“The powerful Raghava [Rama] will destroy whatever remains of your life. Like the life of an animal tied to the sacrificial stake, your own is incapable of being reclaimed.” (Sita Devi speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 56.9)
Though devotees of Vishnu today refrain from eating meat, there used to be a rich tradition of elaborate sacrifices performed in the past where even animals were killed as part of the religious ceremonies. Kings and other exalted living entities would go to great lengths to perform these animal sacrifices, for these rituals provided tremendous spiritual rewards both for the performers and the animals that were killed. In the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation, the performance of elaborate sacrifices was the most effective method for achieving transcendental realization. As time went on, the practice was gradually abolished as many were taking to killing animals simply as an excuse to eat meat.
Animal sacrifice, in the Vedic sense, is supposed to be a completely religious experience. By religion we mean that discipline pertaining to the advancement of the soul. The spirit soul, or atma, residing within our body forms the basis of our identity. Our arms, hands, legs, and face all go through changes, but our identity always remains the same. This is due to the presence of the soul. Religion, more accurately known as sanatana-dharma, is the set of guidelines and procedures that enables the soul to eventually return to its original home, the spiritual world. God, in His original form, along with His various vishnu-tattva expansions, resides in the spiritual world. There He is in constant association with His pleasure potency energy expansions. We living entities are meant to be part of God’s superior energy, but in order to associate with the Lord we must first break free of our affinity for material activity.
To this end, there are various processes laid down by the scriptures which enable one to rekindle their forgotten relationship with God. Sacrifice is one of the central practices of any religious discipline, so it is not surprising to see that it plays a prominent role in the Vedic tradition. Sacrifice essentially means voluntarily giving up something enjoyable for the betterment of another person or even for ourselves. Our parents, for example, sacrifice a lot for our happiness. They work very hard and give up their life of sense gratification simply to provide a good upbringing for us. We know from our own experiences that children and young adults enjoy practicing a care-free lifestyle. During the 1960s in America, there was a rebellion against the older generation, with young adults not wanting to trust anyone who was over thirty years old. This speaks to the brash nature of the young; they never want to be tied down by rules and regulations.
Yet we see that people gradually mature, and they give up their unregulated way of life when they have children or when they start an important job. This is a form of sacrifice, for a person understands that they must give up certain habits in order to be successful in other areas such as raising children and maintaining a steady job. Religious life is similar in this regard. In order to understand God and realize the presence of the soul within, sacrifice is required. What is it that we must sacrifice? Upon taking birth here, we become enveloped in a cloud of illusion which makes us think that we will be happy by meeting the demands of the senses. “I want to eat this; I want to eat that; I want to go here; I want to go there, etc.” As we soon find out, the senses can never be truly satisfied. Aside from pulling us in every which direction, the demands of the senses also cause us to drift further away from spiritual life.
If we were to categorize the different kinds of activities one could perform, acts involving sense gratification would be put on one side, while spiritual activities would go on the opposite side. Spirituality involves taking care of the demands of the soul and not the senses. In order for this to happen, we must sacrifice certain things that we have attachments to. In the Treta Yuga, societal leaders relied heavily on the animal community. In the Vedic tradition, cows have always played a prominent role. Owning a cow can virtually eliminate the poverty problem. Simply by giving the cow a small plot of land to live on, one can survive on the bountiful fruits such as milk, cheese, and yogurt, which are all freely provided by the cow. The kings during Vedic times required a strong military presence, with horses playing an integral role. There were no planes, trains, or automobiles, so any type of advanced transportation required a fleet of horses.
For these reasons, the Vedic scriptures often recommended animal sacrifice as a religious activity. In order to be considered a sacrifice, the thing being given up must be something of importance. The famous ashvamedha-yajna involved giving up a horse. These animal sacrifices were nothing like the killing of animals that goes on today in slaughterhouses. The horses were allowed to roam free for a year, travelling all around the world. After the horse would come home, it would be tied to a stake, where it would eventually be sacrificed in an official ceremony.
“Ashvamedha-yajnas or Gomedha-yajnas, sacrifices in which a horse or a bull is sacrificed, were not, of course, for the purpose of killing the animals. Lord Chaitanya said that such animals sacrificed on the altar of yajna were rejuvenated and a new life was given to them. It was just to prove the efficacy of the hymns of the Vedas.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.8.52 Purport)
These sacrifices were completely spiritual in nature; the kings were giving up something valuable to them. The animals were also benefitted, for the soul residing within the animal was guaranteed to receive a human body in the next life. The Vedas consider the human species to be the most auspicious because the human being has the intelligence to learn about and love God. It is through the development of this loving attachment to the Supreme Lord that a soul can finally achieve the perfection of returning back to the spiritual world.
