Sanskrit and Sacrifice
Whenever we are dealing with something from 500 BC to 1500 BC, or earlier, in any culture around the world, keep in mind the notion of sacrifice. Literal sacrifice, as in killing animals or humans as an offering to the gods. This was a prevalent idea. And whatever the antiquity of Vedic thought we are importing, when we meditate on yoga, there are elements of the archaic we need to be aware of.
Look at this word, so similar to Sanskrit:
- “a bench used in sacrificing or slaughtering animals”संस्कृतत्र संस्कृत
saṃskṛta - consecrated, made ready, hallowed, cooked.
tatra - there, in that place Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary
So, even though Sanskrit is a gorgeous, magical language full of song and poetry, it has in its tradition deadly serious blood sacrifice, and the priests in charge traditionally do not look kindly on barbarians
appropriating their thing.
The Horse Sacrifice
One of the most important rituals of Vedic religion was the horse sacrifice, the Ashvamedha. (
“Then the horse is slaughtered” (YV VSM 23.15, tr. Griffith). Steed, from thy body, of thyself, sacrifice and accept thyself. Thy greatness can be gained by none but thee.
The chief queen ritually calls on the king's fellow wives for pity. The queens walk around the dead horse reciting mantras. The chief queen then has to mimic copulation with the dead horse
, while the other queens ritually utter obscenities.
On the next morning, the priests raise the queen from the place where she has spent the night with the horse. With the Dadhikra verse (RV 4.39.6, YV VSM 23.32), a verse used as a purifier after obscene language.
The three queens with a hundred golden, silver and copper needles indicate the lines on the horse's body along which it will be dissected. The horse is dissected, and its flesh roasted. Various parts are offered to a host of deities and personified concepts with utterances of svaha "all-hail". The Ashvastuti or Eulogy of the Horse follows (RV 1.162, YV VSM 24.24–45), concluding with:
May this Steed bring us all-sustaining riches, wealth in good kine, good horses, manly offspring
Freedom from sin may Aditi vouchsafe us: the Steed with our oblations gain us lordship!
The priests performing the sacrifice were recompensed with a part of the booty won during the wandering of the horse. According to a commentator, the spoils from the east were given to the Hotar, while the Adhvaryu a maiden (a daughter of the sacrificer) and the sacrificer's fourth wife.
The Shatapatha Brahmana emphasizes the royal nature of the Ashvamedha:
Verily, the Asvamedha means royal sway: it is after royal sway that these strive who guard the horse. (ŚBM 220.127.116.11 trans. Eggeling 1900)
It repeatedly states that "the Asvamedha is everything" (ŚBM 18.104.22.168 trans. Eggeling 1900)
If you are a Vedic priest doing Vedic rituals - like sacrificing a horse
, in the Ashvamedha, then you’d better speak Sanskrit the way the chariot-warriors of 300 B.C. spoke it. illustration of the Ramayana by Sahib Din, 1652. Kausalya is depicted slaying the horse (left) and lying beside it (right).
Church-lady Sanskritists have been bitterly criticizing each other’s pronunciation for thousands of years, and beating their children to correct them. That’s how they kept the sound of Sanskrit the same, over thousands of years. But now we have digital recording, so there is no need for beatings. All this fear is not sacred, anyway.
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