On the Mahābhārata: Burning of the Khandava Forest


Original image here

In my previous post, I wrote about what I want to research for my quarter paper. In this post, I will offer a more detailed summary of the narrative and preliminary thoughts about the text. I am reading from Jenny van Buitenen’s 1973 translation of the Critical Edition of the Mahābhārata.

The narrative begins by setting a peaceful and tranquil scene. The king of Indraprastha has established order in the region. For no apparent reason, Arjuna (called “the Terrifier”) and Krsna go to the river Yamunā. At the river are festivities. Arjuna (called “Kuru” and “Pārtha”) and Krsna (called “Dasārha” and “Mādhava”) find a quiet area to speak of their past feats and loves. A visually stunning brahmin approaches them and requests food, for he eats boundlessly. Arjuna and Krsna agree to fetch him food. Then, he announces that he is actually Fire. Fire desires to eat (burn) the Khandava Forest; however, Indra protects the forest. Indra protects the forest because his friend, the Snake Taksaka lives in the forest.

Krsna and Arjuna agree to help Fire burn the forest. Arjuna, though, requests that both himself and Krsna be given new weapons and chariots equal to their own strength. Fire agrees, calls upon Varunā, and Varunā offers the weapons and chariots on behalf of Fire [1]. Ready to fight against Indra, Krsna and Arjuna surround the forest as Fire begins to burn it. As the forest burns, animals die by the thousands: “All over, the souls were seen writhing on the ground, with burning wings, eyes, and paws until they perished. As all watery places came to a boil… the turtles and fish were found dead by the thousands. With their burning bodies the creatures in that forest appeared like living torches until they breathed their last” (418).

The gods become aware of current events and inform Indra. Indra sends thousands of rain shafts. The rains shafts are evaporated by Fire. Arjuna’s arrows drive away Indra’s rain. Indra continues to cast water upon the forest, but Arjuna and Krsna continue stopping the attacks. Arjuna goes as far as draining “the power and might of the thunderbolts and clouds of Indra” (419) [2].

Seeing Indra’s weapons defeated, animals and Indra attacks in a different way, along with the fellow pantheon. Yet again, they are defeated. The gods retreat to Indra in fear of the might of Krsna and Arjuna. Indra, looking upon “the constant prowess of the two in battle” (420) is greatly pleased [3]. He then continues the fight  by uprooting the peak of a mountain and tossing it at Arjuna [4]. Arjuna shoots arrows which split the mountain into pieces, killing more creatures in the Khandava. Again, the text describes the gruesome nature of the battle death: “They saw the conflagration raging and the two Krsnas with their weapons read; and the roaring sound of the upheaval brought them to terror. Janardana (Krsna) let loose his discus, which shone with its own light, and the humble creatures as well as the Danavas and the Stalkers of the Night were cut down by the hundreds, and they all fell instantly into the Fire. Rent by Krsna’s discuss, the Raksasas were seen besmirched with fat and blood like clouds at twilight” (421).

At this, the god choose to retreat. Indra, then, continued” “to be pleased” and praises Krsna and Arjuna. Out of nowhere, a disembodied voice speaks to Indra, ordering him to stop fighting Krsna and Arjuna because (1) the Snake Taksaka is alive and (2) they cannot be defeated. They cannot be defeated because they are two incarnate divinities. Indra departs.

Krsna and Arjuna continue slaying the creatures as Fire consumes the forest. Finally, the god Fire is satisfied. The text portrays the burning of the forest as a sacrificial feast.

After a side story, the focus is again on Krsna and Arjuna. The forest having been burnt, Indra offers both Krsna and Arjuna boons. Arjuna chooses more weapons, which Indra will give him at the proper time. Krsna chooses eternal friendship with Arjuna. Fire is satiated and rests.

As a whole, the text could be outlined in the following way:

  • Arjuna and Krsna travel to the river Yamunā.
    • They meet Fire, who requests that they both help him consume the Khandavas forest.
    • They agree to do so  and Fire provides immortal weapons for Krsna and Arjuna.
      • They begin burning the forest and slaying creatures.
        • The Gods inform Indra of the attack on the forest.
          • Indra, the gods, and creatures all attempt to stop Arjuna and Krsna, only to fail.
            • The gods retreat to Indra in fear.
              • Indra is pleased by Krsna and Arjuna.
          • Indra attempts to stop the divine duo by throwing a mountain at Arjuna, which Arjuna breaks.
            • The gods retreat.
              • Indra is pleased by Krsna and Arjuna.
        • A divine voice informs Indra that he should stop the attack.
      • They finish burning the forest and slaying creatures.
    • Indra offers Krsna and Arjuna boons. Here Arjuna gets more immortal weapons, and Krsna gets Arjuna’s friendship. [5]
    • Fire dismisses Arjuna and Krsna.


*All thoughts expressed here are merely an extension of my creative process. They should not be taken as strong data or arguments.




[1] These are the same weapons which used by the more ancient versions of themselves, Nara and Nārāyana, in creating the Soma elixir.

[2] This is a particularly impressive feat because Indra is supposedly the head of the Pantheon. He should be the strongest god; yet, it is not so in the Mahābhārata. This development, then, Indra’s continuous defeat by Arjuna and Krsna, can support an argument that this narrative attempts to justify their power over the older, Vedic pantheon (Indra and friends).

[3] Indra’s satisfaction with Krsna and Arjuna is odd. For, why would Indra be satisfied with gods who are burning the forest which he is protecting? The text again notes Indra’s satisfaction very soon.

[4] Krsna, as important as he is in Hinduism, is surprisingly absent throughout this battle.

[5] Before this happens and after the burning of the forest, the narrator briefly tells a story about how a few of the animals survived, at least in the Critical Edition from which Buitenen translates. I suspect this is a later interpolation because it lacks any narrative coherency.


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