To the reader…
This is part of a series of posts on Indian Political Thought. They are transcripts of lectures delivered recently by Bharati. Each lecture will be divided into a number of parts and published separately. Bharati has not only endorsed their publication but also checked and improved the transcripts; for which, the blog renders its gratitude. However, yours truly and their good friend are responsible for tracing, checking, and arranging the references. These references are neither authoritative nor exhaustive; treat them simply as the attempts of two cluelesss students at helping themselves and other clueless students understand the lectures just a little better. Often they are pointers to material that might interest the slightly more advanced reader. Some are simply interesting (we hope) pieces of trivia.
Some things before you proceed:
- Sanskrit (and other non-English) terms are transliterated following the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST) standard. Though it not strictly necessary or even recommended, I try to transliterate most terms. Familiarity with Devanagri sounds is recommended.
- Please use the footnote markers (, , etc.) to jump to footnotes and back to the text.
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Sacrifice and the Problem of Violence
1. One problem of organizing Indian Thought into a course of study is that the thematic and the chronological get mixed up no matter how hard you try to keep them separate. If we were to do this course chronologically starting with the Vedic philosophy and then moving to the Upaniṣadic philosophy and the later, post-Upaniṣadic trends, it will give the impression of an orderly evolution of thought, which will be an unrealistic impression because that is not how ideas evolve. In fact, there seems to be very little that is orderly about the evolution of ideas.
2. Take for example the idea of sacrifice which is the first big theme that we are looking at. We quickly realize that it is connected to other themes. It is connected to the theme of Varṇa hierarchy. It is connected to the question of violence and non-violence; therefore, it is connected to the supposed conflict between Brahmanical thinking and Buddhist thinking. It is also something that disrupts the chronology. Because if sacrifice is related to the question of violence and non-violence and if violence and non-violence are the questions which become very important in the 20th century, then we have to ignore the chronology for a minute and look at those also. So, there is a constant adjustment that one has to make between the thematic and the chronological. Therefore, I have decided not to stick to either one of these exclusively but to try and combine the two. So, the initial impression you will get from these lectures is that our discussion of the Indian thought is untidy and confusing. But that’s unavoidable because any one approach will do injustice to the actual nature of the thinking or the evolution of thought.
3. The other thing which you must have also realized by now, and I mention this only in passing, is that while the name of the course is Indian Political Thought, when it comes to pre-modern thinking, it is not always easy to distinguish clearly between the political and the non-political. We assume for instance that what is being talked about regarding sacrifice in the Vedic thinking had political relevance, but whether it had political relevance for the Vedic people and whether “political relevance” meant for them the same thing that it means for us today is a completely different matter. We often deceive ourselves into thinking that what is political for us was also political for them. Probably it was not. It is very hard for us living in the 20th and 21st century to fully understand what was political for the Vedic civilization.
4. So, we are taking those aspects of Vedic thinking which through Indian history seem to have become recurrent themes and have reappeared in the 19th and 20th century. Our selection of certain themes and our designation of them as “political” is heavily biased or influenced by the present. That is something we must remember. Let us not think that questions that have contemporary political relevance for us also had the same relevance in the past. Let us not be surprised then to find all sorts of themes, ideas, and texts from, for example, Ṛgveda or a particular ritual text from ancient India, accommodated under the umbrella of Political Thought. Today, if someone were to write a text or a treatise on rituals, you will not regard it as a political tract unless it also says something about Varṇa hierarchy and how that hierarchy cannot be violated. That’s to say, unless it goes into those themes that are political or have become political today, it will not be considered as a political text. So, we are in a way looking at pre-modern India through a particular lens. If you remove that lens and use some other lens, it will look very different and we will be selecting very different themes and texts. That’s the small but important clarification that I wanted to make.
5. Coming back to the mixing of the chronological and the thematic, you will see how all these are interconnected. You will have to excuse me if I move back and forth in time because if I were to stop talking about violence regarding sacrifice in the Vedic society or with Upaniṣadic thought or even for that matter the Bhagavadgītā and not come to the 20th century, then I will have to revisit this later by which time you will have probably forgotten all the complexities of this discussion. So, I will have to move back and forth both across time and across themes, which is going to make things very untidy but there seems to be no alternative to it.
