You can read the previous post in this series here: Part 4
The Parents of Astika
I have narrated the incident that triggered King Janamejaya’s Sarpa Yagna. It was a ritual intended to destroy the Sarpa-s¹.
A sage from the audience said:
Can you please narrate Astika’s story? He played an essential part during King Janamejaya’s violence against the Sarpa-s. Didn’t he?
Sauti began his narration:
Astika’s father was a great ascetic named Jaratkaru. He was a renunciate who had even given up his sleep! One day, the ascetic envisioned one of his forefathers².
The forefather said, “Jaratkaru, please get married and produce a child. We desire the continuation of our lineage.”
Jaratkaru replied, “I’ve renounced this world. Who will marry a poor man like me? Still, I’ll honor your wishes. If someone’s ready to marry me, and if she is my namesake, I will marry her.”
Jaratkaru’s marital plans remained unsuccessful. Around that time, he walked into a forest. There he met a Sarpa, who offered his sister’s hand³ to the ascetic.
“Can you please tell me your sister’s name?”
“She’s younger to me. Her name is Jaratkaru⁴.”
The Prophecy of Lord Brahma
Sauti continued his narration:
The Sarpa-s had been scared⁵ of King Janamejaya for a while. So, hoping for protection, they visited Lord Brahma.
“Yes, stopping King Janamejaya might be challenging,” Lord Brahma wondered aloud.
“Isn’t there a way out?”
“The great ascetic Jaratkaru will have a son. He’ll save you from extinction,” Lord Brahma prophesied.
“Is Jaratkaru married? Who is his wife?”
“Find a Sarpa to be his wife. Jaratkaru’s son will remove your fear.”
The Sarpa-s spent many years awaiting Jaratkaru’s marriage. The sage showed no interest in seeking a wife! When it occurred, the Sarpa-s were overjoyed.
Jaratkaru’s son, Astika, was equanimous and well-versed in the Vedas. As predicted, he saved many Sarpa-s from King Janamejaya’s wrath.
King Parikshith Incurs a Curse
Sauti continued his narration:
Now, I’ll narrate the situations that caused King Parikshith’s death.
Parikshith was a mighty warrior. Like his great-grandfather Pandu, he was fond of hunting. It was unlike him to miss a kill. Though, on that fateful day, a deer had dragged Parikshith deep into the forest. Exhausted, hungry, and thirsty, he came across a sage.
“Please know that I’m King Parikshith, the son of Abhimanyu. A deer I had wounded went by this way. Did you spot it?”
Since he was practicing a vow of silence, the sage remained silent. That angered the king. Losing all reason, the king took a dead snake lying nearby and wrung it on the sage’s shoulder.
Still, that sage refrained from speaking. Forgiving Parikshith, he remained in equanimity. Perceiving that state of the sage, Parikshith’s anger disappeared. Feeling apologetic, he returned to his palace. Sadly, he failed to remove the dead snake he had placed on the sage.
That sage’s son⁶ was an accomplished ascetic. A while later, he spotted his father with a dead snake on him. That ignited his fury. When he inquired about it, a friend admitted to having seen King Parikshith insult the sage.
“Where is that wicked monarch now?”
“Back in his capital city, Hastinapura.”
“For insulting my father, I punish him with death! Influenced by my words, Takshaka⁷, the king of Sarpa-s, will kill him within seven nights from now.”
When the sage heard of the curse, he hurried to his son, “My child! I’m displeased with you. Your act doesn’t befit an ascetic. Parikshith is a great king who protects us well. You should’ve forgiven him for that! He didn’t deserve your curse. Now, this kingdom will suffer without a king.”
“I’ve messed up, father! I’ve never spoken a lie in my life. So, my words will come true.”
“Please kill your anger. Peace and forgiveness are the virtues of an ascetic. Sadly, your curse will materialize. The least we can do is to inform the king about the curse.”
The sage sent one of his best disciples⁸ as a messenger to King Parikshith.
“The sage forgave you, but his son couldn’t. We’re afraid that the curse might come true. Please beware of Takshaka, the king of Sarpa-s,” the messenger said to King Parikshith.
The king repented for his act. More than grieving for his impending death, he shrunk up before the sage’s kindness⁹.
- Sarpa: There are numerous mentions of Sarpa in this epic. At many places, they’re also called Naga. The literal meaning of both Sarpa and Naga is a serpent. Even so, the Sarpa-s/Naga-s behave like humans throughout this text. Due to this ambiguity, I’ve left this term untranslated in Sanskrit.
- Story of Forefather: There’s a detailed description of how Jaratkaru visualizes his forefather. That ancestor suggests that Jaratkaru is from a sect called Yayavara. The uniqueness of that sect was that they wandered about here and there, following a sages’ course of life. I’ve omitted those details because it interrupts the main story.
- Offered his sister’s hand: The Sarpa mentioned here was named Vasuki.
- Jaratkaru: Jara means to go waste, and Karu means huge. The sage got this name because his severe ascetic penances wasted away his huge body. It’s for the same reason Astika’s mother was nicknamed Jaratkaru, as well!
- Author’s Note: This Astika Parva has a muddled version of some famous Puranic tales. I’ve omitted it to prevent confusion. In summary, Sage Kashyapa’s wife Kadru tries to enslave her co-wife Vinata. Kadru’s sons, the Sarpa-s, refuse to support Kadru. So, she curses them to death by King Janamejaya. Possibly, the Sarpa-s anticipated Janamejaya’s revenge as soon as he learned about his father’s death.
- Sage & his son: The sage whom Parikshith insulted was called Shamika. And his son was Sringi.
- Takshaka: This character appears across generations in the epic. In Sanskrit, Tak means to bear. Research suggests that Shaka was a nomadic tribe. They were dominant in the north-western region of the Indian subcontinent. So, Takshaka could mean the bearer (king) of Shaka. It seems to be a title rather than a single person’s name. The Shaka might’ve been a subset of the Naga (Sarpa) tribe that worshipped snakes and wore cobra hoods.
- Disciples: The sage’s disciple who went as a messenger was known as Gaurmukha.
- Sage’s kindness: King Parikshith had insulted the sage. To help the king, the sage had broken his vow of silence, admonished his son, and sent a messenger to notify the king.
You can read the next part in this series here: Part 6