The Ashvamedha (Sanskrit: अश्वमेध aśvamedhá; "horse sacrifice") was one of the most important royal rituals of Vedic religion, described in detail in the Yajurveda (TS 7.1-5, VSM 22–25 and the pertaining commentary in the Shatapatha Brahmana ŚBM 13.1–5). The Rigveda does have descriptions of horse sacrifice, notably in hymns RV 1.162-163 (which are themselves known as aśvamedha), but does not allude to the full ritual according to the Yajurveda.
The Vedic sacrifice
The Ashvamedha could only be conducted by a king (rājā). Its object was the acquisition of power and glory, the sovereignty over neighbouring provinces, and general prosperity of the kingdom.
The horse to be sacrificed must be a stallion, more than 24, but less than 100 years old. The horse is sprinkled with water, and the Adhvaryu and the sacrificer whisper mantras into its ear. Anyone who should stop the horse is ritually cursed, and a dog is killed symbolic of the punishment for the sinners. The horse is then set loose towards the North-East, to roam around wherever it chooses, for the period of one year (or half a year, according to some commentators). The horse is associated with the Sun, and its yearly course. If the horse wanders into neighbouring provinces hostile to the sacrificer, they must be subjugated. The wandering horse is attended by a hundred young men, sons of princes or high court officials, charged with guarding the horse from all dangers and inconvenience. During the absence of the horse, an uninterrupted series of ceremonies is performed in the sacrificer's home.
After the return of the horse, more ceremonies are performed. The horse is yoked to a gilded chariot, together with three other horses, and RV 1.6.1,2 (YV VSM 23.5,6) is recited. The horse is then driven into water and bathed. After this, it is anointed with ghee by the chief queen and two other royal consorts. The chief queen anoints the fore-quarters, and the others the barrel and the hind-quarters. They also embellish the horse's head, neck, and tail with golden ornaments. The sacrificer offers the horse the remains of the night's oblation of grain.
After this, the horse, a hornless he-goat, a wild ox (go-mrga, Bos gavaeus) are bound to sacrificial stakes near the fire, and seventeen other animals are attached to the horse. A great number of animals, both tame and wild, are tied to other stakes, according to a commentator 609 in total (YV VSM 24 consists of an exact enumeration).
Then the horse is slaughtered (YV VSM 23.15, tr. Griffith)
- Steed, from thy body, of thyself, sacrifice and accept thyself.
- Thy greatness can be gained by none but thee.
The chief queen ritually calls on the king's fellow wives for pity. The queens walk around the dead horse reciting mantras. The chief queen then has to mimic copulation with the dead horse, while the other queens ritually utter obscenities.
On the next morning, the priests raise the queen from the place where she has spent the night with the horse. With the Dadhikra verse (RV 4.39.6, YV VSM 23.32), a verse used as a purifier after obscene language.
The three queens with a hundred golden, silver and copper needles indicate the lines on the horse's body along which it will be dissected. The horse is dissected, and its flesh roasted. Various parts are offered to a host of deities and personified concepts with utterances of svaha "all-hail". The Ashvastuti or Eulogy of the Horse follows (RV 1.162, YV VSM 24.24–45), concluding with:
- May this Steed bring us all-sustaining riches, wealth in good kine, good horses, manly offspring
- Freedom from sin may Aditi vouchsafe us: the Steed with our oblations gain us lordship!
The priests performing the sacrifice were recompensed with a part of the booty won during the wandering of the horse. According to a commentator, the spoils from the east were given to the Hotar, while the Adhvaryu a maiden (a daughter of the sacrificer) and the sacrificer's fourth wife.
The Shatapatha Brahmana emphasizes the royal nature of the Ashvamedha:
- Verily, the Asvamedha means royal sway: it is after royal sway that these strive who guard the horse. (ŚBM 22.214.171.124 trans. Eggeling 1900)
It repeatedly states that "the Asvamedha is everything" (ŚBM 126.96.36.199 trans. Eggeling 1900)
The Ashvamedha, the highest expression of royal authority, is a soma sacrifice and incorporates other important sacrifices. The Ashvamedha is intended to secure prosperity for the kingdom and its subjects. It is a bloody sacrifice in which the domestic animals are killed and non-domestic animals are set free. It ends with a further sacrifice of twenty one cows. Gifts are then given to the officers, culminating in the gift to the priests of the four wives of the king or their attendants. . The human sacrifice, the Purushamedha, followed a similar format, but included a man with the animals to be sacrificed. The price of the man was set at one thousand cows and a hundred horses. Like the horse, the man chosen for sacrifice was allowed to wander for a year. Once he had been killed, the queen lay with his corpse.
