Animal Sacrifice in the Vedas?

Lost in Translation

The nobility of the thinking of the sages in the ancient times reveal a profound and respectful understanding of life and creation but their wisdom has often been lost in translation through the ages. These days there are many ancient practices that are misunderstood, misinterpreted or dismissed as unscientific. One such example is the practice of Pashu Bali in the Vedic Tradition, which refers to the ‘sacrificing of one’s own animalistic tendencies’ – a word and practice often (wrongly) translated and interpreted as ‘animal sacrifice’.

Vedic vs. Sanskrit language

The word Pashu, as many other words in the Vedic language (language used in the Vedas), is often misunderstood and misinterpreted because the Vedic language is not entirely the same as classical Sanskrit. What we normally refer to as Sanskrit, is a language that emerged out of the Vedic language. Although there are many Sanskrit words that are also found in the Vedic language, their meanings have become much more limited, or different altogether. This is because some people writing commentaries on Vedic scriptures, were trying to understand the Vedas from the perspective of the Sanskrit language. This led to misinterpretations since ‘new’ meanings soon became common knowledge depending on the explanations of the commentators. Thus the root cause of the problem here was the insufficient understanding of Vedic terminology and the wrong notion that the meaning of words in the Vedic language and classical Sanskrit are always identical.

Free from Violence

Animal sacrifice is often thought to have been part of some of the ancient yajnas or sacrifices of the Vedic civilization. In the Vedic literature, however, a synonym that is given for the word yajna is adhvara, which literally means ‘that which is free from violence’. In order to be able to perform such a yajna, 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. In yajna the animal in man, the brutal instinct to enjoy even at the cost of others and risking spiritual wellbeing, was restrained and ultimately slaughtered.

Ancient yajnas now famous for their ‘animal sacrifice’ 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 Yajna therefore refers to a yajna facilitating ‘the purification of the soul and the strengthening of the nation’, and Ajamedha Yajna is performed for the ‘ennobling of the soul’.

In time, however, such a beautiful and noble act as yajna or sacrifice, a totally unselfish deed for the greater good of the world, and the wonderful concept of pashu bali became synonymous with the slaughter of innocent and harmless creatures. 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.

Protecting Life

Great saints, such as the Buddha and Mahavir, who saw the inhumane slaughter of innocent animals in the name of pashu bali or yajna, 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. These ideals that are actually part of the core teachings of these amazing ancient scriptures called the Vedas.

The Vedas have even been very clear 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.”

It is therefore important that we educate people and make them aware that animal sacrifice in the name of pashu bali was in no way supported by the Vedas, and that killing innocent animals will never please the Divine that has created them and given them life.


  1. I have never read or heard such beautiful explanation of pashu-vali. The great epics have been made into commercial tv serials in India, where the pashuvali has been shown. Even spiritual interpretations of internationally acclaimed gurus have explained that when horse is sacrificed in ashvamedha, the soul of horse leaves the body of horse and evolves to human soul to fulfil the desired objective of yagna.
    I am really overwhelmed by vedic indepth and interpretation of of vedic words like pashu vali, ajavali, ashva medha.
    Really Swamiji, this article is an eye opener and this buzz moment is one of the defining moment of my life.
    Jay Gurudev

  2. What a marvellous explanation! How true as well! A child was playing with her beautiful white wooly lamb when her mother told her not to become too attached because it will soon have to be slaughtered to provide food. The child hugged the lamb closer to her chest and started to cry. Not this one! she retorted. We can learn a lot from children.
    Jai Gurudev

  3. Swamiji: This is just too good an interpretation of animal sacrifice.Have heard and read this before and once again from you in such a succinct,crisp and clear analyses!!

  4. I heard from many people that PASHU VALI is what rigveda allows they probably the most uneducated persons who says such things. God can never be happy with an innocent animals blood.

  5. But, in Valmiki Ramayana, it has been clearly described that a lot of animals were tied for sacrifice in the Putra Kaameshti Yaaga; In Ashwamedha Yaagas, a holy horse is allowed to roam over other nations and after its safe return, it is sacrificed. It is a truth that animals were sacrificed even during Lord Rama’s period and before his period also. It is only after birth of Buddhism, animal sacrifices were given up by those Brahmins and Kshatriyas, who had practiced it. Brahmins, as a result, stopped partaking the non-veg food taken as prasad got by sacrifice by animals in the Yagna. I am ignorant about vedic period language and sanskrit and hence, no comments.

