Vedā: Animal Sacrifice

Rigveda 1.162 Horse

When I first saw this sūkta in Rigveda I was only surprised that it is the only instance where immolation of animal is actually mentioned in the Rigveda, given the Vedic period was 4000 years before, at a time when agriculture wasn’t efficient enough to be sufficient for any population.

And the hymn is very much conscious of the violence in the contemporary ritual of those times. The hymn already turns ambivalent about the reality that the animal is dying – it wants to turn the animal from the tough path to the easy path to Devas – whatever it be. The sage himself prays to Aditi (usually done as an expiation of sin) to ward off sins at the closing verse, which suggests that sage is in fact ambivalent about the violence involved in the ritual, and sets the theme for his next sūkta 1.163. Unsurprisingly, appropriate to the Vedic standards, Dīrghatamas dedicates his next sūkta to Aśva itself, now transforming Aśva from horse to something else. Those who “read” 1.162 should also “read” 1.163. Taittirīya Saṃhitā, in its comment on Aśvamedha in the closing chapter, begins it with the lines “those who know about the head of the Aśva become possessed of a head and become eligible to perform the sacrifice”, and thereafter describes Aśva as the macrocosm. That spirit to improve and grow one’s morality according to the changing times is the key takeaway from Vedas.

Although we might be able to understand the political and social reality of the times by which sages had to produce their verses for the rituals, it is very gladdening that sages had their own independent vision and took extreme care to not make anyone stick to the time or morals. The ambivalence towards ritual violence is a key theme that is developed even in the early Brāhmaṇas, the tale of śunaḥśepa and also the anecdote of how rice and barley replace animal offerings point towards this. Although mīmāṃsakas who believed in the efficacy of yajña as a karma did increase in the medieval period and did some job justifying violence in yajñas against their opponents, the spirit of morality envisioned by sages and Brahmanism is contrary to it. This is why the Vedic system produced vegetarianism and a concern towards fellow beings.

 what kind of animals sacrificed in the rituals?

The five-fold paśus – Cattle, horse, rams, goats, and men.

Regarding man, the sacrifice was supposed to be by binding to the stake, whispering the mantras in the ear and releasing them, as Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa states. Other animals are also sacrificed in a similar way, by binding them to stakes and releasing them as the relations with them “sacrificed”. They aren’t killed. Already Atharvaveda has mantras that show the practice of not killing and releasing the animals was accepted as a sacrifice.

The releasing of cattle instead of killing them also became a major practice with Rigvedic verse of “don’t kill the Aghnyā” getting scriptural sanction for ritual use in Dharmasūtras. This replaced the “killing for guest” custom in madhuparka. Regarding horses, Aśvamedha was made quite lengthy and complex, albeit terribly expensive that no king could even perform one in his life. Rams were already replaced by goats itself, and the immolation of goats in very occasional sacrifices has continued since the mīmāṃsā era to modern times, although in 99% of the places (except the complex śrauta yajñas) the sacrifice has been made by piṣṭapaśu as Vedas and Brāhmaṇas permit, or with similar vegetable substitutes. (Like lentil-vaḍa that is said to substitute meat in śrāddha offerings) In 1975, the Nambudiris who perform śrauta yajñas without any adulteration or modification stopped the immolation of goats in the Agnicayana, and have turned to the Piṣṭapaśu (animals made of rice-flour as per the injunctions of Brāhmaṇas and Śāstras).

Goghanya (गोघन्य) versus aghanya (अघन्य) – where lies the truth of Vedic endorsement of animal sacrifice and partaking of meats?

Vedas don’t endorse it, although sages don’t oppose it directly. Instead, they bring a higher meaning to the ritual and want to see the substitution of verses for the actions and insights in place of muttering chants in the future.

By introducing symbols, the sages envisioned a time when the people will be matured enough to make the “ritual” symbolic. Certainly, Manu’s injunction that staying vegetarian till death is equivalent to doing 100 Aśvamedhas only shows that the sages succeeded in lifting man. When in 1975, Nambudiris completely stopped any immolation of animals in their rituals by sticking to the power of verse and ideas, the sages won over the ritualists who believed in action. And sages will win in the years to come.

