Animal sacrifices in the Vedas

Joshua A

Ad Honorem
Nov 2012
2,253
I have read that the ancient Brahmins or Hindu priests use to do animal sacrifices, the most famous being the horse sacrifice. These descriptions are apparently there in graphic detail in the Brahmanas. However, I have also read from the Arya Samaaj Hindus, a sect founded by Swami Dayananda Saraswati that these sacrifices never actually took place and the translations of the Brahmanas by the British were wrong. I am not sure who to believe.

I wonder because by the time we get to the age of the Upanishads there seems to be a move towards vegetarianism and non-violence. So why this sudden shift from the early Vedic age where they do allegedly do animal sacrifice and then by the end of the Vedic age there is a shift towards vegetarianism and non-violence?
 

BenSt

Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
4,565
Canada, originally Clwyd, N.Wales
I have read that the ancient Brahmins or Hindu priests use to do animal sacrifices, the most famous being the horse sacrifice. These descriptions are apparently there in graphic detail in the Brahmanas. However, I have also read from the Arya Samaaj Hindus, a sect founded by Swami Dayananda Saraswati that these sacrifices never actually took place and the translations of the Brahmanas by the British were wrong. I am not sure who to believe.

I wonder because by the time we get to the age of the Upanishads there seems to be a move towards vegetarianism and non-violence. So why this sudden shift from the early Vedic age where they do allegedly do animal sacrifice and then by the end of the Vedic age there is a shift towards vegetarianism and non-violence?
The Arya Samaj came about as a reform movement in the same time as Protestant Buddhism started erupting all over the place. It is convenient for them to say that animal sacrifices never took place, but lets rely on the scholars. The scholars translated into english yes, but the vast majority of Pundits and Brahmins memorized texts from the original sanskrit and other vernacular languages. If the argument of the Arya Samaj is that the British mistranslated the texts, that's illogical because the Brahmins don't use the english texts.

The animal sacrifice the Yajna took place during the hey-day of the Vedic Gods. By the time of the Upanishads the focus was on inner discipline and meditation and transcendence. It was around this time that Brahmanism began to take shape (as far as I know) and Gods like Indra of whom the Horse sacrifice was often for, began to lose prominence as Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu and others became more and more popular. Buddhism arose partly as a backlash against animal sacrifice, as did Jainism and a few other ascetic based movements, now all extinct. As to the why, I think it probably had to do with a flourishing of interest in spiritual matters as opposed to simple ritual practice. It's often said that Hinduism is a religion about doing, correct japa, correct puja, correct mantra, etc,. and belief comes second place. It doesnt matter what you believe as long as you go through the motions correctly. But around the formation and writing down of the Upanishads, we see a shift. Interestingly, some have proposed that the Bhagavad Gita began (before it became part of the Mahabharat) as a Upanishadic text. It fits the profile, a discourse between master and student, speaking of various social and spiritual matters.
 

Joshua A

Ad Honorem
Nov 2012
2,253
I am more inclined to your view than the Arya Samaj's view. I have found the Arya Samaj to be a kind of apologetic and reactionary group trying to minimize the influence of Western science on modern India, by claiming it was already there in the Vedas anyway. The translations I have read rendered by them of the Veda sound ridiculous, such as "Oh royal engineer, construct aeroplanes and go far and beyond" They found everything from the steam engine to the telegraph in the Vedas - and modern Arya Samajis find particle physics and astrophysics in them. What they do not realize, they do harm to their position that the Orientalists have mistranslated the Vedas by setting up in opposition to their ridiculous translations.

However, that said the position that the Orientialists have mistranslated the Vedas is valid. How could you expect Orietalists to accurately render a translation of the sacred book of a religion they are opposed to? Considering many of these Orientalists are bible bashers. There have been many others Indian scholars who have claimed that the Vedas have been mistranslated, including Aurobindo. Their argument is that the Vedas have not been translated according to the Nirtuka and Panini's text, but in an arbitrary manner that it produces a translation completely at odds with the translation the Brahmins themselves would have been familiar with. There were also many European scholars who raised objections against Muller's translation.

