The Head Beneath the Altar
Hindu Mythology and the Critique of Sacrifice
Studies in Violence, Mimesis & Culture
Published by: Michigan State University Press
Imprint: Michigan State University Press
Sales Date: 2014-01-01
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.
Priests and Kings, Oaths and Duels
Epic Variations on a Mimetic Theme
Meaning: The Secret Heart of the Sacred
Yajñānta: The End of Sacrifice
In this lucid and vividly written book, Collins illuminates his analysis of violence and sacrifice in Hinduism with a highly original concept of the meaning of violence and sacrifice more generally. Building on works by (and against) René Girard, he shows what a more nuanced Girardian theory would look like based upon Hindu rather than Christian data.
—Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, and author of The Hindus: An Alternative History
The Head Beneath the Altar is a notable and welcome achievement. Collins reviews René Girard’s mimetic interpretation of violence and religion, and in particular Girard’s late-in-life endeavor to assess the great sacrificial traditions of India. Collins ably reviews and succinctly assesses that vast heritage of Indian thinking on the sacrifice, attending to both indigenous and Western scholarly sources. This resultant study both honors Girard’s many contributions and, with respect to the Indian context, pushes beyond them. It greatly widens, beyond the Christian West, our necessary conversation about religion, violence, and the heritage of sacrifice in today’s global web of religious and secular societies.
--Francis X. Clooney, SJ , Parkman Professor of Divinity and Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard University
This is a surprising and stimulating book, most surprising as a first book. Rather than revise his dissertation on Parasurama, Collins has elected to look at Hinduism through a number of its back windows. No book has gone so far in exploring the sum of shadowy figures who embody the self-deconstructive potential of the sacrifice after which violence and scapegoating are modeled. That Collins chooses to do so through questions raised by René Girard will be among the surprises, and his understanding of the Mahabharata will be contested: that it is a work of centuries rather than a literary masterpiece of a short period of composition alive with the contradictions or juxtapositions he finds there. But the total effort is innovative and gratifying, and the back windows are eye-opening.
--Alfred Hiltebeitel, Professor of Religion, History, and Human Sciences, George Washington University