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Chapter 14

Burning the Khāṇḍava Forest

The Yadus bestowed vast amounts of wealth on Arjuna, and he left Dwārakā accompanied by a long train of chariots and elephants as well as hundreds of thousands of cows decorated with silk and gold. Subhadrā rode with him on a fine golden chariot drawn by tall white steeds. They soon arrived at Indraprastha and Arjuna went straight to Yudhiṣṭhira. He clasped his feet and then worshipped him according to the Vedic injunctions. Arjuna then worshipped Dhaumya and the other ṛṣis in the royal court. When the ceremonies were complete his other brothers embraced him with tears in their eyes and asked him to relate to them all his adventures.

After spending time with his brothers, Arjuna went to see Draupadī. As he entered her chamber, she turned away from him and said, “O Arjuna, what brings you here at this time? You should go and be with your new bride. That daughter of the Satvata race must be missing you now.” Draupadī was annoyed. Arjuna was her favorite among the Pāṇḍavas and she feared he might come to prefer Subhadrā. The Pāṇḍava repeatedly begged her forgiveness and assured her that his love for her was in no way diminished. Draupadī continued to sulk. “A second tie always relaxes the first one, no matter how strong it may have been.”

Arjuna tried to console the beautiful Draupadī, but she remained silent, always looking away from him. Seeing that he could not win her over, he left her chamber and went to Subhadrā. He asked her to dress herself as a cowherd girl. He wanted to remind Draupadī that Subhadrā was the sister of Kṛṣṇa, Draupadī’s beloved Lord. Kṛṣṇa had begun His life as a cowherd boy in a small village. By having Subhadrā appear as a cowherd girl Arjuna hoped that Draupadī’s natural affection for Kṛṣṇa would be awakened and directed toward His sister.

The Yadu princess was brought into Draupadī’s chamber attired in simple red silk. The servant girls who showed her in said, “This maiden has asked if she could become your servant.” Subhadrā immediately bowed before Draupadī and said, “I am here to do your bidding.” Draupadī had never seen Subhadrā and did not realize who she was, but seeing her humble demeanor and being reminded of her Lord by Subhadrā’s rustic dress, Draupadī’s heart melted. She raised her hands and blessed her, saying, “May you become the wife of a hero and the mother of a hero. May you be without a rival.”

Subhadrā replied, “May it be so.” She then introduced herself. “I am Subhadrā, Kṛṣṇa’s sister.” Draupadī smiled and embraced her co-wife. Her jealousy and anger were dissipated by Subhadrā’s gentleness. She asked Subhadrā to tell her everything about Dwārakā and Kṛṣṇa. They spoke together for hours. Then Draupadī took Subhadrā by the hand and led her to meet Kuntī. The two Pāṇḍava queens soon became close friends and would spend much time together, discussing the activities of Kṛṣṇa and His associates.

A few days after Arjuna’s return, Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma came to Indraprastha. Accompanied by His sons and ministers and riding at the head of a great army, Kṛṣṇa entered the Pāṇḍavas’ city where He was greeted at the gates by Nakula and Sahadeva. As they proceeded in state down the main highway, thousands of citizens stood along the roadside. They cheered and worshipped Kṛṣṇa and His elder brother as they moved slowly toward Yudhiṣṭhira’s palace. The Yadus gazed around them at the city. The roads were immaculately swept and sprinkled with perfumed water. Fences draped with bright garlands ran down the sides of the wide avenues. On the tops of tall white mansions flew countless flags and standards. The sweet scent of burning aloes filled the air and the sound of musical instruments could be heard.

Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma entered the Pāṇḍavas’ palace and went before Yudhiṣṭhira and his brothers. Yudhiṣṭhira worshipped Balarāma with all due ceremony and embraced Kṛṣṇa with affection. Kṛṣṇa offered His respects and worship to Yudhiṣṭhira and Bhīma, then took His seat in the assembly hall. Many important personalities from Dwārakā also took their places in the hall, including Akrūra, Uddhava, Sātyaki, Kṛtavarmā, Sāraṇa and Kṛṣṇa’s sons Pradyumna, Sāmba and Aniruddha.

