“For I Desired Mercy, and Not Sacrifice”
Theosophical Quarterly, April, 1929
Toward the close of the nineteenth century, it was the custom among Occidental students of Buddhism to maintain that the Buddha had not laboured to establish a spiritual religion, but rather a somewhat bleak and arid system of morality, whose essence was negation, and whose inexorable goal was death, complete annihilation of conscious being. It has, perhaps, already been made clear, in these Notes, that Gautama Buddha sought to establish a rich and living spiritual system, the heart of which was a realization of the hierarchy of Masters, above whom was the still higher and more august Celestial Hierarchy, and that the rules of conduct, of meditation and intellectual training, which hold so large a place in the Buddha’s teaching, are precisely the rules of discipleship, a lucid and detailed description of what the disciple must do and learn, in order to draw closer to the Masters of Wisdom, to come consciously within the aura of the Lodge of Masters; to follow in the footsteps of those great Beings, and, if he win full victory, to join their ranks and help to bear their burden. And this has been shown, not from the more transcendental and mystical texts of Northern Buddhism, but from the Pali Suttas of the Southern School, the School of Ceylon and Siam: these most ancient and authentic Buddhist records are “full of the sparkle of esotericism,” the heart and essence of that highest Occultism which our Theosophical studies enable us to recognize.
Our studies should have shown us this, and something more. We should have come to understand that the Buddha had clearly in view, and wisely and consistently laboured for, a great moral and spiritual reformation of India; for one reason, because India then represented, and even now represents, an immense investment of spiritual capital, an effort of millenniums by the Lodge of Masters; for many centuries a submerged and buried capital, almost an investment that has gone astray; yet an investment which the Lodge is bound by spiritual law to recover, though the effort may take centuries.
In the “Notes and Comments” for January, 1929, an attempt was made to discover what this spiritual investment was, and through the operation of what forces of human sin and folly it became submerged. It was there suggested that the spiritual history of India was in the main the history of two great and ancient races: the red Rajputs, coming, perhaps, from mystical Egypt; and the white Brahmans, who, at some time a good many millenniums before our era, came down from Central Asia through the high passes of the Himalayas, and, beginning among the Five Rivers which unite to form the Indus, in time spread southward and eastward through the Ganges valley. The red Rajputs, when we get our first view of them, were already in possession of the Greater Mysteries, which are imparted through Initiation; those teachings which our Western scholars mistakenly think of as the mystical “speculations” of the Great Upanishads; mistakenly, because they are the fruit, not of speculation, but of spiritual experience, of direct vision. The Brahmans, those of the white race who settled in the plains of India, do not appear to have known the Greater Mysteries. Of this, there is twofold evidence: first, the often stated fact that, in the hymns of the Rig Veda, the spiritual heritage of the Brahmans, there is no teaching of Reincarnation and Liberation, the twin doctrines of the Mysteries; and second, and even more explicit, the statement of the two greatest Upanishads, that these twin doctrines had never reached the Brahmans until they were imparted to the father of Shvetaketu by the Rajput King-Initiate Pravahana; until that time these teachings “had been among all peoples the hereditary teaching of the Rajputs alone.” But the Brahmans had nevertheless a great and exceptional spiritual heredity; their Vedic hymns are full of remote echoes of hidden wisdom, of a teaching which, perhaps, their earliest ancestors had fully and consciously possessed on the high plateaux of Central Asia, unnumbered millenniums before the descent through the snowy passes to the Indian plains. In virtue of this remarkable spiritual heredity the Brahmans, as soon as the Rajputs opened to them the doors of the hidden wisdom, became apt pupils, thenceforth supplying many recruits to the Lodge of Masters.
As against this credit, two less advantageous factors must be counted. The first is the tendency of the Brahman mind to over-intellectual development, as a result of which much of the practical mysticism of the Rajputs was transformed into fine-drawn metaphysics; the commentaries of the groups of Sutras, for example, are filled with long and subtle disputations, loaded with the contentious reasonings of opposing advocates. What belonged to the spirit and the soul was dragged down to the plane of the mind, and there flattened out into lifeless intellectualism.
