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Chapter 15 – The Sacrificial Rites of the Brahmanas

The main feature which distinguishes the religion of the Brahmanic and Epic Period from that of the preceding age is the great importance which came to be attached to sacrifice. In the earlier portion of the Vedic age, men composed hymns in praise of the most imposing manifestations of nature; they deified these various natural phenomena, and they worshipped these deities under the name of Indra or Varuna, of Agni or the Maruts. And the worship took the shape of sacrifice, the offering of milk or grain, as well as of animals or of libations of Soma-juice to the gods.

A gradual change, however, is perceptible towards the close of the Vedic Age, and in the Brahmanic and Epic Age the sacrifice as such, the mere forms and ceremonials and offerings, had acquired such an abnormal importance that everything else was lost in it. This was inevitable when the priests formed a caste. They multiplied ceremonials, and attached the utmost importance

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Sacred Tank of the Temple at Madura

to every minute rite, until both they and the worshippers almost lost sight of the deities they worshipped in the voluminous rites they performed.

Sacrifices were generally accompanied by gifts of cattle, gold, garments, and food, and by the offering of animals as victims, and there is a curious passage in the Satapatha Brahmana about animal sacrifice, which deserves to be quoted:–

“At first the gods offered up a man as a victim. When he was offered up, the sacrificial essence went out of him. It entered into the horse. They offered up the horse. When it was offered, the sacrificial essence went out of it. It entered into the ox. When it was offered up, the sacrificial essence went out of it. It entered into the sheep. They offered up the sheep. When it was offered up, the sacrificial essence went out of it. It entered into the goat. They offered up the goat. When it was offered up, the sacrificial essence went out of it. It entered into this earth. They searched for it by digging. They found it in the shape of those two substances, the rice and barley: therefore even now they obtain those two by digging; and as much efficacy as all those sacrificed animal victims would have for him, so much efficacy has this oblation Air him who knows this.”

If, however, human sacrifice actually prevailed in India either before or during the Vedic Period, we should certainly have found far more frequent allusions to it in the hymns themselves than we find in the later Brahmana literature. But in the Rig-Veda we find no

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Ceremonial Bathing in the Ganges

such allusions, for the story of Sunahsepha is no evidence of human sacrifice, and there is absolutely nothing else in the Rig-Veda which can be so construed. It is impossible, on the other hand, to suppose that such a custom should have existed and gradually fallen into disuse without leaving the slightest trace in the Vedic hymns, some of which have come down from a very ancient date.

Where, then, do we find allusions to human sacrifice in the literature of the Brahmanic Period? The Sama-Veda is compiled from the Vedic hymns, and of course there is no mention of human sacrifice in this Veda, nor are there allusions to it in the Black Yajur-Veda, or the early portions of the White Yajur-Veda. It is in the very latest compositions of the Brahmanic

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Period, in the khila or supplementary portion of the White Yajur-Veda, in the Brahmana of the Black Yajur-Veda, in the Aitareya Brahmana of the Rig-Veda, and the last book but one of the Satapatha Brahmana, that we have accounts of human sacrifice. Is it possible to postulate the existence of a custom in India which had passed from the memory of men before the composition and compilation of the Rig-Veda, in the Sama-Veda, in the Black or White Yajur-Veda, but which suddenly revived after a thousand years in the supplements and Brahmanas of the Vedas? Is it not far more natural to suppose that all the allusions to human sacrifice in the later compositions of the Epic Period are the speculations of priests, just as there are speculations about the sacrifice of the Supreme Being himself? If the priests needed any suggestion, the customs of the non-Aryan tribes with whom they became familiar in the Epic Period would give them their cue.

We will now give a brief account of the principal sacrifices which were performed in this ancient age, especially since we know from the Yajur-Veda what these sacrifices were.

The Darsa-purnamasa was performed on the first day after the full and new moon, and Hindus down to the present time consider these days as sacred. The Pindapitri-yajna was a sacrifice to the departed ancestors and is one of the few ancient sacrifices which are performed to this day. The Agnihotra was the daily libation of milk to the sacred fire, performed morning and evening, and the Chaturmasya was a sacrifice which

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was performed only once every four months. The Agnishtoma was a Soma sacrifice, and the Sautramani was originally an expiation for overindulgence in Soma. The Rajasuya was the imperial coronation sacrifice which was performed by great kings after they had established their prowess and fame by conquests, and the Asvamedha was the celebrated horse-sacrifice which was also performed after great wars and conquests. Humbler than these, but far more important for our purpose, was the Agnyadhana, or setting up of the sacrificial fires, which had an important bearing on the life of every Hindu, and which deserves a few words in explanation.