  6. At great risk to their personal safety, from the earliest times it was THE JAINS who first practiced and preached nonviolence towards animals in the face of rigid and even violent opposition from the Vedic religion.  Jains tried to persuade the Vedic Brahmins that killing animals in sacrificial ceremonies (yagnas) was morally wrong.  However, the Brahmins rejected such tendencies towards animal welfare, considering them to be directly against the Vedas and a challenge to their religious authority….
    For example, in an account found in the Hindu text called VISHNU PURANA, a Jain monk of the Digambar sect successfully converts people from the Vedic religion to Jainism; however, this “false teacher” is condemned for his opposition to Vedic animal sacrifices and for his use of reason against blind obedience to ritualism and religious authority:….
    “The delusions of the false teacher paused not with the conversion of the Daityas to the Jain and Bauddha (Buddhist) heresies, but with various erroneous tenets he prevailed upon others to apostatize, until the whole were led astray, AND DESERTED THE DOCTRINES AND OBSERVANCES INCULCATED BY THE THREE VEDAS. Some then spake evil of the sacred books; some blasphemed the gods; some treated sacrifices and other devotional ceremonies with scorn; and others calumniated the Brahmans. ‘THE PRECEPTS,’ THEY CRIED, ‘THAT LEAD TO THE INJURY OF ANIMAL LIFE (AS IN SACRIFICES) ARE HIGHLY REPREHENSIBLE. To say that casting butter into flame is productive of reward, is mere childishness. If Indra, after having obtained godhead by multiplied rites, is fed upon the wood used as fuel in holy fire, he is lower than a brute, which feeds at least upon leaves. IF AN ANIMAL SLAUGHTERED IN RELIGIOUS WORSHIP IS THEREBY RAISED TO HEAVEN, WOULD IT NOT BE EXPEDIENT FOR A MAN WHO INSTITUTES A SACRIFICE TO KILL HIS OWN FATHER FOR A VICTIM?’…  ‘First, then, let it be determined what may be (rationally) believed by mankind, and then,’ said their preceptor, ‘you will find that felicity may be expected from my instructions. THE WORDS OF AUTHORITY DO NOT, MIGHTY ASURAS, FALL FROM HEAVEN:  THE TEXT THAT HAS REASON IS ALONE TO BE ACKNOWLEDGED BY ME, AND BY SUCH AS YOU ARE.’  By such and similar lessons the Daityas were perverted, so that not one of them admitted the authority of the Vedas.” — Vishnu Purana 3.18
    (emphasis added)


  7. Although the Jain and Hindu religions have always been separate (according to the scriptures of both), since ancient times the Jains relentlessly worked to change the animal-sacrificing Vedic religion into one of compassion and respect for animals.  Another example of this is found in the Hindu PADMA PURANA text wherein the writers give an account of a Digambar Jain monk (referred to by the Vedic authors as “the sinful man”) who audaciously persuades the powerful King Vena that Vedic cruelty to animals is wrong and the Jain path of spiritual compassion is right:…..
    “Vena said:  What kind of acts (do you do)? What is your doctrine? What are your practices? Tell me.
    “The sinful man said:  (That is my faith) WHERE ARHANT IS GOD, AND THE NIRGRANTHAS ARE LOOKED UPON AS THE PRECEPTORS.  COMPASSION IS SAID TO BE THE BEST WAY OF LIFE AND IN IT IS SEEN (TO LIE) SALVATION IN THIS FAITH…. THERE IS NO PERFORMANCE OF SACRIFICES; THERE IS NO OFFICIATING AT SACRIFICES; THERE IS NO RECITAL OF THE VEDAS…. THE BEST WORSHIP IS THAT OF A JAIN MENDICANT, AND THE BEST MEDITATION IS THAT OF AN ARHAT. This way of life is seen in the Jain faith…. I shall tell you another fierce act (mentioned) in the Vedas. When a guest goes (i.e. arrives) to the house, a Bramana (kills and) cooks (the flesh of) a great BULL; or O king of kings, he would feed the guest (with the flesh of) a GOAT. (They kill) a HORSE in a horse-sacrifice, and a BULL in a bull-sacrifice; A MAN IN A HUMAN SACRIFICE and GOATS in a Vājapeya sacrifice. O great king, a great slaughter of MANY ANIMALS is done at a Rājasūya sacrifice. At a Puṇḍarīka sacrifice one would kill an ELEPHANT, and at an elephant-sacrifice (they kill) an elephant.  At the Sautrāmaṇī sacrifice a BEAST is seen to be fit for being sacrificed. Thus, O prince, listen how at rites of various forms killing of beasts of various species is laid down….. WHAT RIGHTEOUSNESS IS SEEN THERE OR WHAT FRUIT IS SEEN THERE WHERE THOSE WHO ARE LEARNED IN THE VEDAS HAVE PRESCRIBED THE KILLING OF BEASTS?  DUE TO THAT (I.E. THE KILLING OF BEASTS) MERIT PERISHES AND THE (SO-CALLED) RELIGIOUS MERIT DOES NOT GIVE (I.E. LEAD TO) SALVATION. THAT WAY OF LIFE WHICH IS WITHOUT COMPASSION IS FRUITLESS….  THE VEDAS ARE NOT VEDAS WHERE COMPASSION IS NOT (PRESCRIBED).” — Padma Purana 2.37.16-42…..

