King Sagara performs the great horse sacrifice
There was a king in the dynasty of Ikswaku by name Sagara. He was a great ruler who fought and won many battles over all the neighbouring kingdoms.
He had two wives and a number of children in them. The sons of Sagara were extremely powerful and arrogant. They went in all nooks and corners of the earth fighting with each and everyone who came across their way.
Sagara ruled over his vast kingdom for several years and decided that it was time for him to perform the Horse Sacrifice (Aswamedha) and become an emperor. His sons roamed about the earth leading the horse as a sign of regal supremacy over all kingdoms. They marched also over the ocean which was turned dry by sage Agastya. There they lost track of the sacrificial horse. The princes searched everywhere for the animal and found no trace of it. The sons of Sagara returned to the king and reported the matter to him. Sagara said. “Sons, you must somehow locate the horse and bring it back. You know that I have taken the vow to conduct the ritual and complete it without a hitch. The presence of the horse is crucial for the ceremony. So, do not return without the animal”.
A fatal encounter
So, the princes continued their search all over the earth. Finally, they found a big hole on the dry bed of the ocean. The valiant princes wanted to explore beneath the ocean and dug into the hole making it large enough for them all to enter.
Their perseverance was amply rewarded by the sight of their horse peacefully grazing near a hermitage. It was the hermitage of sage Kapila (who was said to be one of the minor – not one of the ten- incarnations of Vishnu). The sage had a halo around him resulting from years of penance. the sons of Sagara found the sage in deep meditation. The haughty princes did not bother about the sage or his meditation. They held their weapons high and ran to the horse like an invading army, shouting “here it is!”
The sage was disturbed in his meditation and opened his eyes in fury. Such was his power that his anger burned the hapless princes into ashes in an instant.
The wandering sage Narada reported the misfortune of his sons to Sagara. The king was anguished hearing the tragic end of his dear sons. There was nothing that he could do for them. He had taken the vow and could not even move out until the horse was, somehow, brought back.
There was only a grandson for the king who was left behind. His name was Amsuman. He told the young prince about the tragedy of his father and uncles. The king asked the boy to trace the path travelled by his father and know more about the tragedy. If possible, he should get the sacrificial horse back, too.
Amsuman did not hesitate to start immediately. He followed the direction of sage Narada and reached the hermitage of sage Kapila. He found the sage in the same meditative posture and prostrated before him. He stood in deep reverence in front of the sage and waited patiently for the sage to open his eyes.
Sage Kapila was very pleased with the conduct of the young prince and told him so. He asked the boy to choose any boon. Amsuman begged the sage to release the horse. The hermit gladly did so and encouraged Amsuman to ask for another one. The prince asked for the salvation of his dead father and uncles this time.
The sage said. “I grant you this boon too, but, not immediately. You will have to bring the waters of the holy river Ganga from heaven to this place where your ancestors lie. Only your grandson will succeed in doing that”.
Amsuman returned to the palace with the horse and told his grand father about the boon he received from the sage. King Sagara was pleased and completed the ritual. He installed his grandson as the king in due course and retired to a forest to meditate.
Amsuman got a son by name Dileepa who went to the Himalayas and spent years in meditation with the hope of pleasing the heavenly Ganga. But, he died without success.
Dileepa had a son by name Bhageeratha. The prince heard about his mission early in his childhood. So, he set out to the Himalayas while he was still very young.
He spent years in deep meditation, praying to the holy Ganga. Finally the river appeared as goddess before him and agreed to flow down to earth. But, there was a problem. Her force would be such that nothing would withstand the fall of water from heaven. It needed someone powerful enough to receive the stream falling down from heaven and hold it. The goddess, herself, suggested the name of Lord Siva for the purpose.
So, Bhageeratha started meditating on Siva. The Lord appeared in due course and agreed to receive Ganga falling from heaven in his matted hair. Bhageeratha had to pray to Ganga, again, and request her to flow down to earth.
The heavy down pour of the sacred river then started, all the way from heaven to the matted hair of Lord Siva. Ganga was proud of her force and was not that sure how the Lord would withstand her onslaught. Lord Siva sensed what the haughty Ganga was thinking and stood firm with the result that not even a drop of water came out of Siva’s head!
Bhageeratha was the one who suffered because of the show of strength between the divinities. He had to spend years, again, praying to Siva to release at least some water for his purpose. The Lord was, no doubt, pleased with Bhageeratha and lifted some locks of his hair.
The water that fell from the Lord’s hair started flowing as the mighty Ganga. The river asked Bhageeratha to show her the way to his ancestors. So, Bhageeratha sped fast on his horse ahead, asking the river to follow him.
(Some of the Puranas report another obstacle on the way. A sage by name Jahnu was in meditation along the path of the mighty Ganga. He was infuriated when the river flooded his hermitage and drank the whole river dry. It took years of meditation for Bhageeratha to please the sage. The sage, pacified, let the river flow out of his ears. Ganga has an epithet, Jahnavi, because of this. Vyasa does not mention this incident in Mahabharatam.)
The river finally reached the dry bed of the ocean and filled it up to its former level. Bhageeratha moved further down into the underground where the ashes of his ancestors lay scattered. The contact with the holy river purified the sons of Sagara and gave them immediate salvation.
(All oceans have inherited the epithet of Saagaram because of this story. Lord Siva is depicted as having two wives, the wedded spouse, Parvathy, on his lap and his paramour, Ganga, on his head. The two divine ladies are said to be always quarrelling with each other.)
Let us get back briefly to Arshajnanam and return for the story of the innocent sage, Rishyasrunga, in the next episode.