Aug 5, 2011

Ashwamedha - The horse ritual

[Valmiki Sarga 11-17, Kamban Padalam 5 ]

Sanjay smiled as soon as we began and said that this was going to be an interesting discussion.


Narration continues with Dasharatha seeking Rishyasringa to invite him to his kingdom. He readily agrees, and is brought forth with much pomp and glory. The verse

tataH pramuditaaH sarve dR^iSTvaa tam naagaraa dvijam || 
praveshyamaanam satkR^itya narendreNa indra karmaNaa |
yathaa divi surendreNa sahasraaksheNa kaashyapam [1.11.27]
compares Dasharatha to Indra but more than that Rishyasringa to Vamana. That was a surprise to me.

It is interesting to note that the preparation didn't happen overnight and it took about a year and then another year when the horse wanders off. The description of the ritual, starting with the building of the hall gives me a clue as to why the ministers were all so enthusiastic. Clearly hundreds of jobs were created -  halls for the Brahmins,  arrangements for the city-dwellers, accommodation for visiting Kings, stalls for elephants and horses etc. needed to be built, soldiers following the horse had to be recruited and so much business with regards to the supplies. No wonder this is a ritual that only Kings performed and our epics have only a few mentions.

Sarga 14 is a shocker to modern sensibilities and is certainly not for the faint hearted.  In short, after a detailed description of the fire altar we learn

pashuunaam trishatam tatra yuupeSu niyatam tadaa |
ashva ratnaH uttamam tasya raaj~no dasharathasya ha [1.14.32]

Three hundred animals along with the horse that has come back after wandering about for a year are sacrificied. And, here is the total kicker, it is Queen Kaushalya, with great delight, paramayaa mudaa [1.14.33], who stabs the horse and then weirdly spends the night next to the dead horse as per the ritual. There is also the 'donation' of the wives to the Brahmans [they are returned back of course upon other compensation].

Sarga 14 is problematic in the sense the interpretations are needlessly explosive. Either we bow to the modern jingoist/revival environment and look desperately for allegory and symbolism, where there really isn't any. Or we take the position that everything in the Hindu mythology is trash and barbaric. In both cases forgetting that we are possibly talking of something two to three millenia in the past. To me the fascinating part is the connection of cause and effect - these rituals and sacrifices are so elaborate but are not remotely connected to the problem at hand. How is the ashwamedha justified for fertility?

In Sarga 15 much to my surprise I find the mention of Ravana. Ravana is established to be a thorough rakshasha torturing sages, full of conceit even striyaH api apakarSati cha [1.16.6] abducting woman [ a hint to events to be unfolded]. It is as though the whole premise for Ramayana is the killing of Ravana.  If one were to reflect on the two birds at the beginning,  the fundamental basis for Ramayana is supposed to be the sorrow of parting. But in Sarga 15-17, it is clearly not the case. This avatar is meant for killing Ravana. And Ravana is an already established demon King. That was a big surprise to me for I had always been under the impression unlike the other avatars, Rama avatar's purpose was not just the slaying of Ravana.

I had to smile at antardhaanam gato devaiH puujya maano maharShibhiH [1.16.10]. Vishnu is certainly an impatient God. While his virtues are being extolled, he vanishes.

The putrakameshti yaga follows suit and the payasam is divided amidst the queens. [1.16.27,28,29] I can see the debate as to whether only one of the children [we know already there are going to be 4 - second queen drinks it twice] is the avatar or are all four part of the avatar would seem interesting from religious scholarship.

Another surprise is the birth of the vanaras and how they are all sundry devas. Well, maybe not sundry - a few biggies there too - Jambavan for example.

Next is the birth of the lord.


Kamban rearranges the narrative slightly and covers all of the action in a single padalam.  Dasharath is more humble here. [1.5.1]Munivaratroludhu - he asks with humility, [1.5.3] pirithoru kurayillai vaiyagam marukumenbathor marukkamundaro - 'I am not asking for selfish reasons, I am asking because I am worried about the future of my people' - there is none of the high-handedness that I felt in the earlier version.

The narrative switches as a stream of consciousness - Vashista connects the promise of Lord Vishnu to protect the world from the demons to his king's dilemma. Then he suggests Dashratha perform a yagna. I thought this was a clever attempt to get some semblance of story sequencing.

Apart from Ravana, the triumph of Megnath over Indra is mentioned making this more personal to the Devas. The biggest surprise was the portrayal of Shiva. Clearly Kamban is a deep vaishnavaite - Shiva is portrayed almost like a minor god - he goes along with the other Devas to beseech  Brahma [1.5.8] Nanmugak kadavulai adi tholuthu, then later [1.5.10] Seyalindrengalal deciding in consultation with Brahma that Thirumal needs to be approached.

Thirumal [Mahavishnu] declares that he will be born as the son of Dasharatha and here with no confusion also declares that his Shanka, Chakra and Adishesha will be born as his brothers. [1.5.25] Kamban clearly subscribed to the school of thought that Rama is a purnavatar. The vanaras birth is also duly explained.

Vashishta, keeping in mind all this suggests Dashrath brings Rishyashringa to preside over the yaga. Kamban's Rishyashringa  gets angry when he finds out that he has been duped into coming to the country first and [1.5.51] King Romapada has to beg for forgiveness. I liked this minor variation better - it gave more flesh to the character of Rishyashringa.

The whole of Ashwamedha is reduced to a single verse in Kamban - [1.5.84]
Mulangalan mummaiyumudugi yaguthi
Valangiye iraru thingal vaithapin
thalangina thunthumi thavil vanagam
vilunginar vinnavar veliyindrannave.

There is no mention of animal sacrifice, no horse running around and getting stabbed by the queen. It is simply a year long prayer at the end of which the three queens get their dessert. Dasharath does donate a lot to the utmost satisfaction and happiness of everyone, but this version is completely lacking of the elements of ritual.

The millennia passage and possibly a dominance of the Dravidian outlook towards the rituals clearly has an effect on the narrative. In the hundred or so verses in this padalam, Kamban spares just a verse for the ritual itself. Already by the eleventh century we are seeing a more 'modern' form of the ancient religion.

August 05, 2011