History Optional Paper- 2 Solution – 1997: Q.1 (a)

Q.1 (a) Write a short essay on: “Vedic rituals” [1997, 20m] 


Rig Veda reflects the beliefs and practices of a religious aristocracy and its patrons. The Rig Veda indicates a diversity of religious practices. The Vedic hymns divide the universe into the sky (dyu), earth (prthivi) and the middle realm (antariksha).

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.

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. The goals of the sacrifices included wealth, good health, sons and long life for the yajmanas.

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 priests were given dakshina (fee) in return for the important duties they performed.

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 world. The god Prajapati, who is closely identified with sacrifice, is the most important deities in the Brahmana texts.

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.

The dakshina given to priests became larger and larger as the sacrifices became longer and more complicated. 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.

Other important Vedic rituals:

  1. Garbhadhana: A ceremony to promote conception in women.
  2. Pumsayam: A ceremony to procure a male child.
  3. Semontonnayam: A ceremony to ensure the safety of the child in the womb.
  4. Jatkarma: A birth ceremony performed before the cutting of the umbilical cord.
  5. Culakarma: A ceremony, also known as tonsure, performed for boys in their third year.
  6. Upanayana: An initiation ceremony to status to boys of the higher varnas in their eighth year.

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