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Killing as Orthodoxy, Exegesis as Apologetics: The Animal Sacrifice in the Manubhāṣya of Medhātithi


Deeply rooted in the Vedic tradition, animal sacrifice is a controversial issue associated with a larger discourse of violence and non-violence in South Asia. Most existent studies on Vedic killing focus on the polemics of ritual violence in six schools of Indian philosophy. However, insufficient attention has been paid to killing in Dharmaśāstric literature, the killing that is an indispensable element of a Vedic householder’s life. To fill in the gap, this paper analyzes the animal sacrifice in the Manubhāṣya of Medhātithi, perhaps the most influential exegesis of the Mānavadharmaśāstra. As an important but understudied Dharmaśāstric exegesis, the Manubhāṣya provides insights on how dharmaśāstrins as protagonists of Vedic tradition understand ritual killing while dialoguing with other traditions in the complex religious landscape of the ninth century Kashmir. By investigating Medhātithi’s commentary on Mānavadharmaśāstra 5.22–56, this paper interrogates how Medhatithi interprets sacrificial killing, and how his interpretation assists to buttress the authority of the Vedic tradition represented by the root text. I argue that Medhātithi’s exegesis of killing serves as apologetics that re-establishes the Vedic sacrificial tradition, which is challenged by popular non-Vedic practices. This study intends to contribute to a better understanding of animal sacrifice situated at the intersection of Vedic, Purānic and Tantric strands, and the way in which Dharmaśāstric exegesis as apologetics engages in the negotiation of violence.

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  1. For the date and region of Medhātithi, see Kane (1930, pp. 266–275).

  2. For Vaiṣṇavism in Kashmir, see Inden (2000); for Śaivism, see Sanderson (2007).

  3. Jayanta does not discuss purāṇas in his Āgamaḍambara (Much Ado about Religion), a drama that addresses many religious schools in the ninth century in Kashmir. However, he mentions experts in purāṇas together with mīmāṃsakas, grammarians, logicians, masters of smṛti, and masters on polity as scholars who join the conference in the Act Four “Qualified Tolerance”. See Dezsö (2005, pp. 202–203). In this Act, he also extensively discusses the pañcarātrikas, bhāgavatas, and pāśupatas, whose religious practices are closely associated with Purāṇic and Tantric texts. Therefore, it is reasonable to postulate that these sectarian practices were popular in his time in Kashmir.

  4. For the complex relationship between purāṇas and the Vedic tradition, see Hazra (1975). According to Hazra, most purāṇas accept Vedic authority and the duties of castes and life stages (varṇāśramadharma), and they also absorb Vedic elements into their worship. However, the Purāṇic rituals are different from the Vedic sacrifice, hence are despised by the conservative Vedic brahmans.

    Medhātithi mentions purāṇas in the commentary on MDh 3.222. The root text prescribes that one should recite purāṇas together with Vedic texts (svādhyāya), dharmaśāstras, stories, histories and other compositions. Medhātithi provides a standard definition of purāṇa: “composed by Vyāsa etc, [purāṇas] describe [issues] beginning with creation”. The “issues” refer to the five characteristics (pañcalakṣaṇa) of purāṇas, which are creation (sarga), dissolution (pratisarga), cosmic ages (manvantara), genealogy (vaṃśa), and the conducts of royal dynasties (vaṃśānucarita). However, these is no evidence showing that Medhātithi takes purāṇas as authoritative scriptures.

  5. Nyāyamañjarī 1.10.4–6. For Jayanta’s view on mīmāṃsā, see Kataoka (2006, pp. 168–172).

  6. Eltschinger (2014) maintains that mīmāṃsā school prior to Kumārila was merely ritualistic exegesis for the Vedas, but Kumārila turned it into apologetics in the 6th century CE when the Vedic tradition was confronted with Buddhism (p. 67).

  7. For the discussions on pramāṇa etc. in the Ślokavārttika, and how these discussions disparage other traditions including Buddhism, see Kataoka (2011).

  8. For the householder-oriented theology of dharmaśāstra, see Olivelle (2018, pp. 15–19).

  9. Me 7.39 dṛṣṭakarmāṇaḥ śāstrajñebhyo nipuṇatarāḥ |

    All the English translations of the Me and other Sanskrit texts mentioned in this paper are my own translations.

