Tales from the Indian Epics/King Janamejaya's Snake Sacrifice

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KING JANAMEJAYA'S SNAKE SACRIFICE
I

Once there lived in India a great king named Prajapati. He had two beautiful daughters, both of whom he gave in marriage to a king no less great than himself, Kashyapa by name. And Kashyapa cherished them both and loved them dearly. One day he said to them, "O my Queens, ask each of you a boon and it shall be granted to you." Queen Kadru, who was the elder, answered first: "My lord King, the boon that I would ask is this; let me be the mother of a thousand snakes." King Kashyapa said, "Queen Kadru, the boon is granted to you." Then he turned to Queen Vinata. "My lord King," said the younger queen, "grant that I become the mother of two sons who shall be equal in strength to the thousand snakes born of my sister." King Kashyapa said, "Queen Vinata, the boon is granted to you."

In due course Queen Kadru gave birth to a thousand eggs, and from them issued a thousand snakes. Queen Vinata gave birth to two eggs. But from Queen Vinata's eggs nothing came forth. At last Vinata, ashamed that Kadru should have borne a thousand sons and that she herself remained without offspring, broke open one of the eggs. At once there rose a strange shape from the broken egg. Its head and upper part had the form of a man. But its limbs were unformed because its mother had broken open the egg. "My mother," spake the shape, "because you were jealous of Queen Kadru and would not wait until my body had become perfect, I curse you. And my curse is that you shall become the slave of the very queen Kadru of whom you were jealous. But if you wait for five thousand years my brother will come from the other egg and he will rescue you from slavery." With these words the shape rose into the air and disappeared from sight.

Queen Vinata paid heed to the words of her son, whom she called Aruna because his body was red, and carefully kept the second egg. But because her one son had left her, her jealousy of Queen Kadru grew daily. One day Queen Kadru asked Queen Vinata the colour of Uchaisrava, the divine horse which had come out of the ocean when the gods and demons churned it. Queen Vinata answered sharply, "The colour of Uchaisrava is white. If you think otherwise, my sister, let us lay a wager." Queen Kadru was angered at her sister's answer and said, "No, Uchaisrava has a white body but a black tail. If you think otherwise, let our wager be this. She whose words shall prove false shall become the slave of the other." Queen Vinata consented, and the sisters agreed that next morning they would cross the ocean and see whether the tail of Uchaisrava was white or black.

That evening, however, Queen Kadru, fearing that she had been in error, sent for her thousand snake sons and bade them fasten themselves to Uchaisrava's tail, so that it might seem black, whether really black or not. The snakes refused. Queen Kadru in a passion cursed them, saying, "My sons, King Janamejaya, the Bharata, will hold a great snake sacrifice and will consume you all with fire." Then she left them, and next morning set forth with Queen Vinata to the dwelling-place of Uchaisrava. Together they crossed the ocean and journeyed to the uttermost ends of the earth. Now after Queen Kadru had cursed her thousand sons, they took counsel together. Fearing her curse they resolved to fasten themselves to Uchaisrava's tail. "If we do her bidding," they said, "our mother may pardon us and take the curse from us. But if we are still disobedient, her curse will fall on us and we shall be burnt in the sacrifice of King Janamejaya, the Bharata. Therefore with all speed they hastened to the dwelling of Uchaisrava and fastened themselves to his tail before the two queens had ended their journey. Kadru and Vinata together entered Uchaisrava's palace, and at the same moment they saw that its tail was black. Queen Kadru turned to Queen Vinata and said, "My sister, you have lost your wager. You and your children after you will be the slaves of myself and my thousand snake sons." And from that day Queen Vinata served her sister as a bond-woman.

Many hundred years after the two queens had returned homewards, the second egg which Queen Vinata had borne opened, and from it came a mighty bird a thousand times larger than the largest elephant. To him Queen Vinata gave the name of Garuda. But because he had been born in slavery, he too became a slave, and Queen Kadru and her snake sons made him bear them about, at their will, from one spot to another. One day Garuda, weary of toil, said, "O my mother, why must I do the bidding of the snake people?" "My son," answered Queen Vinata sadly, "I made a foolish wager and Queen Kadru tricked me. So I became her slave, and as you were born in slavery, you too are her slave and must do her bidding and that of her thousand sons." Garuda pondered over what his mother had said, and then, going to the snakes, his cousins, said, "O my cousins, I am your slave. But grant me this boon, I pray you. Tell me what great work I may do to win my freedom and that of my mother."

