Takshaka: Avenger from the Forest and Pariikshita’s Liberation — By: Nupur Behl

Abstract:

The Hindu mythical traditions form an integral part of the oral culture which has preserved an interesting lineage of listeners and narrators. It is no wonder, therefore, that the myths in the Indic systems are a part of a living tradition, which aims at our reformation. Taking cue from the classical text of Shrimad-bhagvatam, by Ved Vyas, this paper intends to understand the concept of death in human life, its daunting nature and the wise means of dealing with it, by referring to the myth of the king, Pariikshita and the serpent, Takshaka.  The concept of death is then appropriated in the contemporary scenario where man’s incessant fear of death and incognizance are contrasted against Pariikshita’s discernment. This notion is further elaborately looked upon by analogizing the environmental destruction of Takshaka’s habitat with the large scale environmental destructions today and henceforth, the fomenting clout of Takshaka.

The story of Pariikshita is nothing spectacular except, for its antiquity and association with the sacred lore, as it represents the common human knowledge about the inevitability of death. Through an unexpected turn of events, Pariikshita comes to know the time of his death, otherwise not known to human beings. We all know that we shall die but Pariikshita knows exactly how much time he has to live and hence he sees the looming death which we choose to ignore. “What is the greatest wonder,” asked the Yaksha from Yudhishthira to which he replied, “Forgetting death which is always round the corner.” [1]

Contrary to the average human behavior, and the plight of Pariikshita, the Mahabharata offers us the character of Bhishma whose mind was focused on the mortal end of the body and who was also blessed with the power to postpone his death as long as he pleased. But he chose to welcome his death gracefully in the battle of Mahabharata. Seeing Krishna descend from his chariot with his eternal weapon: the ‘Sudarsana Chakra’ on his finger, Bhishma threw down his weapons, folded his hands and welcomed death at the hands of Krishna. [2] Bhishma was not only aware of the temporality of life but also he was untainted and untouched by worldly corruption, and just as a committed devotee he surrendered himself to Krishna whom he perceived as the supreme reality. Thus, for him, the end of the human body was not the cessation but only a stage in the journey of the soul to higher realms. Bhishma thus attained refuge in Krishna and became his ‘Sharanaagata’ (the true deserver of Krishna’s love and protection)

Besides, it is worth mentioning that the epic Mahabharata, in the context of Bhishma’s acceptability of death, brings forth the idea of bhakti through the love shared between Bhishma and Krishna. Krishna had vowed not to participate in the Great War as a combatant. But under the compulsion to protect Arjuna, (another great devotee and Sharanaagata) he was constrained to break his vow. However, while breaking his vow, he also ended up fulfilling the vow/wishes of Bhishma who had vowed that he (Bhishma) would make Krishna into a combatant in the battle and take up a weapon to strike the opponent. Thus the opposites, of keeping one’s vow and breaking it for the sake of a devotee are reconciled. Krishna was confronted with the dilemma of keeping either his vow or the vow of his devotee, but he preferred to keep the vow of his devotee Bhishma, as Bhishma was the bhakta-vatsala (the devotee) par excellence, who was attached to the lord as a cow to its calf.

Much later, Pariikshita; the great grandson of Arjuna, and the great grand nephew of Krishna, was confronted by death, but unlike Bhishma, he did not know what to do when the hour of death arrived. The way was shown to him by Shri Shukdev, who expounded the Shrimad-bhagvatam to Pariikshita within the time span of seven days. [3]Within this time, Pariikshita perceived correctly that death is merely a terminator of the body and not of the soul.

Displacement of the Forest Dwellers and the birth of Takshaka

On the denial of the kingdom of Hastinapur, the Pandavas moved to the Khandava region for habitation. For inhabiting the area, the forest was cleared by the use of fire, as was the custom of the times. Following the commands of Krishna, Arjuna accomplished the task. But, the fire consumed the lives of several creatures residing in the forest, along with the family of Takshaka (the serpent), thus provoking vengeance in him as he survived the conflagration. However, despite certain efforts, Takshaka was unsuccessful in seeking his revenge from Arjuna, and so, the karmic consequences of Arjuna were passed to his immediate successor, Pariikshita. Although an astute king, Pariikshita fell prey to the common human fallacy, viz a vie, anger. Thus, overcome by anger for ascetic in meditation, Pariikshita insulted him by throwing a dead serpent round his neck. This insult was avenged by the son of the ascetic who pronounced a curse upon Pariikshita, saying that the deadly serpent Takshaka would kill him after seven days. [4]

Pariikshita’s Quest for Knowledge and Takshaka’s revenge

On knowing that the day of his death was certain, Pariikshita chose to abnegate his material assets than to seek refuge in his imperial comforts. Although not completely conscious of the righteous measures in dealing with the impending danger, Pariikshita meditated on Krishna when his thirst for knowledge was finally quenched by Shri Shukdev, who propounded the text of the Shrimad-bhagvatam to him.

