Discussing Sacrifice in the Bhagavad-Gita

Offer of Incense

The other night Rita and I were discussing a passage from the Bhagavad Gita on sacrifice. My wife was raised in the Roman Catholic faith, attended Catholic schools, and still attends their services on occasion. She was confused at first on hearing the passage, because the Vedic view of sacrifice differs so greatly from what she had been taught is sacrifice. For her, sacrifice is about depriving yourself of something you enjoy, or doing something extra like saying additional prayers, novenas, or attending additional masses, and the purpose of this kind of sacrifice is to make yourself worthy so that God will either forgive some past offense or grant a wish in the future . Sacrifice, for my Catholic wife, concerns sin and penance.  Her explanation is as alien to my thoughts on sacrifice as the Vedic perspective was to her.

The Vedic view of sacrifice is about maintaining balance in the greater Universe, restoring the divine to the Primordial Creator Prajapati so that He may continuously create the World anew.  Vishnu tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita

“When creating living beings and sacrifice, Prajapati, the primordial creator, said: ‘By sacrifice will you procreate!  . . . Foster the Gods with this, and may They foster you; by enriching one another you will achieve a higher good. Enriched by sacrifice, the Gods will give you the delights you desire; he is a thief who enjoys Their gifts without giving to Them in return. Good men eating the remnants of sacrifices are free of guilt, but evil men who cook for themselves alone eat the food of sin. Creatures depend on food, food comes from rain, rain depends on sacrifice, and sacrifice comes from action. . . .the ever pervading infinite spirit is present in rites of sacrifice.”

In Vedic tradition the performance of sacrifice takes on a cosmic imperative. It is vital to the continuation of the universe, since through the destruction of the material offering, body is returned to the material universe, the soul or genius of a thing is redeemed into the World Soul, and the spiritual essence is likewise returned to its spiritual origin.  Through sacrifice the Primordial Creator Prajapat is regenerated so that He may constantly generate all things in the flow of the divine. In this way too, the cycle of life from birth to death into rebirth is maintained for all animate and inanimate things.  In practice sacrifice was offered to a multitude of Gods, and Goddesses, demigods, and the semidivine creatures with whom we share our world. But as all these divinities derive from and participate in Prajapati, sacrifice assists the Gods in the destructive/creative process that binds the Universe as One. In this way sacrifice becomes an act of procreation.

A Roman Priestess Offers Oblations

In many ways we can see a parallel between the Vedic perspective and views of Western philosophy related to sacrifice in the Religio Romana. In Stoic physics, according to Diogenes Laertius (7.137), kosmos is used in three ways, the first of which is that it refers to the divine, “the peculiarly qualified individual consisting of all substance, who is indestructible and ingenerable, since He is the manufacturer of the world order, at set periods of time consuming all substance into Himself and reproducing it again from Himself.” In the same way Vedic Prajapati created the world out of Himself, consumes all back into Himself, and procreates once more in the never ending diastolic and systolic cycle of the divine that permeates the Universe.  In Platonism the divine is an extension of the One. It emanates downward through different levels of being until finally, permeating all things, the divine brings cosmic order to chaotic matter.  Likewise do all things return to its source, the components of matter in the body are recycled in physical universe, the soul redeemed into the World Soul of the Timaeus, the spirit, or pneuma, is carried further upward into the plethora where finally the mind, or nous, is reunited with the divine Nous. In Neoplatonism the Henadic Gods and all things emanate from the One That Is. Everything that can exist lies within “its cause, proceeds from it, and reverts upon it (Proclus Theol. Prop. 35).”  These ideas from Greek and Roman philosophy are what lies behind the rational given by Sallustius for Roman sacrifices. “The happiness of every object is its own perfection, and perfection for each is communion with its own cause.”

Through sacrifice we return to the Gods the divine essence within an offering. Through our action something of our own divine being joins that of the offering on the altar, and both are met by the divine presence of a Goddess or a God who receives the offering. An accretion of divine essence, or numina, builds at a sacrifice, focused in the altar, strengthening the divine, feeding it as it were. One element of sacrifice is thus to feed the Gods or to stoke the flow of the divine as it cycles through us and all around us. Failing to act through sacrifice, we would no longer be connected with the divine in Nature and within ourselves. As Vishnu says in the Gita, the result would be disaster. “These worlds would collapse if I did not perform action; I would create disorder in society; living beings would be destroyed.” In drawing down a divine essence, as another element to our sacrifice, we are blessed ourselves since divine within us is further strengthened. And for the offering, properly released through ritual, it is blessed in that its divine essence may return in full communion with the Gods as it, too, is strengthened and recycled through the continuous flow of the divine. If there is any thought connected to Roman sacrifice that has to do with sin, it is only that ritual impurity would cut us off from sacrificial rituals, and that would thereby deprive ourselves of companionship with our ancestors and community, partnership with the Gods of Nature, and communion with the higher Gods. But then, as Varro said, “The superstitious man fears the Gods; the religious man reveres Them as he would his parents, for They are good, more apt to spare than to punish (frag. 47 Card.).”

  • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

    Really enjoying these posts on sacrifice. Thanks.

  • http://aftertheecstasythelaundry.wordpress.com/ Cynthia Schrage

    I’m Catholic, and while I agree with Rita’s ideas, I also believe there’s a part of sacrifice that is distinctly about solidarity with the poor, the suffering, the marginalized that takes it to a different level.

