This story is one of the priceless spiritual nuggets of ancient India. It is a part of the much bigger story of the Mahabharata War, which was one of the most deadly and destructive conflicts in human history. Unlike modern wars, this was fought on a designated battlefield and within clear boundaries. Armies obeyed the rules of engagement strictly. For example, infantry fought only with infantry and charioteers only with other charioteers. Warriors with extraordinary weapons used them only against those who matched their strength and skills. And this war had an agreed limit—it must end in 18 days. As the epic text the Mahabharata tells us, hundreds of top commanders and tens of thousands of charioteers led millions of soldiers in a pitched battle on the field of Kurukshetra, a few miles from New Delhi, the capital of modern India.

Krishna and Arjuna

“The shield of Divine Mother Durga kept you and the chariot intact.”

Two of the most famous warriors were Krishna and Arjuna. Krishna, who had taken a vow not to wield a weapon or to take an active role in the fighting, served as Arjuna’s chariot driver. After the war was over, Krishna asked Arjuna to dismount from the chariot first. When Krishna dismounted, the chariot and horses burst into flames. Startled and bewildered, Arjuna asked why this had happened.

Krishna explained: “Weapons of extraordinary power have scorched this battlefield again and again. You and your chariot were the main target. The shield of Divine Mother Durga that I placed around it kept you and the chariot intact. Once that protective shield was lifted, the fire of destruction consumed the chariot.”

Four Birds Under a Bell

As the two walked away, they heard baby birds chirping somewhere on the desolate battlefield. Intrigued, Arjuna followed the sound but could not see the chicks, although he could hear the chirping clearly. Eventually, he realized the sound was coming from under an enormous bell. This bell was known to all prominent warriors, for it had once hung on the neck of an elephant famous for its size and valor. The demise of the elephant, and the death of the warrior riding it, was a turning point in the battle.

At Krishna’s behest, Arjuna lifted the bell. Under it he saw four newly hatched chicks sitting on the ground.

“Why would a bird lay her eggs in such a place?” Arjuna asked. “And how did the bell happen to be placed so precisely over them? Where did these eggs get the warmth they needed to hatch? Who protected them?”

Krishna responded, “Divine providence guided the mother to lay her eggs here. And that same divine providence, which protected you, also protected these hatchlings.”

Krishna lovingly laid his hand on the tiny birds. They grew instantly and began to pray in human tongue:

“How unconditional is the divine grace that has been accompanying us from the beginning of creation. How fortunate we are that in the beginning moments of our life we see our primordial protector, guide, and provider standing before our eyes. Today we experience your supreme power sweeping through these powerless bodies. O Giver of Life, define our dharma and assign our duties. This entire universe is your abode. Please tell us, where should we live in this infinitely vast home of yours? And what should we do?”

“O children of immortality, east of this battlefield there is a mountain range known as Vindhya,” Krishna replied. “That is the abode of Mother Durga. Make the Vindhya Mountains your home. Serving Durga is your dharma. Living with her is your destiny. Guiding seekers to receive her loving grace is your duty.

“Serving Durga is your dharma. Living with her is your destiny.”

“The sage Markandeya will soon visit you in those mountains. Share with him the secret of all secrets: jatavedasi durga, the omniscient fire that is the ultimate source of protection and fulfillment.”

Passing on the Knowledge

The four birds offered their homage to Krishna and flew to the Vindhya Mountains. Here they passed on their knowledge and experience to the sage Markandeya in what later came to be known as the Markandeya Purana.

The Durga Saptashati, one of the most celebrated scriptures regarding the practices of the Divine Mother Durga, is part of the Markandeya Purana. According to the Himalayan Tradition, these four birds are the legendary sages Sanaka, Sanandana, Sanatkumara, and Sanatsujata. The area surrounding the present shrine, Vindhyavasini, particularly Motiya Talab and Gerua Talab, is said to be the place where these four sages live in their subtle form. In the absence of a living teacher, this is one of the places where we can reliably seek and find guidance from these four sages and other adepts who are within their spiritual orbit.

More in this Series

Sages of Sri Vidya