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52: Shunashepa

Several stories in the Indian Mythology appear in several places and in disjoint forms, often contradicting each other. This creates further confusion in the minds of the reader, if there are any readers in this time and age, and further alienates these wonderful narratives from even the casually curious minds. It has been my endeavor here to try and put some of these stories and parables in simple, user-friendly language. I do not think it as a 'modern re-telling' - as it has become popular these days and quite lucrative too, if I can add ... but simply going over the stories that I know from childhood to have a fresh look.

Today, the story I want to revisit is the well-known story of Shunashepa (शुनःशेप), the poor boy who was sent for sacrifice by his own father in exchange of livelihood.

Shunashepa literally means the 'tail of a dog'. There is no explanation that I am aware of that explains the etymology of this rather peculiar name. Anyway, the story begins with a king from the Solar dynasty  - the same one which Ram belonged to. There is a bit of confusion about who he was. Some versions say that his name was Ambarish (अम्बरीश ), while others say it was Hrishchandra. Most likely, the reason for this confusion is that in both cases there is a narrative about sacrificing the first born son, and in both stories the coincidence is that the name of that son happens to be Rohit. Anyway, since Harishchandra is known for that another very famous story, let us agree that the king in this story is Ambarish.

So, Ambarish is without a child for a long time. He consults the sage Narada, and as Narada is known to help humans (usually the king type), he tells the king that he should appease god Varuna to bestow him a boon for a child. So Ambarish learns the rituals, and does a penance. In due course, Varuna is pleased with Ambarish's devotion to him and asks what he could do for the king. The king asks for a heir to his throne. However, Varuna is looking for someone for his own duty, and so he gives the king the blessing but with a condition. The king will get a son, but he needs to sacrifice this son to Varuna when he turns 12.

Desperate in his desire for a son, Ambarish agrees to the cruel condition, and, presto, gets a son alright. Try not to think of Rumpelstiltskin,okay?

The son is called Rohit. He grows up a fine boy, and is a delight to watch. But as he grows towards his 12th year, king Ambarish gets more and more depressed thinking about the impending doom. As he turns 12, Varuna turns up at the night before the birthday and asks Ambarish for the sacrifice. Ambarish cries and says that his son is not yet ready. Varuna, seeing the father's tears, melts in his resolve and decides to give him one more year.

The next year, Ambarish again cries and comes up with some other reason. Varuna, being the gentle god, again gives Ambarish one more year.

This goes on for several years, but Ambarish is aware that the tactic is wearing thin as each year goes by, and by the time Rohit  nears his 18th birthday, he is sure it will not work this time around. Varuna has threatened in the last meeting that for the next one he is going to get the lord of gods, Indra, and also his other Aditya brother Vishnu along too  - just to ensure that Ambarish does not play any games. Nervous about having to finally lose his son, Ambarish falls ill with despair and takes to bed.

Curious about what made his dad suddenly fall into a depression, Rohit one day confronts his father and cajoles him to tell him the truth. Unable to bear the weight of the curse anymore, Ambarish spills out the story about Varuna and the penance and the birth and the condition.

Rohit does not know what to do. He feels angry. He feels betrayed. He calls his father names. Why did he not tell him before? And who would do this silly trade? Didn't Ambarish want a heir to his throne? What is a point of begetting a son if he is not going to see him after his 12 years? And what kind of father would allow his son to be sacrificed anyway?

Eventually, Rohit calms down. Slowly he begins to understand why Ambarish would have made this deal. He sits beside him, and asks him whether a barter is possible.

Ambarish sits up, as if he suddenly sees a light at the end of the tunnel, and says this can be tried. But, the 'victim' must be willing. The sacrifice cannot be forced, as Varuna might not accept it. Rohit assures his father he will go out and try to find. Well, he better hurry, his father says, as his own neck is on the block.

Out on his own, Rohit goes around the kingdom in search of a willing candidate. While on his tour in the fringes of his kingdom, he comes across an extremely poor and starving commoner Brahim called Ajigarta. This fellow seems rather needy. He is going around the town, trying to find some food, as was the practice with Brahims of the time. Rohit gives him some food, and asks him about his family. Ajigarta says he has three sons. Rohit asks him if he will be willing to sacrifice one of them  - anyway he has three (!) - in exchange of a sustainable means of livelihood. Which, in those days, were cows. So Rohit promises Ajigarta a hundred cows in exchange of one of his sons  - any one.

Ajigarta goes home and narrates the offer to his wife. At first his wife cannot bear the thought, but the Brahmin goes on. He explains the offer, and then dreamily adds how he cannot sacrifice his elder son, as he is already helping him in the daily work. Irked by this, his wife starts ranting how she is unable to think about the youngest child being sacrificed as he is so dear to her, and also so .. so young!

