I remember the first time I heard of this ritual. It was a glorified act of a Great king flaunting his superiority by letting loose a well bred horse which was free to go where ever it wanted. When it enetered the territory of another ruling king, the king there either challenged the Great king which resulted in war or submitted and paid tribute to him. This defined the Great kings superiority and if in the condition he had performed the Ashwamedha yagnya more than 10 times, he was as good as Indra. It is believed that Indra jealously guarded his position and kept an eye on all those Kings who performed this grand ritual.
Sounds fantastic, leaves a feeling of deep respect in the mind of the reader wondering how great those days might have been. Moving on, the next occasion i came across the Ashwamedha yagnya, was when i was in college, going through a book on manuscript painting, and to my shock i found a whole new twist to this ritual. The manuscript painting clearly indicated an act of possible copulation of the Head Queen with the sacrificial horse after it returned. This was to be performed in the presence of priests and other royal members of the family.
Shaken with the posibility that there could be more than this, the imagery of the manuscript painting stayed etched in my mind. It didnt go, purely on the grounds of disbelief. How could someone do something like that?@?@?
Well, if that was not all, last night i was reading about the sakta cult and the worship of the Mother Goddess when i came upon yet another reference of the ashwamedha yagnya. By this time it was bordering on barbarousness. This is what it was all about!!
There were clear rules to the ritualistic performance of the ashwamedha yagnya. Human sacrifice was a must in those sacrifices that involved the worship of the Mother Goddess, largely being Durga, Kali, Varahi, Chamunda, Chandi or the like. The initial offering included flowers, bark and sandal wood paste with recitation of mantras during the performance of the ritual. further to this the worshipper brought in the victim of the sacrifice. The victim cannot be a priest or a slave, hence he had to be from the kshatriya or the vaishya class (trader or warrior clan).
The worshipper recites the relevant mantra, places the victim on the sacrificial altar head facing east, worshipper standing north and recites a mantra which would state that the victim has been granted this birth to be the sacrificial meat for the goddess and with the performance of this sacrifice this shall not be taken as murder. After reciting the mantra, the worshipper tosses a flower over the victim and holds a sword up into the air which has already been concecrated and....... chop!
Its very possible that the victims were prisoners of war. Its also possible that the tradition of human sacrifice was converted to ritual and might essentially been a barbarous act in the initial stages of civilization. Or maybe all this is faith. Killing one self as a sacrifice to the divine Mother is one thing, taking someone else's life is another. How much of this is tradition, how much of it is primitive practise, and how much of it is faith... is well anybody's guess. End of the day ashwamedha yagnya included, the horse sacrifice which does not explicitly indicate that the horse was killed at the end of it, a copulation act with the head queen if that were ever possible and a human sacrifice which looks more digestable though ugly.
The only point it brings home is that our ancestors were a completely different breed from what we are today. And as my friend put it buddhism did our ancestors a lot of good with the introduction of ahimsa - live and let live.