This is a tale from the Mahabharata, about the Mahabharata -that epic war fought long, long ago on the battlefield of life. A Tale of a Fight for Dharma, of Revenge and Retribution.
As the horrific conflict in the Middle East carries on…a story has been on my mind. A timeless tale for our times. Stories can sometimes offer solace or learning or simply frame reality for us in a way that makes sense, so I thought I would tell you it.
Where does an eternal tale begin or end? Who can say?
Hence I start here, right in the middle…
The five Pandava princes, having lost their rightful claim to their throne were reduced to wandering through the wild lands on the outer edges of the kingdom. One day they come upon the dense Khandava forest, alive with birds and beasts.
And even before they can enter the forest, Agni, the god of fire appears in their path demanding to be fed. He wants the forest. Nothing less satiate him.
Arjuna, the archer takes a look at the trees, the birds, the beasts and with one single arrow sets the forest on fire. He cannot refuse a god.
Little does Arjuna know that the forest is home to the Naga ( snake) King, Takshaka and his people.
Agni devours the forest, reducing it to ashes and everything within in it perishes. Only Takshaka and his son Aswasena manage to escape into the nether worlds…Where they lie in wait, biding their time for that moment when they can avenge the killing of their people.
As the years pass, the feud for land and kingdom deepens between the five Pandava princes their hundred Kaurava cousins, breeding deep fear, resentment and hatred. All that is good and right is forgotten. Dharma is forgotten. Lawlessness rules.
Inevitably, they find themselves on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, two great armies facing each other. Brother stood against brother, teacher against student, grandfather against grandchildren, warrior against warrior.
For 18 days and nights the great war of Mahabharata rages, killing millions and wiping out entire clans.
It’s the bloodiest the world has ever seen, kingdoms are laid to waste and all descendants on both sides are killed, except the unborn son of Arjuna, Parikshit.
Parikshit grows up to become a good king. He rules for sixty years establishing the law of dharma and righteousness rules again. Until that fateful day arrives when Takshaka( the Naga king) finds his moment to exact his revenge. He takes on the form of a worm and manages to embed himself in an apple meant for the king. Parikshit bites into the fruit unaware of what lies in wait. The poison that has been festering within Takshaka for decades is now so toxic that it engulfs Parikshit in flames.
Janamejaya, the son of Parikshit, hearing of his father’s death at the hands of a snake, is devastated.
Filled with rage he takes a vow to destroy the entire race of snakes by offering them to fire. He initiates a snake-sacrifice (sarpa yagna). The powerful mantras forcefully draw all the snakes towards the sacrificial fire.
All gathered watch in horror as thousands of snakes, children and mothers and babies fall screaming into the fire but no one dare interrupt a yagna.
After days of endless killings, a young boy by the name Astika( one who believes), unable to contain himself stands up and says, ‘Stop!’
Janmajeya looks up in anger, ‘Who defies me ?’
‘Please stop,’ begs Astika, ‘Do not repeat the mistakes of your ancestors.‘
‘’My ancestors fought for dharma,’ Janmajeya retorts sharply, his heart heavy with grief and rage. ‘And I do the same.’
Let me tell you the story of your ancestors, Astika’s voice is soft as he begins to the recount the epic tale
Everyone gathered for the yagna listens enraptured for days as the snakes remain suspended in mid-air.
When Astika finally finishes , Janmajeya looks at him in despair. ‘Your story gives me no comfort.’
‘No,’ nods gravely, ‘but we can learn from it.’
In that moment Janmajeya catches the eye of a mother snake. He sees in her eyes the same anguish and anger he feels in his own heart. All desire for revenge dissolves into regret.
Janmajeya falls to his knees, brings his palms together and breaks off the yagna , freeing all the snakes from its spell.
Om Shanti, Shanti , Shanti he whispers.
Om Peace, Peace, Peace.