The adi parvan of the mahAbhArata provides a remarkable “fossilized” sUktaM to the ashvins. It comes in the 3rd chapter of the adi parvan known as the pauShya section (1.3.60 in the critical Poona edition of the mahAbhArata). This section is a particularly interesting in terms of retaining some of the archaic structures of the epic, probably coming unadulterated from the original form of the jaya epic. Its frame narrates the tale of how janamejaya, the kuru emperor, and conqueror of takShashIla came to perform his infamous sarpa yaGYa to avenge the killing of his father parIkShit by the nAga chief. From this frame bud off many archaic tales, one of which is the tale of trial of the sage upamanyu of the clan of the vasiShThas. In this tale, upamanyu as a young student in the ashrama of his teacher Ayodo dhaumya was particularly well-fed in his appearance. dhaumya cuts off his means of food, namely from the alms received in the city or from the cows he took to graze, by instructing him not to eat or drink any of those things. In this state dhaumya asked upamanyu to go and graze his cows. upamanyu without any food eats the leaves of the arka plant and as a consequence goes blind and falls into a pit while crawling about. Upon seeing his absence at sunset that day, dhaumya and his students set out in search of upamanyu and call out to him in the pastures. They hear him crying out from a pit and mention his blindness. dhaumya asks him to invoke the ashvins. He immediately composes a series of R^ichas with which he praises the ashvins. As a result they are pleased and give him an apUpa cake. upamanyu states that he will eat the cake only after offering it to his teacher. They urge upamanyu to do so without offering him, but he refuses. Pleased with his devotion they relieve him of his blindness and the twin gods also give him a denture of gold, unlike the steel denture they had given his teacher dhaumya. As a result dhaumya states that upamanyu has passed his trial and blesses him to be a great scholar of the vedas and the dharmashAstras.
This ashvina sUktaM of upamanyu (UAS) is a rather remarkable hymn in many respects:
1) It is unlike most other material in the mahAbhArata actually very close to the vedic metaphors and style, using a triShTubh based meter that is typical of vedic. For example the use of the term dAsapatnI i.e one powered by the demonic dAsa or vala is clearly a vedic usage not encountered elsewhere in later Sanskrit.
2) However, in its language it shows late features closer to the epic Sanskrit, particularly in the dvandva forms ending in –au as against the vedic forms with –A (e.g. nAsatyA or ashvinA). Use of aruNa instead of uShA is also atypical with respect to the vedic formulations.
3) It alludes to several mythological motifs of astronomical provenance that are common in the veda but rarely found in those particular forms in the later Hindu mythologies. These include the important motif of the regeneration of the sun and dawns, which is strikingly expressed in multiple forms in this hymn as in the vedic hymns. These expressions include the ashvins leading forth the dawns, setting free the quail grabbed by the eagle, bursting of the mountain stronghold of vala to set free the days and waters and the swallowing of the embryo and its re-birth. Also present are the motifs of the wheel of time with 720 spokes (720 days and nights), with 12 spokes (12 months) and 6 seasons on the rim of the wheel. These are very similar to the metaphors used by dIrghatamA auchAthya of the clan of the a~Ngiras in hymn RV 1.165. Another metaphor used in the UAS is that of the 360 cows bearing one calf (the sun), which in turn equated with the gharma offering to the ashvins with the uktha chant in the pravargya rite.
The whole setting of the upamanyu tale involves a mythography that recapitulates the sun regeneration myth often seen in the R^igveda. upamanyu, like other R^igvedic characters saved by the ashvins, namely chyavAna (buried in a termite hill), parAvR^ija and dIrghatamA, had gone blind, and like antaka and atri, other protégés of the ashvins, had fallen in a pit. This is an allegory to sun being lost in winter and is made more direct by the mention that quest for upamanyu, who had fallen in the pit begins after the sun had set. Further his denture of gold given by the ashvins is also a cryptic allegory for the returning sunshine.
The UAS in not found in any surviving saMhitA of the veda and upamanyu is far removed in age from the hoary hymn composers of the R^ig and atharvaN. Instead, it appears that it represents an intermediate hymn, a late vedic composition in the epic period. This suggests that hymn composition in the R^igvedic style continued well into the epic period. It is thus a rare sample of the class of “Vedic” compositions that happened in the period of composition of the original jaya and is one of the survivals of the actual religious structures of the jaya period, which are hidden under the heavily pauranicized extant mahAbhArata. We will also reinforce this point with another short hymn, the indra stuti of utanka the bhArgava in the same section of the mahAbhArata.
The frame tale of UAS also has a structure resembling the mythological fragments of the bR^ihad-devata of shaunaka and brAhmaNa texts, especially like those in the jaiminIya brAhmaNa. This suggests that a similar core set of ancestral mythological frame tales were reused both in the generation of brAhmaNa texts and the itihAsa. These are likely to represent the original itihAsa-purANa. The frame of the UAS suggests that it is a case where an actual history has been adapted to fit an influential pre-existing mythological motif. The weakening or disappearance of the sun in winter and its regeneration, along with the dawns and the release of the frozen waters, was a striking motif acquired in the northern homeland of the Indo-Europeans. Given the strong impression it left on the Aryans, it was reused in various contexts of act regeneration by the ashvins and other gods. This ancient memory was well-preserved in the language of myth and found its way in the narrative of upamanyu’s trial and revival.