The snakes answered him with one voice saying "O Garuda, bring us the ambrosia which the gods won from the sea when they churned the ocean. They have given it to Indra to keep. Take it from him and bring it here, and we will set you and your mother free."

Garuda went back to his mother and told her what his cousins the snakes had said. "My mother," he continued, "I would start at once to fetch the ambrosia but I fear that without food I shall die of hunger on the way." Queen Vinata answered, "My son Garuda, before you ascend to heaven you will pass over the uttermost ends of the earth. There live the Nishada people. Rest in their country and devour them. Thus you will be able to go to your journey's end and win the ambrosia. But be careful lest by chance you eat a Brahman. For if you swallow one you will be unable to digest him, and your stomach will pain you as if you had swallowed a fish-hook or burning charcoal." With these words Queen Vinata blessed her son; and flapping his mighty wings he rose and soon vanished in the distant sky.

When he came to the ends of the earth he alighted in the country of the Nishadas. And opening his mouth he sucked into it all those who lived there. To quench his thirst he drank up the rivers that watered the land. But unhappily he neglected the words of his mother and sucked into his mouth a Brahman who had married a woman of the Nishada people. Instantly his stomach began to pain him, as if he had swallowed a fish-hook or a burning charcoal. Garuda remembered Queen Vinata's words and said, "O Brahman, come back through my mouth, for I had no wish to kill you." "No," said the Brahman, "I cannot come back alone. I must take with me my wife, who is a Nishada woman." Garuda agreed; the Brahman and his wife walked out of the great bird's mouth, and at once Garuda's pain abated.

Garuda, who had suffered greatly, rested from his journey, and then returning home sought out his father Kashyapa. Garuda told his father what had befallen him. "O father," he continued, "now that I have eaten the Nishada people and drunk up their rivers, how shall I feed myself on my journey to win the ambrosia?" "Garuda, my son," replied King Kashyapa, "once there lived two brothers named Vivavasu and Supratika. They had great wealth, and when Supratika grew to manhood, he wished to divide it. 'Give me my share,' he said, 'O my brother, of our wealth.' 'No, my brother,' answered Vivavasu. 'The wise never divide wealth. For brothers who do so no longer remain united but live separately and quarrel with one another.' But Supratika still pressed him for his share, until Vivavasu*s anger blazed out. 'You make light of my words, Supratika,' he said; 'therefore become an elephant'. Supratika, feeling himself change into an elephant, grew angry also and cursed his brother, saying, 'Become in your turn a tortoise'. And ever since that day the two brothers, in the shapes of an elephant and a tortoise, live by a great lake and fight with each other incessantly. Go therefore, my son, and eat their flesh and drink the waters of the lake; so you will be able to journey to Amravati and win from Indra the golden jar of ambrosia. For the gods placed it in his keeping from the day that Dhanwantari brought it up from the depths of the churned ocean." With these words King Kashyapa blessed Garuda. And the great bird rising high into the air soon vanished from his father's sight.

As Garuda flew to the ends of the earth, he heard a great noise and looking down saw a wide stretch of water. By its banks an elephant and a tortoise were roaring as they fought each other. Garuda swooped swiftly down and seizing the elephant and tortoise in his talons, alighted on a mountain. There he devoured their flesh, and after quenching his thirst in the waters of the lake, flew strongly towards Amravati, the god Indra's heaven.

Now the god Indra had built many strong works and defences to guard the ambrosia jar. And he had posted Vayu the wind god to blow dust into the eyes of any coming foeman. Inside the outer works he had built a great circle of fire, which died down neither by night nor by day. Within the circle of fire he had built a great wheel with edged spokes, which turned without stopping. And inside the wheel were two poisonous snakes, which never slept, but day and night watched the sky for the coming of enemies. For some days past meteors had been racing through the skies, lightning had flashed from the cloudless blue heaven and bloody rain had fallen in torrents upon Amravati. Because of these portents the god Indra and his guards were keeping a close watch. But their vigilance availed them nothing.

