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Two variants are there in describing about Shunahshepa as far as I know. One is narrated in Aitareya Brahmana, Chapter VII and another is narrated in Valmiki Ramayana, Bala Khanda Chapter 62. Both are contradictory.

Aitareya Brahmana legend says it was King Harishchandra who gained a son named Rohita through the blessings of Varuna. Varuna asked Harishchandra to sacrifice his son (Rohita) to him. Harishchandra didn't want to offer his son in sacrifice, so somehow he managed to convince that he will sacrifice his son later for several times. Thereafter Rohita himself didn't want to die in sacrifice, so he started wandering. In the sixth year, he found a boy named Shunahshepa who was the 2nd son of Sage Ajigrata to sacrifice to Varuna on behalf of him. Among Vishwamitra's existing 100 sons, his elder sons refused to accept Shunahshepa, but his younger 50 ones did. So, he cursed his elder 50 sons that their descendants would become outcaste.

But the Ramayana legend says when king Ambarisha performed an animal sacrifice, Indra stole that animal. On behalf of that animal, Ambarisha found out a person named Shunahshepa, who was the second son of Sage Riciika. When Shunahshepa was about to sacrificed, he was saved by Vishwamitra's Rig Vedic hymns and later Vishwamitra adopted Shunahshepa as his son. Later he was saved by Vishwamitra's hymns and Vishwamitra adopted him as his son. When Vishwamitra's existing sons didn't accept Shunahshepa, Vishwamitra cursed his sons to become dog-eaters. The contradictory things are:

  • Name of the king is different in two legends;
  • Name of the father of Shunahshepa is also different;
  • Aitareya Brahmana says Harishchandra tried to sacrifice Shunahshepa instead of his own son, while Ramayana says Ambarisha tried to sacrifice Shunahshepa on behalf of an animal.
  • In Ramayana, all of his sons refused to accept Shunahshepa, but in Aitareya Brahmana, only his elder 50 sons refused to accept him.

My question is, how shall we resolve these contradictions?

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    I hope someone doest answer by saying that It is kalpa-Bheda which is not the case here. – Karmanya Nanda Jul 25 at 15:19
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    @KarmanyaNanda It really could be kalpa-bheda because the vedas are eternal whereas the ramayana isn't. – Ikshvaku Jul 25 at 17:12
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Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa isn't the only other text where the Śunaḥśepa story is narrated or differs from the main version narrated in the Aitareya Brāhmaṇa. The Legend of Śunaḥśepa from H L Hariyappa's Ṛgvedic Legends Through the Ages, on page 219, summarizes the major differences in the story found in these various texts:

  1. Ṛgveda (RV)
  2. Aitareya Brāhmaṇa (AB)
  3. Sarvānukramaṇī (Sarvā)
  4. Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa (Rām.)
  5. Mahābhārata (Mbh.)
  6. Harivaṃśa (Hari.)
  7. Brahma Purāṇa (Brahma)
  8. Vāyu Purāṇa (VP)
  9. Bhāgavata (Bhāg.)
  10. Devī-Bhāgavata (Devī Bh.)

Basing purely on conjecture Hariyappa says the differences are owed to presence of an orthodox version (that found place in AB, Brahma, Bhāgavata and Devī-Bhāgavata purāṇas) and a popular version represented by the two epics, Harivaṃśa and Vāyu Purāṇa:

The importance given or the interest which attaches to the story may be measured, in a way, by the extent of the description in each. The Aitareya, owing to its antiquity, may not come into the picture. All the same, it devotes a whole chapter in six khaṇḍas (sections) comprising roughly 55 prose bits and 31 gāthās.

Other works allot as follows:

  1. Rāmāyaṇa   –   48 ślokas (2 cantos)
  2. Mahābhārata   –   3 ślokas
  3. Harivaṃśa   –   6 ślokas (total of two contexts)
  4. Brahma Purāṇa   –   113 ślokas (2 chapters)
  5. Vāyu Purāṇa   –   4 ślokas
  6. Bhāgavata   –   25 ślokas (parts of 2 chapters)
  7. Devī-Bhāgavata   –   194 ślokas (4 chapters)

Of these, Nos. 4, 6 and 7 follow Aitareya Brāhmaṇa, except the narrator's amplifications here and there. The main features are common, as shown in the conspectus. Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 5 show some divergences. One common divergence that really matters is that Śunaḥśepa is the son of Ṛcīka not of Ajīgarta. That is, the family itself is differently stated, for Ṛcīka is a Bhārgava, Ajīgarta is an Āṅgīrasa. While the orthodox school, dating back to the time of the Sarvānukramaṇī and prior still the Ārṣānukramaṇī, reaffirms the AB account by assigning Śunaḥśepa to the Āṅgīrasa family changed to that of Viśvāmitra, the Rāmāyaṇa, Mahābhārata, Harivaṃśa and Vāyu Purāṇa declare him to be a Bhārgava changed into a Viśvāmitra. Taking recourse to conjecture only for no other deduction is possible, this deviation might have been based on stories current among the populace; it may represent popular tradition in other words. Another point is about the King's name, Ambarīṣa in the Rāmāyaṇa; Hariścandra in Mbh. and VP, Haridaśva in Harivaṃśa. We have submitted that Haridaśva might have been an oversight on the part of Harivaṃśa. A similar plea must reconcile the divergence of Rām., as Ambarīṣa is nowhere else mentioned as an Ikṣvāku prince. The Ambarīṣa of the Mbh. is just an ancient king (Sorensen p. 30), nothing to do with the Ikṣvākus. Curiously, Hariścandra is not stated among the Ikṣvāku princes, whose dynastic list is given in Rām. (1.70). Perhaps our Hariścandra is identical with Ambarīṣa. For the present purpose we submit that the difference in names is due to the narrator's whim or ignorance. The dynastic lists presented in the Epics and the Purāṇas are truly confusing and utterly inconsistent with one another.

