The concept of sacrifice is an ancient and universal one. In the course of time, however, the grand idea deteriorated and became degraded. It might be said that the degeneration of every religion can be traced through an examination of the change in the attitude of its followers and the practices adopted by them in the matter of sacrifice. The noble and pure idea of sacrifice became degraded in India, and one of the reasons of the coming of Krishna and Buddha was to free the people from that degradation. From the sin of false sacrifice, hardly any religion of today is free; there are misunderstanding and malpractices prevalent everywhere. Ignorance and mental lethargy produce credulity and superstition, and the priest ever and always takes advantage of the situation.
In all religious philosophies, we are taught that at the very dawn of manifestation Ishwara or Ahura Mazda or whatever name the Deity is given, through an act of sacrifice creates the whole universe. The great attributes of compassion and mercy spring from this aspect of sacrifice. And because man is the "son" of Divine Ideation, he es called Manasa-Putra, the mind-born son of Brahma. By an act of sacrifice, it is said, man is created. "Man is made in the image of God" is another way of conveying the same truth. It is explained that out of boundless mercy God gave to man his own divine attributes, dispositions and characteristics. This teaching, rightly understood, really conveys a sublime truth—the identity of all souls with the Universal Self; and as that intimate relation of identity is known, recognized and experienced, man fulfils his mission and completes his evolution.
In this metaphysical and philosophical idea is to be found a fundamental for conduct. In every true metaphysical concept an ethical principle is present. This principle of Divine Sacrifice conveys to us the chief method of human progression and perfection. The human soul evolves by reproducing within himself the divine quality of sacrifice. By sacrificing himself for the good of others, he manifests his divinity. What this sacrifice is, and how it can and should be performed, was taught by the sages of old when they incarnated among humans as Teachers and Rulers. This was the stage of purity and knowledge when men and women lived their religion under the direct guidance and tutelage of wise rulers and enlightened teachers.
When the time comes, according to the law of periodicity or cycles, for these Divine Instructors to retire, people find themselves with injunctions left behind for them to attend to. The heritage of the Divine Rulers and Teachers is twofold: First, there is the actual teaching for every man and woman to study and to apply—the exoteric teaching of philosophy and of ethics. Secondly, there are also left behind esoteric or occult instructions for the genuine priest, who in the olden days was a proficient in true magic as in wisdom. The great religious ceremonies represented by such words as Yajna, Yasna and so forth were real dramatized symbols through which the pure esotericist who was the priest taught general principles to fortify the exoteric knowledge of the people. These two periods, that of the true prophet and that of the true priest, can be traced in the history of every ancient civilization.
We now come to a third epoch, during which mental laziness produces moral flabbiness; ignorance follows and begets vices; superstition and credulity result among the people. Simultaneously, among the priest-class corruption sets in, and the priests and the people acting on each other cause loss of knowledge to both, and increase of moral debility takes place. It is in this third period that evil sacrifices, practices of grey and black magic, arise. Knowledge is not altogether gone, and its remnants are pressed into the service of greed and selfishness. Thus arise malpractices like animal sacrifice, fascination of the minds and hearts of others, and so on.
In the fourth period, our own, the grand symbolic and dramatic ceremonies of old exist only in fragments, and those fragments themselves are corrupted. What we have today in mosques, churches, synagogues and temples are fragments of old rituals, with interpolated corrupt views and wrong practices. Sometimes we are asked why Theosophy, which believes in and teaches the Wisdom of the old Sages, rejects and even opposes rituals and ceremonies. The answer and the explanation is this: present-day rituals are neither complete nor unadulterated. In the course of ages, much has been lost; but that is not all; in what exists, in the fragments of rituals, etc., that have survived, malpractices, impure elements, have been inserted. Old religious rituals as also old religious philosophies suffer from two defects—incompleteness and interpolations.
What we have so far seen applies especially to old faiths like Hinduism and Zoroastrianism. But when we come to Judaism, to Christianity and to Islam, we have an additional difficulty. These later religions began when loss of knowledge and increase of moral weakness generally prevailed. To begin with, look at the oldest of these three religions—Judaism. Examine the tradition of the festival of Passover, which is celebrated by killing the lamb, which is then eaten, in commemoration of the liberation of Israelites from Egyptian bondage. It is regarded as the festival of freedom. Moses, himself an Initiate, and therefore a true reformer, began his work in Egypt in an atmosphere already charged with corruption and superstition. We must not attribute to Moses the evils of Judaism—evils which the people of the time were not able to throw off. This is a point that we must remember in the study of every religious reform. The teacher and the reformer has to work with the limitations of the people whom he wants to help; and invariably, from the very start his mission suffers because of the prevailing customs, manners and beliefs of the people to whom he comes. No real teacher or reformer, and Moses was one, could have taught or encouraged animal sacrifice, and if it has become part of Judaism, it is not because of but in spite of Moses.
We get a further proof of this when we examine the Muslim festival of Bakri-Id. For this festival also there is the practice of animal sacrifice; it is rooted in Jewish influence on Islam. The sacrifice of animals by the pilgrim who goes to Mecca, and even by those who do not undertake the pilgrimage, was originally instituted in commemoration of Abraham's proposed sacrifice of his son Ishmael. It is well to note once again that Muhammad did not institute this animal sacrifice. In the Koran it is said: "O ye who believe, kill no wild game while ye are on the pilgrimage. Whoso of you killeth it, he shall pay its forfeit in the equivalent of that which he hath killed." But even his power and influence were not successful in abolishing animal sacrifice, and so it still continues.