The second adverse factor had a wider reach. The intellectual “superiority” of the Brahmans reappeared as ambition, which by degrees sought to dominate, and did in course of time completely dominate, the whole mental, moral and social life of India, and, to a large degree, also its political life, a domination which lasted for millenniums. It would seem that, as an echo of their earlier and fuller spiritual inheritance, the ancestors of the Brahmans, when they entered Northern India, still possessed what one may call a system of practical magic based upon incantation, or the Occult correlations of sound, and on an understanding of personal, mental and psychical “magnetism.” This system they used, from the beginning, to establish their power and influence. They sought and received rewards from those of the princes who were not Initiates, for the performance of magical ceremonies whose general purpose was to secure success and prosperity by influencing and dominating psychic conditions, by establishing a favourable and positive psychic atmosphere, much as a magnetically gifted orator establishes an ascendency over his audience, largely by using, even though unconsciously, the same Occult powers of the voice, which carries and spreads his personal magnetism. So, in the Upanishads, we find many stories of Brahman practitioners of this magical system of magnetic sound invited by princes to perform ceremonies making for success. And we find that they receive as their reward large herds of cattle, in which, as in other ancient lands, wealth mainly consisted. Many of these earlier ceremonies centered about an altar on which burned a sacred fire, symbol of the Hidden Fire of the Spirit, and personified as the god Agni, Lord of the Sacred Fire, to whom are addressed the first series of hymns of the Rig Veda. Worship of the Hidden Fire, symbolized by an ever-burning sacred flame, is of 1mmemorial antiquity; it goes back to the immensely remote time before a branch of the white Central Asian race made its way to prehistoric Persia, carrying with it the spiritual essence of Zoroastrianism.
Thus “sacrifice,” in this earliest period, would appear to have consisted wholly of adoration of the sacred, perpetual fire, into which melted butter was poured as an offering of consecrated fuel, symbolizing the offering of the personal powers to the divine Spiritual Fire, the Logos. There was a second form of rite, namely, the Soma “sacrifice,” with which the Sama Veda is largely concerned. The Soma appears to have been a stimulant, or narcotic, which, by rendering quiescent the physical powers, gave the psychical powers freer play, thus liberating the faculties of clairvoyance and clairaudience, much as these powers may be liberated today by the methods of hypnotism. It is true that there was also a “divine Soma,” a genuine spiritual influx, of which the natural Soma became the symbol; yet it seems certain that the physical Soma, the magical narcotic, was widely used in the system of practical magic hereditary among the white Brahmans. It may be noted, in passing, that a very similar cult exists to the present day among the remoter pagan tribes who inhabit the high mountains of Western Mexico; they prepare a magical potion from certain kinds of cactus, which they hold sacred, and by its use their magicians induce “prophetic” states, that is, psychical states of clairvoyance and clairaudience. To make the parallel closer, the aboriginal Mexicans have a cycle of immemorial songs or incantations used in these rites only, which may well be compared with the verses of the Sama Veda, chanted by the Brahmans at the Soma sacrifice.
Besides these two earlier “sacrifices” of Agni and Soma, a third and more sinister form of “sacrifice” gradually established itself; namely, the sacrifice of animals, with profuse offerings of blood, in the forms which play so great a part in the system of worship embodied in the book of Leviticus.
For these animal sacrifices, so widely spread both in space and time, it would seem that three different motives may be assigned. First, the desire to gain the goodwill of the supernatural powers for the flocks and herds by an offering corresponding to the first fruits of the fields. Second, there was the quite intelligible but not quite creditable wish of the priesthood to obtain a free supply of food: “Thou shalt bring the meat offering that is made of these things unto Yahweh . . . and that which is left of the meat offering shall be Aaron’s and his sons’ . . .” The third purpose is more sinister; it rests on the belief that freshly shed blood is a potent aid to invocations of ghostly powers, whether human or elemental. It is, in effect, a phase of what is called black magic.
It is probable that all three motives entered into the gradual adoption of animal sacrifices by the Brahman priesthood, and it is also probable that the system of animal sacrifices had prevailed for ages among the darker races of Southern India, among whom many forms of black magic, generally associated with mesmeric influences, have always prevailed. At any rate, it is certain that the Brahmans very generally adopted the practice of animal sacrifices as an additional means of extending the despotic power of their priestcraft over the princes and peoples of India. Already in the oldest Upanishads there is much evidence of their success in this effort.
When the Buddha began his mission, this system of animal sacrifice was firmly established. It need hardly be said that in it his Order, pledged to abstain from animal food and from the taking of life, could have no part whatever. But it seems clear that the Buddha’s plan went far beyond the establishment of an Order as a direct recruiting ground for the Lodge. He desired also to bring about the redemption of the Brahmans, to break up the great, tyrannous system of priestcraft, and so to purify the Brahman race that its exceptional qualities and gifts might be turned in the direction of spiritual development and attainment. To gain this end, he worked along several lines. First, he made many appeals to the best and highest elements in the character of the Brahmans, to their ancient, submerged spiritual heredity, and in fact succeeded in winning many disciples from their ranks. How far the Brahmanical minds of these new Buddhists were influential in changing his directly practical teachings into the somewhat wire-drawn dialectics of certain schools of Buddhism, just as earlier Brahmanical minds had metamorphosed the spiritual discipline of the old Rajput schools into controversial philosophical systems, is an interesting subject of inquiry which we cannot at present pursue.
