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The Corporeal Relationship Between Men and Cattle in the Vedic Prose


· Barbora Sojkova University of Oxford (Oxford, United Kingdom)


07/29 | 09:20-09:40 UTC+2/CEST


This paper explores the interconnectedness of nature and culture in the Vedic literature, using a case study on the relationship of men and cattle in the Brāhmaṇas. The main goal of the paper is to explore how the Vedic prose mythologise the dependency of humans on cattle and how the Vedic ritual and mythology mirror the nomadic way of life. Firstly, I will present the core narrative: the Brāhmaṇa passage stating that a hide which now covers the body of a cow was originally the skin of a man. This passage, found in the Jaiminīya and Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, is introduced within the discussion of two rituals: viśvajit, the soma sacrifice and dīkṣā, the consecration of a sacrificer. In this paper, I will explore the ritual context and argue that this myth is crucial for our understanding of the relationship between humans and animals in ancient India. I will argue that both the ritual actions of viśvajit and dīkṣā and the mythical narrative serve to remind the sacrificer of his relatedness to cattle. Secondly, I will discuss the Vedic “relational ontology”, i.e. the symbolic relationship between animals and humans in the middle Vedic thought, more broadly. Based on a number of prose passages about the evolution of animals and the reciprocal relationship between humans and other beings in this world and the next, I will suggest that unlike the ancient Greeks, the Vedic people did not perceive animal and human as opposing categories. I will argue that even though the Brāhmaṇa texts classify animals into categories (e.g. wild vs. domestic), these categories are porous. I will argue that this reflects the permeability of the categories of nature and culture.