Skip to content

Fertility, blood flow and embodiment in religious sacrificial traditions

By Salini Saha

In this article, I attempt to demonstrate the significance of blood as a body fluid running across various axes of differentiation within South Asian religious sacrificial traditions. While blood sacrifices have largely been at the foreground of anthropological studies, and conventionally remains tied to ideas of death, pain and violence, blood as a powerful signifying force of life’s origin and regeneration, is central to sacrificial traditions of South Asian popular religion such as Buddhist tantric rituals or Shakti goddess cults. However, I alternatively argue that systems of such symbolic representation become viscerally and permanently meaningful when they are grounded in lived material relations. Blood has been the most powerful, evocative, and symbolic bodily substance since earliest days of humankind. Blood, particularly menstrual blood, marking an important phase in the reproductive life cycle, brims with connotations of fertility, birth, and life. Therefore bloodshed, whether natural as in case of menstrual blood or ritual, as in case of animal sacrifice, is a powerful symbol of life and birth, contrary to notions of violence. Thus, the blood sacrifice act marks material dimensions of the most evocative bodily fluid – blood. In the discussion that follows, blood flow occupies a liminal space within symbolic and material realities. It permeates and bridges the gap between the natural and the social within the realm of religion.

Drawing from such an understanding, I explore the various dimensions of differentiation that blood engenders within this complex entanglement of fluid, faith, rituals and living bodies – both human and animal. In this context, I extensively discuss the practice of animal sacrifice, where the flesh and blood of the animal body is not symbolically but materially present in sacrifice rituals. Indeed, the literal presence of the sacrificed blood, gushing from the dead animal’s body, evokes sensations of awe, reverence, fear amongst its practitioners. In this sense, every sacrifice is known as a ritual performance, which is not only a symbolic idea but a material process. Govindrajan describes this as an “embodied” practice; the sacrificial victim being a ‘fleshy being’ always entangled and “grounded in lived material relations” (2018: 55). Thus, I chart out the significance of constructions of blood as occupying a liminal space between the natural and social orders. It is the understanding of blood as a material and liminal entity which recreates differences between men and women, between human and animal, and between humans through blood markings like caste identities.

Religious sacrificial ceremonies in South Asian popular religious traditions are marked significantly by the ritual efficacy of blood flow. However, ‘cruel’ the sacrificial act may appear to common eyes, it is a powerful reminder of group cohesion, of one’s blood relation with the land itself. Just like the humans of the land, the animals and all living creatures share this bond with the soil, and as such with their village or clan deity. In agricultural societies, blood sacrifice acts a powerful nourishing agent for the soil, denoting regeneration, and fertility of the earth. Many ethnographic accounts narrate how the sacrificed animal blood is allowed to seep deep into the soil to ensure its transformation into a life-giving force.

As Melissa Meyer writes, “To ensure the soil’s fertility, a religious leader, often a god incarnate, might be sacrificed and the blood allowed to seep into the field” (2005: 163). Again, among the Nahua community, an indigenous group in Mexico, blood was the “primary ritual nourishing agent” for the annual regeneration of the earth and seasonal changes. Blood converted death into life, as a “religious recycling of life energies between the social and natural orders” (Townsend, 2011: 220).

This is therefore a claim about the territorial integrity of the deity, where humans, animals and lands are essentially connected through blood flow. It is the material propensities of blood which enables this cohesion – namely its capacity to permeate between the interior of and exterior to the body, its capacity to turn from liquid to solid and its strong visual sense like its color. In its symbolic sense, its powerful nourishing significance is established in agricultural communities, enabling transformation of death into life, ensuring agricultural fertility. Here it is metaphorically related to women’s menstrual life blood, which nourishes the child in the womb. While in anthropological studies both its symbolic and material dimensions are highlighted, theories on blood sacrifice essentially discuss its cohesive and unificatory tendencies, often ignoring the complex differentiating and hierarchical propensities it generates.

Seen through feminist lens, blood sacrifice rituals have traditionally operated as a male domain, either through ancestor worship traditions, ensuring the continuation of the male descent line, or through maintaining patrilineal social relations of production. Sacrifice ensured the continuity or discontinuity of communities. Ethnographically, this is observed in ritual sacrifices made in honor of a village deity, where it is organized, conducted, arranged, and dominated by men. Women are either present as spectators of the bloodletting scene or as accompaniments, involved in making the practice more dramatic and sensually stimulating. For instance, during religious sacrificial practices in rural West Bengal, men dominate the scene. The animal body is sacrificed by lower caste men, and the blood is offered by men belonging usually to a higher caste order.

This manner of orchestrating the blood flow marks a very significant avenue of differentiating men’s blood from women’s blood. While menstrual blood has always been symbolically associated with taboo, pollution, fear and revulsion, it has also been centrally prominent as the blood of conception and childbirth. I argue that the aversion towards menstrual blood has been a very convenient and strategic avenue to diminish, manipulate and suppress the power of childbirth. In other words, by relegating menstrual blood as ‘taboo’ and ‘polluting’, societies across cultures have successfully diminished the significance of women’s power to give and nurture life in general. The domination of blood sacrifices along patrilineal lines, has been yet another avenue to manipulate and overpower women’s blood of procreation. Hence, rather than viewing sacrifices as only symbolic of communion and cohesion, I analyze how bodily fluids have always been important markers of power differences in societies.