Suddenly Garuda appeared in the sky, refreshed by the meat of the tortoise and the elephant. With his huge claws he kicked down the breastworks which Indra had built, with his wings he drove back the dust which the wind god Vayu blew in his face, and, scattering in every direction Indra and his guards, he drew near to the circle of fire. This he could not blow out with his wings, but going back to earth he sucked up in his throat the waters of a great river, and discharged them into the fire, so that it soon became a mass of smouldering embers. Garuda passed beyond it to the revolving wheel. There he changed himself into a tiny insect, and passing through the spokes stood near to the snakes. At once he resumed his old form and tore them to pieces with his beak and talons. Then seizing the ambrosia jar he kicked down the stand upon which the wheel revolved. And soaring into the air he was about to fly back to his cousins the snake people. But the god Vishnu came across the great bird's path. "O Garuda," he said, "I have seen your deeds and I would give you a boon." "Grant me, great god, this boon," said Garuda, "let me drink of the ambrosia so that I may become free from sickness, pain and death." Vishnu gave Garuda the boon, and after drinking a draught of the ambrosia he went on his way towards the earth. But as Garuda went, Indra met him. "Mighty Garuda," he said, "let there be friendship between us. And do not bear away the ambrosia jar. For you have drunk of it and have become immortal as the gods are. If you give it to the snake people, they, too, will become immortal and will wage war upon us." "Lord Indra," said Garuda, "I accept gladly your friendship. But I must bear the ambrosia jar to earth and give it to my cousins the snake people. Otherwise they will not set me and my mother free. But do you, Lord Indra, take the ambrosia jar away from them before they have had time to drink of it." To this Indra consented. And Garuda, flying swiftly to earth, entered the presence of Queen Vinata. "My mother," he said, "I have brought the ambrosia jar, let us call my cousins the snake people so that they may set us free." Queen Vinata was overjoyed. And Garuda sent for the snake people and placed before them the ambrosia jar; and he said to them. "My cousins, I have brought the ambrosia jar and I have placed it before you; therefore, as you promised, set me and my mother free from slavery." The snakes with one accord consented and, leaving the ambrosia jar, went to bathe in a neighbouring stream to purify themselves before drinking the sacred liquid. When they had left the god Indra swooped down like an eagle from the heavens and, seizing the ambrosia jar, bore it back with him to Amravati. But before he went he laid on the ground cups made of sharp-edged Kusha grass. When the snakes came back from bathing they searched in vain for the jar of ambrosia. Seeing the Kusha cups they thought that ambrosia had been poured into them. They licked the cups, but the sharp edges of the grass slit their tongues down to the roots, so that ever since that time the snake people have had forked tongues.

And in great pain and grief the sons of Queen Kadru made their way back to their dwelling places under the earth.

II

After the snake people had lost the ambrosia jar they sat in council together. For they had set free Queen Vinata and her son Garuda without receiving their price, and Queen Kadru had never taken from them her fearful curse that they would all be consumed in the snake sacrifice of king Janamejaya the Bharata. Some snakes said, "Let us bite all men and beasts to death" other snakes said, "Let us hinder the worship of the gods so that they may be forced to stay our mother's curse"; yet other snakes said, "Let us find king Janamejaya the Bharata and kill him." But Vasuki, the chief of the snake people, said sadly, "My brothers, this will in no way help us, for no one can escape a mother's curse." Then a serpent named Elapatra, spoke, "O Vasuki," he said, "when our mother Queen Kadru cursed us, I lay trembling on her lap and then I heard the immortals speaking with Brahmadeva the father of them all. The Immortals asked Brahmadeva why he allowed Queen Kadru to curse her sons. Brahmadeva answered, "The snake people have multiplied exceedingly and they will destroy the world if they themselves are not destroyed. Many of them will therefore be consumed in the fire of Janamejaya's sacrifice. But they will not all perish. For a rishi named Jaratkaru will wed Jaratkaru the sister of Vasuki the snake king. She will bear her husband a son named Astika, who will save the snake people from entire destruction."

When king Vasuki heard the words of the snake Elapatra he dismissed his brothers. And from that day he devoted himself to the service of his sister Jaratkaru in order that she might find favour in the eyes of the great rishi and so save the snake people from entire destruction.

