Watching Hindu Sacrifice

I am wandering around a UNESCO world heritage site in Nepal, a paved area of intricately carved temples and shrines which pay homage to a distant historical dynasty which has since become officially long defunct from religious practice. Tourists with cameras are wandering around taking photographs next to the intricately carved shrines. These tourists are continuous accosted by street hustlers, or as they are called “touts,” who are jacks of all trades wandering around seeking to sell trinkets, pickpocket, steal handbags, and act as phony tour guides. I turn away in disappointment from this scene and turn down a side street, a small alley with stalls as common in many open air markets.

About a block down this alley, I smell a horrific smell and sense it is coming from a passage between two buildings leading to a backyard. I proceed to enter and reach an enclosed area to find several men dressed in their finest Nepalesse suits and Dhaka hats watching a worker searing a whole goat with a blow torch. They invite me to sit down on a small wall of cinder blocks and join them. As I watch the goat’s hair burning off and the meat begin to cook, it slowly dawns on me that I am watching the cooking of an offering that was just made serendipitously at one of the shrines. Later, I am going to asked to join in consuming the sacrificial animal, I politely excuse myself by saying that I have someone waiting for me. (For those not squeamish clips of sacrifice- see here and here. )


Animal sacrifice has been out of favor and banned in official vegetarian Indian Hinduism for almost 2000 years, yet is has continued in folk traditions, most notably among the worship of Kali and is conducted during special performances of the original Vedic rituals presented in Brahmin enclaves in South India. It was banned in most of Northern India in the 1950s. However, animal sacrifice is alive and well in Nepal and Bali. All over Nepal exists various forms of sacrificing an animal and then taking the meat home to feast on, small offerings to insure success and atone for sins, as well as large sacrifice festivals where 100’s of thousand animals are sacrificed in a single day. A friend of mine said his Yeshiva-age son was mesmerized in watching the killing process as a way to relate to the Biblical and Talmudic sacrificial precepts, despite the differences in rules.

Now, one of my explicit Fulbright goals in encountering Hindu religions was to look at Hindu ritual that seemingly corresponded to Jewish ritual, karmakanda to mizvot. Hindu-Christian encounter tends to focus on topics such as salvation, but a Jewish-Hindu encounter could look to ritual . As a starting point, both faiths have sacrificial scriptures; almost every Hindu that I met assumed that Jews still perform Leviticus sacrifices and that Jewish folkways still accept the banned practices of Deuteronomy as pillars and sacred groves. For Jews, many assume that contemporary Hindus still follow the Vedic practices and that they can use books that compare Bronze Age to Iron Age Vedic practice as guides for contemporary practice.

However, there was less to compare than I expected. Jews do not offer sacrifices anymore, but still use the sacrifice metaphor for prayer, home table, synagogue, and martyrdom. Hindus also reject animal sacrifice and use the symbol for temple service and home ritual. But Hindus kept the practice of a sacred fire and they kept the practice of agricultural offerings such as fruit and flowers but without the specific details. In some communities, Hindus keep the physical practice and “slaughter” a whole coconut by cracking its head. Hindus have a sense that the fruit and flowers are substitutes for animals while Jews has a sense that prayer is a substitute. Jews have a continuous light, ner tamid, but no sacred fire burning. However, Jews place their sins on a chicken only for Kapparot on Yom Kippur eve (Gaonim and Rashba treated it as an offering outside the temple, therefore forbidden), while in Nepal there are regular voluntary offerings of animal sacrifices.

The only major group that still practices animal sacrifice in India is the worshippers of Kali, who tend to limit it to individual offerings once a year during Duga Puja. There is no blessing from devi if she does not receive blood. (Last year, a newspaper went out of its way to note that it was not just preserved at the local level but also at the University temple by those set on maintaining the tradition, They quote the University priest who says: “In keeping with our custom, on Mahanavami, after the morning puja, we perform animal sacrifice here. This year, around 100 goats will be sacrificed. This number also depends on the number of devotees who come to offer sacrifice.” At another university, the priest said: “A large number of devotees come here to witness the sacrifice every year…” However, in Bengal there is an annual sacrificial slaughter of up to 100,000 turtles. And in Nepal, they have a month long festival every five years where up to 250, 000 animals, mainly water buffalo, are killed in honor of the goddess Gadhimai. (The meat is eventually sold to meat processing companies.)

