Afer having consumed butter for 12 years in Swetaka's sacrifice, Agni lost his color and became pale. He sought the help of Brahma for getting back his lustre.
Brahma advised Agni to consume the Khandava forest which was the abode of the enemies of Gods. He said eating the flesh of the animals and birds living in the forest would make Agni get back his form.
When Agni tried to burn the forest, his efforts were frustrated by the animals living there who used their resources to put out the fire, like elephants and snakes pouring out huge streams of water.
Brahma then advised Agni to seek the help of Krishna and Arjuna. Accordingly, Agni sought the help of Arjuna and Krishna when they were staying near the banks of Yamuna for entertaining themselves, their friends and families.
Arjuna and Krishna agreed to help Agni but Arjuna wanted some weapons, which Agni procured and gave.
Khandava forest was then burnt by Agni. Krishna and Agni prevented the animals and birds from escaping from the forest since Agni wanted to eat the flesh and fat of all the animals living there.
Indra and his army of celestials fought with Arjuna and Krishna since Indra's friend Dakshaka, the chief of snakes was living in the forest, though at the time of the burning of the forest Dakshaka was nor dwelling in the forest, having left for Kurukshetra before the fire started. The celestials were defeated by Arjuna and Krishna.
Only six creatures living in Khandava forest escaped from the fire. Of them, Aswasena, the son of Takshaka flew away from the forest. A Dhanava by name Maya was given refuge by Arjuna because he was the brother of Namuchi, who was killed by Indra. the other four that escaped the fire were four young Saranga birds.
As Vaisampayana was narrating the story to Janamejaya, Janamejaya requested Vaisampayana to narrate in detail how the four Saranga birds escaped the fire. Responding to his request, Vaisampayana narrated the story in detail.
There was a great saint by name Mandapala, who was well versed in the scriptures and who practiced strict austerity.
Having achieved complete control over his senses, he left his body and went to Pitruloka, the land of the ancestors. He met Indra, the lord of the celestials who was sitting beside Yama, the God of death and asked him,“Why have I not got the fruits of my austerity? Why have I not reached this region of yours after all the penances I have undertaken?”
Indra said “Men are born as debtors. Their debts will be discharged when they observe austerities and perform penances and sacrifices and when they get children. These regions remain inaccessible to you only because you have no children. The Vedas say only a son can rescue a person from the hell called Put. (That is why a son is called Putra.)”
Hearing this, Mandapala reflected how he could beget many children within a short time. He then realized that of all the creatures, the birds were endowed with fecundity. So he assumed the form of a Saranga bird and connected with a female Saranga bird by name Jarita. He begot four male birds, all of whom were Vedic scholars even when they were born.
Even before his offspring could come out of their eggs, Mandapala went to live with another female bird by name Lapita.
Jarita had intense love for its offspring and brought them up with care and affection.
Once, when Mandapala happened to fly over Khandava forest along with Lapita, he saw Agni going towards the forest. He became aware of Agni’s intention to burn the forest.
Intending to save his offspring from the fire, he addressed Agni, “You are the mouth of the entire world. You are the carrier of the sacrificial butter. The wise people perform the sacrifices in your presence. Brahmins, along with their wives and children, reach eternal regions as a result of their sacrifices done through you. Oh, Agni! The flames put forth by you consume every creature. The Vedas are your word. All creatures depend on you. You are the Ashwini Devas, you are Surya, you are Chandra and you are Vayu.”
Agni was gratified by this praise and asked Mandapala,“What good can I do to you?”
Mandapala prayed to him with folded hands, “When you burn the Khandava forest, please spare my children!”
Agni said, "So be it!”
Accordingly, his flames did not touch Mandapala’s four children.
When the flames began to engulf every place in the forest, the infant birds became anxious. They had no means of escaping. Their mother cried helplessly, “My children, whose feathers have not developed, are not capable of escaping from the fire, nor am I capable of carrying them and escaping. I won’t abandon them.”
She then spoke to their children, “I will cover you with my wings and die with you. Your cruel father left me sometime back, telling me, ‘My race will be dependent on my eldest son Jaritari. My second son Sarisrikka will get children for expansion of my ancestor’s race. My third son Stamvamitra will be devoted to asceticism and my youngest son Drona will become the foremost of those acquainted with the Vedas.’ But this terrible tragedy has overtaken us.”
The infants told their mother, “Oh mother, go to a place where there is no fire. If we are killed here, you can have other children in future. If you are killed here, we will have no more children for our race. Do what is good for our race. Don’t be influenced by your affection for us, which will only destroy us as well as you. If you save yourself, you may have the wishes of our father gratified.”
Jarita said, :There is a rat hole underneath the tree. Enter the hole immediately. After you enter the hole, I will cover its mouth with dust. When the fire is put out, I will return here and remove the dust from the mouth of the hole. This seems to be the only means of escape from the conflagration.”
The infant birds said, “If we enter the hole, we will be eaten by the rat. If we stay here, we will be eaten by the fire. Considering both the options, we feel that death by fire is preferable, since such a death is approved by the wise.”
Jarita said, “The rat that came out of the hole was seized by a hawk and taken away. So you may safely enter the hole.”
The little birds said, “There may be other rats living there. On the other hand, the fire may not reach this place. We already see an adverse wind blowing the flames away. Oh, mother, a position in which death is uncertain is better than one in which death is certain. It is your duty to escape.”