6. Now the theme that we have taken up is the theme of sacrifice. I have been using interchangeably words like “ritual” and “sacrifice”. But I must clarify that there is a distinction there. All cultures have rituals. All religions have rituals. Those who regard themselves as practicing or believing Hindus today also have rituals in their daily lives or on certain specific occasions like marriage or death in the family. Sacrifice is one part of this huge area of rituals. Of course, it is an important part, and, for the Vedic civilization, it was the most important part. The other rituals which are non-sacrificial in nature are a later growth, by which I don’t mean the medieval period because already in early Indian history, you see that development. What happens is that the big sacrifices go in decline. After the late medieval period, you hardly come across instances of the Vedic sacrifices having been performed. There was one such event which was filmed in Kerala and was studied by some scholars.
7. But as a part of our contemporary life, we don’t see big Vedic sacrifices being performed. Though sacrifices go in decline, other rituals which do not require sacrifices increase and they are a part of today’s Hindu self-understanding. So, if you ask a person who is a practicing Hindu or a believer what it means for her to be a Hindu, one of the things she is likely to say is that these are the observances that she or her family follows, but these observances very often have nothing whatsoever to do with sacrifices in the technical sense. For the identity of Hinduism as a distinctive religion, sacrifices with Vedic genealogy are central even if they are not performed today. For the purpose of self-understanding sacrifices remain important, whereas in terms of practice, it is the non-sacrificial observances which have endured or and have even proliferated.
8. Concerning sacrifice, two major words keep coming up in the ancient texts: yajña and homa. Yajña has naturally got to do with fire, and the very first word of the Ṛgveda is agni. A plain translation of agni would be fire. But here, it has got a lot of other meanings. Agni is a deity himself. Agni is also sometimes described as one of the priests symbolically. And of course, agni is also the medium through which what you offer in the fire is carried to the gods. So, it is all these three things and the exact meaning depends on the context. A simple understanding of how sacrifices work, or what is a sacrifice, is something which is already there in the material I gave you, particularly Michael Witzel’s essay. We will start with the simple understanding and then move towards something which is more and more complex and perhaps disturbing for us moderns.
9. The simple understanding is that there is a particular place which is the place prepared for a particular sacrifice ritual. Certain specialized priests come. They light the sacrificial fire. And on behalf of the sacrificer or the patron, the yajamāna, they offer certain things in the fire which are supposed to be offerings to the gods. And when these material things offered in the fire along with the praise of the gods reach the gods through the medium of fire, they are pleased and they reciprocate by granting you your wishes. Thus, there is a certain ethos of hospitality involved here but there is also a great deal of reciprocity where you please the gods and when they are pleased, they grant you your wishes. That’s the simple model of how sacrifices are supposed to work.
10. There is a slightly later understanding which is a variation on this: that it is the technique which matters. If you do it correctly, then gods are bound to oblige. Despite themselves, they have to grant you what you wish for. Here the emphasis has subtly but very importantly changed from the actual attempt to praise and please gods to doing it perfectly, that is to the technique. It is the efficacy of the technique which gets emphasized which means that if you do it correctly, then gods have to grant you your wishes. They have no option because of the very mechanism of the act. That’s the variation. If you ask me for an early illustration of this, one particular instance I can think of is in the Mahābhārata. When Duryodhana is talking to his parents before the great war, he says, I am going to do this sacrifice, and gods will have to oblige. We could say then that by the time of the composition of the Mahābhārata (which of course spans the last few centuries BCE and few centuries after CE), the original Vedic idea of pleasing the gods had already undergone a change. But we don’t know how widely accepted this new idea was. We simply don’t have enough evidence.
11. Let’s go back to the simple understanding and try and complicate it a little bit because this is only one of the ways in which it is understood. Remember that the original sacrifice was that of the dismemberment of the Cosmic Man or the Puruṣa. And all other sacrifices are supposed to be similar in their essence, though not in their procedure. If they are similar in nature, the implication is that sacrifice is something which creates by destroying. The Cosmic Man had to be destroyed in order to create this world. This is the idea you must have come across in Brian Smith’s chapters. It means that every sacrifice must also be doing the same thing essentially. It may not appear to be doing the same thing because sacrifices change in their form and in their technique, but essentially, they must be doing the same thing. Now if every sacrifice is an imitation of the original sacrifice, and if the original sacrifice was about destroying something in order to create something, then it must be the case that underlying the philosophy of sacrifice is this idea that you can only create by destroying something.
12. For the duration of the sacrifice, the patron or sacrificer actually becomes the Cosmic Man. Now surely you are not dismembering him. If you go on dismembering people, then no one will offer sacrifices! The sacrificer cannot be dismembered in a literal way. Therefore, there has to be some substitute and it is the substitute which is offered in the fire. So the idea which I said was the idea of giving gifts to gods seems to be deeper than that. That is, the idea seems to be that this particular material that I offer in the fire is actually a part of me, and by giving it away and offering it to gods, I am actually giving away a portion of myself. The literal idea of dismemberment is turned into a symbolic or metaphoric idea of offering in the fire that which is a part of you.
