The meaning of sacrifice as delayed gratification(?)

I just read a very intelligently written book by Jordan Peterson which (amongst other things) interprets the Bible stories from a psychological perspective. One of the insights I got is the idea, somewhat linked to Piaget’s studies on moral development and his attempt to ground morality in science, that historically human beings might have started to act out moral behaviours that were good for themselves and society without knowing why they worked; then become kind of aware of them symbolically (as in mythology) and then finally rationalised them. So the Bible stories and perhaps Indian epics would belong to the mythology stage.
So sacrifice was a kind of symbolic understanding of the idea of delayed gratification and as it were a kind of ‘discovery’ of the future (as in agriculture where you save some seeds so that you can then plant them for next year’s crop). From an evolutionary perspective this is significant as it is one of the things that sets human beings apart from the animals.
I am wondering whether this or similar ideas have been put forward to explain sacrifice in Indian religions before Buddhism? I mean, for example sacrificing some of your crops or an animal to the gods would express in a kind of dream like, symbolic way, those people’s understanding that by giving up something they valued in the present, they will obtain a greater benefit in the future.
I guess that in the context of the stages of moral development I outlined at the beginning probably Buddhism comes at a later stage where for example it is more explicitly stated that giving up things as in Dana will results in greater benefits in the future or in future lives.

Hi Stef,
I haven’t read anything by Peterson. Here are two perspectives that I remember having read in studies of the sacrifice. The sacrifice is a very complex phenomenon, mixed up with all sorts of things like theology, liturgy, politics, power, debt etc.

The first is that the sacrifice is an irrational response to the recognition of mortality. The idea here is that human existence itself is a form of debt and needs to be paid off as it were by performing sacrifices.

There is a reference in the S. Brāhmaṇa which says that man is a debt to the gods and by being born is set for death. Then the only way for men to save themselves is by the sacrifice.

Here, the sacrificial fire is symbolic of death itself, that can eat up the sacrificer but is instead appeased regularly with offerings instead. The idea that choices keep the cycle of existence turning are implicit here too. However, the perspective that choices also have an ethical perspective which makes dāna beneficial isn’t as prominent.

The other perspective is regarding animal sacrifice. This is related to the meat diet. Committing murder for food produces a lot of subconscious guilt, which is made conscious using the sacrifice. The drive for meat can then curbed by prohibiting it or rationalised away in some way. Also, by invoking the gods during the animal sacrifice, the sacrificer is impelled by the gods towards the sacrifice, the texts ask then that how can he be guilty? This would be another way to unburden the guilt.

If you are interested, I can look through where I read this and give you more quotations and references later.

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Thanks, this sounds very interesting and if you could provide the references and/or quotations when you get the chance, that would be great :pray:
The idea that life is a debt is quite interesting; if I remember correctly Schopenhauer who I read many years ago ridiculed the idea that life is a gift and likened it to a debt too. I also believe that the Buddhist view is certainly more consistent with the idea of debt (as it certainly is not a gift according to the suttas!); the aim being to extinguish it (sorry for the pun).
The second idea kind of reminds me a book by an Italian writer, Roberto Calasso, but I felt that it was written in a very unclear way; he was the editor of a trendy publishing house that often made a virtue out of obscurity…So yeah it would be interesting to read more.

PS Re: Peterson he is intelligent and competent; I can tell because when he writes and speaks about the subjects I know about (such as Heidegger, Nietzsche or Piaget) he does so competently. Maps of meaning is the deepst book but he also talks about the ideas I mentioned in 12 rules for life, which is quite surprising to me that it became such a bestseller, since it is a very serious intellectual work, albeit written in a style accessible to the general public.

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I don’t think Peterson has anything profound to say at all. His understanding of historical thinkers is superficial and mostly wrong. His arguments are poorly reasoned, his premises illogical, his conclusions regressive. He is a reactionary, thin-skinned conservative masquerading as a serious intellectual/philosopher.

:rofl: :rofl: :rofl: :rofl:
The points he makes do seem to be argued more thoroughly than the ones you made though. :sweat_smile:
Anyway I have no interest in arguing with you; reading your message has made it clear enough to me where you come from.
I thought the points I made in my OP are interesting and relevant to Buddhists (e.g. the Piagetian entreprise to try to ground ethics in science (and thus truth) is certainly something some people here would be interested in)

Hi again,

The anthropologist David Graeber wrote a book on the history of Debt. The book has a chapter called Primordial Debts that summarizes the work of a school of French intellectuals that goes by the name of “Primordial Debt Theory”. I would recommend that chapter, for some discussion (Pg 55 onwards) regarding the connection between sacrifice and debt, and the whole book actually because it is simply wonderful.

As for Calasso, I’ve read his two books on India and I liked them, although his book Ardor which is an enigmatic and thematic commentary mostly on the Rgveda and S. Brāhmaṇa made me stop reading to reconsider what he was saying several times. Chapter 3 of that book touches on several themes related to animals and animal sacrifice.

