Lessons in Sacrifice, Uncertainty and Death from the Ancient Religions
In the Brahmanas the Vedic gods are ignored or subordinated to the magical and creative powers of sacrifice. It is proclaimed that in the beginning, the gods were mortal; they became divine and immortal through sacrifice (Taittirya-Samhita)… But sacrifice must be performed correctly and with faith; the least doubt of its efficacy can have disastrous consequences.
By “reassembling” Prajapati, the sacrificer performs the same operation of integration and unification on his own person; in other words, he becomes “complete.” Just as through the sacrifice, the god recovers his person (atman), the sacrificer builds his own self, his atman for himself (Kausitaki Brahmana)… it is by virtue of his atman that the sacrificer becomes “immortal,” p230.
According to the ancient Hindu scripts, sacrifice was the pathway to immortality. Immortality in the literal sense is obviously unachievable, no matter how much personal sacrifice we make. However, the idea of immortality can be achieved. The idea of immortality is that we can exist beyond the confines of our time limited life. But how can this be?
The work that we can produce can outlive us. We can have a positive impact on the lives of others, those around us and future generations. By sacrificing our immediate wants and selfish ideas we can achieve a form of immortality. We can transcend the limitations of our lives through sacrifice. To Improve ourselves it is necessary to engage in sacrifice. We must sacrifice the wants and desires of our present selves for the benefit of our future selves.
It is not sufficient to posture and make these sacrifices to look good. We need to believe that there is inherent worth in making the sacrifice. Sacrifices should not be made only because society will look fondly upon them. These superficial acts will not last and are not true to ourselves. We need to believe in what we are doing. Not acting in the pursuit of status or because it will look good, but because it is the right thing to do and the best thing for us. Acting in this manner will have spill-over effects to those around us too. When we win, everyone around us wins also.
Sacrifice has not only a cosmogonic intent and an eschatological function but makes it possible to obtain a new mode of being.
By sacrificing the present we improve our future self. Our present self and future self can be seen as two different people. People who will be dealing with different problems and challenges. People who will have different experiences and will have had different experiences. Sometimes it is necessary to ‘kill’ our past so that we can grow. To get rid of old habits, relationships and ways of being that were holding us back so that we can move on to a new, better form of existence.
Boiling in a cauldron or passing through fire are initiation rites that confer immortality.
Like sacrifice it is through adversity that we grow and can transcend ourselves. By facing challenges and entering into unknown situations we literally grow. New genes are coded as we encounter novel situations and challenge our body to adapt. Nothing is learnt in comfort. We need to listen to people we disagree with, put ourselves into situations that make us uncomfortable and discover new things. This is how we grow. Beginners in any discipline have the most room to grow and often progress the quickest. It is healthy to continually look for ways where we can be beginners. The challenge is to be humble enough to be a beginner again
In the beginning Hermes was probably a god who protected the nomadic herders, perhaps even a Master of Animals. But the Greeks interpreted the archaic attributes and powers of Hermes in a deeper sense. He rules the roads because he walks quickly (he has “golden sandals”), and he does not go astray at night because he knows the way. This is why he is at once guide and protector of herds and patron of thieves. It is also the reason for his becoming the messenger of the gods.
Hermes walks quickly and with determination: he acts. We must approach the unknown with action, not with ponderance and fears, doubting ourselves and whether we are doing the right thing. Hesitation will cause us to freeze, make us unable to move forward and eventually give up. Through action we can dispel these worries and make sure that we approach the unknown with confidence and the best chance of success.
Hermes combines this action with knowledge. “He knows the way” and has a map of the unknown territory. This isn’t necessarily territory in the literal sense, but could be understanding of a subject or idea, for example. Hermes combines action and pre-existing knowledge to succeed. He can enter unknown territory without fear as he has these two attributes that will serve him well. The knowledge itself can be that of exploration and dealing with the unknown. The more we push ourselves and expose ourselves to new situations and challenges, the better equipped we are at dealing with unknown situations in the future. It is a skill to master the unknown, to master learning and, like any skill, it is one that can be honed.
As for the soul’s experience after death, we find certain familiar motifs — crossing a bridge, ascent into heaven, judgement — but also the theme of meeting with one’s own Self… the soul of the wicked man meets in the North Wind a frightful termagant and arrives at the zone of Darkness-without-a-Beginning, where Angra Mainyu demands that he be given poison (Hadoxt Nask).
What we sow we shall soon reap. These ideas are found throughout the ancient religions and are important to keep in mind. It does not have to necessarily relate to those around us, but can be confined to ourselves. The actions we take in the present will determine our future. To workout or not workout is a choice that will impact our future. Or to go for the slice of fruit or the slice of cake.
Every choice we make constructs the person that we are and will become. We do not have to always make perfect decisions, but the majority of the decisions that we make should be good decisions. We need to be conscious of the decisions we make. Are they conducive to the person and the life that we want to lead? If not we may need to reconsider.
Life is made up of small actions, there is not just one key action which sways everything. It is the mundane choices that we make everyday which are the most important.
All quotes are from A History of Religious Ideas Volume 1, Mircea Eliade.