Arts and Cultures - Sacrifice in Ancient Vedic India

Arts and Cultures

Dr Archana Verma

Vedas are the most ancient texts of Hinduism, the earliest going back to 3500 years ago, or even earlier. The rites of the Vedas are not centred around temples, as there are no references to temples or praying before icons in the Vedas.

Vedic religious rites were performed under the open sky, in a fire altar. These rites were in the form of sacrifices made to the fire, which was worshipped as a deity who gave energy and carried the oblations to the gods with the smoke.

Sacrifices could be both of grains, fruits and flowers and of animals. Animal sacrifice was integral to the Vedic rites. Horse was a common animal which was sacrificed and its limbs were offered to the fire. The sacrificed meat was consumed by the person who organised the sacrifice, the priests and the guests who attended the ceremony. Sacred hymns were chanting while performing the sacrifice.

These sacrifices were often performed for a ruler by a group of priests. The objective of the sacrifice was gaining power, wealth and prosperity. However, personal gains such as having an heir or the fulfilment of a vow could also be at the base of the sacrificial ceremony.

Apart from this, personal sacrifices were also performed by individuals at home as part of daily ritual. Usually, in these sacrifices, grains, fruits and vegetables were offered to the fire. These vegetarian sacrifices were regarded as a substitute for the animal sacrifices. With time, vegetarian sacrifices completely replaced the animal sacrificed. The objective was to gain prosperity, wealth and personal achievements of the householder.

In this sense, sacrifice was a contract between the person who performed the sacrifice and the deity for the prosperity of the householder or of the ruler.

In times of calamity or distress, sacrifices could also be organised by the ruler or the community for the prosperity and peace of the entire community. In this sense, the terms of the contract changed in the sense that it was not between a ruler or householder and the deities, but between a community and the deities.

However, personal vegetable sacrifices performed by the householder for the deities were the most common, followed by those organised by the ruler for the deities, which could be either animal sacrifices or vegetarian sacrifices.

In later centuries, the connotation of sacrifice was expanded. Now, it was not necessary to perform rites around the sacrificial fire. But a person could forsake taking his or her favourite food or stop wearing fine clothes and ornaments for a period of time. Forsaking the comforts of life and food was regarded as equivalent to performing a sacrifice. In some cases, the person didn't completely fast, but forsake only an essential food object such as salt or grains for a while. This was regarded as a sacrifice. The object remained the prosperity, wealth and well being of the household. Thus, the contract remained between the person and the deities, but instead of organising a sacrifice around fire, form of the sacrifice changed and it assumed the form of a fast.

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