Kṛṣṇa then gave Arjuna all the bridal gifts for Subhadrā that her relatives in Dwārakā had sent. He gave heaps of gold bricks and precious gems to Yudhiṣṭhira. Kṛṣṇa also presented the king with one thousand chariots adorned with rows of golden bells, each of them yoked to four steeds driven by well-trained charioteers, ten thousand milk-bearing cows, one thousand moonlike white horses with golden harnesses, and a thousand white mules with black manes, which could run at the speed of the wind. As well as this, Balarāma gave Arjuna as a wedding gift one thousand elephants, each resembling a hill and decked with golden ornaments and bells. Innumerable other items were offered to the Pāṇḍavas, being brought before them by Kṛṣṇa’s servants. Placed outside the hall, the wealth given by the Yādavas looked like a sea stretching in all directions.

Yudhiṣṭhira graciously accepted the gifts and then arranged for all the Yādavas to be accommodated in his palace. They and the Pāṇḍavas passed many days together in happiness, and when it came time for them to leave, the Pāṇḍavas in turn presented them with brilliant gems as gifts. With Balarāma at their head, the Yadus headed back to Dwārakā, but Kṛṣṇa decided to remain behind to spend some time alone with Arjuna.

One day Arjuna suggested, “O Kṛṣṇa, the days are hot. Let us go for some time to the banks of the Yamunā. We have constructed many fine pleasure houses there.”

Kṛṣṇa agreed to his proposal and they set off. They soon arrived at a charming spot amid groves of tall trees. High white mansions stood along the river banks, looking like a city of the gods. Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna entered one of the houses where they were served varieties of exquisitely flavoured food and drinks. They lay down upon golden couches spread with silk covers. After relaxing for some time they decided to go for a walk in the woods. The two heroes wandered along the riverbank, discussing martial arts and past battles they had each fought.

Having walked for a distance, they sat down upon an ivory bench that had been placed near the edge of a dense forest. As they continued to talk a Brahmin suddenly emerged from the woods. They looked at him in surprise. He resembled an old sal tree with a complexion like molten gold. His beard and hair were bright yellow and he shone like the morning sun. His two eyes were like lotus leaves, and his body was well-formed and powerful. As the Brahmin approached them, blazing like fire, Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna stood up and awaited his order.

In a resonant voice the Brahmin said, “I know you two to be the foremost of all men. I myself am a voracious Brahmin who eats much. I have therefore approached you in order to beg my food and to be gratified by you.”

Both Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna folded their palms and asked the Brahmin what food he would like. The Brahmin replied, “I do not eat ordinary food. Know me to be Agni, the fire-god. Give me food that suits me. Please help me to devour this Khāṇḍava forest.” He indicated the jungle by which they were standing. Although he had already made many attempts to consume the forest, his efforts had been repeatedly thwarted by Indra. This was because Indra’s friend, the Nāga Takṣakaḥ, lived in the forest. Whenever Agni blazed up and began to cover the forest, Indra would send torrents of rain to stop him. The fire-god continued, “Both of you are experts in arms. By your prowess you will be able to prevent Indra from stopping me. Thus I shall consume this great forest. O heroes, this is the food I desire to have from you.”

Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna looked at each other in surprise. They assured Agni that they would do everything in their power to help him, but they were curious as to why he wanted to consume this particular forest. The deity explained that the Khāṇḍava forest contained numerous varieties of medicinal herbs. He needed the herbs because he was suffering a malady due to having eaten excessive amounts of ghee. There had been a great sacrifice performed by a king named Swetaki in which so much ghee was offered into the fire that Agni became ill. Brahmā then told him that he could be cured if he ate the herbs in the Khāṇḍava forest. When Agni failed in his attempts to consume the forest, Brahmā told him that he would succeed if he could gain the assistance of Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna.

Brahmā had said, “In a previous incarnation, these two men were in fact the ancient and infallible deities Nara and Nārāyaṇa. They have appeared on the earth to accomplish the celestials’ purpose. Therefore, ask for their help.”