Author/Researcher/Translator: Kiron Krishnan
Aug 8th, 2020

Alternatives to animal sacrifice in Vedic yajñas

The topic of animal sacrifice in Vedic yajñas these days always stirs up controversy and debate due to various reasons. One of the main reasons is the nearly complete obsolescence of traditional Vedic yajña culture of the karma kāṇḍa. As a result, intimate and practical details of the rituals are unknown to most Hindus, and there are probably only a handful of traditional scholars and practitioners of the full-fledged institution of yajña. So the status quo in Hinduism today is that animal sacrifice is not practiced in the context of Vedic or orthodox rituals.
The historical fact is that animal sacrifice was once a part of some Vedic yajñas. However, the important point to note is that it was not an essential or indispensable part. What bothers me is the biased manner in which certain academics and historians depict this aspect when describing Vedic culture. These people can be categorized as anti-Hindu by means of their various affiliations such as leftist, pseudo-liberal, pseudo-secular, etc. Whatever be their affiliation, their common objective is to denigrate Hinduism and show it in bad light by misinterpreting and misrepresenting its history, scriptures and religious practices, and over-projecting other systems as paragons of enlightenment that rescued people and animal victims from the barbaric and wanton slaughter of animals in the Vedic system. In the descriptions of these people, the entire Vedic culture was nothing but inhumane and horrible animal slaughter until Buddhism and Jainism taught the gospel of non-violence. So according to this group, traditional Vedic culture did not have any independent, internal recognition of the violence and brutality involved in animal sacrifice and hence did not come up with any internal alternatives. The simplistic theory is that Vedic practitioners had to wait for the advent of Buddhism and Jainism to receive the message of non-violence.
The reality is much more complex and far from being so black-and-white. To start, let’s have a quick and brief overview of the institution of yajña.
There are three categories of yajña – pākahavis, andsoma. Each of these categories consist of seven individual prototypes, thus totaling to twenty-one. Of these twenty-one, the seven pākayajñas and the seven haviryajñas do not involve any animal sacrifice, while the seven somayajñas have some kind of animal sacrifice. So, even theoretically, only one-third of the prescribed rituals have the possibility of animal sacrifice.
However, one must question the prevalence of animal sacrifice in real practice. We must consider the fact that Vedic culture was not a monolith, but rather a complex criss-crossing of multiple levels of beliefs and practices at multiple time periods. The Vedic rishis constitute the highest level and the oldest time period, as represented by the mantras and hymns of the Ṛgveda Samhitā. The enlightenment, self-realization and refined thought of the rishis is seen in the subtle metaphysics and spirituality expressed in the mantras. I have demonstrated the subtle Vedic metaphysics (brahmavidyā or adhyātmavidyā) in these essays:  

As also noted in the essay on the Cow Hymn of the Ṛgveda, rishi Bharadvāja expresses utmost affection, love and reverence for cows and states as a matter of fact that cows are never sacrificed or slaughtered for any purpose. This philosophy and belief represent the most refined level as well as the most ancient period of Vedic culture. This also corresponds to the period of high spirituality, simple rituals, and no animal sacrifice. Throughout the Ṛgveda Samhitā, the offerings into Agni that are mentioned most frequently are ghṛtam (ghee) and puroḍāśa (rice cake).
This tallies with the traditional theory of the eons (yugas), where the first golden eon (Kṛta Yuga) consisted of spiritually elevated beings without yajñas, while the second eon (Tretā Yuga) saw a huge proliferation of yajñas, which may also involve animal sacrifice. This is evidenced by the statement “tretāyāṃ bahudhā santatāni” of Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad 1.2.1.
An interesting data point in support of the above thesis is the fact that Yājñavalkya, who is credited with revealing the “new” Śukla-yajurveda, derives his name from his father’s name Yajñavalka, literally “teacher of yajñas”, which implies that he was involved in constructing new rituals and this is indicated symbolically as the story of him giving up the old Yajurveda and obtaining a new one.
Finally, another interesting data point in support of the above thesis comes from the Buddhist Sutta Nipāta [1][2]. In chapter 2 “Cūḷavagga”, section 7 “Brāhmaṇa-dhammika-sutta”, Buddha describes the lifestyle of the “ancient Brāhmaṇas” who were more pious and spiritually dedicated than those of his time. In the course of his lecture he says:
“Seers, before, were austere & restrained in mind. Abandoning the five strings of sensuality, they practiced for their own benefit. They had no cattle, no gold, no wealth. They had study as their wealth. They protected the Brahmā treasure.…….They asked for rice, bedding, cloth, butter & oil. Having collected all that in line with rectitude, from that they performed the sacrifice. And in setting up the sacrifice, they didn’t harm cows.
Like a mother, father, brother, or other relative, cows are our foremost friends.From them comes medicine. They give food, strength, beauty, & happiness.”
Knowing this line of reasoning, they didn’t harm cows.”
Now, this is probably a unilateral depiction of the situation in Buddha’s time, showing Brāhmaṇas as greedy and wanton, and coming to Buddha for advice on how ancient Brāhmaṇas behaved as if they had completely lost their connection with their own tradition. I haven’t come across independent evidence from non-Buddhist sources of the same time period to back this up. We wouldn’t be remiss in assuming that Buddha may have been exaggerating the apparent deterioration of Brāhmaṇas in his own time, as his motive was to wean away Vedic practitioners into his own fold. However, there is certainly truth in his statements about “ancient Brāhmaṇas” treating cows with love and affection, as seen clearly in the Cow Hymn. So, we can confidently deduce that animal sacrifice was a relatively newer development not practiced in the most ancient Vedic period.
However, the central question is whether there was any recognition of non-violence in ancient Vedic texts, and hence prescription of alternatives to animal sacrifice.  
The texts that specialized in prescriptions of rituals are the Brāhmaṇas and Āraṇyakas. Two important points to note about these texts are:

