Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Bibek Debroy on the Ashvamedha Yagya

Please welcome guest writer* Bibek Debroy, who needs no introduction. His effort to revive interest in Sanskrit and in the Scriptures is known to all. In this piece Bibek describes a royal ritual of yore, which is no longer in practice. Yet, it is very much part of the Scriptures, as the citations show. If we want to understand our majestic religion, it is important to study and embrace our past, even if the said rituals are longer in practice today. 


There is a friend named Shankkar Aiyar.  He has just written a book named “Accidental India”.   He is a journalist and columnist and mostly writes on economics and business.  For one of those columns, nothing to do with Sanskrit, a few weeks ago, he asked me about अश्वमेध यज्ञHe wanted to refer to the horse sacrifice in one of his columns.  I gave him an answer.  But since then, I have been wondering about the best place to give a description of the horse sacrifice.  In this article , I am going to give you a reference of  अश्वमेध यज्ञ ​ from Valmiki's  Ramayana, though there are references to horse sacrifices in many texts.  By the way, the Sanskrit in the Valmiki Ramayana is quite simple to understand.  अश्व is horse.  Everyone knows that.  यज्ञ  is sacrifice.  Everyone knows that too.  

The word मेध has many different meanings.  It means sacrifice, it also means offering.  Therefore, one should simply say अश्वमेध. Having said अश्वमेध, the word यज्ञ  is again necessary.  However, we do such things all the time.  Haven’t you heard of people saying rock of Gibraltar.  The word Gibraltar itself has “rock” in it.  There is no need to say “rock” again.  In any event, the word मेध is a little bit more than mere sacrifice, since a horse was physically slaughtered and offered as offering.  The horse sacrifice I am going to describe is in Bala Kanda of Valmiki Ramayana and it is a sacrifice being organized by Dasharatha.

अथ संवत्सरे पूर्णे तस्मिन् प्राप्ते तुरङ्गमे।
सरय्वाश्चोत्तरे तीरे राज्ञो यज्ञो ऽभ्यवर्तत॥ (1.14.1)

तुरङ्ग is a horse, though any slow and old horse is unlikely to be called तुरङ्ग.  The first line simply says that a year passed and the horse returned.  In a horse sacrifice, a horse was released and left free to wander around for a year.  It was actually followed by soldiers, to ensure that it didn’t wander off to strange places.  The second line tells that once the horse returned, the king (Dasharatha) started to have a sacrifice on the northern (उत्तर) banks of the Sarayu river.

ऋश्यशृङगं पुरस्कृत्य कर्म चक्रुर्द्विजर्षभाः।
अश्वमेधे महायज्ञे राज्ञो ऽस्य सुमहात्मनः॥ (1.14.2)

The expression द्विजर्षभः (this is the singular, the first line has the plural) occurs quite often in our texts. Translated literally, it means the bulls among the brahmanas.  If one is a little less pedantic, it means the most important brahmanas.  The expression महात्मनः also occurs quite often.  Translated literally again, it means great-souled.  A little less pedantically, it simply means great.  Therefore, there was this great horse sacrifice being organized by the great king.  The most important brahmanas conducted it, placing Rishyashringa at the forefront.  By the way, I am going to focus only on the horse part.  There are many other interesting things in the description of the sacrifice.

पशूनां त्रिशतं तत्र यूपेषु नियतं तदा।
अश्वरत्नोत्तमं तत्र राज्ञो दशरथस्य च॥ (1.14.32)

यूप is a sacrificial post.  At that time, three hundred animals were tied to the sacrificial post and this included King Dasharatha’s supreme horse.

कौसल्या तं हयं तत्र परिचर्य समन्ततः।
कृपाणैर्विशशासैनं त्रिभिः परमया मुदा॥ (1.14.33)

The queen, that is the chief queen, had a very important role to perform in any horse sacrifice.  Dasharatha’s chief wife was Kousalya.  She circled the horse, that is, did a complete circumambulation (परिचर्य समन्ततः).  She was extremely happy (परमया मुदा).  A कृपाण is a sword or a dagger.  In this context, perhaps it was a dagger.  She used three daggers to slaughter the horse (कृपाणैर्विशशासैनं त्रिभिः).

पतत्रिणा तदा सार्द्धं सुस्थितेन च चेतसा।
अवसद्रजनीमेकां कौसल्या धर्मकाम्यया॥ (1.14.34)

Kousalya desired dharma and spent one night with the dead horse then (पतत्रिणा तदा सार्द्धं), पतत्रिण् meaning a horse. She did this after having focused her mind (सुस्थितेन च चेतसा).  This was a symbolic gesture and as we will soon see, this horse sacrifice was being conducted to have offspring.

