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There are many allegations against the ancient Vedic rituals or yajnas, that they are useless and contain rather primitive contents such as animal sacrifices, obscene fertility rites etc.Yog.
Animal sacrifices, fertility rites etc were not unique to the ancient Vedic culture. We could see them in many parts of the ancient world. Before the civilizations evolved, all of humanity lived as primitive hunter gatherers who hunted animals for food and other needs. Vedic rituals dating back to the bronze age and having it’s roots in further antiquity would obviously contain elements which would be considered primitive or trangressive according to modern notions.
For example Ashavmedha or horse sacrifice involved the chief queen copulating (or at least mimicking the copulation) with the sacrificed horse and Purushamedha or human sacrifice would have also originally involved similar rite, with horse replaced by human victim. Few variations of another ritual named Gosava grants sacrificer the right to answer nature’s call anywhere he wishes and also cohabit with any women including his own mother, sister and women from his own clan, which is otherwise strictly forbidden according to Vedic laws.
These may sound bizarre, but if we look at the details of the rituals, it becomes clear that some aspects of these rituals are quite complicated to perform.
For example in Ashvamedha, the horse is sacrificed only after it is safely returned from all the neighboring kingdoms where it roamed for an year representing the king. If any of the neighboring kingdoms capture the horse, then it is a sign of war. But if the horse returned safely from the neighboring kingdoms, then it would mean that the neighboring kingdoms accepted the supremacy of the king represented by the horse. Thus the ritual could only be conducted by powerful kings. After the horse is returned safely to the hosting kingdom, it is offered to deities. It is said that along with horse, many other animals are also offered in the sacrifice. These animals are enumerated in texts like Vajasaneyi Samhita book 24 of Shukla or White Yajur Veda and Taittiriya Samhita 5.5.11-24 of Krshna or Black Yajur Veda. If we look at the animals in the list, we can see that the it includes tiny ones like flies, bees, worms etc to bigger ones like rhinoceroses, tigers, lions, crocodiles, elephants etc! Though the wild animals in the list are to be released later, all of the victims in the list must be tied to the sacrificial posts or Yupa. This huge list of animals are of course next to impossible to be used in rituals.
In similar lines, Purushamedha also follows same theme with horse replaced by human victim. It also has a list of several other victims who are to be tied in sacrificial posts. These victims are not animals as in Ashvamedha, but humans of various castes, tribes, professions, characteristics etc as numerated in Vajasaneyi Samhita book 30. This large list of victims also appears to be impossible to gather just like the Ashvamedha list, and making Purushamedha an extremely complex rite as well. Texts like Satapatha Brahmana 126.96.36.199 already treats Purushamedha as symbolic sacrifice and even certain hymns of Rig Veda like 5.2.7, 1.24.13 etc echoes the tale of Shunashepa or the boy who was chosen as victim of human sacrifice and was later released by the blessings of deities. This story could be viewed as abandonment of human sacrifice in general. But the human sacrifices continued to exist in post Vedic times, though they were extremely rare.
A ritual named Agnichayana or Athiratra also involved burying the heads of several animals and also a human head on the ground before building the fire altar, which was later replaced with replica heads.
In Gosava ritual, the sacrificer must behave like a bovine by kneeling down to eat and drink, graze on grass etc just like bovines. Though this is just one version of Gosava found in texts like Jaiminiya Brahmana 2.113, while other versions found in texts like Panchavimsha Brahmana 19.13 do not mention any transgressive acts. It is possible that the transgressive version is a modification of simpler version or vice versa. It is also said in Jaiminiya Brahmana that the king Janaka refused to perform the transgressive rite and another king Punyakesha after halting the performance of the rite declared the performance of rite as being limited to old men. The trick here was to limit the performance of this transgressive rite as much as possible, since old men won’t have much potency to perform this extremely complicated rite.
Thus these complicated ritual performances would have been extremely rare and would most likely had modifications and or symbolic performances. The ritual interpretations also varied from one Vedic text to another as mentioned above, so this indicates that the different authors modified and interpreted the rituals.
Vedic rituals are open for modifications and exceptions according to circumstances . For example when Vedic culture expanded from its heartland in north-west India into other regions, the original sacred Soma plant used in rituals was replaced with other plants due to unavailability of the original Soma in new regions where the Vedic culture expanded.
Also according to the tradition, the Vedic rituals are only to be conducted in the lands where krshna mrga or blackbucks live as stated in texts like Manu Smriti 2.23. But when Vedic culture historically expanded beyond India into new regions like south-east Asia, the Vedic rituals were also conducted in these regions. Blackbucks do not live in regions like south-east Asia and they are mostly found in India (though they are facing extinction today). Clearly, here the ritualists made exceptions to the rule which is applied in mainland India or Bharatavarsha and performed Vedic rituals in other regions like south-east Asia
In later periods, the animal sacrifices which are part of many Vedic rituals were also substituted by offerings of grain cakes or purodasha. Shatapatha Brahmana 188.8.131.52-7 narrates a story of how sacrificial essence from humans and animals finally got into grains. Shatapatha Brahmana 184.108.40.206 also states that it is as an animal sacrifice the cake is offered, and Shatapatha Brahmana 220.127.116.11 also associates different characteristics of the cake with that of different parts of animals. Further Taittiriya Brahmana 18.104.22.168 explicitly states that the rice cakes are substitutes of animal victims and Taittiriya Brahmana 22.214.171.124 also associates the cake with the sacrificer himself, hinting at the notion of self sacrifice or the sacrificer offering himself up as the animal victims represented by the cakes.
