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The Head Beneath the Altar

Hindu Mythology and the Critique of Sacrifice

Brian Collins

Publication Year: 2014

In the beginning, says the ancient Hindu text the Rg Veda, was man. And from man’s sacrifice and dismemberment came the entire world, including the hierarchical ordering of human society. The Head Beneath the Altar is the first book to present a wide-ranging study of Hindu texts read through the lens of René Girard’s mimetic theory of the sacrificial origin of religion and culture. For those interested in Girard and comparative religion, the book also performs a careful reading of Girard’s work, drawing connections between his thought and the work of theorists like Georges Dumézil and Giorgio Agamben. Brian Collins examines the idea of sacrifice from the earliest recorded rituals through the flowering of classical mythology and the ancient Indian institutions of the duel, the oath, and the secret warrior society. He also uncovers implicit and explicit critiques in the tradition, confirming Girard’s intuition that Hinduism offers an alternative anti-sacrificial worldview to the one contained in the gospels.

Published by: Michigan State University Press

Series: Studies in Violence, Mimesis and Culture


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

There are many people without whom this book would not have been possible. Th e foremost of these is Bill Johnsen of Michigan State University, whom I met fortuitously at the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting in Montréal in 2009 when the manuscript of the...

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pp. 1-42

India is the birthplace of the religious traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism. It has served as a pilgrimage place and source of spiritual renewal for Chinese monks in the fifth century, Tibetan royalty in the tenth century, and the Western counterculture since at least...

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pp. 43-82

Rivalry is at the center of Girard’s work. Some would say that rivalry also characterizes Girard’s relationship to the rest of the academy. It also plays a central role in the mythology of the Brāhmaṇas, in which the gods and the demons are locked in a continuous struggle for supremacy...

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Priests and Kings, Oaths and Duels

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pp. 83-136

In the last chapter, we examined the rivalries outside (European scholars vs. Brahmin authors, France vs. England, philology vs. sociology) and inside (gods vs. demons) of the Brāhmaṇa narrative as received and interpreted by Girard. Now we will examine a new rivalry: that of the royal...

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Epic Variations on a Mimetic Theme

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pp. 137-180

The three epigraphs that begin this chapter give three diff erent perspectives on the figure of the śamitar, or śamitṛ, a ritual counterpart to mythical outsider figures like the Vrātya or Śunaḥśepa. The śamitar is not a priest, but a low-class ritual technician who works outside of the sacrificial arena, smothering...

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Meaning: The Secret Heart of the Sacred

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pp. 181-236

Rabbi Bunam used to tell young men who came to him for the first time the story of Rabbi Eizik, son of Rabbi Yekel of Cracow. Aft er many years of great poverty which had never shaken his faith in God, he dreamed someone bade him look for a treasure in Prague, under...

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Yajñānta: The End of Sacrifice

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pp. 237-252

Th is book began with two aims. Th e first was to ascertain whether and to what extent Girard’s mimetic theory and his idea of the sacrificial origin of religion and culture could enrich our understanding of Hinduism. Th e second was to see what kind of corrections or nuances the Hindu tradition could...


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pp. 253-286


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pp. 287-302


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pp. 303-310

E-ISBN-13: 9781609174064
E-ISBN-10: 1609174062
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611861167
Print-ISBN-10: 1611861160

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2014

Edition: 1st
Series Title: Studies in Violence, Mimesis and Culture
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OCLC Number: 870841442
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Head Beneath the Altar

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Hindu mythology.
  • Sacrifice -- Hinduism.
  • Violence -- Religious aspects -- Hinduism.
  • Girard, René, 1923-.
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