Sacrifice in the Mahābhārata and beyond
Did the author(s) of the Mahābhārata understand Vedic sacrifice
better than we do?
(to appear in: Proceedings of the Sixth Dubrovnik Conference on the Sanskrit Epics and Purāṇas,
15-20 August 2011)
Sacrifice is an oft recurring theme in the Mahābhārata. Several sacrifices are
carried out in the epic story, and the notion of sacrifice even pops up in places
where one might least expect it. The Mahābhārata war itself is compared to a
sacrifice, or if we can believe Danielle Feller (1999: 99), this war is presented as
“a full-fledged, albeit peculiar sacrifice”.1 This claim is correct, but must be
treated with care. Heesterman (2010: 389) rightly observes that “when we turn to
sacrifice for a basic pattern of the epic’s story, we run into difficulty. The late
Vedic manuals of sacrificial ritual confront us with a highly detailed and
rationalized system of sacrifices organized according to their increasing
complexity, the simpler being integrated into the next more complicated one in
the manner of Russian puppets fitting into each other. It is hard to see how the
cut-and-dried rigidity of this sacrificial system should relate to, let alone provide,
the design of the epic.”2
In order to arrive at a better understanding of the epic war as sacrifice, I
propose to look at some of the passages in detail. First we consider two passages
that present the approaching war in this manner.3 In the first one Duryodhana
1 Cp. Biardeau, 2002: 23: “C’est dans la dernière partie du Livre IV que la guerre en
préparation est apparue comme une guerre sacrificielle, comme un sacrifice de la guerre.
Le terme de yuddha-yajña, ‘guerre-sacrifice’, ‘sacrifice de la guerre’, sera de plus en plus
commun, et le vocabulaire sacrificiel débordera même le cadre des comparaisons
2 Cp. Biardeau, 2002: 23: “[le combat] est un sacrifice d’un type tout à fait à part, un
sacrifice propre au guerrier, où le brâhmane ne peut s’immiscer que sous l’armure du
3 Cf. Feller, 1999; 2009.
addresses his father Dhṛtarāṣṭra. Van Buitenen translates it as follows (1978:
I am not putting the burden of war on you, or on Droṇa, or on
Aśvatthāman, or on Saṃjaya, or on Vikarṇa, or on Kāmboja, or on
Bāhlīka, Satyavrata, Purumitra, Bhūriśravas, or any others of your party,
when I make this challenge! I and Karṇa, father, have laid out the sacrifice
of war (raṇayajña) and here we stand consecrated with Yudhiṣṭhira as the
victim, bull of the Bharatas. This chariot is the altar, this sword the spoon,
this club the ladle, this armor the sadas. My steeds are the four sacrificial
priests, my arrows the darbha grass, my fame the oblation! Having offered
up ourselves in war to Vaivasvata, O king, we shall triumphantly return,
covered with glory, our enemies slain. I, Karṇa, and my brother
Duḥśāsana, we three, father, will kill Pāṇḍavas in battle. I shall kill the
Pāṇḍavas and rule the earth. I should rather surrender my life, wealth, and
realm, steadfast king, than ever dwell togeter with the Pāṇḍavas! We shall
not cede to the Pāṇḍavas as much land as you can prick with the point of a
sharp needle, father!