I have seen attempts at translating the Vedas using the traditional Nirukta, and they do indeed produce very different translations, but I have found several different versions of the same text using the same method. So I am doubtful of these translations. In reference to the question of animal sacrifice, some translations translate words that supposedly mean horse sacrifice, cow sacrifice, goat sacrifice as something completely different. Although it strike me as a bit strange, why would the early Vedic people sacrifice cows, if they are considered sacred?
 

tornada

Ad Honoris
Mar 2013
15,389
India
I am more inclined to your view than the Arya Samaj's view. I have found the Arya Samaj to be a kind of apologetic and reactionary group trying to minimize the influence of Western science on modern India, by claiming it was already there in the Vedas anyway. The translations I have read rendered by them of the Veda sound ridiculous, such as "Oh royal engineer, construct aeroplanes and go far and beyond" They found everything from the steam engine to the telegraph in the Vedas - and modern Arya Samajis find particle physics and astrophysics in them. What they do not realize, they do harm to their position that the Orientalists have mistranslated the Vedas by setting up in opposition to their ridiculous translations.

However, that said the position that the Orientialists have mistranslated the Vedas is valid. How could you expect Orietalists to accurately render a translation of the sacred book of a religion they are opposed to? Considering many of these Orientalists are bible bashers. There have been many others Indian scholars who have claimed that the Vedas have been mistranslated, including Aurobindo. Their argument is that the Vedas have not been translated according to the Nirtuka and Panini's text, but in an arbitrary manner that it produces a translation completely at odds with the translation the Brahmins themselves would have been familiar with. There were also many European scholars who raised objections against Muller's translation.

I have seen attempts at translating the Vedas using the traditional Nirukta, and they do indeed produce very different translations, but I have found several different versions of the same text using the same method. So I am doubtful of these translations. In reference to the question of animal sacrifice, some translations translate words that supposedly mean horse sacrifice, cow sacrifice, goat sacrifice as something completely different. Although it strike me as a bit strange, why would the early Vedic people sacrifice cows, if they are considered sacred?
Cows were wealth. But there is plenty of references to Brahmins receiving Cattle from various sacrifices, among other animals. Infact one of the criticisms of the Brahmannical culture was their predatory aspect of "dakshina" often destroying the livelihood of the "donator". Its my belief, that the consumption of cattle meat was reserved for the Brahmannical classes. The reasons for this could be multiple. It could have been class based, or a display of power, just as the consumption of certain animals like doves, was prohibited in England. Alternatively it may have been practical, outlawing the consumption of cattle among the "common" folk, as a measure to ensure that they did not destroy their sources of livelihoods in times of trouble. It may have been financial, which over time became traditional - such as the consumption of cattle, especially plough-cattle and mill-beasts, to protect revenue. What I am certain of is that cattle consumption was a feature of Early Brahmmanical culture, atleast for the upper Varnas. One theory i have is that Vegetarianism would have been common among the poor, perhaps out of necessity. As the traditions of self-denial became prevalent, Vegetarianism may have become inextricably linked with the ideals of Poverty, and so associated with discipline (as Ben above points out), over time becoming central to the practices.


I disagree with the mistranslation aspect. These people were genuinely interested in Indian Culture, and one needs proof before one can mindlessly accuse them of having negative ulterior motives. The Arya Samaj itself has taken a fairly puritanical approach to Vedic culture at time, and at others conveniently ignore those bits in the Vedas which are inconvenient. The reference to Animal Sacrifice, both in the Vedic texts, and the condemnatory texts of the Buddhists and Jains, make it abundantly clear that it was present, even if not extremely common (it seems to be linked to major rituals). Meat Eating (including cattle consumption) were almost certainly widely prevalent, atleast in the upper classes, and likely well upto the early centuries AD, prior to the widespread popularity of the Vaishnava and Shaiva traditions. Consumption of Beef however seems to have disappeared well before the waning of the meat eating traditions however. One can ofcourse look at the original material and provide alternate translations, but if one is trying to fulfill a preconceived notion (such as rejecting all mentions of meat eating or animal sacrifice), then that will result in a biased translation. Remember that there is no evidence to show that original translations to english, were done with a biased approach. It is also important to remember, that subsequent historical work, including those reviled by Popular culture such as Doniger, have also worked with the original source material.