Under the guidance of his guru (teacher), Pariikshita was successful in fearlessly renouncing his body to Takshaka and becoming an example of a saadhak/ seeker, truly detached from the body and worldly affairs. However, at the same time, without condoning the injustice done to Takshaka, we can say that though his revenge was successfully implemented, he became a figure symbolic not only of  victimization but also of the advancement of death which could either result in uncontrollable fear or a search for Truth. In the case of Pariikshita, the curse directed him to search for a meaning beyond death, and in this way, he became a true deserving listener (adhikaari shrotaa ) of the Shrimad-bagvatam.

In our everyday lives, we too are often visited by Takshaka (chances of early or unexpected death). The story of Pariikshita shows us the way of turning this misfortune into a blessing. This is however possible through the attainment of the right kind of knowledge, as achieved by Pariikshita, who expressed his curiosity in knowing the purpose of human life on earth and also wished to know what the right way of living was when the hour of death was near.[5]  Nowhere in the text of Shrimad-bhagvatam, did this great devotee of Krishna berate his fate or the doings of his ancestors. The curse, for Pariikshita, became a door to enlightenment and by following the instructions of Shukdev, Pariikshita freed his mind from the fear of death which had grappled him earlier.

Understanding Death in the Shrimad-bhagvatam

The Shrimad-bhagvatam is a seminal text which records the enlightening dialogues between Pariikshita and Shri Shukdev. This text deals with a universal problem of death and the right way to deal with it.  The first thing that it prescribes is not to be afraid of death, and the successive step recommended is to strive for wisdom. The saadhak should learn to discriminate the seemingly real from the truly real. This discriminatory wisdom alone brings liberation (moksha) from the fear of death and the cycle of rebirth. The several ways to attain ‘moksha’ that have been prescribed by different schools are: karma (action), gyaana (knowledge), and sanyaasa. The Bhagavad however, implies that because decadence and corruption are the defining characteristics of Kaliyuga, and that Man is more inclined towards them, and since, disinterested practices of the yoga, gyana and karma are very difficult to pursue, the easier (sahaja) path is that of Bhakti. Thus, at the nearing hour of death, Bhakti is the quickest means for salvation, as explicated in the case of Pariikshita. [6]

The Shrimad-bhagvatam is imbued with the elements of Bhakti, such as valorization of Krishna; the celebration of his 22 avatars, Krishna as the cosmic creator, and an enchanting human figure who is everybody’s beloved. In contrast, we are explained the temporality of the world which is divided into three gunas, namely, saattvik, raajasik and taamasik. They function within the realms of maaya, and thus often beguile the ignorant of the Truth.  In this state of entrapment and ignorance, people commit several misdeeds which come back to settle their scores just as Takshaka.

In the seven precious days of his life, Pariikshita could choose to indulge in the worldly pleasures and fulfill his personal desires. But, he did not disapprove of his fate and by choosing the practice of Bhakti, he showed no regret in renouncing all material assets. In this way, the text of Shrimad-bhagvatam successfully develops the importance of Bhakti maarga and the necessary benefits one can reap from it.

Modern Man and the position of Takshaka Today

Contrary to the triumph of Pariikshita in conquering the fright of death, the modern Man has remained unaccomplished in achieving the same. Man’s unending desires and the growing narcissism, have denied him a wise perception of life. Advancements in the field of technology and medicine have resulted in the longevity of life, and the advent of cosmetic surgery has also unnaturally prolonged the time span of youth, thereby distancing Man from understanding that death is an unavoidable end. Consequently, Man fears old age and death and perceives it as his enemy, which can devoid him of all his possessions.

Because the inevitable nature of death is difficult to accept, Takshaka, or the agent of death lurks in our sub consciousness, often gripping us in the clutches of fear and darkness by portending human mortality. Likewise, Takshaka is also the Frankenstein like figure, the creation of man who breaks the rules of nature and goes against them. So, under compelling circumstances, Takshaka (as the forest inhabitant or the creature who is dependent upon the Nature for its habitat) is provoked to fight against those who have disturbed his natural environment. Thus, when the fire in the city of Khandava depleted the natural habitat and the tribal communities inhabiting it, the consequences were retaliating and were faced by the later generation of the Pandavas, viz a vie Pariikshita. Similarly, the catastrophic effects of the large scale environmental destructions, carried out by man today, have deleterious effects on our lives, in several ways.