  10. For the Vedic animal sacrifice procedures, see Schwab (1886), Kane (1941, pp. 1109–1132), and Malamoud (1998, pp. 169–180).

  11. Commentary on kārikā 2. For more sāṁkhya philosophers’ opinion on killing, see Houben (1999, pp. 135–140).

  12. For Kumārila’s discussion on animal sacrifice, see Mīmāṃsāślokavārttika ad 1.1.2. 216–276. See also Halbfass (1991) and Kataoka (2011). For the polemic between mīmāṃsakas and Buddhist intellectuals, see Kataoka (2012).

  13. For examples of appropriation of this statement, see Devīpurāṇa 97.3, Kālikāpurāṇa 55.10c–11b; Netratantra 20.7.

  14. Śyena is an optional ritual for killing one’s enemies. For the mīmāṃsā discussion on the invalidity of śyena, see Śabarabhāṣya 1.1.2, and Mīmāṃsāślokavārttika 1.1.2. See also Halbfass (1991) and Kataoka (2011).

  15. “Consecration and other [procedures]” (prokṣaṇādi) refers to fetching (upākaraṇa), tying the victim to a sacrificial post (niyojana) and sprinkling (prokṣaṇa), which are the three principal procedures of Vedic animal sacrifice.

  16. For aṣṭakā, see Gobhilagṛhyasūtra 3.10.18–35.

  17. Taittirīya Saṃhitā, Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa, Aitareya Brāhmaṇa 2.11. See Kane (1941, p. 112). Houben maintains that the denial of death of the victim is not a rhetoric, but a sincere declaration of what sacrificers think (Houben, 1999, p. 118).

  18. The commentary on this verse provides an example of how Medhātithi models his exegetical approach on mīmāṃsā exegesis. From a mīmāṃsā perspective, Medhātithi interprets this statement as an arthavāda rather than an injunction for two reasons. Firstly, an injunction cannot be intended for an unconscious non-human agent. Because unconscious animals and herbs cannot desire elevation as conscious human does, so they are not agents, hence the statement is not an injunction. Secondly, there is no optative verb in the sentence, which is an indispensable element in an injunction that urges an agent to undertake an action (Me 5.40). By interpreting contradictory details in the MDh as arthavāda, Medhātithi removes the inconsistency in the MDh, or the inconsistency between the root text and his interpretation.

  19. Interestingly, Medhātithi expounds “trees” (vṛkṣāḥ) not as substances for oblation, but as objects of worship (pūjyāḥ), which are not parallel to other species of victims mentioned in the verse.

  20. This question has already been addressed by Buddhist philosophers such as Bhāviveka in the Madhyamakahṛdayakārikā (Kataoka, 2012, pp. 359–360).

  21. A more simplified version of the similar statement is found in the Devīpurāṇa: “[killing is] for the sake of gods in the ancestor rituals. Oh, Purandara! One should not kill for the sake of a person (puruṣārtha). Otherwise, there will be great misery (97.4).” The purāṇas might assimilate the argument not directly from mīmāṃsā treatises, but through the dharmaśāstras.

  22. Sarvajñanārāyaṇa glosses the word “saṅga” as “exceedingly strong desire for eating an animal” (sarvathātyantotkaṭarāgatā paśubhakṣaṇe bhavati). Kullūka glosses “saṅga” as “attachment regarding the passion for eating meat” (asaktau paśubhakṣaṇānurāgeṇa). Mānavadharmaśāstra (1886, p. 611).

  23. The word “saṅge” is the locative case of “saṅga”.

  24. The gatherings and festivals denoted by the word saṅga seem to be similar to the “high and low” auspicious rituals (maṅgala) condemned in the Aśoka inscriptions. According to the inscriptions, these rituals are performed by women in misfortune, at marriages, childbirth, or at the beginning of a journey. See Lubin (2013).

  25. Me 5.36: prokṣaṇādayaḥ paśubandhe mantravantaḥ saṃskārā vihitās te yeṣāṃ kriyante paśūnāṃ vaidikayāgaśeṣāṇāṃ māṃsam adyāt | sītāyajñādiṣu ca satyapi sāmayācārikayāgaśeṣatve mantrasaṃskārābhāvād abhakṣyatā | In this statement, the customary ritual (sāmayācārikayāga) is in contrast to the Vedic sacrifice (vaidikayāga).

