Among all the many uses and abuses of animals which persist for a cultural pretext, animal sacrifice is perhaps the most widely practiced, in a variety of different forms and contexts, and the most difficult to address in an effective manner, leading to fewer animals being killed–or ideally, none.
The difficulty of stopping animal sacrifice occurs in part because the perspective of people who practice animal sacrifice tends to be almost incomprehensible to those who oppose it. Opponents are sometimes many generations and often oceans away from any ancestors who ever sacrificed animals. Killing animals to be eaten at traditional holidays remains as ubiquitous as the slaughter of turkeys at the U.S. Thanksgiving. Yet, from the perspective of people who believe in a just and merciful god, which includes about 85% of humanity according to recent global surveys of religious belief, the theology of practitioners of overt animal sacrifice might seem to many to be blasphemous.
What sort of god would demand that animals be killed? Even the priests of the Spanish Inquisition, who accompanied the conquistadors to the New World and “converted” Native Americans to Catholicism through genocidal use of sword and flame, theorized that animal and human sacrifices were so self-evidently evil that the gods of the practitioners of such sacrifices must be diabolical.
From a secular perspective, animal sacrifice is relatively easily recognized as a set of rituals which permit the practitioners to kill and eat animals without guilt–whereas, in other societies, killing and eating animals is rationalized by arguments which draw exaggerated distinctions between the sentience of animals and humans. Secular observers may notice that seasonal sacrificial occasions tend to coincide with the needs of herding cultures to cull surplus male animals after the spring birthing season and to thin the numbers of animals they must feed through the winter. The efforts of priests to perpetuate animal sacrifice as a method of obtaining meat, or of controlling the distribution of meat in some manner, is seemingly obvious.
But from a perspective of belief, the economic aspects of animal sacrifice may be no more than fortuitous coincidence. The primary purpose of animal sacrifice, to believers, may be an urgent need to appease a deity or demon who may be seen as even more real and threatening than death and taxes. Indeed, the abstract realities of government, recognized by almost every educated person in modern society, may have little meaning to people who perceive taxes as tribute extracted by overlords, much as the deities ruling their daily lives are believed to require offerings of food or blood.
Worldwide, about 13% of humanity observe religions or variants of religions which practice animal sacrifice. Another 13%, mostly Hindus, practice non-animal sacrificing versions of religions that also include an animal-sacrificing variant. A further 21% practice Islam, which features an annual mass slaughter of animals at the Eid (Feast of Atonement) that is widely perceived and described even by some prominent Imams as a sacrificial duty.
As in opposing sport hunting here in the U.S., where under 4% of the population hunts, animal advocates who oppose animal sacrifice are challenging the participation of millions of people in activities which for many participants are a matter of self-definition, practiced by all their family and friends, and continued for millennia by their ancestors.
Though sport hunters and practitioners of animal sacrifice may be small minorities, they are numerous enough to form insular and self-reinforcing communities which resist external pressure to change, and politically dominate many rural areas. Like sport hunters, practitioners of animal sacrifice are often neither well-educated nor affluent, though some are, but they tend to be well-connected. Often practitioners of animal sacrifice collectively hold the balance of power in societies fractured between the traditional status quo and rapid progress, impeled by technological change.
Typically practitioners of animal sacrifice, again like sport hunters, are reliably allied with socially conservative power-holders. Further like sport hunters, practitioners of animal sacrifice have typically long ago extracted legal concessions which virtually exempt anything they do from prosecution as cruelty, and recognize what they do as a “right,” even in societies which recognize few if any rights for women, economic underclasses, and ethnic and religious minorities.
This presents a particular paradox in India, where conflict between the traditionally vegetarian third or more of society and practitioners of animal sacrifice has been more-or-less continuous for more than 2,300 years. Article 51A of the Indian constitution asserts that, “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to have compassion for all living creatures,” which would appear to provide a constitutional basis for prohibiting animal sacrifice. Citing Article 51A, seven Indian states–Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Puducherry–have adopted laws against animal
However, these laws are lightly enforced, if enforced at all, because Article 51A is superseded by Article 25, which states that “Subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.”
A subordinate clause adds that “Nothing in this article shall “prevent the State from making any law” regulating or restricting any economic, financial, political or other secular activity which may be associated with religious practice.”
Thus animal sacrifice is regulated in parts of India, but may not be banned outright, in keeping with a tradition of religious tolerance introduced by King Ashoka (304-232 BCE). Ashoka established the Mauryan Empire through mayhem deemed atrocious even by the standards of his own time, but after conquering almost the whole Indian subcontinent, he became a Buddhist vegetarian circa 269 BCE, and promoted peace by proclaiming “One must not exalt one’s creed, discrediting all others, nor must one degrade these others.”
