Ritualistic Animal Sacrifice in Ancient India

July 31, 2009

To the common Hindu, the very idea of killing a cow – an animal considered to be holy in their religious tradition – is capable of sending a chill down the spine. To regard a cow as a holy animal is a very deep-rooted belief and an unquestionable convention among the Indian Hindu. It comes as a surprise, thus, when several noteworthy scholars begin to claim that cow sacrifice was the norm among most rituals in Vedic India. This claim was first made in the book History and Culture of Indian People (Vol. I) published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. The collection has been blessed with essays from noted philosophers and historians such as Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, Dr. Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, Dr. B. L. Apte and others. In the chapter titled The Vedic Age, while expounding on the issues of marriage and the role of women in soceity, Dr. Apte writes:

“The guest were entertained with the flesh of cows, killed on the occassion (Rig. 10.85.13)”

Moreover, in another book, Vedic Index of Names and Subjects by Macdonell and Keith, the explanation of the same mantra contains

“The marriage ceremony was accompanied by the slaying of oxen, clearly for food.”

Being a moderately traditional Hindu myself, I opened the Rig Veda to quell my doubts, and saw

suryaayaa vahatu praagaat savitaa yamavaasrujat |
aghaasu hanyate gaavo arjunyoh paryuhyate ||

(Rig. 10/85/13)

Clearly, we find written in the most sacred book of Hinduism, hanyate gaavo! Did the sages of ancient India really consume beef? Is this why the word goghnah a synonym for “guest”? In the famous rituals such as ashvamedha yagna and gomedha yagna, did they really sacrifice cows and horses respectively? Were marriage ceremonies accompanied with feasts of alcohol (soma) and beef?

Some Hindu leaders have tried getting past this issue by claiming that go in Vedic Sanskrit meant tongue or earth or something else. They have created many imaginative stories about how such a “true” interpretation opens the doors of Yogic mysticism to a layman. But such winding stories do not appeal to the logical mind.

In order to clearly understand the Vedas (and associated literature like the Upanishads), one must invest adequate time to study Paninian grammar, Yaaska’s Nirukta, the translations of great Sanskrit scholars like Durgaacaarya, the dictionary of Vedic Sanskrit Nighantu, and the Brahmanas. The foreign pundits who have often had questionable intentions behind their interest in ancient India, and who have relied solely on the worst translations available of Vedic literature (viz., the works of Sayana, Mahidhara and Uvat), are not to be taken seriously. And the Indian scholars who rely on the works of these foreign pundits to comment on Vedic literature are wrong. No matter how famous they are or how knowledgable they are in their respective fields, when it comes to Vedic Sanskrit, they are categorically and certainly wrong.

It is, no doubt, a great tragedy, that the corrupted myth of meat-eating Vedic sages is gaining popularity in a country where the Cow is worshipped and leather is not permitted within the boundaries of a temple, where killing a cow has been likened to killing a man and such murderers have been ostracised by the society. I fail to imagine how fertile the imagination of these pundits must be! It is ridiculous to have such deep-rooted traditional values sprouting from a religion with diametrically opposite ritualistic activities. The very thought is ridiculous!

The meaning of yagna:

The Vedas and other ancient Sanskrit texts mention ashvamedha yagna and gomedha yagna. From these words some European Indologists and a clan of Indian historians have started believing that yagnas were rituals that comprised of horse (ashva) and cow (go) slaughters. To the upholders of such insensitive passing remarks, I ask: Hindu texts also mention pitr-yagna and atithi-yagna. Will these so-called scholars translate them to mean “ritual of the father” and “ritual of the guest” where the father and the guests were sacrificed at the altar respectively?

Nighantu tells us that yagna means “adhvara”. (Nighantu. 3/17)

Yaaska writes:

adhvara iti yagnaanaam |
dhvarati himsaakarmaa tatpratishedha tatpratishedha ||

(Nirukta. 1/8)

The explanation is given as follows:

dhvaratervadha karmanah pumsi samgnaayaam ghah naNpoorva|  dhvaraa himsaa tadabhaavo yata |

(Ashtaadhyaayi 3/4, 118 and Nighantu 1/17)

Allow me to elucidate. The word adhvara comprises of two words – ‘a’ (negation) and ‘dhvara’ = violence or any other malafide intent (himsaa in Sanskrit). The word yagna, thus, is called ahimsaa or non-violence by the Vedic sages. It should never nave been translated as “ritual” by the Indologists. To get more specific examples, I mention here the following mantra from Yajur-Veda:

ashvam naa himseeh |

(Yajur. 13/42)

Which means, “a horse is not to be harmed”. I hope these proofs suffice to show that animals sacrifices were not even among the distant dreams of ancient Indian people. If this does not satisfy the readers, let us further delve into the issue of “beef-eating Hindus”.

