Organizer: Cynthia Humes, Claremont McKenna College
Chair: Kay K. Jordan, Radford University
The sacrificial offering of a head (animal or human) to the Goddess is a ubiquitous theme in Hindu myth, iconography, and ritual. This panel explores some ways in which this theme has been interpreted and carried out in various Hindu contexts.
The first two papers are concerned with differing interpretations of the story of Dhyanu Bhagat, the legendary devotee who proves his devotion to the Goddess by offering her his own head. Cynthia Humes discusses in her paper a group of devotees who, taking Dhyanu Bhagat as their model, visit Vindhyachal once a year to practice self mutilation as an offering to the Goddess Vindhyavasini. In this case, the story of Dhyanu Bhagat serves to legitimate the practice of blood sacrifice. In contrast, Kathleen Erndl's paper deals with the Goddess cult of Northwest India (which includes such temples as Vaisno Devi and Jvala Mukhi), where the Dhyanu Bhagat story is used to legitimate the substitution of a vegetarian offering, a coconut, for a blood offering. In both contexts, however, Dhyanu Bhagat is viewed as the ideal devotee, and the relationship between devotion and sacrifice is explicitly made.
In the next paper, David Kinsley shifts the focus to the example of Chinnamasta, the Goddesss who decapitates herself. Does she function as a model for the devotee, and if so, why? Kinsley discusses this and other interpretations of this striking visual image. In the final paper, Brian Smith reflects on the general principles of resemblance and substitution at work in the specific examples discussed by the other panelists. He explores continuity among the Vedic style of sacrifice (yajna), Hindu ritual offering (puja), and blood sacrifice (bali).
This panel provides a contribution to the understanding of Hindu discourse about blood sacrifice, devotion, and Goddess worship. As the panelists hope to maximize the opportunity to interact with each other and with the audience, they have decided not to include a formal discussant.
Cynthia A. Humes, Claremont McKenna College
The village of Vindhyachal, Uttar Pradesh is home to the shrine of Vindhyavasini Devi ("the goddess who dwells in the Vindhyas"), one of the most popular sites of goddess worship today. At Vindhyachal, the goddess's most famous folk story concerns Dhyanu Bhagat, the great devotee who offered her his own head. Her restoration of Dhyanu Bhagat's head is among the most commonly cited examples by pilgrims to prove Vindhyavasini's powers over life and death, pain and suffering, and blood and sacrifice. Devotees who sing of Dhyanu's self sacrifice today continue to offer sacrifices of goats at Vindhyachal because they know that blood is what best satisfies this goddess, and they do not have quite the faith required to surrender their own head in imitation of her greatest devotee.
Yet there are those who seek to imitate this sacrifice far more closely. This story is reenacted anew every year during the spring Navaratra, when a group of Dhyanu Bhagat's self proclaimed descendents arrive to pay blood tribute to Vindhyavasini, and by extension, Dhyanu Bhagat. Before thousands of fascinated spectators, men who have felt called by the goddess allow themselves to be possessed by her, and then pierce themselves in their tongues and cheeks with long, thin spears. No blood whatsoever is visible, and they claim to feel no pain. In their willingness to offer their own blood, they are rewarded with the awesome gift of the goddess's powers: their cheeks and tongues bear no scars, and like Dhyanu, they are praised and honored for their devotion. The event serves to spread not only their own glory, but that of their ancestor and deity. Clearly, the fame and awe they earn pertains to their "sacrifice" resembling that of their ancestor more closely than offering animals or mere coconuts.
In this paper, I will analyze the story of Dhyanu Bhagat within the context of Vindhyavasini's contemporary cult, both of his "relatives," and mere admirers. The themes I will explore include the relation of personal and animal sacrifice, connections between devotion and sacrifice, and how this myth legitimates blood rather than vegetarian offerings at Vindhyachal.
Kathleen M. Erndl, Lewis and Clark College
Dhyanu Bhagat, the famous legendary devotee, once severed his own head, presenting it as an offering to the Goddess. The Goddess then appeared before him, the story goes, restored his head, and granted him the boon that in the future she would accept a coconut as an offering equal to a head. In Northwest India, this story, regarded as the charter myth for the ritual of coconut offerings to the Goddess, plays an important role in a complex web of discourse surrounding the issue of blood sacrifice. In recent times the Dhyanu Bhagat story, along with other stories such as those of Queen Tara and Vaisno Devi, has been used in the Northwest to legitimate the practice of vegetarian rather than blood offerings. That the story lends itself to other interpretations is evident not only in Cynthia Humes' paper on practices at Vindhyavasini for this panel but in the Northwest as well, where the debate surrounding animal sacrifice is far from settled.
