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Musing on Vedic culture vs. SriVaishnavism - part I

From: Mohan Sagar (
Date: Sat Jan 18 1997 - 15:14:30 PST

Mani and I have been exchanging some discussion outside of this forum, and
have been continuing on the subject of caste and SriVaishnava views on it.
I had originally intended to share this with everyone today.  However, from
the strong postings that I observed last night, I felt that a bit of an
outsider's view, an anthropological view, would be necessary for all of us
before forging ahead on the subject.  I am not as erudite a scholar or as
eloquent in my words as others in the group, so I request your forebearance
on this.  But, I would like to share with you some thoughts contrasting what
many comparitive religionists would call Brahminism with SriVaishnavism,
utilizing my college studies in cultural anthropology.   I do hope that by
looking at the big picture, we may be able to put our lively yet, at times,
heated conversation in perspective. I seek your forgiveness in advance if
any of the following discussion offends anyone in this group.

Mr. V Sundar writes:

>The best kept secret of our religion, the Brahmanas, which are the "formula
>books" that expand on the modalities of sacrifice and tell wonderful
>archetypal myths connected to the angas of sacrifice provide explicit
>directions for :
>1. The sacrifice of cows
>2. The sacrifice of various other animals, including the horse in the
>3. Human sacrifice also. Prince Rohita's father had promised him to Varuna,
>but the father of Shunahshepa gave him (Shunahshepa) as an acceptable
>substitute. This was the Shunahshepa that was adopted by Vishvaamitra and
>renamed Devaraata (a slightly more dignified name than Shunahshepa ;)) and
>named him the eldest of his sons.
>4. How the products of the sarifice (this  means 'unclean meat', folks!)
>were to be shared among the brahman, ritvik, adhvaryu, hotri and shamitri
>priests - all of whom were definition brahmins =). How about it, folks ?
>In case you haven't heard, the Brahmanas are accepted as shruti - divinely
>inspired, and are included in the general reference to "Vedic" works.

I cannot deny that the Brahmanas, and most of ealy Vedic thought centered
itself around the idea of sacrifice.  I would like to suggest some
anthropological reasons for this based on Dr. Joseph Campbell's presentation
on the subject as part of his televised lecture series "Transformations of
Myth Through Time." 

Like other ancient religions of the period, Vedic Religion (we really cannot
call it Hinduism, for that would be more fitting of the the religion today)
centered around the observation and worship of nature.  The early thinkers
saw around them a plethora of gods, each one controlling a different aspect
of nature.  They noted that these gods were unpredictable and erratic, and
could bring great misery followed by great kindness.  A raging river would
destroy entire villages, but, as a result, would provide rich fertile soil
for farming.  From these events, the ancient seers deduced that the when the
gods' rage came, some sacrifice in the form of suffering or death almost
inevitably needed to take place.  Consequently, to appease the gods, one
needed to perform sacrifice.  Indeed, life itself was analogized as a great
consuming fire, and the only way to win in life was to feed that fire. So,
the Brahmanas, whose secrets could only be known and performed by the
Brahmins, described in lengthy detail the sacrifices to be performed and
what phalams could be obtained by each.  The various other communities,
seeking success and freedom from suffering, codified themselves within their
castes under the Brahmin leadership, and participated in the great
sacrifices to the fire, the mouth of the gods, for the sake of themselves
and their progeny.  And through the recitation of Vedic mantras and the
feeding of the fire, the gods returned the favors in the form of a good
harvests, progeny, and wealth.

Throughout this period, though, there were many questions among the mystics
in these early communities as to the meaning of all of this. Was one just to
live a plethora of various lives, doing nothing more than offering things to
fires to appease the gods?  And, why did the gods continue to behave so
erratically even after such sacrifices were performed?  Was there not
something higher than of all of this?  It was these seeminly unaswerable
questions that many scholars on comparitive relgion state caused the Buddha
to reject the Vedas.  

Such questions would later lead to the formation of the Upanishads, and much
later the Lord's Revelations in the Bhagavad Gita.  And, utilizing these,
Sri Adi Sankara would begin a change in the way our ancestors looked at the
universe.  Such change would suggest that the outward sacrifices were only
symbolic expressions of an inner quest. The fire we should really feed is
the Fire of Wisdom, the Sacrifice being the renunciation of our attachment
to the temporal world.

Sri Adi Sankara's teachings would over time result in the modern day
concepts of Hinduism as we know it today.  But, this is not completely what
SriVaishnavism is all about.  For that, we should turn to the other ancient
culture of India, the Tamil culture, which I will attempt to address from an
anthropological perspective in part II of this discussion.

Daasanu Daasan,