Beef in Vedic Hinduism:

In the Vedic dictionary Nighantu we find a few synonyms of the word go, which, in modern Sanskrit and several other Indian languages, means “cow”. The collection reads: aghnyaa, aditi, usraa, usriyaa, ahee, mahee, jagati, etc. (Nighantu. 2/11)

The word aghnyaa literally means “one who is not to be killed”. The noted Sanskrit scholar Devaraja Yaajva (circa 1200 A.D.) explains the word aditi as “nadyati akhandaneeyaa” [ na + a + dita akhandaneeyaa]: one who should not be taken apart (literally as well as metaphorically). Even Yajur Veda clearly calls a cow by this name, and clearly forbids killing of a cow under any circumstances:

gaam maa himseeraditim viraajam ||

(Yajur. 13/43)

The cow is aditi. She is not to be harmed in any manner.

The Shatapatha Braahmana we find “ . . . ghrtam duhaanaam aditim janaayeti | . . . eshu lokeshwanam maa himsaareeti ||“.

[Trans.: The one who provides ghee is aditi. She is not to be harmed.]
Further, in the Nirukta, we find Yaaska explaining the usage of the word go as follows: athaapyasyaam taaddhitena tena kasnavasannisamaa bhavanti| gobhih shreeneeta matsaramiti payasaa matsar somo mantatestrpti karmanah|

(Nirukta. 2/5)

This explains a certain rule in Sanskrit grammar known as taaddhita, meaning “like that”. More commonplace examples are words like mrganayani. Even though the word literally means “eyes like a deer”, the intended meaning is “eyes like the eyes of a deer”. This word is used to describe a beautiful woman or girl. No matter how scholarly an exposition, you wouldn’t believe that poet such as Kalidasa described his heroine with eyes shaped like a four-legged animal, would you? The same rule applies to the usage of the word for “cow” in Vedas. The Sanskrit word go has been used with the taaddhita rule. This is the reason why Yaaska mentions “gobhih shreeneeta matsaram“. It does not mean “cook the dairy” or “cook the cow”; it means “cook the dairy product” (in India, that would be ghee).

Returning to the Rig Veda:

Please recall the sukta we started this article with:

suryaayaa vahatu praagaat savitaa yamavaasrujat |
aghaasu hanyate gaavo arjunyoh paryuhyate ||

(Rig. 10/85/13)

This entire sukta is an explanation of the gravitational forces between the earth and the sun. And the sun has been declared the devataa of this sukta. Together with that scientific discourse, as a poetic alankaara, is added the description of social rites such as marriage. The word hanyate in the above sukta is what has prompted many historians to claim that cows were sacrificed. Did they bother to study Vedic Sanskrit? Probably not. The word hanyate is derived from the roor verb han, which not only means violence, but also (and more popularly) “motion” (Nighantu. 2/14).

It is interesting to note that the same group of scholars who have conveniently forgoteen the latter meaning here, have not hesitated to re-discover it elsewhere! Anyway, I request the reader to be driven by common sense, and put the two meaning together . . . this gives birth to the first colloquial usage of the word which came to mean “to make something move”. In this sense, the word han has even been used to mean “motivate (a student) to move (along the path of knowledge)”!

Thus, aghaasu hanyate gaavo means “to make the cows move along”. In the Vedic ages, cows were economic assetts. And exchange of these assetts took place in marriages. In astrology, the waning of summer was called the period of the maghaa nakshatra. The cows were made to travel during this period. The sukta itself mentions the arjuna nakshatra (arjunyoh paryuhyate), also called the faalguni nakshatra. This astrological classification is even today considered to be good for a Hindu marriage. To strengthen my case, I should mention that another sukta from Atharva Veda reads exactly like the one presented here from Rig Veda, with “aghaasu” replaced by “maghaasu” and “arjunyoh paryuhyate” replaced by “faalgunishu vyuhyate” (Atharva. 14/13). This sukta, while talking of marriage, simply mentions the time of the marriage and the fact that cows were given as gift to the newly married couple, and that these cows were made to travel to the couple’s abode during the waning of the summer months. This view is reinforced by the translation of Vedas by the noted Vedic scholar Sri Khemkaran Das Trivedi.

Guests beefed up?