The Buddha made a second attack on Brahman priestcraft by flatly denying, at every opportunity, the claim of the Brahmans to rank above the Rajputs, or Kshatriyas, and to hold the highest place among the four great classes of Indian society. The Buddha in general refused to discuss questions of cosmogony, or, indeed, any questions which did not bear immediately on discipleship. It is of immense interest that on almost the only occasion when he did speak of cosmogony, giving an exceedingly interesting account of the development of the early races of mankind in the present world-period, the practical moral to which this cosmogonical teaching was made to lead was the superior rank and antiquity of the Kshatriyas, or Rajputs, and the inferiority of the Brahman priests. So consistently is this purpose carried out that, while in enumerations of the four classes in all Brahmanical books, the Brahmans invariably stand first, this is never the case in the Buddhist scriptures, which as invariably give the precedence to the Kshatriyas. This became such an ingrained habit with the Buddhist recorders that even when they tell of a Brahman enumerating the four classes, they make him yield the first place to the Kshatriya, something which no Brahman would conceivably have done.
Finally, the Buddha threw the great weight of his influence against the whole system of animal sacrifice, which was one of the means through which the Brahman priestcraft riveted its power upon the people. He worked toward this end both by example and by precept. The disciples of his Order were pledged, as we have seen, not to take life. Further, his teaching of Karma, and of Liberation through spiritual effort, ran directly contrary to the Brahmanical system of expiation through the sacrifice of animals; it was the exact equivalent of Paul’s affirmation: “It is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.” The Buddha further faced the problem directly, in a discourse which is recorded in one of the Suttas named after the Brahman Kutadanta, who is the central figure of the episode there related. It is a part of the fine, pervading humour of the Suttas that the name of this distinguished Brahman means “peak-tooth,” as though with reference to his creophagous character.
The recorders of the Sutta begin, as always, by painting in a rich Oriental background, against which the leading figures presently come forth, represented dramatically, by their own words, rather than descriptively. We are told that the Buddha was journeying through the country of the Magadhas, accompanied by about five hundred disciples, and that, coming to the settlement of Khanumata, he was encamped with his followers in a garden where young mango trees were planted; their deep shade offering a pleasant resting place.
Now it happened that a part at least of the land of this region, very fertile and teeming with life, had been bestowed by the King of the Magadhas, Seniya Bimbisara, on the distinguished Brahman Kutadanta, just as large tracts are granted to Brahmans in Rajputana to day; the Brahman Kutadanta had succeeded to that extent in establishing himself and acquiring worldly wealth. Perhaps as an act of gratitude, he had formed the design of offering a great sacrifice of animals: seven hundred bulls, seven hundred bullocks, seven hundred heifers, seven hundred goats and seven hundred rams had been assembled, to be slaughtered for the glory of Kutadanta, and many Brahmans had gathered together, to take part in the sacrifice, and, we may suppose, in “the leavings of the sacrifice,” according to the phrase of the Bhagavad Gita. When the Buddha and his disciples encamped in the mango garden, the fame of his coming went abroad among the people, both the Brahmans and the householders of Khanumata, and they said among themselves: “The ascetic Gotama, in truth, the son of the Sakyas, he who went forth from the Sakya family, has come with many of his disciples and is encamped here in the mango garden. Concerning the Master Gotama fair fame has gone abroad, that this Master is an Arhat, a perfect Buddha, full of wisdom and virtue, a welcome one, teaching the way of salvation to devas and men. He teaches a law of righteousness lovely in its beginning, lovely in its middle, lovely in its consummation. It is good, in truth, to go to see such an Arhat as he!”
So the Brahmans and householders of Khanumata went forth in larger and lesser groups toward the mango garden.
Now, at this very time it happened that the distinguished Brahman Kutadanta had mounted to the upper terrace of his dwelling, shaded and cherished by cooling breezes, to enjoy a “day-sleep,” as the Pali phrase goes, and, seeing the groups of Brahmans and householders going past toward the mango garden, he asked his major-domo what this concourse might mean. His major-domo repeated to him what the Brahmans and householders were saying to each other, concerning the coming of the ascetic Gotama and his high spiritual rank.
