Most of the religions that we know today are rooted in the worship of power. Supernatural beings who control the forces of nature and/or fulfil human wishes are the early deities of most religions. And offerings to please the deities and ask for something in return are often central to such beliefs. The story of Noah is found in the Bible. When God decided to flood the world and end mankind, he saved Noah and his family. After a flood of 150 days, when Noah disembarked safely from the boat, he sacrificed birds and animals of every kind to the God to thank him for saving his life. And God in turn, pleased by his offering, promised never to deluge humankind again.
Hinduism is no different. Our earliest hymns, the Vedas, are replete with offerings to the gods. Pleasing and appeasing beings of power is a recurring theme in early Hindu literature. “Please accept this offering, O Indra, and bless us with health, prosperity, and protect us from our enemies” is a frequent refrain in the Rig Veda.
These sacrifices, consisting of cereal grains, Somaras, ghee, and other substances were poured into the fire. It was believed that such sacrifices helped retain the balance of nature, because sacrifice would reach the sun, and from the sun comes rain. A part of the food also goes to our ancestors, most often through the ritual of Shraddha. Today, our Shraddhas and most Brahmin rituals are known to be free of meat. But Manusmriti, a book which set the laws that turned into practice for many groups of Hindus, has a different story to tell. “Meat prepared without any spices” is a fit sacrificial food according to Manu. So much so that Manu feels that our ancestors are not satisfied with ordinary food like sesame, barley, beans or fruits. Such foods will only serve them for a day or two. But if we offer them fish, they will survive for two months. Deer, three months, black antelope, eight months. Surprisingly, buffalo meat which is shunned by most highborn people of Nepal, is supposed to provide nutrition for ten months straight.
Manu does hold cow milk in higher esteem than most meat, and deems that an offering of milk or kheer will last them a year. No wonder kheer is so popular in Shraddhas, but it is hard to understand why the meat of red goat, which Manu thinks will provide “everlasting” food for the ancestors, is not popular.
Many other scriptures corroborate that meat should be eaten for the nutrition it provides, and that the purpose of sacrifice is for the humans to partake of it. In the Mahabharata, after the Ashwamedha (where the word itself means horse sacrifice) the priests cook the horse meat, and all assembled smell “the marrow that was highly beneficial to the body.” Elsewhere, the Mahabharata expounds the virtues of eating meat for its nutritional benefits.
James George Frazier writes in his book The Golden Bough, a seminal study of ethnic practices around the world, that the reason most people ate meat was to imbibe the qualities of the animal they ate. This is one reason the meats of strong animals like tigers and rhinoceros were highly sought after. The horse was just being domesticated in the early days of Hinduism, and its immense power had mankind enthralled. No wonder horsemeat was so prized by the Pandavas.
The description of our bloodthirsty goddesses, the deities of Dashain, also fit Frazer’s analysis. The Durga Shaptashadi praises goddess Chandi for killing the enemy and drinking his blood. Such cannibalism was not unknown in earlier societies. In a famous episode in Mahabharata, Bhimsen vowed to slit Dushasan’s throat and drink his blood. A vow he fulfilled, to the shock of his family.
Such horrors are not unique to Hinduism. Greek tales are replete with stories of cruel gods who demand the life of a mortal to appease them. Before the Trojan war, Artemis demanded that king Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to her in exchange for a safe journey. Similarly, Andromeda, a princess, was almost sacrificed to the vengeful sea god Poseidon before Perseus rescued her. Christ sacrificed himself to pay for the sins of mankind. The idea of a bargain is fundamental to such stories, as in the (relatively) modern concept of bhaakal. We offer a god something precious in return for a favour, and what can be more precious than a beloved human? The concept makes sense only in view of a belief in the god’s power to realize wishes.
Such stories of human sacrifice do not survive in Hinduism except in the form of folktales that do not mandate belief. However, the story of human sacrifices giving way to animal sacrifices does. King Harishchandra (the one of the truth fame) was asked by god Varun to sacrifice his only son to him. Harishchandra avoided the sacrifice for many years. When he could no longer do so, his son Rohit found an impoverished Brahmin willing to part with his middle son Sunahshepa to substitute for him in the sacrifice. The young boy was bound to a post by his own father. Many priests refused to make the sacrifice, indicating that human sacrifice had gone out of fashion even then. Finally, when a willing participant was found, Sunahshepa turned to the Gods and started praying. Varun then had a change of heart and loosened his bonds. The sacrifice was completed made with plant offerings.
For unknown reasons, this story that potentially means the end of human sacrifice in mainstream Hinduism is not very famous. But its parallel stories in Abrahmic religions and Greek myths are quite famous. In fact, the story of Abraham, the patriarch of the Abrahmic religions, is central to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He was asked by the God to sacrifice his only son Isaac. At the last moment, God replaced the boy with a sheep (or a goat, depending on which version you read.) Athamas of Greek myths was asked by a fake oracle to sacrifice his son, Phrixus. But Hercules stopped the sacrifice in time, and replaced it with a goat. “The gods abhor human sacrifice,” said Hercules, and scholars believe this statement represents the end of a culture. Even Iphigenia was replaced by a deer in later versions of the Iliad.
Every Dashain spotlights animal sacrifice and the debate of what Hinduism says about it. But we forget that “Hinduism”, the original melting pot, does not have a single definitive voice. Instead of being threatened by differing schools of thought and defining itself in contrast to them, it amalgamated everything it found on its way. While the values of compassion and renunciation of material life are very influential in Hinduism, Hinduism would be incomplete without its roots in sacrifices. We do not even follow a single book, unlike many other organized religions. Christians in doubt can consult the Bible, but we rely more on traditions and word of mouth to guide us. And even if we did refer to a book, our books are molded through hundreds of years, and contain the traces of contradictory influences. So while Manu believes rhinoceros meat is the longest lasting, he also insists that only sacrificial meat should be consumed. And while Vyasa expands at length on the nutritional value of meat, Bhishma tells Yudhisthir to “abstain from acts of injury.”
The ahimsa aspect of Hinduism is more popular, maybe because of the diet of Brahmins who claim to abstain from meat in accordance to religious teachings. But there is no doubt that our scriptures also promote a two-fold reason for sacrifice: one to appease powerful beings, and one for consumption. Though I point it out, by no means am I promoting the consumption of meat. I am vegetarian, and I would be happy if everyone else stopped eating meat as well. But that is not going to happen anytime soon, and I don’t understand what the hue and cry over sacrifice is all about. Even without the sacrifice, more or less the same number of animals are killed and consumed in festivities. As long as there is no torture of the animal, and as long as the food is consumed, there is very little difference (to the animal) in killing it in a slaughterhouse or sacrificing it at the altar. This Dashain, whether we sacrifice animals or abstain from it, let us stop blaming our faith for our choices. Our religion is a multifarious one that offers all kinds of viewpoints, and we choose the one that suits our needs.