The monarch Asvapati boasted that in his kingdom there was no thief, no miser, no drunkard, no ignorant person, no adulterer or adulteress, and “no man without an altar in his house.” In those days, to keep the sacred fire in the altar was a duty incumbent on every householder, and the breach of this rule was regarded as the deepest impiety. The student who had returned home from his teacher or his Parishad married in due time and then set up the sacrificial fires. This was generally done on the first day of the waxing moon, but sometimes also at full moon, probably to enable the newly married couple to enter on the sacred duties as early as possible. The performance of the Agnyadhana, or the establishment of the sacred fires, generally required two days. The sacrificer chose his four priests, the Brahman, the Hotri, the Adhvaryu, and the Agnidhra, and erected two sheds or fire-houses, for the

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Cremation on the banks of the Ganges at Benares

Garhapatya and the Ahavaniya fires respectively. A circle was marked for the Garhapatya fire, and a square for the Ahavaniya; while if a southern, or Dakshinagni, fire was required, a semicircular area was marked to the south of the space between the other two.

The Adhvaryu then procured a temporary fire, either producing it by friction, or obtaining it from certain specified sources in the village, and after the usual fivefold lustration of the Garhapatya fireplace, he placed the fire upon it. Towards sunset the sacrificer invoked the gods and manes. He and his wife then entered the Garhapatya house, and the Adhvaryu handed him

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two pieces of wood, the Arani, for the production of the Ahavaniya fire on the next morning. The sacrificer and his wife laid them on their laps, performed propitiatory ceremonies, and remained awake the whole night and kept up the fire. In the morning the Adhvaryu extinguished the fire, or if there was to be a Dakshinagni, he kept it till that fire was kindled. Such, in brief, is the ceremony of the Agnyadhana, or the setting up of sacrificial fires, which formed an important duty in the life of every Hindu householder in ancient days, when the gods were worshipped by each man on his hearth, and when temples and idols were unknown.

In ancient ages burial was practised by the Hindus. In the Epic Period, however, the custom of burying had ceased altogether; the dead were burnt, and the ashes were buried. According to the account in the White Yajur-Veda, the bones of the dead were collected in a vessel and buried in the ground near a stream, and a mound was raised as high as the knee and covered with grass. The relatives then bathed and changed their clothes and left the funeral ground. The same ceremony is more fully described in the Aranyaka of the Black Yajur-Veda. It is scarcely necessary to add that the custom which now prevails among the Hindus is simple cremation, without the burial of the ashes, and probably began early in the Christian Era.

Another important rite which deserves some explanation is the Pindapitri-yajna, or the gift of cakes to the departed ancestors. The cakes were offered to Fire and to Soma, and the Fathers were invoked to receive

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their shares. Then followed an address to the Fathers with reference to the six seasons of the year. The worshipper then looked at his wife and said: “Fathers! you have made us domestic men – we have brought these gifts to you according to our power.” Then, offering a thread or wool or hair, lie said: “Fathers! this is your apparel, wear it.” The wife then ate a cake with a desire to have children, and said: “Fathers! let a male be born in me in this season. Do you protect the son in this womb from all sickness.” Departed spirits, according to the Hindu religion, receive offerings from their living descendants, and get none when the family is extinct. Hence the extreme fear of Hindus of dying without male issue, so that the birth or adoption of a son is a part of their religion.

We do not purpose to give an account of the other sacrificial rites; what we have already said will convey a general idea as to how sacrifices were performed. We will now turn to some of the legends of the Brahmanas, which are curious and interesting. A most remarkable legend is told of Mann, who in the Vedic hymns is mentioned as the ancient progenitor of man, and who introduced cultivation and worship by fire. The legend of Manu in the Satapatha Brahmana gives the Hindu version of the story of the Flood. As Manu was washing his hands, a fish came unto him and said: “Rear me, I will save thee.” Manu reared it, and in time it told him: “In such and such a year that flood will come. Thou shalt then attend to me by preparing a ship.” The flood came, and Manu entered into the

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The fish avatar of Vishnu

ship which he had built in time, and the fish swam up to him and carried the ship beyond the northern mountain. There the ship was fastened to a tree, and as the flood subsided, Manu gradually descended. “The flood then swept away all these creatures, and Manu alone remained here.”

The legends relating to the creation of the world are also interesting. There is a beautiful Vedic simile in which the Sun pursuing the Dawn is compared to a lover pursuing a maiden. This gave rise to the legend which is found in the Brahmanas, that Prajapati, the supreme god, felt a passion for his daughter, and this was the origin of creation. This legend in the Brahmanas was further developed in the Puranas, where Brahma is represented as enamoured of his daughter, and all these myths arose from a simple metaphor in the Rig-Veda about the Sun following the Dawn. That such is the origin of the Puranic fables was known to Hindu thinkers and commentators, as will appear from the following well-known argument of Kumarila, the great opponent of Buddhism and the predecessor of Sankaracharya:–

“It is fabled that Prajapati, the Lord of Creation, did violence to his daughter. But what does it mean?