It is not surprising however to find mention of beef consumption in Vedic society. The parallels between the Vedic society and other pastoral (agro-pastoral if you prefer, i have no inclination to debate this again) cultures like the Mongols are striking. In these cultures cattle is also considered a source of wealth, and there is no specific prohibition on the consumption of beef. The emphasis on the non-eating of beef would appear to be later development in Vedic culture, though i posit that by about 200 or so BCE, it was largely prohibited. Pinpointing when the Brahmannical community stopped the consumption of Beef is harder, because there are no definitive historical texts, and the Brahmins were never a homogeneous community at the sub-continental, regional or even sub-regional level
 

Joshua A

Ad Honorem
Nov 2012
2,253
Excellent reply Tornado. I would to like to address many points you made later. For now I want to quickly address this:

disagree with the mistranslation aspect. These people were genuinely interested in Indian Culture, and one needs proof before one can mindlessly accuse them of having negative ulterior motives. The Arya Samaj itself has taken a fairly puritanical approach to Vedic culture at time, and at others conveniently ignore those bits in the Vedas which are inconvenient. The reference to Animal Sacrifice, both in the Vedic texts, and the condemnatory texts of the Buddhists and Jains, make it abundantly clear that it was present, even if not extremely common (it seems to be linked to major rituals). Meat Eating (including cattle consumption) were almost certainly widely prevalent, atleast in the upper classes, and likely well upto the early centuries AD, prior to the widespread popularity of the Vaishnava and Shaiva traditions. Consumption of Beef however seems to have disappeared well before the waning of the meat eating traditions however. One can ofcourse look at the original material and provide alternate translations, but if one is trying to fulfill a preconceived notion (such as rejecting all mentions of meat eating or animal sacrifice), then that will result in a biased translation. Remember that there is no evidence to show that original translations to english, were done with a biased approach. It is also important to remember, that subsequent historical work, including those reviled by Popular culture such as Doniger, have also worked with the original source material.
Even if there is no ulterior motive, mistranslation can still happen unintentionally. To illustrate: Suppose for example you visit a country whose language you do not know. Then you study their language for a few years then and try to read their most sacred book written in a very ancient dialect of their language and then translate it into English. The chances are you going to make a mistakes here and there, mistranslate some words and misunderstand some finer nuances because it is not your native language. The words you translate may not have an equivalent in English, so you may pick the wrong word.

You also cannot ignore the orientalism angle(as Said points out) Because this is a European man translating the sacred books of a non-European and Indian man, the European man will view it through the prism of their own language and culture. Even if they attempt to make a sincere effort, they will still bring in an element of orientalizing bias. We see this especially in the writings of Hegel on Indian philosophy.

Also, these are not actually scholars in the contemporary sense like today where the standards of scholarship are very high, and there is international peer-review and higher standards of ethics, these scholars are colonialists writing and translating the works of a conquered and heathen people. This is an age where scholarship often has political and religious motivations e.g., this is the age where theories of Eugenics, Social Darwinism are common. This is an age where scholars are also tied with the Church and believe the Earth is 6000 years old and the bible is the inerrant word of God. It is kind of like expecting the Nazis to render a faithful and accurate translation of the Torah.

Finally, we do actually know that there was an ulterior motive in translating the Rig Veda, it comes from the mouth of the man himself who translated it. It goes something like this, "This translation of mine, though I may not live to see it, shall hereafter tell the fate of the civilization of the Indians, for it is the root of their civilization, and to show them their root is the only way to uproot it and everything that has sprung from it" That he was a bible basher is very obvious when he said "Hinduism is doomed in India, and Christianity must step in to save it" We also know Muller got paid very handsomely to render an English translation of the Vedas and employed by the British empire itself.

This certainly suggests that we should take the argument that the Vedas were mistranslated very seriously.
 
