We had recently had this passage from a work of the Italian writer, Roberto Calasso, thrust against us by somebody attempting to make a theological argument of sorts.
This is infuriating. And not least because in the preceding paragraphs, Calasso does indeed write rather well – stylistically, at any rate. His command of content is … another matter.
The implication which seems to be drawn here – and it was effectively the one drawn by the guy who was using it to argue with us – was that Vedic rites of (fire-)sacrifice had, somehow, stopped. Had to, somehow, stop. It was the most peculiar thing to hear from an Indian, ostensibly of v1 origins.
Now here are the facts. The situation of the Horse-Sacrifice of Daksha absolutely did not bring to an end the practice of fire-sacrifice in Vedic or Hindu religion. It IS true that we find Shiva being excluded from ritual offering receipt, and this causing serious issues. However, the point of the narrative isn’t to bring to an end the practice of sacrifice in this (fiery) way – it is, rather, to ensure that things are done right (or, if you prefer – ‘done rite’).
In one of the more archaic presentations of the narrative that we have to hand, that found in Shatapatha Brahmana I 7 4, the sacrifice is ‘perfected’ through the actions in question. You do the right things, in the right order, with the right associated propitiations – everything goes forward swimmingly.
The SBr is, of course, a ‘ritual manual’ – and it is encoding instructions for the performance of the rite in a ‘narrativized’ format. Nothing wrong with that. But ipso facto, the fact that these instructions are there for the successful carrying out of a rite means that the incident in question cannot have been intended to halt the performance of rites ever after.
Meanwhile, the situation is not different in later narrative presentations found within the Puranic corpus of texts.
To quote from the Vayu Purana (H.H. Wilson translation):
“Daksha the patriarch, his sacrifice being destroyed, overcome with terror, and utterly broken in spirit, fell then upon the ground, where his head was spurned by the feet of the cruel Vírabhadra. The thirty scores of sacred divinities were all presently bound, with a band of fire, by Their lion-like foe; and They all then addressed Him, crying, ‘Oh Rudra, have mercy upon Thy servants: oh Lord, dismiss Thine anger.’ Thus spake Brahmá and the other Gods, and the patriarch Daksha; and raising Their hands, They said, ‘Declare, mighty being, Who Thou art.’ Vírabhadra said, ‘I am not a god, nor an Áditya; nor am I come hither for enjoyment, nor curious to behold the chiefs of the divinities: know that I am come to destroy the sacrifice of Daksha, and that I am called Vírabhadra, the issue of the wrath of Rudra. Bhadrakálí also, Who has sprung from the Anger of Deví, is sent here by the God of Gods to destroy this rite. Take refuge, King of Kings, with Him Who is the Lord of Umá; for better is the Anger of Rudra than the Blessings of Other Gods.’
“Having heard the words of Vírabhadra, the righteous Daksha propitiated the mighty God, the Holder of the Trident, Maheśwara. The hearth of Sacrifice, deserted by the Brahmans, had been consumed; Yajna had been metamorphosed to an antelope; the Fires of Rudra’s wrath had been kindled; the attendants, wounded by the Tridents of the Servants of the God, were groaning with pain; the pieces of the uprooted sacrificial posts were scattered here and there; and the fragments of the meat-offerings were carried off by flights of hungry vultures, and herds of howling jackals. Suppressing his vital airs, and taking up a posture of meditation, the many-sighted victor of his foes, Daksha fixed his eyes every where upon his thoughts. Then the God of Gods appeared from the altar, resplendent as a Thousand Suns, and smiled upon him, and said, ‘Daksha, thy sacrifice has been destroyed through sacred knowledge: I am well pleased with thee:’ and then He smiled again, and said, ‘What shall I do for thee; declare, together with the Preceptor of the Gods.’
“Then Daksha, frightened, alarmed, and agitated, his eyes suffused with tears, raised his hands reverentially to his brow, and said, ‘If, Lord, thou art pleased; if I have found favour in Thy Sight; if I am to be the object of Thy benevolence; if Thou wilt confer upon me a boon, this is the blessing I solicit, that all these provisions for the solemn sacrifice, which have been collected with much trouble and during a long time, and which have now been eaten, drunk, devoured, burnt, broken, scattered abroad, may not have been prepared in vain.’ ‘So let it be,’ replied Hara, the subduer of Indra. And thereupon Daksha knelt down upon the Earth, and praised gratefully the author of righteousness, the three-eyed god Mahádeva, repeating the eight thousand names of the deity whose emblem is a bull.”
As we can see – the sacrifice is, in fact, re-set and allowed to continue.
Only this time, with the Great God Who had been omitted, in manifest attendance.
Now, of course, we must note that the Vayu Purana rendition differs somewhat from various other tellings – insofar as Sati doesn’t die there. However this does not disrupt the general point that is made. Shiva does, indeed, in other tellings, nevertheless take pity upon and grant mercy to Daksha. The Sacrifice is not blotted out from the possibility of occurrence. Not least in Human terms.
I have written elsewhere my distinct suspicion as to another part of the reasoning for the disruption of Daksha’s Horse-Sacrifice – concerning an argument around attempting to become ‘Lord of the Universe’ therethrough, and thus displace the real Ishvara. However that is material for another time.
What I had meant to meditate upon – if only briefly – with this piece, was something else.
Namely, this regrettable tendency we seem to see from various ‘modern’ authors (particularly Western – although we have certainly seen some Indian efforts of similar sort), to tread the theology, the mythology, the sacred texts and scripture or other such mythically infused and resonant materials …
… as just, I suppose, some kind of ‘literature’. Not ‘sacred literature’ – nor even ‘literature that somebody else has written which has generally agreed upon facts housed within it’ (‘historical literature’?)
But rather, the sort of thing which one can stumble into an English exam without having read more than half the set-text, and just bring forth out onto the page some rather … peculiar “interpretations” which present a radical revaluation of certain concepts to the point they may have ‘in name only’ degrees of resemblance to the original.
And then be lauded for it. Not as somebody who is in the business of writing ‘alternate history’ or ‘fan-fiction’ … but as a serious authority penning serious commentary upon serious matters which gets somehow taken seriously. Presumably because few people actually go and check things against primary sources any more.
We are rather bemused – an understatement – at people seemingly feeling the best use for their talents and for our religious materials … is not to actually engage with these (much less ‘on their own terms’) and meaningfully (re-)present them to a broader audience.
But rather, to feel their eyes light up at the chance to rifle through our texts like an oversized metaphysical props closet; looking for things to half-understand and then hollow out so as to ‘dress up’ Things They Wanted To Believe Anyway. And purloin the legitimacy that comes with millennia of gravitas to support their own sentiments instead.
Oddly enough, that is something with a … certain degree of ‘resonance’ to the circumstances which presage Rudra / Bhairava / Veerabhadra arriving with Roudran Theological Argument In Hand in various of the texts which have drawn from that incredibly archaic Vedic well of conceptry which we have but briefly referred to above.
A ‘Cautionary Tale’ we may suggest.
ॐ नमः शिवाय