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What exactly is the Ashwamedha Yagna/ Horse Sacrifice?

Hare Krishna,

Congratulations on the new look of the Forums and Connect!

I have a doubt as follows:

Recently I have started reading the Ramayana and I came across the concept of 'Ashwamedha Yagna/ Horse Sacrifice' that King Dasharath is supposed to have performed.

Not being aware of what it means, I turned to the Internet and was horrified at the absolute preposterous bilge (!!!) :O that is written to describe the same, even on reputed websites like Wikipedia!

I would be very greatly obliged if any well-read, senior devotee could detail what it actually means and what was done at the ritual.

It is supposed to have been mentioned in the Rig-Veda but being as ignorant as I am, I would never understand it, even if I read it!

Your eternal servant
eternal muser

Wikipedia

hello eternalmuser

'even on reputed websites like Wikipedia'

I would take a look at Wikipedia with more caution, I have personally seen many mistakes and mis-information. These sites are put up and maintained mostly by the influences of the conditioned state, there is a lot that can be studied but sometimes not much can be learned.

'I have a doubt as follows'

no need to have any doubt!
The vedas are full of pagan ritual and material science, along with a transcendental message of spirituality, I think this is the source of much confusion, The vedas are a history of a people and a culture and the message of God consciousness is a thread within this body of documentation. The term vedas is used wildly to describe everything contained therein, but it is really just the vessel that holds a mix of things. So there is no doubt if you focus on the transcendental spiritual message.

asvamedha (an interpretation)

ASVAMEDHA has been translated as horse sacrifice as referred above by
Jha and the conclusions drawn accordingly and this has been the root
cause of varied wrong interpretations and in order to illustrate its
scope and meaning the following is stated:

At the sight of words 'asvamedha, gomedha, purushmedha, ajmedha' there
is a general tendency to interpret it to denote as
hinsa/sacrifice/killing. 'Medha' word's verb or dhatu is 'medhri'.
'medhrisangame hinsayam cha' i.e. to enhance pure intellect, to
inculcate love and integration among the people and also hinsa i.e.
killing (this dhatu conveys these three meanings). But it does not
always mean killing or sacrifice and in Sanskrit no literal
translation will do where a particular word carries varied meanings
and it has to be applied judiciously and thoughtfully keeping in view
the context of the text. The words 'purushmedha' and 'nriyajna' are
synonyms. In Manusmriti the word 'nriyajna' has been defined
as 'nriyajnoatithipoojanam' (Manusmriti 3.70). It means the pooja or
honour of the guests. If we take the meaning of the root 'medhri' as
sangamanarth it will come to be interpreted as to organize the people
for virtuous deeds or to enhance the love and equanimity among them
i.e. it would be 'nriyajna' or 'purushmedh'. It may be pertinent to
mention here that 'nrimedha' is a risi of some vedic hymns of
Samveda. It can never mean the one who kills or sacrifices the human
beings. Consequently, the terms followed by medha always do not
signify killing/sacrifice and therefore the interpretations made by
the Western scholars are utterly wrong and unacceptable.

In Shatpath Brahmana (13.1.6) it is stated "Rashtram va asvamedhah"
i.e. asvamedha means to manage or run the affairs of the rashtra
(country) in a befitting manner.

In the Shantiparva of Mahabharata (3.336) there is mention of
asvamedha of the king Vasu in which numerous risis and learned men
participated. In this context it is clearly mentioned "n tatra
pashughato-abhoot" i.e. there was no killing of any animal. Further in
this Parva at 3.327, the following is stated in context with
'ajamedh':

Ajairyajneshu yashtavyamiti vai vaidiki shruti
Ajasanjnani beejani chhaganno hantumarhatha
Naishah dharmah satam devah yatra vadhyeta vai pashuh

It means that whenever it is stated to use aja for performance of
yajna, it means the seeds called 'aja' have to be used. Here it does
not mean a goat. It is not proper to kill goats and it does not
behoove the virtuous people to indulge in killing of the animals.

Sw. Dayanand Saraswati in his book "An introduction to the Vedas" at
p. 448-449 states that God is Jamadagni i.e. Ashvamedha. An empire is
like a horse and the subjects like other inferior animals. As other
animals, the strength, so the subjects are weaker than the state
assembly. The glory and splendour of an empire consists in wealth,
gold etc. and in administration of justice". (Shatpath Brahmana
XIII.2.2.14-17) It is further stated that God's name is Ashva also
because He pervades the whole universe (ashva comes from the root
'ash' which means to pervade).

