I’ve not written about any stories from Mahabharata recently because I’m currently at the part of the war, and ironically I find these volumes a little less interesting than the rest of the tale.
I did come across a very interesting incident in the war today, that I thought was worth a post.
This incident takes place when Arjuna and Karna engage in battle, and Karna reaches into his quiver and takes out an arrow which has the serpent Ashwasena in its mouth.
There is a very interesting background to this where Arjuna and Krishna burn the Khandava forest much earlier in the Mahabharata, and kill everyone except six beings there. This is a very gory incident, and they are asked to do this by Agni who wants to consume the forest. In some other texts you find references to the fact that this forest was cleared so the Pandavas could create their capital at Indraprastha.
Out of the six beings spared, one is Vishwakarma who later builds the Pandava’s palace for being spared, and four are Rishi Mandapala’s peacock children.
Rishi Mandapala takes the form of a peacock and has sex with another peacock so he can beget children, and fulfill his worldly duties to gain entry into heaven.
The last one is Ashwasena, who is a serpent. He was saved because his mother swallows him head first, and jumps out of the burning forest. Arjuna shoots an arrow and severs his mother’s head, but since Ashwasena is inside her, he is saved, and seeks revenge on Arjuna.
Karna has been worshipping this serpent, and keeping him to use against Arjuna, and affixes him on his arrow, and aims at Arjuna’s head.
Shalya, who is Karna’s charioteer, but has struck a deal with the Pandavas to demoralize Karna seems to give Karna good advice this one time when he says this arrow won’t reach Arjuna’s neck, and you should affix another arrow on this arrow, and fire it that way.
Karna rejects this advice because this is a deceitful way of fighting, and releases the arrow on Arjuna.
Arjuna has been given a diadem or royal crown by his father Indra. This diadem was created by Brahma himself, and consists of a big diamond on the forehead among other precious gems, and is famous throughout the world as being indestructible, and bringing happiness and victory to whoever wears it. In fact, one of Arjuna’s name is Kiriti which means one who wears the celestial diadem.
When Karna releases the arrow, Krishna who is Arjuna’s charioteer recognizes Ashwasena and how it is headed toward’s Arjuna’s head.
To save Arjuna, Krishna presses down the chariot with the strength of his feet, and the chariot wheels sink in the ground, and the horses kneel down.
The arrow misses Arjuna’s head but strike the diadem, and Ashwasena rips the royal crown created by Brahma off Arjuna’s head, and destroys it with the virulence of his poison.
Ashwasena then asks Arjuna if he remembers him, but Arjuna does not, and Krishna reminds him that Arjuna had killed his mother, and this serpent is set on revenge and therefore needs to be killed. Arjuna easily kills him with six more arrows, and destroys the serpent.
The critical edition ends this story here but some regional editions have shlokas that say that the serpent returned to Karna and asked him to release him from an arrow a second time because the first time Karna did not look at Ashwasena before releasing him, and that’s why he missed. Karna refuses this because it is against dharma to use the same weapon a second time.
All in all, a very interesting little episode.