This passage suggests that the comparison with sacrifice expresses Duryodhana’s
intention to vanquish his opponents. At first sight this makes perfect sense. Just as
a sacrificer kills the sacrificial victim in his sacrifice, Duryodhana and Karṇa
intend to kill the Pāṇḍavas in the battle for which they are preparing themselves.5
4 Mhbh 5.57.10-18: nāhaṃ bhavati na droṇe nāśvatthāmni na saṃjaye/ na vikarṇe na
kāmboje na kṛpe na ca bāhlike//10// satyavrate purumitre bhūriśravasi vā punaḥ/ anyeṣu
vā tāvakeṣu bhāraṃ kṛtvā samāhvaye//11// ahaṃ ca tāta karṇaś ca raṇayajñaṃ vitatya
vai/ yudhiṣṭhiraṃ paśuṃ kṛtvā dīkṣitau bharatarṣabha//12// ratho vedī sruvaḥ khaḍgo
gadā sruk kavacaṃ sadaḥ/ cāturhotraṃ ca dhuryā me śarā darbhā havir yaśaḥ//13//
ātmayajñena nṛpate iṣṭvā vaivasvataṃ raṇe/ vijitya svayam eṣyāvo hatāmitrau śriyā
vṛtau//14// ahaṃ ca tāta karṇaś ca bhrātā duḥśāsanaś ca me/ ete vayaṃ haniṣyāmaḥ
pāṇḍavān samare trayaḥ//15// ahaṃ hi pāṇḍavān hatvā praśāstā pṛthivīm imām/ māṃ vā
hatvā pāṇḍuputrā bhoktāraḥ pṛthivīm imām//16// tyaktaṃ me jīvitaṃ rājan dhanaṃ
rājyaṃ ca pārthiva/ na jātu pāṇḍavaiḥ sārdhaṃ vaseyam aham acyuta//17// yāvad dhi
sūcyās tīkṣṇāyā vidhyed agreṇa māriṣa/ tāvad apy aparityājyaṃ bhūmer naḥ pāṇḍavān
5 The same sentiment, but this time from the side of Yudhiṣṭhira, finds expression in the
Vanaparvan, Mhbh 3.242.13-15: tadā tu nṛpatir gantā dharmarājo yudhiṣṭhiraḥ//13//
astraśastrapradīpte 'gnau yadā taṃ pātayiṣyati/ varṣāt trayodaśād ūrdhvaṃ raṇasattre
narādhipaḥ//14// yadā krodhahavir moktā dhārtarāṣṭreṣu pāṇḍavaḥ/ āgantāras tadā smeti
…//15// “Then indeed Yudhiṣṭhira the King Dharma shall go [to Duryodhana’s sacrifice,
JB]! When he [Yudhiṣṭhira] tumbles him [Duryodhana] in the Fire that has been lit with
swords and spears at the Session of war (raṇa-sattra) after the thirteenth year [of exile],
when the Pāṇḍava [i.e. Yudhiṣṭhira] gives vent to the Oblation of his wrath upon the
Dhārtarāṣṭras, then we shall have come!” (tr. van Buitenen)
With hindsight we know that this intention was never realized. Quite on
the contrary, Duryodhana and Karṇa themselves were killed in that battle, and the
Pāṇḍavas came out victorious.
Karṇa did not need hindsight to know the outcome of the battle. Foresight
allowed him to predict the disaster that was going to befall him and Duryodhana.
Interestingly, he too compares the approaching battle with a sacrifice, and in this
sacrifice, too, Duryodhana is the sacrificer. This is what Karṇa says (in the
translation of Van Buitenen, 1978: 446-447):6
Vārṣṇeya, the Dhārtarāṣṭra will hold a grand sacrifice of war (śastrayajña).
Of this sacrifice you shall be the Witness, Janārdana, and you shall be the
Adhvaryu priest at the ritual. The Terrifier with the monkey standard
stands girt as the Hotar; Gāṇḍīva will be the ladle; the bravery of men the
sacrificial butter. The aindra, pāśupata, brāhma, and sthūṇākarṇa missiles
will be the spells employed by the Left-handed Archer. Saubhadra, taking
after his father, if not overtaking him, in prowess, will act perfectly as the
6 Mhbh 5.139.29-51: dhārtarāṣṭrasya vārṣṇeya śastrayajño bhaviṣyati/ asya yajñasya
vettā tvaṃ bhaviṣyasi janārdana/ ādhvaryavaṃ ca te kṛṣṇa kratāv asmin bhaviṣyati//29//
hotā caivātra bībhatsuḥ saṃnaddhaḥ sa kapidhvajaḥ/ gāṇḍīvaṃ sruk tathājyaṃ ca vīryaṃ
puṃsāṃ bhaviṣyati//30// aindraṃ pāśupataṃ brāhmaṃ sthūṇākarṇaṃ ca mādhava/