    • Marco Orazio

      I’m sure she would agree with you, but in offering your solidarity to help the less fortunate, you are also implying giving up something. And why is this sacrifice? We have the same idea of living ethically and with a social conscious to please the Gods. By Gods I mean to include here not only the Gods of myth and the Gods in nature, but also our ancestors and the spirits of deceased countrymen. We think in terms of a community with the Gods, living with Goddesses among us, joined together to make a better society, a better world. Our ancestors in particular, we think, have a special interest in our working to improve the family and our societies. This implies helping the poor, the sick, the widowed; it implies standing up for social justice in our communities and also in preserving the world. In fact we are required by Fides to care for all who are less fortunate than ourselves, animals and people alike, really. However, I would not think of social activism and civic duties as a kind of sacrifice.

      • http://aftertheecstasythelaundry.wordpress.com/ Cynthia Schrage

        I love everything you’re saying. Perhaps I’m not expressing myself very well.

        In sacrificing, say, a meal so that I can donate the money I would’ve spent for it to the hungry I am learning what it means to be hungry myself, as well as supporting efforts to reduce the hunger of others. In the comfortable world I live in here in the west, I can usually only identify with the truly impoverished by meeting them at some level, though it’s a miserable approximation, at best.

        “I would not think of social activism and civic duties as a kind of sacrifice.” I totally agree. That’s the beautiful paradox. “It is in giving that we receive,” as St. Francis purportedly said.

        • Marco Orazio

          Well, not really. When Rita and I first married, we drove from Ohio to Texas where I was stationed in the Army. She had been active in her church and in work for the rural poor in the US. But on that trip, it was the first time she ever saw how Blacks were living in Mississippi, barefoot and still housed in windowless slave quarters. Giving alms for the poor might ease a person’s conscious somewhat. It does little for the Sioux living on reservations in S Dak, for the gypsies I saw in Romania and Hungary where they live on the street and are literally treated worse than dogs, for the Africans who have fled to Europe where they are forced to work under conditions of slavery, or for the inconceivable poverty in Latin America. This is what Rita came to realize, that for all her efforts, for all the good she thought she had been doing, for all of the sense she felt that her good works benefited her soul, it really did not mean a thing, not for the poor, not for herself. Francis gave everything to the poor, devoted himself to helping the unfortunate due to his social conscious. Giving alms on occasion is not comparable.

          My social conscious was awakened when I was 14 and came upon a child of 2 who was starving to death. “How is this possible,” I thought, “in a country as rich as ours?” I have been involved in social activism and political activism ever since. A special place that I support is a shelter for Oglala women and children who have fled spousal abuse on the reservation. And again, I do not consider this to be religious sacrifice. Certainly not in the sense I mean it. Maybe it is a little sacrifice for the benefit of society, but that is in a different sense of meaning than the term sacrificatio implies. You are not making anything sacred when giving alms; you are not directly interacting with the Gods when working at a shelter. At least not to me, which brings us back to the point of the article that a Christian concept of sacrifice seems very different to me than the understanding of the Gita and that found in Roman traditions.

          • jeff

            the bottom line is reality, one may have ones own moral consience of how important sacrifices are to the gods on the alter, or maybe a christians conscience of sacrificing his food to the poor, either ways we are just bound by our own moral justifications and the society still remains the same with streets filled with the destitudes the hungry and the rejected, sacrifices in the temple does not bring any changes to the society neither sacrificing your lunch to someone in need would bring any changes to the society, in an actual spiritual sense, i believe that our good deeds in the form of help to the needy or sacrifices to the gods on the alter will never save us, our good deeds are like filthy rags, and if sacrifices on the alter would connect everyone to the divine, i believe we got to be living in a heaven on earth, i have witnessed a lot of sacrifices everyday in temples, the moment the person who sacrificed bread on the alter comes out of the temple, he posibbly could be a disaster else where since his morality is just limited to the alter where he sacrificed, he is free of the conscience of guilt for that moment, what does he do in the interim? commit crimes untill the next sacrifice? sacrifices in any form have become a formaltiy in the society,…. its just a belief, its just an idea…. there was this guy who kills his fellow opponent in the temple just becos he needed to say his prayers first on the first day of a festival, it shows that he was driven by the overwhelming conscience based on what he has believed that the one who sacrifices first on the altar on that very day would be the person who rules as a political head for the whole year, see, where it has come to? some one has been murdered,,, what is than the value of sacrifices? the gods if they ever exsist would definitely consider it as the most henious of crimes, where than is the divine connection with the gods, whats the need of this sacrifices, philosophies can explain and justify wrong things, it can explain the importance of sacrifice in our lives, but the reality always remains the same, it does not help, instead you waste your time and money sacrificing, get real guys, get real, the real world is out there, and if you ever wanna make a change in this stupid world, start working on being one, dont waste your time at the alter, look out for facts, philosophies arent practicle, experience serves the purpose and your good experiences while serving your fellow humans could be your best sacrifice….cheer up guys.

  • Ambaa

    Makes me wonder about the translation of the word from Sanskrit! Perhaps sacrifice is not the most apt translation? Or perhaps, as you say, people have very different ideas about what sacrifice is based on what they were taught as children.

    • Marco Orazio

      Salve bene. Our English verb “to sacrifice” comes from the Latin verb “sacrificare,” which derives from two Latin words “sacrum faciare” -”to make sacred.” An object is made sacred when the presence of a Goddess or God is drawn into it, as with life being made sacred when the divine within all living beings first enters. This can occur with inanimate objects as well, as we may feel about an altar that has been visited several times. The same may be said in Catholicism where the essence of a host is replaced by a divine presence through transsubstantiation. We also consider something being made sacred when the divine within is released to return to its divine source. Our term for a sacrificial ritual is “sacrum, pl. sacra” with this idea in mind of reuniting the sacred to the sacred, not only of the offering to a deity, but also in connecting our own divine being within ourselves to the divine, in a relationship with a God or Goddess. The ideas expressed in the Gita are very close to the Roman view, and thus I would think that the translation of Sanskrit to “sacrifice” bears the Latin concept.

      • Ambaa

        Thank you for explaining!