The Ashvamedha celebrated the king as king of the whole world, not as king of a part of the world that constituted his kingdom. The stature of a king was not related to a particular part of the world that might have been his kingdom. As in ancient Rome, the horse was considered a noble animal and was associated with the military class. When the Asvamedha has been performed in historical times, it has been more to demonstrate Vedic orthodoxy than for genuinely religious reasons.
The Laws of Manu refer to the Ashvamedha (V.53): 'The man who offers a horse-sacrifice every day for a hundred years, and the man who does not eat meat, the two of them reap the same fruit of good deeds.'
Known historical performances
A historically documented performance of the Ashvamedha is during the reign of Samudragupta I (died 380), the father of Chandragupta II. Special coins were minted to commemorate the Ashvamedha and the king took on the title of Maharajadhiraja after successful completion of the sacrifice.
There were a few later performances, one by Raja of Kannauj in the 12th century, unsuccessfully, as Prithviraj Chauhan thwarted his attempt and later married his daughter. The last known instance seems to be in 1716 CE, by Jai Singh II of Amber, of Jaipur
Performances in Hindu epics
In the Mahabharata, the sacrifice is performed by Yudhishtira (Book 14), his brothers guarding the horse as it roamed into neighbouring kingdoms. Arjuna defeats all challengers. The Mahabharata says that the Ashvamedha as performed by Yudhishtira adhered to the letter of the Vedic prescriptions. After the horse was cut into parts, Draupadi had to sit beside the parts of the horse.
In the Ramayana, Rama's father Dasharatha performs the Ashvamedha, which is described in the bala kanda (book 1) of the poem. The Ramayana provides far more detail than the Mahabharata. The ritual take place for three days preceded by sage Rishyasringa and Vasista(1.14.41,42). Again it is stated that the ritual was performed in strict compliance with Vedic prescriptions (1.14.10). Dasaratha's chief wife Kausalya circumambulates the horse and ritually pierces its flesh (1.14.33). Then "Queen Kausalya desiring the results of ritual disconcertedly resided one night with that horse that flew away like a bird." [1-14-34]. The fat of the sacrificed horse is then burnt in ritual fire and after that the remaining parts of the body with spoons made out of Plaksha tree branches(1.14.36,38-39). At the conclusion of the ritual Dasharatha symbolically offers his other wives to the presiding priests, who return them in exchange for expensive gifts (1.14.35). The four sides of the Yagna altar is also donated to priests who had done the ritual and it is exchanged by them for gold, silver, cows and other gifts(1.15.43-44).
The ritual is performed again towards the end of the poem, but in very different circumstances. It figures centrally in the uttara kanda (book 7) where it leads to the final major story in the poem. In this narrative, Rama was married to a single wife, Sita, who at the time was not with him, having been excluded from Rama's capital of Ayodhya. She was therefore represented by a statue for the queen's ceremony. Sita was living in Valmiki's forest ashram with her twin children by Rama, Lava and Kusha, whose birth was unknown to Rama. In its wanderings, the horse, accompanied by an army and Hanuman, enters the forest and encounters Lava, who ignores the warning written on the horse's headplate not to hinder its progress. He tethers the horse, and with Kusha challenges the army, which is unable to defeat the brothers. Recognising Rama's sons, Hanuman sends them to Ayodhya where they are reconciled with their father, who also accepts Sita back at court. Sita, however, no longer wishes to live, and is absorbed by the earth. It is never stated whether the sacrifice was completed, but after Sita's death Rama is said to have repeatedly performed the Ashvamedha using the golden statue as a substitute for his wife.
In the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata, the sacrifice is performed by King Vasu Uparichara. By the king's decree, no animals were slain during the yagna, and the only offerings that were made were "products of the wilderness."
Some historians believe that the bala kanda and uttara kanda were latter interpolations to the authentic form of the Ramayana, due to references to Greek, Parthians and Sakas, dating to no earlier than the 2nd century BCE
Many Indo-European branches show evidence for horse sacrifice, and comparative mythology suggests that they derive from a Proto-Indo-European ritual. The Ashvamedha is the clearest evidence preserved, but vestiges from Latin and Celtic traditions allow the reconstruction of a few common attributes.