The above derivations call for our cautious approach and take upon
ourselves the task of removing the mist caused by misinterpretations
to see the truth which can be one and only one and feel proud of our
heritage.

Rakshabandhan: 7th Bhadrapada, 2059
22nd August, 2002

(The author expresses his gratitude to Shri Bharat Bhushan Vidyalankar
for his guidance, encouragement and valuable suggestions in
compilation of the write-up)

* It was February, 1835, a time when the British were striving to take
control of the whole of India. Lord Macaulay, a historian and a
politician, made a historical speech in the British Parliament,
commonly referred to as The Minutes, which struck a blow at the
centuries old system of Indian education. His words were to this
effect: I have traveled across the length and breadth of India and I
have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth
I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such
calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country,
unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her
spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we
replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the
Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater
than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native
self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated
nation.

(Source: The Awakening Ray, Vol. 4 No. 5, The Gnostic Centre)
Reproduced in Niti issue of April, 2002 at p. 10 - a periodic
publication of Bharat Vikas Parishad, Delhi.

Bibliography

Dayanand Saraswati. An introduction to the Vedas; translated from the
original Sanskrit by Ghasi Ram. 3rd edn. Delhi, Sarvadeshik Arya
Pratinidhi Sabha, 1998.

Bharat Bhushan Vidyalankar. Vedon ke sambandh men bharant dharnayen
- mss. Delhi, 2002. 11pp.

Rgveda Samhita with English translation by Swami Satya Prakash
Sarasvati and Satyakam Vidyalankar. Delhi, Veda Pratishthana, 1977.

The Rigveda with Maharishi Dayananda Saraswati's Commentary.
Translated into English by Acharya Dharam Dev Vidya Martanda.
Delhi, Sarvadeshik Arya Pratinidhi Sabha, 1974.

Rgveda: Hindi Bhashya pratham mandal by Maharishi Dayanand Saraswati.
Delhi, Sarvdeshik Arya Pratinidhi Sabha, 1972.

Rgveda Samhita: Sanskrit text, English translation and notes according
to translation of H.H. Wilson and Bhasya of Sayanacarya edited and
revised with exhaustive introduction and notes by Ravi Prakash Arya
and K.L. Joshi. Delhi, Parimal Publications, 1997. 4 vols.

Vidyanand Saraswati. Aaryon ka aadi desh aur unki sabhyata. Delhi,
Arya Prakashan,2002

{Author is a former Librarian of Indian National Science Academy, New
Delhi. Presently up-pradhan of Aryasamaj, C Block, Janakpuri,New
Delhi. Postal Address: C2A/58, Janakpuri, New Delhi-110058. Telephone:
5525128}

ANNEXURE:

The synopsis on the jacket of the book entitled 'The myth of the holy
cow' by D.N. Jha reads as follows: "The growth of religious
fundamentalism in India is symbolized by the existence of a BJP
government committed to the Hindutva. There is growing pressure to
declare the cow a sacred, national animal and to ban its slaughter.
The Myth of the Holy Cow is an illuminating response to this crazed
confessionalism. It challenges obscurantist views on the sanctity of
the cow in Hindu tradition and culture. Dwijendra Narayan Jha, a
leading Indian historian, argues that beef eating played an important
part in the cuisine of ancient India, long before the birth of Islam.
It was very much a feature of the approved Brahmanical and Buddhist
diet. The evidence he produces from a variety of religious and secular
texts is compelling. His opponents, including the current government
of India and the fundamentalist groups backing it, have demanded that
the book should be ritually burned in public. It has already been
banned by the Hyderabad Civil Court and the author's life has been
threatened."

CLOUDS OVER UNDERSTANDING OF THE VEDAS

B.D.UKHUL

The Myth of the Holy Cow by D.N. Jha published by Verso, London, 2002
is the most damaging book in its contents since the sole intention of
the author has been to prove that all ancient Hindu scriptures
particularly the Vedas and Shatpath Brahmana etc. uphold beef-eating
and this has been the way of life of the Aryans who were our ancestors
since the term Hindu came to be introduced much later. The author has
cited references from the Vedas, Brahmanas, Upanishads etc. to prove
his thesis which perhaps he chose to be the sole mission of his life
even though he comes from a Brahmin family and he has dedicated his
so called prestigious book to his kin in Rajrani (a symbol of
motherhood). Aryans revered cow as a mother and it is really an irony
that a son of Bharat has taken immense pains to prove something which
is far from truth and also it injures the sentiments of millions of
Hindus and in order to demolish his thesis an effort is being hereby
made to trace each and every reference cited by him in the book and
reveal the truth and nothing but the truth. To commence with,
citations quoted from the Rgveda are being dealt with beginning from
the very first Mandala of Rigveda.