Scholars such as J. C. Heesterman explain the ideal original Bronze Age Vedic sacrifice as a kingly ritual for power that culminated in a feast and restoration of kingship. Heesterman shows that later Vedic sacrifice all but exclusively stressed the offering in the fire—the element of destruction—at the expense of the other elements. At the same time, sacrifice was turned to the individual sacrificer. The ritual turns in on the individual as “self-sacrificer” who realizes through the internalized knowledge of the ritual the immortal Self. At this point, the sacrifice recedes behind the soul attaining immortality in the atman’s transcendence and unity with the cosmic principle (brahman). No longer is it about maintain the cosmos, now it is about the discovery of the soul. It is worth comparing this to the Talmudic shift to repentance. When one of my visiting Jewish graduate students asked if the original sacrifice was still practiced as a kingly practice without concern for the soul’s transcendence, I answered that no Hindu has thought like that for two thousand years.

The Vedic literature also describes an elaborate horse sacrifice called the Ashvamedha that involved many animals and even bestiality to create a victorious kingdom. 20th century commentaries, such as Swami Dayananda Saraswati, rejected the classical commentaries of the Vedas corruptions “opposed to the real meaning of the Vedas.” He arrives at an entirely symbolic interpretation of the ritual: “An empire is like a horse and the subjects like other inferior animals”. Thus, according to Saraswati, no horse was actually to be slaughtered in the ritual.

There is one Vedic sacrifice ritual still performed by a secluded group of priests in the South and in recent decades, Western scholars led by Fritz Staal have paid for them to perform the ritual and to have it filmed. A temporary shelter is built then a huge falcon is built from consecrated bricks. This bird is the Universal Being. Seventeen specialized priests are required for this most elaborate of Vedic rituals. A sacrifice of 14 goats forms a central part of the early ritual. It involved reciters, chanters, performer of actions, and priests. Staal shows how expensive and complex were the ancient rituals. This ritual is a cosmogonic ritual, in which the cosmic “Man” is ritually sacrificed to re-create the universe yearly.

The Early Buddhists, Jains, and some Upanishads criticized the animal sacrifices made by the Brahmins on account of their corruption in monetary pursuits. It is worth comparing the critique of corrupt sacrifice in Isaiah and other prophets. A Jain sage interprets the Vedic sacrifices as metaphorical: “Body is the altar, mind is the fire blazing with the ghee of knowledge and burning the sacrificial sticks of impurities produced from the tree of karma…”Hindus like Jews see the criticism as only applying to corrupt forms and not as a critique of all ritual and sacrifice. Also, Hinduism does not accept treating the ritual law as an allegory and Jews reject when Christians do the same.

Hindus study and recite the Vedic rules of ancient sacrifice as a replacement to doing them similar to the way the Talmud see the study of sacrificial law as a replacement for their performance. Also, Hinduism sees sacrifice as about merit and getting to heaven, not maintaining cosmos or kingship. Swami Prabhupada, of Iskcon wrote introducing the more recent doctrines: “Although animal killing in a sacrifice is recommended in the Vedic literature, the animal is not considered to be killed… the animal is given a new animal life after being killed in the sacrifice, and sometimes the animal is promoted immediately to the human form of life.”

For centuries, these rituals have been explained at home and in school as performed for the benefit of the performer. This sacrifice has the power to influence energies and provide blessing for your earthly life, they have the power of fulfilling the desires of the aspirants. More commonly, they are explained in terms of addressing human emotions like fear, stress, confidence, and happiness.

My Western readers should note that Hindus do not actually take their rituals from anything in the Vedic literature. The details come from the vast sea of Agamic literature, larger than Rabbinic literature, which was written between 3rd century BCE to the 8th century CE, the same era as Rabbinic literature. Almost none of it has been translated into English The Agaimic literature is about worship of a divine image and is very theistic, with an occasional panentheistic element. Rituals in the Agamic literature consists of two parts a mental part (tantra) and a performance

The Vedas remain as an inspiration for a sacred fire, in the use of many of its metaphors, and that it generated the ritual rules of the Mimamsa. As a conceptual frame “whoever eats a meal without having performed his sacrifices consumes only sin and does not really eat”

So to summarize for my Western readers, forget whatever you read anything on sacrifice in ancient Vedic India. Today there are fixed temples with Yajna, which are offerings by a Brahmin, Puja is simple offering done daily at home and also at temple ceremonies and large festivals, or to begin a new venture. Puja in its simplified domestic form consists of a diya (sacred lamp) with offerings of flowers/incense/camphor. One brings a simple offering of the heart, that has no intrinsic fixed measure, rather customary rules. The third element is Homa or fire sacrifice at the Temple, clarified butter and other substances are poured into the fire as offering to God, accompanied by Mantras, usually starting with Om. The most widespread homan is Gnaptapy homam at the start of every new endeavor. Prarthana is a prayer with a specific request. It even includes simple prayers like “let us be happy.” They say that in our fallen age, even the giving of money substitutes for sacrifice.

