Many Vedic traditions and practices have been misinterpreted or deliberately appropriated and infused with a lot of lies. One such lie that is repeated time and again is the practice of animal sacrifice in the Hindu/Vedic rituals.
While liberal historians reiterate that the Vedic people were meat eaters, the Vedas clearly condemn the killing of animals and the intake of meat especially of the cow. Rig veda reveals that most of the people were vegetarians and not meat eaters. While the practice of meat eating could be debated, clearly no Vedic scriptures advocate meat eating or animal sacrifice in any of the ritualistic practices. All those stories of horse sacrifice in Ashwamedha Yagna and animal sacrifice for religious celebrations is a white lie by the white man and his brown anti-Hindu brigade.
Yagna is all about worship, reverence, honoring and offering of devotion to the deity by sacrificing of the vices within before the Agni devata as Agni or Fire, the all purifying, is considered a holy witness and an interfacing deity between humans and God. It is for this reason that during marriage ceremonies Hindus take oath in front of Agni.
Yagnas are usually done for fulfilling a particular wish or the overall wellbeing of mankind. The offering/oblations mostly include ghee, rice cakes and such other non tamasic items. Meat or Animals were never offered!
During ancient times, the sovereign kings performed the Ashwamedha Yagna to declare their supreme sovereignty over other kings where a horse was set free to traverse across kingdoms and if anybody desired to challenge the supremacy of the king they had to stop the horse and fight the king lest they concede to be a vassal of the sovereign emperor. Steeds were symbols of war and victory, they were loved and revered and treated royally. Just before setting the horse free, a Yagna was performed to announce the sovereign challenge, and this had nothing to do with killing the horse or throwing it in the fire as an offering, the Aswamedha Yagna was just a symbolic ritual adopted by Deva kings before setting out on conquests. Ashwa means horse and medha has three meanings:
1.to enhance intellect,
2. to kill,
3. to inculcate love
Medha does not always mean killing but when translators with half-baked knowledge of Sanskrit began calling themselves as Sanskrit scholars, they wily and selectively translated the Ashwamedha Yagna literally as ‘horse sacrifice’, now there is something called as Gomedha Yagna, Purushamedha Yagna does that mean we throw some cows and men into the Yagna kund? similarly Ashwamedha Yagna was a ritual just before the conquest and had nothing to do with sacrificing any animal into the Homakund but unfortunately today many Hindus are led into believing that Vedic practices included indulging in abhorrent killing of animals and this ignorance is a crying shame today.
(For some insightful information on the Ashwamedha Yagna read here)
During the imperial regime of the Magadhan kings(686BC-320BC) kings mostly focused on war and expansion and delegated administration to a senate of knowledgeable elders took care of the welfare of people through Sabhas. Those days amidst frequent warring conquests it was important to build and maintain a large army but funding their sustenance was a challenge hence in order to generate revenue for the maintenance of large armies, the kingsmen collected contributions from the people which was then popularly called as ‘Bhaaga’ or ‘Bali’.
Bhaaga in Sanskrit and Kannada means ‘segregated share’, the usage of the word Bali to symbolize sacrifice(sacrifice here is not killing but to forsake something) could perhaps be inspired from the story of Bali Chakravarthy from the Puranas.
Few Indian languages like Bengali and Odiya use the Ba sound for Va, if I were to compare this with Kannada which is closer to Sanskrit.
(Bali) Vali in Kannada which means to please or to pay tribute.
In those days the Bhaaga was often referred to as the King’s share of produce or as a tribute to the king by the commoners and it was mostly given in kind such as grains and rice or milk and milk products. Usually it was fixed at 1/6th or 1/4th produce of the soil.
Bali was the import tax levied on the tracts for subsistence of certain officials. In many cases land tributes were given as everything belonged to the crown.
Soon tyrant kings started imposing taxes such as milk money which the subjects had to shell whenever there was birth in the royal family. State dues included cattle from herdsmen, prescribed services from traders, revenues were collected for birth and death in a family, tithes and fines were levied on sales. The rural taxes were called Rastra Bali or Samaharthri and the Urban taxes were called Durga Bali or Sannidharthri (Durga means fort, most city dwellers or kings’ people lived in forts and those who cultivated fields lived near their fields)
This practice under some ruthless rulers where cattle were also given as a state dues, later became an imposed tyranny on the subjects, people began to associate the Bali collectors as a ‘man eating demons’ or ‘man eaters’.
Some Taxes that were introduced in the Magadhan/Mauryan empires:
Kara Extra cess
Visti Forced Labor
Pranaya Benevolence tax
Bhaga King’s share of produce
Essentially surrendering/giving away of cattle was also a part of the tax system that was classified under Bali system of tax. This was perhaps later concocted as a system of animal sacrifice that never existed in our Hindu customs.
To bring into context how our deities and belief systems have been concocted I shall narrate the story of Banashankari Devi.
The Banashankari Devi temple located in the heritage town of Badami was the revered deity of Rastrakutas and Chalukyas. Bana or Vana means forest, she is regarded as the deity of the forests who safeguards vegetation. She is also called as ‘Shaakaambari’ which means the one who wears a garland of vegetables
The locals offer her 108 vegetables and regard her as the Kula Devi who protects them and the forests. But the irony is that today most devotees no more offer vegetables but offer animals for sacrifice without knowing the meaning of ‘Shaakaambari’.
Even in Soundha or Sodhe Mutt there is a practice called Bhootabali where a demon like cake is made out of Kumkum to symbolize blood for an offering to the presiding deity but who will bell the cat by questioning the priestly practices that has come from generations. Likewise there are many temples today that offer animals in sacrifice, there are movies like Bahubali that show animal sacrifice as a ritualistic custom but remember the tittle of the movie itself is Bahubali, so if Bali only means sacrifice, are they going to sacrifice the Baahu? For all you know one thing is clear, there was no concept of animal sacrifice _ no horse, no goat not even a hen in our dharmic rituals and all such propagations and beliefs are absolutely concocted and needs to be retold and revised.
It is important that we don’t blindly follow rituals nor believe the popular propaganda but engage more in deciphering and exploring our cultural and religious practices.