13. If wealth is part of you, then you offer wealth. If cattle are part of you, you offer cattle. In the sacrifice, a certain correspondence is established between the patron and that which belongs to the patron, the material, and it is the material which is offered by which is meant that it is the sacrificer’s parts which are being offered. Why is this idea important? Why must we move beyond the simple idea of reciprocal exchange of gifts? Because that is too benign. And there was nothing benign about the Vedic sacrifice. There is evidence to suggest that the original idea of sacrifice was something very violent and extremely bloody. The word “blood” and the very idea of blood becomes important in later myths and in Tamil mythology, or the temple myths, are full of the idea of blood.
14. The original sacrifice was violent and competitive. Remember that it is not always one solitary sacrificer sacrificing. There could be several sacrificers and there would be a competition amongst them because naturally gods cannot go everywhere at the same time, or at least that is what was believed! You had to attract gods to your sacrifice rather than someone else’s, and so sacrifices were competitive and violent and hence the connection of sacrifice to violence. The idea here is again that nothing can be created without sacrificing or destroying something.
15. The scholar David Shulman has said that the Hindu world is a “closed circuit” and that nothing new can be added to it. Which means that if anything is to be created, then something which is already there has to be destroyed. Destruction and creation are supposed to be intimately connected to each other because life and death are connected to each other. They seem to be each other’s polar opposites but they are connected in the sense that unless you kill something, something new will not be born, that unless you destroy something, something new will not be created. And therefore, sacrifice which is a ritualized act of destroying something or killing something or giving up something, is a creative sacrifice. It is a creative destruction. And that is why you are giving away something.
16. One of the formulas of sacrifice, which captures the essence of what a sacrifice is, is to say that what is offered is not mine: idaṃ na mama. When you offer something in the fire, you have to say that this is not mine: [agnaye idaṃ na mama (This is for Agni, not for me)]. And by saying that, you give up that which was yours. The idea is that by giving up something which was yours, there will be something new and you will get it. So, unless you kill somebody, someone who is unborn will not be born. Unless there is death, there will not be life. It was believed that what happens in the act of killing is that a certain — and this is an interpretation which is open to dispute — vacuum is created which attracts life, and therefore killing results in regeneration.
17. I talked about blood a little while ago and I said that early Tamil thinking is full of ideas of blood. Here the thought is that blood is actually regenerative, that spilling blood is like growing food in the soil. And that therefore, war which can be understood as the ritualized shedding of blood is also that which creates new possibilities, new wealth, new life, etc. So, life and death are each other’s unavoidable correlates. There is an unending cycle of life and death. And it is only within this cycle that you can do something. You cannot stop this cycle, the only way you can do something within this cycle is to kill or give up something, offer something or somebody.
18. There are any number of stories whose basic motif is of a king who doesn’t have children. Particularly, he doesn’t have a male child. In ancient Indian thinking, which has percolated to the general Hindu thinking later on, it is very important to have a male heir because it is only through the male heir that continuity is guaranteed. You are going to die in a physical sense but in another sense, you can also live on and experience immortality if you have a male child. Hence the cultural value given to the having of a male child.
19. There are stories in different parts of the country in which a king who does not have a male child prays or does penance and his desire for a male child is granted on the condition that the son will have to be sacrificed at the age of, say, 12, or that the son will die. The king is distraught, and doesn’t know what to do. He says yes to it because he very much wants to have a child but he is all the time worried that this child is going to grow up and as predicted, at the appointed time, going to die. So, he tries ways of avoiding that. At this point variations on the story begin. In many versions, like the logic of Greek tragedy, whatever the king does to avoid fate, actually contributes to the death of the child.
20. Another variation is that, suppose there is a very close family member or a childhood friend who offers himself to the god, saying kill me instead but spare the child, and at the last moment god is pleased by this supreme gesture by the friend of the king’s son, the child is spared, and everybody is happy. If you don’t get lost in these variations but just look at the core of the story, then the core is that you will get a son but the son will have to be offered in a sacrifice. You will not get anything unless you offer something. Of course, it is very dramatic that precisely what you had asked for has to be sacrificed. And it becomes an insoluble problem also. But often, the situation is not as tragic as that. It’s usually in the form of you offering x and getting y in return. But this offering is not as benign or as peaceful as offering milk in the fire and then getting some wealth or some success later on. It can be something very violent, and originally it was indeed supposed to be very violent.
