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The Vedic Sacrifice
The Ashvamedha could only be conducted by a king. 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 formulas 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 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 entwine 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 24 consists of an exact enumeration).
Then the horse is slaughtered (YV 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 her fellow wives for pity. The three queens walk around the dead horse reciting formulas. The chief queen then has to copulate 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 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 cries of svaha "all-hail". The Ashvastuti or Eulogy of the Horse follows (RV 1.162, YV 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 usl 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 was given to the Hotar , while the Adhvaryu a maiden (a daughter of the sacrificer) and the sacrificer's fourth wife.
Vedanta and modern Hinduism
In vedantic interpretations, the Ashvamedha is understood as a ritual to get connected to the "inner Sun". In this tradition, it is claimed that the ashva of the Ashvamedha originally referred to the Sun, and that sacrifices of actual horses represented a degeneration of the spiritual ritual.
The Ashvamedha is referred to in the Shatapatha Brahmana as well as in the epics Ramayana (1.10–15) and Mahabharata. When the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata were televised, the description of the nature of the sacrifice was significantly toned down to make it appropriate for television. In Modern Hinduism, there is little or no knowledge of what the sacrifice involved.
The last historically documented occurrence of the Ashvamedha is during the reign of Samudragupta I (d. 380), the father of Chandragupta. Special coins were minted to commemorate the Ashvamedha and the king took on the title of Maharajadhiraja after succesful completion of the sacrifice.
The bestiality and necrophilia involved in the ritual disgusted 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. This part of the ritual also caused considerable consternation among the scholars first editing the Yajurveda. Griffith (1899) omits verses 23.20–31 (the ritual obscenities), protesting that they are
- "not reproducible even in the semi-obscurity of a learned Eurpean language"
(alluding to other instances where he renders explicit scenes in Latin rather than English)
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