ALLEGORY OF THE ASVAMEDHA AND SOCIETY
THE EMERGENCE OF THE NEW COMMONALTY
(Brhadaranyaka Upanishad 1-1,2,3)
Brhadaranyaka Upanishad begins with an allegory of the society being presented as a horse (asva). Its different parts are compared to the different sectors of the body politic of that society.
This allegory cannot be appreciated correctly if we proceed under the assumption that the horse, which had been taken round the country protected by a battalion of the ambitious conqueror, was at the end killed in a sacrifice.
The poet was ‘dissecting’ the horse, that is, the large commonalty whose members had no personal property and who did not qualify to be called ‘sva’ or patriciate. This ‘dissection’ was intended to bring out the diverse functions, which the different sectors of the apparently undifferentiated Vedic society were performing.
Officials of the middle Vedic polity: Usha, Surya, Vayu, Agni
The poet draws the attention of the reader first to the head, eye, breath and open mouth of the horsea and recalls through comparison the roles of the different officials of the middle Vedic age, Usha, Surya, Vayu and Agni.
I have pointed out that the western Indologists and their Indian adherents have erred seriously in holding that these were gods of the polytheistic or pantheistic Vedic society.
Until Indra came to the fore, Usha (dawn) was the chief of the patriciate (divam). This proud lady had occupied a very high place in the normative Vedic assembly of thirty-three members and been shunted down its ranks for violation of its codes. She had dared to block the flow of waters to the fields of others.
Surya (sun) was the powerful general and Vayu (wind) was the omnipresent observer of the conduct of all persons and Agni who represented the free universal man, Vaisvanara, and his free will was the chief of the intellectuals and functioned as the civil judge.
Three Social Worlds of the Larger Polity: Divam, Antariksham, Prthvi
The allegory compares the body of the horse (that is, the body politic of the larger society), which gives it its identity (atma) with the year (samvatsara). He compares its limbs (anga) with the seasons (rtu) of the year, the joints with months and fortnights and the feet with days and nights.
The allegory compares the three social worlds (lokas), the patriciate (dyau), the intermediate and frontier society (antariksham) and the agrarian commonalt (prthvi) with the back, belly and hoof of the horse.
The Vedic poets visualized the society as comprising not only these three social worlds but also those residing in the four regions or directions and in the eight radial intermediate directions. The sides of the horse are compared with these directions and its ribs with the radial directions.
The poet would compare its bones with the nakshatras, (stars), a term used to refer to the classes which were not engaged in governance of the polity and its flesh with the clouds in the sky. The food in its stomach is compared with the grains of sand and its blood vessels with the rivers. The liver and the lungs are compared with the mountains and the mien with the herbs and trees.
The horse is facing the rising sun in the front and its hind part the setting sun. Sunlight, thunder and rain are compared to its functions like yawning, tremor and urination. The utterance of the body politic which the horse represents is compared to its neighing.
The poet visualizes this horse as straddling this subcontinent with the eastern sea appearing like a bowl placed in front and the western sea like a bowl placed behind it. The day is compared with the great bowl (sea) in the east and the night with that in the west.
This allegory, which belongs to the Satapatha Brahmana school of thought requires us to visualize the Vedic society as composed of nobles (devas), the free class (gandharvas), the feudal warlords (asuras) and the commonalty (manushyas).
The term asva, the common horse, is retained to denote the commonalty (manushyas) that has been subordinated by the conqueror. The nobles (devas) who are not subordinate to him are denoted by the highly valued haya, steed. Vaji or stallion denotes the class of free intellectuals-cum-warriors, gandharvas. It cannot be easily tamed. The term, arva, runner, denotes the feudal elements, the asuras. The poet draws attention to the emergence of these four classes.
Devas, gandharvas, asuras and manushyas
Metaphysics has tended to compare the common horse (asva) with jivatma, man’s soul and the sea with paramatma, the great soul or God.
The sociological approach adopted in the current analysis keeps away from such comparison. It recommends a similar scrutiny of the ‘dissection’ of the body politic of humanity, especially of its leadership, purusha, while providing an appraisal of the famous Vedic hymn, Purusha Sukta. (Vide Ch.2 Evolution of Social Polity of Ancient India-VN.)
Asva, which the ruler conquered, represented the commonalty rooted in the earth. The analysis of its features brings out the presence of the three social worlds, divam, antariksham and prthvi and populations outside these three organized social sectors. What emerged as the constituents of the core society after identification of these sectors of the larger society are presented as four distinct strata, devas, gandharvas, asuras and manushyas. (1-1)
From Insentience (Mrtyu) to One with Identity (Atma)
Mind (Manas) as Activating Force
The sages then deliberate on what was there in the beginning and how objects and living beings and systems and functions evolved. They agree that all these evolved out of ‘nothing’. In other words, they were not the creations of any individual or of even God. Living and active beings emerged from matter, that was still (asana) and lifeless (mrtyu). Whatever lacks dynamism is lifeless, insentient. If it is posited that there has to be an active force, which activates what is insentient, that active force is called mind, manas.
