The Head Beneath the Altar

The Head Beneath the Altar: Hindu Mythology and the Critique of Sacrifice

Brian Collins
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 314
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  • Book Info
    The Head Beneath the Altar
    Book Description:

    In the beginning, says the ancient Hindu text theRg Veda, was man. And from man's sacrifice and dismemberment came the entire world, including the hierarchical ordering of human society.The Head Beneath the Altaris the first book to present a wide-ranging study of Hindu texts read through the lens of René Girard's mimetic theory of the sacrificial origin of religion and culture. For those interested in Girard and comparative religion, the book also performs a careful reading of Girard's work, drawing connections between his thought and the work of theorists like Georges Dumézil and Giorgio Agamben. Brian Collins examines the idea of sacrifice from the earliest recorded rituals through the flowering of classical mythology and the ancient Indian institutions of the duel, the oath, and the secret warrior society. He also uncovers implicit and explicit critiques in the tradition, confirming Girard's intuition that Hinduism offers an alternative anti-sacrificial worldview to the one contained in the gospels.

    eISBN: 978-1-60917-406-4
    Subjects: Philosophy, Religion, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-42)

    India is the birthplace of the religious traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism. It has served as a pilgrimage place and source of spiritual renewal for Chinese monks in the fifth century, Tibetan royalty in the tenth century, and the Western counterculture since at least the early twentieth century. India’s gift to the world, in the words of the nineteenth century Hindu reformer Swami Vivekananda, is religion.¹ But India is also the site of some of the last century’s worst episodes of violent conflict, including the bloody 1947 partition of India and Pakistan and the successive wars between the...

  5. Rivalries
    (pp. 43-82)

    Rivalry is at the center of Girard’s work. Some would say that rivalry also characterizes Girard’s relationship to the rest of the academy. It also plays a central role in the mythology of the Brāhmaṇas, in which the gods and the demons are locked in a continuous struggle for supremacy. In this chapter we will focus on the issue of rivalry as we follow two parallel narratives, one historical and one mythological. Both of these narratives lead to Girard’s engagement with the Brāhmaṇas, whose reviled status he clearly sees as analogous to that of his own work.

    First we will...

  6. Priests and Kings, Oaths and Duels
    (pp. 83-136)

    In the last chapter, we examined the rivalries outside (European scholars vs. Brahmin authors, France vs. England, philology vs. sociology) and inside (gods vs. demons) of the Brāhmaṇa narrative as received and interpreted by Girard. Now we will examine a new rivalry: that of the royal and military Kṣatriya class and the priestly Brahmin class, along with the sacrificial institutions of the oath and the duel through which that rivalry is mediated. In order to understand the relationship between the two functions represented by Kṣatriyas and Brahmins in ancient India, we will employ the theories of Georges Dumézil—like Lévi,...

  7. Epic Variations on a Mimetic Theme
    (pp. 137-180)

    The three epigraphs that begin this chapter give three different perspectives on the figure of theśamitar, orśamitṛ, a ritual counterpart to mythical outsider figures like the Vrātya or Śunaḥśepa. Theśamitaris not a priest, but a low-class ritual technician who works outside of the sacrificial arena, smothering or strangling the victim and then cooking its carcass on a fire that is also separate from the other sacrificial fires. There is a story inMBh1.189 in which Death serves as theśamitarin the sacrifice of the gods, with the result that no one dies while he...

  8. Meaning: The Secret Heart of the Sacred
    (pp. 181-236)

    Citing Roger Caillois’sLes jeux et les hommes, Girard identifies the four types of games listed by Caillois with the four stages of ritual (see table 4). First are the games of imitation, corresponding to the advent of acquisitive mimesis, when humans begin to learn by imitating and their imitation gives rise to conflict as models become rivals. Second are the games of competition, corresponding to the struggle of the mimetic doubles, when the mimetic rivalries have intensified to the point that rivals become enemy twins, like Viśvāmitra and Vasiṣṭha. Third come the games of vertigo, corresponding to the sacrificial...

  9. Yañānta: The End of Sacrifice
    (pp. 237-252)

    This book began with two aims. The first was to ascertain whether and to what extent Girard’s mimetic theory and his idea of the sacrificial origin of religion and culture could enrich our understanding of Hinduism. The second was to see what kind of corrections or nuances the Hindu tradition could offer to Girard’s theory of religion. In the introduction I laid out Girard’s thesis, with special attention to the role of the victim as the “transcendental signifier.” Then I listed and countered some specific ideological and methodological concerns about using mimetic theory to interpret Hindu materials, defending Girard against...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 253-286)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 287-302)
  12. Index
    (pp. 303-310)