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ASHVAMEDHA The Ashvamedha, or the "horse sacrifice," is one of the most significant rituals of ancient India. The horse in Indian mythology represents the sun, and the sea is taken to be its stable and its birthplace, since it emerges every day from the primal "waters" surrounding Earth. The Ashvamedha is the sacrifice of the annual renewal of the sun at the New Year and that of the accompanying renewal of the king's rule. At the spiritual level, the celebration evokes a reconnection to the "inner sun." This rite is a great state function in which ritual elements are woven together with secular ceremonies to create an assertion of monarchical authority.

The use of the word "sacrifice," with its common meaning of "killing to offer to God or gods," is cause of much misunderstanding of the Vedic ritual. Vedic yajña (sacrifice) need not involve any killing of animals. It is a highly symbolic performance, and the animals of the sacrifice may be clay images or grains, specific utterances, or a sacred song. When an animal is sacrificed in the ritual, the sacrifice is a mock killing within sacred theater. The word "killing" is described in the texts to apply equally to the pressing of the soma stalks and the grinding of the grain. This is not to say that "animal" sacrifice has never been taken literally in India, but that the normative meaning of the term is symbolic.

The Vedic rites were meant to help the participant transform himself. This was accomplished through sacrifice. The rishis (Hindu sages) saw the universe as going through unceasing change in a cycle of birth and death, potentially free yet, paradoxically, governed by order. This order was reflected in the bandhu (connections) between the planets, the elements of the body, and the mind. At the deepest level, the whole universe was bound to, and reflected in, the individual consciousness.

The place of sacrifice represents the cosmos, and its three fires stand for the three divisions of space. The course of the sacrifice represents the year, and all such ritual becomes a part of continuing annual performances. The rite culminates in the ritual rebirth of the yajamāna (sacrificer), signifying the regeneration of his universe. It is sacred theater, built upon paradoxes of reality, in which the symbolic deaths of animals and humans, including the yajamāna himself, may be enacted.

The early texts indicate that in sacrifice some people substituted a clay or gold image of the victim. The Atharva Veda says that the inner yajña is superior to the outer one. For some, sacrifice only meant singing a Sāman, which is a song, with its various movements, from the Sāmaveda. The upward and downward movements of the Sāman may be interpreted as having five or seven parts. When divided into five parts, they are called hinkāra, prastāva, udgītha, pratihāra, and nidhana. But these five movements are also the five animals of sacrifice: the hinkāra is a goat, the prastāva a sheep, the udgītha a cow, the pratihāra a horse, and the nidhana a man. The specific identification may be owed to etymological considerations as well as animal traits. Aja, goat, means the unborn; sheep climb up the mountainside; the cow represents prosperity; the horse, speed, appropriate for fast movement; and (the cosmic) man is the objective of the song.

The Ashvamedha is performed by a consecrated king. The horse chosen for the sacrifice is worth a thousand cows. It is black in the forepart, white in the rear, with a mark on its forehead. It is set free to roam, protected by attendants from the four different classes of society. Together with these people, it creates a linkage with the three kinds of beasts: those who live in the air, in the forests, and in villages. The horse has a unique position: it is the sky-bird; it lives in the forest and in the village.

In the beginning, a "four-eyed dog" (a dog with markings above its eyes) is made to float under the sacrificial horse. The "four-eyed dog" is Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest light of Canis Major, whose orbit is below (to the south) that of the sun. The ascent of the sun puts an end to the light of Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. The reference to the thousand cows recalls that the sun's splendor is a thousand times that of Earth, since gauh (cow) also means the planet. The first step of the initiation thus mirrors sunrise.

But how long is the horse supposed to be free? In later enactments of the ritual, the horse roamed for one year. But the Rigvedic and the Shatapatha accounts suggest that the rite took place just over a few days. It appears that the original meaning was to consider the day of the sun as symbolic of its annual circuit.

The texts prescribe that the queen must lie down with the "dead horse" (ashvaka). This was the time spent with a fire called ashvaka, which represented the sun dead in the sky during the night, preserved in a small fire in a lamp.

There is a threefold drama of change and renewal suggested here. First is the cosmic layer, related to the preservation of order in spite of precession and the stars losing their bearings. Second is the strengthening of the sun in the spring after its weakening in the winter. Third is the mirroring of these processes in the spirit of the sacrificer. The king, by virtue of his authority and responsibility, sees the dangers to his position magnified many times over those faced by the commoner.

It appears that the prototype of this rite required just a few days and was relatively simple. The later pageantry of 101 horses, and hundreds of soldiers and attendants, arose in an embellished version prescribed for kings. Even now, the householder ritual, that consists of a simple fire sacrifice or breath-control, is declared to be thousands of times superior to the Ashvamedha—a comparison that preserves, no doubt, a memory of the times when it was performed more widely.

Subhash Kak

See alsoBrahmanas ; Vedic Aryan India


Heesterman, Jan C. The Broken World of Sacrifice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Kak, Subhash. The Aśvamedha: The Rite and Its Logic. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2002.

Tripathi, Visvambharanatha. Agnicayana. Varanasi: Sampurnananda Sanskrit University, 1990.

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