Today, man is usurping forests and acres of land for his selfish motives. This is causing environmental damage and tribal killings/displacements. As a result of this, compared to the earlier social scene, Takshaka has become pervasive and more powerful in his position, and if we do not cease to continue harming our environment, he will attack us in the form of natural calamities and tribal revolts, (one or the other forms of death).The ongoing conflict between Man and Nature must therefore, come to an end for a tranquil life. The Bhagavad also reiterates this point through the story of Janmajaya. Following Pariikshita’s death, his son Janmajaya, outraged over his father’s death, performed a ‘yagya’ to burn Takshaka alive, and in the process, several other serpents were also burnt. Nonetheless, following the instructions of Brahaspati, one of the ascetics present at the time of the ‘yagya’, Janmajaya ended the proceedings, on being warned against the massive killings he had caused, the aftermath of which could be violent and vicious in nature. [7]  However, today, the forceful invasions into the Natural habitats are being carried out impetuously and are marked with massive destructions resulting in killings and Man’s ever growing fear of it.

Under the correct guidance of his teacher, Pariikshita rightfully dealt with death and became the exemplar of the right way of living. Simultaneously, we may also consent to the fact that Shukdev, the narrator of the Bhagvatam, was in accord with Nature and all the living creatures inhabiting it. As a wise Brahmin, he understood the matters of life and death correctly. Conversely, today, the dust of materialism and the itch for industrial civilization has blinded us so much so that we are devoid of the consciousness which Pariikshita was awakened to. For this reason, we no longer seek for ‘Shukdev’ (the light of wisdom), but instead, continuing to dwell in darkness, we spend our lives in ignorance.

The story of Pariikshita and Takshaka tells us that death cannot be avoided. It also explicates that besides being an agent of death, Takshaka is the answer to every wrong deed committed by Man. Finally, with Pariikshita’s liberation and Takshaka’s revenge, both the opposites were reconciled, but despite this reconciliation, Pariikshita gained a much higher pedestal than Takshaka because he freed himself from all earthly confinements, which Takshaka, in the wake of seeking his revenge, could not . It was Pariikshita and not Takshaka who set the examples of human excellence. Thus, instead of causing fear, Takshaka conversely became the catalytic force towards Pariikshita’s liberation (moksha). However, how far is this situation applicable in today’s context? Today, is Takshaka the catalytic force which is leading us towards the pursuit of liberation (‘moksha’), or is he simply pushing us towards death?  In the absence of a wise way of handling death, Man’s quest for wisdom (or the ‘Bhagavad’) has ceased. This vacuum has denied him a prudent discernment of life and death, and as a result, Takshaka has become an agent of horror, seizing Man in the grip of death, rather than becoming a conduit of liberation.

Therefore, in this way, the sacred Hindu lore of Pariikshita and Takshaka, brings many important facts for our serious consideration, and also, in a way, emphasizes the reason for which the Indic religions stress on the need of an oral tradition; the ritual of repetitive recitals brings more awareness and reflective abilities in the listener.

END NOTES:

[1] Kisari Mohan Ganguli : (1883-1896) English trans, The Mahabharat:,‘Vana Parva Part 3, Munshiram    Manoharlal Pub.

[2] Ibid: ‘Bhishma Parva’: Pg. 152: Bhishma headed the army of the Kauravas during the battle. When Krishna sees that Bhishma will defeat Arjuna in the battle, he gets down from the chariot to protect Arjuna from Bhishma. On seeing Krishna, Bhishma says:

“Come, come, O Lord of the Gods…I bow to thee…Thou art the refuge of all creatures in this battle…”

[3] Vishnupriya, (2006),  Hindi Translation,  Shrimadbhagvatam :( Prime Publishing Company, 2006), Part 2 Chapter   1, Pg. 348

[4] Ibid:  Part 1, Chapter 18, Pg. 328

[5] Ibid : Part 1, Chapter 19, Pg. 338

[6]Ibid:  Part 1, Chapter 11, Pg. 336

[7] Ibid :  Part 5, Chapter 6, Pg. 3947 , Pg. 3949

About the author:

Nupur Behl received her Bachelors and Masters degrees in English literature from the University of Delhi. She has an extensive research experience in the field of Theology with focus on Hinduism and Bhakti . Previously, she worked as a Citizen Journalist and is currently teaching English and pursuing B.Ed from the University of Delhi. Her areas of  research interests include Sufism, European history and Existential literature.

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2 Responses to Takshaka: Avenger from the Forest and Pariikshita’s Liberation — By: Nupur Behl

  1. aqil says:

    A good and interesting read!

  2. Kanchan says:

    Man’s denial of the inevitability of death, and the eternal battle between man and nature well expounded.
    Suggested read.

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