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Into The Fire: Religious Sacrifice in Comparative Perspective

Course Number
RELS 016 601
Course Code
Course Key
Course Description
Sacrifice, or the presentation of sacred offerings to the gods, is one of the most common activities in all religious traditions. The presence of sacrifice throughout history and across cultures has led many scholars to suggest that this type of ritual encapsulates the essence of religious behavior. Understanding sacrifice is thus an important factor of understanding religion, and any explanation of sacrifice is a theory of religion in miniature. This class will introduce students to influential anthropological, sociological, and psychological theories of sacrifice, from early depictions of sacrifice as an act of commercial exchange between humans and superhuman agents to more recent theories that stress the role of sacrifice as a political device for augmenting power relations within society. We will test these theories by applying them to several case studies derived from Asian religions, such as the Indian Yajna fire ritual, the Chinese ancestral sacrifice, and the self-sacrifice of the Bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism. Our study of both theory and practice will help us better understand the persistent presence of sacrifice from antiquity to the modern day.
Subject Area Vocab