Question: Throughout the Mahābhārata and the Bhāgavata there are references to animal sacrifices being performed by saintly kings. I’d like to more carefully understand the nature of these sacrifices. For example: “Śrī Kṛṣṇa caused three well-performed Aśvamedha-yajñas (horse sacrifices) to be conducted by Mahārāja Yudhiṣṭhira and thus caused his virtuous fame to be glorified in all directions, like that of Indra, who had performed one hundred such sacrifices” (SB 1.8.6). Were these animals actually killed and what was the purpose?
Answer: While it is true that the Mahābhārata mentions the sacrifice of a horse (in chapter 90 of the 14th Parva), it is followed in the next chapter by an account of how a sacrifice of powdered barley is superior to this sacrifice. Chapters 91 and 92 say it is best to do sacrifice with grains that have been saved for three years. We have to understand that just because something is mentioned in a book, it does not mean that it is a prescription. Some parts of the book are to be treated as pūrva-pakṣa, or the principle that is later rejected. That should not be mistaken for a conclusion. This is clearly understood from the story of King Prācīnabarhiṣat described in Chapter 25 of the 4th Canto of Bhāgavata Purāṇa. We have to take the conclusion of the book as a whole and not just pull out certain parts which may not be the author’s view. This is a common mistake made by readers.
The Bhāgavata describes parama dharma or the topmost dharma of a living being, which is unconditional love for the Supreme Person, Kṛṣṇa. While living life according to this supreme dharma, there is no need for performing a yajña which involves animal sacrifice because that goes against the very principle of the supreme (parama) dharma. A yajña is performed to please a particular deity or the Supreme Person. The Supreme Person is not pleased with animal sacrifice and the deities who may be respected within the fold of supreme dharma do not require any animal sacrifice. In the Bhāgavata it is very clearly mentioned that whenever there is a requirement of sacrificing an animal in a yajña, it does not mean killing the animal, but only touching it and offering it to a particular deity for whom it is meant to be offered.
In my childhood, I have seen that every Diwali, my grandfather used to offer a chicken to the village deity, but the offering was not done by killing it. He used to buy the chicken and bring it home. Then all the family members would stand together. He would hold the chicken and a ghee lamp in his hand and would circulate them around the family members. Then he would take the chicken and ghee to the village deity, release the chicken in front of it and offer the ghee lamp to the deity. We find a similar example in the city of Gurgaon (Garugram). There is a famous temple of Kālī, where we used to go every year. My grandfather offered a goat to Kālī, much in the same way: He would buy a goat, decorate it with tilaka and garland, and then feed it and it take in front of the deity. Then he would release it. This is what was meant by “offering.” There was no killing involved.
Therefore, the Bhāgavata has clearly stated in 11.5.13: paśor ālabhanaṁ na hiṁsā—which means touch the animal but do not kill. The verb ālabhan has both meanings, killing and touching. In this verse, killing is forbidden, therefore ālabhan can only have the sense of touching. From this it is understood that according to the Bhāgavata, animal sacrifice by killing the animal is not recommended for Vaiṣṇavas. The Bhāgavata is considered to be the highest fruit of the Vedas—nigama-kalpa-taror galitaṁ phalaṁ (SB 1.1.3). Therefore, the ultimate purpose of the Vedas is not propagating animal sacrifice.
The next question is, why were kings engaged in animal sacrifice? My first reply is that it depends how you interpret the sacrifice. If you take the above understanding, that sacrifice means only touching, not killing, then there was no violence involved.
If that is not acceptable, then my next reply is that every school of thought establishes its siddhānta, or conclusion, by refuting the opponent’s view (pūrva-pakṣa). The Bhāgavata also has stories, which are not its conclusion, but are actually the pūrva-pakṣa. One does not have to follow everything that is described in it. We have to understand the intention and recommendation of the author. While describing the supreme dharma, the Bhāgavata also describes varṇāśrama dharma, but that is not its ultimate recommendation.
This may include things like animal sacrifice, which are not practiced in parama dharma. There are also many stories of kings in the Bhāgavata who had many wives. This does not mean that the Bhāgavata is prescribing polygamy. There are also stories of queens such as Mādrī and Arcī burning themselves alive on the pyre of the dead bodies of their husbands. But this is not an injunction that has to be followed.
You have to understand that the intention of śāstra is not always literal.
Regarding animal sacrifice, there is also a story narrated in Mahābhārata in the 337th chapter of Bhiṣma Parva. There it is described that once in Satyayuga the devas asked the sages to perform a yajña with aja. The word aja is commonly understood to mean a goat. The sages however said that the word aja means “seeds,” which is also one of its meanings. They said it is improper to kill animals in this age of Satyayuga for yajña. A debate ensued between the devas and sages about the word aja. At that time, King Uparicara Vasu, who was a friend of Indra and had gotten a space vehicle by Indra’s grace, was flying in the sky. Seeing him passing by, the devas and sages requested him to be their mediator. Because Vasu was friend of Indra, he was biased and spoke in favor of the devas. He said that the yajña should be done with a goat.
From this story, it appears that the sacrifice of animals was originally not the practice, but it came into existence later on. Moreover, the story goes on to tell us that Vasu lost his airship because of his biased decision.
Shri Krishna does not test you. Testing is part of ignorance. Bhagavan knows your capacity. So no need for Him to test you. He may give hardships to make you stronger, and more surrendered.
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