Animal Sacrifice in the Vedas?

Lost in Translation

The nobility of the thinking of the sages in the ancient times reveal a profound and respectful understanding of life and creation but their wisdom has often been lost in translation through the ages. These days there are many ancient practices that are misunderstood, misinterpreted or dismissed as unscientific. One such example is the practice of Pashu Bali in the Vedic Tradition, which refers to the ‘sacrificing of one’s own animalistic tendencies’ – a word and practice often (wrongly) translated and interpreted as ‘animal sacrifice’.

Vedic vs. Sanskrit language

The word Pashu, as many other words in the Vedic language (language used in the Vedas), is often misunderstood and misinterpreted because the Vedic language is not entirely the same as classical Sanskrit. What we normally refer to as Sanskrit, is a language that emerged out of the Vedic language. Although there are many Sanskrit words that are also found in the Vedic language, their meanings have become much more limited, or different altogether. This is because some people writing commentaries on Vedic scriptures, were trying to understand the Vedas from the perspective of the Sanskrit language. This led to misinterpretations since ‘new’ meanings soon became common knowledge depending on the explanations of the commentators. Thus the root cause of the problem here was the insufficient understanding of Vedic terminology and the wrong notion that the meaning of words in the Vedic language and classical Sanskrit are always identical.

Free from Violence

Animal sacrifice is often thought to have been part of some of the ancient yajnas or sacrifices of the Vedic civilization. In the Vedic literature, however, a synonym that is given for the word yajna is adhvara, which literally means ‘that which is free from violence’. In order to be able to perform such a yajna, one needs to first sacrifice one’s own cravings, selfishness and anger. One needs to ‘slaughter’ or ‘sacrifice’ (Bali) the ‘brute’ or ‘animal’ (Pashu) in himself, i.e. perform Pashu Bali. In yajna the animal in man, the brutal instinct to enjoy even at the cost of others and risking spiritual wellbeing, was restrained and ultimately slaughtered.

Ancient yajnas now famous for their ‘animal sacrifice’ were actually highly spiritual and refined ceremonies. The word ashva in classical Sanskrit means ‘horse’, but in the Vedic language two of its meanings are ‘souls’ and ‘nation’. The Sanskrit word aja is often translated as ‘goat’, while a Vedic meaning of the word is ‘eternal soul’. The Ashvamedha Yajna therefore refers to a yajna facilitating ‘the purification of the soul and the strengthening of the nation’, and Ajamedha Yajna is performed for the ‘ennobling of the soul’.

In time, however, such a beautiful and noble act as yajna or sacrifice, a totally unselfish deed for the greater good of the world, and the wonderful concept of pashu bali became synonymous with the slaughter of innocent and harmless creatures. It is of course true that in the medieval ages animals were sacrificed, both in India and other parts of the world. However, these sacrifices were not prescribed by the Vedas. The sacrifice that the Vedas prescribe is that of one’s own comforts, of one’s own negative tendencies and small-mindedness, for the benefit of the society and the world.

Protecting Life

Great saints, such as the Buddha and Mahavir, who saw the inhumane slaughter of innocent animals in the name of pashu bali or yajna, rebelled against these practices and worked to bring people’s attention back towards meditation, respect towards and service of all life, and cultivating a mind free from anger, lust and delusion. These ideals that are actually part of the core teachings of these amazing ancient scriptures called the Vedas.

The Vedas have even been very clear regarding non-violence, both towards other human beings and towards all other forms of life. In the Atharva Veda for example there is a prayer to violence itself: “O Violence! The slaughter of the innocent creatures is really dreadful; do not kill our cows, horses, men and other embodied scient beings. Wherever you are lying concealed, be lighter and more trivial in our eyes than a dried leaf.” In the Yajur Veda there is the prayer: “May I look at all the creatures with the eyes of a friend.” And in the Rig Veda, it says: “If ever, with certainty, I make a move, I tread only the path of the friend. For, under the solace-giving shelter of this dear and non-violent friend all living beings unite.”

It is therefore important that we educate people and make them aware that animal sacrifice in the name of pashu bali was in no way supported by the Vedas, and that killing innocent animals will never please the Divine that has created them and given them life.