If, in the light of the above discussion, we come to think of versions at all, they can only be two; one, the orthodox version represented by AB, followed by the Brahma, Bhāgavata and Devī Bhāgavata; the other, the popular version reflected in the Rām., Mbh., Hari. and VP.

                  The Ṛgvedic Nucleus
                           |
                           |
          A                |             B
  Orthodox version         |        Popular version
                           |
           +---------------+--------------+
           |                              |
           |                              |
Aitareya Brāhmaṇa (55+31)           Rāmāyaṇa (48)
Brahma Purāṇa (113)                 Mahābhārata (3)
Bhāgavata (25)                      Harivaṃśa (6)
Devī Bhāgavata (194)                Vāyu Purāṇa (4)


Works under A, have dealt with the legend at some length and hence admit of correct appreciation. Under B, we can see the summary manner in which the story is disposed of, on the basis of which no inference of certain validity can be drawn. The chief criterion in so grouping them is the likelihood of a popular version concurrent with the orthodox one.


Even though the Aitareya Brāhmaṇa has the oldest narrative of the Śunaḥśepa legend it's not without problems because the author thinks Śunaḥśepa's two brothers, Śunaḥpuccha and Śunolāṅgūla both of whose names mean dog-tailed, are imaginary and were added to the story to give Śunaḥśepa the middle-brother status:

That apart, it is sufficiently reasonable to think that the names of Śunaḥpuccha and Śunolāṅgūla are purely imaginary. These two are mentioned for the first time in AB and, only Śāṅkhāyana Śrauta Sūtra, of so many works of Vedic Literature, repeats the names. Later, the Vārttika-kāra conceived a special vārtika comprehending only these three names, as an addendum to the sūtra "Ṣaṣṭhyā ākrośe" (6.3.21, SK. 981). That gave these mythical personalities a stamp of reality. Nevertheless, the purpose of the puccha and lāṅgūla has been no more than to provide the madhyama status to Śunaḥśepa. The concept of the middle one, incidentally, itself deserves to be questioned on two grounds at least. Firstly it is, psychologically, an unsound and unnatural phenomenon; for, all children are the same to the parents. The distinction of the eldest and the youngest is an almost mischievous precept promulgated by the old text. Tradition fostered it, though in general, it has never been given to mankind to practise it. Secondly, it has no basis in the Saṃhitā, nor corroboration in any other work of the Vedic period which could be contemporaneous with it.


There is no easy way to resolve all these contradictions but the author nicely summarizes how the Śunaḥśepa story evolved over the ages:

  1. The story of Śunaḥśepa's deliverance is a Vedic fact. According to one Seer, Śunaḥśepa was saved from a thousand-fold stake by Agni (RV 5.2.7) while another singer praises Varuṇa for having freed him from his bonds (1.24.12,13). Śunaḥśepa himself is one among the centurion seers (śatarcins: seers of hundred verses) to whom is attributed the revelation of the first maṇḍala of the Ṛgveda.

  2. The other Saṃhitās know him as seized by Varuṇa (varuṇa-gṛhīta) and then freed on praising him with RV 1.24.15 (Uduttamam), which is a very favourite prayer to Varuṇa, in almost all the Saṃhitās, that he might graciously release the worshipper from his threefold pāśa, at the head, in the middle and at the bottom. This stanza in later times inspired a philosophic interpretation, that it was an appeal for freedom from worldly ties.

  3. It is the Aitareya Brāhmaṇa (7.13-18) that spins a complete narrative of the legend. It is repeated, with slight difference only, by the Śāṅkhāyana Śrauta Sūtra. The central theme of Śunaḥśepa's escape from sacrificial immolation has been linked at the beginning and at the end to two other episodes. The introductory link is provided by Hariścandra and his son Rohita whose entanglement with God Varuṇa brings about the main event of sacrificing Śunaḥśepa. The concluding link is provided by Viśvāmitra, the universal friend, to whose family Śunaḥśepa after release is adopted as the eldest son inheriting both regal authority and divine lore from the adoptive father. The narrative is a mixture of the Brāhmaṇic prose and the popular gāthā. It has been supposed that the legend perhaps existed in the form of a ballad even before AB.

  4. Works like the Sarvānukramaṇī which are but ancillaries to the Veda repeat the story as given in AB. The famous commentators, Ṣaḍguruśiṣya and Sāyaṇa and their ditto Dyā Dviveda scrupulously follow AB and show no influence of the other version of the story, though it was positively current in their times.

  5. In later literature, the two epics, the Harivaṃśa and Vāyu Purāṇa present a different version of the story, which is believed to reflect the popular account of it. The Brahma, Bhāgavata and Devī Bhāgavata repeat the Aitareya, herein called the orthodox version, with slight innovations here and there which reflect the local taste and temperament in their respective ages.

  6. ...

1

The Bala Kanda of Ramayana contains many interpolations.

Episode of Shunashepa was narrated in Sargas 61 & 62 of Bala Kanda, as a part of Episodes of Sage Viswamitra.

I had already explained in my answer to another question that Episode of Viswamitra is an interpolation.

According to the 6th Century version of Ramayana, found in Kolkatta Library, Bala Kanda and Uttara Kanda are interpolations.


Hence, the episode of Ajigarta Shunashepa in Aitareya Brahmana can be accepted. The Hymn in Rig Veda, in praise of Varuna, might corroborate this.

  • The name Shunahshepa is also there in one other Rig Veda Sukta. I will tell once I found out. – Spark Sunshine Aug 9 at 16:13

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