We provide below a translation and commentary on the UAS.
prapUrvagau pUrvajau chitrabhAnU girA vA sha.nsAmi tapanAvanantau .
divyau suparNau virAjau vimAnAvadhikShiyantau bhuvanAni vishvA .. 60..
You have existed before the emergence of the sun, the first-born beings, of beautiful luster. I desire your help with this chant, oh blazing ones who are infinite. You are the course of existence what pervades existence, the heavenly birds of beauteous feather and are in everything and pervade the universe.
hiraNmayau shakunI sAmparAyau nAsatyau dasrau sunasau vaijayantau .
shukra.n vayantau tarasA suvemAvabhi vyayantAvasita.n vivasvat .. 61..
You are golden birds, you are the future of existence, the truth, with good noses and victorious in battle. Having generated the sun, you weave the wondrous cloth of the year by means of the white thread [of the day] and the black thread [of the night].
grastA.n suparNasya balena vartikAm.h amu~nchatAm.h ashvinau saubhagAya .
tAvatsuvR^ittAvanamanta mAyayA sattamA gA aruNA udAvahan .. 62..
Oh ashvin twins, endowed with auspiciousness, you set free the quail seized by the the strong grip of the eagle. Oh leaders indeed you are of good [chariot] wheels and indeed un-deceivable, with your powers you go leading the dawns.
ShaShTishcha gAvastrishatAsh cha dhenava eka.n vatsam.h suvate ta.n duhanti .
nAnA goShThA vihitA ekadohanAs tAvashvinau duhato gharmamukthyam.h .. 63..
Sixty cows and three hundred cows suckle one calf between them (1). The various cowpens together yield one milking, indeed this is the hot milk offering [gharma in the pravargya pot] with the uktha chant milked by the ashvins.
ekAm.h nAbhi.n saptashatA arAH shritAH pradhiShvanyA viMshatirarpitA arAH .
anemi chakram.h parivartate .ajaram.h mAyAshvinau samanakti charShaNI .. 64..
There is one nave with 700 spokes fixed, also fixed to it are 20 more spokes (2). This spoked wheel, turns endlessly, you ashvins have set them together [spokes] in motion.
eka.n chakra.n vartate dvAdashAram.h pradhi ShaNNAbhimekAkShamamR^itasya dhAraNam.h.
yasmindevA adhi vishve viShaktAs tAvashvinau mu~nchato mA viShIdatam.h.. 65..
The one wheel with twelve spokes, and the circumference with the six [season] rotates around the one axle without an end (3). Upon this the gods are all stationed, Oh ashvins free me from the influence of the toxin.
ashvinAv-indram-amR^ita.n vR^ittabhUyau tirodhattAm-ashvinau dAsapatnI .
bhittvA girimashvinau gAmudAcharantau tadvR^iShTamahnA prathitA valasya .. 66..
Oh immortal ashvins and indra, you twins who generate the rotations, oh ashvins remove those powered by the demonic dasas. Oh ashvins, burst the mountain stronghold of the demon vala, and go fort to bring out the waters and spread out the day light.
yuvA.n disho janayatho dashAgre samAnam.h mUrdhni rathayA viyanti .
tAsA.n yAtamR^iShayo.anuprayAnti devA manuShyAH kShitimAcharanti .. 67..
In the beginning, you twin youths generated [space] with ten directions; then you set the chariot moving in the [sky] above (4). The R^iShis, according to the course of the same [sun], perform their sacrifices, and the gods and men, accordingly occupy their respective stations.
yuvA.n varNAnvikurutho vishvarUpA.ns te.adhikShiyanti bhuvanAni vishvA .
te bhAnavo. apyanusR^itAsh charanti devA manuShyAH kShitimAcharanti .. 68..
Youths! From the [basic] colors, you have produced all the various forms; it is from these objects that the entire universe is filled. Ordained by these rays of [color] the gods and men occupy their respective stations.
tau nAsatyAv-ashvinAv-Amahe vAm.h sraja.n cha yAm.h bibhR^ithaH puShkarasya .
tau nAsatyAv-amR^itAv-R^itAvR^idhAv R^ite devAs-tat-prapadena sUte .. 69..
You nAsatyas, ashvins I worship you two, who wear garlands and bear lotus flowers. You nasAtyas, the immortal ones, the upholders of the R^ita, you impel the R^ita through which the devas attain their [stations].
mukhena garbha.n labhatAm.h yuvAnau gatAsuretatprapadena sUte .
sadyo jAto mAtaramatti garbhastAvashvinau mu~nchatho jIvase gAH .. 70..
The embryo has been taken through the mouth, oh youths impel this one who has expired to obtain [his station]. The mother, eater of the embryo, has brought it out (5); Oh ashvins release me and bring to life.
(1) 360 cows are the days of the year giving birth to the calf, the sun. The allegory here is thus: At the end of 360 days, the year, the sun has declined or disappeared at the winter solstice. The sun is then born in the new year as the calf. In the same R^ik the pravargya gharma, which represent the sun is also mentioned.
(2) 720 days and nights of the year are allude to here.
(3) The twelve fold division of the year- the 12 vedic months, and the 6 seasons are allude to here.
(4) An allusion to the sun’s chariot.
(5) The metaphor suggests the embryo, implying the sun, is being eaten and born again at the year beginning.