Getting “guests being treated to beef” from the word “goghnah” is perhaps the most obvious as well as the most stupid case of mistranslation I have ever seen. The very word “aghna” means “the one who cannot be killed or hurt”. The cow has been called “aghnya” in several places in the Vedas. Rig  10/87/16, Yajur 8/83, Atharva 9/4/17 to name a few.

This problem arises from the phrase “goghnohatithih“. It is a mere comparative statemtent meant to convey that one should be willing to give away even the holiest of assetts, a cow, to a guest, since a guest must be treated as God. If a cow is killed due to a guest, the guest becomes what is called “nimitta kaaranam” (instumental cause) in Hindu philosophy. Certainly, a religion is not likely to teach that God is the instrumental cause behind the demolition of something holy!!


(1) antakaaya goghaatam [Trans. Death sentence for the one who kills the cow.]

(Rig. 30/18)

(2) aare te godanamuta purushagnam [Trans. Leave! O murderers of cows and murderers of men.]

(Rig. 1/114/10)

I do not adhere to such punishments in today’s world. But I hope it is clear that a text that proscribes death sentence for killing a cow, cannot possibly describe learned men sacrificing them in rituals.


It is an unpardonable offense that a certain group of historians have been committing by their not entirely unintentional corruption of India’s history and her heritage. How did they infer “cow slaughter” from phrases like the one they quote? If they had so much as casually browsed through the Vedic dictionary Nighantu, they would have noticed the appearance of the verb “han” under the section of motion-specific verbs: hanati, hanti, hantaat. (Nighantu. 2/14) Even a rudimentary knowledge of Sanskrit grammar is enough to understand “goghna” is to be broken up as “gaam hanti“. Is it not extremely clear that these historians and Indologists were studying a civilization without studying its language? Will these people have the audacity to study European history without having studied a credible translation of the Latin texts (if not the original texts in Latin)? Will they proceed to comment on Jewish history with no knowledge of Hebrew?

I have presented the results of my research on this topic. It is up to you whom to trust. A bunch of European scholars on the payroll of colonial expansionists, or the greatest scholars of Sanskrit like Panini and Yaaska? The contemporary historians who follow Max Muller’s interpretation of Sanskrit, or those who invest several years into the study of Sanskrit under the guidance of noteworthy scholars here in India?

If you choose to follow the former, my only request is this: please translate the word “gay” in all 18th century English poetry as “homosexual” and read the poems. You will then, hopefully, understand the pain I am going through.

Entry Filed under: hinduism,history,india,nationalism,religion,society. Tags: , , .

13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. tao4all  |  August 3, 2009 at 10:05 am

    looks like they are still busy doing this (and more) my friend:

    • 2. Ritwik Banerjee  |  August 3, 2009 at 11:17 am

      You probably missed out on the title of my post: “ancient India”. I think the news item pertains to an event not quite ancient. Moreover, the news also mentions a “witch doctor”, of course, calling him a “Hindu witch doctor”. What makes you think that any inhabitant of India who is not a Muslim or a Christian or a Buddhist or a Sikh or a Jain must be a Hindu?

      But most importantly, every society has anti-social elements. They are not upheld as prime examples of such a society. If you find a post titled “Brotherhood in Christianity”, will you post a comment with a link to a murder or a rape of an ordinary citizen? Think with your mind, not with whatever it is that you are using as its substitute.

  • 3. tao4all  |  August 3, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    That was a very big response for a small message. Sure you are thinking and not just repeating?
    You know just as well as me, that in the least educated regions of india (as well as in africa) – there are elements that have survived since the bronze age.
    I have no problem with hinduism, but I do have a problem with fundamentalists that are incapable of looking at the big picture.

    And you probably missed out the “helping hand here”. You wrote about animal sacrifices in ancient india — the next logical step would be to look into human sacrifies.

    But hey, keep up the compassionate work..

    • 4. Ritwik Banerjee  |  August 3, 2009 at 2:29 pm

      Actually I wrote about the lack of animal sacrifices in India. But since you haven’t even read this post, let’s not go into that.
      My reply was big because there were too many mistakes in that small comment of yours. When a child makes ten mistakes while it’s learning to walk, an adult tries to correct all of them.
      You have succeeded in promoting your post, however. A pat on your back for that.

  • 5. scorpria  |  August 5, 2009 at 8:18 am

    Awesome article! Loved it.

    It is absolutely true that people reach their own conclusions of these Vedic texts with their minimal knowledge of r a few Sanskrit words or even of an on-the-surface knowledge of this country’s literature and culture!

    Well done!