It is the mind that makes one seek to have a personal identity (atma). The first man who had a mind and individuality of his own moved about arousing others to activity by sprinkling (holy water on their insentient bodies).
That water itself was a product of his act of sprinkling (archa). As sprinkling of that water aroused the otherwise insentient body to action, it is called ‘arka’, the fire that has heat.
The poet briefs the conqueror who was activating an insentient society to know the relation between water and fire, that fire (arka) is an evolute of water (apa). What was hot lava (arka) cooled to become water (apa) and as the froth of the water moved off (sara) it left behind the earth (prthvi).
The commoner rested on the earth and as the resting individual became ‘heated’ (tapta), that is, began to exert himself and ceased to be in torpor, his essential (rasa) greatness (tejas) uncovered (revealed, niravartat) itself. The inner ‘flame’ underlying this greatness is called ‘agni’ (1-2-1,2). Some have identified the person who rested on the earth with Prajapati and some others with Viraj.
This talented and settled commonalty one of whose members became agni because of his personal greatness (tejas) and exertion (tapas) may be classified on the basis of three personal (atma) traits.
Social Classification and three traits: Sattva, Rajas, Tamas
It would seem that the sages were wont to identify these personal traits as sattva, rajas and tamas, a classification that has come down the ages. A similar classification could be effected among the members of the governing class (headed by the official designated as aditya) and those of the non-settled communities (headed by the official, vayu). But the poet does not clarify that the body politic of the society is classified on the basis of these innate traits.
Krshna insisted on classifying the society and human activities on the basis of these three innate traits (gunas).
The first editors of the Dharmasastra, which was then on the anvil took them into account though not so rigorously as he desired.
The asva, this body politic, is ‘dissected’ into three parts: (a) the head and the two arms or forelimbs, (b) the rear tail and the two hipbones and the two sides, left and right, and (c) the central body which includes, the back (dhio), the belly (antariksham) and the chest (upper class of commonalty, prthvi).
The sage includes all the three social worlds (dhio, antariksham and prthvi, the patriciate, the intermediate society and the commonalty) in the enlarged core society. He however keeps the head and the arms, the intelligentsia and the class of armed warriors and administrators separate from it.
So too the classes in the rear and on the sides are distinguished from the three sectors of the core society. He who recognizes the implications of this analysis stands firm in the flowing stream (water, apa) and prays, without losing his attachment to the earth under it. Such a scholar, vidvan, wherever he goes, stands firm in his concept of social relations among the different sectors of the larger society. (1-2-3)
The second small experimental social system
The asva, the common horse that represents the civic society as described above ‘desired’ to have another of its own nature as its companion and expressed in words what was in its mind. From the still and sentient mass where it cast its seed, it ‘produced’ within a year this companion. Till then such genetic reproduction that could take place in a year was not in vogue. What was thus born faced the danger of being swallowed by ‘time’ (often interpreted as ‘death’).
The newborn cried and thus speech was born. It needs to be remarked here that mere transliteration of the passages of the Upanishads and clouding them in mysticism is inadequate. We have to make a bold attempt at presenting a correct picture of the social polity that the sages who compiled the Upanishads were acquainted with and in which they lived.
The poet visualizes the birth of a second social system from that of the first. The new one was intended to be the companion of the older system. This new system and social polity was not intended to meet the food needs of the former larger society. It was a 0miniature rather than a replica of that larger body politic.
The small but vocal social system brought forth all the literature that was in existence, the Rg, Yajur and Sama Vedas and the practice of yajnas (sacrifices) and the recognition of who were prajas (domiciles of the country) and which animals were tamed and cherished ones (pasu). This experimental social polity decided to survive on what it had produced rather than on what grew in nature on its own. In other words it would survive on agriculture.
Larger Agrarian Core Society vis-a-vis Non-Agrarian Society
Aditi (one of the three officials of the core society, the other two being Viraj and Prajapati) dictated this policy. One who realizes this is eligible to partake the food prepared from the crops cultivated, that is, is said to be a revered intellectual-cum-guest. (1-2-4,5)
The Upanishadic sages who outlined the features of the social polity of their times noted that unlike the Vedic polity that identified three social worlds (lokas) theirs had a larger core society depending on agriculture. All its members whether natives (janas) or new domiciles were entitled to be called ‘prajas’.
The pastoral society that was looking after the tamed animals and the sections of the frontier society dependent on untamed animals stood apart from the above agrarian society. Two societies, agrarian and non-agrarian, were visualized.
The poet-sage says that the venture for creation of a new social system did not end with the formation of an essentially agrarian core society, which was coeval with the emergence of the system of sacrifice, yajna, and the composition of the three Vedas. The ambitious social activist was not satisfied with the formation of a miniature core society. He pooled the available resources to perform a greater ‘sacrifice’ to bring about a mega-society and this required great effort (tapas) even while staying calm.
(We deliberately refrain from using the term, ‘community’, as in the Indian context it has come to be associated with the concept, jati.) Jati as a socio-economic community is part of the native population (jana).
The term, loka, is described as a social world with distinct common orientations irrespective of the varied economic pursuits of its members. Jagat is described as a social universe that lacks common orientations and has little control over its members.