Wisely and logically the Brahman Kutadanta determined within himself that, since he was contemplating a great sacrifice, and since the ascetic Gotama was reputed to be learned concerning sacrifice, it would be well to visit the ascetic Gotama, and to consult him regarding the proper consummation of the threefold sacrifice with its sixteen concomitants. So he sent the major-domo to the Brahmans and householders of Khanumata, who were on their way to the mango garden, asking them to await his coming, for he too desired to visit the ascetic Gotama. So the major-domo carried the message.
The recorders of the story, with their love for round numbers, say that several hundred Brahmans had come to be present at the great sacrifice which the Brahman Kutadanta had prepared. When the major-domo brought his message, they asked somewhat incredulously among themselves whether it could be true that the distinguished Brahman Kutadanta was planning to visit the ascetic Gotama.
The Brahmans raised their voices in protest, declaring that it was not seemly that the highly distinguished Brahman Kutadanta should visit the ascetic Gotama; a Brahman deeply versed in Vedic lore, a teacher of disciples, a holder of rich lands from the king of the Magadhas, and, withal, a man venerable and full of years. On the contrary, it would be more fitting that the ascetic Gotama, who was a much younger man, should first visit the distinguished Brahman Kutadanta. It would seem, then, that this event took place comparatively early in the Buddha’s long mission, while the fact of his relative youth was still very noticeable.
But the worthy Kutadanta held to his purpose. The ascetic Gotama was an Arhat, a Buddha, supremely enlightened; moreover neither in birth nor lineage did he at any point yield to the good Brahman himself. So Kutadanta would go, in spite of protests, to visit the ascetic Gotama.
So not only did he go, but carried with him the whole Brahmanical company, winning them over to his view. So they all went together to the mango garden and greeted the Master, taking their seats in silence beside him.
Then Kutadanta the Brahman spoke thus:
“It has been heard by me, Sir Gotama, that the ascetic Gotama knows well the successful conduct of the threefold sacrifice with its sixteen concomitants. But I myself do not know well the successful conduct of the threefold sacrifice with its sixteen concomitants, yet I desire to offer a great sacrifice. It were a fortunate thing for me, if the worthy Gotama would instruct me concerning the successful conduct of the threefold sacrifice.”
The situation is deeply humorous, and was so felt by every devout Buddhist hearer of the Sutta. That the Master of mercy should be consulted regarding the right method of slaughtering hundreds of bulls and rams, and that, instead of reproaching Kutadanta and condemning the whole proceeding without stint, the Master should appear to give the advice which was asked for, of necessity appealed to the keen sense of humour which runs through these ancient books, a humour whose characteristic is, that it is invariably coupled with a high spiritual purpose. Further, it is profoundly characteristic of the Buddha’s method, that he put himself as far as possible in the position of his questioner, accepted that questioner’s views, and then proceeded, always from the questioner’s standpoint, so to unfold the principles involved, as to bring the questioner gradually to accept the truer, deeper view, to adopt the principles of the Buddha’s teaching. In pursuance of this wise method, the Buddha said nothing to the Brahman Kutadanta regarding the evils of the system of animal sacrifices or the sin of taking life. Instead, he answered with his habitual courtesy:
“Hear, then, Brahman, paying good heed, and I shall declare the matter.” “So be it, Sir!” the Brahman Kutadanta replied. The Master said:
“In by-gone days, Brahman, there was a king, Maha-vijita by name, whose kingdom was great, who had much wealth and stored-up gold and silver, with great treasure of wealth and grain, with full treasury and barns. Once, when the king had withdrawn himself in secret, he reflected, thinking, ‘I possess all the good things a mortal can desire, the wide circle of the earth I have won for my pleasure. It would be well for me to make a great sacrifice, to gain long life and prosperity!’ And so King Maha-vijita summoned his household priest and told him the thought that had come to him when he was withdrawn into solitude, and of his purpose to make a great sacrifice, securing long life and prosperity, and asking to be instructed as to how the sacrifice should be made to this end.
“Thus addressed, the Brahman household priest replied to the king, saying that the king’s realm was disturbed and troubled, beset with highwaymen and robbers. Should the king levy a contribution at such a time for a great sacrifice, the king would err. Or should the king determine to visit these evil-doers with swift punishment, this also would not avail, for those who escaped would continue as before to do deeds of violence. But there is a better way: not to punish, but to help. Wherever there are those in the king’s realm who are engaged in husbandry, let the king give them seed-corn. Wherever there are those in the king’s realm who are engaged in trading, let the king give them money. Wherever there are those in the king’s realm who are in the king’s service, let the king give them food and payment. Then these men will no longer trouble the peace of the king’s land, the revenues of the king’s realm will increase, the land will enjoy peace, men will rejoice and dandle their sons in their arms, and none in the kingdom will bolt his door.
