Vedic Sacrifice (Challenge and Response)


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This book deals with post-Vedic developments in understanding the concept of sacrifice (yajna) and the response of the Bhagavad Gita to it. Concepts such as Karma, Brahman and Tapas originated in the context of Vedic ritual and were the generators of autonomous power in the performance of sacrifice.

The book argues that the Upanisads are not simply sources of the Vedantic categories of Brahman, Atman and Moksa. They also present Vedic ritual notions together with the new teachings of the wandering renouncers (sramanas) who posed a formidable challenge to the ritual tradition and its social hierarchy.

The impact of the sramana movement on the religio-political scene during the second century BC is also discussed. The decline of sacrifice and emphasis on moral virtues find expression in the reformation of Asoka. His policy of giving equal respect to all religions, the decline of the Mauryan empire after his death and the political establishment of the Sunkan dynasty contributed to the revival of the brahmanic tradition. Incorporation of new values and practices and brahmanic amalgamation with the Bhagavata tradition are seen as adjustments within the revival.

The Gita's position on Vedic sacrifice is examined in the light of these developments. Affirmation, addition and correction appear side by side with the superior values of knowledge (jnana) and devotion (bhakti). Taking into account the interaction and consistency between various strands of thought and practice, this book calls for a fresh understanding of the Hindu religious traditions.

About the Author:

Revd. DR. ISRAEL SELVANAYAGAM is a Christian Minister and theological educator. He is currently at Tamilnadu Theological Seminary, Madurai. He has made advanced studies in the field of Tamil Saivism and historical development of the Indian religious traditions.


It is an honour to be asked by Dr. Selvanayagam to write a foreword to his work on Vedic sacrifice, and a pleasure to accede to his request. Since the perspective of the present study is primarily historical, perhaps it may not be impertinent to make use of historical data in. order to enquire, me this foreword, concerning some repercussions consequent on the vitality of Vedic tradition, or at least one aspect of it.

Anyone who is even casually concerned with understanding contemporary India is aware of the fearfully oppressive tyranny which dalits have and continue to suffer in the context of brahmanical religion, Vedism. The fearsome character of this suffering is not only experienced in its intensity but also in its durability. Why? What is it that makes this religious tradition so incredibly resistent, enduring, and influential? Perhaps an answer is to be had from an examination of the dominant central feature of Vedic religion—the yajna. Let us, then, quickly and all too briefly survey some prominent examples in the history of its development of yajna as an explanatory category. This may help explain the durability of brahmanical religion by demonstrating how its cardinal element, yajna, has served throughout Indian religious history as a marker of traditional orthodoxy and hence a means for acceptable innovation.

It is generally agreed that the essential function of sacrifice the world over is to consecrate, to make sacred; and indeed, the etymology of the word sacrifice testifies on behalf of this under- standing (L. sacer-facio, "to make sacred"). Sacrifice, as a category in Indian religious thought, does indeed make sacred; it projects traditional and canonical meaning on a potentially infinite set of human religious activities and doctrines, thereby consecrating and legitimising them. One might even say that the imaginary entity called the “Indian mind" frequently thinks with a dominant "sacrificial consciousness".

The Vedic sacrifice in post-Vedic India has been pronounced dead by Indologists often and early, perhaps too early. The pioneers of Western knowledge of the Vedic ritual—Hillebrandt, Levi, Caland, and others—assumed their subject matter was speaking to them from the grave. These experts regarded performance of Vedic sacrifices recorded in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as, at best, a kind of necrophiliac theatre performed by Brahmans reading from a script.

However, scholars more recently—C.G. Kashikar, Frits Staal, Frederick Smith, Asko Parpola, Michael Witzel, David Knipe and Brian K Smith, to mention a few—have demonstrated that yajna was relegated to a historical tomb somewhat prematurely. Certainly Vedic rituals are in no sense popular or widespread in contemporary South Asia, but fieldwork data are now being accumulated which reveal a surprisingly large number of living traditions of Vedic ritualists throughout India.

Too often, however, fieldwork on current performances and performers of Vedic yajnas has tended merely to repaint the death mask rather than strip it off. Contemporary exempla of Vedic ritualism have too frequently been presented as surviving fossils of the distant past, wholly irrelevant to the religions of India now— and to those of the past two millennia. The yajna, it is said with certain commonsensical persuasiveness, is at most an antique relic of post-Vedic religious traditions. When it is not simply ignored as a museum piece of no contemporary interest or usefulness, it is radically misunderstood. Perhaps yajna as it has transmigrated throughout the history of post-Vedic Indian religious history, in a variety of historical settings and divergent traditions, needs to be viewed not so much as a ritual act or set of acts (the purpose of which might be constructive, expiatory, propitiary, purifying or cathartic) but rather as a category that acts to provide explanatory power, and hence consecrating and legitimising authority in Indian culture and religion.

