Mircea Eliade "From Primitives to Zen": THE COSMIC SACRIFICE

('Rig Veda,' X, 90)

Quite different from the impersonal creative force tad ekam of Rig Veda, X, 129 (109), or the hymn of Prajapati, Rig Veda, X, 121 ( P- 34) is the Purusha-sukta. Purusha is at once supreme being, the cosmos, and as such he is sacrificed primordially as the very act of creation. As cosmic being, only one quarter of purusha is manifest; three-quarters of him are eternally unmanifest (like Brahman [neuter], the absolute creative power).

Self-immolated, his creative act becomes a prototype: all sacrifices henceforth are repititions, reconstructing victim, altar, and even the consequences of that primeval sacrifice. In other words the human microcosmic work, in correspondence with the macrocosmic original, recreates the world with each new sacrifice, producing as in illo tempore, -not only all living creatures, celestial bodies, the three worlds, and the gods themselves, but also the substance of the three Vedas.

Of particular interest here (as it is the only Rig Vedic reference to the four social classes), the dismembered Purusha provides Brahmans, Rajanyas (or Kshatriyas), Vaishyas and Shudras from his own mouth, arms, thighs and feet, respectively. Thus does the Vedic creation hymn "count for the origin of the non-Aryan serf (Shudra), as well as the archaic tripartite distinction between the priest, concerned with the sacred utterance (brahman), the warrior and his force (kshatra) of 'arms,' and the Vaishya, sprung from the loins of Purusha, who knows the secrets of animal and plant fertility and of wealth.

1. A thousand heads had Purusha, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet. He covered earth on every side, and spread ten fingers' breadth beyond.

2. This Purusha is all that yet hath been and all that is to be; The Lord of immortality which waxes greater still by food. 1

3. So mighty is his greatness; yea, greater than this is Purusha. All creatures are one-fourth of him, three-fourths eternal, life in heaven.

4. With three-fourths Purusha went up; one fourth of him again was here. Thence he strode out to every side over what eats not and what eats.

5. From him Viraj was born; again Purusha from Viraj was born.2 As soon as he was born he spread eastward and westward 3 o'er the earth.

6. When gods prepared the sacrifice with Purusha as their offering, Its oil was spring, the holy gift was autumn; summer was the wood.

7. They balmed as victim on the grass 4 Purusha born in earliest time. With him the deities and all Sadhyas5 and rishis sacrificed.

8. From that great general sacrifice the dripping fat was gathered up. He formed the creatures of the air, and animals both wild and tame.

9. From that great general sacrifice Rc- and Sama-hymns were born; Therefrom the metres were produced, the Yajus had its birth from it.6

10. From it were horses born, from it all creatures with two rows of teeth; From it were generated kine, from it the goats and sheep were born.

11.. When they divided Purusha how many portions did they make? What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet?

12. The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rajanya made. His thighs became the Vaishya, from his feet the Shudra was produced.

13. The moon was gendered from his mind, and from his eye the sun had birth; Indra and Agni from his mouth were born, and Vayu from his breath.

14. Forth from his navel came mid-air, the sky was fashioned from his head; Earth from his feet, and from his ear the regions. Thus they formed the worlds.

15. Seven fencing-logs 7 had he, thrice seven layers of fuel were prepared, When the gods, offering sacrifice, bound as their victim, Purusha.

16. Gods, sacrificing, sacrificed the victim; these were the earliest holy ordinances. The mighty ones attained the height of heaven, there where the Sadhyas, gods of old, are dwelling.


1 Although the Purusha is 'all that is,' sacrificial offerings yet provide him increase.

2 Viraj is obscure. As in other creation hymns (X, 129; X, 121), some primordial matter is presupposed. Here a cosmic 'man,' in lieu of the formless waters of undifferentiated sky-earth, is basal, but an intermediate stage of creation seems to be implied. 'From him' (the unmanifest quarter of Purusha) proceeds this secondary cosmic source, which in turn gives birth to (the manifest quarter of Purusha. Aitareya-brahmana 1, 4 associates Viraj mystically with food, perhaps reflecting upon this passage and stanzas 2 and 4 above.

3 From one end of the earth (bhumi) to the other.

4 Sacrificial grass.

5 Sadhyas, an ancient class of celestial beings; those who are worthy of propitiation.

6 The three Vedas: Rigveda, Samaveda and Yajurveda are here produced. This hymn is obviously then one of the latest to be included in the Rig Veda. .

7 Borders of the sacrificial fire; usually three green sticks, but here a sacred number, seven.

Translation by Ralph T. H. Griffith, in his The Hymns of the Rigveda, IV (Benares, 1892), PP 289-93

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