The sages gathered around Ugrashrava Sauti were listening intently to his narration of the story of Uttanka. When he finished that story, they were full of eager questions and requests.
“Did Uttanka succeed in convincing King Janamejaya to conduct the snake sacrifice?” one of them asked.
“Yes indeed he did and many thousands of snakes were killed during the sacrifice though they were saved from extinction.”
“What was the reason for their suffering?” another of the listeners asked. “I’ve heard they were cursed.”
“They were cursed by their mother.”
“Oh Sauti, son of Romaharshana, your father was so skilled in the art of storytelling that listening to him gave us goose bumps. You too have inherited his talent. Please do tell us in detail the story of how the snakes were cursed,” the sages requested Ugrashrava.
He readily agreed and began thus.
Long ago, during the golden age the Prajapati Daksha had two beautiful daughters called Kadru and Vinata. They were married to the great Sage Kashyapa. After many happy years of togetherness, Sage Kashyapa wished to go to the forest for performing strict and austere penances and before leaving said to Kadru and Vinata that he would give them a boon each. The sisters were immensely pleased on hearing this and Kadru asked for her boon first. She wanted to be blessed with a thousand snake sons each of whom would be well known for valour and courage. Kashyapa granted her the boon. Vinata wanted just two sons. But she wanted them to be braver and more powerful than the sons of Kadru. Kashyapa granted her wish too and before leaving for the forest instructed them to take care of the eggs well. With the help of maids, the eggs were deposited in large earthen jars filled with rice husk to keep them warm during the period of incubation. Five hundred years thus passed and from Kadru’s eggs there emerged a thousand serpents each more dazzling and beautiful than the other. All the serpents on earth are the descendants of these first thousand. When Vinata saw the beautiful sons of Kadru she was filled with impatience and jealousy since the two eggs that she had deposited showed no signs of movement or life.
In a rash moment she broke open one egg and a child emerged from it. Its upper body was fully formed but its lower body was undeveloped. Emerging from the egg the child cursed the mother for her impatience.
“May you be a slave for the next five hundred years,” it said. “Until your second son emerges from the other egg and frees you. But be sure to be patient and take good care of the other egg during that time.”
Saying this the radiant child rose up into the sky and became Aruna the charioteer of the sun god Surya and can be seen even today in the hour before dawn when the skies turn crimson heralding the arrival of the sun.
Vinata was extremely saddened both by her impulsive action and by the curse of her son but she rallied and took good care of the other egg.
Meanwhile one day, far away on the highways of the sky the two sisters saw a beautiful horse galloping away. As it was at some distance they could not see it very clearly but by its magnificence, the power it radiated and by the perfect shape of its body, they guessed that it must be the divine steed Uchchaishravas that had been obtained when the Great Ocean had been churned by the devas and asuras.
On seeing the steed Kadru said to Vinata, “Oh Elder Sister, what colour to you think the divine horse is? Quick, tell me without thinking too much.”
“Why, I think it’s white. What do you think, dear sister? Come on let’s lay a bet on it.”
Kadru replied with enthusiasm, “Oh let us wager. The one who loses shall become the other’s slave. I think the horse is white but it has a black tail.”
Vinata agreed. They resolved to find out the next day by travelling to the horse’s abode across the Great Ocean.
Kadru was determined not to end up as her sister’s slave. So during the night she ordered her thousand sons to transform themselves and appear as black hair on the horse’s tail. Her thousand sons, the snakes flatly refused to do so and this angered Kadru and she cursed them.
“Agni, the god of fire will consume you all and this will happen during the snake sacrifice that will be performed by the wise king Janamejaya belonging to the Pandava race.”
This cruel curse was heard by Brahma the creator himself. He called an assembly of the gods to discuss this. The gods felt that nothing should be done to counter the curse since the snakes had multiplied and become too numerous. Not just that they were using their strength and their prowess and their capacity to kill to needlessly harm other creatures. So the compassionate Brahma and the assembly of gods decided that though the curse was cruel it was well deserved. Fate often meets out death as punishment to those who needlessly kill others, many of the gods opined. They dispersed after expressing their support for Kadru.
Meanwhile Brahma thought that it was important to inform one person of the events. He called Sage Kashyapa who was the father of the snakes and spoke to him.
“Child,” said Brahma, “do not grieve for your sons. The death of the snakes in the sacrifice to be performed by king Janamejaya was pre-ordained. But let me teach you something that might prove to be useful.”
And then he taught Sage Kashyapa how to neutralise the poison of the snakes.
The night passed and another day dawned and the two sisters set out by the highway of the skies to find Uchchaishravas the divine horse and see for themselves who between them was right.
As they travelled over the Great Ocean they marvelled at the sights they saw. The Ocean was a vast expanse of water and was the home of the Nagas, the snakes and also the kingdom of Varuna, the water god. It also contained many fabulous gems and humungous aquatic creatures many times the size of the creatures they had seen on land. They were fascinated by the blue expanse and the roar of the waves and the sight of the strange creatures that inhabited the deep.