We begin with an all too brief but hopefully not totally inadequate, survey of yajna as an explanatory category: a mode of classification that renders phenomena explicable by connecting them to ant already assimilated precedent. For Indian writers and thinkers from Vedic times to the present, yajna is, contrary to some Western opinions, in a real sense a datum of known quantity. It might well appear that, in all of this, sacrifice functions as a metaphor in Indian religious discourse, but it could equally be said that from the Indian point of view other beliefs, actions, and phenomena are metaphors of the sacrifice. That is to say, it is quite as reasonable to regard yajna as a model for understanding other phenomena as it is to assume that it is only a model of other phenomena.

The projection of the sacrifice from its ritual confines onto various aspects of human life and the world at large begins, of course, in the Veda itself. The theory of ritual in Vedic texts centers on the notion that sacrifice is not only the activity of priests, but is also the means for explaining the workings of the cosmos and the human self. Yajna is thus the primary category of knowledge in both Vedic cosmology and Vedic anthropology, as is indicated in the frequently encountered phrase purusa vai yajnah, “man [cosmic and human] is the sacrifice.”

The sacrifice as an explicatory model for understanding the cosmos is dramatically exemplified in the well-known Purusa Sukta (RV 10.90) in which the creation of the universe is represented as the primordial sacrifice and dismemberment of the cosmic Pumsa. This myth, as well as the related cosmogonic myths of Prajapati’s fragmentation of sacrificial construction‘—provides a blueprint etched by the yajna for tracing the origins of the cosmos.

But it is the epistemological function of the Vedic sacrifice, in the cosmological mode, that interests us at this juncture. This function of the sacrifice serves to explain the cosmos in both its origins and its ongoing operations. These latter are also comprehended through application of the sacrificial paradigm, as the early Upanisad testifies.

The world (of heaven) over there, Gautama, is a fire. The sun is its fuel, the rays of the sun are its smoke, the day is its flame, the moon its coals, the stars its sparks. Into this fire the gods offer faith, and from that oblation king Soma is born. The rain cloud, Gautama, is a fire. The wind is its fuel, the mist its smoke, lightning its flame, the thunderbolt its coals, and the mar of the thunder its sparks. Into this fire the gods offer king Soma, and Irom this oblation rain is born. The earth, Gautama, is a fire. The year is its fuel, space its smoke, night its flame, the four directions its coals, the four intermediate directions its sparks. Into this fire the gods offer rain, and from that oblation food is born.

Such a sacrificial comprehension of the workings of the cosmos often assumes a reciprocal arrangement among the cosmic forces, one sacrificing to another in order to keep the universe functioning y in its regularity:

The fire here (on earth) offers itself in the rising sun; the setting sun offers itself in the fire; the night also offers itself in the day, and the day in the night; the in breath [offers itself`] in the expiration, and the expiration in the in—breath. These six sacrifices themselves each in the other. Indeed, as the Satapatha Brahmana puts it, "this all (tat sarvam) participates in (abhakta) the sacrificer" and "this all" is made explicable when conceived in such a manner.

The sacrificial arena as the model both of and for the organisation of the cosmos persists long after the Vedic age has come to a close, providing us with examples of the post-Vedic exercise of the “sacrificial consciousness? The Buddhist stupa, a cosmological mapping centered on a cosmic man of another sort, the Buddha, is made up of parts whose names are borrowed from the terminology of the Vedic yajna So, too, when Hindu temples appear in the middle of the first millennium A.D., dedicated to gods propelled to glory by the bhakti movement, they, too, patterned themselves on the plan of the Vedic sacrificial arena.9 The Vedic sacrifice as the Indian ur-model of the cosmos, thus is superimposed on post~ Vedic worship centres and microcosmos of both Buddhist and Hindu varieties.

But it is at the level of adhyatman, making sense of the human self and human life, that the Vedic yajna most obviously and continually reappears throughout the history of Indian religions. The projection of the sacrifice onto the human purusu and his/ her existence, the meaningful overlay of the concept of sacrifice onto human existence, also begins in the Veda itself. The human body is understood as a reduplication of the sacrificial arena, for at the microcosmic level, too, purusa vai yajnah:

Man, Gautama, is a fire. Speech is his fuel, breath his smoke, the tongue his flame, the eye his coals, the ear his sparks. The sacrificial site (vedi) is indeed his breast, the sacrificial grass is his hair. The garhapatya fire is his heart, the daksina fire is his mind, the ahavaniya fire is his mouth.

