The Mahabharata, Book 12
ASVA-MEDHA (Sacrifice of the Horse)
THE real Epic ends with the war and the funerals of the deceased warriors. Much of what follows in the original Sanscrit poem is either episodical or comparatively recent interpolation. The great and venerable warrior Bhishma, still lying on his death bed, discourses for the instruction of the newly crowned Yudhishthir on various subjects like the Duties of Kings, the Duties of the Four Castes, and the Four Stages of Life.
He repeats the discourses of other saints, of Bbrigu and Bharadwaja, of Manu and Brihaspati, of Vyasa and Suka, of Yajnavalkya and Janaka, of Narada and Nairayana. He explains Sankhya philosophy and Yoga philosophy, and lays down the laws of Marriage, the laws of Succession, the rules of Gifts, and the rules of Funeral Rites. He preaches the cult of Krishna, and narrates endless legends, tales, traditions, and myths about sages and saints, gods and mortal kings. All this is told in two Books containing about twenty-two thousand couplets, and forming nearly one-fourth of the entire Sanscrit Epic!
The reason of adding all this episodical and comparatively recent matter to the ancient Epic is not far to seek. The Epic became more popular with the nation at large than dry codes of law and philosophy, and generations of Brahmanical writers laboured therefore to insert in the Epic itself their rules of caste and moral conduct, their laws and philosophy. There is no more venerable character in the Epic than Bhishma, and these rules and laws have therefore been supposed to come from his lips on the solemn occasion of his death. As a storehouse of Hindu laws and traditions and moral rules these episodes are invaluable; but they form no part of the real Epic, they are not a portion of the leading story of the Epic, and we pass them by.
Bhishma dies and is cremated; but the endless exposition of laws, legends, and moral rules is not yet over. Krishna himself takes up the task in a new Book, and, as he has done once before in the Bhagavat-gita, he now once more explains to Arjun in the Anu-gita the great truths about Soul and Emancipation, Creation and the Wheel of Life, True Knowledge and Ritea and Penance. The adventures of the sage Utanka, whom Krishna meets, then take up a good many pages. All this forms no part of the real Epic, and we pass it by.
Yudhishthir has in the meantime been crowned king of the Kurus at Hastinapura, and a posthumous child of Abhimanyu is named Parikshit, and is destined to succeed to the throne of the Kurus. But Yudhishthir's mind is still troubled with the thoughts of the carnage of the war, of which he considers himself guilty, and the great saint Vyasa advises the performance of the aswa medha, or the Sacrifice of the Horse, for the expiation of the sin.
The Sacrifice of the Horse was an ancient Hindu custom practised by kings exercising suzerain powers over surrounding kings. A horse was let free, and was allowed to wander from place to place, accompanied by the king's guard. If any neighbouring king ventured to detain the animal, it was a signal for war. If no king ventured to restrain the wanderer, it was considered a tacit mark of submission to the owner of the animal. And when the horse returned from its peregrinations, it was sacrificed with great poinp and splendour at a feast to which all neighbouring kings were invited.
Yudhishthir allowed the sacrificial horse to wander at will, and Arjun accompanied it. Wherever the horse was stopped, Arjun fought and conquered, and thus proclaimed the supremacy of Yudhishthir over all neighbouring potentates. After various wars and adventures in various regions, Arjun at last returned victorious with the steed to Hastinapura, and the sacrifice commenced. The description of the sacrifice is somewhat artificial, and concerns itself with rites and ceremonious details and gifts to Brahmans, and altogether bears unmistakable evidence of the interpolating hand of later priestly writers. Nevertheless we cannot exclude from this translation of the leading incidents of the Epic the last great and crowning act of Yudhishthir, now anointed monarch of Kuru land.
The portion translated in this Book forms Sections lxxxv. And parts of Sections lxxxviii. and lxxxix. of Book xiv. of the original text.
I THE GATHERING
Victor of a hundred battles, Arjun bent his homeward way,
Following still the sacred charger free to wander as it may,
Strolling minstrels to Yudhishthir spake of the returning steed,
Spake of Arjun wending homeward with the victor's crown of meed,
And they sang of Arjun's triumph's in Gandhara's distant vale,
On the banks of Brahmaputra and in Sindhu's rocky dale.
Twelfth day came of Magha's bright moon and auspicious was the star,
Nigher came the victor Arjun from his conquests near and far,
Good Yudhishthir called his brothers, faithful twins and Bhima true,
Spake to them in gentle accents, and his words were grave and few:
"Bhima! Now returneth Arjun with the steed from many a fray,
So they tell me, noble brother, who have met him on the way,
And the time of aswa-medha day by day is drawing nigh,
Magha's full moon is approaching, and the winter passeth by,
Let the Brahmans versed in Vedas choose the sacrificial site,
For the feast of many nations, for the aswa-medha rite."
Bhima heard of Arjun's coming,--hero with the curly hair,--
And to do Yudhishthir's mandate did with gladsome heart repair,
Brahmans versed in sacrifices, cunning architects of fame,
Builders of each various altar with the son of Pritha came,
And upon a level greensward measured forth the sacred site,
Laid it out with halls and pathways for the sacrificial rite.