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tornada

Ad Honoris
Mar 2013
15,389
India
Excellent reply Tornado. I would to like to address many points you made later. For now I want to quickly address this:



Even if there is no ulterior motive, mistranslation can still happen unintentionally. To illustrate: Suppose for example you visit a country whose language you do not know. Then you study their language for a few years then and try to read their most sacred book written in a very ancient dialect of then language and then translate it English. The chances are you going to make a mistakes here and there, mistranslate some words and misunderstand some finer nuances because it is not your native language. The words you translate may not have an equivalent in English, so you may pick the wrong word.

You also cannot ignore the orientalism angle(as Said points out) Because this is a European man translating the sacred books of a non-European and Indian man, the European man will view it through the prism of their own language and culture. Even if they attempt to make a sincere effort, they will still bring in an element of orientalizing bias. We see this especially in the writings of Hegel on Indian philosophy.

Also, these are not actually scholars in the contemporary sense like today where the standards of scholarship are very high, and there is international peer-review and higher standards of ethics, these scholars are colonialists writing and translating the works of a conquered and heathen people. This is an age where scholarship often has political and religious motivations e.g., this is the age where theories of Eugenics, Social Darwinism are common. This is an age where scholars are also tied with the Church and believe the Earth is 6000 years old and the bible is the inerrant word of God. It is kind of like expecting the Nazis to render a faithful and accurate translation of the Torah.

Finally, we do actually know that there was an ulterior motive in translating the Rig Veda, it comes from the mouth of the man himself who translated it. It goes something like this, "This translation of mine, though I may not live to see it, shall hereafter tell the fate of the civilization of the Indians, for it is the root of their civilization, and to show them their root is the only way to uproot it and everything that has sprung from it" That he was a bible basher is very obvious when he said "Hinduism is doomed in India, and Christianity must step in to save it" We also know Muller got paid very handsomely to render an English translation of the Vedas and employed by the British empire itself.

This certainly suggests that we should take the argument that the Vedas were mistranslated very seriously.
Subsequent translations, both Indian and Western, have undergone various forms of peer or media review, and most of these uphold the references to animal sacrifice. You are right that there is a difference in cultures. This would lead to errors. Mistakes I can understand, however its a stretch to argue that all the early translators (even those enamored of Indian culture) were acting with ulterior motives. Errors are ofcourse however possible, and quite have a few have been noted over time and corrected. I don't think animal sacrifices are an error though. I'm not however saying that there were no biased translations. I'm sure there were. But modern historians, especially Indian ones, do not consider said translations authoritative. The ones considered authoritative, are in-effect peer reviewed, because subsequent generations of historians (Indian and western) have looked at them, corrected errors, debated those aspects which appear controversial, and improved them. In all of this, I haven't seen any historical debate actually challenging the presence of Animal Sacrifice. Please remember, that another strong argument for its existence is the strong rejection for it in Buddhism and Jainism. The rejection of animal sacrifice is one of the major rejections. Why would Buddhists and Jains spend devote so much literature and philosophy to the rejection of something if it did not exist, or was practiced by a negligible minority? They don't spend too much time on Cannibalism for example.

There is certainly debate on how widespread the meat eating/vegetarianism movements were as well at what times did the various balances change. Remember there is no central philosophy on this regard. In my community for example, the eating of beef, while disapproved of, is not prohibited per-se. And as a Brahammanical community, we go back atleast over a thousand years, to the founding of the Tirupati temple and the Balaji tradition there. The community is probably older than the temple proper, but we have no records prior to the worship by some 9th century Pallava kings. So the community is pretty darn old, and meat eating and even beef eating aren't exactly punishable offences.
 