Mega Society and Active Educated Agrarian Core Society
The result of this effort was his securing his object and fame (yasa) and power to create new things (virya). As the pranas, breaths, rose high, his body, that is, the body politic began to swell (with more sections of the masses getting amalgamated in the existing society).
The mind thereafter began to rest on this (new) body. That is, the social thinker took into account the features and functions of this larger social system. [There is no theology or mysticism involved in this description of the evolutionary process where the larger system developed a miniature core society and then a mega social order through the efforts of the activist thinkers of the Vedic period.]
The asvamedha sacrifice had a great purpose. There was an effort to imbue this mega society with the characteristics of the active educated agrarian core society. (1-2-6)
Conquest and Society of All Human Beings
The social activist submitted the body politic of this larger society which he identified himself with to an analysis of its functions and organization and structure. It was given the form of a large horse, a form needed for such analysis as earlier done with the common horse, asva.
One, who visualizes the society as a horse, knows the objective of this analysis or dissection, called asvamedha. He let it be free, that is, he was only thinking about how the mega-society should be organized and its activities regulated. After one year he ‘adopted’ it, gave it to himself (atmana).
This society of all human beings living on natural resources was under the jurisdiction of the ‘conqueror-cum-social activist’. He allowed the elite (devatas) of the other society to look after the other animals (pasu). This elite took charge of the pastoral and forest economy while that of the commonalty everywhere was under the care of this ‘conqueror’.
That is, according to the editors of this Upanishad, pastoral and forest economy was under the control of devatas, the chiefs of the frontier society and not under devas, the chiefs of the core society. The reorganization left the animals under the care of the devatas who were essentially plutocrats, but brought the owners of the herds and their employees under the jurisdiction of the cultural aristocracy, devas.
Prajapati in charge of all men of the mega society
Devatas in charge of other beings
All the human beings who had earlier been placed under the elite of the other society are now handed over to the Prajapati, the chief of the people of the larger society. While all men of this mega society are to be cared for by the Prajapati, a socio-political authority devatas who were members of the elite of the other society took care of the other living beings. [The concept, ‘society’, covers all living beings.]
The poet then clarifies that the process of dissection or analysis of the society is one that requires exertion (tapas) (which releases the heat in the body). who looked after the food needs of all living beings),
This new enlarged core society, which the horse now represents, is one year old, that is, it is new and not yet developed fully or self-reliant. During this one year there has been a rearrangement of jurisdiction. The elite (whose members the devatas were) has given up control over human society and has taken under its protection the other living beings, pasu, while all men whether in the erstwhile core society or in the extended society or in the mega society have become subordinate to the Prajapati, chief of the people.
Increasing influence of Agni in the enlarged core society and Dissolution of the class of nobles (devas)
In this arrangement Agni, the head of the council (samiti) of scholars and the commonalty, discharges the role of Arka. In the Vedic polity, the official in charge of collection of revenue from the farmers was designated as Arka. He was gentle in his methods and the farmers did not feel that they were losing any portion of their crops.
As ‘Agni’ (who belonged to the commonalty and was subordinate to the Prajapati who convened the Sabha, the assembly of nobles, and the council of scholars and elders, Samiti) took over the role also of Arka (Surya) who was essentially a noble (deva), the mega society came under a modified political structure.
The class of nobles (devas) of the core society, which functioned under the supervision of Indra either merged in the elite of the other society or in the commonalty of the agrarian core society.
This led to a new social control system.
The Upanishads deal with division of powers and duties between Agni and Aditya (also known as Surya or Arka) rather than between Agni and Indra, an early Vedic practice. All the social worlds (lokas) came under the jurisdiction of Agni who was also Arka.
Arka heads the new commonalty (asva) that has to be analyzed (medha). This single society has the social traits of the new elite (devatas) and also those of the insentient commonalty (mrtyu). The early Vedic society was essentially dichotomous. It had an agro-pastoral core society surrounded by an industrial society of the forests and mountains.
Each of them was dichotomous, with the commonalty of the former functioning under the gentle nobles, devas, and the commonalty of the latter working as directed by the covetous plutocrats, yakshas, who were later given the status of devatas.
Agni head of the new executive in charge of economy
When the two societies were integrated, all economic activities were placed under the charge of Agni, the officer of the judiciary. He became the headof the new executive also as Arka.
One who knows this (that though a commoner, he has the traits of the nobility in him) conquers the traits of insentient commonalty (mrtyu). [It is not sound to interpret the term, mrtyu, as signifying ‘death’.] The insentient commonalty (mrtyu) cannot keep him under its thrall. Only physically he is part of it.
Agni culturally a devata
But in his cultural traits he is part of the elite (devatas) of the other society, which has now been merged in the mega society referred to above. Thus a new culturally rich commonalty emerges at the end of the asvamedha yajna. It is necessary to distinguish between devas who constituted the liberal aristocracy of the core society that stood apart from its agrarian commonalty and the devatas who formed the stratum of plutocrats and technocrats of the industrial society. [They were not gods or demigods.](1-2-7)