THERE is a story—fictional of course—from a kingdom in the Dakkhana hills of south western India in the first century CE, about Subhrata.
He was a boy of 15 who cared for a white stallion with black spots which, according to religious requirements, was being prepared for the Aśvamedha sacrifice. The horse was called Agnisakha, ‘wind of fire’.
King Satakarni I, the third king of the Satavahana dynasty, wanted to hold a large sacrificial rite like the one Yudhistira held as told in the Ashvamedha Parwa. And when the time determined by the stars came to pass, the priests set Agnisakha free beyond the kingdom’s borders, to roam wherever he wished.
At every place he stopped, a new boundary marker of the kingdom was set. And the Rg Veda was invoked:
We will, with Indra and all Gods to aid us,
bring these existing worlds into subjection.
The sacrificial rite was not just religious, of course. A few markers behind Agnisakha, a select army was ready to enforce the claim of King Satakarni over the lands where the horse had roamed, and would vanquish anyone who opposed them.
All the while, the story goes, Subhrata accompanied Agnisakha. This was a royal duty that pleased him greatly, because he and the horse he had cared for over 23 months had become intimate friends. The boy whispered sweet phrases when Agnisakha was tired, and calmed him when he was anxious. He would wipe down his sweaty body and bathe him with cool river water. If there were battles, he would use his shield of branches to protect the horse from any arrows that might go astray. At night, Subhrata would sleep where Agnisakha was tethered. Before closing his eyes, he would softly sing into the ear of his friend words from the Śatapatha Brâhmaňa:
for summer is a kşatriyâ’s season and truly this-to wit,
the Ashvamedha is the kşatriyâ’s sacrifice
As months of Agnisakha’s roaming passed, so did the areas of conquest increase. At the 18th month, there came a royal decree that the group must return. The soothsayers had seen in the stars that the moment had come to begin the closing of the Ashvamedha ceremony in the capital.
Subhrata rejoiced. He was going to return to his village and could tell tales of all the lands he had seen while following Agnisakha’s wandering, discovering different fruits and foods, and local songs from the places King Satakarni’s soldiers had seized. He felt rich with memories; he had met all kinds of people and different languages, had heard screams of pain and laughs of glee from wars and victories.
But Subhrata, at his young age, did not yet know what was stipulated in the full text of the Ashvamedha Parwa.
He did not know that when Agnisakha returned to the city, there would be six stakes covered in shining royal cloth, bejeweled with gold. There the horse would be tethered among hundreds of other animals. This would be the center of the ceremony.
The ceremony was solemn and savage. All the animals tethered there were quickly slaughtered. Except for Agnisakha. A more spectacular killing awaited Subhrata’s friend.
At the appointed time, the King arrived. With red paint he made a sign in three places on the body of the fine horse. That was where the sharp spears were thrust. Agnisakha was killed. And all the nobles and priests present imagined themselves to be witnessing an event in the Mahabharata: it was as though all the different Apsara were dancing, and the Gandarva were singing.
And of course Agnisakha was no more.
And the scene: The King sitting near the body of the horse that had been cut into three, the blood still flowing all around. And soon the meat was cooked and prepared for serving. Those present were glad.
And it ended with 16 priests with wise faces throwing Agnisakha’s bones into a bonfire. The king rose from his throne. He smelt the aroma from the soaring smoke—and that was the end of the ceremony: the holy book says this is the moment the king gets the true Sakra power.
Subhrata did not watch all this. He was struck dumb when the brahmins speared Agnisakha. He held back his tears. Then he ran from the crowded field. He did not even want to imagine the look of pain in his fellow traveler.
But what could he do? He could not contradict holy writ.
The next morning, before his parents stirred, he left home, walking in the opposite direction to Agnisakha’s wandering the year before. He went into the forest to the north of the mountain.
His parents and village friends would never find him again,
Years later, an ascetic was found at that place, who had written an almost illegible text. Only four lines could be deciphered—which can be interpreted in today’s words as follows:
“From one moment to the next, humankind hides its greed with euphemism. Humans kill to obtain boons from the gods. They separate themselves from Agnisakha, from nature and legends, and perpetrate life with cunning, calculation and subjugation. And they win—forgetting something is wounded in life.
This is what makes humankind capable of cruelty, and unperturbed in greed. In the world, as in heaven.”