A principle of least obscurity applies here since the Vedic texts and the Brāhmaṇas already themselves have a reputation of being super-obscure :D, so Calasso does make obscure texts less obscure by quoting and explaining them. However, I sympathize with your allegation about his writing being obscure though, since I tried reading his Ruin of Kasch and quickly got lost in his descriptions about pre-revolution French Aristocracy. I intend to return to Kasch again if possible.

As for whether existence is a debt? Well this is going to be just my own opinion, since what metaphors make sense for us depends on how we see the world, maybe it makes some sense to you too. So I will add it here.
A few months back, I was walking around the city where I live and found an absurd quote painted on an underpass wall - “Don’t invest love in those who do not stay” or something like that.
Why do we seem to frame profound values like love, in fact our very own humanity itself, in terms of much shallower and vaguer ideas like investments, debts etc derived from the world of the market which are mixed up with ideas of self-interest, optimization, accounting and the like?
Of course, sometimes we want to get some feeling across - maybe using the idea of debt, feelings of bondage and debt-slavery - and if such a line of thinking leads to understanding for someone, then great. But knowing that love precedes a world in which investment means anything is important as well. Perhaps, we become used to thinking always in worldly terms and then when we arrive at something that is more profound, don’t think outside our usual terms of discourse.

Something similar is also true for thinking of existence in terms of debt, I feel. A debt is just an artificial contractual agreement between two equal parties. It is something vague, usually mixed up with feelings of guilt and shame - a lot of times, people holding a gun feel that generations after generations of people without a gun owe them their lives. In such a case, one wonders who is it that owes to another. Maybe there is no problem thinking in these terms, but things certainly become very perverse if a metaphor like the one on the wall is taken seriously and we hash out the implications.

I like to think of the Dhamma in naturalistic terms - so the fire simile instead of debt, perhaps - just as the Buddha teaches several times in the Nidānasamyutta as an unwavering principle that both existence and non-existence have invariant conditions. So whether existence is a debt or a gift, it is dependent on contact, for example.

As for whether existence or it’s cessation is preferable then, I think even that is invariable. There is no vagueness in that, in the sense that anyone who sees clearly sees the same thing.

That’s great! On an unrelated note, I remember there was a discussion in Ardor where Calasso says that Indian and Western thought diverge when the Indians say that the Mind is more than Speech. I was wondering whether Western thinkers like the above who are not religious mystics but trained philosophers ever write about experiences where the Mind is non-linguistic, as the jhānas are in Buddhism for example.

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That’s a good question; I am not sure I know enough to answer it but e.g. for the later Heidegger doing philosophy came with a kind of religious attitude (as in his sentence ‘to think is to thank’ - as in thanking God); and he was also appreciative of Buddhism (he once said that what he heard from a Buddhist monk corresponded to what he had been trying to say for his whole life). Here’s an interview with a vietnamese monk:

However it is true that the logos has had a central role is the Western tradition and certainly for Heidegger language was what he called ‘the house of Being’. I remember reading decades a ago a sentence of his that struck me and that I think I understand better since. It was ‘when you ware strolling through a wood, when you walk past a spring, you are also walking past the words ‘wood’ and ‘spring’ even if you don’t think of them or of anything to do with language’.
I think that this is related to the idea that the way we experience the world is most fundamentally through meaning - we encounter and perceive in the first instance meaning and not things (and one of the reasons I respect Peterson is that he gets this, unlike many professional philosophers in my home country whose positions would probably pass Graeber’s test to qualify as ‘Bullshit jobs’.) So this importance accorded to language by thinkers like Heidegger or Wittgenstein seem to me to be in contrast to the Buddhist view.

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This has some echoes in the brief mention of adhivacanasamphasso in DN 15, which isn’t explained in more detail anywhere that I know of. Bhante Sujato translates it as labeling contact while Bhikkhu Bodhi has designation-contact, so I think it is a type of contact that occurs with mind-consciousness involved. Bhante Sujato has the note :

“Labeling contact” is adhivacanasamphassa ; it is the active process by which the mind makes sense of the world by attaching labels to experience. This passage reinforces the linguistic significance of nāma .

Perhaps, you are already aware of this, but since this idea has some resonance with you, I thought this might be a nice spring off point for reflecting on the conditionality of this type of phenomenon :slight_smile:

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Yes in Vedic Hermeneutics (Mīmāṃsā) there is the concept of apūrva - which essentially means that although the results of the ritual activity are not cognizable to the doer’s senses immediately they do indeed exist and will materialize in a future point in time - as no karma (i.e. act - whether good or bad) ever goes without bringing a commensurate result to the doer.

To get a fair understanding of the philosophy, watch these lessons – (you would need to understand spoken Sanskrit).