Aswamedh Yajna - the burning question

Over the centuries, the Aswamedh yajna changed from being related to metal smelteries and became associated with horse sacrifices?

 
By Bharat Jhunjhunwala
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

-- THE ASWAMEDH Yajna has a special importance in the Indian tradition. Though this yajna is generally associated with the horse sacrifice, it seems that its form has undergone a change over the millenia.

A close reading of the Rig Veda tells us the Aswamedh Yajna may have been a description of metal smeltery rather than a horse sacrifice in those times. Therefore, it is of interest to see how the meaning of this yajna has changed over time.

The word aswa is normally used for the horse and has two parts -- 'as' and 'va'. According to the famous Sanskrit scholar Monier Williams, 'as' means 'to reach particular place, to obtain or accumulate something'. Similarly, 'va' means 'to blow or obtain something by blowing'. It is a mystery how, from these meanings, aswa came to be associated with the (completely dissimilar) horse.

According to the ancient scripture Nirukta of Yaska, "That which covers distance should be known as aswa." It is clear Yaska has used the capability of horses to reach a particular place and blow its breath in connecting the word aswa with horses.

However, this interpretation by Yaska was made in a period much later than the Rig Veda. The Nirukta was itself written more than a thousand years after the Vedic period. Thus it still does not tell us what aswa stood for in the Vedic period.

Different connotation If we take the other meaning of the root 'as', we get an altogether different meaning for aswa. If we associate 'as' with accumulation and 'va' with blowing, then aswa would stand for obtaining wealth by blowing. It appears that originally 'as' may have been associated with the accumulation of wealth by the smelting of metals. The metals, after all, were the basis of all wealth in the early periods. Perhaps the Rig Vedic people had some relationship with smelting and they use the term 'Aswamedh Yajna' to describe the smeltery.

Verse 3.29.6 (volume 3, chapter 29, stanza 6) of the Rig Veda tells us that the furnace of the yajna was made of stone. Similarly, verse 1.142.6 tells us that there were openings in the furnace that were closed during the sacrifice, according to protocol.

These descriptions indicate that precise control of the fire was very essential for the yajna. Considering the overall level of technology, it would seem totally out of place that such elaborate furnaces were built for cooking horse meat. On the other hand, for smelting it is absolutely essential that the temperature of the fire is controlled rather accurately. For this purpose, it would be necessary that the furnace be built with openings which can be opened and closed as per requirement. Verse 3.1.4 of the Rig Veda tells us that the fire used to be white in the beginning and became red when strong. This is a typical phenomenon in the smeltery. When the metal nears melting point, more air is pumped in and this leads to the fire turning red

. By the period of the Ramayana the form of the yajna appears to have transformed completely. A close reading of the Ramayana tells us how this transformation took place over the generations.

The Ramayana tells us that yajanas were performed by many kings for many generations after the reign of Ikswaku -- the first king to find mention in the Rig Veda. King Dasrath performed a yajna to be blessed with a son. This is also referred to as the haya-medha yajna. 'Aswa', 'vaji' and 'haya' are all terms used for a horse in the Ramayan. In this yajna we find the first reference of a horse being let loose to roam the world. The yajna's associationwith metal smeltery continued till the reign oh King Sagar.

This, it seems, is the tortuous route that the Aswamedh Yajna took from smeltery to house sacrifice.

Bharat Jhunjhuwala is former professor of economics at the indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.

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