21. So, what has happened is that we have moved from the simple idea of sacrifice as reciprocal exchange of gifts through which you please gods to the idea of sacrifice as essentially a creative destruction and arrived at the idea of violence which is inherent in sacrifice. Now we are not the first people to have realized this. The ancient Indians themselves realized this. So, let’s look at the various ways in which they saw this, dealt with it, and tried to find ways out of it.
 This is a reference to the Athirathram (in Malayalam) or Atirātra-Agnicayana which was last performed in 2011 at Panjal in Thrissur disctrict in Kerala and attended by Prof. Michael Witzel and students of the South Asia Insititute, Harvard University. The report may be read here. It was also performed in 1975 and famously studied and videotaped by Frits Staal who produced a two volume book titled Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar, first published in 1983, in collaboration with C. V. Somayijapad and M. Itti Ravi Nambudiri and with pictures taken by Adelaide deMenil.[^]
 Long-ish digression about the difference between the pronunciations of n, ṇ, and ñ which are IAST transliterations of न, ण [example, the name Kaṇva (कण्व) who is a sage mentioned in the Ṛgveda], and ञ. The jña in yajña is ज्ञ which is an irregular ligature (combination) of ज (ja) and ञ (ña).[^]
 Ṛgveda 1.1.1 (trans. Jamieson and Brereton, vol. 1, p. 89):
Agni do I invoke — the one placed to the fore, god and priest of the sacrifice.[^]
 On “substitution”, consult Wendy Doniger and Brian K. Smith, “Sacrifice and Substitution: Ritual Mystification and Mythical Demystification,” Numen 36, no. 2 (1989): 189–224, https://doi.org/10.1163/156852789X00045.[^]
 David Shulman, Tamil Temple Myths: Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in the South Indian Saiva Tradition (Princeton: Princeton Legacy Library, 2016 ), p. 90.
The Hindu universe is a closed circuit: nothing new can be produced except by destroying or transforming something else. To attain more life — such as a son, or a “rebirth” of the sacrificial patron himself — the life of the victim must be extinguished. Life and death are two facets of a single, never-ending cycle: thus a son may be born to a childless king on condition that that this same son will inturn be sacrificed.[^]
 In the Bhāgavata Purāṇa (9.7.10–13, trans. G. V. Tagare, vol. 3, p. 1161) where a slightly different version of the story is told, Hariścandra delays the god Varuṇa thus:
Varuṇa demanded, “Now a son is born to you, worship me by sacrificing that child”. Hariścandra replied, “When a (prospective) victim crosses the first ten days of his life, it becomes fit for sacrificial purpose.” When the time limit of ten days was over, Varuṇa arrived and asked the king to worship him (with that child). Hariścandra replied, “It is after dentition that an animal becomes fit for sacrifice.” (After the dentition of the child, Varuṇa appeared again and said, “Now that the teeth have appeared, do you worship me with the child?” “But the victim will be fit for sacrifice when its teeth have fallen.” (Varuṇa appeared again and (demanded, “The teeth of the sacrificial animal have fallen, now worship (me with him)”. “But a victim becomes pure when its teeth grow again.” replied Hariścandra. [and so on…][^]
Haug, Martin, trans. 1863. The Aitareya Brahmanam of the Rigveda. 2 vols. Bombay: Government Central Book Depot.
Jamison, Stephanie W., and Joel P. Brereton, trans. 2014. The Rigveda: The Earliest Religious Poetry of India. 3 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Staal, Frits. 1983. Agni, the Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar. 2 vols. Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press.
Witzel, Michael. 2003. ‘Vedas and Upaniṣhads’. In The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism, edited by Gavid Flood, 68–101. Oxford: Blackwell.
Shulman, David. 2016  Tamil Temple Myths: Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in the South Indian Saiva Tradition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Smith, Brian K., and Wendy Doniger. ‘Sacrifice and Substitution: Ritual Mystification and Mythical Demystification’. Numen 36, no. 2 (1989): 189–224. https://doi.org/10.2307/3270036.
Sophocles. 1994. Sophocles: Ajax, Electra, Oedipus Tyrannus. Translated by Hugh Lloyd-Jones. The Loeb Classical Library 20. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Tagare, Ganesh Vasudeo, trans. 1976. The Bhāgavata Purāṇa. Vol. 3. Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology 9. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.