Sadly, Shunashepa, the middle son is at home at this. He is normally at his guru's place - Vishwamitra (विश्वामित्र ), but for some reason he has returned to collect his belongings. He listens to the two parents and cannot believe his ears. A wave of self-loathing comes over him and he steps in. He tells his father that since none of them really cared about the second son, he might as well sacrifice himself. At least he will die in the hope that his death has given his thankless family some means to survive the world.

Ajigarta and his wife realize their folly, but it is too late. Shunashepa takes the matters in his own hands, now determined with a purpose. You can literally see how his own sad life must have flashed across his eyes in those moments, and perhaps gave him nothing worth living any further. He walks up to the crown prince Rohit and tells him that he is willing. Rohit is excited with this, and tells Shunashepa to come with his retinue, while he himself rushes to the king to give him the news and prepare for the sacrificial rites.

Shunashepa, melancholy about his life so far as well as his impending doom, slowly starts his journey towards the palace, while his parents try in vein to change his mind. While on his way, he prays to his guru sage Vishwamitra for strength. It is said that he meets the powerful sage somewhere during the journey, and upon hearing his plight, Vishwamitra teaches him two sets of hymns - one in the praise of Indra and another in the praise of Vishnu. He knows that once his brothers are pacified, Varuna will not harm Shunashepa.

So the poor boy reaches the city. There is a lot of preparation done for the sacrifice, and a large pyre is built in the middle of the central chowk. Shunashepa proceeds to this, where he is received like a royal dignatory by the king, his queens and the crown prince. He is given a nice fragrant bath, silk robes and food before he ascends the pyre.

Once Shunashepa is on the pyre, and the sacrificial rituals begin, the boy looks up, calls out Indra and Vishnu and starts singing the verses taught to him by the great sage. It is said that the verses carry such melody and beauty as is not heard before on Earth. All proceedings come to a halt, and the people hear as the verses roll out from the sacrificial boy's lips.

Indra and Varuna and Vishnu listen to these, and they are immensely pleased. They also know that this poetry is other-worldly and does not belong to the boy. They ask Shunashepa where he learnt these verses, and he tells them about sage Vishwamithra. When the gods realize that the boy has the blessings from the Brahma-Rishi Vishamithra, they are pleased even further, and cancel the sacrificial plan altogether. Not just that, but they bestow long life upon the boy, and general welfare, good monsoon and agriculture to Ambarish's lands.

So what could have been a tragic human sacrifice turns out to be a happy incident for all involved. The story is interesting in many aspects, apart from the obvious human sacrifice angel. But what I like the most, are two things - the sense of duty and lack of fear in the face of adversities in Shunashepa.

One can also say the same about, and you might not agree, in Rohit too  - although what I find in him more is an attitude to not give up and find a solution to an impending problem just by trying out something new.

P.S. Apparently, the hymns Shunashepa sang in the praise of Indra still exist and are found the scriptures (Rig Veda Book 1 Hymns 24-30), but the one for Vishnu has gone missing.

23 August 2015

Deviations from other sources:

1. In some stories, the ritual is Ambarish performing a rain ritual for Indra. It seems that the sacrificial animal (bull) runs away at the last moment, and Indra is infuriated with this negligence. He asks for a human sacrifice as a punishment. And Ambarish goes in search of a willing human sacrifice instead of Rohit.

2. In these versions, Shunashepa is the son of sage Richika and wife Satyavati, who is a sister of Vishwamithra. This is totally contradictory to other stories related to Vishwamithra though, and does not fit into the canonical narrative in which Richika is the grandfather of Vishwamithra. See here for a more detailed rendering of this topic.

3. In some versions, Rohit's character is darker. He accuses his father of betrayal and just dashes into a forest rather than trying to find a solution. There he comes across Ajigarta, but that is just a lucky coincidence for him. Lucky for him, not so lucky for Shunashepa.

4. There is a whole lot of narrative about how Vishwamithra praised Shunashepa's efforts in front of his own sons, and asked them to replace him. On this, his sons laughed and said that this idea is preposterous. Come on, which father asks his sons to go willingly for a sacrifice? Hearing this, Vishwamithra cursed his own sons to be born in low castes in their next births. All this sounds too long drawn and rather irrelevant to the main story.

5. The gods appeased by Shunashepa - in some versions they are Indra and Varuna. In others they are Indra and 'Upendra' - which is Vishnu.

6. In some versions, Vishwamithra is the lead priest of the sacrificial yagna. When he sees the boy, he feels sorry for him and teaches him the hymns just before the rites begin.