The generation of human bodies depicted sacrificial terms under this paradigm is envisioned as a process of sacrificial oblations of male seed into the “fire” that is woman. Into the "fire" that is man, the gods make an "offering of food", from which semen is produced. The semen, in turn, is poured into the woman to produce new life. For not only is man depicted as a sacrifice, but Woman, Gautama, is a sacrificial fire. The vagina is her fuel, foreplay her smoke, the womb her flame, the penetration her coals, and the pleasure her sparks. Into this fire the gods make an offering of semen, and from that oblation the embryo is born.

The body’s dissolution at death is likewise regarded in sacrificial terms in Vedic texts and the related antyesti samskara—a final complete offering of the body into the cremation fire. Replicating the cosmogonic sacrificial dispersion of the body of Purusa/ Prajapati, the human body, too, is sacrificially disintegrated, and reintegrated into the cosmos.

The voice of the deceased enters the fire, his breath [enters] the wind, his eye the sun, his mind the moon, his ear the cardinal directions, his flesh the earth, his atman the atmosphere, his body hair the plants, the hair on his head the trees, and his blood and semen are deposited in the waters.

As Bruce Lincoln writes by way of summarising this and other related Indo—European visions of death as sacrifice, "Like all sacrifice, death is a repetitive act. Each death repeats every other death and every other sacrifice: above all the first death, which was also the first sacrifice.

When the new doctrine of samsara first appears in the early Upanisads, it is, not surprisingly, cast in the mould that is yajna. Indeed, the earliest formulation of transmigration and the reincarnation of the atman explains the process of rebirth as a series of oblations in five fires, culminating in the oblation of male seed into the womb fire of the female.

And just as both the origins and the ongoing functions of the cosmos are represented in sacrificial tones in the Veda, so is the ongoing process of human life—in addition to the origins and ends of that life-depicted as a yajna. According to the Chandogya Upanisad, human existence is to be understood as a kind of sama sacrifice, with its three periods of youth, maturity and old age corresponding to the three soma pressings in the morning, midday, and evening.

The sacrificial paradigm is also applied in discussions of the critical moments of that sacrifice which is the life of humans. The “second birth” or initiation into Vedic society (upanayana), a significant symbol of dalit oppression—is one of the few rituals of Vedism that persists more or less unchanged throughout the history of Vedism, and has always been represented as a sacrifice. upanayana also inaugurates the study of the Veda (brahmacarya), which is likewise understood as a kind of sacrifice.

The conclusion of the period of Veda study is, as might well be expected, homologised with the conclusion of the Vedic sacrifice: the gift to the teacher presented by the departing student is specifically termed as daksina or sacrificial fee and the ceremonial bath at tl1e end of brahmacarya, the samavartana, recalls the concluding bath of the sacrifice—the avabhrtha.

The notion that the accumulation of religious knowledge is a kind of sacrifice together with the conceptualisation of human physiology in sacrificial terms combines to make possible the representation of world renunciation (in the Upanisads and other texts) as yet another version of the yajna. But the very act and subsequent life of renunciation—which includes renunciation of sacrifice, of ritual action or karmam-is presented in the texts as a "higher" or"‘truer" sacrifice. The renouncer, or "sacrificer", "sacrifices” only in himself (atmanneva yajati),”and such a sacrifice is envisioned by the monistic Upanisadic thinkers as a means to obtain mystical union in a pantheistic conception of that oneness: "His offering is made in all worlds, in all beings, in all selves.

This identification of the life and physiology of the renouncer— who has resumed himself the sacrificial fires which are then extinguished2'—and the ritual of sacrifice creates homologies between all the functions of life and the functions of ritual. The consumption of daily meals becomes an atmayajna or “sacrifice to and in the self. "?2 Even the breathing of the renouncer is considered to be an “inner sacrifice" (antara-agnihotra) or “sacrifice to and in the life—breaths" (prana-agnihotra).

In this way, every moment of the life of the world renouncer is regarded as sacrifice, every breath and “ob1ation", and life as whole is considered a "continuous" and ‘uninterrupted" yajna.

In the Upanisads the yajna was transformed and redefined, as Dr. Selvanayagam has demonstrated, but nevertheless preserved. This was accomplished by equating new religious practices- meditation, yoga, and contemplation on the ultimate nature of the self-to it. All are not agreed as to how these data are to be interpreted, but we need not enter into this controversy. Indeed, regardless of whether the representations of the practices of world renounces in sacrificial terms is interpreted by its scholars as the organic development of Vedic ritualism or as a strategy for in— corporating within the orthodox tradition practices of extraneous origin, the function is the same: to conceptualise and articulate the new in terms of the old. The category of yajna thus serves to explain the unknown (its explicative function as a category); and we might safely say, it also acts to traditinnalise the innovative.