It is beyond any doubt that the conclusions drawn by Mr. Jha are based
on wrong interpretations and the misleading commentaries by the
Western scholars and also the works of Indian scholars who got
patronage of the British rulers. Role of such scholars and their
mission to erase our heritage was under a well planned scheme to mould
the Indian mind into the Western thought and culture and create
conditions to cast off our past. Their mission was to spread
Christianity and the major players were Macaulay and Max Muller and
their correspondence and writings* will substantiate this submission.
Hereby it will also be revealed that these Western scholars could not
derive the right and intended spirit of our ancient Rishis and have
erred immensely. In the realm of the Vedic interpretation, we owe debt
to Swami Dayanand Saraswati (1825-1883), the founder of Aryasamaj who
took us back to the Vedas. His commentaries were based on the Nighantu
and Yaska's Nirukta and he thought deep and delved deep to arrive at
the rightful adhyatmik and yogic spirit of the mantras. The opinion of
a great saint-philosopher Sri Aurobindo Ghosh will be the most
pertinent to quote in this regard. "In the matter of Vedic
interpretation I am convinced that whatever may be the final complete
interpretation, Dayananda will be honoured as the first discoverer of
the right clues. Amidst the chaos and obscurity of old ignorance and
age long misunderstanding his was the eye of direct vision that
pierced to the truth and fastened on that which was essential. He had
found the keys of the doors that time had closed and rent asunder the
seals of the imprisoned fountains". AT THIS STAGE IT IS DESIRABLE THAT
WE APPROACH THIS IMPORTANT ASPECT TO ENDORSE AND ACCEPT THE RIGHTFUL
INTERPRETATIONS INSTEAD OF CLINGING TO DEFECTIVE LITERAL TRANSLATIONS
OF THE VEDAS WHICH ARE REVELATIONS BY THE ALMIGHTY GOD WHO BLESSED US
WITH THIS DIVINE KNOWLEDGE TO GUIDE OUR PATH SINCE THE VEDIC
REVELATION WAS SYNCHRONOUS WITH MAN'S FIRST APPEARANCE ON EARTH. How
can our creator prescribe offerings of his own creatures? After
independence, this aspect should have received due attention but it is
sad that this remained untapped and even the Sanskrit language came
under cloud when a Rajya Sabha nominated Christian member Frank
Anthony introduced a bill to drop this sacred language from the eighth
schedule of languages enshrined in the Indian constitution in 1977.
There is no doubt that some Western scholars did an appreciable job to
introduce the Vedas to the outside world which inspired the scholars
to learn Sanskrit to benefit from the treasure of wisdom of Vedic
Rishis but unfortunately, it followed a wrong path without application
of their inner mind or intellect as was done by the devoted disciple
of Swami Virajanand who was actually blind of eyes but he imparted
such vision and deep knowledge to Dayanand that he clung to the soul
and spirit of the Vedas and it is our bounden duty to follow this path
to understand the sacred words of God which can never be wrong and are
ever infallible.

In the context of the commentary/translation of the Vedas by Max
Muller it will be relevant to point out the opinion of Mr. Boulanger,
the editor of Russian edition of The Sacred Books of the East Series
as follows:

"What struck me in Max Muller's translation was a lot of absurdities,
obscene passages and a lot of what is not lucid."

"As far as I can grab the teaching of the Vedas, it is so sublime that
I would look upon it as a crime on my part, if the Russian public
becomes acquainted with it through the medium of a confused and
distorted translation, thus not deriving for its soul that benefit
which this teaching should give to the people".

In his book 'Vedic Hymns', Max Muller himself says: "My translation of
the Vedas is conjectural."

HEREUNDER the glaring difference in substance and the spirit of the
cited Suktas 162 and 163 of the first Mandala of Rigveda is
illustrated to establish that misinterpretation is at the root of this
problem. Each Sukta has its risi and devata; risi depicts 'drashta'
whereas devata depicts the subject matter which facilitates the
understanding of the mantras under respective Sukta.