mantrās tatra bhaviṣyanti prayuktāḥ savyasācinā//31// anuyātaś ca pitaram adhiko vā
parākrame/ grāvastotraṃ sa saubhadraḥ samyak tatra kariṣyati//32// udgātātra punar
bhīmaḥ prastotā sumahābalaḥ/ vinadan sa naravyāghro nāgānīkāntakṛd raṇe//33// sa
caiva tatra dharmātmā śaśvad rājā yudhiṣṭhiraḥ/ japair homaiś ca saṃyukto brahmatvaṃ
kārayiṣyati//34// śaṅkhaśabdāḥ samurajā bheryaś ca madhusūdana/ utkṛṣṭasiṃhanādāś ca
subrahmaṇyo bhaviṣyati//35// nakulaḥ sahadevaś ca mādrīputrau yaśasvinau/ śāmitraṃ
tau mahāvīryau samyak tatra kariṣyataḥ//36// kalmāṣadaṇḍā govinda vimalā
rathaśaktayaḥ/ yūpāḥ samupakalpantām asmin yajñe janārdana//37// karṇinālīkanārācā
vatsadantopabṛṃhaṇāḥ/ tomarāḥ somakalaśāḥ pavitrāṇi dhanūṃṣi ca//38// asayo 'tra
kapālāni puroḍāśāḥ śirāṃsi ca/ havis tu rudhiraṃ kṛṣṇa asmin yajñe bhaviṣyati//39//
idhmāḥ paridhayaś caiva śaktyo 'tha vimalā gadāḥ/ sadasyā droṇaśiṣyāś ca kṛpasya ca
śaradvataḥ//40// iṣavo 'tra paristomā muktā gāṇḍīvadhanvanā/ mahārathaprayuktāś ca
droṇadrauṇipracoditāḥ//41// prātiprasthānikaṃ karma sātyakiḥ sa kariṣyati/ dīkṣito
dhārtarāṣṭro 'tra patnī cāsya mahācamūḥ//42// ghaṭotkaco 'tra śāmitraṃ kariṣyati
mahābalaḥ/ atirātre mahābāho vitate yajñakarmaṇi//43// dakṣiṇā tv asya yajñasya
dhṛṣṭadyumnaḥ pratāpavān/ vaitāne karmaṇi tate jāto yaḥ kṛṣṇa pāvakāt//44// yad
abruvam ahaṃ kṛṣṇa kaṭukāni sma pāṇḍavān/ priyārthaṃ dhārtarāṣṭrasya tena tapye
'dya karmaṇā/45// yadā drakṣyasi māṃ kṛṣṇa nihataṃ savyasācinā/ punaś citis tadā
cāsya yajñasyātha bhaviṣyati//46// duḥśāsanasya rudhiraṃ yadā pāsyati pāṇḍavaḥ/
ānardaṃ nardataḥ samyak tadā sutyaṃ bhaviṣyati//47// yadā droṇaṃ ca bhīṣmaṃ ca
pāñcālyau pātayiṣyataḥ/ tadā yajñāvasānaṃ tad bhaviṣyati janārdana//48// duryodhanaṃ
yadā hantā bhīmaseno mahābalaḥ/ tadā samāpsyate yajño dhārtarāṣṭrasya mādhava//49//
snuṣāś ca prasnuṣāś caiva dhṛtarāṣṭrasya saṃgatāḥ/ hateśvarā hatasutā hatanāthāś ca
keśava//50// gāndhāryā saha rodantyaḥ śvagṛdhrakurarākule/ sa yajñe 'sminn avabhṛtho
Grāvastut priest. Mighty Bhīma will be the Udgātar and Prastotar, that
tigerlike man who with his roars on the battlefield finishes off an army of
elephants. The eternal king, law-spirited Yudhiṣṭhira, well-versed in
recitations and oblations, will act as the Brahmán. The sounds of the
conches, the drums, the kettledrums, and the piercing lion roars will be the
Subrahmaṇā invocation. Mādrī’s two glorious sons Nakula and Sahadeva
of great valor will fill the office of the Śamitar priest. The clean chariot
spears with their spotted staffs will serve as the sacrificial poles at this
sacrifice, Janārdana. The eared arrows, hollow reeds, iron shafts and calf-
tooth piles, and the javelins will be the Soma jars, and the bows the
strainers. Swords will be the potsherds, skulls the Puroḍāśa cakes, and
blood will be the oblation at this sacrifice, Kṛṣṇa. The spears and bright
clubs will be the kindling and enclosing sticks; the pupils of Droṇa and
Kṛpa Śāradvata the Sadasyas. The arrows shot by the Gāṇḍīva bowman,
the great warriors, and Droṇa and his son will be the pillows. Sātyaki shall
act as Pratiprasthātar, the Dhārtarāṣṭra as the Sacrificer (dīkṣita), his great
army as the Wife. Mighty Ghaṭotkaca will be the Śamitar when this
Overnight (atirātra) Sacrifice is spun out, strong-armed hero. Majestic
Dhṛṣṭadyumna shall be the sacrificial fee when the fire rite takes place, he
who was born from the fire.
