Prologue to the Ashwamedha
The deadly Kurukshetra war between Kauravas and Pandavas destroyed the very fabric of Indian politics. Besides, innumerable kingdoms were bereft of a capable ruler. In order to combat anarchy, Krishna advised Yudhishthira to perform the mighty ashwamedha or the horse sacrifice. This sacrifice ensured that all the kings, sages, warriors in the Indian subcontinent came under the imperial rule of Yudhishthira. Accordingly, all the princes of the land assembled to celebrate the sacrifice in great splendour. Learned sages and poor received bounteous gifts. The brahmins conformed to all the scriptural injunctions.
The strange weasel
From somewhere unseen, a weasel appeared right in the middle of the assembled guests and priests. After rolling on the ground, it laughed a loud human laugh as if in derision. The priests were alarmed at this strange occurrence and wondered whether it was some evil spirit that had come to pollute and disturb the sacred rites. The weasel’s body was shining gold on one side. This remarkable creature turned around and took a good view of the assembly of princes and learned brahmins and began to speak:
“Princes and priests, listen to me. You believe that you have completed your rituals in splendid style. However, once upon a time, a poor brahmin, who lived in Kurukshetra made a gift of a pound of maize flour. Your great horse sacrifice and all the gifts made in that connection are less than that small gift of the Kurukshetra brahmin. You seem to think too much of your ashwamedha yajna. Pray, be not so vain about it.”
The gathering was amazed at this strange and impertinent speech of the golden weasel. The brahmin priests, who had performed the sacrificial rites, went up to the weasel and spoke to it:
“Wherefrom and why have you come to this great sacrifice, performed by noblemen and why do you utter scornful words towards the yajna? It has been completed with every detail in accordance with scriptural injunctions. Everyone has been gifted and attended to. Please explain yourself.”
The weasel laughed again and said: “O brahmins, I neither mean to deride your efforts, nor king Yudhishthira’s great fortune. However, the sacrifice which you have performed so pompously is not as great an act as that gift of the poor brahmin, which I saw. Listen to my narrative.”
Athithi Devo Bhavah
The weasel began “Long before the Mahabharata war, a brahmin lived in Kurukshetra along with his wife, son and daughter in law. Gleaning fields was their source of food. Every day in the afternoon they would sit down and have their only meal for the day for many years. Once, a great drought came and there was famine all over the land. All cultivation ceased and there was neither sowing nor harvesting nor any grain scattered in the fields to be gleaned. For many days the brahmin and his family starved. However, one day, after wandering in hunger and heat, with great difficulty they came home with a small quantity of maize, which they had gathered. After grinding the maize, they sat down to eat it, after saying their prayers.”
The weasel continued, “Just then, an exceedingly hungry brahmin arrived. The family was delighted seeing this unexpected guest and invited him to join them. The brahmin of Kurukshetra said, ‘Oh best of brahmins, I am a poor man. This flour of maize was obtained in accordance with dharma. Please accept this,’ and gave his share of the flour to the guest. The guest ate it with avidity but he was still hungry when he had finished.”
The faithful wife and dutiful son
“Seeing his hungry and unsatisfied look, the host was grieved and did not know what to do. His wife said: ‘Lord, give my share to him. I shall be glad if the guest’s hunger is satisfied.’ Saying this, she handed her share of the flour to her husband to be given to the guest. ‘Faithful one, It is the sacred duty of a husband to protect his beloved wife. My conscience does not permit me to feed the guest while you are starving.’
‘You are wise, best of Brahmins’, replied the wife. ‘We are bound to share fortune or misfortune. Take my share and satisfy our guest.’
“The brahmin yielded and took the wife’s share and gave it to the guest. But he was still hungry! Great was the distress of the poor brahmin. His son, who saw this, came forward. ‘Father here is my share. Give it to this guest who seems to be still hungry. I shall be indeed happy if we shall thus be able to fulfil our duty.’
