A Lesson from the Mahabharata for a New Homeowner
Updated: Jul 28, 2020
The Khandava forest fire, from the 10th century Cambodian temple Banteay Srei, in Angkor.
As I plot the destruction of the rodents undermining my yard, and meditate on having recently drowned a mouse that took up residence in my barn, an episode from the Mahabharata is on my mind. I was shocked and horrified when I read of the burning of the Khandava forest, an act of destruction and death that is sanctioned by Krishna, who, in the tradition, was God on earth. As a new homeowner, I feel the Khandava story, along with the recent burning of the Amazon, as a personal struggle that is both internal and with nature. The Khandava fire story goes that the Pandava brothers and the Kaurava brothers, cousins competing for the throne, decide to divide the kingdom. The Kauravas take the settled civilization and the Pandavas take an area covered in trees. Krishna says that in order for civilization to exist, nature must be destroyed. Let me stress that: nature must be destroyed. There is a firewall between culture and nature in Hindu myth that is illustrated by gods and other creatures that do not know or follow the values of man. Man follows rules that are based in culture. Animals do not. They are engaged in a struggle for life that does not know any mediating rule. The rules of man, which is dharma, separate us from animals, from the law of the jungle.
Dharma rules that the weak should be protected, that the strongest people don't get everything at the expense of the weak. By Krishna's sanction of the destruction of the forest, which includes the destruction of every animal living inside it, I take it that dharma is not for animals, however weak they may be. Animals do not live by the rules of dharma and they are not protected by the rules of dharma. The Kaurava brothers eschew dharma, for the law of the jungle in the story and Krishna is ruthless in their destruction. Any rule of civilized society could be broken to destroy them. Those who live by the sword, die by the sword. There are no war crimes against those who live by the law of the jungle. And there are no war crimes against animals, who cannot know dharma. The animals will do what they must in my yard and home. They will destroy the ornamental grass hiding my well pump. They will leave holes that will trip my wife and I when we walk across the lawn. They will eat and foul our food and worry us while we sleep. It is in their nature. They can do no other. The choice of Krishna is clear and easy. Civilized life requires me to kill them.
If you are having trouble with this, I’m with you. I do not relish killing the rodents or clearing the birds’ nests from my eaves. My response to the story and my understanding of it brings to my mind Dante when Virgil chastises him for sympathizing with the damned. Of course there is no morality in the actions of animals, but that is sort of the point. I gave sanctuary to several nests this spring, including a couple of Phoebes who raised nest parasitic Cowbird chicks (which accordingly killed the Phoebe’s young and tossed its corpse on my porch.) A pair of adorable Finches warn me from a section of my yard when I try to do any yard work (I’m putting up with it). But there comes a point where you can’t accommodate territorial creatures that do not understand the values of sharing or property. I will try to discourage them from encroaching into my space, but I must bring myself to destroy them when they threaten it.