Janamejaya’s Snake Sacrifice

Sauti said, “There was a king, of the name of Parikshit, born in the race of the Kauravas. And, like his great-grandfather Pandu of old, he was of mighty arms, the first of all bearers of bows in battle, and fond of hunting. And the monarch wandered about, hunting deer, and wild boars, and wolves, and buffaloes and various other kinds of wild animals. One day, having pierced a deer with a sharp arrow and slung his bow on his back, he penetrated into the deep forest, searching for the animal here and there. No deer that was pierced by Parikshit had ever escaped in the wood with life. This deer, however wounded as before, fled with speed, as the cause of the king’s attainment to heaven. And the deer that Parikshit – that king of men – had pierced was lost to his gaze and drew the monarch far away into the forest. And fatigued and thirsty, he came across a Muni, in the forest.”

“And approaching him hastily, the monarch, hungry and fatigued, and raising his bow, asked that Muni of rigid vows, saying, ‘O Brahmana, I am king Parikshit, the son of Abhimanyu. A deer pierced by me hath been lost. Hast thou seen it?’ But that Muni observing then the vow of silence, spoke not unto him a word. And the king in anger thereupon placed upon his shoulder a dead snake, taking it up with the end of his bow. The Muni suffered him to do it without protest. And he spoke not a word, good or bad. And the king seeing him in that state, cast off his anger and became sorry. And he returned to his capital but the Rishi continued in the same state. The forgiving Muni, knowing that the monarch who was a tiger amongst kings was true to the duties of his order, cursed him not, though insulted. That Rishi had a son by name Sringin, of tender years, gifted with great energy, deep in ascetic penances, severe in his vows, very wrathful, and difficult to be appeased.”

“A Rishi’s son named Krisa spoke unto Sringin, ‘Be not proud, O Sringin, for ascetic as thou art and possessed of energy, thy father bears on his shoulders a dead snake. Where is that manliness of thine, those high words of thine begotten of pride, when thou must have to behold thy father bearing a dead snake? Sringin looking at Krisa, and speaking softly, asked him, ‘Pray, why doth my father bear today a dead snake?’ And Krisa replied, ‘Even as king Parikshit was roving, for purpose of hunting, O dear one, he placed the dead snake on the shoulder of thy sire.’ And Sringin asked, ‘What wrong was done to that wicked monarch by my father?’ And Krisa answered, ‘King Parikshit, the son of Abhimanyu, while hunting, had wounded a fleet stag with an arrow and chased it alone. And the king lost sight of the animal in that extensive wilderness. Seeing then thy sire, he immediately accosted him. Thy sire was then observing the vow of silence. Oppressed by hunger, thirst and labour, the prince again and again asked thy sire sitting motionless, about the missing deer. The sage, being under the vow of silence, returned no reply. The king thereupon placed the snake on thy sire’s shoulder with the end of his bow.'”

“Having heard of a dead snake placed upon his father’s shoulders, the son of the Rishi, his eyes reddened with anger, blazed up with rage. And possessed by anger, the puissant Rishi then cursed the king, touching water and overcome with wrath. And Sringin said, ‘That sinful wretch of a monarch who hath placed a dead snake on the shoulders of my lean and old parent, that insulter of Brahmanas and tarnisher of the fame of the Kurus, shall be taken within seven nights hence to the regions of Yama (Death) by the snake Takshaka, the powerful king of serpents, stimulated thereto by the strength of my words!’ “And when the seventh day had arrived, Takshaka, that first of snakes,speedily entered the city of Hastinapura. And on his way he heard that the king was living very cautiously, protected by means of poison-neutralising mantras and medicines.”