It is necessary to note that if Jews and Muslims observe remnants of animal-sacrifice practices, it is not because of Moses and Muhammad. Similarly, if some of the Hindu temples and shrines are polluted and desecrated by animal sacrifice, it is not because Krishna or Buddha taught such cruel and highly objectionable rites. Wherever cruelty and bloodshed take place and for whatever reason, there a spiritual wrong is perpetrated. "Kill not—for Pity's sake," taught the Buddha; and in the Bhagavad-Gita there is no reference whatsoever to animal sacrifice. The offering suggested by Krishna is "a leaf, a flower, or fruit, or water," as also sacrifice of knowledge, of wealth, of all possessions.
Animal sacrifice is more than an act of cruelty; the ritual of animal slaughter is often accompanied with incantations, etc., and Theosophy explains that such acts belong to the province of black magic. Fortunately, knowledge is absent today, but slaughter of animals is evil, and especially so when it is regarded as a religious rite. No religion can regain its pure status till all acts of cruelty and all blood-rites are removed from it.
How did these evil rites come to be introduced? What were they meant to signify?
There are two factors involved: (1) he who performs the sacrifice and (2) the thing sacrificed. One sacrificer may offer his wealth, another his wisdom, a third some other possession. There is the motive behind the act of sacrifice—selfless or selfish motive; sacrifice made with a desire, for the fulfilment of a wish, or made without any longing for recompense and only with the object of doing good to one's fellows. The priests took advantage of the human desire for compensation, and brought about the reign of selfish sacrifices. While some knowledge of magic was still theirs, they introduced the practice of animal and even human sacrifices, and the holy word "sacrifice" was debased. Thus in India arose questionable practices whose evil psychic influence still persists and needs to be purified. Of course nowadays no real magical knowledge exists, but malpractices continue to the detriment of Hinduism and to the great harm of all who participate in that evil.
But there is one kind of "animal sacrifice" which is right and noble: there is an animal within each of us, and in most, a whole menagerie of animals. Who is free from having in his own nature the donkey of foolishness or the peacock of pride? Every vice in us, and for the matter of that every virtue, has a counterpart in the animal kingdom. These "animals," bad and good, in our own nature, deserve a sacrifice. What is needed is not the destruction of all feelings, but learning to control and purify evil passions and to transmute them into beneficent forces to be used in the service of all. It is not the lower nature that has to be sacrificed and destroyed; it is our divine and higher nature, the Immortal Soul, who has to sacrifice himself for the sake of the lower, for purifying and raising that lower. The Soul sacrifices himself for the sake of the personality. This is the Great Sacrifice or Yajna—Adhiyajna. "Adhiyajna is myself in this body," says Krishna (Gita, viii, 4). When Krishna incarnates and takes a body of flesh and blood, he performs Adhiyajna. The Great Sacrifice is the Divine Self of the Superior Man, Purushottama, leaving his own native state of Perfect Wisdom and Bliss and donning the robe of flesh out of compassion for suffering humanity, and that act entitles him to be called the "Great Sacrifice."
Christ and Krishna are symbols of a profound spiritual verity. In Gnostic and Christian mythology, the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ are dramatised symbols, and in one of their meanings they signify what is stated above. The Higher or Divine Beings of the human kingdom are the Great Sacrificers—those Immortal Ones who from time to time take bodies of flesh and blood and live among men, teaching them how to live. Jesus and Zoroaster, Moses and Muhammad, Buddha and Shankara, Krishna and Rama, were such Sacrificers. The mighty lesson that they impart by their sacrifice is this: Each one of us, in our own innermost heart, is also divine, and we must willingly and cheerfully, yet knowingly and intelligently, deal with our own carnal and corporeal nature as they deal with us mortals. These Great Ones, when They come in our midst, by their presence purify and elevate us, teach and train us. So also we as Immortal Souls must wisely control and educate our lower personal self and raise it to the level of the higher. The Christ in us dies on the cross of ther personal self. This personal self is called the lower quaternary in Theosophical terminology, for it is fourfold. This is the real cross of life on which Christ, the Higher and Divine Nature, dies. The Crucifixion is this earthly pilgrimage during which the higher natures of men and women die on the cross of body and senses and passions and thoughts. That body is nailed to the cross and it suffers—this represents the suffering of men and women who cry in agony, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me!" And in response, the Divinity within, the Higher Self, comes to our rescue; we are resurrected, and then we cry, "My God, my God, why hast thou glorified me thus!"
The greatest obstacle in our way, for our good to triumph, is mental laziness. We are not wicked, but we are indolent and will not exert our minds. Economic conditions force us to exert our bodies, for we must earn our livelihood, but the spiritual urge within most is not strong enough for them to exert themselves spiritually. We talk a great deal today of unemployment; but there is another kind of unemployment—spiritual unemployment. No one compels us to be spiritually unemployed, but our starving spiritual bodies do not make sufficient impress on us and so we remain careless and negligent. In some, that impress becomes strong through suffering. Because men and women will not learn in natural joyousness of the Soul, Nature compels them to learn in suffering and sorrow.
Theosophy is the soul awakener; it teaches us first and foremost to recognize our own divinity, then to utilize that Christ-Krishna nature of ours to raise the animal in us. By knowledge we are taught why and how we are divine, and further knowledge reveals whence our passions and how we can control their course. And so the lesson for us—give up mental lethargy and seek knowledge; let us examine and analize our own beliefs and habits; see if they stand the test of reason. Such knowledge will lead us to the Real Self in us and that Master within alone can guide us on the Path of Purity, on the Path of Sacrifice, and enable us at long last to raise the personality, through Resurrection, to the company of the Great Sacrificers who are called Elder Brothers and Masters in Theosophical literature.