But the rishi Jaratkaru had by his asceticism overcome all earthly desires. And he journeyed from shrine to shrine, with never a thought of marriage. One day, as the great Sage was walking abroad, he passed a deep pit. Looking into it he saw several men hanging head downwards and fastened by a single cord to the bough of a tree. Jaratkaru paused in wonder and said, "Strange Sirs, who are you and why do you hang thus head downwards? If you wish to escape from your plight I can save you. For I have won great powers by the mortifications that I have willingly endured."

"No, my son" answered one of the strange men "your powers cannot help us. We too were great rishis and also won great powers by our asceticism. For we who hang head downwards are your ancestors. The single cord which supports us is your life, Jaratkaru. Every day a rat comes and nibbles at the cord. And the rat is Time, which is eating away your life; and when Time has eaten it, we shall all fall headlong into Hell, which lies at the bottom of this pit. There is but one way in which you can save us. Marry a wife and beget a son and he will be a new cord to save us from Hell."

Jaratkaru was greatly grieved, for he had no wish to wed a wife. Yet he would not allow his ancestors to fall headlong into Hell. So he said, "O my ancestors, I am willing to marry, but the bride whom I shall choose must be named Jaratkaru as I am. She must bestow herself on me as a gift and must cost me nothing. If I do not find such a wife I shall not marry." With these words Jaratkaru left his ancestors and wandered over the world seeking a bride named Jaratkaru, who would come to him free and would cost him nothing. But nowhere could be find such a bride. At last he went into the heart of the forest and cried aloud:

"All creatures living in the world, listen to my words. I roam over the earth looking for a bride so that I may beget a son and save my ancestors. But she must be named Jaratkaru, and she must come to me as a gift, and I will not bear the cost of her maintenance. Therefore if any of you have such a daughter, give her to me in marriage.

Now the snake king Vasuki had sent snakes to watch the rishi Jaratkaru and to follow him wherever he went. When they heard him cry aloud in this manner they hastened to tell Vasuki. And Vasuki on hearing them adorned his sister with jewels, and taking her by the hand led her before the great rishi and offered her to him as a gift. But the rishi would not take the gift until Vasuki had sworn to him that her name was Jaratkaru, and that Vasuki would bear the cost of her maintenance. Then the rishi accepted her as his bride, but warned her that if ever she did anything that displeased him, that moment he would leave her. The maiden vowed that she would always please him and for some months she did nothing to rouse her husband's anger. One evening the rishi placed his head upon his wife's lap and soon fell fast asleep. But she saw with dismay that the sun was sinking, and she knew that if the rishi did not wake he would miss his evening prayer and thus lose a portion of his virtue. On the other hand she guessed that if she awoke her husband he would be displeased with her, and would cast her from him. Nevertheless, after thinking deeply, she resolved rather to endure her husband's anger than to cause him to lose his virtue. So she spoke to her husband saying, "Great lord, arise, for the sun is setting." The rishi awoke, but on hearing her words grew so angry that his lips quivered. "Snake woman," he cried, "you have sorely displeased me. Do you not know that while I sleep the sun has no power to set? Go back therefore to your brother's house and vex me no more." The snake princess strove in vain to soothe the anger of the rishi. But it could not be appeased and, leaving her, he went away to the forest and became once more an anchorite.

The snake princess went sadly back to the palace of her brother Vasuki the snake king. There she bore to her husband a son called Astika. And King Vasuki gave Astika, when he grew to be a youth, the wisest teachers in all India. So that the fame of Astika's virtues and of his learning spread to the ends of the earth.

III.

Now when King Yudhisthira and his brothers[1] and their queen, Draupadi, had left Hastinapura and set out for the Lord Indra's heaven, they had placed on the throne of the Bharatas Parikshit the son of Abhimanyu, the son of Arjuna the archer. And Parikshit's fame spread all over India. For he was a wise and mighty prince and for nearly sixty years he ruled justly upon the throne of Hastinapura. One day when he was over sixty years of age he went hunting in the forest. While he hunted, he wounded a stag with an arrow, and as his horse was weary he left it and followed the stag on foot. But the stag fled and he lost all trace of it. Hungry and tired, King Parikshit wandered through the forest until at last he came to the hermitage of the rishi Samika. "O Brahman," said the King, "I am

Tales from the Indian Epics 041.jpg
King Parikshit and the Rishi.

