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Ashwamedha Yajna – Horse Sacrifice In Ancient Hindu Religion

In Hindu religion, Ashwamedha yajna is the famous horse ritual performed by the kings in ancient India for establishing their status as a samrat or emperor. The horse was chosen as the sacred animal as it symbolized area of reign and also Surya (the sun), Varuna (the water god), the fire and Prajapati (the creator). A horse with specific features was selected for the sacrifice. If the selected horse was lost before the commencement of Ashvamedha yajna, it spelt some calamity for the king. After certain consecratory rituals, the horse was allowed to wander for a year followed by 400 fully armed guards, including 100 princes. If the horse was captured by anyone, it was taken to be a challenge to the dominance of the king, and a battle was mandated. If the horse was not returned, the ritual was nullified.

Two of the most famous Ashwamedha Yajna are the one performed by Bhagavan Sri Rama in the Ramayana and the one performed by Yudhishtira in the Mahabharata.

Ashwamedhayajna belongs to great antiquity. Rig Veda refers to it, and details are also found in later texts, though with certain modifications. The sacrificial horse possessed a mystic status. It was conceived as having the forefeet of a deer, wings of a hawk and fashioned by the vasus from the sun. After the ritual, it was believed to be flying in the sky, only its head, resembling the sun, being visible.

The expected gains or benefits from Ashvamedha Yajna according to Rig Veda are

  • Herds of cattle
  • A multitude of horses
  • Children
  • Wealth
  • Prowess
  • Unity of the people.

There is a philosophical exegesis also, available for instance in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.

The last important king who performed Asvamedha yajna or horse sacrifice was Yudhisthira of the Mahabharata just before Kali Yuga (the current age) started. It has been forbidden in Kali Yuga. But several kings is said to have performed Asvamedhayajna in the current age. This includes Pushyamitra Shunga, 2000 years ago, and the king of Jayapur in the 18th Century CE.

Many instances of the horse ritual being successfully performed, and others being unsuccessful due to the capture of the horse, are recorded. In the Ramayana, Dasaratha performed it.

Kalidasa, in his Raghuvamsha, mentions Dilipa performing the Ashwamedha Yajna. Sudraka, the author of Mricchakatika, is said to have performed the ritual. Sagara is one of the legendary rulers who failed to complete the ritual. The Chalukya emperor, Pulakeshi, is said to have performed this sacrifice in 757 CE. Prithvidhara, the king of the Nishadas, performed it, but was challenged and defeated (9th century CE). In the recent past, Sawai Jaisingh, king of Amber (Amer), in the first decades of the 18th century CE, performed the Ashwamedha Yajna.

Bhagavan Sri Rama, after he became king of Ayodhya, performed Ashvamedha Yajna. He had exiled his wife Sita before this and never remarried. He got a gold statud of Sita made and performed the ritual with her as if she were his wife. Kumarila Bhatta observes that this was a one-time exception and the rule remains inviolate.