By the time of the Bhagavadgita (c. second century B.C. or later), a text that manifests a syncretistic and emergent Hindu orthodoxy and number of traditional as well as heterogeneous and non-Vedic practices are synthesised into Hindu religious life by identifying them with yajna.

Some yogins offer only sacrifice to the gods; others offer the sacrifice with the sacrifice in the fire of brahman. Others offer the senses beginning with hearing in the fires of self-restraint; and others offer the objects of sense, beginning with sounds, in the fires of the senses. Others [offer] all acts of the senses and acts of the breaths in the fire, kindled by wisdom, of the yoga of self restraint. Others [offer] material sacrifice, the sacrifice of austerities, or the sacrifice of yoga; and [others offer] sacrifices of Veda recitation (svadhyaya) and mystical knowledge (janana)—world renouncers whose vows are keen. Some offer the inhalation of breath in the exhalation of breath, and the exhalation of breath in the inhalation of breath, controlling them both, intent on breath control. Others restrict their meals and offer the breaths in the breaths. All these are knowers of the sacrifice, their defilements erased by sacrifice.

And with the Gita we also witness a new extension of the category of sacrifice. Isolating and generalising the component of the ritual called the tyaga (the ‘“giving up" or “renunciation" of the offering), the Gita teaches the doctrine of karma-yoga as sacrificially oriented everyday action whereby “all attachment and all the fruits of action] are renounced."25 For, the text says, "this world is bound by the bonds of karma except where that action is done sacrificially.

In yet another move that will have consequences for the sub- sequent development of devotional Hinduism, the Gita introduces the new teaching of bhakti in the guise of the reinterpreted ‘“true sacrifice?


Tins BOOK is the modified version of a dissertation submitted to the Senate of Serampore College in 1989 for the degree of Doctor of Theology. Since then a number of studies on Vedic sacrifice have appeared. In perspective and methodology my work may yet contribute to an understanding of the post—Vedic development of the concepts of yajna or sacrifice.

Some of the suggestions made by the examiners of the dissertation have been incorporated; so also a few insights from new material and dialogue with scholars of Hinduism. The more aware I am of the vast area covered in this book and of the extensive studies on Vedic sacrifice the more modest I become about acknowledging its limitations. Studying all the original texts of the Vedas, Sutras, Darsanas, epics and the sramana literature is impossible given the limited scope and time of the research. Only the principal Upanisads, Manavadharma Sastra and sections of the Mahabharata including the Gita could be studied in their original. Admittedly, I am not a Sanskritist to make linguistic analysis of every verse of these texts. I have consulted all the major translations of them. For most of the rest I have relied on secondary sources, yet not ‘secondary’ in terms of their sound scholarship and reputation. To keep the book readable for average students of Hinduism I have avoided obscure Sanskrit terms. Further, I seem to proceed fast at some junctures mentioning issues and giving the references in footnotes without dealing with them in detail. There are reasons for this. First, I assume that the readers are already familiar with the_ basic issues. Second, I did not want to go beyond the present size of the book. Third, my main purpose is to suggest a new line of reading the development of ancient religious thought in India. All these reasons make me claim no more than an outline for this work which needs extensive discussion and far more detail. It is my hope that this outline will stimulate students to study and present the pan—mythic religious traditions of India with adequate clarity.

It is my duty to acknowledge help from different persons during my research for this book. Two-thirds of the time (1986-88) was spent in Bangalore at the United Theological College and one—third in Cambridge, UK. Following are the most notable ones who were closely associated with my work.

It was Dr. Eric Lott who, at the initial stages of my research struggled with me in shaping directions, focusing on the issues concerned and formulating me topic. Before leaving Bangalore in March 1988 he was able to go through the major part of the preliminary draft and make valuable comments. Even after his return to England he continued to be an encouraging consultant. I am deeply grateful to him.

Dr. David Scott, who succeeded Dr. Lott as my official supervisor, drew my attention to some important areas for further consideration after reading the revised preliminary draft. During my ten months period of intensive research in Cambridge his prompt replies answering my questions and giving practical suggestions greatly facilitated the process of finalising the draft in time. Subsequently he vigorously encouraged me to publish the work. Further, he has graced this book with an insightful foreword. I owe to him immensely. During my stay in Cambridge Dr Julius Lipner, going through the pre-final draft very minutely, made many good suggestions for further refinement. He also directed me to new source material in Cambridge and London. My sincere thanks are due to him.