King Parikshit the son of Abhimanyu the son of Arjuna the Bharata. I am looking for a deer that I have wounded. Tell me, reverend Sir, if it has passed this way." But the rishi Samika had taken a vow of silence and, although the king repeated his question, the rishi would not answer him. King Parikshit grew angry and picking up a dead snake with his bow placed it in derision round Samika's neck. The rishi said nothing and King Parikshit, repenting of his deed, went back to his own city. After some days Samika's son Sringi returned to the hermitage and, seeing a dead snake on his father's shoulders, learnt from a friend named Krishna the outrage that Parikshit had done to Samika. Then Sringi, who also was a great rishi, grew angry with King Parikshit and cursed him saying, "O wicked king, because you insulted my father, Takshaka the snake prince will bite and kill you within seven days." Sringi's father Samika rebuked his son for the curse and bade him take it back. But Sringi would not listen to his father nor relent. So Samika sent word by a disciple named Gaurmukha to King Parikshit warning him of Sringi's curse. And King Parikshit, fearing for his life, caused a round stone pillar to be placed in the ground and on the pillar he built a palace. In the palace there were no windows and only one door. It closed so tightly that the smallest insect could not enter. And King Parikshit went into the palace so that he might pass in safety the seven days allotted to him by Sringi's curse.

On the seventh day Takshaka the snake prince left his palace under the earth to kill King Parikshit and thus fulfil the rishi Sringi's curse. Now about the same time a certain Brahman named Kashyapa, who was skilled above all men in curing snake-bites, resolved to go to Hastinapura and to earn great wealth by curing King Parikshit after Prince Takshaka had bitten him. As Kashyapa journeyed Prince Takshaka saw him; and, guessing what his purpose was, Prince Takshaka disguised himself as a Brahman and going up to Kashyapa said, "Where are you going? tell me, I pray you." "Good Sir," said Kashyapa, "I am going to Hastinapura to cure King Parikshit after he has been bitten by Prince Takshaka." "Sir," said the snake prince, "I am prince Takshaka. I wish to test your power. Let me see, if you can cure this tree after I have bitten it." As the snake prince spoke he drove his fangs deep into a great banian tree that stood close to him. And such was the fearful force of the poison that in a few moments nothing remained of the great tree but a heap of ashes. Kashyapa then went up to the ashes and by his magic recreated first the leaves, then the twigs, then the branches and the trunk, and lastly the roots, so that the great tree stood just as it had stood before Prince Takshaka had bitten it. The snake prince marvelled at the magic of Kashyapa and feared that he would save King Parikshit if suffered to go to Hastinapura. "Sir," said Prince Takshaka, "your power is great indeed. But if I give you more wealth than all that King Parikshit possesses will you not leave him to his fate and return home? For a Brahman's curse is upon him. And even your magic may fail to save him. And if you were to fail, the shame of your failure would resound through the three worlds." "Fair snake prince" answered Kashyapa, "I am going to Hastinapura only for gain. Give me what you offer me and I shall return home." Prince Takshaka gladly gave Kashyapa more wealth than all the treasures of King Parikshit. Kashyapa turned homewards and the snake prince journeyed towards Hastinapura. But when he drew near to Parikshit's palace he saw that it was useless openly to seek an entry, so close was the guard set round the pillar and so tightly was its single door fastened. Calling to the snakes who were his attendants he turned them into Brahmans. And giving them baskets of fruits and flowers bade them go the palace as holy men who wished to make offerings to King Parikshit the Bharata. When they had reached the palace the guards permitted them as holy men to enter it and offer the king their basket of fruits and flowers. He graciously accepted the offering. But inside one of the fruits Prince Takshaka lay hidden in the form of a tiny insect. And when the king began to eat the fruits, he chose first the very one in which the snake prince lay concealed. As the king ate he saw the tiny insect. Then he said to his ministers, "This is the seventh day and it is near sunset. I no longer fear the poison of Prince Takshaka. But I repent of the wrong that I did to the rishi Samika. So to atone for my sin I shall let this tiny insect bite me." With these words he placed the tiny insect on his forehead. With a fearful roar prince Takshaka re-assumed his proper shape and fastening his mighty coils round king Parikshit drove his fangs in the kings face so that he died instantly. And such was the terrible strength of the poison that it passed through the king's body and entering the floor of the palace consumed it, as if it had been destroyed by fire. Many of the king's attendants perished, but others fled. And as they fled they saw the giant form of prince Takshaka coursing through the sky, as he went swiftly from Hastinapura.