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The Golden Temple at Benares.

Prajapati, the Lord of Creation, is a name of the sun; and he is so called because he protects all creatures. His daughter Ushas is the dawn. And when it is said that he was in love with her, this only means that at sunrise the sun runs after the dawn, the dawn being at the same time called the daughter of the sun because she rises when he approaches. In the same manner it is said that Indra was the seducer of Ahalya. This does not imply that the god Indra committed such a crime; but Indra means the sun, and Ahalya the night; and as the night is seduced and ruined by the sun of the morning, Indra is called the paramour of Ahalya.”

There is another legend of creation in the Taittiriya Brahmana. In the beginning there was nothing except water and a lotus leaf standing out of it. Prajapati dived in the shape of a boar and brought up some earth and spread it out and fastened it down by pebbles. This was the earth.

A similar story is told in the Satapatha Brahmana that, after the creation, the gods and demons both sprang from Prajapati, and the earth trembled like a lotus leaf when the gods and their foes contended for mastery.

Another account of the creation is given in the same Brahmana: “Verily in the beginning Prajapati alone existed here.” He created living beings and birds and reptiles and snakes, but they all passed away for want of food. He then made the breasts in the fore part of their body teem with milk, and so the living creatures survived. And thus the world was originally peopled.

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While legends and sacrificial rites thus multiplied in the Brahmanic Period, religion was still the same as in the Vedic Period. The gods of the Rig-Veda were still worshipped, and the hymns of the Rig, Sama, or Yajur were still uttered as texts, but the veneration with which the gods were looked up to in the Vedic Period was now merged in the veneration for the sacrificial ceremonies.

New gods, however, were slowly finding a place in the Hindu pantheon. Arjuna was another name of Indra, even in the Satapatha Brahmana. In the White Yajur-Veda we find Rudra already assuming his more modern Puranic names, and acquiring a more distinct individuality, while in the Rig-Veda, as we have already seen, Rudra is the father of the storms, and typifies the thunder. In the White Yajur-Veda he is also described as the thunder-cloud, although his chief aspect is that of a god of destruction and the deity of thieves and criminals. Among his epithets are Girisha (because clouds rest on mountains), Tamra, Aruna, Babhru (from the colour of the clouds), Nilakantha, or blue-necked (for the same reason), Kapardin, or the longhaired, Pasupati, or the nourisher of animals, Sankara, or the benefactor, and Siva, or the beneficent. Yet nowhere in Brahmana literature do we find Rudra represented as the Puranic Siva, the consort of Durga or Kali. In the Kaushitaki Brahmana we find great importance attached in one passage to Isana, or Mahadeva, and the Satapatha Brahmana contains the remarkable passage: “This is thy share, O Rudra! Graciously

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Siva slaying Kamadeva, or Cupid

accept it, together with thy sister Ambika!” In a celebrated passage in the Mundaka Upanishad, an Upanishad of the Atharva-Veda, we find Kali, Karali, Manojava, Sulohita, Sudhumarvarna, Sphulingini, and Visvarupi as the names of the seven tongues of fire.

Finally, in the Satapatha Brahmana we are told of a sacrifice being performed by Daksha Parvati, and in the Kena Upanishad we find mention of a woman named Uma Haimavati, who appeared before Indra and explained to Indra the nature of Brahma. These are a few specimens of the scattered materials in the Brahmana literature, from which the gorgeous Puranic legend of Siva and his consort was developed.

In the Aitareya Brahmana and in the Satapatha Brahmana we are told the story of the gods obtaining from the Asuras the part of the world which Vishnu could stride over or cover, and thus they managed to get the whole world. It is in the concluding book of this latter Brahmana that Vishnu obtains a sort of supremacy among gods, and his head is then struck off by Indra. Krishna, the son of Devaki, is not yet a deity; he is a pupil of Ghora Angirasa in the Chhandogya Upanishad.

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While in these scattered allusions we detect materials for the construction of the Puranic mythology of a later day, we also find in the Brahmanic and Epic Period occasional traces of that disbelief in rites and creeds which broke out at a later day in the Buddhist revolution.

The Tandya Brahmana of the Sama-Veda contains the Vratya-stomas, by which the Vratyas, or Aryans not living according to the Brahmanical system, could get admission into that community, and some of these heretics are thus described: “They drive in open chariots of war, carry bows and lances, wear turbans, robes bordered with red and having fluttering ends, shoes, and sheepskins folded double; their leaders are distinguished by brown robes and silver neck-ornaments; they pursue neither agriculture nor commerce; their laws are in a state of confusion; they speak the same language as those who have received Brahmanical consecration, but nevertheless call what is easily spoken hard to pronounce.”

This collection transcribed by Chris Gage
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