A modern and secular interpretation of sacrifice is the giving up of something valuable or important for somebody or something else considered to be of more value or importance. The need for a modern definition is important as we will see how the concepts have changed over time across the world.
Self-sacrifice can be defined as an act of deliberately following a course of action that has a high risk or certainty of suffering, personal loss or death (which could otherwise be avoided), in order to achieve a perceived benefit for self or others. Over a period of time Self-sacrifice has become a concept for broader meaning such as selflessness, or the readiness to inflict pain upon oneself to save others.
However, for our understanding we will not limit the phrase to just what can be referred to as ‘killing one self’. We will also encompass such aspects as ‘giving up’ an aspect of one’s self, or giving up something precious to one’s self and so on.
Let us examine cases of Self-sacrifice in Indian Mythology –
Before we list out the references of self-sacrifice in Indian mythology, it is important to understand that it has always been considered as one of the great virtues of mankind to be of help to the people around who were more needy. Many a person is considered brave for their virtue of giving away their wealth, knowledge, life, etc. all valuable possessions relevant for man’s existence. Indian mythology gives many extraordinary instances of people giving away their body parts and wealth in order to give preference to “daan” and “tyaag”. Let us take a few examples of such cases of self-sacrifice.
Sacrifice of Maharishi Dadhichi –
During a war between the gods and demons, the demons had dominated the battle and deprived the gods of all their weapons by using some magical powers. The gods were left with only a few but important ones and if they lost them too then the gods would definitely lose the battle. So the gods gave the weapons to Maharishi Dadhichi to keep them with him safe till they returned for the war. The demons tried to get the weapons from Maharishi, but could not. A lot of time passed but the gods did not return to collect them, thus depriving him of his regular penance. So with his magical powers he dissolved the weapons in water and drank them. This way the weapons were both safe within him and he could also carry on with his penance undisturbed.
Soon after, the gods returned asking for the weapons. To this Maharishi explained that the only way to take the weapons from him, which were now in the forms of his bones and even more powerful than before, was now to kill him, to which the gods refused to commit the sacrilege of killing a rishi. It was then that the Maharishi created a huge fire, entered into it and submitted himself to the fire. Then Lord Brahma appeared and converted the bones into various powerful weapons with the help of which the demons were defeated. This is till date considered to one of the greatest examples of self-sacrifice.
Puru's sacrifice of his youth to Yayati .
When Yayati’s wife Devyani came to know about Yayati’s illicit relationship she informed her father Sukra, who in turn cursed Yayati that he would suffer the infirmities of old age. When Yayati went and pleaded with him, Sukra lifted the curse by assuring him that one of Yayati's sons could accept his old age in exchange for the youth and the son would be crowned king after Yayati.
Yayati approached all his sons one by one, but all of them refused to barter old age with Yayati, except Puru who was out of the illicit relationship of Yayati with Sarmishta, and thus an illegitimate child too. This giving up of youth for his cursed father is considered an act of self-sacrifice.
Like above, there are many more references of such sacrifices made by many a hero in Indian mythology, some of which are:
· Bhishma's vow of remaining celibate
· The voluntary sacrifice of sight by Gandhari
· Abhimanyu’s death within the chakravyahu
· Self-immolation by Sati in King Daksha’s court
There are many more such examples, but we will stop here for the Indian Mythology.
Tomorrow, we will read about self-sacrifice in other mythologies.