The Gaulish personal name Epomeduos is from *ek'wo-medhu- "horse+mead", while ashvamedha is either from *ek'wo-mad-dho- "horse+drunk" or *ek'wo-mey-dho- "horse+strength". The reconstructed myth involves the coupling of a king with a divine mare which produced the divine twins. Some scholars, including Edgar Polomé, regard the reconstruction of a Proto-Indo-European ritual as unjustified due to the difference between the attested traditions (EIEC s.v. Horse, p. 278).
Vedanta and Puranas
The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (a mystical appendix to the Shatapatha Brahmana and likely the oldest of the Upanishads) has a creation myth where Mṛtyu "Death" takes the shape of a horse, and includes an identification of the Ashvamedha with the Sun:
- Then he became a horse (ashva), because it swelled (ashvat), and was fit for sacrifice (medhya); and this is why the horse-sacrifice is called Ashva-medha [...] Therefore the sacrificers offered up the purified horse belonging to Prajapati, (as dedicated) to all the deities. Verily the shining sun [ye tapati] is the Asvamedha, and his body is the year; Agni is the sacrificial fire (arka), and these worlds are his bodies. These two are the sacrificial fire and the Asvamedha-sacrifice, and they are again one deity, viz. Death. (BrUp 1.2.7. trans. Müller)
The Upanishads describe ascetic austerities as an "inner Ashvamedha", as opposed to the "outer" royal ritual performed in the physical world, in keeping with the general tendency of Vedanta to move away from priestly ritual towards spiritual introspection; verse 6 of the Avadhuta Upanishad has:
- "Through extreme devotion [sam-grahaneṣṭi] he [the ascetic] performs ashvamedha within [anta]. That is the greatest sacrifice [mahā-makha] and the greatest meditation [mahā-yoga]."
In Hindu revivalism
In the Arya Samaj reform movement of Dayananda Sarasvati, the Ashvamedha is considered an allegory or a ritual to get connected to the "inner Sun" (Prana) Dayananda in his Introduction to the commentary on the Vedas rejected the classical commentaries of the Vedas by Sayana, Mahidhara and Uvata as medieval corruptions "opposed to the real meaning of the Vedas" (p. 443) in order to arrive at an entirely symbolic interpretation of the ritual: "An empire is like a horse and the subjects like other inferior animals" (p. 448). Thus, VSM 23.22, literally "he beats on the vulva (gabha), the penis (pasas) oozes repeatedly (ni-galgaliti) in the receptacle" is interpreted not in terms of the horse and the queen, but in terms of the king and his subjects, "The subjects are called gabha (to be seized), kingly power called pasa (to be penetrated)" (p. 454). This interpretation is apparently based on a verse from Shatapatha Brahmana.
Following Dayananda, Arya Samaj disputes the very existence of the pre-Vedantic ritual; thus Swami Satya Prakash Saraswati claims that
- "the word in the sense of the Horse Sacrifice does not occur in the Samhitas [...] In the terms of cosmic analogy, ashva is the Sun. In respect to the adhyatma paksha, the Prajapati-Agni, or the Purusha, the Creator, is the Ashva; He is the same as the Varuna, the Most Supreme. The word medha stands for homage; it later on became synonymous with oblations in rituology, since oblations are offered, dedicated to the one whom we pay homage. The word deteriorated further when it came to mean 'slaughter' or 'sacrifice'."
arguing that the animals listed as sacrificial victims are just as symbolic as the list of human victims listed in the Purushamedha. (which is generally accepted as a purely symbolic sacrifice already in Rigvedic times).
Other commentators accept the existence of the sacrifice but reject the notion that the queen lay down with the dead horse. Thus Subhash Kak in a blog posting suggests that the queen lay down with a toy horse rather than with the slaughtered stallion, due to presence of the word Ashvaka, similar to Shivaka meaning "idol or image of Shiva"
All World Gayatri Pariwar since 1991 has organized performances of a "modern version" of the Ashvamedha where a statue is used in place of a real horse, according to Hinduism Today with a million participants in Chitrakoot, Madhya Pradesh on April 16 to 20, 1994. Such modern performances are sattvika Yajnas where the animal is worshipped without killing it, the religious motivation being prayer for overcoming enemies, the facilitation of child welfare and development, and clearance of debt, entirely within the allegorical interpretation of the ritual, and with no actual sacrifice of any animal, nor any sexual connotations.