To offer some observations, in Hindu sacrifice, the animal is killed by a direct single motion chop, in contrast in Jewish Temple sacrifice and meat slaughtering the animal is killed in a continuous motion of an across swipe of the knife. The Hindu method would be unacceptable in Jewish law as applying pressure and not cutting (derasa). Brahmin Hinduism does not have a concept of slaughter of meat for ordinary people (Hullin). In many laws they combine the Jewish concepts of purity and holiness into a single category. If eating meat is not pure then there cannot be a holy way of doing it. In Jewish ritual, every sacrifice required sanctification (ḥakdashah), and was to be brought into the court of the sanctuary (haḳrabah), sacrifice to Kali can be done in the yard or at home. In both religions, the animal cannot have a blemish or broken bones.

The four stages of Jewish sacrifice slaughter (sheḥiṭah), receiving the blood (ḳabbalah) carrying the blood to the alter (holakah) sprinkling the blood (zeriḳah). Ancient Vedic texts describe specific placement and carrying processes for the burning. Post-Vedic to contemporary Hindu sacrifice centers entirely on the slaughter. They let the blood spill out or even drink it or bath in it. The inner organs of the animals are then offered upon the altar.

In the south where they use coconuts, voluntary lay sacrifice at Tirupati is of coconuts. In other Temple complexes it is the task of the Brahmin not the lay person to officially crack the coconut with the single smash against a metal rod in the same rapid succession as the goats were killed in Nepal. The coconut water plays the role of blood and is spilled out, leaving the coconut flesh to be eaten by the one who made the offering.

When visiting Mumbai, there is a major Temple to Ganesha, who is seen as responsible for prosperity. The temple is on a side street parallel the freeway and is blocked by traffic guards and scaffolding obscuring the view on the non-descript white building. Wealthy business families dressed in their festive clothes came in a procession of a continuous stream loaded with baskets of fruit to offer to the image. My wife commented that the way people arrived is how she imagined the Temple in Jerusalem, to her it was just like the images of families carrying cornucopias of first fruits to the Temple. They were well dressed in colorful outfits, happy smiling families making a minor pilgrimage entering the line to offer their fruits. They seemed to be in competition for whom could bring the best basket of fruits and flowers.

While on line they watched other families since the offering of the baskets to the priests were broadcast inside and outside on the close circuit TV screens. When they arrived they made the gift and told the Brahmins of the names and birth dates of the entire family. They then stopped at a variety of other minor shrines in the Temple room on the way out. They seemed to leave happy and confident in their certainty of the gift of more prosperity so they went for sweets and special snacks at the restaurants that lined the temple street. No animals, no elaborate ritual, just the simplified urban offerings of the happy middle class.

6 responses to “Watching Hindu Sacrifice

  1. I remind my readers to review the rules for comments. Knowledge of Indian religion from google, or ignorance, or kiruv literature does not get posted.
    No comments from Hindu nationalists about genocidal meat-eating monotheists or anything similar will be posted.
    Limit comments to the local issue of sacrifice.

  2. For comparisons of Jewish and *Vedic* sacrifice, see Hubert and Mauss, and, more recently, Kathryn McClymond’s “Beyond Sacred Violence.”

  3. Alan, thank you for the interesting article. During my visit to India I indeed observed brahmins’ practice and offering, but never have imagined it was a substitute for animals. There is only one comment which I hope you could clarify. You said that the goat will be reincarnated, but the human offering the goat, will go to heaven, which means the end of cycle. Could you please explain the cycle of life and death in this context?

  4. Do I detect a Hindu similarity (and possibly precursor) to Ramban’s idea that through a sacrifice one mentally, meditatevely and vicariously sacrifices the self? (an idea taken over in the kapparot ritual, as in symbolically giving the chicken ארבע מיתות בית דין, to feel as if we had it done to us, since we might be deserving of it, thus obtaining atonement)

    Also, compare the following quote to the (much later) בלבבי משכן אבנה להדר כבודו, ולמשכן מזבח אקים לקרני הודו, ולאש תמיד אקח לי את אש העקידה, ולקרבן אקריב לו את נפשי היחידה:

    “Body is the altar, mind is the fire blazing with the ghee of knowledge and burning the sacrificial sticks of impurities produced from the tree of karma…”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s