Agni concluded, “I now depend upon you two. I must eat this forest. Brahmā has also informed me that the living beings within the forest are sinful and should be destroyed. Therefore do not harbor any doubts. This act is sanctioned by authority.”

Arjuna replied, “I possess many celestial weapons, but I have no bow capable of bearing their power. If I am to achieve the task you have set, I will require an inexhaustible quiver of arrows and a chariot drawn by celestial steeds. If you can provide all this, then we will surely accomplish your desire.”

Agni meditated upon Varuṇa, god of the nether worlds, and the deity immediately appeared and said, “What shall I do for you?”

Agni knew that Varuṇa kept many celestial weapons in the depths of the ocean. Therefore he asked him to present Arjuna with the celestial bow Gāṇḍīva as well as two inexhaustible quivers of arrows. Agni also asked that Varuṇa bring forth a chariot belonging to Soma, the moon-god. Varuṇa agreed and caused all those things to appear at that spot.

Arjuna looked with wonder at the Gāṇḍīva bow. It appeared like a rainbow embedded with celestial gems. As tall as a man, it was flawless. The Pāṇḍava took up the shining bow and forcefully twanged its string. A sound like the crash of thunder resounded throughout the forest, terrifying all the creatures. Holding the bow, the joyful Arjuna next approached the huge, golden chariot. It was filled with varieties of celestial weapons as well as the two inexhaustible quivers Agni had requested. The chariot was yoked with golden harnesses to silvery steeds from the land of the Gandharvas. These horses were capable of going anywhere within all the worlds and could move with the speed of the wind or the mind. Above the chariot flew a banner bearing an image of Hanumān, Rāma’s great monkey servant. Hanumān seemed to be burning everything that fell within his gaze. Other flags flew on the chariot bearing images of fierce beasts. All the creatures roared terribly from their standards.

Arjuna circumambulated the chariot and then mounted it like a virtuous man ascending to heaven. He put on the suit of celestial armor that lay there. As he stood with the Gāṇḍīva in his hand, he resembled the sun shining from behind an evening cloud. He then drove the chariot around, smiling as he heard the loud rumble of its wheels.

Varuṇa also gave Kṛṣṇa a club called Kaumodakī, which roared loudly when wheeled about and which could crush even Daityas and Dānavas. Kṛṣṇa then mounted Arjuna’s chariot, saying that he would become the driver.

Arjuna again addressed Agni, “O fire-god, we are now ready to satisfy your request. Armed with the Gāṇḍīva and assisted by Kṛṣṇa, I am able to withstand the entire host of gods united with the Asuras--what then to speak of Indra! Therefore, blaze up as much as you like and surround this forest.”

Agni immediately expanded himself around the forest and began to consume it with his seven kinds of flames. He assumed the fearful appearance he assumes at the end of an aeon which he uses to destroy all things. Kṛṣṇa then began to drive the chariot around the forest. It moved with such speed that it appeared to be continuously present on every side of the forest. Whenever Arjuna saw a creature trying to escape from the conflagration he immediately shot it down. Being slain in the presence of Kṛṣṇa, the Supreme Deity, all the creatures dying in that forest assumed spiritual forms and ascended to the highest regions of transcendence.

The roar of the fire could be heard for miles. Red, orange and blue flames shot high into the sky. The lakes and ponds in the forest were boiled dry and the rocks melted. No creature was able to escape from the blazing Khāṇḍava forest and their screams mixed with the crackling of the fire. It blazed up to such an extent that it caused fear even to the celestials, who went in a body to Indra and said anxiously, “O lord of the immortals, why does Agni burn all creatures below? Has the time come for the world’s destruction?”

Indra looked himself to see what was happening on the earth. Feeling concern for his friend Takṣakaḥ, he set out at once to stop the fire. He sent down torrents of rain, which fell in columns as thick as tree trunks. But the rain was turned to steam by the heat of the fire even before it reached the forest below. Indra then became angry and amassed huge clouds over the forest which doubled the volume of rain. With its flames and smoke rising up, and with lightning and sheets of water falling from the sky, the forest became terrifying.