Sauti continued, “The snake thereupon reflected thus, ‘The monarch must be deceived by me with power of illusion. But what must be the means?’ Then Takshaka sent to the king some snakes in the guise of ascetics taking with them fruits, kusa grass, and water (as presents). And Takshaka, addressing them, said, ‘Go ye all to the king, on the pretext of pressing business, without any sign of impatience, as if to make the monarch only accept the fruits and flowers and water (that ye shall carry as presents unto him).’ Those snakes, thus commanded by Takshaka, acted accordingly. And they took to the king, Kusa grass and water, and fruits. And that foremost of kings, of great prowess, accepted those offerings. Then after those snakes disguised as ascetics had gone away, the king addressed his ministers and friends, saying, ‘Eat ye, with me, all these fruits of excellent taste brought by the ascetics.’ “

“Impelled by Fate and the words of the Rishi, the king, with his ministers, felt the desire of eating those fruits. The particular fruit, within which Takshaka had entered, was taken by the king himself for eating. And when he was eating it, there appeared, O Saunaka, an ugly insect, of shape scarcely discernible, eyes black, and of coppery colour. And then the monarch smiled, losing his senses, his hour having come. And he quickly placed that insect on his neck. And as the king was smiling, Takshaka, who had (in the form of that insect) came out of the fruit that had been offered to the king. And quickly coiling round the king’s neck and uttering a tremendous roar, Takshaka, that lord of snakes, bit that protector of the earth.”

“Then the councillors beholding the king in the coils of Takshaka, became pale with fear and wept in exceeding grief. And hearing the roar of Takshaka, the ministers all fled. And as they were flying away in great grief, they saw Takshaka, the king of snakes, coursing through the blue sky like a streak of the hue of the lotus. And the mansion in which the king was living blazed up with Takshaka’s poison. And the king himself fell down, as if struck by lightning. And when the king was laid low by Takshaka’s poison, his councillors with the royal priest – a holy Brahmana – performed all his last rites. All the citizens, assembling together, made the minor son of the deceased monarch their king. And the people called their new king, that slayer of all enemies, that hero of the Kuru race, by the name of Janamejaya. And that best of monarchs, Janamejaya, though a child, was wise in mind. And with his councillors and priest, and eldest son Parikshita, that bull amongst the Kurus, ruled the kingdom like his heroic great-grand-father (Yudhishthira).”

“And the ministers of the youthful monarch, beholding that he could now keep his enemies in check, went to Suvarnavarman, the king of Kasi, and asked him his daughter Vapushtama for a bride. And the king of Kasi, after due inquiries, bestowed with ordained rites, his daughter Vapushtama on that mighty hero of Kuru race. And the latter, receiving his bride, became exceedingly glad. And he gave not his heart at any time to any other woman. And gifted with great energy, he wandered in pursuit of pleasure, with a cheerful heart, on expanses of water and amid woods and flowery fields. Herself fairest of the fair, the damsel Vapushtama too, devoted to her lord and celebrated for her beauty having gained a desirable husband, pleased him by the excess of her affection during the period he spent in the pursuit of pleasure.”

“Janamejaya asked his ministers about his father’s ascension to heaven, ‘Know ye all that befell my father. How did that famous king, in time, meet with his death? Hearing from you the incidents of my father’s life in detail, I shall ordain something, if it be for the benefit of the world. Otherwise, I shall do nothing.’ And the councillors said, ‘O king, that father of thine, that protector of the whole earth, that foremost of all persons obedient to the scriptures, became addicted to the sports of the field. He made over to us all the affairs of state from the most trivial to the most important. One day, going into the forest, he pierced a deer with an arrow. And having pierced it he followed it quickly on foot into the deep woods, armed with sword and quiver. He could not, however, come upon the lost deer. He then saw in the deep woods a Rishi observing the vow of silence. The king asked him about the deer, but received no reply. At last, thy father insulted him. The king, taking up from the ground with the end of his bow a dead snake placed it on the shoulders of that Muni.'”

“‘The son of that Rishi, in wrath, cursed thy father. Though young in years, the powerful one was old in ascetic splendour. Takshaka, approaching in disguise, blasted, with the fire of his poison, thy virtuous father, the first of kings, then staying in his mansion with all precautions. And after that, thou wast, O tiger among men, installed on the throne. And, O best of monarchs, we have thus told thee all that we have seen and heard, cruel though the account is. And hearing all about the discomfiture of thy royal father, decide thou that which should follow!’ King Janamejaya, having listened to the words of his ministers, was sorely afflicted with grief, and began to weep. And reflecting for a moment, the angry monarch, addressing all ministers, said these words, ”I have heard your account of my father’s ascension to heaven. Know ye now what my fixed resolve is. I think no time must be lost in avenging this injury upon the wretch Takshaka that killed my father. He burnt my father making Sringin only a secondary cause. I must now avenge myself on my father’s enemy to please myself.'”