Besides, brief consultations I had with Professors Gispert-Sauch of New Delhi, Ria Kloppenborg of Utrecht and Diana Eck of Harvard gave some good insights into the concerns of this book. I am thankful to these scholars.

I also wish to acknowledge the kind assistance provided by the librarians and library staff of the following institutions: United Theological College, Bangalore; Tamilnadu Theological Seminary, Madurai; Vidyajyoti, Delhi; the University Library, the Divinity School, the Centre for South Asian Studies, the Faculty of Oriental Studies and Wesley House, all in Cambridge; the School of oriental and V African Studies and India Office Library in London. An additional bursary made available by the Spalding Trust helped me to have easy access to libraries in London.

I place on record my appreciation and gratitude for the patient assistance of my wife Gnanaleelal in various ways including in typing the draft. Along with her my two daughters Ani Esther and Arulkani deserve appreciation for their cheerful cooperation while I was away from Madurai for more than two years.

Manohar Publishers & Distributors deserve appreciation for the excellent job in producing the book.





A Note on Transliteration


  1. Vedic Yajna: Its Form, Power and Meaning
    1. Introduction
    2. Development of Vedic Sacrifice
    3. Power and its Generators in Sacrifice
      1. Karman
      2. Brahman
      3. Tapas
    4. The Meaning of Vedic Sacrifice: Experiences and Motives
      1. Transcendental Experience in Vedic Sacrifice
      2. Yajna and the Cosmos
      3. Yajna and Devas
      4. Yajna and the Yajamana's Kama
    5. Sacrifice and Stratification of Vedic Society
    6. Glimpses of Interiorisation in the Early Period
    7. Conclusion

  2. Development of Jnana Yajna and Atma Yajna:
    The Tension between Ritual and Interiorisation in the Upanisads
    1. Introduction
    2. Persistence of Ritual Sacrifice and New Directions
      1. Continuation of Vedic Sacrifice
      2. Towards a Search for Reality Beyond Sacrifice
      3. Old Terms and New Meanings
      4. Allegorical Interpretation
    3. Atma Yajna: Its Nature and Means
      1. A New Understanding of Power and Meaning
      2. Inward Journey to Self-Sacrifice
    4. Towards a Flexibility of Social Stratification
    5. The Tension between Ritualists and Ascetics
    6. Conclusion

  3. New Challenges to the Cult of Yajna and the Brahmanic Reaction: Some Considerations on the Influence of Changes in Socio-Economic-Religious Spheres
    1. Introduction
    2. Political-Social-Economic Upheavals
    3. The Sramanas and their Challenge
      1. The Jainas
      2. The Buddhists
      3. The Ajivikas
      4. The Overall Impact of the Sramana Movement
    4. Brahmanic Reaction and the Revival of Sacrifice
      1. The Orthodox Darsanas
      2. The Dharmasastras
      3. The Epics
      4. The Process of Assimilation
    5. A Great Form of Cultic Synthesis:
      The Bhagavata-Brahmana Amalgamation
    6. Conclusion

  4. Yajan in the Bhagavad Gita - Affirmation,
    Accomodation and New Interpretation
    1. Introduction
    2. Some Notes on the Setting of the Gita
    3. An Affirmation of Vedic Sacrifice
      1. Sacrifice as Primeval Creation
      2. Sacrifice as Effecting Mutual Sustenance between Gods and Human Beings
      3. Yajna as the Cosmic Wheel
      4. Continuation of Sacrifice even in Samnyasa
      5. Minor Corrections in Attitude
      6. Incorporation of New Elements
      7. Special Emphasis on the Vedic Dharma and the Sacrificial War
    4. Mention of a Variety of Sacrifices
      1. Deva Yajna and Dravya Yajna
      2. Adhyaya Yajna
      3. Indriya, Prana, Yoga, Tapas and Jnana yajnas
      4. Japa Yajna
      5. Brahma Yajna
    5. Yajna Interpreted through Samkhyan Categories
    6. Karma Yajna and Niskama Karman
      1. Karman for Yajna
      2. Niskama Karman and Yajna
      3. Karmic Samnyasa
    7. Jnana Yajna
      1. From the Viewpoint of Vedic Yajna
      2. From the Upanisadic Perspective
      3. From the Viewpoint of Karma
    8. Bhakti Yajna and its Focus
      1. Krsna as Recipient and Enjoyer of Sacrifice
      2. Krsna Identifying Himself with the Sacrifice
      3. Bhakti Transcending Yajna
      4. Inadequacy of Yajna for the Vision of God.
      5. Bhakti Yajna in Relation to other yajnas
    9. Conclusion