Agni burns down the Khandava Forest. Arjuna gets the Gandiva and Krishna gets the Discus. The Sarngakas Birds. The grand plan of the universe and how incidents come together to make things happen.
The Pandavas and Krishna were living in Indraprasta. One day, Krishna was bored and he asked if Arjuna wanted to go to the banks of Yamuna with him for a stroll. Arjuna agreed. When they reached Yamuna, they walked into the forest called Khandava. They came across a Brahmana there. He was glowing like the sun. Arjuna and Krishna paid respect to the Brahmana and bowed to him. They asked the Brahmana how they can serve him. Serving a Brahmana was considered to be a virtuous act.
The Brahmana replied “Son of Pandu and Son of Vasudeva. You have promised to serve me. I am hungry and I eat a lot. Get me enough food to satisfy my hunger.”
Arjuna responded “Tell me Brahmana – what type of food do you want.”
To this, the Brahmana revealed his true self and said “Arjuna. Know that I am Agni. The Fire God. The food I desire is this forest of Khandava. I wish to burn down this Forest. But the forest and its inhabitants are protected by Indra and he won't let me burn it down. If you can fight Indra and his allies, I will burn the forest down and satisfy my hunger.”
Krishna and Arjuna agreed and responded. “O Angi. We gave our word that we would feed you and we will. However, our weapons are not powerful enough to defeat the mighty army of Indra. We need weapons that are worthy enough to fight this battle.”
Agni summoned Varuna, the god of rain and asked him to give Arjuna and Krishna a weapon each. Thus, varuna gave Arjuna, the Gandiva Bow and Krishna, the celestial discus which became famous in his possession.
Using these weapons, Krishna and Arjuna fought a fierce battle with Indra to keep him and his army in check while Agni consumed the forest. The ferocious Agni devoured every tree, bush, shrub and every living creature in the forest. Indra and other devas tried their best to stop it, but Arjuna with his magnificent Gandiva Bow and Krishna with the celestial discuss proved too much for anyone to handle. Every time someone came close to stopping Agni, there was Arjuna showering arrows at them. Krishna was even more swift with his discuss. Thus, Arjuna and Krishna helped Agni destroy the entire forest of Khandava.
Of all the beings in the forest, there were only 6 survivors. Aswasena, a snake, Maya, an asura and 4 birds called the Sarngakas. The father Sarngakas bird was actually a Rishi called Mandapala and he prayed to Agni to let them live. The mother bird did not fly away to save herself but stayed back with her children and prayed to Agni with unerring faith. Agni was pleased with the faith and devotion of the birds and let them live.
Thus, the entire Khandava forest was destroyed. Now, while this is an interesting story, it doesn't really fit does it? Why should Arjuna and Krishna destroy a forest. Why did Agni want to burn Khandava? Why should so many innocent creatures be killed? It all seems meaningless at the outset. As always, the Mahabharata is filled with stories within stories, and nothing ever happens without a reason. Here's the background.
Long ago, there was a king called Swetaki. This king wanted to perform the best sacrifice ever. And he started. However, since the sacrifice lasted for years, the Rishis who helped him backed off as they got tired of the smoke. With no one to help him, Swetaki went to the mountains and performed severe austerities and prayed to Lord Shiva. Pleased with Swetaki's rigorous penances, Lord Shiva appeared before him. Swetaki asked for Shiva's help to finish his Sacrifice. However, Shiva declined saying that the Trimurti Gods will not directly indulge in such activities and that his help has to come from a human.
Shiva continued, “King Swetaki. Approach Sage Durvasa. He is most suited to help you. He was born from a part of myself and thus, I will effectively be the one helping you.”
As a note, Sage Durvasa was an incarnation of Lord Shiva. One day, when Shiva and Brahma were having a heated argument, Shiva became uncontrollably angry. In order to not let his anger destroy the universe, Shiva collected his anger and placed it in the womb of Anasuya, the wife of a sage called Atri. This resulted in a child and the child was Durvasa. Since Dusvasa was a result of the energy of Shiva's anger, he grew up to be a short tempered sage and is well known from his anger.
Back to our story.
Thus, Swetaki, with Durvasa’s help, completed the sacrifice that last for more than 12 years. A sacrifice consists of raising a fire and pouring Clarified Butter and ghee and many other ingredients that would readily burn. The fire was none other than Agni. As a result of consuming this butter and ghee for 12 years, Agni became pale and sick. He felt a loss of appetite and his energy decreased. He prayed to the Supreme Trimurty God and asked for help. The Supreme god, the creator and destroyer of everything told Agni, “Agni. You have become sick because of consuming too much ghee and butter. But don't worry. The forest Kandhava has grown uncontrollably big. It has inhabited too many living creatures and the time has come to destroy it. Go and burn down the forest with all the creatures in it. Once you have consumed the wood and fat from the forest and the creatures, you will feel normal again.”
Thus, Agni tried to burn the forest. But the creatures of the forests, like elephants and cobras and bulls kept bringing water from Yamuna to douse the fire. But the biggest enemy to Agni's plans was Indra. Indra was protecting the Khandava forest. It was thus that Agni approached Arjuna and Krishna to keep the enemies away while he burned down the forest.
So, we've heard the stories and the reasons behind the stories. Swetaki performed a sacrifice. Agni consumed the butter and was sick. Agni's sickness needed to be treated. That was Fact 1. Khandava the forest had overgrown. God is the creator and the destroyer. As much as creation is necessary, the world needs destruction as well to be maintained. Thus the Supreme God asked Agni to burn down the forest. That was fact 2.
The time had come for Arjuna and Krishna to get powerful weapons. But it needed a cause. It needed an incident. It needed their presence in the forest at the very time that God needed to burn it down. At the very time that Agni needed help. At the very time that the lifetime of all those creatures was to come to an end. All of this came together so that Krishna could get the celestial Discus. And Arjuna could get the Gandiva Bow. That was fact 3.
Seen in isolation, none of these incidents make any sense. But put together, we can see the beauty of this grand orchestration. Everything happens for a reason. The reasons are spread across many centuries and lifetimes. Such stories are told so we can appreciate the magnificence of the creation. So we can know that our mere Ego in thinking we control everything is meaningless and that there is a grand plan that we are all a part of. With this story, the Adi Parva, which is first of 18 volumes in the Mahabharata comes to an end. In the next chapter, we will begin the next volume called the Sabha Parva.