After the Brahman priests had performed the last rites of the dead king, the ministers and the citizens of Hastinapura gathered together and placed on the vacant throne Parikshit's son Janamejaya the Bharata although he was then but a boy. For although young he was wise and learned beyond his years. And all knew that he would rule well and justly over the empire of the Bharatas.

IV

As the years passed by the King, Janamejaya the Bharata, grew in stature and in wisdom. One day he called round him his ministers and bade them tell him the whole story of the death of his father King Parikshit. Now it so happened that just before Prince Takshaka spoke with the Brahman Kashyapa, a certain wood cutter had climbed into the banian tree in order to gather fuel. When the snake prince bit the tree, he perished with it. But when Kashyapa revived the tree, he brought back to life the wood cutter also. And after Prince Takshaka had killed King Parikshit, the wood cutter went to his ministers and told them all that he had seen and heard. Thus the ministers were able to relate the full tale of King Parikshit's death. After they had ended it, they blamed greatly the rishi Sringi. But King Janamejaya blamed Prince Takshaka the snake prince more. For, so the King said, if Prince Takshaka had not bribed Kashyapa to depart King Parikshit would have lived. And in this view Uttanka, the pupil of the rishi Veda, who had lately come to dwell at Hastinapura supported Janamejaya. For Uttanka hated Prince Takshaka because he had tried to steal from him the earrings of King Paushya's queen.

Many times King Janamejaya exclaimed aloud "I must avenge my father's death". Then he turned to his ministers and said "Good sirs, tell me how I may consume with fire Takshaka the snake prince as he consumed King Parikshit my father with his poison." The ministers answered, "O my King, from our ancient books it is laid down how to hold a snake sacrifice. And by holding such a sacrifice you will surely consume Prince Takshaka and the snake people, just as Prince Takshaka consumed King Parikshit with his poison." On hearing this answer King Janamejaya ordered that the Brahmans of the Kingdom should hold a snake sacrifice according to the rites written in the ancient books. The Brahmans, so ordered, measured out a vast piece of land and on it they reared a mighty sacrificial platform. When the appointed day broke, the Brahmans seated themselves upon the platform, and King Janamejaya placed near them a great store of wealth which should be their reward.

The Brahmans robed themselves in black garments and kindled a fire. When the fire had begun to burn brightly the Brahmans poured ghee on the flames until the flames turned to smoke and into the smoke they muttered strange spells. And the spells had power over the snake people and their hearts turned to water within them. Then the Brahmans poured more ghee on the flames and called on the chiefs and princes of the snake people by their names. And the spells of the Brahmans began to draw the snake people towards the fire. And although the chiefs and princes among the snake people hid themselves in the lakes and rivers and seas and in their agony coiled themselves round trees and stones and mountain tops, yet the spells drew them one by one towards the fire. And forced by the spells they one after the other fell into the fire, which instantly consumed them.

But Prince Takshaka fled in fear to the throne of the god Indra and confessed his fault to him. The god Indra pardoned him and said, "Prince Takshaka, stay here and you need fear nothing." And Prince Takshaka rejoiced greatly and hid himself under Indra's throne.

