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I seem to remember having read somewhere that one or more of the ancient Brahmana texts (maybe Shatapatha Brahmana) allow performing Vedic yajnas by providing alternatives to animal sacrifice, like for example, pishta pashu (animal figure made from flour).

Can anyone provide the reference?

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Your are probably looking for Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 1.2.3.5 (... paśur ha vā eṣa ālabhyate yat puroḍāśaḥ).

Kanda I, adhyaya 2, brahmana 3

THE PREPARATION OF THE ALTAR

5. Thereupon the gods ordained this to be the dakṣiṇā at the new- and full-moon sacrifices, to wit, the Anvāhārya mess of rice [3], 'lest the oblation should be without a dakṣiṇā.' That (rinsing water) he pours out (for each Āptya) separately: thus he avoids a quarrel among them. He makes it hot (previously) [4]: thus it becomes boiled (drinkable) for them. He pours it out with the formulas, 'For Trita thee!' 'For Dvita thee!' 'For Ekata thee!'--Now it is as an animal sacrifice that this sacrificial cake is offered [5].

...

8. When it (the rice-cake) still consists of rice-meal, it is the hair [7]. When he pours water on it, it becomes skin [8]. When he mixes it, it becomes flesh: for then it becomes consistent; and consistent also is the flesh. When it is baked, it becomes bone: for then it becomes somewhat hard; and hard is the bone. And when he is about to take it off (the fire) and sprinkles it with butter, he changes it into marrow. This is the completeness which they call 'the fivefold animal sacrifice.'


FOOTNOTES AND REFERENCES:

[5] That is to say, the sacrificial cake is a substitute or symbol (pratimā) for the animal sacrifice (as this it would seem was originally a substitute for the human sacrifice) by which the sacrificer redeems himself from the gods. Cf. Śat. Br. XI, 1, 8, 3; Taitt. Br. III, 2, 8, 8. The initiation (dīkṣā) of the sacrificer constitutes his consecration as the victim at the animal sacrifice (Śat. Br. XI, 7, 1, 3; Ait. Br. II, 3; 9; 11; Taitt. Br. II, 2, 82; T. S. VI, 1, 11, 6; Kaush. Br. X, 3; XI, 8), or as the sacrificial food at the haviryajña (Śat. Br. III, 3, 4, 21; Taitt, Br. III, 2, 8, 9), or as the horse at the horse-sacrifice (Taitt. Br. III, 9, 17, 4-5), &c. See, also, Taitt. S. VII, 2, 30, 4; Kāṭh. 34, 11, where it is said that one must p. 50 not perform the dvādaśāha for any one, since in having to eat of the victim, the cake, &c., one would eat the sacrificer's own flesh, &c. Cf. Weber, Ind. Streifen, I, p. 73. In accordance with these notions it would seem that man originally sacrificed his equal, as the best substitute for his own self; and that, as advancing civilisation rendered human sacrifices distasteful, the human victim was supplied by domestic animals, ennobled by constant contact with man; and finally by various materials of human diet.

[7] According to Sāyaṇa, because, like the hair of the victim, the particles of the ground rice are minute and numerous. According to Ait. Br. II, 9, on the other hand, the awn or beard of the rice represents the hair; the husks the skin; the minute particles of chaff removed by the final winnowings, the blood; the ground rice the flesh; and 'whatever other substantial part is in the rice' are the bones of the victim.

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    I have upvoted, but I found a more detailed and explicit passage in Aitareya Brahmana and Taittiriya Aranyaka. So I have also posted that as answer. Thanks. – RamAbloh Jul 7 at 4:45
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Aitareya Brahmana (chapter)6.8-9 or (pancika)2.1.8-9 has a very explicit statement regarding effectiveness of using grain in place of real animals.

Khanda 8 starts with describing how the Devas first sought man as the yajna-pashu:

पुरुषं वै देवाः पशुमालभन्त तस्मादालब्धान्मेध उदक्रामत् सोऽश्वं प्राविशत् तस्मादश्वो मेध्योऽभवत् अथैनमुत्क्रान्तमेधमत्यार्जन्त स किंपुरुषोऽभवत्

The Devas first obtained man as the sacrificial animal. From that man, the sacred part escaped and it entered the horse. Hence the horse became fit for sacrifice. They abandoned the man from whom the sacred part escaped, he became Kimpurusha.

तेऽश्वमालभन्त सोऽश्वादालब्धादुदक्रामत् स गां प्राविशत्, तस्माद् गौर्मेध्योऽभवत् अथैनमुत्क्रान्तमेधमत्यार्जन्त स गौरमृगोऽभवत्

They obtained the horse. From the horse, the sacred part escaped and entered the cow/bull. Hence the cow/bull became fit for sacrifice. They abandoned the horse from whom the sacred part escaped, it became the Gauramrga (Nilgai).

ते गामालभन्त, स गोरालब्धादुदक्रामत् सोऽविं प्राविशत् तस्मादविर्मेध्योऽभवत् अथैनमुत्क्रान्तमेधमत्यार्जन्त स गवयोऽभवत् तेऽविमालभन्त सोऽवेरालब्धादुदक्रामत् सोऽजं प्राविशत् तस्मादजो मेध्योऽभवत् अथैनमुत्क्रान्तमेधमत्यार्जन्त स उष्ट्रोऽभवत् ।

They obtained the cow/bull. From the cow/bull, the sacred part escaped and entered into the sheep. Hence the sheep became fit for sacrifice. They abandoned the cow/bull from whom the sacred part escaped, it became the ox. From the sheep it escaped and entered into the goat. Hence the goat became fit for sacrifice. They abandoned the sheep from whom the sacred part escaped, it became the camel.

सोऽजे ज्योक्तमामिवारमत तस्मादेष एतेषां पशूनां प्रयुक्ततमो यदजः ।

The sacred part stayed in the goat for the longest time as it were, hence the goat is the most frequently used among these animals.

तेऽजमालभन्त सोऽजादालब्धादुदक्रामत् स इमां प्राविशत्, तस्मादियं मेध्याभवत् अथैनमुत्क्रान्तमेधमत्यार्जन्त स शरभोऽभवत् ।

They obtained the goat. From the goat, the sacred part escaped and entered the Earth. They abandoned the goat from whom the sacred part escaped, it became the Sharabha.

तमस्यामन्वगच्छन् सोऽनुगतो व्रीहिरभवत् ...

They followed this sacred part in the Earth, he became rice...

Khanda 9:

स वा एष पशुरेवालभ्यते यत्पुरोडाशः ।

The cake made from rice is indeed the same as getting an animal.

तस्य यानि किंशारूणि तानि रोमाणि, ये तुषाः सा त्वक् ये फलीकरणास्तदसृक् यत्पिष्टं किक्नसास्तन्मांसं यत्किंचित्कं सारं तदस्थि ।

Of the rice, the straw compares to the hair of the animal, the chaff compares to the skin, the soft material that comes off after whitening the rice compares to the blood, the white rice that is ground into flour compares to the flesh, and whatever hard part of the rice grains is remaining, that compares to the bones.

सर्वेषां वा एष पशूनां मेधेन यजते यः पुरोडाशेन यजते ।

Hence, he who performs yajna with the rice cake (purodasha), effectively he performs yajna with the flesh of all animals.

तस्मादाहुः पुरोडाशसत्रं लोक्यमिति ।

Hence, the learned people say that the Purodasha-satra is beautiful to view (or beneficial) (or preferable).


Another text which mentions a different alternative to animal sacrifice is Taittiriya Aranyaka 6.2.

This section deals with the Pitr-yajna, where a cow (rAjagavI) who is old, black with black eyes, black tail and black hooves is supposed to be sacrificed:

कल्पः - अत्र राजगवीमुपाकरोति...जरतीं मुख्यां तज्जघन्यां कृष्णां कृष्णाक्षीं कृष्णवालां कृष्णखुरां

However, the next paragraph says that the yajamAna has the option of either killing the cow or releasing her:

कल्पः - तां घ्नन्ति उत्सृजन्ति वा - They can either kill her or let her go

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