The Vedic ritual of the sacrifice of a stallion is balanced by the Vedic myth of a goddess who takes the form of a mare named Saranyu (“Fleet”). The Veda wraps the story in a riddle, but here is a brief summary of the plot:

The blacksmith of the gods gave his daughter, Saranyu, in marriage to the Sun, and she gave birth to twins, Yama and Yami. Then the gods concealed the immortal woman from mortals; they put in her place a female of-the-same-kind (savarna), and gave that look-alike to the Sun. Saranyu took the form of a mare; the Sun took the form of a stallion, followed her, and coupled with her. From that were born the twin equine gods called the Ashvins. She abandoned them, too.

As the later Indian tradition attempts to unlock the riddle of Saranyu, it draws upon many deep-seated, often conflicting, ideas about human and divine sexuality and deception. In place of the statement that the gods concealed Saranyu from her husband, later texts blame Saranyu for the separation and speculate on various reasons for her flight from her husband: as the sun, he was too hot for her; as a mortal, he was not fit to mate with an immortal; and so forth.

In the Rig Veda, the female in this story is explicitly an immortal, while her husband, the Sun, is a mortal (one of those mortals from whom the gods hide her); he was born to die, for he dies each night / autumn and is reborn each dawn / spring. That Saranyu’s husband and child are closely connected with death is as clear as anything in this riddle.

Yama is often said to be the first one who died, and he becomes the god of the dead. Saranyu’s double is said to be of-the-same-kind (savarna) as Saranyu, of the same sort, or type, or appearance, or of the same colour or class (varna), but, unlike Saranyu and like the Sun, the double is mortal.

The double produces no children, but Saranyu in her own persona produces a child whose name (Yama) means “twin” and who is then usually regarded as twins. As the mare, she produces the twin Ashvins, who are liminally immortal: they are often depicted as centaurs, half horse and half anthropomorphic gods (or half divine horse and half mortal humans), like the Greek Dioscuroi or the Roman Gemini, Castor and Pollux. The Sun is acquainted with mares: the seven bay mares that pull his chariot are sometimes said to be his seven daughters.

Saranyu’s ambivalence towards her husband splits the story into two contrasting sexual episodes: as a goddess, she leaves him; as a mare, she receives him. Though someone other than Saranyu herself makes the female look-alike, she herself abandons both “the twin” (Yama) and the equine twins; there are no other children. Saranyu is the Vedic evil mother.

But as this story is retold in later mythology, an essential change is made: Saranyu herself, rather than the gods, makes the look-alike, who is now usually called the Shadow (or mirror image, Chaya). And the Sun, not at first realising that a substitution has taken place, begets a mortal child upon the Shadow. Only after realising his mistake does he pursue the mare Saranyu and beget the equine twins on her.

The story is narrated in detail in a commentary on the Rig Veda in which the children continue to proliferate: now not only does the Shadow have a son, but Saranyu has yet another son (her third birthing, and her fifth child, if you count Yama-the-Twin and the Ashvins as two sets of two):

Saranyu’s father willingly gave her in marriage to the Sun, and Saranyu bore him the twins Yama and Yami. Out of her husband’s sight, Saranyu created a female who looked like her. Tossing the two children to this female, she became a mare and went away. But in ignorance of this, the Sun begat Manu upon that female... Then the Sun became aware that Saranyu had departed in the form of a mare, and he took the form of a horse and went quickly after her. Saranyu, knowing that it was the Sun in the form of a horse, approached him for coupling, and he mounted her. But in their haste the semen fell on the ground, and the mare smelled that semen because she desired to become pregnant. From that semen that was inhaled twins were born, the famous Ashvins.

By conceiving through her nose, the mare is placing smell, the reliable equine criterion for the appropriate sexual partner, above vision, the flawed human (and, apparently, divine) criterion. Whereas vision made the Sun mistake the wrong female (created “out of his sight”) for his wife, and made the mare at first mistake him for someone else, ultimately smell allows Saranyu the mare both to recognise her true mate and to conceive by him.

The procreative powers of equine sniffing are cited in a Brahmana: “The creatures that the Creator made did not procreate. He changed himself into a horse and sniffed at them and they procreated.”

The statement that the Ashvins were conceived from the nose (nasat) may also have been inspired by a desire to account for their Vedic epithet of Nasatyas, “Nose-beings”, though the name is elsewhere said to mean “not false” (na-a-satya, literally, “not-not-true” or “not-not-real”) – an interesting assertion in light of the fact that they are the ‘true’ sons of Saranyu, in contrast with their not-equine, and not-immortal, brothers. Some later texts regard Revanta, another offspring of the Sun and the Shadow, as the ancestor of all horses.

But in many texts the child born of the Shadow is Manu, the ancestor of humankind. Both of his parents are mortal, flawed, and doomed. The mortality of the Sun is a pivotal point of the myth in all its variants, and in most of them Manu is the son not of the first wife, the true wife, the immortal wife, but of the replica, a mortal.

As anthropogonies, these stories are saying that the primeval human children, our ancestors, were abandoned by their mother. And on the metaphysical level, the myth of Saranyu (or Samjna, “the Name”, as she is called in many later variants) seems to be saying that we, the descendants of Manu, are the children of the image, the Shadow – the children of illusion, not the children of the real thing.

These myths embody the later Indian philosophical view that we are born into illusion, live in illusion, and can only know illusion. Clearly, this is a deeply religious story, not merely (or not even primarily) a story about parents and children (human and equine). For, in addition to psychological questions regarding stepmothers, rejected children, and unwanted husbands, the Saranyu story raises theological questions about the origin of the human race and human death, about appearance and reality, about the relationship between male and female divine powers, and between humans and the divine and the equine.

Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares: Horses in Indian Myth and History

Excerpted with permission from Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares: Horses in Indian Myth and History, Wendy Doniger, Speaking Tiger.