Saturday, September 15, 2007

Rajasuya , Sunahsepa and the Royal Dog

The Rajasuya ceremony was a sacred consecration of the king in Vedic and Hindu India similar to the Aswamedha horse sacrifice in that the ruler sought through the ritual to become a universal monarch like the god Varuna.

Baptism with water and the drinking of Soma beverage and wine were features of the ceremony along with the recitation of the story of Sunahsepa.

According to the Aitareya Brahmana, a commentary on the Vedas from which we get the Sunahsepa tale, King Hariscanda has 100 wives but no sons and is told by priests to ask Varuna for a son with the promise that he will sacrifice the boy after birth.

After his first and only son Rohita is born, the king postpones the sacrifice until the prince eventually refuses to cooperate and retreats to the forest. Led by the gods, Hariscanda's son wanders until he finds the starving brahmin Ajigarta who had three sons, Sunapuccha (dog's hindquarters), Sunahsepa (dog's phallus) and Sunalangula (dog's tail).

Rohita offers 100 cows for one of the sons to act as his replacement in the sacrifice, and the father Ajigarta agrees. The father wants to keep the eldest son, the mother wants the youngest, and both compromise on the middle son to replace the prince in the sacrifice in exchange for the cows.

The priest Visvamitra performs the Rajasuya rites for Harischandra.

However, Sunahsepa prays to Prajapati and other gods until finally Ushas, the Dawn, answers his prayers and loosens his bonds. King Harischandra is simultaneously cured of an ailment of dropsy.

Visvamitra then adopts Sunahsepa to be the eldest of his 100 sons to which the latter agrees. Fifty of Visvamitra's true sons refuse to accept Sunahsepa saying it would be akin to cooking dog. For this they are are condemned by their father to become dog-cooking forest tribes.

Ancient rite

Although the name "Rajasuya" is not used in the ancient Rgveda, the book does mention Sunahsepa with reference to his prayers while tied up prior to the sacrifice. The Rajasuya is mentioned in the Yajurveda, and the Aitareya Brahmana dedicates a book to the ceremony using Rgvedic mantras.

That this story is very old is indicated by the fact that it is told in an ancient gatha meter. Sunahsepa himself is said by tradition to be the author of 100 verses in the first book of the Rgveda. The Sunahsepa story and the description of the Rajasuya in the Aitareya Brahmana constitute a rare exposition in terms of scope for a Vedic ritual.

Also, the Sunahsepa story appears to refer to a more ancient ritual that formed the model for both the Rajasuya and Aswamedha ceremonies -- that of the sacred regicide or "sacrifice of the king."

Ritual sacrifice of the king was a practice present until very recently in Africa and Southeast Asia. Lord Raglan, who conducted a study of this ritual, believed that it had originated in Southeast or South Asia, and spread from that center: "My general that there arose, probably in southeast Asia, and at least 6000 years ago, a religion centering about the cult of a divine king who was periodically killed."

Raglan's theory on a unicentric origin to this practice is certainly open to question. I have suggested that regicide, in the form at least of a mock sacrifice, and linked specifically to a dog totem or dog lineage indeed originates from a Southeast Asian center.

Originally this was conceived, in my view, through the idea of the universe constructed in a pantheistic fashion from the body of the "creator" deity. At first, this deity was considered a divine parent or parents and involved parricide committed by the deities' children.

However, with the rise of a certain dominant clan in the Nusantao trading network, this concept was transferred to the son or "prince" rather than the parents. The lineage of this prince formed the foundation of a clan confederacy whose priest-king leaders claimed ancestry from a certain divine or celestial dog.

At some point the dog becomes the pantheistic deity, or at least partially so. We find throughout many areas of Southeast Asia and the circum-Pacific region the theme of the marriage of a dog with a goddess or princess. This motif sometimes just involves the marriage of someone from Heaven, of divine nature, with a mortal from Earth, and sometimes the sex of the divine and mortal characters is reversed. However, the dog is nearly always thought of as male.

In some of the latter type of myths in the southern Philippines and Borneo, we hear that the child of the Sky-Earth marriage is eventually divided in half when the couple separates or argues. One half becomes a new mortal being, while the other half is used to create different celestial phenomenon, animals, diseases, etc.