Mansions graced with gem and jewel round the bright arena shone,
Palaces of golden lustre glinted in the morning sun,
Gilt and blazoned with devices lofty columns stood around,
Graceful arches gold-surmounted spanned the consecrated ground,
Gay pavilions rose in beauty round the sacrificial site,
For the queens of crownéd monarchs wending to the holy rite,
Humbler dwellings rose for Brahmans, priests of learning and of fame,
Come to view Yudhishthir's yajna and to bless Yudhishthir's name.
Messengers with kindly greetings went to monarchs far-renowned,
Asked them to Hastina's city, to the consecrated ground,
And to pleasethe great Yudhishthir came each king and chieftain bold,
With their slaves and dark-eye damsels, arms and horses, gems and gold,
Came and found a royal welcome in pavilions rich and high,
And the sealike voice of nations smote the echoing vault of sky!
With his greetings did Yudhishthir, for each chief and king of men,
Cooling drinks and sumptuous viands, beds of regal pride ordain,
Stables filled with corn and barley and with milk and luscious cane
Greeted tall and warlike tuskers and the steeds with flowing mane.
Munis from their hermitages to the sacred yajna came,
Rishis from the grove and forest lisping BRAHMA'S holy name,
Famed Acharyas versed in Vedas to the city held their way,
Brahmacharins with grass-girdle, chanting sweet the saman lay,
Welcomed Kuru's pious monarch, saint and sage and man of grace,
And with gentle condescension showed each priest his fitting place.
Skilled mechanics, cunning artists, raised the structures for the rite,
And with every needful object graced the sacrificial site,
Every duty thus completed, joyful Yudhishthir's mind,
And he blessed his faithful brothers with an elder's blessings kind.
II THE FEASTING
Men in nations are assembled, hymns are sung by saint and sage,
And in learnéd disputations keen disputants oft engage,
And the concourse of the monarchs view the splendour of the rite,
Like the glorious sky of INDRA is the sacrificial site!
Bright festoons and flaming streamers are on golden arches hung,
Groups of men and gay-dressed women form a bright and joyous throng,
Jars of cool and sparkling waters, vessels rich with gold inlaid,
Costly cups and golden vases are in order due arrayed.
Sacrificial stakes of timber with their golden fastenings graced,
Consecrated by the mantra are in sumptuous order placed,
Countless creatures of the wide earth, fishes from the lake and flood.
Buffaloes and bulls from pasture, beasts of prey from jungle wood,
Birds and every egg-born creature, insects that from moisture spring,
Denizens of cave and mountain for the sacrifice they bring.
Noble chiefs and mighty monarchs gaze in wonder on the site,
Filled with every living object, corn and cattle for the rite,
Curd and cake and sweet confection are for feasting Brahmans spread,
And a hundred thousand people are with sumptuous viands fed!
With the accents of the rain-cloud drum and trumpet raise their voice,
Speak Yudhishthir's noble bounty, bid the sons of men rejoice,
Day by day the holy yajna grows in splendour and in joy,
Rice in hillocks feeds all comers, maid and matron, man and boy,
Lakes of curd and lakes of butter speak Yudhishthir's bounteous feast,
Nations of the Jambu-dwipa share it, greatest and the least!
For a hundred diverse races from a hundred regions came,
Ate of good Yudhishthir's bounty, sang of good Yudhishthir's fame,
And a thousand proud attendants, gay with earrings, garland-graced,
Carried food unto the feeders and the sweet confections placed,
Viands fit for crownéd monarchs were unto the Brahmans given,
Drinks of rich and cooling fragrance like the nectar-drink of heaven!
III SACRIFICE OF ANIMALS
Victor of a hundred battles, Arjun came with conquering steed,
Vyasa herald of the Vedas bade the holy rite proceed:
"For the day is come, Yudhishthir, let the sacrifice be done,
Let the priests repeat the mantra golden as the morning sun!
Threefold bounteous be thy presents and a threefold merit gain,
For thy wealth of gold is ample, be thy gifts like summer's rain,
May the threefold rich performance purify the darkening stain,
Blood of warriors and of kinsmen slaughtered on the gory plain,
May the yajna's pure ablution wash thee of the cruel sin,
And the meed of sacrificers may the good Yudhishthir win!
Vyasa spake; and good Yudhishthir took the diksha of the rite,
And commenced the aswa-medha gladdening every living wight,
Round the altar's holy lustre moved the priests with sacred awe,
Swerved not from the rule of duty, failed not in the sacred law.
Done the rite of pure pravargya with the pious hymn and lay,
To the task of abhishava priests and Brahmans led the way,
And the holy Soma-drinkers pressed the sacred Soma plant,
And performed the pure savana with the solemn saman chant.
Bounty waits on squalid hunger, gifts dispel the suppliant's fear,
Gold revives the poor and lowly, mercy wipes the mourner's tear,
Tender care relieves the stricken by the gracious king's command,
Charity with loving sweetness spreads her smile o'er all the land!