Now the spells of the Brahmans increased in power and the snakes fell into the fire in ever greater numbers, until Vasuki their king feared that all his people would perish. Then he remembered the promise of the god Brahmadeva that Astika the son of the rishi Jaratkaru and of King Vasuki's sister would save the snake people from entire destruction. So King Vasuki went to his sister Jaratkaru and bade her send her son Astika to save the snake people. Astika at his mother's bidding went to Hastinapura and approached the sacrificial fire. There he spoke so nobly the praises of King Janaraejaya the Bharata, and of the mighty Brahmans who sat round the fire, that the heart of King Janamejaya warmed towards him. "Give me leave, great sages," said the King, "to grant this Brahman a boon, for his words are wise and I am pleased with him." But Souti the chief of the Brahmans said, "O King, grant him no boon until we have consumed in the fire Prince Takshaka your enemy." "Where is Prince Takshaka?" asked the Bharata King. "He is hiding in Amravati," answered Souti, "under the god Indra's throne, and Indra has promised him that he will save him." "If that be so," said King Janamejaya, "with your spells draw into the fire not Prince Takshaka only but the god Indra and all Amravati." Then the Brahmans muttered ever fiercer spells and poured more ghee into the sacrificial fire until they began to draw into the fire not only the snake prince but the god Indra and all Amravati. Filled with fear Indra cast from him Prince Takshaka, and the snake prince, lying across the sky, was slowly drawn to the fire by the spells of the Brahmans. Then Souti said to Janamejaya, "Nothing now can save Prince Takshaka, so grant Astika whatever boon he asks." On hearing these words, the king turned to Astika and said, "Ask what you will and I shall grant it."

Prince Takshaka was falling with increasing speed from the sky towards the fire when Astika cried aloud, "Stay, stay, stay." And the words of Astika overcame the spells of the Brahmans and the vast length of the snake prince lay motionless, suspended in the heavens. Then Astika said to King Janamejaya, "O Bharata King, you have granted me a boon and the boon that I would have is this. Spare the lives of Prince Takshaka and of all those among the snake people who have not yet been consumed." King Janamejaya in vain sought by offering Astika herds of cattle and a great treasure of gold and silver to turn him from his purpose. But Astika answered, "King Janamejaya, you are an Aryan king and you cannot go back on your promise. You have promised me a boon. Therefore give me the lives of Prince Takshaka and those among the snake people who are still alive." At last the Brahmans, over whose spells the words of Astika had power, also pressed King Janamejaya to grant him this boon. So the king bade the sacrifice be abandoned, and dividing the treasure among the Brahmans, spoke graciously to Astika and then drove in his chariot to his city Hastinapura. But Astika went to King Vasuki his uncle and Jaratkaru his mother, and told them how he had stopped the sacrifice. King Vasuki and Jaratkaru and all the snake people were overjoyed. They said with one voice to Astika, "Ask of us a boon and it shall be granted to you." Astika answered, "O King Vasuki and snake people, grant me this boon, namely that all men who read this tale shall be safe from your poisonous bites." And with one voice the king and the snake people cried in answer, "We grant you the boon, O Astika. And if in days to come any man shall say aloud the name of Astika and shall by your name call on any snake not to bite him, he shall be safe from the peril of our poison. And if any snake, disregarding our promise, shall bite any man he shall have his head cut into a hundred pieces." With these words King Vasuki and the snake people departed to their homes under the earth. And the rishi Astika went to live happily with his mother Jaratkaru the sister of King Vasuki.[2]

But it will be asked what befell Aruna the other son of Queen Vinata. He became charioteer of the Sun and it happened in this way. After the Sun had seen Rahu drink the ambrosia, and had told Vishnu, Rahu was for ever attempting to devour him and at last the Sun-god grew angry that he alone among the Immortals should suffer and he resolved to destroy the world and the heaven above it and the sea beneath. He went in his chariot to the western mountains and resting it on the loftiest peak began to spread his rays over all the earth. The pools and lakes dried up, the rivers ceased to flow, the sea boiled and bubbled with the heat and the fishes died within its teeming depths. At last the sages of India went to the throne of Brahmadeva and begged him to stay the anger of the Sun, otherwise the world and all that lived in it would die before the day was over. Brahmadeva called Garuda to him and bade him seek his brother Aruna. Garuda sought Aruna and found him still rising through the air just as he had risen out of Queen Vinata's sight. At Brahmadeva's bidding Garuda took his brother with him to the western mountains, and he made Aruna sit in the front part of the chariot and drive the six horses of the Sun-god. Aruna did so and the rays of the Sun could no longer burn the earth, for their fierce heat was fended off by the great body of Aruna. When he found that he could no longer carry out his resolve, the Sun-god's anger abated. He welcomed Aruna and bade him always be his charioteer. And Aruna drives the six horses of the Sun-god to this day.

  1. For the story of Yudhisthira and his brothers see my book "The Indian Heroes." (Oxford University Press.)
  2. It is still the practice of Indians, when passing through grass or jungle inhabited by snakes to say aloud the name of "Astika."