Arjuna saw Indra’s attempt to put out the fire and he sent hundreds of thousands of arrows in a tight network over the forest. That net of arrows acted as a vast umbrella and completely checked the falling rain.

The Nāga king Takṣakaḥ was not present in the Khāṇḍava, but both his wife and son were caught in the blaze. They flew swiftly upwards and were seen by Arjuna. He instantly fired an arrow which severed the snake lady’s head. He then trained another arrow upon Takṣakaḥ’s son, Aśvasena. Seeing this, Indra raised a violent wind around Arjuna which temporarily deprived him of his senses. Aśvasena escaped and disappeared into the sky.

As he regained his senses, Arjuna became angry with Indra. He shouted a challenge to the god and covered the sky with his arrows. Indra too became angry with Arjuna and released his tremendous thunderbolt weapon. Without delay Arjuna invoked the Vāyavya weapon which dispersed the huge black clouds. That powerful wind weapon completely dispelled the energy of Indra’s thunderbolts and lightning flashes. The sky became clear and a gentle breeze began to blow. Agni blazed up even more, fanned by the breeze and fed with the fat of bodies burning in the forest. He filled the sky with his roars.

Indra summoned many other celestials to fight with Arjuna. Hosts of powerful heavenly fighters appeared and began to send their weapons at both him and Kṛṣṇa. Blazing iron balls, bullets, rocks and countless arrows shot toward them. Arjuna countered all the missiles with his arrows--at the same time he cut down his assailants, who fell screaming into the fire. Arjuna was unconquerable as he stood on the battlefield releasing his deadly arrows, with Kṛṣṇa skillfully guiding the chariot.

Indra then mounted his celestial elephant, Airāvata, and rushed down upon Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa, shouting, “These two are killed.” He raised his personal weapon known as the Vajra and urged on his elephant. Seeing Indra advance the other principal gods followed him. Yamarāja took up his death-dealing club, Kuvera his mace and Varuṇa his noose. The commander of the celestial army, Skanda, raised his Śakti weapon, and Sūrya came with his brilliant dart. The other gods charged behind Indra with their own weapons raised. The Viśvadevas, Sādhyas, Rudras, Vasus and Marutas all advanced in a body toward Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa, who stood fearlessly below.

Even though they exerted themselves with full force, however, the celestials were unable to overpower Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna. Struck by Arjuna’s mystical arrows, the gods were forced to retreat. Indra smiled. He was pleased with Arjuna who was, after all, his son, and he also understood Kṛṣṇa’s position. Indra knew that no one could overcome Kṛṣṇa or anyone supported by Him. Obviously Kṛṣṇa desired that Agni consume the forest and, at the same time, He was enhancing the fame and glory of His friend Arjuna.

Then, desiring to test Arjuna’s power further, Indra sent down a thick shower of boulders. Arjuna quickly reduced the stones to dust with his swift arrows. Indra then tore off the peak of a massive mountain and hurled it at Arjuna. Not disturbed in the least, Arjuna cut the flying mountain peak into a thousand pieces which rained down upon the forest below.

Indra was gladdened by Arjuna’s prowess. He ordered the celestials to withdraw and, as he did so, an invisible voice was heard in the sky: “O Indra, your friend Takṣakaḥ is not in the forest at present. Nor will it be possible for you to defeat in battle Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa. These two are Nara and Nārāyaṇa, the immortal and invincible ṛṣis. They are worthy of even the gods’ worship. Desist from the battle, for the burning of the Khāṇḍava has been ordained by fate.”

Having heard that voice, which they knew belonged to the universal creator Brahmā, the gods retired to their own abodes. For fifteen days Agni continued to consume the forest along with its inhabitants. As the forest was destroyed, hordes of Rākṣasas, Dānavas and Nāgas rushed out in fear. Arjuna cut them down with volleys of arrows. None could even look at him as he stood releasing his searing shafts. Gradually the forest was reduced to ashes and Agni was gratified.

