Q: Question: Is it true that the Vedas do not have animal sacrifices and are vegetarian?
A: No. Animal sacrifice is very clear in the Vedas as a part of the rituals. The Rig Veda has several very clear references to animal sacrifices. In a reference to the sacrifice of a goat it says (1.162.2) “The dappled goat goes straight to heaven, bleating to the place dear to Indra and to Pusan.” In one of the hymns to the horse (1.162.9-11) it says, “What part of the steed’s flesh the fly does not eat or is left sticking to the post or hatchet, or to the slayer’s hands and nails adheres, among the Gods, too may all this be with thee. Food undigested steaming from his belly and any odor of raw flesh that remains, let the immolators set in order and dress the sacrifice with perfect cooking. What from thy body which with fire is roasted when thou art set upon the spit distills let not that lie on earth or grass neglected, but to the longing Gods let all be offered.” As well, the nonb-vegetarian aspect is clear that when this horse was sacrificed, it was then distributed to those who “were eagerly waiting as the meat was tested with a trial fork and then distributed (Rig 1.162.12ff.).”
The Yajur Veda contains many more references to animal sacrifices, clear and often repeated references to animal sacrifices, mainly in association with the full moon rite, the Soma sacrifice and its supplement. There is an entire section of the Yajur devoted to optional animal sacrifices (ii.1)
The flesh of the victim was offered in part as a burnt offering, in part eaten by the priests (who were not vegetarians; cf. the statement by Keith in the Harvard Oriental Series, Vol 18, Motilal Banarsidas, Delhi, Arthur Berriadale Keith Vol I, p. cvii).
Here are a few clear examples of animal sacrifices in the Yajur Veda (The Black Yajur, Vol I, Banarsidas, Delhi, A.B. Keith):
“To the Asvins he sacrifices a dusky, to Sarasvati a ram, to Indra a bull”
“He who hates us and whom we hate, here do I cut off his neck…” (Yajur
The latter one a reference to the symbolic and protecting nature of the animal sacrifice that the sacrificer receives.
Sacrifice was done with several views. First there was simply the gift-offering. There is also a sense in which the sacrifice gives power or a way of spiritually carrying out something through the sacrifice such as the severing of the heads of enemies through the gods. Sacrifice is seen as a way of pleasing the gods and gaining their favor in contrast to those who do not sacrifice (e.g. Rig 1.110.7 “those who pour no offering forth”). In the Soma offering it is the priests offering the gods the juice that gives them pleasure and strength to win wealth and help from the gods for those who offer the Soma (cf. Rig 1.107 and 108).
Sacrifice gains spiritual favor and ascendancy in divinity. The Ribhus gained immortality through their zealous sacrificing (Rig 1.110.4). Sacrifice was to endue the sacrificer with power and wealth from the gods (Rig 1.111.2).
The Old Testament Jewish sacrificial system (which also sacrificed animals) was temporary and symbolic as representing the need for men to have forgiveness of sins. In the ‘scapegoat’ sacrifice, the sins of the people were symbolically laid upon the goat and then it was sent (to its inevitable death) outside the camp as a way of visibly expressing the need of man for forgiveness. In the day of atonement, the high priest would take hyssop (a type of plant) and dip it in the blood of the sacrifice and sprinkle it on the people. This was done to represent that fact that the people themselves were guilty and their lives were forfeit. In the atonement sacrifice, there was a substitute that was provided in the animal and the blood then symbolized their forgiveness and the satisfaction of their sins. In the New Testament, Jesus takes the title, “The Lamb of God,” who takes away the sins of the world. This idea of sacrificial substitute provides the background for giving a richness of understanding of the death of Jesus for the sins of mankind. He is the lamb whose blood is poured out as the substitute for men. The thing that is crucially different of course is that a lamb cannot take the place of a man, as man is responsible for sin in a way an animal is not. Jesus figuratively is the lamb, but in reality is of course a man. He can take the place of a man as a substitute. The efficacy of the sacrifice of Jesus is that he is not only a man, but claimed to be God incarnate as well and so could have the “weight” to forgive not only one other man, but the sins of the whole world.