Although in these myths, the male is not viewed as a dog or dog-man, in one series found among the Manobo and Bagobo of Mindanao, the male hero Lumabat is accompanied by dogs in his visit to the goddess. It appears at some point, the themes of the dog-man and the division of the body diverged.

Widespread myths and folktales in Insular Southeast Asia of the "half-one," a person with a body divided in half usually in a vertical fashion, may derive from an original theme of the divided body of the half-divine, half-human son. In some cases of the half-one theme, we also see the opposition of Sky and Earth.

In China, the "Celestial Dog" was linked with the falling of meteors , the sighting of comets and other ominous or prophetic celestial phenomenon. We also find that the Celestial Dog appears in human form, having descended from heaven, as a type of were-dog, beliefs that have correspondence to those found in Southeast Asian lore.

What appears to have happened is that older beliefs of the formation of the cosmos from the parts of a divine parent or parents were partially and sometimes wholly combined with beliefs about the royal son of the dog lineage. The prince was seen as a type of the pantheistic deity, and his sacrifice, probably originally a mock sacrifice, brought about the regeneration needed for the new season of crop-growing, livestock-raising, fishing, etc.

Archaeological trail

I have suggested previously in this blog that the spread of the dog lineage theme coincided with the expansion of what could be called the Pre- or Proto-Lungshanoid culture along with the latter fully-formed Lungshanoid or Lungshanoid-like cultures of coastal East and Southeast Asia.

Chinese traditional histories date the activities of the Dongyi "Eastern Yi" peoples along the coasts to the Lungshanoid period. Fu Shi is sometimes said to be a founder of the Dongyi confederation in eastern China. His name indicates a type of "dog-man" theme with the sacrifice motif also present. Fu Hsi is first mentioned either in the I Ching or by Chuang Tzu, depending on how one dates the references in the I Ching.

Shell mound cultures sites, which I have suggested represented types of Nusantao forward teams of explorers living in semi-nomadic boat communities, pop up at great distances from Southeast Asia at this time. These sites often have some or many aspects related to the Lungshanoid-type cultural complex.

During this period, the practice of ritual regicide in combination with the dog lineage motif probably spread widely morphing into different forms along the way.

The story of Sunahsepa apparently relates the substitution of the brahmin for the king's first-born son -- the crown prince in societies that practice male primogeniture. We can speculate whether these ideas along with submerged practices among the royal dynasties of India not found in the literature contributed to the latter Tantric development of royal brahmanicide.

In royal brahmancide that involves Bhairava, who often has the form of a dog, the deity represents the king, and the slaying of the brahmin can be seen as a form of Indra, the Vedic king of the god's, decapitation of his priest Vishvarupa. Only the idea of the brahmin as substitute is missing, possibly submerged as the regicide ideology faded.

That Sunahsepa and his brothers are named after body parts of a dog recalls the Panhu-like concept of the cosmic canine. We also see in the royal Aswamedha and Purusamedha sacrifices that the corpse is divided and the parts recapitulated in simulation of the division of the Cosmic Purusa, whose body parts were used to create the cosmos in Vedic literature. As noted earlier in this blog, the Aswamedha ceremony itself starts with a ritual that can be taken as representing the transference of the dog ritual to the horse (and probably earlier, the water buffalo).

Eventually in Vedic practice at least, the brahmin substitute for the king's first-born son was itself replaced with the simple telling of the rescue of Sunahsepa, a metaphor for the freeing of the brahmin from human sacrifice rituals.

Paul Kekai Manansala

Related links

Dog as deity, ancestor and royal animal
Article: Dog reverence in Southeast Asia and Pacific
Interpretations of the Dog Husband Theme
Deluge, Gourd, Dog Husband
Single origin for domesticated dog in Southeast Asia and South China


Lord Raglan. "Reply to Bascom," Journal of American Folklore 70(1957), 359-60.

MacDonald, Charles. "Earth and Sky in Philippine and Indonesian Mythology," Philippine Studies (1992) V. 40, 2nd Qtr, 141-152.