Sukta 162-

Name of risi: Deerghatama
Name of devata: Mitradyo Lingokta (As per Sw. Dayanand)
: Deerghatama
: Ashva-stuti (As per translation of H.H. Wilson)

Sukta 163-

Name of risi: Deerghatama
Name of devata: Ashvo-agnirdevata (As per Sw.Dayanand)
: Deerghatama
: Ribhuganh (As per translation of HH Wilson)

The above implies that both the Suktas are in glorification of the
horse but our Western enthusiasts and Mr. Jha along with his Indian
ideals have even ignored the very basic lead and gone for crucifixion
of the spirit of mantras which is left to your esteemed judgement.

Sukta 162 has 22 mantras while Sukta 163 has 13 mantras. Mr. Jha
states that in the ashvamedha (horse sacrifice), the most important of
the Vedic public sacrifices, first referred to in the Rigveda in the
afore-stated Suktas (p. 31 of his book).

Sukta 162 in fact deals with the science of applying horse power
(automation) of the fire pervading in the form of energy.

No mantra supports sacrifice of horses. Of course the first mantra has
been translated by Max Muller in a wrong manner as follows:

"May Mitra, Varuna, Aryaman, Ayush, Indra, the Lord of Ribhus and the
Maruta not rebuke us because we shall proclaim at the sacrifice
virtues of the swift horse sprung from the god." (from History of
Ancient Sanskrit Literature). Similarly H.H. Wilson in his translation
based on the commentary of Sayanacarya states as follows:

"Let neither Mitra nor Varuna, Aryaman, Ayu, Indra, Ribhukshin, nor
the Maruts, censure us; when was proclaim in the sacrifice the virtues
of the swift horse sprung from the gods".

Transliterated version of this mantra is given below:

Ma no mitro varuno arymayurindro ribhuksha marutah parikhyan
Yadvajino devajatasya sapteh pravakshyamo vidathe veeryani

Maharishi Dayanand Saraswati in his Hindi commentary has rendered the
translation as follows:

We the performers of yajna in all seasons (vidathe) in the battle
field (yat) whose (vajinah) stormy (devajatasya) learned men and borne
out of the divine virtues (sapte) of the horse (veeryani) unique
performances (pravakshyamah) we shall describe (nah) the daring
performances of our horses (mitrah) friend (varunah) sublime (aryama)
the deliverer of justice (ayuh) the knower (indrah) the all-elevated
or aishvaryavan (ribhuksha) intelligent and (marutah) priests (ma,
pari, khyan) should never disregard these properties.

To easily grasp the spirit of mantra the following translation will be
helpful.

We shall describe here the energy generating virtues of the powerful
horses (planets), added with brilliant properties of the vigorous
force of heat. The learned never dispute these properties.

There is vast difference in the above quoted translations. Obviously
the wrong seeds were sown by Sayan and Mahidhar who were the ideals
adopted by the Western scholars, namely Max Muller, Griffith, Wilson
etc. Sw. Dayanand Saraswati in his book "An Introduction to the Vedas"
has adversely criticised on the commentaries of Sayan and Mahidhar in
context of some of their interpretations of the Vedic hymns. They
could be held responsible for the horrible and horrid interpretations
which suggest as if the Vedas were the texts to lay down the modes of
sacrifices. Is it not a tragedy for the Dharmacharyas/Sanskrit
scholars of this country that they also could not pursue the path
shown by Dayanand and got bogged down only in the rituals of worship
in the temples and no attention was paid to the sources of knowledge
which were the guiding principles of Aryans, our worthy ancestors and
sons of the mother India (Aryavrat) as the Vedas proclaimed man as
'amritasya putras' and we need to follow this path if we want to be
proud of our heritage and hold our head high or otherwise we are going
to be labelled with the legacy of butchers and animal killers who
desired to please different gods by various sacrifices performed in
the yajnas.

Eighth mantra of this Sukta is translated as follows:

The fleet of horses is controlled by holding of bridles and saddles
placed thereon. To make them strong, the grass and cereals are fed to
them. Likewise, the learned people control and regulate their power of
senses and taking nourishing diet.