Joshua A

Ad Honorem
Nov 2012
2,253
. Please remember, that another strong argument for its existence is the strong rejection for it in Buddhism and Jainism. The rejection of animal sacrifice is one of the major rejections. Why would Buddhists and Jains spend devote so much literature and philosophy to the rejection of something if it did not exist, or was practiced by a negligible minority? They don't spend too much time on Cannibalism for example.
Yes, this an obvious indication that animal sacrifices were done by the Brahmins. However, could it be possible the Brahmins who did these animal sacrifices were misinterpreting the Vedas? There is some indication that even during the time of the Buddha and Mahavira, there was controversy over interpretations of the Vedas, because by that age the Vedic dialect was considered archaic and several attempts were made by linguistics and grammarians to try to decypher it, such Yaksa's Nirukta attempts to explain some of the meaning of the Vedic words and Panini tries to apply his grammar to the Vedas. Aurobindo points out for example that the root "go" which is often rendered cow, has also meant ray of light, earth and a dozen other meanings. Sayana's commentary on the Rig Veda, which Muller references mainly, mentions several different meaning of words. For example Aja means "goat" but it also means unborn, from A+ja. Medha means sacrifice, but it can also mean wisdom. Ajamedha can then mean goat sacrifice or the wisdom of the unborn.

Given the controversy over the translation of the correct meaning of the Vedas, I think there is room for debate on whether our translation of the Rig Veda is correct.
 

tornada

Ad Honoris
Mar 2013
15,389
India
Yes, this an obvious indication that animal sacrifices were done by the Brahmins. However, could it be possible the Brahmins who did these animal sacrifices were misinterpreting the Vedas? There is some indication that even during the time of the Buddha and Mahavira, there was controversy over interpretations of the Vedas, because by that age the Vedic dialect was considered archaic and several attempts were made by linguistics and grammarians to try to decypher it, such Yaksa's Nirukta attempts to explain some of the meaning of the Vedic words and Panini tries to apply his grammar to the Vedas. Aurobindo points out for example that the root "go" which is often rendered cow, has also meant ray of light, earth and a dozen other meanings. Sayana's commentary on the Rig Veda, which Muller references mainly, mentions several different meaning of words. For example Aja means "goat" but it also means unborn, from A+ja. Medha means sacrifice, but it can also mean wisdom. Ajamedha can then mean goat sacrifice or the wisdom of the unborn.

Given the controversy over the translation of the correct meaning of the Vedas, I think there is room for debate on whether our translation of the Rig Veda is correct.
So they were all misinterpreting the Vedas? Entirely different communities? Highly unlikely. Given the texts, the translations and the sources, its far more logical to believe that the Vedas simply condoned and approved of animal sacrifice. It was a shamanistic religion, and the Vedas were ritual manuals. It seems perfectly logical in the context of its period. Ofcourse today we are free to disregard those aspects or argue that the "sacrifice" can have symbolic rather than literal meaning. Religions evolve. But from a historical standpoint, the argument of nistranslations requires too apriori assumptions of mistakes by modern translators, by ancient Brahmins, etc to be logically tenable. Just because there exists a dispute doesn't bring mean that the system necessarily needs to be reexamined. You've said you are looking at the original Sanskrit texts. You are ofcourse welcome to do so. I can only advise you not to look at them hoping to disprove the animal sacrifice theory since that would prejudice your translations. Remember when the original translations were done, they had no knowledge of the text, and so its not like they were looking to prove the existence of animal sacrifice. And subsequent translations by unbiased historians (the Arya samaj is not unbiased from a historical pov) has upheld this particular aspect of the translations. I wish you well on your quest to analyse the Sanskrit vedic texts
 

Dreamhunter

Ad Honorem
Jun 2012
7,505
Malaysia
Interestingly, some have proposed that the Bhagavad Gita began (before it became part of the Mahabharat) as a Upanishadic text. It fits the profile, a discourse between master and student, speaking of various social and spiritual matters.
I thought it was the Maha Bharata (Great Bharat) which forms part of the bigger Bhagavad Gita (Song of God), rather than the other way around.
 

BenSt

Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
4,565
Canada, originally Clwyd, N.Wales
I thought it was the Maha Bharata (Great Bharat) which forms part of the bigger Bhagavad Gita (Song of God), rather than the other way around.
Nope, the Bhagavad Gita is a small chapter within the Mahabharata. It takes place just before the epic battle while the two armies are encamped.