When my affinity for India inevitably comes up in numerous conversations, one of the most common quips heard from fellow arrogant, insensitive Americans is, “Don’t order a burger!” It’s routinely followed by chuckles and yuck-yuck in the crowd to stroke the ego of the guy wanting to pretend he’s the first to blurt out such wit. But then the laughter dies down and as everyone shakes their heads at how a culture could shun such fine cuisine, the question arises: Why? Why do they hold cows to be holy?
Hinduism is little examined or understood on much more than a shallow level in the West. The depths generally extend only to the comfort of saying a few “Namastes” and Oms” in yoga classes full of soccer moms and frustrated middle aged women who have little more to do with their time than blog daily about coffee. It all ties in with the misconception that all Hindus are strict vegetarians and go to great lengths to avoid stepping on a bug for fear that it may have been his mother in another life. Most people would be quite taken aback to learn that in the Vedas, to which Hindu traditions are strongly linked, animal sacrifice was a frequent occurrence but even more surprising, human sacrifices were not unheard of. So where did the contrast come into play? Where did the culture change from one of ritual bloody offerings to one that is associated with a strong version to killing animals?
There are numerous mentions of live sacrifices in ancient Hinduism. The most valuable one was of course the human sacrifice, the purusha-medha. Whoever commissioned this and paid the Brahmin priests to perform it was said to be as divine as the Prajapati, a name for the Creator. The most common offering was the goat. The following excerpt from the Brahmanas as translated by Klaus Klostermaier explains: “When the devas had killed a man for their sacrifice, that part of him which was fit to be made an offering went out and entered a horse. Thence the horse became an animal fit to be sacrificed. From the horse it went into the ox, from there into the goat. In the goat it remained for the longest time, therefore the goat is best fitted for sacrifice.”
How this sequence came to be is not explained further but one may assume that it was a bit convenient for the goat to be the sacrifice of choice for they were less expensive and plentiful. Oxen, with their mass would have been a logically impressive choice to think that the larger the animal, the greater the offering, but the value they had in agriculture probably played a part in avoiding killing them. Horse sacrifices were done but they weren’t so common either, for they were held in the highest regard. The ashva-medha could be done for rites of fertility and fortune but the most significant times it was performed were to crown a new king; either one who had just conquered a new region to add to his bounty or upon the death of one and the assumption of power by his son. There are writings of huge events full of offerings that employed hundreds of priests for ceremonies that would have lasted days into months; the sheer volume of animals offered is staggering. The ashva-medha ceremony was so elaborate and esteemed that as Klostermaier writes, “the Bhagavata Purana can declare that the extermination of the whole of humankind could be atoned for by one…”
In contrast, alongside the texts that detail these sacrifices there are also scripts in which we find an aversion to violence against animals. Chapter 257 of the Vicakhnu Gita, Mahabharata tells of King Vichakhnu having come up on the remains of a bull that had been butchered and in an epiphany was suddenly horrified by the thought as he only then noticed the cries of the other cattle in the quarters.
He said, “May there be good fortune for cows in all parts of the world….Such violence is praised only by men who do not adhere to the proper rules. They are fools, unbelievers, and doubting souls who always remain concealed. The virtuous Manu has asserted that all ritual acts must be free of violence…”
What is trying to be conveyed here is that too many men take the simplistic approach toward trying to please the gods and gain the earthly blessings they desire. This is a verse of admonishment to press them on into more intellectual pursuits, find the deeper meanings of the sacred scriptures and realize that the bloodletting offerings alone are not bestowing the greatest gifts of life that they could have. Basically, they are living as the backward and uninformed, untaught. Manu has moved forward in his thinking and he is saying that, “it is due to desire and attachment that men afflict animals in the space around the altar.” He’s trying to bring the people out of a Dark Ages mentality and that illustrate that there are things you can do to achieve your goals even without all the killing and ritual. He’s encouraging man to look to develop higher intellect, consider the wisdom of the Vedas and find atman, the highest self and rise above the misconception that all blessings are bestowed only through the purging of an animal. This behavior was reflective of pagan civilizations that have come and gone beforehand that believed if they needed redemption, cleansing, forgiveness, and blessings, it could only be gained by someone or something enduring horrific torture. If they would make their spiritual practices more genuine and more on jnana (knowledge), as opposed to such violent forms of yajna, maybe they would come closer to their enlightenment.
