Are there any incidents of human sacrifice in Hindu scripture?
If there are none, are there any examples where a human being was initially prepared to be sacrificed but later avoided due to some or other reason?
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In the Scriptures : Human Sacrifices (Purusha Medha / Nara Bali)
“Purusha” and “Nara” = “man/human”
“Medha” and “Bali” = “sacrifice”
Ocriptures reveal that human sacrifices (Nara Bali or Purusha Medha) is commanded, and even cannibalism exists.
“O Yudhishthira, those that commit sins, can always free themselves from them through penance, sacrifice and gifts. O king, O foremost of men, sinful people are purified by sacrifice, austerities and charity. The high-souled celestials and Asuras perform sacrifices for securing religious merit; and therefore sacrifice are of supreme importance. It is through sacrifices that the high-souled celestials had waxed so wondrously powerful; and having celebrated rites did they vanquish the Danavas. Do thou, O Yudhishthira, prepare for the Rajasuya, and the horse-sacrifice, as well as, O Bharata, for the Sarvamedha and the Naramedha.” Mahabharata 14.3
It is also mentioned in Mahabharata, “He then saw him in the regions of those foremost of men that perform the horse-sacrifice and the sacrifice in which human beings are slaughtered.” Mahabharata 9:50
The following verse says that Manu’s wife was sacrificed:
“These two said, 'God-fearing, they say, is Manu: let us two then ascertain!' They then went to him and said: 'Manu! we will sacrifice for thee!' He said: 'Wherewith?' They said: 'With this bull!' He said: 'So be it!' On his (the bull's) being killed the voice went from him.It entered into Manâvî, the wife of Manu; and when they heard her speak, the Asuras and Rakshas were continually being crushed. Thereupon the Asuras said to one another: 'Hereby even greater evil is inflicted on us, for the human voice speaks more!' Kilâta and Âkuli then said: 'God-fearing, they say, is Manu: let us then ascertain!' They went to him and said: 'Manu! we will sacrifice for thee!' He said: 'Wherewith?'” Satapatha Brahmana – Part 1, 1 Kanda, 1 Adhyaya, 4 Brahmana 1:1:4:15-16
Following verses from Satapatha Brahmana shows how the essence of sacrifice went from man to animals,
(Satapatha Brahmana - Part 1, 1 Kanda, 2 Adhyaya, 3 Brahmana 184.108.40.206-7 ) "A man (purusha) he slaughters first, for man is the first of animals; then a horse, for the horse comes after man; then a bull, for the bull (or cow) comes after the horse; then a ram, for the sheep comes after the cow; then a he-goat, for the goat comes after the sheep: thus he slaughters them according to their form, according to their excellence.” (Satapatha Brahmana Part 3 – 6 Kanda, 2 Adhyaya, 1 Brahmana 6:2:1:18 )
“He then lifts up the human head–he thereby exalts it–with, ‘Giver of a thousand thou art: for a thousand thee!’ a thousand means everything: thus, ‘the giver of everything, for everything (I bestow) thee!’. He then puts them (the heads) in (the fire-pan), first (that of) the man–having taken possession of the man by strength he sets him up;–the man in the middle; on both sides the other victims: he thus sets the man, as the eater, in the midst of cattle; whence man is the eater in the midst of cattle. [22-23] These are the victims; separately he puts them down, separately he ‘settles’ them, and separately he pronounces the Sudadohas on them; for separate from one another are those animals. He then offers on the human head, sacrifice is offering: he thus makes man the one among animals fit to sacrifice; whence man alone among animals perform sacrifice.” (Satapatha Brahmana - Part 3, 7 Kanda, 5 Adhyaya, 2 Brahmana 7:5:2:13-14 and 22-23 )
In Satapatha Brahmana – Part 5, 13 Kanda, 6 Adhyaya, 2 Brahmana 13:6:2:12-13 , men were tied to stakes to be burned as sacrifices.