Wilson's translation is as follows:

May the halter and the heel-ropes of the fleet courser, and the
head-ropes, the girths, and any other (part of the harness); and the
grass that has been put into his mouth; may all these be with you,
(horse), amongst the gods. (THIS IS NOTHING BUT LITERAL AND MECHANICAL
TRANSLATION BEREFT OF THE SUBSTANCE & SPIRIT OF THE MANTRA)

Ninth mantra was again wrongly interpreted by Max Muller, Wilson and
Griffith to translate the word 'kravishah' as the flesh. It is an
adjective of 'ashvasya' and derived from kramu-padavikshepe. Hence it
means 'the pacing horse' and not of the flesh. 'Shamituh' has been
translated by Prof. Max Muller and Wilson as of the immolator.
Griffith has translated it as 'of a slayer'. But etymologically
'sam-alochne' means 'to look at' (with love and peace) and should mean
'a person who looks at the living beings with love and peace and not
slayer'.

Twelfth mantra emphasizes on the qualities of the warrior and its
translation is as follows:

They who crave for the meat of a horse and declare the horse fit to be
killed should be exterminated. Those who keep the fast horse well
trained and disciplined deserve to be praised by us for the strength
of their character and perseverance. (IT CLEARLY DEMOLISHES THE THESIS
OF JHA AND PROVES THAT HE HAS MERELY QUOTED CITATIONS AND HARDLY CARED
TO LOOK AT THE ACTUAL TEXT BUT INSPIRED BY THE FOLLOWING TRANSLATION
OF WILSON):

"Let their exertions be for our good who watch the cooking of the
horse; who say, it is fragrant; therefore give us some: who solicit
the flesh of the horse as alms." (WHAT AN IMMENSE DAMAGE TO THE SPIRIT
OF THE MANTRA).

Mantras 13 to 19 deal with the theme of horse or automation power
while 20 to 22 are devoted to the benefits of Yoga exercises and an
ideal life.

Sukta 163

This Sukta deals with various attributes of learned person, Agni,
science & technology. There are references to the horse to illustrate
its unique qualities of its immense energy likened to Agni (fire),
intelligence, bravery and inbuilt attributes which are at par with
those of the men of wisdom. Perusal of some mantras will bring home
this point.

First mantra includes or rather ends with 'arvan' and this word
denotes as per Y.v. 29.12 vigyanvan athva ashvaiv veguvan vidvan = O
learned person active like the horse.

Second mantra includes the term 'surat ashvam' which means the fast
moving Agni i.e the fire which enables a speedy locomotion.

Third mantra includes the term 'adityah arvan' and here it means the
sun which is all pervading. 'Arvan' means sarvatrapraptah = pervading
all. This term was wrongly translated by Prof. Wilson, Griffith and
others, while both admit in the notes that Yama means Agni, Aditya -
Sun and Trita - Vayu. How can horse be identified with Agni (fire),
sun and the air etc. none has cared to justify. To take 'arva' for
Agni, there is the clear authority of the Taittiriya Brahmana.
(I.36,4).

Fourth mantra includes the word 'arvan' where it is used to mean the
learned and wise people.

Eighth mantra includes the word 'arvan' through which the mighty and
active person has been likened to the horse who bears such
characteristics.

Ninth mantra includes the word 'arvantam' which means vegavantam agnim
ashvam = the rapid horse in the form of Agni (fire, electricity etc.)

Tenth mantra includes the word 'ashva' where it means the bright swift
horses in the form of fire, air, water etc.

Eleventh mantra includes the word 'arvan' and the following
translation of this mantra will endorse our stand that the unique
qualities of the horse are emphasized in Sukta 163:

"O brave person! You are active like a horse, your body is like a
swift vehicle, your mind is like the wind in motion. Your sublime
actions are initiated from the proper use of fire and electricity.
These are spread in all directions like the hoary creatures in the
forests". One can see that this mantra is in praise of highly skilled
technicians.

Wilson's translation reads as follows:

"Your body, horse, is made for motion, your mind is rapid (in
intention) as the wind: the hairs (of your mane) are tossed in
manifold directions; and spread beautiful in the forests." (ANOTHER
EXAMPLE OF MECHANICAL TRANSLATION)

Twelfth mantra includes the term 'vajyarva' which means Agni
swift (vegavan) like a horse and here in this mantra use of Agni is
highlighted.

Thirteenth and the last mantra of this Sukta contains the word 'arvan'
where it means agnyadashvan = horses in the form of fire, electricity
etc.