[Advaita-l] Purusamedha

Jaldhar H. Vyas jaldhar at braincells.com
Sun Sep 20 02:56:31 CDT 2009

Sorry I didn't get a chance to respond to this earlier.

On Tue, 1 Sep 2009, BV Giri wrote:

> Namaskaram,
> I am writing a thesis on certain elements of Yajur Veda and I am somewhat
> confused regarding the Purushamedha
> It seems quite confusing as to where the Vedas stand on this issue. The
> Purusa-medha seems to strongly to suggest that in the Vedic period, human
> sacrifices were performed by Brahmanas. Many scholars say that the
> Purusa-medha was only symbolic and nobody was really killed. However, in the
> Satpatha Brahmana texts and also in Bhagavata Purana we find the story of
> Sunahsepha, who was chosen as a sacrificial victim by the brahmanas and was
> almost offered in sacrifice.

The Vedic texts on purushamedha are clear, the sacrifice is symbolic only.

> Anyhow, I am not interested in scholars speculations. I am more interested
> in what sampradayik Vaisnavas have to say on this matter. Could you find
> time to ask any Sri or Madhva scholars what the Purusa-medha was about and
> if anyone was actually sacrificed. If it was symbolic, how do we account for
> the story of Sunahsepha?
> What do purvacaryas say about the Purusamedha?

Can't tell you about Vaishnavas but Smartas understand it to be symbolic. 
I believe in this yajna we can see the origins of the viraj homa by which 
the sannyasa ashrama is entered.  Viraj is Narayana, the Rshi, first 
performer and first sacrificial victim of the purushamedha.  In this 
regard, shatapathabrahmana is interesting:

"And if a Brahmana performs the sacrifice, he should bestow all his 
property in order to obtain and secure everything, for the Brahmana is 
everything, and all one's property is everything, and the Purushamedha is 
everything.  And having taken up the two fires[1] within his own self and 
worshipped the sun with the Uttaranarayana sukta , let him betake himself 
to the forest without looking round; and that (place), indeed, is apart 
from men. But should he wish to live in the village, let him take up again 
the two fires in the churning-sticks, and having worshipped the sun with 
the Uttaranarayana  let him dwell at his home, and let him offer 
such sacrifices as he may be able to afford.[2]"

(Eggelings translation)

[1] The shrauta agni which is actually threefold, and the grhya agni.

[2] Is this is a reference to vanaprastha ashram or something similiar? 
Like sannyasa, vanaprastha is a type of renunciation but unlike the 
sannyasi, the vanaprasthi continues to be a member of society.  Of course 
the big counterargument to this theory is that vanaprastha means 

As for the story of Sunasepha, it also shows this theme.  His greedy 
father sells him as the sacrificial victim for 100 cows.  When he is bound 
to the yupa the Rshis, Vishvamitra, Vasishtha, Jamadagni, and Ayasya who 
are the hotrs, decline to actually sacrifice him.  It is the father in 
return for more cows who offers to do the deed.  This is portrayed as 
shocking and Sunasepha ends up adopted by Vishvamitra (i.e. he renounces 
his birth family.)

Another instance of human sacrifice is found in Kathopanishad in the 
famous story of Nachiketa.  When his father Vajrashrava performs the 
sarvamedha (which is related to the purushamedha) he pointedly doesn't 
include his son amongst the "all posessions" which are sacrificed.  It is 
only at Nachiketas' insistence that he is sent "to death."  But from 
Yamaraja, Death Himself, he learns that physical sacrifice is not 
necessary, the symbolic sacrifice of renunciation is actually superior.

Human sacrifice is not unknown in Indian history nor in the history of 
other cultures but it is obvious that the mainstream Vedic religion did 
not approve of it.

Jaldhar H. Vyas <jaldhar at braincells.com>

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