Swami Dayananda Saraswati rejected the classical commentaries of the Vedas by Sayana, Mahidhara and Uvata as medieval corruptions "opposed to the real meaning of the Vedas" (p. 443) in order to arrive at an entirely symbolic interpretation of the ritual: "An empire is like a horse and the subjects like other inferior animals" (p. 448). Thus, VSM 23.22, literally "he beats on the vulva (gabha), the penis (pasas) oozes repeatedly (ni-galgaliti) in the receptacle" is interpreted not in terms of the horse and the queen, but in terms of the king and his subjects, "The subjects are called gabha (to be seized), kingly power called pasa (to be penetrated)" (p. 454). This interpretation is apparently based on a verse from Shatapatha Brahmana. According to him, no horse was actually to be slaughtered in the ritual as per the Yajurveda.
Criticism and controversy
The earliest recorded criticism of the ritual comes from the Cārvāka, an atheistic school of Indian philosophy that assumed various forms of philosophical skepticism and religious indifference. A quotation of the Cārvāka from Madhavacharya's Sarva-Darsana-Sangraha states:
|“||The three authors of the Vedas were buffoons, knaves, and demons. All the well-known formulae of the pandits, jarphari, turphari, etc. and all the obscene rites for the queen commanded in Aswamedha, these were invented by buffoons, and so all the various kinds of presents to the priests, while the eating of flesh was similarly commanded by night-prowling demons.||”|
The mock bestiality and necrophilia involved in the ritual caused considerable consternation among the scholars first editing the Yajurveda. Griffith (1899) omits verses VSM 23.20–31 (the ritual obscenities), protesting that they are "not reproducible even in the semi-obscurity of a learned European language" (alluding to other instances where he renders explicit scenes in Latin rather than English). A. B. Keith's 1914 translation also omits verses.
This part of the ritual offended the Dalit reformer and framer of the Indian constitution B. R. Ambedkar and is frequently mentioned in his writings as an example of the perceived degradation of Brahmanical culture.
- Ralph Thomas Hotchkin Griffith, The Texts of the White Yajurveda. Translated with a Popular Commentary (1899), 1987 reprint: Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi, ISBN 81-215-0047-8.
- Keith, Arthur Berridale (trans) (1914). The Veda of the Black Yajus School Entitled Taittiriya Sanhita, Oxford, pp. 615-16
- Renou, Louis & Filliozat, Jean L'Inde Classique, vol 1, pp 358-359, 1947, reprinted 1985, Librairie d'Amerique et d'Orient, Paris. ISBN 2-7200-1035-9
- Angot, Michel. L'Inde Classique, p.126. 2001. Les Belles Lettres, Paris. ISBN 2-251-41015-5
- The Laws of Manu, translated by Wendy Doniger with Brian K. Smith, p.104. Penguin Books, London, 1991
- Hoernle, August Friedrich Rudolf; Stark, Herbert Alick (1906). A History of India. Cattuck: Orissa Mission Press.
- Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 103
- Draupadi of great intelligence ... to sit near the divided animal." Ashvamedha Parva, Section 89 
- Translation by Desiraju Hanumanta Rao & K. M. K. Murthy
- Online version of the Ramayana in Sanskrit and English
- Mahabharata, Shanti Parva, Section 337
- The cultural Heritage of India, Vol. IV, The Religions, The Ramakrishna Mission, Institute of Culture
- implicitly, in eṣa vā aśvamedho ya eṣa tapati "verily, that Ashvamedha is that which gives out heat [tap-]"
- Quoted in Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, A.C. (1975). "Srimad-Bhagavatam". The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. Retrieved 2006-07-31.
- as a bahuvrihi, saptāśva "having seven horses" is another name of the Sun, referring to the horses of his chariot.; akhandjyoti.org glosses 'ashva' as "the symbol of mobility, valour and strength" and 'medha' as "the symbol of supreme wisdom and intelligence", yielding a meaning of 'ashvamedha' of "he combination of the valour and strength and illumined power of intellect"
- Dayananda Sarasvati, Introduction to the commentry on the Vedas, Meharchand lachhmandas Publications; 1st ed. (1981), Sarvadeshik Arya Pratinidhi Sabha; 2nd ed. (1984) 
-  Sh.Br 13:2:9:6
- The Critical and Cultural Study of the Shatapatha Brahmana by Swami Satya Prakash Saraswati, p. 415; 476
- Hinduism Today, June 1994
- Ashwamedha Yagam in city,The Hindu
- Madhavacarya, Sarvadarsana-sangraha, English translation by E. B. Cowell and A. E. Gough, 1904 quoted in Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya (ed.), Carvaka/Lokayata: An Anthology of Source Materials and Some Recent Studies (New Delhi: Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 1990)
- B.R. Ambedkar, Revolution and Conter-Revolution in Ancient India