  1. They prescribed rituals for the general population of Vedic times, who were from all walks of life and with various levels of spiritual awakening. As in any society, the enlightened people (rishis) only made up a small percentage of the population. Hence these texts have a variety of different rituals to cater to the religious needs of many different types of people, including those who feel obligated to sacrifice animals.
  2. They represent the second period of Vedic culture. This is evidenced by the fact that these texts quote the Samhitā mantras to be recited for each ritual. Hence the Samhitā must have existed prior to the composition of these texts.

I was pleasantly surprised to find several explicit, direct and unambiguous passages which prescribe a bloodless alternative to animal sacrifice. I shall detail them below.
There are only a handful of academics who have studied the ancient Brāhmaṇa and Āraṇyaka texts from this perspective. In the upper echelons of western academia, Edwin Bryant[3] stands out as someone who is more balanced and less biased in his views. However, his analysis is also somewhat unsatisfactory. He explains the alternatives to animal sacrifice as “confusion and conflict” in the minds of the experts, who while upholding the “orthodoxy” of animal sacrifice, begin to have feelings for the animals, and hence they insert these alternatives. He sees this as a clash of opposing old and new beliefs.
I must disagree with Bryant. These Brāhmaṇa and Āraṇyaka texts are distilled compilations of many centuries of ritual practice. They represent the best and most accepted form of the rituals coming down through tradition. So, they do not contain material that is adventitious according to the whimsical beliefs of an individual. They contain settled and canonical doctrine. Therefore, if they prescribe alternatives to animal sacrifice, then it is certainly an old teaching that has co-existed with other teachings as options. Hence, we must conclude that the idea of non-violence in yajñas has always been encouraged, but the choice of animal sacrifice has been provided in the hope of gently nudging the worshipper towards higher spirituality.
Below, I shall provide details from the instances I have found. There is no doubt that many more instances would be found.
Aitareya Brāhmaṇa (chapter)6.8-9 or (pañcikā)2.1.8-9 has a very explicit statement regarding effectiveness of using rice in place of real animals.
Khaṇḍa 8 starts with an allegorical story describing how the Devas first sought man as the yajña-paśu:
पुरुषं वै देवाः पशुमालभन्त तस्मादालब्धान्मेध उदक्रामत् सोऽश्वं प्राविशत् तस्मादश्वो मेध्योऽभवत् अथैनमुत्क्रान्तमेधमत्यार्जन्त स किंपुरुषोऽभवत्
“The Devas first obtained man as the sacrificial animal. From that man, the sacred part escaped and it entered the horse. Hence the horse became fit for sacrifice. They abandoned the man from whom the sacred part escaped, he became Kiṃpuruṣa.”
तेऽश्वमालभन्त सोऽश्वादालब्धादुदक्रामत् स गां प्राविशत्, तस्माद् गौर्मेध्योऽभवत् अथैनमुत्क्रान्तमेधमत्यार्जन्त स गौरमृगोऽभवत्
“They obtained the horse. From the horse, the sacred part escaped and entered the cow/bull. Hence the cow/bull became fit for sacrifice. They abandoned the horse from whom the sacred part escaped, it became the Gauramṛga (Nilgai).”
ते गामालभन्त, स गोरालब्धादुदक्रामत् सोऽविं प्राविशत् तस्मादविर्मेध्योऽभवत् अथैनमुत्क्रान्तमेधमत्यार्जन्त स गवयोऽभवत् तेऽविमालभन्त सोऽवेरालब्धादुदक्रामत् सोऽजं प्राविशत् तस्मादजो मेध्योऽभवत् अथैनमुत्क्रान्तमेधमत्यार्जन्त स उष्ट्रोऽभवत् ।