As time went on, mankind’s adherence to dharma, or religiosity, gradually diminished to the point where brahmanas were performing animal sacrifices simply to satisfy the demands of the tongue. They wanted to eat meat, so in the name of religion, they would regularly kill animals. To reform this practice, Lord Krishna, God Himself, personally appeared on earth as Lord Buddha. Lord Buddha outwardly denied the authority of the Vedas in order to give his philosophy of non-violence credence. This is a great example of God’s mercy. He knew that at the time people could not achieve spiritual perfection by killing animals unnecessarily. In order to help mankind gradually reform, the Lord preached against the Vedas. Thus the animal sacrifice practice was stopped, eventually leading to the condition today where followers of the Vedas don’t eat any type of meat, fish, or eggs.
In a properly executed Vedic animal sacrifice, the animal is tied to a stake and then guaranteed spiritual advancement after it is killed. In a similar manner, the demon Ravana was metaphorically sacrificed by Lord Rama, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. In the Treta Yuga, God appeared on earth to reinstitute the principles of religion and to annihilate the miscreants in the form of the Rakshasa demons who were harassing the saintly people of the earth. Lord Rama was born and raised in a kshatriya family, so He was quite familiar with the concept of an animal sacrifice. In fact, His father, Maharaja Dasharatha, performed an Ashvamedha-yajna that eventually led to the Lord’s appearance.
During Lord Rama’s time, the demon Ravana was chief among the Rakshasas. He ruled over an island kingdom known as Lanka and he was extremely powerful. Even the demigods, or elevated living entities, feared him. Rama couldn’t kill Ravana outright, however. The Lord, taking birth in a family of pious kings, vowed to adhere to the established codes of conduct, or dharma. These rules stipulated that a king should never attack another person without due cause. In this way, Lord Rama really couldn’t attack Ravana unless and until Ravana did something to provoke Him.
Ravana took care of this by kidnapping Lord Rama’s wife, Sita. Ravana brought Sita back to his kingdom of Lanka and held her captive in a garden. In the above referenced quote, Sita is responding to Ravana’s advances. She is informing him that his days are numbered and that Rama will destroy him very soon. Sita compares Ravana’s fate to that of an animal tied to a sacrificial stake. What’s ironic here is that according to the material vision, it was Sita who was the captive of Ravana. Yet from her authoritative statements, we can understand that it was Ravana who had the noose around his neck and not Sita.
Just as a sacrificial animal is guaranteed of spiritual elevation, Ravana was similarly provided the same luxury. Lord Rama eventually marched to Lanka and killed Ravana in battle. Fighting with God and being killed directly by Him are not everyday occurrences. As their reward, such fighters are granted mukti, or the liberation of merging into the body of the Supreme Lord. Liberation means that the soul is released from the cycle of birth and death. There are five primary types of liberation, each depending on a person’s consciousness at the time of death. Ravana was thinking of God as an enemy at the time of death, so he received a specific type of mukti. If such a reward is bestowed upon God’s enemies, one can only imagine what is in store for the devotees. Lord Rama’s closest associates were granted the boon of being forever devoted to Him. All the people of Ayodhya, the kingdom which Lord Rama ruled as king, returned to the spiritual world at the same time as Lord Rama. In this way, they were granted the best type of liberation, that of eternal loving association with the Lord.
The lesson here is that we don’t need to kidnap God’s wife or anger the Lord in order to be benefitted spiritually. We don’t even need to kill animals. In this age, animals don’t play as prominent a role in our economic livelihood since advanced technology has greatly increased our food producing capabilities. Sacrificing animals isn’t necessary because we aren’t really giving up much by killing them. The only bona fide sacrifice in this age is the sankirtana-yajna, or the congregational chanting of the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.
How can chanting be a sacrifice? Chanting the name of God requires us to engage our tongue, our ears, and most importantly, our time. In this fast paced world we don’t have much time to think about God. We are busy studying hard in school or putting in long hours at the office. When we come home, there are the demands of the family and the house that must be met. If we are lucky enough to get free time, we just want to relax. In this way, we see that spending time reciting God’s name is certainly a sacrifice. Just as with the sacrifices performed in previous ages, the performance of sankirtana greatly benefits the soul. Sankirtana is an integral part of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. It is the practice of this yoga that enables us to change our consciousness from the material to the spiritual world. If we think of God at the time of death, we are guaranteed to return to His spiritual abode.
“After attaining Me, the great souls, who are yogis in devotion, never return to this temporary world, which is full of miseries, because they have attained the highest perfection.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.1)
Ravana unintentionally tied himself to the sacrificial stake by kidnapping Sita. Lord Rama came to rescue Sita, but in the process, also rescued Ravana’s soul. For the devotees, there is a much more peaceful path to salvation. We simply have to envelop ourselves in the transcendental sound vibrations of the holy names of God. The Lord will most certainly hear this sound and come to our rescue in the same way.