“The father’s distress increased. ‘My dear son!’ he exclaimed, ‘Old men can stand starvation. Youth’s hunger is severe. I am not able to find it in my heart to accept what you say.’
The son insisted: ‘It is the duty of the son to look after his father in his declining years. The son is not different from the father. Is it not said that the father is born afresh in his son? My share of the flour is yours in truth. I beg of you to accept what I give and feed this hungry guest.’
‘Dear boy, your nobility and your mastery over the senses fill me with pride. I shall accept your share. Blessings!’ said the father, and he took the son’s flour and gave it to the guest to eat.
The daughter-in-law steps forward
The guest ate the third part of the flour, but he was still hungry. The brahmin, who lived on scattered grain, was confused. “While he was in distress, not knowing what to do, his daughter-in-law addressed him thus:
‘Lord, I shall give my share too and gladly complete our efforts to feed this guest. I beg of you to accept it and bless me.’
“The father-in-law was sad beyond measure. ‘O girl of spotless character. Pale as you are from starvation, you propose to give your part of the food also to me, so that I may earn merit by giving it to this guest. If I accept your offer, I shall indeed be guilty of cruelty. How could I possibly look on when you wither in hunger?”
“The girl would not listen. ‘Father, you are lord of my lord and master, the preceptor of my preceptor, god of my god. I implore you to accept my flour. Is not this body of mine dedicated wholly to serve my lord? You should help me to attain the good. Do take this flour, I entreat you.” Thus implored by his daughter-in-law, the brahmin accepted her share of the flour and blessed her saying, ‘Loyal girl, may every good be yours!’
The heavenly chariot
“The guest received this last portion avidly and ate it and was satisfied. ‘Blessed is your hospitality, given with the purest intent and to the utmost of your capacity. Your gift has pleased me. Behold! the gods are showering flowers in admiration of your extraordinary sacrifice. The gods and the Gandharvas have come down in their bright chariots to take you with your family to the happy regions above. Your gift has achieved heaven for you, as well as for your ancestors.’
‘Hunger destroys the understanding of men. It makes them go aside from the path of rectitude. It leads them to evil thoughts. The pious, when suffering the pangs of hunger, lose their steadfastness. But you have, even when hungry, bravely set aside your attachment to wife and son and placed duty above all else. Rajasuya sacrifices and ashwamedha sacrifices completed in splendour would pale into insignificance before the great sacrifice you have done through this single act of hospitality. The chariot is waiting to take you to heaven along with your family.’ saying this the mysterious guest disappeared.
The weasel of gold
Having related this story of the Kurukshetra brahmin who lived by gleaning scattered ears of corn in the field, the weasel continued:
“I was nearby and caught the fragrance wafted from that flour of the brahmin. It made my head all gold. I then went and rolled in joy on the ground where some of the flour had been scattered. It made one side of me into bright gold. I turned on the other side but there was no more flour left and that part of me is still as it was.
Desirous of getting my body made all gold, I have been trying every place where men perform great yajnas and penances. I heard that Yudhishthira of world fame was performing ashwamedha yajna and came here, believing that this sacrifice might come up to the standard. But I found it did not. So, I said that your great ashwamedha was not so great as the loft of flour which that brahmana made to his guest.” The weasel then disappeared.
This story does not intend to demean great sacrificial sessions like Rajasuya or Ashwamedha. However, the primary motivation behind these sacrifices is to elevate one’s consciousness and not ostentatious display. They help us overcome our animalistic tendencies like hunger, infatuation etc. But, the brahmin family of Kurukshetra won over their hunger and as a result, their merit superseded the merit which can be acquired by any great ritual. Also, a true sense of service always leads to glory. It’s the duty of any householder to satisfy guests. That’s his dharma, and where there’s dharma there’s victory, just as the great family was victorious.
Note: Narrative adapted from C Rajagopalachari Mahabharata
Also read: The Real Culprits of Mahabharata war