Hindu Mythology and The Critique of Sacrifice: The Head Beneath the Altar

Hindu Mythology and The Critique of Sacrifice: The Head Beneath the Altar

Rs. 1,040.00
  • Book Name Hindu Mythology and The Critique of Sacrifice: The Head Beneath the Altar
  • Author Brian Collins
  • Language, Pages English, 320 Pgs. (HB)
  • Upload Date 2023 / 05 / 26
  • ISBN 9788120841901, 8120841905

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Hindu Mythology and The Critique of Sacrifice: The Head Beneath the Altar
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Hindu Mythology and The Critique of Sacrifice

The Head Beneath the Altar

In the beginning, says the ancient Hindu text the Rig Veda, was man. And from man's sacrifice and dismemberment came the entire world, including the hierarchical ordering of human society. The book presents a wide-ranging study of Hindu texts read through the lens of Rene Girard's mimetic theory of the sacrificial origin of religion and culture. For those interested in Girard and comparative religion, the book also performs a careful reading of Girard's work, drawing connections between his thought and the work of theorists like Georges Dumez11 and Girogio Agamben. Brian Collins examines the idea of sacrifice from the earliest recorded rituals through the flowering of classical mythology and the ancient Indian institutions of the duel, the oath, and the secret warrior society. He also uncovers implicit and explicit critiques in the tradition, confirming Girard's intuition that Hinduism offers an alternative anti-sacrificial worldview to the one contained in the gospels.

"In this lucid and vividly written book, Collins illuminates his analysis of violence and sacrifice in Hinduism with a highly original concept of the meaning of violence and sacrifice more generally. Building on works by (and against) Rene Girard, he shows what a more nuanced Girardian theory would look like bases upon Hindu rather than Christian data." -WENDY DONIGER

"Collins ably reviews and succinctly assesses that vast heritage or Indian thinking on the sacrifice, attending to both indigenous and Western scholarly sources. This resultant study both honors Girard's many contributions and, with respect to the Indian context, pushes beyond them. It greatly widens, beyond the Christian West, our necessary conversation about religion, violence, and the heritage of sacrifice in today's global web of religious and secular societies."


The writings of Rene Girard have been and remain a challenge and source of inspiration for scholars of sacrifice and of violence in religion. Unfortunately, Girard did not write much about India, in spite of its rich and well-documented sacrificial tradition. Girard's ideas have therefore not received the attention they deserve among scholars of Indian religions. This may change with Brian Collins' book, which presents a well-informed yet critical analysis of Indian religious practices in the light of Girard's theory. We can only hope that this book will open up new horizons in the study of Indian religion.


I wander afield, thriving in sturdy thought, Through unlatched haunts of the Pie rides, Trodden by step of none before. I joy To come on undefiled fountains there, To drain them deep; I joy to pluck new flowers, To seek for this my head a signal crown From regions where the Muses never yet Have garlanded the temples of a man: First, since I teach concerning mighty things, And go right on to loose from round the mind The tightened coils of dread religion; Next, since, concerning themes so dark, I frame Songs so pellucid, touching all throughout ... -Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, Book I, "The Infinity of the Universe"

India is the birthplace of the religious traditions of Buddhism, Hindu-ism, Jainism, and Sikhism. It has served as a pilgrimage place and source of spiritual renewal for Chinese monks in the fifth century, Tibetan royalty in the tenth century, and the Western counterculture since at least the early twentieth century. India's gift to the world, in the words of the nineteenth century Hindu reformer Swami Vivekananda, is religion.' But India is also the site of some of the last century's worst episodes of violent conflict, including the bloody 1947 partition of India and Pakistan and the successive wars between the two nations over the next 2.5 years; the political murders of Mahatma Gandhi (by a Hindu), India Gandhi (by her Sikh bodyguards), and Rajiv Gandhi (by a Tamil separatist); the deadliest man-made ecological disaster in history at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal in 1985; the periodic outbreaks of communal violence against Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians; and the nuclear armament of India and Pakistan. Religion, in addition to India's gift to the world, is also often the scapegoat for India's violence.

Hindu mythology reflects this mixture of otherworldly spiritualism and worldly violence. Like most mythologies, it is full of images of cosmic wars, apocalyptic destruction, and tragic heroes. But it is also the repository of as many stories about courtly love, self-sacrifice, ethical quandaries, and sophisticated philosophical edifices to rival (or even surpass) Augustine and Aquinas. And unlike Greek or Scandinavian mythology, Hindu mythology is also connected to a living religious tradition and helps to define the religious identity of hundreds of millions of Hindus. As scholars of Hinduism have learned, one is far more likely to draw protests when writing about Ganega or Siva than when writing about Loki or Aphrodite. Indeed, as we shall see, scholars of Hindu mythology have recently found themselves enmeshed or implicated in India's religious conflicts.