Similar views were expressed about 1,800 years later by the Mogul emperor Akbar the Great, who decreed, “No man should be interfered with on account of his religion, and everyone should be allowed to change his religion, if he likes…People should not be molested, if they wish to build churches and prayer rooms, or idol temples, or fire temples.” Both Ashoka and Akbar were also known for their love of animals and encouragement of animal welfare, but found themselves constrained in confronting animal sacrifice for essentially the same reasons that confounded the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1993 landmark decision Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah.
Testimony in this case revealed that practitioners of animal sacrifice kill as many as 18,000 animals per year in greater Miami alone. The Supreme Court verdict affirmed the right of Americans to practice animal sacrifice, subject to the same sorts of zoning, environmental, and humane restrictions which would apply to killing animals legally for any other reason, but not to any law specifically and distinctly targeting animal sacrifice.
The fundamental problem in attempting to stop animal sacrifice, whether by law or social criticism, is that ritually killing animals is not only intrinsic to the self-identity of practitioners, but intrinsic to their relationship with a perceived higher power. This relationship, practitioners of animal sacrifice believe, governs all of their success in life–and afterlife –and may have effects extending to all of their descendants.
So long as the believer in animal sacrifice continues to believe that animal sacrifice is demanded by a deity or demon, any attempt by anyone else to intervene to prevent animal sacrifice will be perceived as an attempt to prevent the practitioner from enjoying divine favor, and/or escaping demonic torment.
Sacrifice & self-interest
This problem is compounded when, as is usually the case, the opponents of animal sacrifice are members of an economically and culturally privileged class. Americans, Europeans, and educated people in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and other parts of the world where animal sacrifice persists tend to realize that our relative affluence and influence results from an understanding of science, economics, and advanced communications.
To people of less education, however, much that we do may look quite a lot like pursuing our own superstitious rituals to appease our own gods, or demons, or both. Moreover, many of the major religions which do not actually incorporate animal sacrifice still include elements that echo sacrificial ritual. Though Christianity has never included animal sacrifice, central to Christian theology is the idea that Jesus offered himself in sacrifice on behalf of humanity, as a final sacrifice to end the sacrifice of animals in Judaism. Though Judaism abandoned animal sacrifice after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple just a few decades later, kosher slaughter is still overseen by a rabbi, and some Jewish sects would support the resumption of animal sacrifice if the temple was to be rebuilt.
The actual religious teaching behind the Eid slaughter practiced by Muslims is that the faithful who are affluent enough to slaughter an animal at the end of Ramadan should share meat with the poor. As the January/February 2008 ANIMAL PEOPLE editorial explored in depth, mainstream Islamic interpretation has agreed since the mid-20th century that slaughter is not actually required: that any gift or deed of charity fulfills the obligation to perform the charitable act called Qurbani. Yet this view is
not universally held, especially in the more conservative societies of the Middle East and Central Asia. The web page of the Islamic university Darul-’Uloom, in Karachi, Pakistan, holds that Qurbani is “confined to the sacrifice of an animal slaughtered for the sake of Allah,” and must be performed regardless of those who “make it out to be a wastage of money, resources, and livestock.”
Reports from Saudi Arabia, where the Eid marks the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, indicate that the numbers of animals killed at the Eid have trended slightly downward for several decades as the notion of doing charitable deeds gains traction against the concept of mandatory sacrifice. But this trend is an economic threat to the herding societies of Central Asia and North Africa, for whom Eid slaughter is a major source of income. To secular outsiders, the arguments of clerics from the herding cultures that animal slaughter is essential to Qurbani represent an example of theology following economic self-interest. From within those cultures, however, the prevailing view may be simply that of course obeying the perceived will of Allah brings economic benefit.
Most religions, including those featuring animal sacrifice, armor themselves against changes of practice through proscriptions against “apostasy,” meaning the possibility that a practitioner might adopt differing beliefs. Followers of religions who try to change traditional religious practice are persecuted or shunned as heretics.
But attempting to change from outside the theology that impels animal sacrifice typically only reinforces the determination of the believers to continue in their ways. Even today, in parts of India, Africa, and perhaps elsewhere, outsiders who challenge religious dogmas or intervene to stop sacrificial ceremonies may be putting themselves in serious danger.
But this scarcely means that animal advocates can do nothing against animal sacrifice, including the every-fifth-year massacre of upward of 200,000 buffalo, sheep, goats, and even mice and rats at Bariyarpur, Nepal, in honor of the local goddess Gadhimai. The event attracts as many as five million visitors, mostly from nearby parts of India. Commonly said to be one of the Hindu goddesses of power, Gadhimai is not mentioned in any standard Hindu scriptural text, but may be an incarnation of the goddess Kali.
Initiated circa 1750 by a feudal warlord named Bhagwan Chaudary, who was temporarily jailed in Kathmandu, the Gadhimai sacrifice from the beginning had both a religious pretext and a political context, enabling Chaudary to curry the favor of the farmers whose animals he bought to kill, the priesthood who supervised the killing, and the poor who ate the meat.