  26. yas tu tantrādiḥ so ’nvayavyatirekabhrāntyā idānīṃtanaḥ |

    The fact that Medhātithi directly uses the word “tantra” indicates that he is aware of the presence of tantras as a source of authority in the ninth century. One may argue that the word “tantra” means dependence or textual evidence rather than a specific genre of texts, but if that is the case, “ādi” would be surplus. Hence “tantra” in this context must refer to the tantra scripture.

  27. Although Medhātithi does not elaborate on the modernness of tantras, it is interesting to reflect on how a dharmaśāstrin views Tantric treatises from the perspective of time. The timelessness and the authorlessness endow the Vedas with authority, based on which Kumārila attacks the doctrine of Buddhists. Śaiva tantras, modeling themselves on the Vedic texts, claim to have a divine origin from Śiva and thus have eternal validity. So do the purāṇas, which often construct a lineage of transmission from a sage taught by an eternal deity. However, Medhātithi does not accept their assertion of authority.

    Methātithi’s falsification of tantras based on time is not a one-sided story. The eternality of the Vedas is also attacked by tantric texts. The Parākhyatantra—a Śaiva Siddhānta scripture composed almost contemporary to Medhātithi’s work in the 8th or 9th century CE—states that the eternality and authorlessness of the Veda cannot be established by any of six valid means to knowledge approved by mīmāṃsakas (3.22–56). For the Sanskrit text and translation of the Parākhyatantra, see Goodall (2004).

  28. The Pāraskaragṛhyasūtra prescribes that one should offer oblation (bali) to the protective deities of the furrow. In the original context, bali does not necessarily mean an animal oblation (paśubali). However, the bali for protective deities might involve killing or meat offerings, as many guardian deities are considered ferocious.

  29. According to Serbaeva-Saraogi (2009), Kubjikāmatatantra has influenced several purāṇas such as Liṅgapurāṇa and Agnipurāṇa on the aspect of ritual performance. Therefore, the Tantric rituals in the Kubjikāmatatantra might have already permeated into non-initiated communities in the time of Medhātithi. For the worship of Kubjikā, see Agnipurāṇa (Chaps 143–147), a Purāṇic text whose circulation is more prevalent than the non-saiddhāntika tantra.

  30. For textual accounts for killing rituals for goddesses, see Sarkar (2017, pp. 248–255).

  31. Similar instruction on killing in Durgā Pūjā is also found in Devīpurāṇa 22.13–15, Garuḍapurāṇa 1.133.16–18. etc. For more Purāṇic texts on Durgā Pūjā, see Einoo (1999).

  32. Purāṇas start to be considered authoritative in Dharmaśāstric nibandhas only after the twelfth century (Davis & Brick, 2018, p. 34). For the influence of purāṇas and tantras on Dharmaśāstric nibandhas, see Hazra (1934).

  33. In the Kṛtyakalpataru (12th century CE), Lakṣmīdhara interprets “saṅge” as “in the occasion when an animal should be killed, beginning with furrow sacrifice that follows common practice” (lokācāraprāptasītāyajñādau paśuvadhasaṃprayoge) (Kṛtyakalpataru Vol. III. Niyatakālakāṇḍa, 1950, p. 329). In this commentary, only the sītāyajña is listed as a customary sacrifice. Although it is not unusual to encapsulate the latter two items with “ādi”, the omission of khañjikāyajña and caṇḍikāyajña may indicate that the animal sacrifice in these two occasions had already been widely sanctioned at the time of Lakṣmīdhara because of the authority of purāṇa and tantra.

  34. “Those unlearned common people, not knowing that ‘it (cow sacrifice) is enjoined’ would claim the person desiring to sacrifice [cows] as adharmic. And because those [ignorant] people are the majority, even the well-known good people, not understanding the source of the general opinion, would avoid [the person who sacrifices cows] (Me 4.176).”

  35. In the commentary on this verse, Viśvanātha cites the Bhaviṣyapurāṇa, Skāndapurāṇa, Varāhapurāṇa, and Kālikāpurāṇa.


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Liu, L. Killing as Orthodoxy, Exegesis as Apologetics: The Animal Sacrifice in the Manubhāṣya of Medhātithi. J Indian Philos 50, 427–446 (2022).

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  • Animal sacrifice
  • Dharmaśāstra
  • Apologetics
  • Exegesis
  • Vedic authority