Part 1: Sri Krishna and Arjuna meet Agni
This story takes place during the period when the Pandavas were ruling their kingdom from Indraprastha.
One day, Arjuna suggested to Sri Krishna that they go to the banks of the Yamuna for a few days as the summer heat was unbearable. Sri Krishna welcomed this and iterated that it would be nice to bathe in the cool waters of the river. Both of them took Yudhisthira’s permission and left.
Their first stop was at Indrapuri, where they rested for a few days. Here, they enjoyed good food of three types – (1) ‘bhakshya’: that which is chewed (2) ‘bhojya’: that which is enjoyed and swallowed and (3) ‘pehya’: – that which is drunk. Also, there were danseuses and musicians to entertain them.
Sri Krishna and Arjuna feeling the need for solitude then left the company and went to a secluded spot surrounded by natural beauty. Here they talked of each other’s exploits and remembered the days gone by. Sri Krishna had very happy memories of his childhood spent in Gokul, on the banks of the Yamuna and he shared these with Arjuna. While talking, they observed a tall brahmin coming towards them. His skin was of the colour of molten gold and shone with the lustre of austerity. His beard and moustache had streaks of golden yellow and his ponytail swung gracefully. As he came close, Krishna and Arjuna got up from their seats to pay him respect.
The brahmin said “O greatest of men, you are near the large Khandava forest. I am a brahmin with an insatiable appetite and I need an unlimited quantity of food. O lion of the Vrishni clan, O son of Pritha, I am begging you to feed me till I am satisfied.” Sri Krishna and Arjuna asked him what would satisfy him, so they could make appropriate efforts. The brahmin replied “I do not eat ordinary food. Know that I am Agni and so give me the food that befits me. What you see in front of your eyes is the massive Khandava forest and it is protected by the god Indra. The only way I can satiate my hunger is by burning this forest with all its inhabitants.”
The brahmin further added that “In this forest lives Thakshak, the king of the serpents and Indra’s friend. Whenever I try to burn this forest, Indra sends down heavy showers and my fire has to cool down. I beg you to help me burn this forest. Both of you are experts in the use of weapon; with your arrows if you can stop the rains which Indra sends down and also the animals from escaping I can keep on burning till all my hunger is satiated. Ages have passed and I have been waiting for both of you to come. Many ages ago, I lost my appetite and it was foretold that the two of you will help me burn this forest to get my appetite back. Let me tell you the story of how this happened.”
Before we go into Agni’s story let us try to understand the hidden message that Rishi Vyasa is trying to convey. The word ‘Khandava’ means to break or cut or the dissipation of energy. It represents the animal part of us or the animal tendencies lying within our deep unconscious mind. Our human body-brain system is made up of billions of cells. They form cell groups such as organs, tissues, nerves, brain, and blood. Some of these cells are evolved cells whereas most of them are animal in nature. It is these cells that rule our thinking and emotions and thus form our lower mind or animal nature. When the rishi is talking of the Khandava forest, he is talking of these cells or our animal nature. In our personal spiritual journey, this process of burning the Khandava forest is a big step forward. The forest is ruled by a serpent, symbolic of desires mainly those loaded with sex. His name is Thakshak, or an artisan or the one who does – the ego or doer in all of us, ruled by animal passions.
Illustration Exposition: In this beautiful statue of Agni from the temples at Khajuraho, we see him decked in jewellery and with a vessel ‘kamandal’ and ladle in his hands. In this pose he is deeply satiated so it is the peace and tranquillity after the burning of the Khandava forest. ‘Kamandal’ in Sanskrit means to adorn or to rejoice. The water in the pot is symbolic – fire and water are enemies but if the fire is of austerity that burns out impurities, it brings the coolness of water which adorns one’s nature.
When we want to burn this forest within ourselves we lack the intensity to do this. Our fire is weak and it needs help, represented here by Krishna and Arjuna. Just like Agni tried many a times, we too try to control our passions and fail time and again.
This lower mind of ours serves a cosmic purpose and that is why it is guarded by the Lord Indra. Whenever we get angry or become negative, we throw out valuable psychic energy which nature uses for her own purposes. So nature is not interested in man rising above his own animal nature; on the contrary, she wants him to be a machine that keeps supplying her with this special energy. Indra means senses and he is the lord of the senses. To work with our lower mind, we must be free of the power the senses have over us. The word Indra comes from ‘ind’ or power – he guards the door to our unconscious passions and desires. Hence, the Khandava forest is guarded by Indra.
Every student will, at some point in his journey, come up against his own Khandava forest which has to be burnt to progress onward. In the next few articles, we will see how Agni goes about burning it.