“1 OUR sacrifice, God Savitar! speed onward: speed to his share the sacrifice's patron…”
“5 For Brahman (Priesthood) he binds a Brahman to the stake; for Kshatra (Royalty) a Râjanya; for the Maruts a Vaisya; for Penance a Sûdra; for Darkness a robber; for Hell a homicide or a man who has lost his onsecrated fire; for Misfortune a eunuch; for Venality an Ayogû; for Kâma a harlot; for Excessive Noise a Mâgadha…”
“22 Now he ties up the eight following variform men: one too tall, one too short, one too stout, one too thin, one too white, one too black, one too bald, one too airy. These must be neither Sûdras nor Brâhmans, and must be dedicated to Prajâpati.” Yajur Veda 30 :1-22
This is the story How Harishchandra promised his own son's sacrifice, then unable to find him, Shunahshepha was sacrificed, but was rescued by Vishwaamitra.
The Story is in Devi Puraana Book 7 Chapter 15 to 17
I am giving story in short (without skipping from important details) as it is very big to be posted here. So you can read it here in real form- Devi Puraana, Story of Sacrifice.
Devi Puraana, Book 7, Chapters 15 to 17
Harishchandra's Promise to Sacrifice
Harishchandra was without any progeny, so his KulaGuru Vashishtha adviced him worship Varuna Deva the water God. Varuna granted boon to Harishchndra and asked-
Varuna said- O King! If you get an excellent son then what will you do for my honour. If you sacrifice your son as if an animal, without any hesitation, I wil grant your desire.
King replied- O Deva! There is no suffering greater than inability to make progeny, therefore give me a son to remove my suffering and I will sacrifice it as an animal to you.
Then Harishchandra and Shaivyaa got son Rohitaakhya. Varuna Deva kept on coming to Harishchandra asking for sacrifice, but he kept on averting Varuna taking to excuses of Jata Karma, Mundana, KarnaBhedana, DehaSuddhi et cetera.
Rohita came to know that he will be sacrificed so he ran way to forest. Varuna Deva came and asked for sacrifice and again hearing an excuse He got angry and cursed the king- O Liar King! You will suffer from Ascites (Jalodara Rog water bloating in stomach).
Harishchandra was in excruciating pain but Indra kept Rohita from going back saying- "O Child! They will sacrifice you as an animal."
Vashishtha being asked by Harishchandra tormented by pain said- "O King! Buy a Brahmin's son as your son and sacrifice him to Varuna."
Then the ministers of king bought Shunahshepha from a poor Brahmin Ajigarta for a price of 100 cows.
The King then bought Shunahshepha and made him the victim for the sacrifice. When that boy was fastened to the sacrificial post, he began to tremble and very much distressed with sorrow began to cry. Seeing this, the Munis cried out in a very pitiful tone. When the King gave permission for the immolation of that boy, the slaughterer did not take weapons to slaughter him. He told that he would never be able to kill the boy, since he is crying in a very pitiful tone. When he thus withdrew himself from his work, the King then asked his councillors :-- O Devas! What ought to be done now? S’unahs’epha then began to cry in a very pitiful voice; the people present there began to discuss and there arose a great noise on the affair. Then Ajigarta stood up in the midst of the assembly and spoke :-- “O King! Be patient; I will fulfil your desire. I am desirous of wealth and if you give me double the amount, I will slay immediately the victim; and you can complete early your sacrifice.” O King! He who is hankering after money, can always entertain feelings of enmity even towards his own son. There is no doubt in this. Vyâsa said :-- O King! Hearing those words of Ajigarta, Haris’chandra gladly spoke to him :-- “I will immediately give you another hundred excellent cows.” Hearing thus, the son’s father, avaricious of wealth, immediately resolved and became ready to slay his son.
Then all people mocked Ajigarta by even calling him a Chandaala and a disgrace to be called a Brahmin.
Muni Vishwaamitra saving Shunahshepha
Seeing Shunahshepha crying such Vishwaamitra said-
It is sin to kill someone else for selfish end. There is no greater merit than mercy and no greater sin than Hinsaa(Violence).
The King said- O Kaushika! Do not pit obstacles in sacrifice. I am suffering from great agony.
Then Muni Kaushika told Shunahshepha- O Son! I am giving you this Varuna mantra repeat it in mind.
Then Varuna Deva appeared and forgave the King saying- O King! This boy is my devotee so free him. Your sacrifice is also complete now.
As Vishwaamitra saved Shunahshepha so everyone made Vishwaamitra the father of Shunahshepha, on Vashishtha's adviced.
