A Mahabharata Story Teaches Us the Answer
Near the end of the Adi Parva in the Mahabharata, right before the burning of the Khandava forest, comes a fascinating story that points to why the forest, with all of its inhabitants, needed to be mercilessly destroyed and gives metaphysical context to the entirety of the Mahabharata.
The story starts with King Shvetaki. He was very fond of performing yajna (fire sacrifice). No one on Earth was his equal when it came to performing sacrifice or dana (philanthropy). The king, through his officiating Ritwiks (sacrificial priests), performed sacrifices for many years. Eventually, the Ritwiks grew very weak from the prolonged rites and their eyes were damaged by the incessant smoke. They left the king and did not come back despite his repeated entreaties.
King Shvetaki eventually completed the rite with the assistance of new Ritwiks. Some days after its completion, the king desired to perform yet another sacrifice that would take one hundred years. But this time he could not find anyone to officiate the rites.
The king grew angry and demanded that the brahmanas assist him in performing the yajna. He chastised them for not performing their duty.
Then the brahmanas replied —
‘O best of kings, thy sacrifices are incessant! By assisting thee always, we have all been fatigued. And as we have been seared in consequence of these labors, it behoveth thee to give us leave. O sinless one, from loss of judgment thou canst not wait (but urgest us repeatedly). Go unto Rudra! He will assist at thy sacrifice!’
King Shvetaki was incensed by the censure of the Brahmanas but nevertheless betook himself to Kailasha and practiced great austerities. He stood for six months with arms upraised and a fixed gaze. He ate only fruits and roots once a day.
Finally, Rudra appeared and asked the king what boon he sought of him. The king requested that Rudra himself assist in performing the yajna.
Shiva smiled and said that the devas do not themselves participate in performing the yajna, but since the king had undertaken such severe penance, Rudra agreed to appear in his sacrifice on one condition. The…