“King Janamejaya then called his priest and Ritwiks. And accomplished in speech, he spake unto them these words relating to the accomplishment of his great task. ‘I must avenge myself on the wretch Takshaka who killed my father. Tell me what I must do. Do you know any act by which I may cast into the blazing fire the snake Takshaka with his relatives? I desire to burn that wretch even as he burnt, of yore, by the fire of his poison, my father.’ The chief priest answered, ‘There is, O king, a great sacrifice for thee devised by the gods themselves. It is known as the Snake Sacrifice, and is read of in the Puranas.’ And the king’s Ritwiks, versed in the Vedas and acquainted with the rites of that sacrifice, measured, according to the scriptures, the land for the sacrificial platform. And the platform was decked with valuable articles. And it was full of precious things and paddy. And the Ritwiks sat upon it at ease. And after the sacrificial platform had been thus constructed, they installed the king at the Snake Sacrifice for the attainment of its object.”

“And before the commencement of the Sacrifice that was to come, there occurred this very important incident foreboding obstruction to the sacrifice. For when the sacrificial platform was being constructed, a professional builder of great intelligence and well-versed in the knowledge of laying foundations, a Suta by caste, well-acquainted with the Puranas, said, ‘The soil upon which and the time at which the measurement for the sacrificial platform has been made, indicate that this sacrifice will not be completed, a Brahmana becoming the reason thereof.’ Hearing this, the king, before his installation, gave orders to his gate-keepers not to admit anybody without his knowledge.”

“The Sacrifice then commenced. And the priests, competent in their respective duties according to the ordinance, clad in black garments and their eyes red from contact with smoke, poured clarified butter into the blazing fire, uttering the appropriate mantras, causing the hearts of all the snakes to tremble with fear. And the snakes thereupon began to fall into the blazing fire. The white, the black, the blue, the old and the young – all fell alike into the fire, uttering various cries. The atmosphere was filled with an insufferable stench owing to the incessant burning. Meanwhile, Takshaka, that prince of snakes, as soon as he heard that king Janamejaya was engaged in the sacrifice, went to the palace of Purandara (Indra). And that best of snakes, having represented all that had taken place, sought in terror the protection of Indra after having acknowledged his fault. And Indra, gratified, told him, ‘O prince of snakes, O Takshaka, here thou hast no fear from that snake-sacrifice. Let this fear of thy heart be allayed.'”

“Then the snake-dame Jaratkaru, calling her own son, told him the following words, ‘O son, it behoveth thee to protect us from this danger.’ And Astika said, ‘It behoveth thee not to grieve any longer. I shall dispel this fear of thine from the blazing fire. This terrible punishment, I shall extinguish. Nurse not thy fear any longer.’ Astika wended, for the relief of the snakes, with speed to Janamejaya’s sacrifice blessed with every merit. And having gone thither, beheld the sacrificial compound with numerous Sadasyas. Astika said, ‘Sakra performed a hundred sacrifices. But this sacrifice of thine, O foremost one of Bharata’s race, O son of Parikshit, is fully equal to ten thousand sacrifices of Sakra. Let those dear unto us be blessed!’ Janamejaya said, ‘Though this one is but a boy, he speaks yet like a wise old man. I desire to bestow on him a boon. Therefore, ye Brahmanas, give me the necessary permission.'”

“The Sadasyas said, ‘A Brahmana, though a boy, deserves the respect of kings. The learned ones do more so. This boy deserves every desire of his being fulfilled by thee, but not before Takshaka comes with speed.’ The king, being inclined to grant the Brahmana a boon, said, ‘Ask thou a boon.’ The Hotri, however, being rather displeased, said, ‘Takshaka hath not come as yet into this sacrifice.’ Janamejaya replied, ‘Exert ye to the best of your might, so that this sacrifice of mine may attain completion, and Takshaka also may soon come here. He is my enemy.’ The Ritwiks replied, ‘As the scriptures declare unto us, and as the fire also saith, O monarch, it seems that Takshaka is now staying in the abode of Indra, afflicted with fear.'”

