[Advaita-l] Purushamedha

Jaldhar H. Vyas jaldhar at braincells.com
Wed Sep 23 18:35:36 CDT 2009

On Mon, 21 Sep 2009, BV Giri wrote:

> But if one reads the various accounts of the Sunasepha story, it seems
> pretty clear that Purusamedha involved the actual sacrifice of a human.

*that particular* one almost did.  But the point of the story is to express 

> After all, it if were merely symbolic, why would Rajarishi Harishchandra
> need to substitute his own son Rohita with Sunasepha? What would be the
> necessity?

He had been childless and made a promise to Varuna to sacrifice his son if 
one was born to him.  Now why he did that is another question.  One should 
bear in mind that the stories in shruti are arthavada to illustrate some 
point of dharma.  The story may not reflect history at all but only 
explain that the Sunasepha suktas are for Varuna.

Also note it is Rohita who comes up with the idea of substitution.  His 
motivation should be obvious!

> Also. why would Sunasepha's brahmin father want to literally sacrifice his
> son in the first place if the Purusamedha was simply meant to be symbolic?
> One would expect a Vedika brahmana to know whether or not the sacrifice was
> symbolic or not ­ however, the old man is more than willing to kill his own
> son.

Patriarch of once illustrious family now fallen on hard times will stop at 
nothing, even murder, to ingratiate himself with the powerful and earn a 
few $$$ (or rather cows.) It's a plotline any Bollywood screenwriter would 

By the way this also illustrates that being a Rshi (a mantradrashta) 
implies no particular ethical or spiritual ability.

On Mon, 21 Sep 2009, Kathirasan K wrote:

> Namaste
> Do read up the chapter on Purusamedha in the following book for more info on
> this subject:

This was an interesting read (the parts that were accessible) but I felt 
the author strained a bit to hard to see evidence of human sacrifice 

> Namaste all,
> Do refer to chapter 16 of Katyayana Shrauta Sutras where it mentions that
> the human victim had to be either a Kshatriya or a Vaishya (if my memory
> serves right). There is also an instruction to kill the victim prior to the
> ritual. The above text does provide much info about the Purushamedha.

The problem is that the 16th adhyaya doesn't describe the Purushamedha but 
the agnichayana (building of the fire altar.)  However reading this section, 
the mystery deepens.  Here are a few relevant excerpts from 16.1.

chikIShamANa uttarasyAM phAlgunyAM paurNamAseneShTvA pa~ncha 
pashUnAlabhate.adakShiNAn || 5 ||

"One who wishes to build the chayana should after, offering the Purnimasa ishti 
of Phalguna,  obtain five pashus without giving dakshina"

brahmaNe vA dadyAt || 6 ||

"or he gives to the Brahmana[1] priest [only.]"

[1] The seniormost of the hotrs.  I find it curious that the dakshina is 
curtailed or refused altogether.  A sign of disapproval perhaps?

agnibhyaH kAmAya purushAshvago.vyajAn || 7 ||

"For desire the Agnis[2] are given a man, a horse, a bull, a ram and a 

[2] the seven forms of Agni

[3] the five pashus of sutra 5.


varShiShTharashanaH puruSho.anupUrvyA itareShAm || 9 ||

"The rope for the man should be the longest and [progressively] shorter for 
the others."

sarveShAM vA tulyaH || 10 ||

"or all [ropes should be] of equal length."


parivRte puruShasaMGYapanam || 14 ||

"In an enclosed place[1] should be the killing of the man"

[4] The commentator Deva Yajnika says it is behind the shed where the other 
pashus are killed.


vaishyaH puruSho rAjanyo vA || 17 ||

"The man should be a Vaishya or a Kshatriya"

The goat is sacrificed in the fire.  The other four pashus are beheaded and 
their bodies are thrown into the water which is used for making the bricks for 
the altar.  The adhvaryu cleans the flesh from the heads and keeps the skulls 
on the site of the altar.

anyAni vA hiraNmayAni vA mR^inmayAni vAnAlabhyaitAn || 32 ||

"or others[5] or golden ones or clay ones without having obtained them[6]"

[5] skulls.  The commentator Karkopadhyaya says this means the skulls of a 
Kshatriya or Vaishya who has died in battle can be used.

[6] them = real animals.  I.e, real skulls can be substituted with models.

shyAmatUparo vA prajApatyaH || 33 ||

"or[7] a white hornless goat [is sacrificed] to Prajapati."

[7] instead of the procedure described above.

Unlike Purushamedha, Agnichayana is a living shrauta tradition.  Obviously
the rite does not include human sacrifice today but did it ever?  Or were 
one of the optional substitutions used instead?  It would be instructive 
to look at the archaeological evidence.  For instance an agnichitti dating
from the 3rd century AD was excavated in Kaushambi UP.  Animal bones were 
discovered at the site.  How about human ones?

On Mon, 21 Sep 2009, Satish Arigela wrote:

> Not saying that this is a reliable way to learn about our traditions but
> if you do a normal google search, you can find some stray references
> where it is said that in the puruSha-medha, the queen behaves with the
> human exactly in the same way she behaves with the horse in the context
> of ashvamedha. : I wonder what were their references.. they could the
> same ones given in earlier mail? I am not sure...

On Mon, 21 Sep 2009, Satish Arigela wrote:

> Ok. I wonder if this is because the practice was abandoned even in 
> ancient(like 2000 yrs) times?

As I mentioned before I think the purushamedha transformed into the viraja
homa and that would only have been possible if it was conceptually about 
renunciation to begin with.

> Is the similarity of the names just a coincidence then? Just wondering 
> why is it called puruSha-medha instead of puruSha yajna or by some other 
> suffix? Maybe there are other examples where two different shrauta rites 
> had similar names but from a ritualistic  viewpoint they are quite 
> different?

Medha as I understand it simply refers to an animal sacrifice but there is not 
a strict definition.  Four medhas are described in Katyayanashrautasutra:
Ashvamedha in adhyaya 20, and purushamedha, sarvamedha, and pitramedha 
together in adhyaya 21.  Of these, only purushamedha and sarvamedha seem 
to be conceptually related.

> "Another notable shrauta oblation made to revatI was in the human
> sacrifice – the puruShamedha ritual. In the ashvamedha before the horse
> is sent off to wander for an year an oblation is performed to pUShan
> pathikR^it to protect the horse. In the puruShamedha, in place of this
> pUShan ritual, one is performed to the 3 devI-s, anumatI, revatI and
> aditi. This is recorded in both R^igvedic and atharvavedic tradition
> (shA~NkhAyana shrauta 16.10.11; vaitAna shrauta sUtra 37.10.20)."

Nothing of this sort occurs in the description of purushamedha in the KSS. The 
only similiarity is that the bound sacrificial victims have fire passed around 
them and then they are released which parallels a certain set of victims 
in the ashvamedha.

Jaldhar H. Vyas <jaldhar at braincells.com>

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