The boy sold by his parents

The story goes back to early antiquity, to the fabled times of no less than “good King Harishchandra” of Ayodhya, to when the gods are said to have walked openly amongst mortals.
The boy sold by his parents
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Old scripture contains some raw stuff but it’s worth knowing. This nasty but moving story that many people don’t get to hear for reasons you’ll soon notice, is from the Aitareya Brahmana section of the Rig Veda. It goes back to early antiquity, to the fabled times of no less than “good King Harishchandra” of Ayodhya, to when the gods are said to have walked openly amongst mortals. The story goes that King Harishchandra had no son to inherit the kingdom.

He went for counseling to Devrishi Narada, the hugely popular wandering sage. As advised by Narada, Harishchandra prayed to the ancient god Varuna but came out having made a dreadful bargain—a life for a life. Harishchandra would get his son but at some point, he had to offer a human life in exchange to Varuna. Perhaps the god was testing him, in which case Harishchandra had spectacularly failed.

Soon enough, Prince Rohitasva (Sanskrit for ‘Red Horse’) was born to gladden Raja Harishchandra’s heart and the old bargain was conveniently forgotten. But when Rohitasva grew up Varuna testily reminded the king of his promise, just to see him run around; for under his goody-goody airs Harishchandra was guilty of vanity, the “I’m such a decent person” kind that the gods find particularly irritating. When the king nervously explained the matter to his rather spoilt son, Rohitasva rushed off around the kingdom to find a man to sacrifice to Varuna. Of course, nobody agreed to be offered up since human sacrifice was not the custom.

Rohitasva wandered around for nearly six years looking for a sacrificial victim and Harishchandra suffered agonies while he was away for Varuna was not amused by these delaying tactics and inflicted the most hideous stomach-ache on Harishchandra as a fine for defaulting.

At last, Rohitasva stumbled across Ajigarta, an an ex-priest whose belly ached from another punishment, hunger. Ajigarta, for all his grand bloodline from the important old sage Angiras, had been kicked out of his settlement for malpractice. Nobody would give him work after that and he had turned into a Vedic hillbilly, eking out a precarious existence in the woods with his wife and three sons, Shunapuchha, Shunashepa and Shunalangula. Ajigarta offered Rohitasva one of his sons for a hundred cows. However, he said he would not part with his eldest son whom he loved the best. Ajigarta’s wife set up a squall at once that she would not part with her youngest son, her baby.

“My parents don’t love me at all,” thought Shunashepa, the middle son, deeply shocked. “What’s the point of hanging on to life if nobody loves me, not even my mother?”He stepped forward, his face burning with the shame of it. “You may have me as your sacrifice, Prince,” he said politely.

Rohitasva took Shunashepa at once to the palace and Harishchandra decided to combine his sacrifice with the Rajasuya ceremony, which was his own anointment as ‘King of kings’. Four of the greatest sages of the age were to conduct the sacrifice –Vishwamitra as the hotr (the leader or conductor of the sacrifice), Jamadagni as the adhvaryu (the doer or manager of the fire and the offerings, especially the soma juice so pleasing to gods and men), Ayasya as the udgatr (the chanter of hymns from the Sama Veda) and Vasishta as the brahmana (the chanter of hymns from the Atharva Veda). But all four holy men refused to bind Shunashepa to the yupa or sacrificial stake and Rohitasva had to bribe Ajigarta, who had trailed along to see the fun, with another hundred cows to do it. Meanwhile, young Shunashepa, crushed by grief, tried to process two devastating things together; his parents’ rejection and the fact that he would soon be killed.

At the appointed hour when the altars had been built in strict accordance with sacred geometry, Shunashepa was led to the sacrificial stake and bound firmly to it by his own father. We can only imagine the horrible tension of the moment. The grim, set faces of the priests, the cords tied with deadly efficiency around the boy’s thin body, the bite of rope on skin.

The terrible silence was punctured only by the hiss and crackle of flames in the firepit where offerings would be poured, the lowing of a cow in the distance, the clink of an udhrani (spoon) on a panchapatra (beaker)—small sounds magnified to frightening loudness in that quiet.

The preliminary chants began, the magic meters twisting through the air to unravel the minds of the hearers and restring them into one luminous sutra to carry the heat of the sacred fire to the gods and hopefully please them.

Then, as the king reached for the sharp blade with which to slit his throat, the force of feeling that consumes the unloved shook Shunashepa. Coached in secret as his one chance by the leader of the sacrifice, Vishwamitra, whose name meant ‘Friend of All the World’, Shunashepa looked heavenwards.

Slokas poured from his throat, verses of unearthly beauty praising Varuna whose sacrifice he was. It was as though he gathered all the love that was denied him and offered it to the god as a parting gesture, a graceful act of generosity from someone who was helpless and possessed of nothing but his soul force as a human being.

The assembled rishis, rajas and praja sat stone-still. Nobody could move or speak in the spell of that sound. Slowly, so slowly that it went unnoticed at first, the cords binding Shunashepa loosened and slid to the ground. Shunashepa had pulled the god’s head down by the ear with his grace under pressure; he had uncurled Varuna’s fist into the open palm of anjali. He was adopted by Viswamitra after that and became a scholar of note. He cut his emotional losses and had no more truck with his parents whose ‘love’ had been exposed as hollow and not worth having.     

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