“They obtained the cow/bull. From the cow/bull, the sacred part escaped and entered into the sheep. Hence the sheep became fit for sacrifice. They abandoned the cow/bull from whom the sacred part escaped, it became the ox. From the sheep it escaped and entered into the goat. Hence the goat became fit for sacrifice. They abandoned the sheep from whom the sacred part escaped, it became the camel.”
सोऽजे ज्योक्तमामिवारमत तस्मादेष एतेषां पशूनां प्रयुक्ततमो यदजः ।
“The sacred part stayed in the goat for the longest time as it were, hence the goat is the most frequently used among these animals.”
तेऽजमालभन्त सोऽजादालब्धादुदक्रामत् स इमां प्राविशत्, तस्मादियं मेध्याभवत् अथैनमुत्क्रान्तमेधमत्यार्जन्त स शरभोऽभवत् ।
“They obtained the goat. From the goat, the sacred part escaped and entered the Earth. They abandoned the goat from whom the sacred part escaped, it became the Śarabha.”
तमस्यामन्वगच्छन् सोऽनुगतो व्रीहिरभवत् …
“They followed this sacred part in the Earth, he became rice…”
Khaṇḍa 9:
स वा एष पशुरेवालभ्यते यत्पुरोडाशः ।
“The cake made from rice is indeed the same as getting an animal.”
तस्य यानि किंशारूणि तानि रोमाणि, ये तुषाः सा त्वक् ये फलीकरणास्तदसृक् यत्पिष्टं किक्नसास्तन्मांसं यत्किंचित्कं सारं तदस्थि ।
“Of the rice, the straw compares to the hair of the animal, the chaff compares to the skin, the soft material that comes off after whitening the rice compares to the blood, the white rice that is ground into flour compares to the flesh, and whatever hard part of the rice grains is remaining, that compares to the bones.”
सर्वेषां वा एष पशूनां मेधेन यजते यः पुरोडाशेन यजते ।
Hence, he who performs yajna with the rice cake (puroḍāśa), effectively he performs yajna with the essence of all animals.
तस्मादाहुः पुरोडाशसत्रं लोक्यमिति ।
“Hence, the learned people say that the puroḍāśa-satra is beautiful to view (or beneficial) (or preferable).”
ŚatapathaBrāhmaṇa has an almost identical description and conclusion.
Taittirīya Samhitā says:
… दधि मधु घृतमापो धाना भवन्त्येतद्वै पशूनां रूपं रूपेणैव पशूनवरुन्धे …
“… Curds/yogurt, Honey, Ghee, Waters, Grains – these are verily the forms of the animals. By the forms alone the animals are obtained…”

Taittirīya Āraṇyaka 6.2 provides a different alternative. This section deals with the Pitṛ-yajña:
कल्पः – अत्र राजगवीमुपाकरोति…जरतीं मुख्यां तज्जघन्यां कृष्णां कृष्णाक्षीं कृष्णवालां कृष्णखुरां
“He obtains/prepares the “royal cow” who is old and decrepit, black, with black eyes, black tail and black hooves.”
However, the next paragraph says that the yajamāna has the option of either killing the cow or releasing her:
कल्पः – तां घ्नन्ति उत्सृजन्ति वा“They can either kill her or release her.”
There are very likely many more such teachings of alternatives to animal sacrifice in the vast literature that is the Brāhmaṇas and Āraṇyakas. Suffice it to say from the above evidence that animal sacrifice was not a required or mandatory part of Vedic ritual, and non-violence was already a firmly established teaching in Vedic scriptures.

References:[1][2][3] “Strategies of Subversion: The Emergence of Vegetarianism in Post-Vedic India” in A Communion of Subjects (194-203) Eds Waldau, P & Patton, K New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

Author: Ram Abloh
Aug 16th, 2020
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