    Though he was not a follower of the Vedic religion, while speaking to a man of power, the naked Jain monk described in this Hindu account makes a fearless attempt at reforming and redefining the Vedic religion so as to purify it of cruelty to animals, ritualism, and excess; and to transform it into a religion of meditation, virtue, and compassion.  It is in such ways that THE JAINS WERE THE WORLD’S FIRST AND MOST EFFECTIVE ANIMAL RIGHTS ACTIVISTS.  They lived and embodied the principles of JIVA DAYA (compassion to all life) and JINA SHASAN (the religion of Spiritual Conquerors) and thus changed the civilization of South Asia forever.

  8. Over the centuries, Hinduism thus gained its limited but substantial emphasis on vegetarianism and its eschewing of animal sacrifices thanks to the courageous efforts of the followers of Jain Dharma!  Today, over 40% of India’s 1.4 billion people are vegetarian.  JAINS HAVE ARGUABLY DONE FAR MORE THAN ANYONE ELSE IN WORLD HISTORY TO STOP THE KILLING OF ANIMALS FOR FOOD AND FOR RELIGIOUS RITUALS, and they accomplished this not by force but by having the courage to speak out and set the right example for others to follow.

    1. Unfortunate that you people are resorting to mistranslations of the Vedas and Puranas and resorting to such petty attacks on Vaidiga Dharma to satisfy your petty biases and propaganda. Truly unfortunate. As a student of the Vedas and being from the Yajur Veda branch of the Vedas, ‘Nirundha Pasu Bandhana’ among others were for the “Pasu” – “the Sensual Mind” rather than a voiceless animal. Yes, people misunderstood this over centuries and in Kali Yuga, people are more in it for satisfying tastebuds and Jaina and Buddha Dharmas did play a major role in opposing the same however that doesn’t mean Sanatana Dharma is violent and repulsive and fully for animal sacrifice. You are just exaggerating without evidence by copy pasting from different docs. on the internet. May I know what exactly (the books, online sources among others) are your sources ?! I can read and understand Sanskrutam and am a student of our scriptures so I request kindly to give me the proper sources. If else, I will quickly point out the nefarious plans you hold against Sanatana Dharma. Thank you.

  9. Just an absurd explanation from the obvious and for obvious reasons

  10. There seems a controversy as to whether the meaning of words in Veda be taken metaphorically or literally.

    Not to forget Bhagwan Vaasudev in Srimadbhagwadgita has clearly asked a humans to refrain from all rituals – ‘karmkand’ mentioned in Ved if they really want to do their ‘kalyan’ and instead perform selfless ‘dharm-approprite’ service in this world. At this point, Bhagwan outrightly rejects any necessity to follow whatever rituals that are mentioned in Veda to please various deities and take only lesson back home – do selfless karma.

  11. All these interpretations are just whitewashing done by the brahmins and so called intellectual purohitas. There are also writing about how ashwameda yaga has to be performed where the yajamana wife should literally sleep with the dead horse which is killed while its erected. Same is in rigveda about cow slaughter, infact they clearly mentions after slaughter how each organ has to be given to different gods like Indra and varuna. Stop bullshitting.

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