“The king did even so, and all went as the Brahman household priest had said. The revenues of the king’s realm increased, the land enjoyed peace, men rejoiced and dandled their sons in their arms, and none bolted his door.
“Then the king summoned the Brahman, his household priest, and said, ‘Tranquility is restored, revenue is increased, contentment reigns. I desire now, Brahman, to make a great sacrifice. Instruct me how this may be done, for long life and prosperity!’
“Thereupon the Brahman, the household priest, counselled the king to gain the consent of four great classes of his subjects to the sacrifice: first, the Kshatriyas who governed lands under the king; second, the Kshatriyas who were ministers in the king’s service; third, the Brahmans of distinction, whether in the country or in the cities; fourth, the rich householders, whether in the country or in the cities. The king sought their consent, and all gladly gave it. Thus all these classes were made partakers of the sacrifice.”
Then the Buddha enumerated eight virtues, eight gifts and graces which the king possessed, and in like manner four virtues possessed by the Brahman, the household priest. These twelve gifts, together with the consent of the four classes, making sixteen in all, became the sixteen concomitants of the sacrifice. And further, a generous attitude of the king’s mind, thrice repeated, completed the threefold nature of the sacrifice, according to the traditional rule. The Buddha continued:
“At that sacrifice, verily, Brahman, no cattle were slain, nor any goats, nor fowl, nor swine, nor was any living thing deprived of life; no trees were felled, nor was sacred grass cut to strew upon the ground; nor was any compulsion used upon those who helped. Only clarified butter, oil, fresh butter, curds, honey and the juice of sugar-cane were offered in making that sacrifice.”
Many beneficent results followed in that ancient realm. And among those who heard the Buddha, the results were not less happy. All the Brahmans applauded, saying, “That was a true sacrifice! That was a successful sacrifice!”
All, indeed, applauded excepting only Kutadanta. Then the Brahmans who had come with him asked him whether he did not approve. Kutadanta replied: “I do not withhold approval from what the ascetic Gotama has said, but this thought came to me: ‘The ascetic Gotama does not say, “Thus did I hear,” nor does he say, “Thus should it be!” The ascetic Gotama says instead, “Thus it was.”’ Therefore I thought within myself, ‘Of a truth the ascetic Gotama was at that time the king, or the Brahman, the household priest!’” The Buddha answered that he was the priest.
Thereupon Kutadanta asked whether there might not be some better, higher sacrifice, noble though that ancient sacrifice had been. And in answer the Buddha revealed to Kutadanta the path of discipleship, as the true offering. Kutadanta was completely won, and straightway sought and gained admission to the Master’s Order.
There remains the practical outcome of the story. The Brahman Kutadanta countermanded the great sacrifice that he had planned, and gave orders that the cattle and sheep and goats he had assembled should be spared, and should live their lives in peace. In that instance, at any rate, the sacrifice of animals came to an end.
Concerning the larger results of this teaching, it may be profitable to quote what Professor T. W. Rhys Davids wrote, a good many years ago, concerning this Sutta:
“On this question, as on the question of caste or social privileges, the early Buddhists took up, and pushed to its logical conclusions, a rational view held by others. And on this question of sacrifice their party won. The Vedic sacrifices, of animals, had practically been given up when the long struggle between Brahmanism and Buddhism reached its close. Isolated instances of such sacrifices are known even down to the Muhammadan invasion. But the battle was really won by the Buddhists and their allies. And the combined ridicule and earnestness of our Sutta will have had its share in bringing about the victory.”
This is, perhaps, too optimistic; for it is certain that the sacrifice of animals, under Brahman auspices, lingers in India today, for example, at Kalighat. Further, it is worth noting that the sacrifice of the story, which met with such hearty approval from the Buddha’s listeners, namely, the pouring of melted butter or oil into the consecrated fire, was more truly the original Vedic sacrifice, as contrasted with the sacrifice of animals, which was probably taken over from the dark races of Southern India.
Finally, Rhys Davids speaks of the long struggle between Brahmanism and Buddhism coming to an end. We should remember that it ended in the complete defeat of the Buddhists, and in their violent expulsion from India, a violence whose heavy Karma still weighs on that afflicted land. Brahman priestcraft was completely triumphant. Though the Buddha may have won the lesser victory, the partial abolition of animal sacrifices, he failed in the great heroic effort, the spiritual redemption of the whole Brahman order with its rich possibilities for good. There have been, and are, many noble and pure-hearted Brahmans; nevertheless, the Brahman order, as a whole, remains a tyrannous and ambitious priestcraft, the greatest barrier to the spiritual regeneration of India.