Last Tuesday morning, I settled into my seat by a window facing the shaded side on a flight to Delhi. As the airplane descended, it passed over neat fields fresh from rain, rectangles of green and yellowish brown that soon ceded space to a clutter of concrete stretching to the horizon.
The newspaper in my hand told of raging fires on the other side of the globe. Farmers in Brazil were burning down tracts of the largest equatorial rainforest on earth to ready the land for their ploughs. It struck me that the croplands and sprawling city before me were born of a precursor of the fires currently burning in the Amazon, a 3,000-year-old event that became the first recorded ecocide in history.
The story of that ecocide is narrated in the Mahabharata, an epic which commences with a great sacrifice conducted by Emperor Janmejaya. The ritual, known as the Sarpamedha Yagna has been organised to rid the earth of serpents. Janmejaya despises snakes because his father Parikshit was killed by a bite from a Naga named Takshaka. Takshaka’s targeting of Parikshit, in turn, was revenge for the killing of his wife by Arjuna, Parikshit’s grandfather. That homicide took place during the Khandava-daha, the burning of the Khandava forest, which Arjuna perpetrated along with the other great hero of the Mahabharata, Krishna.
An unusual story
The epic’s narrative encompasses hundreds of brutalities, small and large, but few stick in the mind like the Khandava’s destruction, partly because the carnage is carried out by the good guys on a seemingly trivial pretext, and also because it diverges from attitudes to nature one usually encounters in Indian religious texts.
It begins with Krishna and Arjuna taking a break from a wild party on the Yamuna’s banks, two bros finding a quiet spot to shoot the breeze. While reminiscing about past exploits, they are approached by a tall, golden-skinned brahmana who asks to be fed. So far, so ordinary, for scripture is filled with brahmanas asking to be fed.
The man facing Krishna and Arjuna is no ordinary brahmana, however: it is Agni himself. And the meal he desires is the enormous Khandava forest and every bird, beast, human, and divine being within it. The forest is protected by Indra, being home to his friend Takshaka, and the guardian deity has sent down torrents to foil Agni’s past attempts to devour the Khandava. The fire god needs the two exceptional warriors to hold off the rain while he satisfies his hunger. He provides the duo the most powerful weapons, including the sudarshan chakra to Krishna and the Gandiva bow to Arjuna, and they are set.
“Then Krishna and Arjuna began a great slaughter of the creatures dwelling in the Khandava forest. At whatever point Khandava’s creatures attempted escape, there rushed those mighty heroes to prevent flight. Their two excellent chariots seemed to be one, and the two warriors but a single individual. And while the forest was burning, hundreds and thousands of living creatures, uttering frightful yells, began to run about in all directions. Some had particular limbs burnt, some were scorched with excessive heat, and some, clasping their children or parents, died calmly, unable to abandon those that were dear to them. The tanks and ponds within that forest began to boil; the fishes and the tortoises in them all perished. The birds that took wing to escape were pierced by Arjuna with his shafts, and fell down into the burning element below… Krishna’s face was fierce to behold as he slaughtered the Pisachas, Nagas and Rakshasas… Gratified with large quantities of flesh, blood, and fat, the flames rose up to a great height without a curling wreath of smoke. Agni, with blazing and coppery eyes, and flaming tongue and large mouth, drinking, with the help of Krishna and Arjuna, that nectar-like stream of animal fat, became filled with joy.”
An unlikely alliance to protect the forest forms between asuras, gandharvas, nagas, garudas, yakshas, rakshasas and numerous Vedic gods, but their two adversaries prove invincible. The only beings to escape the conflagration are four Saranga birds, Takshaka’s son Aswasena, whose mother sacrifices herself to save him, and the artificer Maya, who finds asylum at Arjuna’s feet. Takshaka himself is away from home, and thus lives to take revenge.
As recompense for Arjuna saving his life, Maya constructs a grand assembly hall for the Pandavas. “The palace that Maya built consisted of columns of gold, and occupied an area of five thousand cubits. Its brilliance seemed to darken even the bright rays of the sun. And with the effulgence it exhibited, which was a mixture of both celestial and terrestrial light, it looked as if it was on fire… King Yudhishthira entered that palatial sabha, having first fed ten thousand Brahmanas with preparations of milk and rice mixed with clarified butter and honey with fruits and roots, and with pork and venison.”
Maya’s palace stands in the Pandava capital Indraprastha, on the Yamuna’s banks, upon land where the Khandava forest once flourished. In tradition, and in some scholarly writing, Indraprastha is identified with Delhi, specifically the area around Purana Qila. It was certainly in the general vicinity of the modern capital of India. While historians cannot give credence to a story of two mythical heroes using magical weapons to ward off gods, it seems likely that the catastrophic event detailed in the Mahabharata is a symbolic account of a longer historical process.
Delhi and its surroundings, indeed the entire Indo-Gangetic plain, were once covered with forests, which were cleared by agriculturalists employing fire and iron. Fire had always been available to humans, but iron came to be extensively used in India from around 1000 BCE. It enabled the making of axes strong enough to bring down trees, and ploughs hard enough to till the soil of the region. Within a few hundred years of the inauguration of the great Gangetic ecocide, the plain had become one of the most densely populated regions on the planet, with farmland covering its entire extent, and forests reduced to meagre patches of thick vegetation here and there.
The tree burners of the Amazon are replicating a method responsible for the creation of agricultural societies across Asia and Europe. The world must douse the flames, but do so without demonising farmers or what they produce, for much of the food we consume today ought to carry a faint flavour of ash, and evoke shrieking fauna and smouldering wildernesses.