The insults I heaped on the Pāṇḍavas, to please Duryodhana, those I regret.
When you see me cut down by the Left-handed Archer, it will be the Re-
piling of the Fire of this7 sacrifice. When the Pāṇḍava drinks the blood of
Duḥśāsana, bellowing his roar, it will be the Soma draught. When the two
Pāñcālyas fell Droṇa and Bhīṣma, that will be the Conclusion of the
sacrifice, Janārdana. When the mighty Bhīmasena kills Duryodhana, then
the great sacrifice of the Dhārtarāṣṭra will end. The weeping of the
gathered daughters-in-law and granddaughters-in-law, whose masters,
sons, and protectors have been slain, with the mourning of Gāndhārī at the
sacrificial site now teeming with dogs, vultures, and ospreys, will be the
Final Bath of this sacrifice, Janārdana.
The richness of details in these comparisons, especially the second one, shows
that the Vedic sacrifice is thought of. This makes it all the more surprising, at
least at first sight, that the sacrificer in the second sacrifice is identical with its
victim: Duryodhana initiates the sacrifice, which ends with his death.
However, a closer look at these two passages changes the perspective
considerably. The sacrifical victim in most Vedic sacrifices, as in many other
sacrifices elsewhere in the world, is a substitute for the sacrificer. That is to say,
the ideal victim is the sacrificer himself. It is therefore perhaps not so surprising
that the instigator of the sacrifice that figures in Karṇa’s comparison,
7 Van Buitenen has their instead of this.
Duryodhana, is also its victim. And the really surprising comparison, seen this
way, is the one proposed by Duryodhana, who looks upon the sacrificial victim
not as a substitute for the sacrificer, but as his enemy, in this case Yudhiṣṭhira.
Yudhiṣṭhira cannot possibly be looked upon as Duryodhana’s substitute in that
imaginary sacrifice. Yudhiṣṭhira is his victim in the worst sense of the term.
Substitutes in sacrifice are beings or objects that are dear to the sacrificer: one of
his children, one of his domesticated animals, some of his possessions.
Yudhiṣṭhira and the Pāṇḍavas are not dear to Duryodhana, they are his enemies,
whom he wishes to destroy.
Do we have to conclude that there is something wrong in Duryodhana’s
comparison of the approaching battle with a sacrifice? We will return to this
question below. First, however, we must note that Duryodhana’s kind of sacrifice
is not the only example of its kind in the Mahābhārata. As a matter of fact, the
Mahābhārata reports that it was itself first recited at a sacrifice organised by
someone called Janamejaya. This was a Snake Sacrifice (sarpasattra), and it aim
was the destruction of all snakes.8 The sacrifice did in the end not succeed in this
aim, but that is less important at present.
Minkowski (1991: 385) sums up how this sacrifice came about as follows:
The story of Janamejaya’s sattra belongs to the Āstīka parvan of the
Mahābhārata’s first book (1.45-53). The events of the Āstīka parvan, the
curse of Kadrū (1.18), the death of Parikṣit (1.36-40), and the birth of
Āstīka (1.33-44), culminate in the story of the snake sattra, which begins
with Janamejaya learning that his father Parikṣit was killed by the serpent
Takṣaka. Seeking revenge, Janamejaya asks his priests whether they know
a rite that would enable him to propel Takṣaka and his relations into
blazing fire (1.47.4). The priests reply that there is a rite that will
accomplish such a task, created by the gods especially for Janamejaya
(tvadartham devanirmitam), known as the sarpasattra, and described in the
Purāṇic lore (purāṇe kathyate) (1.47.6). Janamejaya is the only man
eligible to sponsor this rite, and the priests have the training to perform it
(1.47.7). Janamejaya agrees and orders the priests to prepare (1.47.8-9).