This could very well be one of the verses that influenced later Hindu movements and the emphasis on ahimsa, or the concept of committing no violence against any living thing. Buddha was the first prominent party to vehemently embrace and preach nonviolence. He preached his first sermon at Sarnath, just north of Varanasi, one of the holiest cities in Hinduism. We know that he renounced his life as a privileged prince and sought solitude, peace and tranquility. Knowing what we do about the civilization one has to wonder what it was that triggered this distaste for the life he was born into. Given that there were none of the car, motorcycle or bus horns blaring and the population nowhere nearly as maddening as it is in present day, what was it that was so chaotic he needed to escape? It may have been all the suffering he was witnessing. The noise and calamity of suffering. The bleating of sheep, cries of goats, moans of cattle living in horrid conditions as beasts of burden and then at the end, led to their butchering and as a royal prince, he would have been privy to these as common occurrences. Maybe underneath it all, the basic motivator of the Buddha was that he held empathy for all living creatures and just couldn’t stand the cries from anymore lengthy rituals. He loved being in the forest where he could just sit and the deer would come up to him, fearless of the docile human. His teachings were poetic, soft and sometimes nearly in playful riddles and codes. He relished in the quiet that an environment of nonviolence afforded him and it must have been a welcome concept to the masses judging by the impact his life had on the community and ages to come.
Jainism was then founded and followed suit with the embracement of non violence, and this in turn had a profound influence on a man named Mahatma Gandhi, undoubtedly the largest modern day proponent of ahimsa. He redefined the term to include “peaceful resistance” when it came the political unrest and instability seen during the time of Partition when the British were successful in breaking apart Greater India and forming the country of Pakistan. This created a mass exile of many Hindus and Muslims from the only homes they had known for decades. When violence broke out over the issue, he went on a hunger strike to bring it to an end instead of inciting military reaction. When a radical Hindu shot and killed him, blaming him for being too passive on the issue of Partition, the words on Gandhi’s lips weren’t those of anger, revenge or even fear. “Ram, Ram.” A perfect illustration of how he took ahimsa to heart. Chanting the name of his God on his lips as he died so that Ram would whisper the secret to life into his ears on his dying breath. He took to heart and lived the verse in the Mahabharata, “Not harming other beings is certainly recognized as superior to all other forms of dharma.”
So there can be seen quite an evolution and progressive intelligence throughout the Vedas Samhitas and Upanishads that reveal the changes or updates we see from antiquity to present day. The ancient peoples lived by a similar thread that ancient Pagans lived under, meaning, the lore and the divine guidance provided for one lifestyle that we now feel is harsh and barbaric. It was all survival of the fittest. People had their castes, their societal chores, kings and warriors were revered and celebrated with massive offerings and festivals. And then a new wave of human feeling appeared and no longer was it unquestioningly accepted to hear the tortured cries and bellows of the animals whose blood and trauma was meant to bring about goodwill and blessings to those who ordered the knives to their throats.
To the Western world it may be difficult to discern any kind of progress from one age to the next with all the violence within India and strife between Hindus and Muslims, between India and Pakistan. For that matter we see a lot of horrific acts committed Hindu against Hindu. But that’s no different from any society. It’s human nature. Those of other faiths may criticize present day Hindus saying, “If you don’t know your Vedas, how can you say you are living by them with a respect?” But is it really any different from the People of the Book who feel a passionate connection to certain verses in the New Testament but tend to dismiss the Old Testament? It’s all the same collection of scriptures they claim to have faith in and while they may go through their days with kindness in their hearts, donations to those in need, and keeping their tempers in check, are they also thinking all the time about the story of Noah and the ark? Jonah and the whale? The episodes with Moses and the burning bush and the baby in the basket?
Not likely. So it’s the same with the Hindu culture and the Vedas. The Vedas are the spine of Hindu tradition and should be respected as such even though many Hindus don’t carry their lessons in the forefront of their minds every day. But visit any Hindu home and you’ll feel the serenity and be the benefactor of their dedication to ahimsa. While not all Hindus are strict vegetarians, the conscientious guest or host will err on the side of caution and not bring any animal based cuisine. If a guest in a Hindu home commits a faux pas, it will probably not be brought to anyone’s attention because to a Hindu, the guest is God. Everyone has the Divine in them and is deserving of service and respect. A simple by–product of ahimsa respect. As one Hindu commits to nonviolence, many he has relationships with follow suit so they do not offend him, their friend who is also divine. The world could learn a lot from Hindus.