“Hearing this, the king became very sorry and urged the Hotri to do his duty. And as the Hotri, with mantras, began to pour clarified butter into the fire Indra himself appeared on the scene. And the illustrious one came in his car, adorned by all the gods standing around, followed by masses of clouds, celestial singers, and the several bevies of celestial dancing girls. And Takshaka anxious with fear, hid himself in the upper garment of Indra and was not visible. Then the king in his anger again said unto his Brahmanas these words, ‘If the snake Takshaka be in the abode of Indra, cast him into the fire with Indra himself.’ Urged thus by the king, the Hotri poured libations, naming that snake. Then Purandara became much alarmed, and quickly casting Takshaka off, went back to his own abode. After Indra had gone away, Takshaka, the prince of snakes, insensible with fear, was by virtue of the mantras, brought near enough the flames of the sacrificial fire.”

“The Ritwiks then said, ‘O king of kings, the sacrifice of thine is being performed duly. It behoveth thee, O Lord, to grant a boon now to this first of Brahmanas.’ Janamejaya then said, ‘Thou immeasurable one of such handsome and child-like features, I desire to grant thee a worthy boon. Therefore, ask thou that which thou desirest in thy heart.’ The Ritwiks said, ‘O monarch, behold, Takshaka is soon coming under thy control! His terrible cries, and loud roar is being heard. Assuredly, the snake hath been forsaken by the wielder of thunder. His body being disabled by your mantras, he is falling from heaven. Even now, rolling in the skies, and deprived of consciousness, the prince of snakes cometh, breathing loudly.'”

“While Takshaka, the prince of snakes was about to fall into the sacrificial fire, during those few moments Astika spoke as follows, ‘O Janamejaya, if thou wouldst grant me a boon, let this sacrifice of thine come to an end and let no more snakes fall into the fire. The son of Parikshit, being thus addressed by Astika, became exceedingly sorry and replied unto Astika thus, ‘O illustrious one, gold, silver, kine, whatever other possessions thou desirest I shall give unto thee. But let not my sacrifice come to an end.’ Astika thereupon replied, ‘Gold, silver or kine, I do not ask of thee, O monarch! But let thy sacrifice be ended so that my relations be relieved.’ Then all the Sadasyas conversant with the Vedas told the king in one voice, ‘Let him receive his boon!'”

“Astika thrice said, ‘Stay,’ ‘Stay,’ ‘Stay.’ And he succeeded in staying in the skies, with afflicted heart, like a person somehow staying between the welkin and the earth. The king then, on being repeatedly urged by his Sadasyas, said, ‘Let it be done as Astika hath said. Let the sacrifice be ended, let the snakes be safe, let this Astika also be gratified.’ When the boon was granted to Astika, plaudits expressive of joy rang through the air. Thus the sacrifice of the son of Parikshit – that king of the Pandava race – came to an end. The king Janamejaya of the Bharata race was himself pleased, and on the Ritwiks with the Sadasyas, and on all who had come there, the king, bestowed money by the hundreds and thousands. Then the king in joy sent home the wise Astika exceedingly gratified, for he had attained his object.” Saunaka said, “I have been much gratified with thee. I ask thee again, to recite to me the history composed by Vyasa.” Sauti said, “I shall recite to thee from the beginning of that great and excellent history called the Mahabharata composed by Vyasa. O Brahmana, listen to it in full, as I recite it. I myself feel a great pleasure in reciting it.”

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows an illustration of King Janamejaya’s Snake Sacrifice. One can see all kinds of serpents falling into the sacrificial pit. The great serpent Takshaka is seen hiding in the upper garment of the deity Indra, whose throne is being pulled towards the sacrificial fire by the power of mantras (chanted by the priests). The illustration is from a folio of the Birla Razmanama. The Razmanama (‘Book of War’ in Persian) was a beautifully illustrated Persian translation of the Mahabharata, ordered by the Mughal Emperor Akbar. The Mughals were great patrons of art and literature. They inaugurated a new syncretic tradition in North India, infusing it with elements of Persian high culture. The Razmanama is one among the many products of this tradition.

Reference:

  • The Mahabharata (translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, 1883-1896)