Purushamedha (literally translated, Purusha means Vishnu "Yagna or Fire sacrifice performed for Vishnu") is a Vedic yajna (ritual) described in the Yajurveda (VS 30–31). This is a yagna or fire sacrifice performed to please Vishnu. Renowned Hindu scholar, Swami Prabhupada explains the so-called violence in the Yajna in the following words,
“Although animal killing in a sacrifice is recommended in the Vedic literature, the animal is not considered to be killed. The sacrifice is to give a new life to the animal. Sometimes the animal is given a new animal life after being killed in the sacrifice, and sometimes the animal is promoted immediately to the human form of life.”
[Bhagavad Gita As It Is 18/3]
The Shatapatha Brahmana is a prose text associated with the White Yajur Veda that provides detailed descriptions of Vedic rituals. In its description of the Purushamedha, the text clearly states that the victims are supposed to be released unharmed:
Then a voice said to him, 'Purusha, do not consummate (these human victims): if thou wert to consummate them, man (purusha) would eat man.' Accordingly, as soon as fire had been carried round them, he set them free, and offered oblations to the same divinities.1
Yet there are Vedic texts that contain instructions on how such rituals are to be performed.2 The texts are not consistent on this point. Archeological evidence of human skulls and other human bones at the site of fire altars at Kausambi were once interpreted as remains of ritual human sacrifice,3 however, this has long since been disproved.45
The injunction in the Shatapatha Brahmana to release the victims is another reason why scholars have speculated that the Purushamedha originally involved actual killing of humans. Alfred Hillebrandt, writing in 1897, claimed that the yajna involved real human sacrifices, which were suppressed over time. Albrecht Weber, writing in 1864, came to a similar conclusion. Julius Eggeling, writing in 1900, could not imagine that actual human sacrifices occurred. Hermann Oldenberg, writing in 1917, claimed that the Purushamedha was simply a priestly fantasy, but that sacrifices may have occurred nonetheless. Willibald Kirfel, writing in 1951, claimed that an early form of Purushamedha must have preceded the Ashvamedha. According to Jan Houben, the actual occurrence of human sacrifice would be difficult to prove, since the relevant pieces of evidence would be small in number.6
However, in a late Vedic Brahmana text, the Vadhula Anvakhyana 4.108 (ed. Caland, Acta Orientalia 6, p. 229) actual human sacrifice and even ritual anthropophagy is attested: "one formerly indeed offered a man as victim for Prajāpati," for example Karṇājāya. "Dhārtakratava Jātūkarṇi did not wish to eat of the ida portion of the offered person; the gods therefore exchanged man as a sacrificial animal with a horse." References to anthropophagy are also found in Taittiriya 7.2.10 and Katha Samhita 34.11.
According to Jan Houben, the early Vedic period was followed by a period of embarrassment about violence in rituals. This period corresponds to the rise of Sramanic religions such as Buddhism and Jainism, both of which place emphasis on non-violence (ahimsa). This period also corresponds to the composition of the Shatapatha Brahmana, which states that the victims of a Purushamedha are supposed to be released, and the composition of the Chandogya Upanishad, which lists non-violence as a virtue.67
According to Jan Houben, the Sramanic period was followed by another period where Vedic ritualists tried to defend their actions against Buddhist and Jain criticism. This period corresponds to the rise of the Mimamsa school of philosophy, which claimed that the Vedas were the sole authority regarding matters of dharma. This movement culminated in the 7th century CE with the writings of Kumarila Bhatta and Prabhakara.6
By the 10th century, the Purushamedha was included in lists of Kali-varjyas, or actions which were prohibited for the Kali Yuga. This suggests that human sacrifice had become obsolete by the time the texts were composed. However, it also suggests that the Purushamedha may have in some cases consummated with the actual sacrificing of a human. That is, the existence of inclusion of the prohibition in the list of Kali-varjyas demonstrates that at least one author seriously feared the possibility that a ritual practitioner might take the description of the ritual as a moral license to perform the rite to the extent of murder and cannibalism. This is a plausible reason to include it in the list of Kali-varjyas, even if it was a purely symbolic ceremony during the period of the composition of the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa.6 Whether or not the rite ever consummated in the slaughter of a human and the consumption of their flesh, however, remains so far a matter of scholarly speculation.
The Aitareya Brahmana tells the story of a sacrifice carried out by King Harischandra. The childless king asked Varuna to provide him with a son, and in return, Varuna asks him to sacrifice the child to him. Harischandra delays the performance of the sacrifice and allows his son, named Rohita, to grow older. Eventually, Rohita wanders into the forest to find a substitute for himself. He comes across a poor Brahmin named Ajigarta, who sells his son Sunahsepa to him. Sunahsepa is bound to the stake, but he frees himself by reciting some mantras that were taught to him by Vishvamitra.8 This story is reproduced in the Bhagavata Purana.9
Human sacrifice and cannibalism are explicitly condemned in the Bhagavata Purana (5.26.31). The Chandogya Upanishad (3.16) states that the Purushamedha is actually a metaphor for life itself, and it compares the various stages of life to the oblations that are offered.
In November 2000, a modern version of Purushamedha was organised by All World Gayatri Pariwar at Shantikunj Haridwar marking completion of 12 year Yugsandhi Mahapurascharana. In this program, named as Srijan Sankalp Vibhuti Mahayagya, participants had to tie themselves with Yup and take an oath to spend their life for social cause as a sacrifice.11 Yagya was performed on 1551 kundas on the bank of holy Ganges and was attended by four million devotees.
- Shatapatha Brahmana 13:6:2:13
- Shatapatha Brahmana 13.6.1-2, Vajasaneji Samhita 30.1.22, Taittiriya Brahmana 22.214.171.124ff
- Sharma, G.R., The Excavations at Kausambi (1957-1959). Allahabad: University of Allahabad, 1960
- D. SCHLINGLOFF,"Menschenopfer in Kausambi?," IIJ 11 (1969), 175—189
- Violence Denied: Violence, Non-Violence and the Rationalization of Violence in South Asian Cultural History (Brill's Indological Library, 16) by Jan E. M. Houben, Karel R. Van Kooij and K. R. van Kooij (Jun 1999)
- Violence Denied: Violence, Non-Violence, and the Rationalization of Violence in South Asian Cultural History. pp. 120–124, 133, 153.
- Chandogya Upanishad, 3.17.4
- The Strange World of Human Sacrifice. pp. 161–164.
- Bhagavata Purana, Canto 9, Chapter 7
- "Paths to the Divine: Ancient and Indian", by Vensus A. George, p. 169, isbn = 9781565182486
- Akhand Jyoti (Akhand Jyoti Sansthan, Mathura) 64 (1): 59–62. January 2001.