terms. Vyasa’s description is gruesome and unsparingly so, faithfully catching all the agony and terror of the massive conflagration (227.34-35). He does not, however, rest content with such a generalized picture. He closes-in for detailed snapshots too, however horrifying (228-5, 7-8), even going further to dabble in gore, evoking thevibhatsa rasa (230.36-38).

There is a third dimension to this conflagration: the eternal conflict between fire and water (228.22; 229.14-15; 338.20). The very weapons with which Krishna and Arjuna scatter Indra’s thunderclouds are gifted by Varuna, the water deity. This hints at the basic unity underlying the surface conflict between the elements, without which creation itself could not have taken place. This unity is explicitly referred to in the invocation of the bird-woman Jarita and her children to Agni (234.7, 16-17). In being identified as the father of all plants, Agni is linked with Soma. The chariot Arjuna receives was Soma’s in which he fought the Danavas. The identification of two apparently opposing forces points to one of the basic truths of Hindu philosophy: it is the rain-clouds that harbor destructive lightning.

The Iliad presents an engrossing parallel to this eternal confrontation between fire and water. As Achilles is about to be swept away in the combined currents of the rivers Scamandros and Simois, Hephaestos steps in to consume the water with fire. The difference between the episodes in the Iliad and the Mahabharata is significant. In the former, the fight is between the deities. While it is in progress, Achilles is not even mentioned. But, in the Khandava-burning the human involvement is complete and predominant. Indeed, here it is the deity who seeks human help and it is man who worsts the gods. The fifteen days long Khandava-burning is, as Buddhadeb Basu points out, the apotheosis of human prowess. 

Only six creatures escape from this holocaust, just as three on the Kaurava side and the five Pandavas, Satyaki and Yuyutsu survive the war. The six are: Takshaka’s son Ashvasena, the Asura-architect Maya who begs sanctuary from Arjuna, and the foursharngakas. It is the last of these that excites considerable human interest despite the crude attempts by interpolators to turn them into actual birds scared of rats and cats. The Mandapala-Jarita-Lapita triangle has been metamorphosed into an exquisite love story by Subodh Ghosh in his Bharat Prem Katha* where he sees it as a conflict between sterile lust and true love that finds fulfillment in offspring. The Mandapala-Lapita affair is purely one of lust. Mandapala marries Jarita much in the same way as Jaratkaru weds Vasuki’s sister, just to beget children to succour his ancestral manes. Once she is pregnant, he leaves her for Lapita but worries about them on seeing Agni encompassing the forest where they dwell. Hence he invokes Agni and persuades him to spare his family. The conversation between Jarita and her four sons oscillates between the sublime and the ridiculous, between the human and the orinthological conditions (232.13, 15). 

In a way, this is very akin to the sentiments of the Brahmin and his family as they face the soul-rending moral choice in Ekachakra. But from these lofty heights we descend to apprehension of being devoured by rats (232.19). The next shloka brings us down with a bump right inside bird psychology, as Jarita strives to convince her sons that the rat has been carried away by a hawk and they refuse to believe her since they have not seen it themselves. This is strongly reminiscent of Chaucer’s technique in Nun’s Priest’s Tale where he shifts from the human to the animal world and back again with bewildering rapidity, presenting the very acme of the mock-heroic. Vyasa, of course, is not being comic at all, for his birds are facing, typically, a crucial moral choice. Jarita is caught between the natural instinct to save herself and her love for her children. They, knowing that escape is impossible, show her that self-preservation is the highest Dharma in this case, because it will enable her husband to achieve his aim of having further progeny. In order to ensure that she leaves, they deliberately slight her (232.11-12). The implacable ruthlessness of this coldly utilitarian logic seeks to sunder all bonds of affection so that the mother can fly to safety. Yet, the children temper the harshness by urging her to seek out her husband to have more sons by him and by pointing out that, should they survive the fire, she can always return to them.

Once Jarita has left, the four sons break out into a series of invocations to Agni that lifts them completely out of their physical forms into the same sphere as Upamanyu and Utanka in the Paushya parva. Indeed, in 234.11, they say, “We are rishis” and Agni recognises these chants as Vedic. Dr. S. N. Pradhan** notes that the Rig VedaX.142 addressed to Agni is composed by four ‘Sharngas’ named Jaritri, Drona, Sariskrita and Stambamitra (the names differ slightly in spelling from the epic version). Pradhan argues that this shows that Vyasa compiled the Vedas after the destruction of Khandava forest, incorporating the sukta of the Sharngakas in the Rig Veda, along with compositions by Devapi and Shantanu-Mahabhishak. 

