Reading Guide. Earlier, you saw examples of the ashwamedha, or horse sacrifice, in the Ramayana, and now you will see that it is time for Yudhishthira to claim imperial kingship by means of this ritual.
Source. Indian Myth and Legend by Donald A. Mackenzie (1913). [700 words]
In the days that followed, Yudhishthira lamented over the carnage of the great war, nor could he be comforted. At length Vyasa, the sage, appeared before him and advised that he should perform the horse sacrifice to atone for his sins.
Then search was made for a moon-white horse with yellow tail and one black ear, and when it was found a plate of gold, inscribed with the name of Yudhishthira, was tied upon its forehead. Thereafter the horse was let loose, and was allowed to wander wheresoever it desired. A great army, which was led by Arjuna, followed the horse.
Now it was the custom in those days that when the sacred horse entered a raj, that raj was proclaimed to be subject to the king who performed the ceremony. And if any ruler detained the horse, he was compelled to fight with the army which followed the wandering animal. Should he be overcome in battle, the opposing rajah immediately joined forces with those of the conqueror, and followed the horse from kingdom to kingdom. For a whole year the animal was allowed to wander thus.
The horse was let loose on the night of full moon in the month of Choitro.
Arjuna met with many adventures. He fought against a rajah and the son of a rajah, who had a thousand wives in the country of Malwa, and defeated them. But Agni, who had married a daughter of the rajah, came to rescue his kin. He fought against Arjuna with fire, but Arjuna shot celestial arrows which produced water. Then the god made peace, and the rajah who had detained the horse went away with Arjuna.
Thereafter the horse came to a rock which was the wife of a rishi who had been thus transformed because of her wickedness. "So will you remain," her husband had said, "until Yudhishthira performs the Ashwamedha ceremony." The horse was unable to leave the rock. Then Arjuna touched the rock, which immediately became a woman, and the horse was set free.
In time the horse entered the land of women warriors, and the queen detained it, and came forth with her warriors to fight against Arjuna, who, however, made peace with them and went upon his way. Thereafter the holy steed reached a strange country where men and women and horses and cows and goats grew upon mighty trees like to fruit, and came to maturity and died each day. The rajah came against Arjuna, but was defeated. Then all the army fled to the islands of the sea, for they were daityas, and Arjuna plundered their dwellings and obtained much treasure.
Once the horse entered a pond, and was cursed by the goddess Parvati, and it became a mare; it entered another pond and became a lion, owing to a brahmin's spell.
In the kingdom of Manipura the horse was seized, and soldiers armed with fire weapons were ready to fight against the Pandavas and their allies. But when the rajah, whose name was Babhruvahana, discovered that the horse bore the name of Yudhishthira, he said, "Arjuna is my sire;" and he went forth and made obeisance, and put his head under the foot of the Pandava hero. But Arjuna spurned him, saying, "If I were thy sire, thou wouldst have no fear of me."
Then the rajah challenged Arjuna to battle, and was victorious on that day. He took all the great men prisoners, and he severed Arjuna's head from his body with a crescent-bladed arrow. The rajah's mother, Chitrangada, was stricken with sorrow, as was also Ulupi, the daughter of Vasuki, the king of serpents, who had borne a son to Arjuna.
But Ulupi remembered that her sire possessed a magic jewel which had power to restore a dead man to life, and she sent the rajah of Manipura to obtain it from the underworld. But the nagas refused to give up the jewel, whereupon Arjuna's mighty son fought against them with arrows which were transformed into peacocks, and the peacocks devoured the serpents. Then the naga king delivered up the magic jewel, and the rajah returned with it. He touched the body of Arjuna with the jewel, and the hero came to life again, and all his wounds were healed. When he departed from Manipura city the rajah, his son, accompanied him.
So from kingdom to kingdom the horse wandered while the army followed, until a year had expired. Then it returned to Hastinapura.