8 Fitzgerald (2010: 79) makes the following tentative suggestion about this sacrifice:
“Whoever framed the epic narrative with this account might well have used the snakes as
a stand-in for foreign invaders and may have meant to suggest that Janamejaya’s rite at
this gateway should spell an end to such invaders in Bharatavarṣa …”
This short description suffices to show that Janamejaya’s Snake Sacrifice was of
the same kind as Duryodhana’s imagined sacrifice. Just as Duryodhana fantasized
about a sacrifice in which his enemy Yudhiṣṭhira, and by extension the Pāṇḍavas,
would be the victim, in the same way Janamejaya prepares a sacrifice in which
his enemy, the snake Takṣaka, and by extension all snakes, will be the victim.
Both Duryodhana’s imagined sacrifice and Janamejaya’s in the end unsuccessful
sacrifice were meant to destroy enemies, not by means of the sacrifice, but in the
sacrifice itself, as its victims. These victims are not substitutes for the sponsor of
the sacrifice, but they are his enemies.
The Mahābhārata mentions another sacrifice of the same type. About King
Jarāsandha of Magadha, we read (tr. Van Buitenen, 1975: 60):9
After he had defeated them all, [Jarāsandha] imprisoned the kings in his
mountain corral, Girivraja, as a lion imprisons great elephants in a cave of
the Himālaya. King Jarāsandha wants to sacrifice the lords of the earth, for
it was after he had worshiped the Great God that he defeated the kings on
the battlefield. Whenever he defeated kings in battle, he took them in
fetters to his own city and built a corral for men!
About these imprisoned kings we read (tr. Van Buitenen, 1975: 61):10
What joy of life is left to the kings who are sprinkled and cleansed in the
house of Paśupati as sacrificial animals …?
Kṛṣṇa reproaches Jarāsandha in a later chapter that, having imprisoned the kings,
he wishes to sacrifice them to Rudra.11 According to Kṛṣṇa, there has never been
witness to human sacrifice, and he disapproves of it strongly.12 Jarāsandha’s
9 Mhbh 2.13.62-64: tena ruddhā hi rājānaḥ sarve jitvā girivraje/ kandarāyāṃ girīndrasya
siṃheneva mahādvipāḥ//62// so ‘pi rājā jarāsaṃdho yiyakṣur vasudhādhipaiḥ/ ārādhya hi
mahādevaṃ nirjitās tena pārthivāḥ//63// sa hi nirjitya nirjitya pārthivān pṛtanāgatān/
puram ānīya baddhvā ca cakāra puruṣavrajam/64//
10 Mhbh 2.13.17: prokṣitānāṃ pramṛṣṭānāṃ rājñāṃ paśupater gṛhe/ paśūnāṃ iva kā
prītir jīvite bharatarṣabha//17//
11 Mhbh 2.20.8cd: tad rājñaḥ saṃnigṛhya tvaṃ rudrāyopajihīrṣasi.
12 Mhbh 2.20.10: manuṣyāṇāṃ samālambho na ca dṛṣṭaḥ kadācana/ sa kathaṃ mānuṣair
devaṃ yaṣṭum icchasi śaṃkaram//
defence that he takes no king for sacrifice whom he has not first defeated13 does
not convince his opponents, and he is subsequently killed in battle.
Further examples of sacrifices of the kind where the sacrificer immolates
himself, where he is both sacrificer and victim, can also be found in the
Mahābhārata. Ambā and Aśvatthāman put an end to their lives in this manner.14
Ambā, surprisingly, is a woman, but this fact should not be taken to mean that
self-sacrifice was looked upon by the authors of the epic as a particularly
feminine activity. As a matter of fact, Ambā takes recourse to this act to be reborn
as a man, this in order to kill Bhīṣma.15 Elsewhere, a fallen warrior is described as
“having sacrificed his own body in battle”.16
It appears, then, that the authors of the Mahābhārata recognized two kinds of
sacrifice. In one of these two, the sacrificer sacrifices himself; in the other, he
sacrifices his enemy. Scholars have been aware for some time that many Vedic
sacrifices are of the first kind: the sacrificer sacrifices himself, or rather, he
sacrifices a substitute for himself.17 But what about the other kind of sacrifice, in
which the sacrificer sacrifices his enemy? Are there Vedic sacrifices that follow
this pattern? Or is it nothing but a fantasy of the authors of the Mahābhārata, with
no link whatsoever with any sacrificial reality?