Agni spares the Sharngakas and grants them a boon. Immediately there is a sudden anti-climax as these sublimely chanting rishis come out with the bathetic plea to destroy bird-eating cats (234.24). Though bathetic, they do end on an eminently practical note, showing that, unlike the sages, they have not lost sight of the facts of everyday life in seeking the Ultimate Truth!

The next scene, however, brings us to the level of human emotions. At the moment of a tearful mother-sons reunion, Mandapala arrives only to be received in stony silence. His hurt is all the greater because, in coming to them, he has had to sacrifice Lapita’s embraces (235.22-23). Jarita’s response is like Draupadi’s to Arjuna when he returns with Subhadra (235.25). At this point, Subodh Ghosh’s Mandapala speaks of his realisation of the vast gulf between lust and love, the latter finding fulfillment in the bond that unites two lovers as parents of their children. In the epic the episode takes a completely different turn, much for the worse. Mandapala breaks into a dull lecture on the proneness of wives to jealousy, hinting that it can invite unpleasant reprisals such as Arundhati’s being turned into “a smoke-filmed star”, (235.29). He admits that he is pettish having been made fun of, as Lapita did when he left her. He also states the usual nauseating justification for his conduct: he had intercourse with Jarita merely to beget sons; with Lapita because he was attracted to her. In doing so, he feels, he did no wrong and he just cannot bear being made fun of by both women. His grievance is that when a woman becomes a mother, she cares even less for her husband. Subodh Ghosh weaves his retelling of this story around this sentiment and has Mandapala leave Jarita because he feels neglected once the children arrive.

The last few shlokas of the section are very important. They record India’s boon to Arjuna that all the god’s divine weapons shall be his, but only after he has propitiated Shiva, which looks forward to the Kirata section of the Vana parva, and indicates that Arjuna is not yet fit to hold those weapons. Krishna, characteristically, asks that his friendship with Arjuna be eternal. The Nara-Narayana duo’s earthly pairing thus receives divine sanction, which might seem quite redundant but is deliberately introduced to retain the cosmic dimensions underpinning the epic.

The Khandava Section ends as it had begun, with Arjuna and Krishna wandering away to sit on the bank of an entrancing river. It is significant that they are freed of the responsibility for the holocaust by making it appear as the desire of a Brahmin. But this time they are not alone. The Asura architect Maya accompanies them and the ensuing conversation will result in the building of the wondrous hall of the Pandavas at Krishna’s request that becomes the cause celebre of their misfortunes in the Sabha parva

What was the use of this holocaust and the building of an Indraprastha to rival Indra’s court? After the great war the Pandavas promptly shift to Hastinapura and we hear not a word of Indraprastha or its much-vaunted hall. What justification could there be for such slaughter for so ephemeral an achievement? Iravati Karve writes with acute perception:

“For hardly ten years they had enjoyed the fabulous palace...No great ruling house is associated with Indraprastha. Except for the burning of Khandava, no other story in Sanskrit literature is set in it. Indraprastha had no substance, it never took a definite form. Maya-sabha was not only ill-omened; it was even more insubstantial than the city in which it was built. Born in violence, its dazzling demonic splendor turned out to be a fleeting dream.” ***

And so ends the Adi parva, with the Khandava holocaust preparing us for the even mightier deluge of blood and gore the future holds in store. With the Adi parva we leave behind primeval myths and civilization in its infancy. Hereafter we will be wading in the morass of court intrigue and devious politics. The Pandavas have already lived their best days. What the future holds for them is blood, sweat, agony and tears. As the Adi parva closes, we bid farewell to the innocence of mankind. The drop of poison introduced by Kanika effectively curdles the fortunes of the entire Kuru race. All its mighty heroes and upright men cannot save them from the destruction.

* P. Bhattacharya, Love Stories from the Mahabharata (Indialog, New Delhi, 2005).
** Chronology of Ancient India (p. 167-168), Calcutta University.
*** Yuganta, Deshmukh Prakashan.


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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