There was a leader of the Asura race named Maya, who had been dwelling in the Khāṇḍava. Having hid himself underground, he now rushed out of the forest and tried to escape. Agni chased the Asura and Kṛṣṇa raised His discus weapon, Sudarśana, ready to kill him. The intelligent Maya ran to Arjuna and fell at his feet. “O Arjuna, I seek your protection. Save me! I supplicate myself before you.”

Arjuna raised his hand and replied, “Do not fear.” He could not refuse to protect anyone who sought his shelter. He turned toward Kṛṣṇa and asked Him to spare the Asura’s life. Kṛṣṇa lowered His weapon and Agni also stood back.

As the flames in the forest died down, Indra again appeared before Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa. Agni stood next to him as he said, “O Pārtha, O Keśava, you have achieved that which could not be achieved by any celestial. Please ask from me any boon you desire. I am very much pleased.”

Arjuna asked Indra for all his celestial weapons. Indra smiled and replied that he would indeed give him the weapons--but not yet. When Śiva would give Arjuna his Pāśupāta weapon, then Indra would bring him to heaven and give him all the fire and wind weapons. That time would come in the future.

Kṛṣṇa then asked that His friendship with Arjuna might last forever and Indra said, “It shall be so.”

Finally, Agni said, “I also wish to give you a boon. Just as I pervade this universe, so by my power will you be able to go anywhere you desire within the universe.” The gods then returned to the heavens.

As Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna made their way back to their mansion, Maya approached them. He bowed at Arjuna’s feet and said, “O son of Kuntī, you have saved me from the angry Kṛṣṇa and the hungry Agni. Tell me what I can do for you in return.”

Arjuna replied, “I cannot take anything from you to repay me. This is my firm principle. I act only out of duty. It was my duty to save you and therefore you bear me no obligation. Go in peace.”

Maya praised Arjuna’s virtue, but he insisted upon doing something for the Pāṇḍava. “I simply wish to please you, O Pārtha. You need not see it as repayment.”

Arjuna again said that he could not accept anything from Maya. “I do not want to frustrate your desire. If you want to please me, then do something for Kṛṇa. That will be more pleasing to me than anything else.”

Maya turned and looked expectantly at Kṛṣṇa who was smiling softly. After reflecting for a moment he said, “You are the architect of the celestial demons. If you wish to please Me, then build a splendid assembly hall for Yudhiṣṭhira. The like of this hall should not be found anywhere in the world. It should contain the features of celestial architecture and be impossible for anyone else to emulate.”

The Asura’s skills were well known to Kṛṣṇa. Maya had constructed many wondrous edifices in the higher planets for the Daityas and Dānavas. Maya then assented to Kṛṣṇa’s request and accompanied Him and Arjuna back to Indraprastha, where he was introduced to Yudhiṣṭhira. The eldest Pāṇḍava marveled as Arjuna narrated the story of how the Khāṇḍava forest was burnt. He received Maya with honor and discussed the hall with him. After much thought Maya drew up a design. He then began to consider where to find the necessary materials for constructing the celestial hall. He told the Pāṇḍavas that he needed to go to the Himālayas. “I have left there a large quantity of rough diamonds and other precious stones of every description, including those not found on this earth. I shall go to fetch them.”

Maya explained that he had formerly been engaged by Vṛṣaparvā, king of the Dānavas, to construct sacrificial altars for the Asuras. He had gathered all kinds of celestial materials which he had stored at Vṛṣaparvā’s house high up on the Maināka mountain. There was also a great club with which Vṛṣaparvā had once withstood the gods in battle. Maya would bring that club, equal to one hundred thousand ordinary clubs, and give it to Bhīma. He would also fetch from the depths of a lake on Maināka the large celestial conch shell known as Devadatta for Arjuna. If Arjuna blew that conch on the battlefield, it would shatter his opponents’ hearts.

Having gained Yudhiṣṭhira’s permission, the Asura left quickly for the north. He found all his wealth guarded by Yakṣas and Rākṣasas, and with their assistance he brought it back to Indraprastha. After presenting the club to Bhīma and the conch shell to Arjuna, he commenced work.