This is story of Shunahshepha's sacrifice and his rescue by Kaushika.
In Shalya Parva:50 there was a place where humans were slaughtered in sacrifice.
He then saw him in the regions of those foremost of men that perform the horse-sacrifice and the sacrifice in which human beings are slaughtered.
It is through sacrifices that the high-souled celestials had waxed so wondrously powerful; and having celebrated rites did they vanquish the Danavas. Do thou, O Yudhishthira, prepare for the Rajasuya, and the horse-sacrifice, as well as, O Bharata, for the Sarvamedha and the Naramedha.
Ashwamedh Parva III
32b-42. I shall tell you another fierce act (mentioned) in the Vedas. When a guest goes (i.e. arrives) to the house, a brāhmaṇa (kills and) cooks (the flesh of) a great bull; or O king of kings, he would feed the guest (with the flesh of) a goat. (They kill) a horse in a horse-sacrifice, and a bull in a bull-sacrifice; a man in a human sacrifice and goats in a Vājapeya sacrifice.
Harishchandra promised Varuna to sacrifice for his sake.
Thereafter, when the child was born, Varuṇa approached Hariścandra and said, “Now you have a son. With this son you can offer me a sacrifice.” In answer to this, Hariścandra said, “After ten days have passed since an animal’s birth, the animal becomes fit to be sacrificed.”
Bhagwad Purana 9:7:10
Sacrifice of Galava's son.
For that (son) be initiated into the sacrifice called Naramedha. We shall take your son to offer him as a victim in that great sacrifice.
The Mahābhārata narrates the story of King Somaka and his only son Jantu who was sacrificed so each of Somaka's 100 wives would be blessed with a son.
Here's a short account of the story from The Purāṇic Encyclopedia:
Jantu born again.
Somaka had hundred wives. But only one of them gave birth to a child. That child was Jantu. He was a pet of all the hundred wives. Once Jantu was bitten by an ant. All the hundred queens began crying and shouting and all ran to him. Hearing the tumult in the women’s apartment of the palace, the King and the minister ran to that place. When the tumult was over the King began to think. "It is better to have no sons at all, than to have only one son. There are hundred queens. But none of them bears a child. Is there a solution for this?"
At last the King summoned his family-priests and consulted them. The decision of the priests was that if the King should sacrifice his only son, then all his wives would become pregnant and all would give birth to children, and that among the sons thus born, Jantu also would be reborn. The mother of Jantu did not look at this project with favour. "How can we be sure that Jantu also will be there among the sons to be born, after his death?" She was worried by this thought. The priests consoled her and said that there will be a golden mole on the left flank of Jantu. Finally the mother agreed to their plan. Sacrificial dais was arranged. Sacrificial fire for holy offerings was prepared. The priests tore the child into pieces and offered them as oblation in the fire. When the sacrifice was finished, all the hundred queens became pregnant. Each of them gave birth to a child. As the priests had predicted, there was a golden mole on the left flank of the child delivered by the mother of Jantu. (Mahābhārata Vana Parva, Chapters 127 and 128).
The moral of the story is probably that human sacrifices shouldn't be performed anymore because it ends with the chief priest who performed the sacrifice going to hell and the king convincing Yama Dharmaraja to share the punishment:
'Why art thou, O Brahmana! being grilled in this hell?" Then the family priest exceedingly scorched with fire, spake to him saying,
This is the outcome of my having officiated in that sacrifice of thine.
Hearing this, the saintly king thus spake to the god who meteth out punishments to departed souls,
I shall enter here. Set free my officiating priest; this revered man is being grilled by hell-fire on my account only.
[Yama] Dharmaraja thereat answered thus,
One cannot enjoy or suffer for another person's acts. O best of speakers! these are the fruits of thy acts; see it here.
Without this Brahmana here, I desire not go to the blessed regions. My desire is to dwell in company with this very man, either in the abode of the gods, or in hell, for, O Dharmaraja! my deed is identical with what hath been done by him and the fruit of our virtuous or evil deed must be the same for both of us.
[Yama] Dharmaraja said,
O king! If this is thy wish, then taste with him the fruit of that act, for the same period that he must do. After that thou shall go to the blessed regions.