Nepalese rulers have subsidized the Gadhimai sacrifice ever since. Gyanendra, the last Nepalese king to actually rule the nation, escalated the scale of the Gadhimai killing in 2004 and attended the ceremonies in person.
A Maoist-dominated secular government deposed and succeeded Gyanendra in 2006. The new government spent 4.5 million rupees to build new facilities for the slaughter, then made the money back in 2009, reported Laxmi Sah and Pawan Yadav of the Kathmandu Post, after “Contractors paid 5.1 million rupees for the use of flesh, hide and bones of the animals,” who were brought to the slaughter mostly at the cost of the participants.
Complained sacrifice committee vice chair Dhenukh Chaurasiya, “Earlier, the festival management committee used to earn nearly two million rupees selling hides, while the local dalits [poorest of the poor] ate the flesh.” The faith of those who sacrifice animals at their own expense may not be shaken by exposure of the money-making aspects of the Gadhimai sacrifice. Questioning the use of public funds in a desperately poor nation in support of the Gadhimai sacrifice may not stop it, either. But illuminating the economic context can at least help to demystify it. The more it is demystified, the greater the possibility that the theology of the participants will evolve away from perceiving a need to join in practices which tend to help keep most of them poor.
There is also value in helping to develop alternative rituals which help to preserve the life-stabilizing cultural aspects of animal sacrifice, without the bloodshed. Our own society long ago took a similar direction, for example in the evolution of “bone fires” in which alleged witches were immolated alive, with their animals, into bonfires involving harm to nothing more sentient than a marshmallow.
A combination of theology following self-interest and promotion of alternatives to animal sacrifice in fall 2010 turned drought in the northern Indian state of Bijar into “a blessing in disguise for hundreds of goats,” the Indo-Asian News Service reported in September 2010, as “many financially-battered people” refrained from slaughtering them during the Durga Puja and Dussehra festivals. “Sacrifice is an essential aspect of the Puja,” explained purohit (priest) Ranjit Bhattacharya to the Times of India. “Since we are worshipping Durga, who is the embodiment of shakti (power), it is essential to incorporate bali (the spirit of evil over whom the goddess Durga triumphed), but [the sacrifice representing the evil spirit] does not have to be an animal. Earlier, people here preferred animal sacrifice because of certain socio-economic reasons,” Ranjit Bhattacharya acknowledged, “but now most of the Puja committees prefer to use vegetables or fruits.”
A success story
Nanditha Krishna, director of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation in Chennai, India, claims to have persuaded the worshippers at 53 temples in rural Tamil Nadu to abandon animal sacrifice during more than 40 years of promoting charitable projects in the region. For example, she wrote recently to ANIMAL PEOPLE, the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation and the Vasanth J. Sheth Foundation of Mumbai several months ago built a playground and amphitheatre for the children of Anumanthaikuppam, a fishing village that was all but destroyed by the December 2004 Indian Ocean
“The temple at Anumanthaikuppam serves two local goddesses–the boundary goddess Ellai-amman and the bloodthirsty goddess Kali-amman,” Nanditha Krishna related. “While work on the playground was going on, I spent my time telling the fisher folk that they should not sacrifice animals and even extracted a promise from them to stop, which I did not expect them to keep.”
But after the villagers rebuilt the temple, Nanditha Krishna continued, “they came to inform me that they had stopped animal sacrifices. The original stone figures of the two goddesses–very fierce-looking, as I remember–were buried under the temple. New smiling and peaceful-visaged goddesses were installed in their place. The poosaari (priest) who sacrificed animals has been replaced by Vedic Brahmin priests. If they are Brahmins, there cannot be any blood sacrifice. It was a pleasure to watch the 10,000-strong fishing community mingling with the Brahmin priests–more than 50 of them. There were lots of shops selling odds and ends. But no fish was sold on the premises. The village headman came to me and said that out of respect for my desire to stop animal sacrifice, the entire temple premises had become vegetarian.”
Ending animal sacrifice entirely, whether in India, Nepal, the animist regions of West Africa, the Middle East, or greater Miami, will require tens of thousands of similar local and regional transitions. Whether encouraged by changing weather patterns, changing patterns of commerce and political influence, or simply the desire to please a benefactor, transitions away from animal sacrifice can be accomplished.
The difficult part, for animal advocates, is finding opportunities to help practitioners of animal sacrifice toward recognizing for themselves that ritually killing animals is not the surest path toward the better lives and afterlives they seek.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Veteran journalist Merritt Clifton, serves as Editor in Chief of ANIMAL PEOPLE, the world’s leading independent publication on animal issues. Kim Bartlett is Animal People’s publisher and a leading animal advocate and enabler of animal defense groups in the United States and overseas.
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