    • 6. Ritwik Banerjee  |  August 5, 2009 at 10:57 am

      It is always good to see you here. :)
      I have begun delving into Vedic Sanskrit on my own, and I already find myself facing a vast ocean of undiscovered knowledge. Some may call this “fundamentalist” . . . but since those comments come from people who only have a few prejudices to guard, I don’t take them seriously. I even had a person who didn’t know a single syllable of Sanskrit saying “you are lost in symbols”.

      It motivates me a great deal to see encouraging comments from readers such as yourself. Thank you.

  • 7. Manish Chakravarty  |  August 18, 2009 at 3:47 am

    Chal tera blog bhi mil gaya. I like your writings.. added to my GReader now :)

    My pathetic attempts at writing are at: http://manishchaks.blogspot.com/ while my work related blog continues to be http://manish-chaks.livejournal.com/

  • 8. tinarathore  |  August 19, 2009 at 8:38 pm

    quite a scholarly article. simply amazed at your understanding and appreciation of the vedas. despite being a practising hindu i had never delved into these issues before. in fact we need more people like you who can bring a clear understanding of our religious text, it is a pain to see words misinterpreted for one’s own needs. keep up the good work.

    • 9. Ritwik Banerjee  |  August 22, 2009 at 4:17 am

      That meant a lot to me, Tina. To be honest, the erudition does not spring forth from my own understanding of Sanskrit. I have merely put together several arguments from several books and papers from written by noted Sanskrit scholars. These are real scholars, real people . . . with real knowledge in this subject. Unlike most Indologists who have PhDs from Harvard, these are people who have sat in small towns all over India and produced brilliant works in the areas of Indian history, Sanskrit studies and religion-studies. They have shunned the tinsel world of marketing, and hence, it is difficult to find their works. I have only created a collage of some of their works, and put up a few posts on this blog. The real credit for these posts go to people like Mahamahopadhyaya Gopinath Kaviraj, Sivaramakinkar Jogatrayananda, Sri Shailendranarayan Ghoshal Shastri and Jogendranath Bagchi. The well known philosopher J N Mohanty, at one point of time, was a student of Jogendranath Bagchi.

      The Internet will have few, if any, of their works. But if you manage to find any book authored or edited by these people, buy them without thinking twice. These are priceless resources.

  • 10. Shreevatsa  |  August 21, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    This is excellent! I had no idea of your interests when I knew you. ;-) How have you been learning?
    It is a terrible state of affairs that there are people who consider even learning Sanskrit to be “fundamentalist”; the less said about them the better. (I don’t know how the myth of Sanskrit as a “Brahmin language” arose in the first place.) BTW, if you need to transliterate into Devanagari (etc.), I’ve written a script that might help.

    It should perhaps not be too surprising to see these historians making mistakes that even students can find fault with.
    Not to cause you much distress, but have you heard of the state of (parts of) “Hindu studies” in American universities? A place to start is Rajiv Malhotra’s essay RISA Lila – 1: Wendy’s Child Syndrome.

    • 11. Ritwik Banerjee  |  August 22, 2009 at 4:26 am

      How have I been learning? Well, Shreevatsa, I think my reply to Tina’s comment above will give you the answer. One major problem lies in overcoming the blindly-put labels and stigmas that our education has thwarted us with. Unlike you and me, very few educated Indians will even think of questioning the idea of Sanskrit being a Brahmin language. Ignorance is the only reason such superstisions thrive. Sanskrit literature is full of instances where Sudras have taught higher casts (eg, Vidur teaching Yudhishtira in Mahabharata) and women have been great scholars (eg, Apala authoring a sukta in Rig Veda). Most Indians are ignorant of all these things because a secular education denies them access to such anecdotes. The same education, however, does not stop from calumniating other anecdotes where it fits their agenda.

      I had not heard of Wendy Doniger (thank my stars!). I would not bother about her ….. she has made a career out of marketing her ideas to a bunch of ignoramuses. Just like you say, “the less said about them the better”.

  • 12. ~A Banerjee~  |  February 18, 2010 at 10:34 am

    Brilliant! Never had time to read it before. Keep it up, I am blessed.

  • 13. JanVEDA  |  June 10, 2010 at 11:48 am

    Pretty good. Just a little correction:

    > (1) antakaaya goghaatam [Trans. Death sentence for the one who kills the cow.]
    (Rig. 30/18)

    The ref. is incomplete and I haven’t found this passage in RV

    >(2) aare te godanamuta purushagnam [Trans. Leave! O murderers of cows and murderers of men.]
    (Rig. 1/114/10)

    Here both sacred-texts.com (Devanagari) and Briggs (transliterated) editions have ‘goghnam’ instead of ‘godanamuta’.

    Hari bol


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