In this paper, I will analyze the story of Dhyanu Bhagat within the context of the contemporary cult of the Goddess in Northwest India. The themes I will explore include the relationship between yajna (Vedic sacrifice) and bali (blood sacrifice), connections between devotion and sacrifice, and the role of caste and reform movements in the transformation of sacrifice.
David Kinsley, McMaster University
Chinnamasta (She Who Has Cut Off Her Head) is one of the most visually striking goddesses of the Hindu pantheon.
There seem to be several interrelated interpretations of self-decapitation in her iconography. First, in original myths about the goddess in tantric sources, the theme of the goddess's self-sacrifice is suggested. The goddess decaptitates herself in order to feed her hungry devotees with her own blood. Second, as a model to be imitated, Chinnamasta suggests the annihilation of one's ego in the quest for self knowledge. In the process of discovering or uncovering the atman, one destroys, denies, or otherwise subverts egocentricity. The cutting off of one's head symbolizes getting rid of false notions of one's identity. This might also be understood as a form of self sacrifice and thus related to the first interpretation. Third, the self decapitation of the goddess may suggest a meditative technique whereby one exercises complete mastery over every part of one's body. Certain stories of tantric Buddhist practitioners support this interpretation. Fourth, the self decapitation of the goddess may be interpreted as a devotional model for devotees. Several instances of self-decapitation of goddess devotees exist in the Hindu tradition. In most cases, the devotees offer their head as an ultimate sacrifice to the goddess. In many cases, the goddess restores the devotees' head and life and grants them a boon for performing such a faithful act. In images of Chinnamasta in which she is shown standing (or sometimes leaning) on a copulating couple (usually identified as Kama, the god of sexual desire, and his wife), a fifth interpretation seems possible. The icon in this case dramatically juxtaposes sex and death and may symbolize the idea that life feeds on death or is intimately interrelated with death.
Brian K. Smith, University of California, Riverside
Vedic sacrifices are hierarchically ordered: the hierarchically superior sacrifices are those which are more complicated, powerful, and rare. And yet, Vedic resemblance allows for two different kinds of ritual condensations, both of which entail a kind of synecdochic reductionism, whereby a part of the whole represents the whole, but differ regarding what kind of part is made to represent the whole.
The first type of synecdoche is the encompassment of the condensed essences of lesser rituals within greater ones-a condensation upward, so to speak. The human victim, which is said to encompass within it all other beasts, and the soma sacrifice are such examples. The second type of synecdoche is a condensation downward of the essences of superior victims or superior sacrifices which are reprised within inferior "equivalents."
The myth of Dhyanu Bhagat and its related sacrificial cults support both types. In the case of Vindhyachal, the human victim continues to be offered, but in a less dramatic fashion, and the animal sacrifice is preserved; in the case of Vaishno Devi, a coconut serves as the proper substitute for all blood rituals.
Substitution is most especially legitimate when it is necessary to bring about the completion of the obligatory sacrifices. In the case of devotionalism, the ritual of puja to the image of Vishnu, Shiva, the Goddess, or one of their avatars simultaneously replaces the yajna while it incorporates within itself many rites from the Vedic sacrifice. Results which once entailed great expense and painstaking labor, and which were in all likelihood available only to the religious, political, and economic elite, are now easily obtainable by all thanks to the full equation of the later version of the original. In this way, the new and relatively simple religious practices of Hindu worship are said to resume in themselves the power of the most complex Vedic sacrifices.
But the purpose of shrouding new Hindu practices in sacrificial clothing is not simply to prove the superiority of the new over the old, but first and foremost to present the new as the old. Sacrifice has functioned throughout Indian religious history as a marker for traditionalism and as a means for acceptable innovation. The very radical movement of Tantricism, too, explored in Kinsley's work on the Chinnamasta cult, does not neglect to codify its practices in orthodox sacrificial terminology, and legitimates the "new" sacrifices by portraying the Goddess herself as the practitioner. Sacrifice thus serves as a stake for traditionalism and as a means for acceptable innovation within the boundaries of orthodoxy.
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