In the meantime, the snakes had held a conference as they were worried by their mother’s terrible curse. In the conference they had decided to obey her order as they hoped that if they did so she would be pleased and may take the curse away. So before the two sisters had started out from home, the snakes had reached the horse Uchchaishravas and transforming themselves into thin hairs had covered its tail.
When the sisters reached the other side of the ocean and beheld the steed Uchchaishravas they saw that his body was pure white but his tail was covered with black hairs.
“Elder Sister,” said Kadru in triumphant glee. “You can see for yourself that I was right. So from now on, you must be my slave.”
On hearing this, Vinata was saddened but a bet was a bet, she thought and from then on she became a slave to Kadru. But in her heart of hearts she waited for the day when according to the promise of her son Aruna, her second son would be born and release her from slavery. When the appointed time came, the second egg of Vinata burst open and a gigantic bird came out. This was Garuda, the king of birds. He was also called Suparna since he had fair feathers. He could change his size and shape at will and could fly through the skies at the speed of the wind. But though he was so powerful, he was forced to do the bidding of the snakes as he was an affectionate son and wanted to help his mother who was a slave to their mother. This worried Garuda and he often thought of ways to release his mother from slavery.
One day, the snakes asked Garuda to carry them to a beautiful island in the middle of the ocean. This island was called Ramaniyaka. After carrying them to this beautiful island Garuda asked the snakes, “What should I do to free my mother from slavery?”
The snakes replied, “We shall free your mother from slavery if you bring us Amrita, the nectar of immortality which is now with the gods.”
So Garuda set out in quest of the nectar and on the way he had many great adventures. Amrita was in the safe custody of the gods and so he had to do battle with them. Finally, after having defeated the gods he reached the place where the nectar was stored and found that it was guarded by a fierce steel wheel that rotated at great speed and would cut to pieces anything that went close to it. Garuda instantly reduced his size and became so small that he could easily pass between the spokes of the wheel. Now he found that the jar of nectar was guarded by two fierce serpents whose very gaze could kill. Garuda then raised dust so fine that it got into the eyes of the serpents and they could not see. Thus blinded, they were helpless and then Garuda attacked and killed them. He took the jar of nectar but did not drink from it and was returning with it when he was accosted by Vishnu, the protector of all creatures on earth. Vishnu was impressed with Garuda’s behaviour.
“Great bird of the skies,” he said. “I notice that though you have bravely overcome every obstacle and have obtained the jar of Amrita, you have not drunk from it. I appreciate that. To reward your exemplary behaviour I would like to grant you a boon. Ask away.”
“Grant the boon that I should be above you,” replied Garuda. “Also, I wish to remain immortal and without disease even without drinking Amrita.”
“So be it,” said Vishnu.
“Now in return, I too would like to grant you a boon,” said Garuda. “Ask me.”
“I want you to be my carrier,” requested Vishnu. “You will also be on the flagstaff of my chariot. In that way you can be above me.”
Garuda granted the two boons and flew away at great speed.
On the way back he was met by the defeated Indra who asked him not to take the nectar to the snakes since it was dangerous if they became immortal.
“I’m taking the pot of Amrita for a specific purpose. If you help me, the snakes will not drink of it.”
Garuda and Indra then hatched a plan to deceive the serpents.
On reaching the beautiful island of Ramaniyaka, Garuda placed the pot of nectar in front of the snakes on a bed of kusa grass.
“O snakes,” he said. “I’ve kept my promise and I have brought you the pot of nectar. Here it is on the bed of kusa grass. Please drink of the sacred Amrita after performing your ablutions and saying your prayers. Please free my mother from slavery immediately.”
“From this moment, Garuda, your mother is free,” said the snakes and in great joy went to perform their ablutions.
When they had gone to the river, Indra, the king of gods appeared and took away the pot of Amrita as planned. When the snakes came back they found that the jar had disappeared. They thought that some of the divine nectar may have spilt on the bed of kusa grass on which it had been kept and started licking the grass. The sharp blade of the grass slit their tongues and that is how snakes to this day have forked tongues. Thus too has the kusa grass become sacred because for some moments the divine nectar was placed on it.
When Ugrashrava concluded his narration there was silence among his listeners. They were still in the world that he had described. The sun’s rays had lost their sharpness and he was well on his way home in the western sky. A goat that was standing nearby bleated and beyond the forest clearing a few deer skipped away.
“Did the curse come true?” asked one of the sages. “Or were the snakes saved.”
“Both actually,” said Ugrashrava. “I shall be happy to narrate the story tomorrow.”
Slowly the sages rose and went down towards the river that flowed close to the ashram to perform their ablutions before the evening prayers for they rose with the sun and retired with it. The disciples went to cut plantain leaves to serve the frugal evening meal of fruits and roots. But for a long time everyone’s mind still remained immersed in the magical world created by Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa.
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