It is not. A number of Vedic sacrifices do indeed fall in the second
category. That is to say, in a number of Vedic sacrifices the victim is not a
substitute for the sacrificer, but for his enemy. It is true that, with one exception
(see below), in none of these sacrifices an enemy of the sacrificer is literally put
to death; but then, the sacrificer himself is not put to death either, with very few
13 Mhbh 2.20.25ab: nājitān vai narapatīn aham ādadmi kāṃścana.
14 For Aśvatthāman, see Mhbh 10.7 (tr. Johnson, 1998: 28 ff.)
15 Mhbh 5.188.16-18: tataḥ sā paśyatāṃ teṣāṃ maharṣīṇām aninditā/ samāhṛtya vanāt
tasmāt kāṣṭhāni varavarṇinī//16// citāṃ kṛtvā sumahatīṃ pradāya ca hutāśanam/ pradīpte
'gnau mahārāja roṣadīptena cetasā//17// uktvā bhīṣmavadhāyeti praviveśa hutāśanam/
jyeṣṭhā kāśisutā rājan yamunām abhito nadīm//18// “Thereupon, while the great seers
were looking on, the blameless, fair-complexioned maiden gathered firewood from that
forest, made a very high pyre, and set fire to it. When the fire was blazing, great king, she
spoke with her heart on fire with wrath, ‘For Bhīṣma’s death!’ and entered the fire, did
the eldest daughter of Kāśi by the bank of the Yamunā, king.” (tr. Van Buitenen, 1978:
520-521; cp. Scheuer, 1975: 70)
16 Mhbh 18.1.14: yuddhe hutvātmanas tanum. Cp. Heesterman, 2008: 133.
17 Hubert & Mauss, 1899/1929: 45.
exceptions. The most prominent example of a Vedic sacrifice in which a
substitute of the enemy of the sacrificer is killed is the Agniṣṭoma sacrifice. Here
the Soma plant is “bought” from a “Soma merchant”, who is really either a
Brahmin or a Śūdra. This “merchant” is subsequently beaten, but the plant is
henceforth treated like a king. This “king” is seated on a royal throne, and
hospitality is offered to “him”, but in the end “he” is “killed”. The fact that the
“Soma merchant” is beaten reinforces the idea that “King Soma” represents a
prominent inhabitant of enemy territory, who is then ritually put to death.
Things become more serious in the Puruṣamedha, the “human sacrifice” of
Vedic literature that follows the same pattern as the Soma sacrifice. This sacrifice
concerns a real human being, who must belong to one of the two highest classes
and is bought from his family. He is treated well for a year, but killed at the end.
It seems reasonably clear that these two sacrifices are of the kind that
figured in Duryodhana’s imagination: these are sacrifices in which the victim is
an enemy of the sacrificer, not his substitute.18
To avoid confusion of categories, or rather to show that these categories
were often combined, let it be clear that there are many Vedic sacrifices that aim
at the destruction or subjugation of enemies, but in which the victim is yet a
substitute for the sacrificer. Consider the Vedic Horse Sacrifice (aśvamedha). Its
obvious aim is to assert the supremacy of the kingly sacrificer over neighbouring
rulers, who have to tolerate that a horse, followed by an army of four hundred
warriors, roams freely in their territories for a year. However, neither these
neighbouring rulers themselves nor their substitutes are in the end put to death. It
is the horse that is put to death, and the fact that the chief queen is supposed to
have sexual intercourse with the dead horse indicates that the horse is a substitute
for the sacrificing king, not for his bested neighbours. It follows that the two
kinds of sacrifice we are talking about are ideal types, which in reality frequently
join up in real sacrifices.
18 Is it possible that the distinction between sacrifices in which the victim is a substitute
for the sacrificer and those in which the victim is the enemy corresponds to the
distinction in Vedic sacrifice in which the victim is cooked resp. not cooked? See on the
latter distinction Bergaigne, 1878: 261 ff.; Malamoud, 1989: 35-70.
As a matter of fact, many Vedic sacrifices have the aim of destroying the
enemy or enemies of the sacrificer, while yet the victim is a substitute of the
sacrificer. The example of the Horse Sacrifice, just considered, illustrates that
Vedic sacrifices can have the tendency to present themselves in the style of
Karṇa, even when their obvious aim is the Duryodhana-style subjugation or even
destruction of enemies.