Many books have been written about the violence of religion, the religions of India, and the violence of the religions of India. But Rene Girard, who has spent the last four decades thinking and writing about religion and violence, has had virtually nothing to say about it until his lectures on the Sanskrit Brahmanas at the Bibliotheque nationale de France in October of zoo/. This book will make a study of those lectures, published in English in zoxi as Sacrifice, in light of the rest of Girard's work, current Ideological scholarship, and primary texts from the Hindu tradition. Along the way, we will also visit the work of Girard's predecessors, heirs, rivals, and critics, examine some well-known and some frequently overlooked Hindu myths and rituals, and take some sidelong glances into Christian theology, contemporary philosophy, and Greek, Iranian, and Scandinavian literature. In the end, we will come to some conclusions about what it means for him and for us that Girard has finally turned to India so late in his long and distinguished career and how a Girardian reading of Hindu myth might contribute to a new universal history built on humanity's shared future rather than its dif-fused pasts.

From Mimetic Theory to Hinduism..

This book has two separate but related aims. First, I want to see to what extent Rene Girard's "mimetic theory" of the sacrificial origin of religion and culture can enrich our understanding of Hinduism. More specifically, I am interested in using Girard's theory and the hypotheses it engenders to under-stand what is happening in Indian myth and ritual between 5oo B.C.E. and 500 C.E., a time frame roughly covering the periods of religious development that Axel Michaels calls the epochs of "Vedic Religions," "Ascetic Reform-ism," and "Classical Hinduism.

This is a rather large stretch of history that covers some significant changes, including the development of the Indian state, the successive rise and fall of Hindu and Buddhist empires, and cultural impact from Central Asian newcomers. But this book is about Hindu myth, not Indian history. While I will be referring to historical events occasionally to provide context, my primary mode of analysis will be textual, not historical, proceeding from Brian K. Smith's argument that "Hinduism is the religion of those humans who create, perpetuate, and transform traditions with legitimizing reference to the authority of the Veda. "3 Accordingly the Veda will always be in the background of my analysis, and more so the commentarial tradition of the Brahmanas.

I will also be spending a significant amount of time on the later heroic epic the Mandbharata, sometimes granted the honorary title of "Fifth Veda." For the benefit of the nonspecialist, it may be useful at this point to explain exactly what a Veda and a Brahman are. Both of these words have multiple overlapping meanings that can confuse those encountering Indian religions for the first time. "Veda" is a Sanskrit word that means "knowledge" and is cognate with the English wit and the German wisent. It refers to a class of revealed canonical literature that has the status of ultimate authority in the later Hindu tradition, which is why calling the Mahabharata the "Fifth Veda" is so significant. But the Veda also refers more specifically to the top "layer" of the Vedic literary tradition, the four original Vedic Sarnhitas. In this book, when the term appears in italics and is preceded by Rag, Yajur, Scima, or Atharva, I am speaking of one of the four Sarnhitas, or "collections," that comprise the top layer of the Veda and when I use the term without ital-ices, I am referring to the class of Vedic literature as a whole. The Brahmanas are commentarial texts belonging to the second layer of this Vedic corpus. Unfortunately, the word "Brahmard also refers to the class of priests responsible for passing on the Vedic tradition and performing its rites. To avoid confusion on this point, I will abandon transliteration when using the latter sense of the word and use "Brahmanas" to refer to the texts and "Brahmins" to refer to the people.

To make matters worse, there is another word that is synonymous with Veda in the collective sense: iruti. gruti or "heard" texts, unlike those of the smrti or "remembered" variety, are apauruseya, that is, "without human [authorship];' and thus the ultimate and unquestionable authority over men and even gods, at least according to some schools of thought. Though the texts have no authors per se, they were revealed, through ecstatic states brought on by the ingestion of the sacred soma juice, to Vedic priest-poets who then memorized them and passed them along orally. An array of ingenious mnemonic devices aided the oral transmission of knowledge in ancient India and kept the integrity of the texts remarkably intact. As proof, Ideologists have discovered separate oral traditions hundreds of miles apart that have maintained the same text word for word over a period of centuries without losing or changing a syllable. The Vedic scholar Michael Witzel has called the Vedic oral tradition, "something like a tape-recording of ca.

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