Day by day the aswa-medha doth with sacred rites proceed,
Day by day on royal bounty poor and grateful myriads feed,
And adept in six Vedangas, strict in vow and rich in lore,
Sage preceptors, holy teachers, grew in virtue ever more!
Six good stakes of vilwa timber, six of hard khadira wood,
Six of seasoned sarvavarnin, on the place of yajna stood,
Two were made of devadaru, pine that on Himalay grows,
One was made of wood of slesha, which the sacrificer knows,
Other stakes of golden lustre quaint with curious carving done,
Draped in silk and gold-brocaded like the constellations shone!
And the consecrated altar built and raised of bricks of gold,
Shone in splendour like the altar Daksha built in days of old,
Eighteen cubits square the structure, four deep layers of brick in height,
With a spacious winged triangle like an eagle in its flight!
Beasts whose flesh is pure and wholesome, dwellers of the lake or sky,
Priests assigned each varied offering to each heavenly power on high,
Bulls of various breed and colour, steeds of mettle true and tried,
Other creatures, full three hundred, to the many stakes were tied.
Deva-rishis viewed the feasting, sweet Gandharvas woke the song,
Apsaras like gleams of sunlight on the greensward tripped along,
Kinnaras and Kim-purushas mingled in the holy rite,
Siddhas of austerest penance stood around the sacred site,
Vyasa's great and gifted pupils who the holy hymns compiled,
Helped the royal aswa-medha, on the royal yajna smiled!
From the bright ethereal mansions heavenly minstrel Narad came,
Chitra-sena woke the music, singer of celestial fame,
Cheered by more than mortal music priests their holy task begun,
And Yudhishthir's fame and virtue with a brighter lustre shone!
VI SACRIFICE OF THE HORSE
Birds and beasts were immolated for the sacrificial food,
Then before the sacred charger priests in rank and order stood,
And by rules of Veda guided slew the horse of noble breed,
Placed Draupadi, Queen of yajna, by the slain and lifeless steed,
Hymns and gifts and deep devotion sanctified the noble Queen,
Woman's true and stainless virtue, woman's worth and wisdom keen!
Priests adept in sacred duty cooked the steed with pious rite,
And the steam of welcome fragrance sanctified the sacred site,
Good Yudhishthir and his brothers, by the rules by rishis spoke,
Piously inhaled the fragrance and the sin-destroying smoke!
Severed limbs and sacred fragments of the courser duly dressed,
Priests upon the blazing altar as a pious offering placed,
Vyasa herald of the Vedas raised his voice in holy song,
Blessed Hastina's righteous monarch and the many-nationed throng!
Unto Brahmans gave Yudhishthir countless nishkas of bright gold,
Unto sage and saintly Vyasa all his realm and wealth untold,
But the bard and ancient rishi who the holy Vedas spake,
Rendered back the monarch's present, earthly gift he might not take!
"Thine is Kuru's ancient empire, rule the nations of the earth,
Gods have destined thee as monarch from the moment of thy birth,
Gold and wealth and costly present let the priests and Brahmans hoard,
Be it thine to rule thy subjects as their father and their lord!
Krishna too in gentle accents to the doubting monarch said:
"Vyasa. speaketh word of wisdom and his mandate be obeyed!"
From the rishi good Yudhishthir then received the Kuru-land,
With a threefold gift of riches gladdened all the priestly band,
Pious priests and grateful nations to their distant regions went,
And his share of presents Vyasa to the ancient Pritha sent.
Fame and virtue Kuru's monarch by the aswa-medha wins,
And the rite of pure ablution cleanses all Yudhishthir's sins,
And be stands amid his brothers, brightly beaming, pure and high,
Even as INDRA stands encircled by the dwellers of the sky,
And the concourse of the monarchs grace Yudhishthir's regal might,
As the stars and radiant planets grace the stillness of the night!
Gems and jewels in his bounty, gold and garnients rich and rare,
Gave Yudhishthir to each monarch, slaves and damsels passing fair,
Loving gifts to dear relations gave the king of righteous fame,
And the grateful parting monarchs blessed Yudhishthir's hallowed name.
Last of all with many tear-drops Krishna mounts his lofty car,
Faithful still in joy or sorrow, faithful still in peace or war,
Arjun's comrade. Bhima's helper, good Yudhishthir's friend of yore,
Krishna leaves Hastina's mansions for the sea-girt Dwarka's shore!
Suggestions for Further Reading
- 1. Astra Darsana (The Tournament)
- 2. Swayamvara (The Bride's Choice)
- 3. Rajasuya (The Imrfrial Sacrifice)
- 4. Dyuta (The Fatal Dice)
- 5. Pativrata-Mahatmya (Woman's Love)
- 6. Go-Harana (Cattle-Liftng)
- 7. Udyoga (The Council Of War)
- 8. Bhishma-Vadha (Fall Of Bhishma)
- 9. Drona-Vadha (Fall Of Drona)
- 10. Karna-Vadha (Fall Of Karna)
- 11. Sraddha (Funeral Rites)
- 12 Aswa-Medha (Sacrifice Of The Horse)
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