These days there are many aspects and ancient practices of the Vedic tradition that are misunderstood, misinterpreted or dismissed as unscientific. Unfortunately the nobility and height of thinking of the sages of ancient times, that shows such a profound and respectful understanding of life and creation, has often been lost in translation through the ages. One such example is the practice of pashu bali, which refers to the sacrificing of one’s own animalistic tendencies – a word and practice nowadays often (wrongly) translated and interpreted as ‘animal sacrifice’.
The word ‘pashu’, as many other words in the Vedic language, is often misunderstood and misinterpreted by people, one of the main reasons being that the Vedic language (the language used in the Vedas) is not entirely the same as Sanskrit. What we normally refer to as Sanskrit, is a language that emerged out of the Vedic language, just like there are Indian languages that have come from Sanskrit and still share a lot of the vocabulary with it. However, just like certain words of these modern languages are also found in Sanskrit, but their meaning has (slightly) changed, there are many Sanskrit words that are also found in the Vedic language, but their meanings have become much more limited, or different altogether. It was when people, including those writing commentaries on Vedic scriptures, were trying to understand the Vedas with knowledge of the Sanskrit language, and not the Vedic language, that most of the misinterpretations arose. And with other people depending on the explanations of the commentators, the ‘new’ meanings soon became common knowledge. The root cause of the problem here was thus the insufficient understanding of Vedic terminology of the commentators and the wrong notion that the Vedic language and Sanskrit are identical.
The sacrifice of animals is often thought to have been part of some of the ancient yajñas of the Vedic civilization. In the Vedic literature, however, a synonym that is given for the word ‘yajña’ is ‘adhvara’, which literally means ‘that which is free from violence’. In order to be able to perform such an act, one needs to first sacrifice one’s own cravings, selfishness and anger. One needs to ‘slaughter’ or ‘sacrifice’ (bali) the ‘brute’ or ‘animal’ (pashu) in himself, i.e. perform ‘pashu bali’. It was therefore said that in Yajña the animal in man (i.e. the brutal instinct in man to enjoy even at the cost of others and risking his own spiritual wellbeing) was restrained and ultimately slaughtered.
Ancient yajñas now famous for their ‘animal slaughter’ were actually highly spiritual and refined ceremonies. The word ‘ashva’ in classical Sanskrit means ‘horse’, but in the Vedic language two of its meanings are ‘souls’ and ‘nation’. The Sanskrit word ‘aja’ is often translated as ‘goat’, while a Vedic meaning of the word is ‘eternal soul’. The Ashvamedha Yajña therefore referred to a yajña facilitating ‘the purification of the soul and the strengthening of the nation’, and Ajamedha Yajña was performed for the ‘ennobling of the soul’.
In time, however, such a beautiful and noble act as yajña or sacrifice, a totally unselfish deed for the greater good of the world, became synonymous with the slaughter of innocent and harmless animals. It is of course true that in the medieval ages animals were sacrificed, both in India and other parts of the world. However, these sacrifices were not prescribed by the Vedas. The sacrifice that the Vedas prescribe is that of one’s own comforts, of one’s own negative tendencies and small-mindedness, for the benefit of the society and the world.
Great saints, such as the Buddha and Mahavir, who saw the inhumane slaughter of innocent animals in the name of yajña, rebelled against these practices and worked to bring people’s attention back towards meditation, respect towards and service of all life, and cultivating a mind free from anger, lust and delusion – ideals that are actually part of the core teachings of these amazing ancient scriptures called the Vedas.
The Vedas have even been very outspoken regarding non-violence, both towards other human beings and towards all other forms of life. In the Atharva Veda for example there is a prayer to violence itself: “O Violence! The slaughter of the innocent creatures is really dreadful; do not kill our cows, horses, men and other embodied scient beings. Wherever you are lying concealed, be lighter and more trivial in our eyes than a dried leaf.” In the Yajur Veda there is the prayer: “May I look at all the creatures with the eyes of a friend.” And in the Rig Veda, it says: “If ever, with certainty, I make a move, I tread only the path of the friend. For, under the solace-giving shelter of this dear and non-violent friend all living beings unite.”