In this sense, gender differences are recreated with every sacrificial act; the blood flow is directed and controlled by men, or in many cases the patrilineal clan, as a way of overpowering the female biological blood, the feminine lifeforce. Women reproduce biologically, while men reproduce the bloodline. The second axis of differentiation is that between humans and animals, which is ritually recreated during blood rituals. In anthropological literature, the emphasis of the ‘meaning’ behind blood sacrifice captures the semiosis of what the sacrificial victim stands for. Theories on sacrifice have presented it as either ‘gift’, or symbolic of ‘communion’, or ‘substitution’. In other words, the victim has been stripped of its blood and flesh, reduced only to its symbolic representation. As such, the animal body, becomes a powerful symbol of substitution of life for life, ignoring its material embodiments. In other words, the animal body and its bloody connotations have been seriously undermined and invisible-ized in anthropological scholarships.

Shifting away from such explanations, I argue that sacrifice needs to be understood as more than just a symbol of the regeneration of life. In doing so, I place the animal body at the centre of such discussions. We need to understand the animal sacrificed as viscerally embodied, as composed of blood and flesh, which is then consumed or internalised by its fellow kinship beings, very literally. Thus, even when the animal is a mediator between the human and divine, or a fellow-kin, or a child of the land, it is an embodied being, composed of blood and flesh, reflecting its hierarchically inferior status. While there is a vast amount of academic scholarship on human-animal relationality which views animals “not as a symbolic foil for human representation but as subjects whose agency, intention, and capacity for emotion are crucial aspects of forming such relations” (Govindrajan, 2018: 6), religious sacrifices often recreate the hierarchical division between humans and animals. The blood of the sacrificial victim, although symbolized as the blood of its fellow humans, nonetheless, only reproduces the binary between human and animal body. The fact that animals could be substituted for humans, reveals the inferior value of animal body compared to the human.

The third and final axis of difference is blood markings of caste identities. Blood based differentiations like caste, are dramatically heightened during blood sacrifice rituals in South Asian sacrifice traditions. Thus, ways of managing the sacrificial ritual, performing the sacrificial rite and eating the sacrificed animal reveal contested experiences of castes in villages of West Bengal. In most village deity worship in the state of West Bengal, the blood sacrifices are performed by lower caste men. The claim that sacrifice was originally associated with lower castes can be traced back to post-Vedic texts which devalue animal sacrifice in favor of transcendental knowledge gained through asceticism and worldly renunciation (Fuller, 2004: 88). In addition, Buddhism, Jainism, along with the impact of Christianity during the colonial era, upheld non-violence and ascetic practices as normative values which assimilated within the Brahminic tradition in India. Consequently, animal sacrifice became an ‘inferior’ ritual associated with inferior people and inferior deities. (Jha, 2004). Thus, my informant’s conflation of sacrifice rituals with lower caste origins, testifies to the latent casteist associations of ‘polluted’ skin and bloody disgust.

Although the association between blood sacrifice and lower caste identities have been a constant zone of scholarly debate, recent scholars of South Asia have identified how the “seemingly value-neutral talk about dirtness and cleanliness” are also ‘coded’ ways of marking caste identities. However, while caste remains central to notions of purity and pollution, what has been clearly ignored is the materiality and tangibility of the ‘polluted’ fluid. Here, a similarity may be drawn between menstrual blood of women and handling of sacrificial animal blood by lower caste men. Indeed, not only does blood discriminate life based on the blood of birth – blood that is distinguished as pure and impure – but it also comes to be associated with modern notions of physical cleanliness and hygiene. Thus, it is extensively the lower castes, who not only initiate the bloody act but also participate in cleaning the blood from the temple premises, and also disposing of the dead animal carcasses. Thus, their blood markers like caste, not only mediate their symbolic relationship with other fellow members of society but also their material relations, everyday practices and embodied living. Just like women’s menstrual blood, as a biological embodied experience, hierarchizes their relationship to men, similarly, handling of sacrificial blood by lower caste men and women, as an embodied practice, puts them in an inferior relation to that of the higher caste.

Thus, sacrificial blood has been known to constitute territorial fertility, either by simply nourishing the soil with divine blessings, and thereby serving all inhabitants, or by taking one life to give another, or by meting out the material remains of a dead animal for regenerative consumption by the community. And even those who are more critical of animal sacrifice, find other ways of bonding with animals, as co-sharers of the same life-force that their lands embody. Yet, despite these narratives of blood-based community organicity, this article has argued that blood remains an equally powerful marker of hierarchy – differentiating life forms. Sacrificial blood, usurped by men, is counterposed to the lifeblood of women. While women reproduced life biologically and corporeally, men reproduced patrilineage through blood rituals. Concurrently, in sacrificial rituals, the bloody animal body reflects human-animal relationality marked by hierarchy. Sacrifice of animals as ‘substitutes’ for humans reinforces the difference between human and animal life. Further, the birth blood of castes also delineates humans differentially, and even while all castes participate in the sacrificial rituals and relate to the animal’s blood, there are however other blood markings which also simultaneously separate populations. Blood ties and unties in South Asian religious landscapes.


Fuller, Christopher John. The camphor flame: Popular Hinduism and society in India. Princeton University Press, 2004.

Govindrajan, Radhika. “Animal Intimacies.” Animal Intimacies. University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Jha, Dwijendra Narayan. The myth of the holy cow. Verso, 2002.

Meyer, Melissa. Thicker than water: The origins of blood as symbol and ritual. Routledge, 2014.

Townsend, Philippa. “Bonds of Flesh and Blood.” Ancient Mediterranean Sacrifice (2011): 214-224.

Salini Saha is a PhD. Scholar at the Department of Sociology, Presidency University, Kolkata, India. Concurrently, she is also teaching as a guest faculty at Presidency University. Prior to this, she held the position of Assistant Professor at the School of Social Sciences and Humanities, CMR University, Bangalore, India. Her research interest areas include landscape studies, environmental history, anthropology of religion, anthropology of space and gender studies. Her ongoing doctoral thesis focuses on the intersections between nature/culture binaries through an ethnographic study of agrarian landscapes in Bardhaman, West Bengal, India.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: