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The Idea of Sacrifice in the Early Vedas Research Paper

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Updated: Jan 20th, 2020


Sacrifice is an act of offering to a deity as a form of worship with some desired results expected. It usually imply ritual killing where blood is involved although other forms of offerings are also sacrifices. It is regarded as a means of obtaining power from one world over the other, over visible and invisible and also inmate and inanimate creatures.

It is considered to exist from eternity and proceed from the Supreme Being. It is a practice that has been performed for ages by different societies. This paper will examine aspects regarding sacrifice especially among the Hindus. It looks at the origin and classification of Vedas, forms of offerings and sacrifices, sacrificial practices, and importance attached to sacrifice and different arguments on the idea, sacrifice.

Background Information of the Vedas

Vedas are ancient scriptures that are considered to be the earliest and most sacred books of India. It is nonetheless difficult to trace exactly when they were first written since initially the teachings were passed by word of mouth. They have teachings on all aspects of life concerning mankind and have acted as a religious authority especially for the Hindus.

The Hindus uses the Vedic teachings in their day to day activities e.g. during marriages or even death, cremation for example is seen as a form of sacrifice since fire is used. The ideas of the Vedas were passed from one generation to the other through word of mouth but later they were written. The Vedas are classified into four (. i.e. the Sama, the Atharva, the Rig-Veda, and the Yajur). Each Veda consist of four parts; the hymns, rituals, theologies and philosophies (Kishore 15).

Kinds of Sacrifices and Offerings

According to Benson and Cook (67), Sacrifices included sheep, cows, buffaloes, men and horses. Men and horses were considered to have the greatest value. Offerings comprised of cow products like milk and butter and grains which were boiled, fried or made into flour balls. Human sacrifice has also been practiced in many parts of the world. In ancient times it was viewed as a building – dedication rite. There were cases of decapitation of human heads to act as trophies; the heart was also used as a part of human sacrifice.

The use of the most essential parts of the body without which a person cannot live signifies the importance attached to the sacrifice. Blood sacrifice is viewed to be the most influential way to soothe the gods and the supposition behind it is that life ought to pass through death, although the notion appears primitive. Although Human sacrifice has been practiced most people view it as a practice that is practiced by the uncivilized societies that don’t value human life (Marvin, & Ingle 248).

Sacrifices can also be classified according to the bible (Leviticus 1-7) as; 1) Peace sacrifice where there is a burnt offering shared between the person offering it and God and sometimes other worshippers. It involved male or female oxen and aimed at establishing a peaceful relationship between the person offering it and God. It showed the worshippers’ desire to praise God or give thanks.2) Burnt offerings; the sacrifice was wholly burnt and the fire consumed it all.

The animal had to be male and without blemish, the worshippers blessed the animal and then it was killed and burnt. Burning symbolized the desire to get rid of sinful acts against God.3) Cereal offering; offered along the burnt sacrifices or independently. The offerings were made of oil and salt, no honey was used, apart from freeing the worshipers from sins, the cereal offering of the first fruits was used to sanctify the entire crop.4) Sin offering; was offered when one sinned unintentionally or out of ignorance.

High priests offered a bull, leaders a male goat and other individuals offered female animals. 5) Trespass (offering); was offered in form of currency and was presented for transgressions of ignorance linked with fraud. All these offerings revolve on forgiveness and God’s favor (Baumgarten 3).

Sacrificial Process and Practices

The central part of a house was used for sacrificial practices and was therefore dedicated for God. Fire was first kindled by rubbing pieces of wood together and then it was kept burning. The master of the house made the offering while hymns were sung and children joined in the chorus till the roof reverberated. The house was decorated during the full and new moons since these were considered as seasons of sacrifice. Sacrifices were also made at the beginning of the spring, rainy and autumn seasons.

A he goat was sacrificed at the beginning of the rainy season. There were different categories of priest all with different duties; There were those entrusted to prepare the sacrifice in terms of what was needed like measuring the grounds to build the altar, preparing sacrificial vessels, collecting wood to light the fire, water and the animal to be sacrificed, these priests were not educated. However the person to slay the animal needed not be a priest. Hymns were very important during the sacrificial process.

Performance of sacrifice included chanting of Rigvedic verses, mumbling of Yajus and singing of Samnas was the mode of worship. The main deities were Indra, Agni- the sacrificial fire, Soma, Mitra-Varuna, Bhaga, Amsa and Aryaman. Deities were not perceived as supreme beings. Agni, the sacrificial fire, was the mediator between the humans and the deities. Emergence of agriculture as the main economic activity as opposed to cattle rearing brought about the transition from early to later Vedic periods (Tice 168).

Importance of Sacrifice

The essence of sacrifice to the Hindus was to enter into a relationship with the divine so as to get a certain desired result. The rituals performed gave the people a sense of connection with the deity.

A sacrifice is taken to have a mutual obligation where the deity is expected to reciprocate for the sacrifice offered for example people would offer sacrifices to get a child, healing or even to get wealth. If the desired results are not attained, the worshippers assumed that there were mistakes in carrying out the rituals and had to do it correctly after which expected results were attained.

Sacrifice is considered the most important of all Hindus duties; it is the principal doctrine of the Vedas, it is the base of the world as creation of the universe is taken to be a sacrifice of God, it is the only means through which gods got to heaven, it is a means through which all things can be obtained, it is a way through which one can get saved and deliverance and above all a way by which sins are forgiven (Thompson 365).

Vedas have proved to be useful to people in various fields for example the linguistics, poets, philosophers and musicians because of the diversity of Vedic tradition and the nature of giving right details. Vedic culture has also been recognized for its contribution to science.


Witzel (72) argues that though the Vedas provide good religious basis, a modern intelligent person cannot go back to the sacrificial practices there in and may even not offer the prayers of the Vedas since needs keep on changing as years pass by and the rituals performed to attain some items in the earlier days may not work for today’s needs.

For example people offered sacrifices mainly to be granted with sons, rain, cattle and long life. People should therefore move to a religion that best suit their soul needs. People have also developed ways of satisfying their needs and coping with the environment and hence sacrifice for the sake of having their needs settled is not a necessity.

The Vedic texts are written in philosophical words and parables and are therefore hard to be understood by a lay person. There is need for interpretation by those people who are well versed with the Vedic tradition. The Vedic tradition had poetic information and syntax used in the liturgy and needed translation to understand the inner meaning rather than taking the words literally.

For example there are three types of mantras; anirukta mantras, which are unarticulated, upamsu mantras, which are articulated but inaudible, and tusnim mantras, which are chanted silently but with their sounds in mind. One needs teachings in order to understand the mantras. The Vedic teachings have not been able to meet most modern people mainly because of the difficulty in the Vedic texts and the need for translation making it impossible for a person to acquire the materials and learn the teachings by him/ herself.

Another reason is the failure of the Vedicists to establish the most essential features of the Vedic tradition that can be of help in the modern society and bring them to the attention of people, a good example being the mosaic sculptures used to preserve the collective memory of the sacrifices.

An example of sacrificial ritual done by the Hindus is Yagna/ Yajna. This is a type of worship where Vedic sacrifices are made to various deities in a systematic manner through qualified priests in order to get specific results. Hymns are very essential in the sacrificing process as they enhance fulfillment of the worshippers’ desires. The duration of sacrifice is dependant on the result expected and also the number of priest to perform the ritual depends on the purpose for which the sacrifice is made.

A sacrifice can be made because of a need of one person or for the sake of the community’s welfare for example to ask for rain or peace among the members of the community. Vedic priests used Yajna to seek favor and blessings from the gods. Different forms of Yajna were performed for different purposes at different times of the year for example during planting and harvest time or before going to war (Singh 1184).

Vedas like any other information materials have their importance in the early and modern societies. Being the first known texts they act as a basis where ideas are drawn from and developed. Though they have been viewed as being archaic, they have helped in building up history and have been resourceful in various aspects of life. Philosophers, musicians and linguistics have also drawn ideas and based their arguments on the Vedic texts.

Sacrifice and Christianity

Some Vedic forms of belief have been carried on to modern practices. Various aspects of traditions are passed from one generation to the other and the Vedas acts as a point where culture or history is drawn. Although the Vedas were mainly used by the Hindus, certain aspects like sacrifice have been adopted by other denominations and are being practiced today.

The difference occurs on the way the rituals are carried out. For example in the Catholic church, the sacrifice issue is regarded with high importance in the Eucharistic celebrations where the body of Christ is used to signify the sacrifice God made to give his only Son to the world so as people would bee saved and their sins washed away.

Sacrifice is therefore seen as a means through which sins can be cleansed. The offering of other items like cereals and personal effects is also a form of sacrifice made by worshippers to help the needy and in so doing, serving God. Worshippers expect God’s favor and forgiveness to come their way after they offer their sacrifice.

Sacrifice in the modern world is also done through submission of money to the church with the main aim of supporting the work of God or ensuring that God’s word is ministered to people effectively. The money is used to buy facilities like electronics and musical instruments or even build churches to enhance spreading of the word of God and also assisting priests and other men of God in their day to day procedures including feeding them and catering for their other needs.

The act of giving is viewed as a sacrifice and is encouraged in churches today. People give the offerings in the form of tithe, collection during Holy mass or sermons or other ways like through church groups e.g. bible study groups. The offerings are presented, prayed for and blessing expected to be received.

The aspect of offering and sacrifice has however been misused by most people today who take the advantage of exploiting Christians and making themselves rich. The church has become like a business venture where anyone who is capable of reading and teaching the Bible can start his/her own church.

They demand heavy offerings in terms of money and insist that to receive God’s favor one has to contribute money and the more you offer the higher the blessings. Other societies however take the sacrifice issue very seriously and even offer animal sacrifices and pray for God’s forgiveness of sins or ask Him for blessings like rain and peace among communities.


Sacrifice like any other ritual is part of life and have developed lots of criticism from different schools of thoughts as many argue that there is a lot of materialism and emptiness associated with the ritual. Some rituals are also being overtaken by modern practices due to civilization and also by the fact that those that were well versed with the Vedic teachings are few. This however does not overrule the fact that Vedic texts are used by people for various reasons and their teachings are practiced up to date though not widely.

Works Cited

Baumgarten I. Albert. Sacrifice in religious experience. Netherlands: Brill Publishers, 2002.

Benson P. Elizabeth., & Cook G. Anita. Ritual Sacrifice in Ancient Peru: New Discoveries and Interpretations. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

Kishore B. Raj. Essence of Vedas. New Delhi: Diamond pocket books ltd, 2004.

Marvin, Carolyn., & Ingle W. David. Blood Sacrifice and the Nation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Singh K. Nand. Hinduism. New Delhi: J.L Kumar for Anmol Publications ltd, 2002, volume 46-60 pp 1184- 1186.

Thompson, George. ‘‘Discovering the Vedas: Origins, Mantras, Rituals, Insights’’ Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 129, 2009, pp. 365- 367.

Tice, Paul. The Vedas: with Illustrative Extracts. San Diego: The Book Tree, 2003.

Witzel, Michael. ‘‘Autochthonous Aryans? The Evidence from Old Indian and Iranian Texts,’’ Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies, Vol. 7, 2001, pp. 72-75.

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