It is important to note that the method of sacrificing actual animal was also quite sophisticated.
Most of the time It involved suffocating or smothering the victim rather than butchering it as stated in Shatapatha Brahmana 126.96.36.199. Before the victim is sacrificed, the ritualists symbolically asks permission from the victim’s family to sacrifice the victim and makes the victim sacrificially pure as narrated in Shatapatha Brahmana 188.8.131.52, Taittiriya Brahmana 184.108.40.206 etc. The language used in ritual is also quite toned down, and the victim is stated to be quieted or passed away instead of being killed. While the victim is being sacrificed, the priests would not look at the process either. The sacrificing is done by an assistant called Shamitar.
Also narrated in Shatapatha Brahmana 220.127.116.11, that the sacrifice was not considered as killing at all, since the sacrifice which is a divine act could not be equated with death. After the sacrifice, the sacrificed victim would also be symbolically cleansed and revived as said in Shatapatha Brahmana 18.104.22.168-11.
Thus we see elements of non violence in animal sacrifices, which later led to substitution of animals with cake and other vegetarian offerings. Hence we do not need to view Ahimsa or non violence and vegetarianism as a post Vedic Buddhist or Jain influence, it was a gradual development which happened within the Vedic tradition during later Vedic period. However, many ritualists would have still utilized actual animals in the rituals, while the ones who preferred non violent rituals would have used the substitute offerings.
To sum up, we see an innovation or evolution of practices in the Vedic rituals and modifications or exceptions can be made in the Vedic rituals according to circumstances, but without altering the core performance itself.
Also no matter how primitive may the Vedic rituals may sound, the rituals does have an internal meaning. For example Ashvamedha revolves the sacred horse, who is praised in Rig Veda 1.161-162. This divine horse symbolizes the fertile and ruling power or kshatra and represents the Sun. The queen would embrace the divine horse unto herself as part of the sacrifice and it is clear from texts like Shatapatha Brahmana 22.214.171.124 that this union has a cosmological background since the copulation is said to took place in heaven.
If Ashvamedha revolves about divine horse, then Purushamedha revolves around Purusha Narayana of Purusha Sukta from Rig Veda 10.90. Purusha Narayana represents the whole universe personified and the human victim used in the ritual symbolizes this Purusha.
As for the transgressive rites seen in certain versions of Gosava, these rites technically represents the notion of transcending human limitations, by living like an animal and having total freedom and liberation just like in heaven.
Thus even the so called primitive practices seems to have an internal meaning.
Also in the Vedic sense, the place where the ritual is conducted is viewed as a divine space, for example Rig Veda 1.164.5 states the ritual is the center of the whole world. Whatever done in this divine space which are guided by the Vedic Mantras would be considered as divine, including the so called transgressive acts.
Another thing is that the transgressive practices continued to exist even in post Vedic era when Tantric or Agamic (i.e temple and idol based ) mode of worship evolved. Some of the heterodox Tantric sects practicing the transgressive rites exist even today.
It is also important to note that many of the mainstream orthodox Tantric-Agamic practices are also derived from Vedic ritual practices. For example the pradakshina or parikrama, the circumambulation of temples can be compared to the practice mentioned in Shatapatha Brahmana 126.96.36.199-8 where the ritualist has to circumambulate the fire altar used in Vedic rituals.
The practice of homa or havana, the offerings made in fire altar which is done in many temples are also obviously derived from ancient Vedic fire rituals. Another practice mentioned in Shatapatha Brahmana 188.8.131.52 in which an object is purified using fire can also be compared with later ritual of Arathi.
So many of the later Tantric-Agamic practices which are still practiced widely can also be traced back to ancient Vedic practices.
Apart from this, the ancient Vedic rituals contributed to many of the early knowledge. The calculation and measurement of bricks to build the fire altars of different shapes gave rise to the ancient geometry and mathematics, the observation of stars and seasons to conduct rituals gave rise to astronomy, the speculations surrounding the sacrificial myths, goals, fruits of sacrifices etc gave rise to ancient philosophy, the strict emphasize on the use of Mantras and chanting in Vedic rituals must have given rise to the early linguistic thoughts, the acts, dialogues, dance, music etc which are part of many rituals like Ashvamedha, Mahavrata etc would have contributed to the growth of early theatrical and artistic tradition, the anatomy of sacrificial victims would have contributed to early medicinal tradition and so on.
So before calling rituals as useless or primitive, one must remember about contribution of rituals to the civilization. These ancient rituals are part of our civilization and they must be practiced to express or celebrate the ancient culture and heritage of our civilization.