The mother bird, then, as advised by its sons, left them and flew to a spot where there was no fire.
As the fire came towards the young birds, Jaritari, the eldest, said, “The person who is wakeful when death approaches him does not feel the pangs of death. One who is not, feels the pangs of death and never attains salvation.”
"The second, Sarisrikka told his elder brother, “You are patient and intelligent. The time has come when our lives are threatened. Only one among many becomes wise and brave.”
The third, Stamvamitra, said, “The eldest brother is called the protector. He is the one who protects the younger ones from danger. But if the eldest himself fails to save the younger ones, what will they do?”
The youngest, Drona said, “The cruel god of fire, with seven tongues and seven mouths, comes towards us fast, blazing forth in splendor and licking up everything in its path.”
The sons of Mandapala then recited hymns in praise of Agni.
Jaritari said, “Oh, Agni, you are the soul of air and the body of earth’s vegetation. You are the father of water and water is your father. You flames, like the rays of the Sun, extend to all sides.”
Sarisrikka said, “Oh, smoke-bannered god, our mother is not to be seen, and we know not our father! Our feathers have not yet grown. We have no one to protect us, except you. You are the one who gives heat to the rays of the Sun. We are young and we are sages. Please protect us.”
"Stamvamitra said, “You are everything. You sustain every creature and support the universe. You are the carrier of the sacrificial butter and you are the excellent sacrificial butter itself. Having created the three worlds, you destroy them when the time comes. You are the productive cause of the universe and you are the essence into which the universe dissolves itself.”
"Drona said, “Oh, lord of the universe, remaining within the bodies of the creatures, you cause the food they eat to be digested. Therefore everything is established in you. The Vedas have sprung from your mouth. You assume the form of the Sun, suck off the water and every juice from the earth and give them back to it in time in the form of rain and thus cause everything to grow.
"From you, all the plants have grown, from you all the tanks and pools and even the oceans have sprung forth. This body depends on Varuna (the Water God) and hence is unable to bear your heat. Oh, auspicious protector, do not destroy us. Just as the ocean saves the houses on its banks, save us, by going along some remote route.”
Agni, pleased by the praises showered on him by the four brothers and remembering the promise he had made to Mandapala, told them that he would spare them.
Drona told Agni,“Oh, Agni, these cats trouble us. Consume them with their friends and relatives.”
Sage Mandapala became anxious of his sons. He shared his concern with his second wife Lapita. “If my children are unable to save themselves, how will their mother be able to save them? If she can’t save them, how will she compose herself? Oh, my sons, how are you and how is your mother?”
On hearing the sage’s lamentation, Lapita, gripped by jealousy said, ”You need not worry about your children, whom you have described as sages endued with great energy and prowess. You spoke to Agni in my presence and he also promised you that he would spare them. He will not go back on his promise. You are distracted by thinking of my rival Jarita. It is clear that your love for me is not equal to the love you have for your first wife. You better go to Jarita. Hereafter, I will wander alone, considering it as a reward for getting attached to a wicked person.”
Mandapala replied,”I am with you only for the sake of getting children. The children I already have, are in danger. One who abandons what he has for the sake of what he may acquire is a wicked person. The world disregards and disrespects such a person. So, I have to go. You can do whatever you please to do. While the fire that is devouring the trees causes sorrow in me, it raises evil sentiments in you.”
In the meanwhile, after the fire had subsided, Jarita came to see the fate of her children. She was elated to find all the four of them alive. The young birds began to weep on seeing their mother. She embraced each of them.
Just at that time, Sage Mandapala arrived there. But none of his children expressed joy at seeing him. He spoke to each of them and their mother, but none of them responded.
Mandapala then asked his children, “Who among you is the first born, who is the second, who in the third and who is the last? Why don’t you speak to me? It is true that I had left you but I was not happy where I was.”
Jarita replied, “Why should you know which of them is the eldest, which is second and so on? Go back to that Lapita of sweet smiles, for whom you have forsaken me, considering me deficient!”
Mandapala said, “For women, there is nothing so destructive of their happiness as a co-wife and a clandestine lover. There is nothing else that inflames the fire of hostility as these two. Even the auspicious and well-behaved Arundhati was jealous of the illustrious Vasishtha of great purity of mind, who was always devoted to the good of his wife. Arundhati insulted the wise sage, who was the foremost among the seven sages.
"As a consequence, she has become a little star which. like fire mixed with smoke, is sometimes visible and sometimes not and is like an omen portending no good, among a constellation of seven bright stars representing the seven Rishis. Like Vasishta who never wronged his wife, I never wronged you. Your behavior towards me, like the behavior of Arundhati towards Vasishta, is born out of jealousy. Men should never trust women, even if they be wives! When a woman becomes mother, she doesn’t bother about her husband.”
After hearing Manadapala’s words, his children came to him and showed their respect to him. He spoke to them kindly and reassuringly. “I spoke to Agni requesting him to spare you all. He also assured me that he won’t harm you. Because of this assurance and because of my knowing about your mother’s devotion to you and the great energy all of you have, I didn’t come earlier. So don’t have any resentment towards me. You are all Rishis well versed in the Vedas. Agni also knows you well.”
Mandapala then took his wife and children with him and went to some other country.