These reflections put us on an interesting trail. The Mahābhārata is aware
of two kinds of sacrifices — the destruction of the sacrificer or his substitute on
one hand, the destruction of his enemy on the other. This scheme fits the
sacrifices depicted in Vedic and para-Vedic literature up to a point. It fits a lot
better if we accept that real sacrifices (or at least the sacrifices described in Vedic
and para-Vedic literature) are often combinations and rearrangements of elements
that make up the ideal types. In real sacrifices, to begin, the victim is rarely
identical with the sacrificer or his enemy: substitutes take their place. What is
more, the two fundamental types of sacrifice are regularly combined in ways that
even sacrifices that clearly impose the superiority of the sacrificer over his
enemies — among them the main royal sacrifices: aśvamedha, vājapeya and
rājasūya — do not immolate those enemies themselves, nor substitutes of those
enemies, but a substitute of the sacrificer. Further and more complicated
rearrangements can no doubt be identified, but this is a task I leave for future
A final question needs to be addressed. It has frequently been observed that
sacrificial victims, if they are animals, are domesticated animals, not wild ones.
Jonathan Z. Smith, for example, observed: “I know of no unambiguous instance
of animal sacrifice performed by hunters. Animal sacrifice appears to be,
universally, the ritual killing of a domesticated animal by agrarian or pastoralist
societes.” (Hamerton-Kelly, 1987: 197; see further pp. 202 ff.; Beattie, 1980: 30
f.; Hénaff, 2002: 223). This is not surprising if we consider that these animals are
substitutes for the sacrificer, and must therefore be closely associated with him.
Indeed, human sacrifices are known in which parents sacrifice their first-born
child,19 or their own finger.20
However, we have come to think that there may be sacrifices in which the
victim is a substitute, not of the sacrificer, but of his enemy. Is it possible that in
this latter case non-domesticated animals might be sacrificed, animals that may
have to be obtained during hunting expeditions, just as enemies have to be
captured in war?
There may indeed be examples that illustrate this latter situation. Walter
Burkert observed with regard to the sacrifice in ancient Greece that “[f]or the
ancient world, hunting, sacrifice, and war were symbolically interchangeable”.21
Mark Edward Lewis (1990: 18 f.) cites this observation with approval, and adds
that in early China, too, warfare and hunting were identified with sacrifice,
adding that prey was taken in the hunt to be used as sacrificial victims.22 The
identification of warfare and sacrifice does not surprise us, given what we know
from the Mahābhārata. If Burkert and Lewis are right, we have to add hunting, at
least for ancient Greece and early China. The hunted animal, no need to add, is in
that case a substitute for the enemy.
By way of conclusion I propose that the question that is the subtitle of this article
can be answered affirmatively. Yes, the author(s) of the Mahābhārata understood
Vedic sacrifice better than we do.23 This does not necessarily mean that they knew
the details of this or that sacrifice better than we do on the basis of the ancient
sacrificial manuals. It means that, where we may lose sight of the wood for the
trees, they knew very well what the wood was like. They were still very much
19 Römer, 1999. We learn from the Mahābhārata (3.128.1 ff.) that King Somaka
sacrificed one son to obtain a hundred.
20 Hamerton-Kelly, 1987: 178; Burkert, 1996: 34 ff.
21 Cited in Lewis, 1990: 18 from the English translation of Walter Burkert’s Homo
Necans (not accessible to me); cf. Burkert, 1972: 22 ff., esp. p. 59.
22 Lewis (1990: 150) speaks of “the old Zhou identification of hunting as a form of
warfare and in the equation, as potential sacrifices, of prey taken in the hunt with
prisoners captured in combat.”. “[T]he Zhou had emphasized hunts as … a practical
means of securing sacrificial victims …”
23 Cp. Hiltebeitel, 2011: 277: “one conclusion worth exploring would be that, rather than
the standard view that the epic’s references to Vedic ritual, and particularly Vedic royal
rituals, are distanced by desuetude and confusion about them, we should look at epic
depictions of Vedic rituals, at least where they are narrated, as deft and cunning.”
aware of the fundamental structures that underlie all — or at any rate most —
Vedic sacrifices. We may be well advised to learn from them.
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