होताध्वर्युस्तथोद्गाता हस्तेन समयोजयन्। महिष्या परिवृत्त्या च वावातामपरां तथा॥ (1.14.35)

            This seems complicated.  Let’s not make it too complicated. There were different types of officiating priests. होता, अध्वर्युः  and उद्गाता were different kinds of officiating priests, associated with the Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda and the Sama Veda.  महिषी is not just any queen, she is the chief queen.  Kousalya would have been the महिषी.   परिवृत्तिis just an ordinary wife.  She is the secondary wife, not the primary wife.  In this case, परिवृत्ति would have been Sumitra.  वावाता is the king’s favourite wife.  So that would have been Kaikeyi.  The three officiating priests thus touched the three queens with their hands.  The queens had been symbolically offered to the officiating priests and they symbolically accepted them, by touching them with their hands.

पतत्रिणस्तस्य वपामुद्धृत्य नियतेन्द्रियः।
ऋत्विक् परमसम्पन्नः श्रपयामास शास्त्रतः॥ (1.14.36)

      The officiating priest (ऋत्विक्) was extremely accomplished (परमसम्पन्नः).  He followed the sacred texts (शास्त्रतः), controlled his senses (नियतेन्द्रियः) and taking out the वपा (marrow, intestines) from the horse, roasted it (श्रपयामास).

धूमगन्धं वपायास्तु जिघ्रति स्म नराधिपः।
यथाकालं यथान्यायं निर्णुदन् पापमात्मनः॥ (1.14.37)

      At the right time and following the right policy, the king inhaled the smoke from the intestines, thereby cleansing all his sins.

हयस्य यानि चाङ्गानि तानि सर्वाणि ब्राह्मणाः।
अग्नौ प्रास्यन्ति विधिवत्समन्त्राः षोडशर्त्विजः॥  (1.14.38)

      All the brahmanas offered different parts of the horse into the fire, following the due procedures.  Sixteen brahmanas chanted mantras.
Since there is nothing more about the horse, I will leave it here.  But I am certain I have got you interested in the Valmiki Ramayana.

* The views of  guest writers is their own. I may or may not agree with them, but I respect their right to be heard.  


Rohini Bakshi said...

Posting on behalf of @kalkihprashar
Raam Raam,

After the horse was released into a celestial body of light, then only the body remained which would be duly burned in fire.

Each part of the body represents a grah or planet. So, as each part of the body is sacrificed then the planets become calmed.

The horse is a celestial being trapped in a material form. As we all are. Though, charging the horse with energy releases it.

The body is just dense matter buried underneath layers of illusion. Underneath we're all light beings. Yagya means to release.

In line with the hunters kill philosophy from Manusmriti, the horse, charged with energy from the conquest, becomes released.

This would indicate to the king performing the yagna, that his throne is secure and that an heir would arrive. It did work. :)

Jai Ho.

Sent from Kalki's iPhone

Anonymous said...

Posted at the request of Rohini-jI from twitter:

*Should be noted that in 1.14.33 3 kR^ipANa-s are not used to slaughter ashva. In the ashvamedha ashva is slaughtered by smothering. The shruti injunction is that no drop of ashva's blood should spilt. All killing by smothering is done by the shamitR^i. The 3 knifes are used by queens to dissect the horse with adhvaryu's help in very specific way. In ashvamedha the dog is the only animal slaughtered by axing (done by an avarNa guy.

Dissection of horse is a technical process because organs have to be extracted whole and offered to different deva-s/devI-s along with recitation of particular yajuSh-s by the adhvaryu.

Again in 1.14.37 it is not smoke from intestine. vapA means the fat-filled omentum: http://www.ucd.ie/vetanat/images/90.gif

@surenc1974 vapA:omentum 1.14.37 clearly has vapAyA feminine instrumental of vapA: dhUma gandhaM vapAyA .astu: smoke being from vapA

Burning mammalian vapA smells like ghee but somewhat stronger.

Certain parts eaten as a bhajji-like dish: the pashu-puroDAsha

For some details as per kANva shatapatha brAhmaNa and kAtyAyana: http://manasataramgini.wordpress.com/2004/11/21/the-sacrifice-of-the-horse-in-the-ashvamedha/