The burning of Khandava

Part 2: The story of Agni

In our last article, we saw how Sri Krishna and Arjuna had come to the Khandava forest to get away from the heat in Indraprastha. We also discussed their stay at Indrapuri.

Indrapuri represents the fortress of our senses or our instinctive centre. Here, they enjoyed the comforts of the instinctive centre such as food, luxury, and women. When we are born we have instinctive intelligence, this is the intelligence we share with the rest of the animals. This intelligence is inbuilt (at birth) or in today’s parlance, the software comes pre-installed. Like a bird builds a nest in a certain way only, children behave instinctively in a certain way. In the Mahabharata, this instinctive intelligence is represented by Vidura.

As we grow new pathways in the brain become active and we develop both, emotional and intellectual intelligence. Our subconscious minds are full of patterns called samskaras. These memory patterns form our habits and attitudes and dictate the way we live and understand life. They are like subtle chains that bind us to a certain way of reacting and behaviour. The student of yoga has to, at some time, burn these pattern – if he can do this, then he will be blessed with a new kind of intelligence which my teacher called ‘spiritual reading’. Patanjali calls it as ‘viveka’ and ‘pragna’. The significance of the burning of the Khandava forest is very great because it is a big step towards freedom of perception. Let us discuss how Agni came to the hungry state he was in, the type of hunger that could only be appeased by burning the whole forest, along with all the animals in it.

Once there lived a great king called Swetika. Not only was he very intelligent but was also charitable and well known for performing sacrifices or yagna by lighting the fire of ‘Agnihotra’. He spent all his time performing yagnas and in giving alms. He had a team of priests who helped him in these yagnas. A time came when his priests refused to perform any more yagnas as their eyes remained permanently red and sore due to the constant flames and so they left the king. The king was very keen to perform a huge yagna which would last for a hundred years, so he fell at the feet of his priests and requested them to perform his yagnas, but even after much persuasion they refused. They advised him to perform tapas for Lord Shiva’s ‘Rudra’ form, saying only he could help him with this hundred year yagna.

The king went to the mountain Kailas and there he started fasting and performing serious austerities to appease Rudra. He would only eat fruits and roots once every twelve to sixteen days. He remained in one position with his hands in an outstretched posture and did not blink his eyes for six months. Lord Shiva was very happy with him, and appeared before him and granted him a boon. The king told him to perform his yagna for him. The Lord was happy but told the king that even though it is not his duty to perform yagnas, he would do it for him, albeit on one condition. If, for twelve years, he could remain a celibate and at the same time give a continuous stream of ghee to Agni then the lord would fulfil his desire. The king obeyed the lord’s words and for twelve years poured a constant stream of clarified butter into the flames of Agni. Shiva came to the king and told him that only a Brahmin could perform the yagna and the great rishi Durvasa was born of his essence and would complete the sacrifice for the king.

The king went back to his capital and gathered the necessary material for the yagna and then invited the rishi to perform the yagna. Many Brahmins took part in the yagna and after it was over, they were all well rewarded and together with the rishi left for their homes. He reaped the fruits of his sacrifice and his country prospered as never before. The king lived a long life and after his death, reached the heavens reserved for the generous.

As Agni had been fed with ghee and other yagna material for over a hundred years, he was over-satisfied. He then felt a kind of boredom or nausea at the thought of eating more ghee and refused to take part in anyone else’s yagna. He lost his lustre, became weak and pale, and could not burn bright as before. Thus, the great God Agni fell ill because of overeating and people stopped worshipping him. Agni went to Lord Brahma and asked him for help. He narrated how after King Swetaki’s yagna, he had lost the desire to consume any more ghee and felt a deep nausea within. He asked that the Lord shower him with grace so he could get his old state back. Lord Brahma asked him not to worry. He reminded Agni that in the old days he had burnt a forest called Khandava. That burnt forest had grown again and now was a lush and dense jungle, full of wild animals. Lord Brahma suggested to Agni that if he burnt the forest again, then the smoke that would come from the burning of animal fat would act as a medicine and would cure your illness.

Agni went in haste to burn the Khandava forest and with the help of the wind god, Vayu started burning the forest. The animals of the forest got together and collected buckets of water and were able to put out the fire leaving Agni angry and insatiate. Seven times did Agni try to burn the forest and seven times did the animals put out the fire. Depressed and sad, Agni went again to Lord Brahma for help.

In our next article, we will try to go into the meaning of this story and also continue the story of the burning of the Khandava forest.