History Optional Paper- 1 Solution- 2010: Q.3 (a)

History Optional Paper- 1 Solution- 2010: Q.3 (a)

Q.3 (a) Examine the view that sacrifice was a ritual and a form of social exchange in Vedic India.


Deities were worshipped through prayer and sacrificial rituals (yajnas). The sacrifice marked a movement from the every day, mundane sphere of activity and experience to the sacred sphere. The gods are presented as powerful, mostly benevolent beings, who could be made to intervene in the world of men via the performance of sacrifices.

The goals of the sacrifices included wealth, herd, good crops, success in skirmishes&raids, good health, sons and long life for the yajmanas.The ritual of sacrifice was believed to sustain the well-being of the clan and the system.

Examining sacrifice as a ritual in Vedic India

Sacrifices took place in the house of the yajmana or on a specially prepared plot of land nearby. They consisted mostly of oblations of milk, ghee and grain poured into the fire accompanied by the recitation of appropriate sacrificial formulae. Some yajnas involved the sacrifice of animals. The gods were supposed to partake of the offerings as they were consumed by the fire. A part of the offerings were eaten by the officiating priests.

Some sacrifices were simple, domestic affairs, performed by the house holders. Others required the participations of rituals specialists. Seven types of sacrificial priests are mentioned in the Rig Veda – each with his particular tasks clearly laid down.

The agnihotra was a simple domestic sacrifice to be performed daily by a head of a dvija household, morning and evening. It involved the pouring of oblations of milk into the fire to the god Agni. There were also the periodic new moon and full moon sacrifices and those performed at the beginning of the three seasons.

Soma was a ritual drink mentioned in Rig Veda which was used during sacrificial ritual.

In later Vedic times, sacrifices had become longer, more elaborate and expensive. The sacrifice was presented as the act that created the world and the current performance of the sacrifice was seen as necessary to regulate life and the word.

A number of complex sacrificial rituals were associated with kingship:

  1. The Vajapeya sacrifice was connected with the attainment of power and prosperity and also contained a number of fertility rites. It included a ritual chariot in which the rajan raced against his kinsmen and defeated them.
  2. The Ashvamedha was a sacrifice associated with claims to political paramountcy and incorporated horse sacrifice and several fertility rites.
  3. The Rajasuya was the royal consecration ceremony. Apart from a number of agrarian fertility rites, it included a ritual cattle raid in which the rajan raided the cattle of his kinsmen and also a game of dice which the king won. At a larger, symbolic level, in the Rajasuya, the king was presented as a standing in the centre of the cyclical processes of regeneration of the universe.

Examining sacrifice as a form of social exchange in Vedic India

The priests were given dakshina (fee) in return for the important duties they performed. The dakshina given to priests the role of the priest became larger and larger as the sacrifices became longer and more complicated.

Small oblations were restricted to the domestic sacrifice, but from time to time larger sacrifices were organized for which the clan brought substantial prestations. The public sacrifice was a solemn occasion, but it also released energies through the general conviviality that followed at its conclusion. The wealth collected by the raja through voluntary tribute and prestations from the vish was consumed in the ritual and in the distribution of gifts at the end to other rajas and to the priests.

The giving of gifts was believed to ensure a return of gifts in even greater amount. Sacrificial rites tended to increase power of the priest, without who the sacrifice could not take place, and of the raja who possessed the wealth it required. Collecting this wealth meant pressurizing the vish to part with their produce. The sacrifice assisted the kshatriya to assert greater power over the vish and the shudra.

The public sacrifices were occasions when the wealth of a raja was collected and displayed via the rituals. This wealth was consumed, and whatever remained was gifted, with some being deliberately destroyed through forms of ritual which were part of the display. The patron of the sacrifice, the yajamana, generally a raja, and each competed with his peers in the magnificence of the occasion and the generosity of the gifts. Such competitions in the display of wealth established the status and power of the yajamana, encouraging his belief that even more wealth would come his way.

The raja’s gifts to the priests enriched and empowered the Brahmans. The sacrifice prevented the raja from accumulating wealth to the point where his status would be based on economic power rather than ritual sanction. Yet the former was necessary to create the type of kingship associated with the notion of a state in which the king controlled the accumulation and distribution of wealth, among other things.

In order to accumulate the required wealth for these sacrifices, the raja would have made bigger demands on the vish, in the form of offerings and prestations, and would have needed to create a rudimentary administration for support. The point at which wealth could be accumulated and spent on a variety of adjuncts to authority marked the point at which kingship was beginning to draw on political authority, rather that ritual authority alone. However, the ritual of sacrifice as a necessary precondition to kingship could not become a permanent feature. Once kingdoms were established there were other demands on the wealth that went to support the kingdoms. At one level, the questioning of the centrality of the ritual was encouraged by new perceptions of the relationship between the human and the divine. At another level, greater production of wealth in the middle Ganges Plain on the eve of urbanization, not all of which could be consumed in rituals, allow for rajas accumulating wealth and this contributed towards a change in the requirements of society and polity.


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